By Lisl Fauke
If Lighthouse instructor Christopher Merkner has a thing, it’s short stories. Specifically, dark, comic short stories that focus on the domestic.
I caught up with Merkner, author of The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic, recently to talk about the Midwest, the election, the danger of nostalgia, and more, in advance of his next Lighthouse class, Online Intermediate/Advanced Short Story.
Q. Your writing offers a wonderfully dark and comic outlook on the domestic. In interviews I’ve read, you’ve credited your wife and kids as the main source of all things positive in your life. Where does the inspiration for the dark domestic come from, if not your own life?
A. This afternoon I picked up our kids from school. I parked the car on the side of the street, crossed the school lawn, and I waited for the kids to come out from their classes. I smiled at people, nodded, very cordial, very friendly, etc. The kids came out, and we crossed the lawn, got in the car, and—as I looked over the steering wheel out the front window of the car—I could see a woman with her young child in her arms trying to fold down her stroller with her one free hand, open the trunk, and throw the stroller into the trunk with the other.
The stroller was of course buckling and collapsing down to the street. It’s just not cooperating for her at all, and I am sitting there, watching this. It was all happening fairly quickly, and my general mood was, Damn, that’s just shit. Then the woman tried to bend down to get a better handle on the collapsed stroller, but her child was too big to hold on her hip while dipping to pick up the stroller. She tried to bend, and then crouch, and then—when those failed, when she just could not get that stroller up without putting her child down—she tried to lift it up with her foot, so her foot could bring it up to her hand. Naturally this wouldn’t work, and she did this twice or three times, the stroller just falling back down, totally uncooperative.
So, what’s wrong with this image? It’s me, right? I’m just fucking sitting there in my car looking at it. I’m just looking. I am doing nothing.
It reminds me now of the John Edgar Wideman story, “Stories,” when the narrator notes, “The only answer I know is this: all the stories I could make from this man walking in the rain eating a banana would be sad, unless I am behind a window with you looking out at him.” Totally, right. I mean, I’m just sitting there, doing nothing, thinking nothing, thinking how sad or shitty all of this is, and at the same time doing absolutely nothing about it, not getting to know it, not learning from it, not inhabiting the spaces the image was opening to me.
Where does the dark aspect of my writing come from, you ask? Now my answer: It comes from looking at the shit I do and don’t do. It comes from the choices I make when I am faced with images, and the choices are almost always the wrong ones. Who is not moved to action by a person struggling with their child, desperately needing a simple assist? Apparently, not Christopher Merkner. The darkness comes from the repulsive depths of my own behavior, mood, and thought and absence of thought.
That’s very dark business. And when I am at last able to see these darknesses in myself, I try to stitch them into the fabric of the fiction. It’s fairly exhilarating, and because I am typically working in modes of satire or social critique it feels at some level like a gesture toward contrition or penance.
Q. You’ve been published in Midwestern Gothic, a literary journal that publishes some of the Midwest’s finest literary voices. Did you spend a lot of time in the Midwest growing up? Does the Midwest play an influential role in what you write about?
A. I grew up in relatively rural northeast Illinois, between Rockford and Chicago. My parents took us to Wisconsin in the summer, and I earned my BA in Minnesota. That’s about 22 years of grand Midwestern living. I’m 42, presently. So, I’ve spent more years in the Midwest than out of it. That feels to me like a lot of time, particularly from this vantage.
As I reflect on the election we have just undertaken, the Midwest is very much on my mind, and I am reminded why I can no longer live there, and why I would really not desire to return any time soon. There is a profound sense of romanticizing the past there, and there is a profound greed in that romanticizing. The allegedly simple life a majority of Americans fly over in an airplane is greedily celebrated by the Midwest, and at some level, that’s quaint and sweet and fun, and I hadn’t really felt it to be a dangerous level of greed, until now.
I understand the desire to maintain simplicity. It’s charming, as I say, in a certain light. And in some light, I can imagine it to be a sustaining and essential part of finding purpose in the world. But in another light, like in the garish lighting of this past election, you can see the power of its greed, and its danger. I do not think of myself as a wise or terribly perceptive person, but I guess I would just note to my Midwestern friends and family who we are told apparently “held their noses” in order to align themselves with someone who told them they could go back to the world they thought they once knew: I am pretty sure you can’t go back. I am worried that efforts toward going back will prove to be seriously harmful. I fear the greediness with which we have, as Midwesterners, sought to sentimentalize, romanticize, and preserve the past. I think the greediness of it may be more seductive than that which we have tried to preserve, in the way that we often find more pleasure in the act of claiming what we feel is our own, special and distinctive only to us, than in the actual thing being claimed. At any rate, as I rant on here, probably, it’s a greediness that every character in fiction must at some level confront.
Q. You noted in an interview that nearly all of your extended family has stayed near one another in rural Illinois. The landscapes and images you might encounter in rural Illinois are vastly different from those you would in Denver. Do you feel a stronger pull toward one or the other as inspiration when focusing on image in your writing?
I don’t find myself drawn to the images of landscape or environment in my writing, not the way I probably used to or should, not unless I am thinking in terms of unsettling contrasts or textures. Somehow, landscape always leads me into a reverie that I don’t find terribly productive. The images that draw and keep my interest are almost always domestic in nature, interior spaces, the ecosystems of places we call homes. A woman shouting from the bathroom. A man stroking a cat’s tail. A man and woman shaking hands in the kitchen. The images that draw me toward their heat are the ones that extend from the mundane, probably because for me the mundane, the quotidian, holds the most explosive power. Nature and the world around us seem to operate, to me, through a sort of overall, deductive power, and the domestic world seems to me to draw its power more inductively. I am just more drawn to the latter. I think it’s just a personal thing. Perhaps because I grew up with alcoholics.
Online Intermediate/Advanced Short Story starts January 16.