Keith Lesmeister’s first collection of short fiction, We Could’ve Been Happy Here, examines the contemporary Midwest in 12 stories that each stand very much alone but also feel very cohesive and connected. Lesmeister lives and works in rural northeast Iowa. His fiction and nonfiction have been widely published, and We Could’ve Been Happy Here has received praise from writers such as Benjamin Percy and David Gates. Bret Anthony Johnston said, “These are brutal stories—brutally good, brutally urgent, brutally hopeful.”
Denton Loving recently asked Lesmeister about the new collection, his home in Iowa from where he writes, and his love of basketball.
Denton Loving: Congratulations on your collection of stories, We Could’ve Been Happy Here. Many of these stories were originally published in wonderful journals such as Gettysburg Review, Meridian, Redivider, and Slice. How long did it take you to write the twelve stories that form this collection, and how do you see the stories all working together?
Keith Lesmeister: It took three to four years, I think, but that doesn’t include how long these stories have been rattling around prior to exposing themselves on the page. In terms of them working together, most of the stories feature characters with some issue that’s partly of their own doing. A recovering addict trying to regain the trust of his family. A couple of kids who have been wiping out the rabbit population around one of their homesteads. A middle-aged couple trying to reinvigorate their love for one another through the unlikely circumstance of robbing a bank. Also, all the stories are set in the great state of Iowa.
DL: Exactly. I wanted to ask you about the stories all being set in Iowa, which is your home state. The idea of the Mid-West is apparent in a lot of your work, especially in regards to how you create a sense of place to inform and impact your characters. Do you find it easy or difficult to write about this region that you call home?
KL: Very difficult because I’m from here, which means I take a lot for granted. I’ve had to readjust how I interpret my surroundings, thinking of myself like a tourist when I drive around, trying to take it all in. And despite the stereotypes, several parts of Iowa are quite beautiful. That’s been a big surprise for me as I’ve written this collection—how much I truly love the landscape around here.
DL: One of the themes I very subtly notice in a lot of your work is the tension between conservative and liberal ideologies. I’m thinking about your story, Imaginary Enemies, where two uncles at a child’s birthday party each represent different paths of thought. Another example is in A Real Future, where the protagonist laughs at his fellow firefighter’s bumper sticker that says, “Spay and Neuter Liberals.” He’s laughing not because he agrees with the sentiment but because he identifies as a liberal himself. This sort of divide seems systemic all across our nation, but is there anything unique about where you live that draws your focus?
KL: Iowa is a deeply political state in part or perhaps because of our standing as first in the nation to caucus. I’d like to think that my depiction of characters in my stories represents the state in that even when people have deeply divided political beliefs, one might still associate with—even enjoy on some level—those with whom they disagree.
DL: Another theme common to many of the stories is the conflicting dynamics between children and parents. In some of the stories, children are dealing with their parents’ deaths. In some stories, children and parents are at odds with each other, and in some they are completely estranged. I know you have three children of your own, whom you’re very close with. What drives your exploration of these kind of relationships?
KL: As writers we’re encouraged to “write what we know.” I think this is true to some degree, and in some of my stories there are aspects that “I know” well. Other parts—and this is where I part ways with the writerly advice—I’m writing what I don’t know. In other words, I don’t know what it’s like to be estranged from my family, but several of my characters find themselves in that precarious situation. By writing what I don’t know, it allows more opportunity for surprise and discovery, which is a wonderful thing for a writer to experience.
DL: Despite the very heavy subjects of most of these stories, there’s a unique, sometimes dark humor that appears over and over again. I’ve read where you’ve said that you’re drawn to characters who have some element of surprise, as you just mentioned, and often the humorous moments in your stories are humorous exactly because they’re so surprising. Do you have to work for those funny moments, or do they come naturally in your writing process?
KL: I appreciate this question, though I'm not quite sure how to answer it, mostly because I don't consider myself to be a naturally funny person. I do however know a lot of funny people, and maybe over the years I've observed their comments and timing and off-kilter view of the world, which might be what I'm channeling in my own characters. Any time something funny happens, I'm usually not working for it. It's usually some piece of dialogue unique to the character. Something I could've never come up with on my own.
DL: You managed to include your love of basketball in at least one story in the collection, aptly named A Basketball Story. Talk about your history playing basketball and what the game means to you. Are there any parallels with basketball and writing?
KL: I played football in college, but my first love has always been basketball. I'm not even six feet tall so there are limitations to what I can do on the court. Of course I mention my height, but there's also my (lack of) vertical jumping ability and several other deficiencies. Still, I love the game and I've learned to take what the defense gives me. Never force your offensive game, which is true for writing too. Never force anything, let your characters do the work for you. And because of my height I've mastered the mid-range jump shot, which, like a fine wine, gets better with age, so I'm shooting probably 100% from mid-range. Another way to say this: I've been writing long enough to know my own limitations, and I try to stick with what I do well while slowly improving on those other areas. Which is why I'm reading more Alice Munro now than ever before. Which is why I work on left-handed dribbling. Which is why I'm working to extend my long game (beyond the three point line). Which is why I'm working on moving through time and space as I think about longer stories that span a character's lifetime. And which is why I'm writing from new and different perspectives. The other obvious parallels: hard work, determination, practice. And learning to deal with setbacks.
DL: The first and last stories in this collection are about the same character, a man named Vincent who, in both stories, is trying to stay clean while he’s farm sitting for a friend. In both stories, Vincent has a lot of bad luck aside from constantly chasing lost cattle. Have you ever tried to herd cattle and will we see more stories about Vincent?
KL: Vincent is a man near and dear to me. I've been living with this guy for several years now, and I talk to him as if he were standing here next to me right now. He's horrible at rallying cattle. But he's got a good heart and wants the best for his family. Like him, I'm not so great at herding cattle either. The cows are always bigger and scarier when they're standing three feet away. I imagine Vincent will stay with me for a while. Plus, I'd like to see what he might be like if he reconnects with his family. Also, I wouldn't mind finding out what his family was like prior to his addictions taking hold and not letting go.
DL: I know you don’t have any cattle yourself, but you describe your home as a hobby farm. What do you raise there?
KL: One dog, one cat (recently adopted), several chickens, loads of stuffed animals, and lots of kids, my own and whoever else’s are around. I think the kids like me because I play Settlers of Catan and buy fancy chips and queso dip.
DL: You and I met while we were both students in the Bennington Writing Seminars. The program’s motto is, “Read 100 books. Write one.” What are some of the most memorable books that you read while writing the stories that make up, We Could’ve Been Happy Here? What writers do you think have influenced your own work?
KL: Instead of listing titles, let me list a few authors: Elizabeth McCracken, Brad Watson, Chris Offutt, Mary Miller, Ron Rash, Charles D'Ambrosio, Jane Smiley. Also, my teachers and their work: David Gates, Bret Anthony Johnston, Amy Hempel, and Wesley Brown.
DL: You teach college level courses, including creative writing. What’s the best advice you give to your writing students?
KL: I like to borrow advice from Anne Lamott and Cheryl Strayed: pay attention and write like a motherfucker.
Keith Lesmeister is the author of We Could’ve Been Happy Here (MG Press). His fiction has appeared in American Short Fiction, Gettysburg Review, Harpur Palate, Meridian, Redivider, Slice Magazine, and many others. His nonfiction has appeared in River Teeth, The Good Men Project, Tin House Open Bar, Water~Stone Review, and elsewhere. He received his M.F.A. from the Bennington Writing Seminars. He currently teaches at Northeast Iowa Community College.
Denton Loving is the author of the poetry collection Crimes Against Birds (Main Street Rag, 2015) and editor of Seeking Its Own Level, an anthology of writings about water (MotesBooks, 2014). His fiction, poetry, essays and reviews have recently appeared in River Styx, The Southeast Review and The Chattahoochee Review. Follow him on twitter @DentonLoving.