Journal of Writing & Environment

Interview with Blog Editor Erin Schmiel

By Meghann Hart

Flyway blog editor Erin Schmiel brings to the journal an aesthetic deeply influenced by place. In an interview conducted two weeks ago, Schmiel recounted experiences of Cave Point State Park, on the Door County peninsula in Lake Michigan. Here, as a teenager, she often biked to view these limestone cliffs that hung over the water. Something about the unrestricted largeness of Lake Michigan struck her.

“The rocks and cliff face of Cave Point kept bringing me back,” she said, “I loved looking out over the water and dreaming.”

After attending Wisconsin Lutheran College in Milwaukee for two years, she decided to move to Missoula, Montana, a place she knew she could connect with both culturally and geographically. Schmiel had heard rumors of a vibrant writing community and outdoor-based culture, but what really drew her in was Montana’s promise of “big nature”—the vast, panoramic kind that there wasn’t enough of in Wisconsin.

“Shortly after the move,” she said, “I began work as a trail crew leader for the Montana Conservation Corps (MCC), and from May to November, I would spend ten-day stints on trails in ecosystems drastically different from those of Wisconsin. During this time, I learned that Montana’s large mountains and valleys weren’t nearly as difficult to traverse as I had originally thought.”

While Montana’s landscape challenged her both mentally and physically, its strong writing community nurtured her evolving aesthetic. At the University of Montana (UM), she studied under naturalist and writer Rick Bass who inculcated in her the importance of finding—and writing—the secret heart of each story.

“Writing the secret heart of each story is a major part of my aesthetic. It’s the glue that holds my work together and helps answer that “so-what?” question that all readers ask.”

While at UM, she also studied eco-criticism, an experience that helped her clarify her own understanding of environment and how this conception informed her aesthetic.

“I like to think about environment in terms of ecology,” she said, “this notion that everything is connected. At UM, I started to think more deeply about ecology and how it had influenced my writing through an eco-criticism course I took, in which I learned how literature informs the environment through the theories of Mikail Bakhtin and Ursula K. Le Guin. This helped me better ground my own thinking about environment in the theoretical soil of ecology and literature.”

Other important aesthetic influences for her include Robert Stubblefield, her mentor at UM, and Gary Snyder, Joan Didion, and Harper’s Magazine—and, of course, Rick Bass.

“I pick up everything Rick Bass writes,” she said, “and his recent piece about the western larch, in which he discusses his love affair with this tree and why it serves as the identifying feature of a place for him, I found deeply affective—it particularly stirred me.”

Still, as an invested and innovative writer, she is always on the lookout for new inspiration.

“I’ve been told to read Marilynne Robinson because she writes about family and faith, which are two of my major joint-interests,” Schmiel said.

For those who wish to submit to Flyway, Schmiel shared what she hoped to see in each submission.

“As a blog editor, I get to publish the web roves, reviews, and interviews that I assign. I look for a lot of heart in everything I read. As long as a piece has heart, and as long I can see that the writer has really engaged with what they have written—both personally and at the level of craft—that’s what I look for.”

She also offered some more directive words of wisdom.

 “Write what you’re passionate about,” she said, “work really hard at it, and don’t give up when the writing is tough. Be persistent in your research, in your editing, and in your submitting.  One day, that most beautiful thing that you’ve always wanted to produce will emerge.”

In both her personal writing and work she solicits for Flyway, Schmiel has an aesthetic deeply influenced by place.

“Place is my starting point,” she said, “I use maps to see where places physically are before I begin writing about them. I’ve looked at highway 43 in Wisconsin for a short story; I’ve looked at South America and volcanic chains and plate tectonics. Maps are evocative. They help me better understand the narrative possibilities that exist for a given piece situated in a given place. I love maps, and I have to start there.”