This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Raki Kopernik: Though published in 2014, I’ve just now discovered your beautiful short story collection, Six Months in the Midwest (Unsolicited Press), and I’m really taken with the book. All the stories take place in and around the Twin Cities, whose rich and haunting characters reflect the feeling of Minnesota winters—beautiful and magical, but also dark and isolated and sometimes sad. Did you set out to create a collection? Or did you just find yourself continually writing stories about the place you were living?
Darci Schummer: I started writing these stories when I was in grad school (in the Twin Cities) and I was reading Edward P. Jones’s story collection, Lost In the City. He pays a lot of attention to street names and the geography of Washington DC. I was riding the bus a lot, so between the bus and being floored by that collection, I started thinking about neighborhoods and the different people who live in them in Minneapolis. I got teased in grad school about all of my work being bus poems and bus stories. I loved it. I had a lot of interesting moments on the bus. After grad school I thought about putting these stories together in a collection, which is when the focus on Minneapolis happened.
RK: I really felt the undercurrent of the bus theme without it being blatant. It’s interesting how whatever is happening around us often comes through in our art.
The cover of Six Months is really beautiful. Unsolicited Press also published my short story collection (The Things You Left), and I had a lot of say in the cover design. This is one of the great things about small press, being included in choosing those kinds of details. What was your process with the cover like?
DS: Unsolicited Press gave me a lot of control as well. I’ve wanted to write a book since I was a kid, so I really wanted a beautiful book. They gave me permission to work with my childhood friend Kally Muenster, who is a graphic designer. I think the bare tree (on the cover) really fits the feeling of the stories. And while I was writing, I saw hundreds of crows around, roosting. The idea of the birds circling was already in my mind, so I thought that was a good symbol to put on the cover. And it was so fun to get to work with a good friend.
RK: How did you get to Unsolicited Press? Did you submit a lot in the beginning?
DS: Yeah I submitted a lot and pretty widely. Unsolicited Press was the first acceptance I got. As you know, short stories are a tough game. I probably spent a couple of years submitting. It’s exhausting.
RK: It really is. It took me a long time too.
MAYDAY just published one of your new stories, To Dust We Return. The story is about a widow living on an island off the California coast, which has begun to crumble. Everyone is leaving the island and she wants to stay. It’s sort of an apocalyptic social commentary on climate change, while also addressing aging and the existential-ness of life. I told you that after I read the story I had a dream about it. Where did it come from? Did you know how it would end when you started writing it?
DS: This is one of those stories that’s close to my heart. I was listening to public radio and I heard this story about a woman who lived on an island, maybe off the coast of England, and the island was actually shrinking and some of the people were leaving. This woman said, “my husband died here,” and she didn’t want to leave. I was really taken with that idea, so that’s where the story came from.
I’ve travelled to the Channel Islands off the coast of California. People don’t live on those islands, but I’ve hiked there and there are these little foxes that are endemic to the islands. They’re really cute. So that made a good setting for me because I could easily imagine it. I made up an island loosely based on the Channel Islands, but as if people lived there. I didn’t really know how it was going to end. I knew the conflict would be weather or not she’d leave, but that’s it.
RK: The final image is really powerful (I won’t spoil it here). I’m always interested in where people get inspired to write stories, and that’s one of those things, when you hear a story on the news. It’s such a good seed. So much of your work is like that. Your stories often feel like they’re created around the characters.
DS: Definitely. I’m a creep. I love watching people, which was why my time on the bus was so important. It was invaluable time to creep on people! And people you may not ever interact with in everyday life.
The last story in Six Months, The Newlyweds, was actually based on an interaction I saw on the bus with some people who were seemingly on the margins and who had clearly been drinking. I watched it happen and I was like, what were they doing before this?
RK: Yeah I could really feel that. It seems like you start with the character, not necessarily the scenario, and then you expand around them—past, present, future.
DS: That’s definitely true. My interest is always in people. I start with the person and the story follows.
RK: Is, To Dust We Return, part of a larger collection? I know you also said you’re working on stories about growing up Jehovah’s Witness. Will those stories go together in a collection?
DS: I’m trying to finish a collection right now. To Dust is part of it as well as some stories about growing up Jehovah’s Witness, which I’ve started writing about more recently. Shortly after Six Months, I also finished a novel that will be published by Unsolicited Press as well.
RK: Congrats! What’s it called?
DS: It’s called, The Ballad of Two Sisters. I’ve been on a long road with that manuscript. Last summer it was a finalist for the Many Voices Project with New Rivers Press, and this past summer it was a finalist with Sundress Publications. It also got accepted once by a small press but I ended up pulling it, which was heartbreaking because my dad had just passed and right before he died, I told him the book was finally getting published. But I made the right decision. The other writers they were about to publish at that time also pulled their manuscripts. The person who runs the press was tweeting things that were demeaning to women, really distasteful. I didn’t make a public thing of it. It was hard, but I have a public job at a community college. I didn’t want people to see those tweets. That doesn’t represent me. That’s now who I am. Not only that, but my book is female focused.
RK: Of course. So why did you go back to Unsolicited Press?
DS: I enjoy and appreciate that they give you artistic freedom and I knew they liked my work. I knew what to expect working with them. I hoped they’d accept it and they did. But I’ve been sending it out for five years.
RK: I loved working with them. Small press makes so much space to veer away from the mainstream of formulaic work. What do you love about short stories, and how is writing a novel different? You still write short stories. Would you write another novel?
DS: I am working on another novel, which I started in 2019. It involves research, so I got stalled out on it for a while. I do love short stories—they will always be my passion. I started reading and writing stories when I really young. I like how quickly they pull you into a world and then kick you out and send you on your way. When I get to an ending of a story and I feel this sense of, this is where the story ends, it’s such an incredible feeling. I think Tobias Wolff said, “the short story has more in common with the poem than the novel.” I’m attracted to that.
When I first started writing, The Ballad of Two Sisters, I described it as writing a novel in stories because each chapter has an arc and it handles time differently. It jumps around. I enjoy watching the characters change over time. I was excited enough about writing a novel to try it again, but I feel like short stories will always be my main thing.
RK: I feel the same way. Not only are stories more like poems, they’re more like life. Everything is in pieces or scenes, with constant arcs and endings and beginnings. Sometimes novels feel too drawn out and wordy for me. You talked about Edward P. Jones earlier, but what other books and writers inspire you?
DS: I read a lot of Jesmyn Ward this year—Where the Line Bleeds, Salvage the Bones, and, Sing, Unburied, Sing. I just read, History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund, who’s a Minnesota writer. And I’ve been reading Joy Harjo and Kim Blaeser poetry.
RK: What are you reading right now?
DS: I just finished, Walking the Rez Raod, by Jim Northrup, who was a member of the Fond du Lac band of Lake Superior Chippewa. I teach at a tribal community college and that’s the affiliated tribe. The book is really interesting—it’s a collection of poetry and stories. He’s a Vietnam vet so he writes about some of those experiences and about life on the reservation in a very funny way.
RK: Do you have a book or author you read over and over?
DS: I don’t really re-read much. But I love Margaret Atwood. Her short stories were really influential to me in college. I come back to her a lot. Richard Ford, Linda LeGarde Grover, who’s from Duluth, Carmen Maria Machado’s short stories are amazing. Lesley Nneka Arimah, who wrote, What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky, is in one of my classes. I love her story collection. She lives in the Twin Cities.
RK: I love how you read so many local Minnesota writers. There’s an amazing literary world here.
DS: Technically I’m from Wisconsin. But yes, there’s a great literary tradition here. I’ve had several experiences where I read a book and when I see the author bio I find the author has lived in or is from Minnesota and I had no idea. We’re lucky to have so many great writers here.
RK: What advice would you give to a new writer?
DS: Raw talent is not necessarily a predictor of success. However, engaging regularly in your practice, listening openly to critiques of your work, and not allowing rejection to deter you will all help you succeed. You have to keep going. Don’t let anything stop you.
RK: What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
DS: In the summer I love to garden. And I like puttering around my house, ripping up carpet, things like that. When I realized I could change a light fixture by myself I was like, awesome!
RK: If you could have any writer, dead or alive, over for dinner, who would it be and what would you serve?
DS: Margaret Atwood. She’s brilliant. It would be interesting to hear what kinds of things she thinks about when she sits down to write a short story. I love to cook. Now that we’re approaching fall, I’d make a roasted root vegetable soup and have a giant loaf of good bread, some cheese, and make a salad.
RK: So good. Very Minnesota.
DARCI SCHUMMER is a writer and educator living in Duluth, Minnesota. Primarily a fiction writer, she is the author of the story collection Six Months in the Midwest (Unsolicited Press), co-author of the poetry/prose collaboration Hinge (broadcraft press), and her work has appeared in Ninth Letter (web edition), Folio, Jet Fuel Review, Matchbook, American Fiction 17, Necessary Fiction, Midway Journal, and Pithead Chapel, among other places. She has been nominated both for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, and her work has also been selected as a Longform Fiction Pick of the Week. She teaches writing and edits The Thunderbird Review at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College and lives in a big old house with her husband Tanner, pitbull Turnip, and cat Cokie Roberts. Currently, Darci is working on a novel, another short story collection, and a chapbook of poetry. For more information about Darci visit her website www.darcischummer.com
RAKI is a first generation American, queer, Jewish writer. She is the author of The Things You Left (Unsolicited Press) and The Memory House (The Muriel Press), both Minnesota Book Award finalists. Her work has appeared in numerous publications and has been shortlisted and nominated for several other awards, including the Pushcart Prize for Fiction and the Pen Faulkner Award in Fiction. She is a fiction editor at MAYDAY and lives in Minneapolis. You can find her here and follow on Instagram @rakikopernik