Last week, I was on the road for a few appearances: The Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, the River Styx Reading Series in St. Louis, and the public library in my home county in southeastern Illinois. Whenever I’m in this part of Illinois, I spend my days writing on a laptop in the library’s genealogy room. It’s a room at the end of the library, relatively secluded, and for the most part, it’s quiet there. I find it a place of peace that allows me to disappear into the world of whatever I’m working on. Distractions are minimal, and because I’m usually working on something set in that part of the world, I find it appropriate to be surrounded by the old photographs and the births, deaths, marriages, land plats—the history of Lawrence County. This is the library I used when I was in high school. It’s a large part of what continues to connect me to this place.
Sometimes people stop to chat with me, and sometimes they tell me stories. “Here’s one that might interest you,” someone might say. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t—at least in the respect of being something I might like to write about. In the question and answer session following my reading last week at the library, someone asked me what made a true story something that I wanted to spend time writing about. It’s not always the facts of the story that compels me. Of course, an entertaining story is an entertaining story, but it takes more than that to make it worthy of my trying to artfully shape it, to transform fact into fiction.
When it comes to that endeavor, there has to be something in the story that appeals to me at the level of character. The first thing I consider is whether the story leads me to a conception of a character caught in the midst of a dramatic situation, preferably one that results from that character’s own choices and consequences and preferably a situation that locates itself within some sort of moral ambiguity. I like stories that make it impossible for us to call something completely good or bad, right or wrong. Above all, I’m drawn to stories that make it impossible for us to judge characters, to call them completely good or completely evil. In other words, I’m interested in stories that suggest ordinary characters caught up in extraordinary circumstances—situations that dramatize apparently simple lives and show how complicated they actually are.
Here’s what annoys me—the commonly held belief by some that lives lived out here in the middle of the country are barely worth noting. Too many people in the literary world assume that the lives of those on the fringe are unexceptional and not worth writing about. Maybe we’re too unsophisticated, maybe we’re not worldly enough, maybe we aren’t smart enough, maybe we’re unrefined and simple and voiceless. I’ve spent over thirty years of my life writing about the people out here in the Midwest with the hope of readers taking note of just how moving, how complicated, how resonant these seemingly ordinary lives can be.
There’s a reason they call this part of the country, The Heartland. We feel here, and we feel deeply. We fall in love, fall out of love, have babies, bury our dead. We make mistakes and live with the consequences. We’re capable of great cruelty as well as immense beauty. We can be kind, and we can be mean, often simultaneously. We are in short, just as human as people anywhere. We are people worthy of the stories we create, ones that come from deep in our tangled, beautiful hearts.