Journal of Writing & Environment

Interview with Sweet Corn Short Fiction Contest Winner: Mike Alberti

Mike Alberti is the winner of our 2014 Sweet Corn Short Fiction Contest. Our Fiction Editor Chloe Clark recently caught up with him for an email interview.

1.) What inspired the writing of “The Gully?”

It was a combination of things, but I think it began with the imagery of the setting. Last year, I drove from Albuquerque, where I’m from, to Minneapolis, where I live. On the way I drove across Eastern Colorado and Nebraska and Iowa, and that was a landscape that I had never really seen before. Just the glimpse of the Great Plains that I was able to see from the window of a car was mesmerizing to me, but I realized that I didn’t have the language to think about it. I didn’t really know what a gully was, or a bluff or a headland. I couldn’t name what I was seeing, and that became the catalyst for the story: a character who has lost touch with the landscape he grew up with.

I also wanted to explore the connections between language, landscape, and violence. I think we sometimes tend to talk about the natural world like we own it, or control it, and that’s very dangerous. It’s also dangerous to deny our agency ⎯ I’m thinking about climate change ⎯ but to think of and talk about ourselves as masters of the earth seems both delusional and imperious: when it doesn’t rain there’s not much you can do about it. That kind of domineering attitude can be used to justify all kinds of things, and I think probably leads to alienation, not only from the natural world, but from each other, as well.

I actually had been writing my way around this story for a while, had done a good deal of research, and I had a lot of the material for it already ⎯ the setting, the characters ⎯ but it wasn’t coming together. Then one day, for some reason, the dog worked his way in there and after that he kind of became the still point at the center, with the rest of the story revolving around this one incident.

2.) This may go along with the first question, but did you grow up in a community similar to the one you depict?

No, I grew up in Albuquerque, though some of the places where I’ve lived have affinities with the community in the story. I’ve always been fascinated with very insular fictional settings, small contained worlds, so may of my stories seem to take place in small towns. I did do some research though, on the geography and the history of the region, especially the troubled recent economic and agricultural history, because I wanted the story to ring true to people who actually live there. But, in the end, it’s mostly imaginary.

3.) What is your writing process like?

I wish I had a good answer to this question, but I’m still figuring it out myself! It seems to change with every story. I try (and often fail) to write for a while every morning. Usually I have to start a story over several times, making slightly more progress each time, until I find a voice that can carry me all the way to the end. When I finish a first draft I like to put it away and work on other things for a while ⎯ at least a month but often more ⎯ so that I can come back to it with fresh eyes. Sometimes I abandon a story at that point, but if it still resonates when I pick it up again, then I like to do a kind of “self-workshop” where I write myself a letter about the story, as honestly as I can. After I address those criticisms in revision (which can take a long time), then it’s time to show it to people. It’s a pretty slow process.

4.) How long have you been writing and what got you started in writing?

I’ve been writing since high school, and writing “seriously” since college, though there have been some gaps. I think I must have started writing in an English class in high school, but I actually don’t remember the moment I thought, “I’m going to try this now.” I know that I have had a number of incredibly supportive teachers, without whom writing might not have morphed from hobby to passion.

5.) Who are some authors who have inspired you?

Too many to list, but the writers who I think most inspired this story are Alice Munro, David Means, Stephanie Vaughn (in particular her story “Dog Heaven,” which is just such an incredible story), Junot Diaz (especially the stories in Drown), and William Maxwell (especially So Long, See You Tomorrow, which I actually read after I had finished a draft of “The Gully” but which was helpful in revision). I also took a lot of inspiration from the poetry of Richard Hugo and Alice Notley.

More generally, the writers I come back to again and again include Alice Munro, Cormac McCarthy, Roberto Bolaño, and especially Virginia Woolf.