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Rust Belt Literature

Dispatches From Siberia #47: Keeping Up With The Joneses

A few weeks back, I tabled for the first time at a book festival. Upon getting out of my car, I stopped and rested my elbow on the trunk, watching as one of my fellow tablers pulled a train of seven children’s wagons, strapped together at the handle and each laden with boxes of promotional items, life-sized displays of book characters, action figures, and assorted other swag.

I was in over my head. And not just a little bit

Dispatches From Siberia #41: Homes

“What place do you call home?”

I heard this question a few days ago. It wasn’t addressed to me, but it’s been bouncing around my mind since then, and it’s a deceptively hard question.


Last month, as I took the last of my few things stored a my childhood home, I looked back to find the most appropriate view: the house swallowed up in trees we'd planted.

Last month, as I took the last of my few things stored a my childhood home, I looked back to find the most appropriate view: the house swallowed up in trees we'd planted.

The first time I ever bought a cup of coffee was about three days after I got my driver’s license, and the drink had nothing to do with wanting to feel grown up, or wanting to emulate Dad’s morning cup or anything like that. In fact, that first coffee had nothing to do with coffee. Exploring the new freedom of life with a vehicle, I’d gone to the logical first place: the bookstore. I would get to stay as long as I wanted this time, not rushing for a waiting parent who had someplace more important to get, or the next stop to move toward on a chain-shopping trip. I explored the place top to bottom, section after section, but at a certain point, even a 16-year-old begins to feel self-aware about wandering endlessly through a shop with no potential purchases in hand. Eventually, I wandered over to the café and bought a small coffee, then played copycat on the adults that populated the tables: I grabbed something from the periodical rack—I’m pretty sure one of them was a copy of the Prague Post, which was at that time sold in a number of U.S. book shops—and plopped down with my coffee and a free read. I bought a paperback or two before leaving, which was a big deal for a kid whose income was paid yardwork for the folks, at least until hay and straw bailing season would begin a few weeks later. Then, I’d make some solid money, but for the moment, two books and a coffee was a pretty full day of expenditure.

This morning, I’m again in the café of a bookstore, again in love with the smell of 10,000 books around me, colliding with puffs of steam from the espresso machine behind me. There are other places to loiter while I work, of course—home and my campus office and cafes both corporately and locally owned. But it’s always been here, surrounded by the written ideas of others. And it seems like the right place to cap a week that’s been filled with news ranging from openly joyful to bittersweet at best. The home I drove back to after that first coffee was sold today. Earlier this year, my parents downsized their home, and while I’m happy for them in that regard, that was the home I always came home to: from college and work, from grad school and at holidays, on long weekends when I just needed to be someplace familiar around someone familiar. It’s tough, knowing I’ll never again drive home to that grey house behind the pond.

Like the sale of that old home, the rest of this week’s news has been a long time in process.

My first book has been published—in Russia. Last year, Russian linguist Olesya Valger and I co-wrote and co-edited a textbook called Stories From the American Rust Belt With Case Studies in English Grammar. The text, published by Novosibirsk State Pedagogical University Press, includes several of my stories, along with exercises and practical details to help second-language students of English interact with contemporary American literature. As I understand it, some printed copies are in the early stages of transit, and I’m looking forward to holding a copy soon.

But that was just the start of good book news.

On Tuesday morning, Seattle-based Orson’s Publishing released my debut story collection for pre-order. Print copies will ship in April, and ebook copies will be available at that time, as well. When the book was announced this week, some of the first questions I received were connected to my time in Russia—namely, whether this was the book of stories I wrote while overseas. It’s not—though I continue to work on those. However, this set did get some substantial editing and revision work during my Fulbright grant, and I submitted it to the press from my flat above Vybornaya Street.  

The collection runs the gamut of my writing life: the oldest story got its start during my first month in graduate school at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and the newest one was completed last Autumn in Siberia—it made the trip with me as a half-finished stub, and I finally did enough surgery to it to make it feel like a story that belonged in a set.

For much of the last year, Publisher Garrett Dennert and I have pushed and pressed each other and wrestled this thing into a book I’m extremely proud of, one that traces the lives of workers and workers’ kids and retirees in the post-industrial Midwest—the Rust Belt. It felt right working on the collection in Siberia, which in many ways knows a similar history: regions of single-industry towns left to rise and fall at the mercy of economy and other, connected single-industry towns, places trying to reclaim names rife with disparaging stereotypes, regions full of youthful, vibrant generation set against the remnants of past decay. The collection has busted-up factories, yes, but more importantly (and I think more interestingly) it focuses on what the people do after they walk out those doors for the last time—something I can connect with this morning.

A final piece of exciting news: Peasantry Press, the publisher of my forthcoming novel Pine Gap, sent final edits this week, and work has started on cover design. Review copies should be heading out soon, and by the end of the year, it’ll be a trio of books with my name on the spine so that someday, some kid with newfound freedom and a set of keys might just buy a drink as an excuse to linger, and when they do, maybe, just maybe they’ll pull one of those books or its neighbors from the shelf. And if they get to travel the same path I’ve gotten, one full of words and daydreams, a trail of ideas and travelling friends that stretches from Illinois to Irkutsk—well, they’ll be immensely lucky.


The finished product: the cover art for my U.S. debut in book-length fiction: Thrift Store Coats.

The finished product: the cover art for my U.S. debut in book-length fiction: Thrift Store Coats.