Rachel Swearingen is the author of How to Walk on Water and Other Stories, winner of the 2018 New American Fiction Prize (October 1, 2020). Her stories and essays have appeared in VICE, The Missouri Review, Kenyon Review, Off Assignment, Agni, AmericanShort Fiction, and elsewhere.
She is the recipient of the 2015 Missouri Review Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize in Fiction, a 2012 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, and the 2011 Mississippi Review Prize in Fiction. In 2019, she was named one of 30 Writers to Watch by the Guild Literary Complex. She holds a BA from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and a Ph.D. from Western Michigan University, and she teaches at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago.
An excerpt from her story “The Only Thing Missing Was The Howling of Wolves” was featured on MAYDAY in February 2021.
Scott Mashlan: The story featured on MAYDAY, “The Only Thing Missing Was The Howling of Wolves” is one of two stories in the collection that takes place in Wisconsin. Specifically in the area around the fictional and perfectly named towns Chatawaska, Wisconsin and Williams, Michigan. Can you tell me a little about your history in the area, which I imagine to be the northeast part of the state, and where your inspiration for the story came from?
Rachel Swearingen: That story is inspired by several Midwestern towns, a mishmash of Northern Wisconsin and Michigan, and probably a little bit of Northern Minnesota too. I grew up in Central Wisconsin, in the Fox River Valley, but I have also lived in Mercer, Wisconsin near the Michigan border, and spent time writing in Traverse City and Cross Village in Michigan. “The Only Thing Missing Was the Howling of Wolves” reaches into a part of my imagination that I rarely use in my fiction, a deep familial and regional space that I’d like to revisit in a novel or screenplay at some point. A radio piece about relatives secretly baptizing children in their families triggered “Wolves.” I was so fascinated and horrified that I knew I had to turn it into a story.
SM: Later in the story, the siblings encounter a unique pastor along with what appears to be an abandoned church and its accompanying shack. The scene and its depiction are striking examples of the otherworldly yet real-world scenarios your characters wander into throughout the collection. How would you describe this slightly surreal atmosphere in which your stories take place?
RS: That’s a great question, and one I have a hard time answering. Keith Lesmeister asked me something along these lines in an interview not too long ago. He made the distinction between atmosphere and mood, saying he sees atmosphere as “an accretion of details,” and mood as something that can be established more immediately. I’ve been mulling this over ever since because for me these two things are tangled. I’ve always been drawn to the shadows, to what is mysterious and unknowable. I’m interested in what’s happening at the edges of the frame, and this tends to skew the story a bit. When it works, it invites mystery, the surreal element you mention, but it can also lead to stories going horribly off-track or losing momentum. It’s a dance. Maybe this is a long way of saying that I enjoy the sense that something can puncture the story at any time.
SM: Art plays an important role in many of these stories, and you currently teach at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The school is associated with the art museum, The Art Institute of Chicago, famously known for being where Ferris Bueller montages, and also contains many well-recognized works of art. What influence has visual art had on your writing, and what are some of your favorite pieces or areas to explore in the institute itself?
RS: I love this question, especially since the museum is open again, albeit to small groups. Visual art is an unrequited love. I’m an intensely visual and aural person, and I used to want to be a painter or an installation artist. I’ve always written too, but it wasn’t until after college that I realized I needed to make a choice between the two arts. I kept failing to make the paintings I saw in my head, and I couldn’t envision ever being able to afford the studio space or materials or education I’d need to make the large-scale works in my imagination. My tiny apartment was filled with junk from people’s trash and paint cans, all of my dishes had paint and chemicals in them, and I was skipping classes to stay up all night to work. I thought I was being practical when I decided to give away my materials and focus on writing. Language seemed so much more straightforward and logical. After all, we form full sentences at an early age, but not many of us learn how to make a rich painting. I really believed it would all be so much easier, that a person just sat down and wrote a novel and that was it. [Cue the laughter.]
As far as works from the Art Institute’s permanent collection go, I still have a soft spot for some of the usual suspects: Hopper’s Nighthawks, Joan Mitchell’s City Landscape, the Chagall windows, Richter’s Woman Descending the Staircase, Soutine’s Dead Fowl. When I was in college and studying art, I would take the bus to Chicago and swoon in front of works by many of the artists I viewed on slides in class. As a rural kid who only saw paintings in books and never went to art museums, the Art Institute was a near-religious experience. Now that I live in Chicago, I’ve gotten to know other areas of the museum and have taken in some incredible temporary exhibits. Some of the more interesting have been smaller shows in the less popular galleries. Also, the folk art gallery has some wonderfully odd and beautiful pieces. The newer contemporary wing houses some of my favorite paintings, including one by Saitō Yoshishige. Recently, the museum held an amazing retrospective of Charles White. Some of his pieces are in their permanent collection. Then there’s the display of Joseph Cornell boxes that are so curious I notice something new each time I visit. I like to bring friends and ask them to show me their favorite pieces in the museum. Because of this, I’ve learned to appreciate pre-Columbian pottery, Egyptian jewelry, paintings from earlier periods that I tend to overlook. I highly recommend this practice. (Also, if you’re in Chicago, check out the Contemporary Museum of Art and The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art.)
SM: Thanks for sharing your expertise. I can relate with a lot of what you’re saying. Seeing Nighthawks for the first time, in particular, was a reverential moment for me. I can also relate with what might be evidence of our Midwestern practicality for focusing on writing. I realized too at one point that if I wanted to become a painter for instance, I’d have to spend a lot more money on tools and time learning new skills before I could even begin creating. I already though, like you said, could form a sentence, so writing seemed easier [I’m not crying, you’re crying].
How would you describe your writing process? When do you feel like a story is finished, and when are comfortable sending a story out for publication?
RS: Ever evolving. My writing process is different for short stories than for novels, and it has changed over the years. With stories, I tend to write a full first draft, and then I tinker with it a bit before setting it aside. If I can leave it alone long enough, the revision process is much shorter than it used to be. I almost always have to lop off the opening pages and write past my original ending, past wherever my fear made me stop. If I get too excited or impatient and start working before I know what I need to do, I tend to overthink it and lose the music and the voice of the piece. As far as submissions go, I’m more patient these days, maybe too patient, but I need to believe in a piece before I can let it go. That said, I’m less affected by rejections than I used to be too. I’ve edited magazines and seen how pieces get accepted or rejected, and how often editors disagree. A lot of stories are submitted before they’re ready, mine included, but much of a story’s fate comes down to timing and taste.
SM: Can you tell me a little about the history of your book How To Walk On Water, when were some of these stories first written and published, which stories changed the least or changed the most from when you first drafted them?
RS: The collection that New American Press published began as a dissertation in 2010. Before I submitted it, I took out two or three fabulist pieces and added two or three new, more realistic stories. This was on the advice of my agent, Chris Clemans, and I think he was right. The resulting book is more contained and moodier, and the stories are also more in conversation with each other. Most of these had already been published, but I did revise a few endings slightly, and made some minor line edits. I rewrote the endings of “The Only Thing Missing Was the Howling of Wolves” and “Edith Under the Streetlight.” The book went out on submission to bigger presses in 2016, but didn’t find a home. I still believed in it though, so I decided to send it out on my own, changing the order of the stories slightly, cutting one short piece, and changing the title. How to Walk on Water was a finalist in quite a few contests, but it wasn’t until New American and their judge John McNally chose it that it finally found a home.
SM: How, if at all, has the submission/publication process changed for you since publishing the book? Are you still sending work out?
RS: Not much has changed as far as the submission and publication process goes. I’ve spent the last several years mostly focusing on finishing a novel, so I haven’t been submitting as much. I do tend to always have at least one story in the works, and often an essay. My novel is nearly done now, but I have another larger project to finish next before getting back to some stories again. One thing finishing a book teaches you is just how long the writing and publication process takes. I approach new projects differently now. I write intuitively, but I’m becoming more of a planner, and finding ways to test material sooner. You can lose decades writing one book if you’re not careful, especially if you’re as tenacious as I am. There’s a kind of tyranny to needing to finish everything.
SM: With much talk and promise of things returning to semi-normalcy by the summer of 2021, what are some things you are hopeful about, or looking forward to doing again?
RS: I’d love to hear your answer for this. It’s only been in the last month or so that I’ve even allowed myself to look forward. It’s mostly small things that I miss now: parties that go too late, gathering around a table with friends, hugging, holding babies, running into old friends and having the day get derailed, going to readings. Street festivals, museums, taking the L downtown, hanging out in crowded cafés. I miss looking at strangers and smiling or saying hello as we pass. I’m looking forward to more connection and more civility.
SM: Everything you mention sounds amazing. I’ve been fantasizing lately of being away from my house for an entire day. Leaving on foot and spending the day in parks, friends’ yards (or even houses), restaurants, sitting in public places for coffees, beers or lunch. One of those days where you walk away from your home and just become part of the city.
I almost hate to ask, Packers or Bears, Brewers or Cubs?
RS: Packers, of course! As far as baseball goes, I’m not much of a fan, but hanging out in the sun at Wrigley Field with thousands of people sounds perfect right now.
SM: It absolutely does. Thanks so much for answering my questions.
SCOTT MASHLAN is a writer from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He teaches at a local tech college and is a senior editor with New American Press. His work has appeared in F(r)iction, Bull and Litro, and has been shortlisted for Glimmer Train‘s new writer contests, as well as Dzanc Books’ Disquiet Literary Prize.