Even when it’s not used as an outright pejorative, the term “flyover country” assumes that a person is not missing much when passing over the heartland, that this stretch of Midwestern states lacks the coasts’ population, wealth, attractions, and, in a literary sense, stories worth telling. In The Leave-Takers, Steven Wingate directly challenges this notion, bringing to life his setting of South Dakota with layers of love, loss, and violence. This is a brave novel written by a masterful author, as he burdens his main characters, Jacob and Laynie, with enough grief and trauma that they almost break, while still offering moments of unforgettable tenderness and redemption. Wingate’s South Dakota is filled with interlopers, ghosts, and stories that compel you to sit and stay awhile in a land that’s anything but “flyover country.”
The spectral plays a notable role in the novel, and what I found most interesting is that the ghosts that haunt Jacob and Laynie interact in such a physical way. What was your inspiration and approach to creating these ghosts?
My original inspiration for the ghosts in this book is quite autobiographical. When my wife and I first dated, her father had recently died, and we bonded over that loss because mine had died long ago. So when it came to writing a love story—which The Leave-Takers unabashedly is—I naturally gravitated toward that species of bonding. The seed of the novel was in our earliest deep conversations about life. But we never had Jacob and Laynie’s physical relationship with ghosts, so autobiography doesn’t explain the novel. In general I feel surrounded by ghosts, though not in the spooky, ectoplasmic way we’re used to from movies. It’s more a feeling of the past living in us, usually in ways we understand only in glimmers. My own father has been dead for over forty years, and I barely remember his voice, but I can feel it when I’m walking like him or talking like him. I have a long-term relationship with his ghost, which is probably where my sense of ghostly physicality comes from. Parts of my being are shared with the dead, and that fact is never far away from me.
While the novel presents a layered portrait of grief—with Jacob and Laynie suffering simultaneously from guilt, addiction, past familial violence, and the loss of children—it’s also full of moments of tenderness and beauty. As a writer, how do you strike a balance between putting your characters through such conflict and offering those redemptive opportunities?
I want my characters to earn their redemptive opportunities, and I put them in situations where they can do that. But I don’t simply hand such opportunities over. I want them to dig and claw their way toward redemption, breaking down walls if they have to. I love this Stanley Elkin quote: “I would never write about anyone who is not at the end of his rope.” That’s where people figure out who they are and what they need to grow (or remove) in order to survive. So I have little interest in characters whose lives are fundamentally stable, and gravitate toward those who are marooned. (Well, I guess I’m the one who maroons them.) My job is to render what they do as they get themselves un-marooned or fail trying. To do that well I need to love my characters, and if I do that sincerely, everything else falls into place. All questions of craft, language, and structure are subservient to the practice of loving my characters.
Of course this isn’t easy. As Dostoyevsky wrote, “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” To love my characters means wanting them to find peace, even though I know they’ve stacked the deck against themselves with the choices they’ve made. I feel like I owe my characters a shot at inner peace, though not everybody finds it. Fortunately in The Leave-Takers, Jacob and Laynie both find their way to a good path.
The Leave-Takers is also a story about the rituals we have that are tied to grief. For these characters, do you see these rituals as a way of healing their trauma, or a way of repeating it?
It’s both for me. Jacob and Laynie’s rituals are double-edged swords that lead them to both heal and repeat their trauma. Letting go of those rituals helps them find the emotional health I want for them, but they have to go through those rituals to come to terms with their grief. To quote Robert Frost, “the best way out is always through.” They would never be able to let go of their rituals—particularly those that revolve around the objects of the dead—if they hadn’t clung to them for so long in the first place and learned all they could. The idea of completely healing from grief strikes me as an illusion, because grief has no set time limit. My mother died a little over a year ago and my brother died five years ago, but I carry their living memory inside me and those deaths still feel real and present. Jacob and Laynie both cling to the freshness of their family deaths because they need to hold onto them to keep from feeling adrift in the world. The dead keep us company in our own darkest hours, and I’m thankful for mine.
You’re a poet as well. How do you find your poetry impacting your fiction? Do you find yourself taking lessons from one genre as you write in another?
I take lessons from almost every form of art I encounter. Working on a novel over time feels like a painter working in oil. There are multiple layers of paint that literally can’t be laid down all at once. So it is in fiction. One draft may be light, the next dark, the next focused on balance. In the final stages of writing The Leave-Takers, I found myself thinking “Okay, it’s time to get a patina on this sculpture.” (The metaphor was natural to the book because Jacob sculpts in bronze.) Where do I want things to really shine? Where do I want to leave them opaque? Metal sculptors ask these questions as they apply patina. I love to study how other artists work because I can always pick up a new metaphor for my own process.
In the field of language more specifically, all writing is part of a continuum. It’s great for fiction writers to expose themselves to poetry because it forces us to focus on our fundamental relationship with language. When you get down and dirty with the rhythm and musicality of your sentences, you experience words in a way that character and plot don’t demand. There’s even a book about this: A History of English Prose Rhythm by George Saintsbury, originally published in 1912. Rumor has it that James Joyce referenced this book as he wrote Ulysses. Obscure stuff, sure, but the musicality of prose is an underrated part of the fictionist’s toolbox.
South Dakota is a setting we don’t often see in fiction. Can you tell me a bit about your connection to the area of the Midwest and how you translated it onto the page?
I have a complicated relationship with South Dakota. On the one hand, it’s where my life is unfolding—my kids are growing up here, my career is taking root here. But I don’t feel like I belong here, and don’t think I ever will. I was born in New Jersey and consider Colorado home, so this particular corner of America is foreign territory for me. At the same time, the Great Plains are a continuum from Colorado to South Dakota. It’s the geography I’m familiar with, as well as the geography of my imagination. But eastern South Dakota is definitely its own animal, and my undefined relationship with it stymied my fiction for the first seven or so years I lived here. Even though I’m a Great Plains guy, this particular patch of land would never claim me. So how could I speak for the people who it would claim?
Eventually I came around to embracing the perspective of the outsider. I’ll never be able to speak for the people who came from here, so I started to speak for the people who came to here. No longer feeling like I had to represent a population that I could never be part of freed up my writing and let me reset The Leave-Takers—which was originally a Colorado novel—into a new home. It took a ton of work to do that, but I’m glad I did because a) it’s a better novel, and b) I’ve found my niche. The characters I work with now are almost always uprooted people who’ve ended up on the Great Plains and need to figure out how to live here. I know my people better, and I have South Dakota to thank for that revelation.
The Leave-Takers is the newest entry in the University of Nebraska Press’s “Flyover Fiction Series.” When readers sit down to read your work, what do you want them to see or learn about this part of the country which, as the nickname implies, is frequently overlooked?
This question reminds me of something I just read: James K.A. Smith, editor of Image, discussing the films of Kelly Reichardt (director of First Cow, etc.). He talks about her “committing herself to a locale, not to create something ‘regional’ but to concretize the universal.” I feel that strongly. I’m not writing to talk about a region per se; if I wanted that, I’d write nonfiction. I’m writing to talk about how fundamental human fears and hopes that are common to everyone who has ever lived play out in particular environments.
So my intent isn’t regional, but my expression is. I don’t want people to think of work that emerges from the flyover region as something separate from what literature does—and has always done—which is to witness the ways we live in the world and imagine the ways we might live in it. There’s great danger of provincialism when we think about regional literatures as somehow apart from the main trunk of the historical, transnational literary endeavor. Categorizing literature as regional is an easy way to dismiss it, and our categories are primarily artifacts of marketing and criticism.
If I had to boil down what I want readers from other parts of the world to see or learn about flyover country from my work, I’d say this: We’re basically the same as you, ruled by the same worries and wants, but we have a particular sense of things like space and distance and kinship and belonging that are formed by our geographical and sociocultural circumstances. You already know our human-ness in general, because you’re human. Here are some specifics to help you imagine how it feels to live here, and how you might feel if you lived here too.
By Steven Wingate
University of Nebraska Press
Published March 1, 2021
Michael Welch is a daily editor for the Chicago Review of Books. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Kenyon Review Online, Iron Horse Literary Review, North American Review, and elsewhere. Find him at www.michaelbwelch.com and @MBWwelch.