An interview with Steven Wingate
Steve Wingate is a Colorado man. His first novel, Of Fathers and Fire (2019), was set there, and his second, The Leave-Takers (2021), was supposed to be, too. But when Wingate moved to South Dakota — not the usual order of operations; my home state is a place people generally leave — he said the novel moved with him. There, he set his protagonists, Jacob and Laynie, up in a big house outside a town called Clark, population 1,300, to let them do what humans do worst: grieve.
Decades in the making, The Leave-Takers reflects Steve’s slow, careful craft. Every sentence bites, but his treatment of Jacob and Laynie — of their losses, their addictions, their desperation and often inability to love each other well — is tender, cultivated, complex. So, too, his rendering of the South Dakota landscape, a stark and constant background to Jacob and Laynie’s grappling and a thing, in itself, with which they can’t quite come to terms. They often leave, as the title suggests, but always return; utterly fitting for such a place. Wingate has been honest with us, lending his own complicated relationship with his new home, as well as some of his own grief, to his characters, and giving us, in the process, a novel of hard-won healing and hope.
Steve and I recently talked about The Leave-Takers over email: about emptiness (geographical and otherwise), depicting grief, and being a Midwest writer.
I’m always interested to know what the spark of a story was, especially for one like this with so many elements to it. So what came first — the piece that made you think, “Oh, I could write about that” — and how did the rest follow?
Every piece of fiction I write starts with an image of a person in a landscape. If I’m struck by that combination, I start asking the standard journalistic questions: who, what, when, where, how, why? Over time I learn more about this character and their relationship with the place where I imagined them, and from that questioning the story unfolds. I’m a terribly slow writer — something I’d like to change about myself — and my very first recorded drafts of The Leave-Takers spilled out of me around 2003. But the original impetus came even earlier, in the 1990s as I was driving somewhere in the West and pictured a man trying to push over an abandoned barn that looked ready to collapse.
That man was Jacob, the male protagonist of this novel, though I didn’t know it then. He stuck in my mind, and the more time I spent asking questions about him, the more a storyworld developed around him. Laynie came into my imagination when I swore I saw a woman at a coffeeshop wearing a mourning veil — though it turned out she only had her hair in her eyes. The novel truly got born when I imagined this veiled woman reaching out to touch a sculpture that looked like her own face. Then I realized “Oh, the guy who made that sculpture is the guy trying to push over the barn,” and these two stories became intertwined. This is my absolute favorite thing about being a writer. Out of tiny images come stories that grow so big I can barely get my arms around them. It’s an amazing alchemical process that I can’t live without.
You’re similar to our main male character, Jacob, in that you came to South Dakota by way of the northeast. Talk a little bit about your transition into life on the plains and your decision to place The Leave-Takers there.
The novel was originally a Colorado book because I was living there at the time — I’ve called Colorado home since I was thirteen. My career took me to South Dakota, and the novel eventually followed me. Some parts that take place on the road I simply ported over, but for the bulk of the novel, I had to thoroughly re-envision Jacob and Laynie. The surfaces of who they are changed with their new geographical circumstances because they had a new attitude toward their environment. Jacob is openly hostile toward South Dakota because he blames it for his brother’s teenage social rejection, which eventually led to his addiction and death. Laynie is more open to the place, but she’s also more naïve about it — in part because she’s never been rejected by it the way Jacob feels he has been.
The poles of their combined experience echo my own. I have my Laynie moments when I say “This is a really unique place and I need to keep giving it a chance to grow on me.” Then I have my Jacob moments when I say “This place is toxically conformist and xenophobic and I desperately need to get away.” I can’t say that my transition to living in South Dakota has been easy, and to call it my new home would be a lie. Both of my protagonists’ attitudes toward this place live inside me and come out on an almost daily basis. I find this frustrating but creatively productive, because I’m always engaged with my location — even if it’s a wrestling match that sometimes gets unpleasant.
Plains lit (thinking Hamlin Garland, Willa Cather) sort of demands a looming sense of place, and you certainly feel that in The Leave-Takers. How do you translate something as slippery as “place” onto the page and into what feels, at times, like another fully formed character? Who are some of your go-to writers for good place-centric fiction?
My protagonists are outsiders like me, which means they don’t know the hidden workings and the unspoken rules. They’re still putting the clues together in the way natives wouldn’t have to. They engage their environment without expecting to understand it, which makes writing their perspective easier. But it took years of living in South Dakota for me to find that viewpoint and reconcile myself to one simple idea: the outsider perspective is not only the one I should claim, but it’s also sufficient for me to write with. For the longest time I thought “I’ll never write about this place because I’m not a Midwesterner,” but eventually I let myself write about this place without claiming to represent it.
As an outsider, I really admire (even envy) writers who get inside of this region and know its ins and outs. Larry Watson is masterful about this — he’s someone who knows multiple generations of unspoken rules and how they braid with each other. Jonis Agee in Nebraska and Kent Meyers here in South Dakota, both of whom were kind enough to write blurbs for the The Leave-Takers, both have the inside perspective that comes with an intimate, lifelong knowledge of their geo-cultural reality. A couple of newer writers who do this are Maxim Loskutoff (Montana) and Chris Harding Thornton (Nebraska). Something tells me I’m too much of a rolling stone to achieve that intimacy with place — not even for Colorado, which I still call home even though I haven’t lived there in a decade — so I’ll continue cultivating the roving outsider perspective. In all honesty, it’s probably all I’ll ever have.
At one point, Laynie wonders of Jacob’s upbringing, “How did it feel to grow up in this emptiness, to let it shape you?” I love that line, and I love that notion that where you’re from shapes who you’ll become. Similarly, how did this idea of emptiness inform your writing, particularly when conceiving of these two main characters?
I’m going to stray away from geography for a minute here. I think we always live in emptiness, but we clutter it up with material things and psychosocial identities because emptiness is terrifying. It beckons us to admit that we’re part of a much broader nothing than we can possibly conceive. This perspective sounds Zen, but bust about every faith system acknowledges that You are dust, and to dust you will return. We dwell in emptiness and we are containers for emptiness. If all we understand are the possessions and identities we bring into our lives to pretend that we aren’t empty, then we don’t understand ourselves at all.
Geography can play a huge role in accepting our own emptiness — particularly the geography of empty places like the Great Plains, which is why I’ve found a home writing about this region. Here, it’s harder to pretend that you’re not living in emptiness because there’s so much of it around you. The fact that I can see storms forming fifty miles away and watch them crawl toward me is an amazing spiritual thing. In the no-thing-ness of this sparsely inhabited space, where I can drive half an hour and count the cars I see on one hand, I feel a great obligation to bring my characters face to face with who they are beneath all the false trappings of selfhood.
Among many other things, this is a book about death and the ways we cope with it: a topic, I think, that always runs the risk of feeling canned. Would you talk a bit about writing grief in a way that’s true and interesting and how you chose to manifest that for different characters?
My dad died when I was ten, so grief has been a constant in my life. It’s not just an emotion that I feel, but more like a place I find myself going to that has both urban and rural aspects to it. One impetus to the final version of this novel was my brother Michael dying from his drug habit about five years ago — something I’ve known since my teens was eventually going to happen. When it finally did, I spent a lot of time in grief and found some new haunts within it.
This geographical metaphor for grief is central to my understanding of it. Grief isn’t a temporal experience you go through for a time and “get over.” I’ve spent eighty percent of my life without a father, and the hole his loss left in me didn’t simply get spackled over when a certain amount of time passed. I never became un-fatherless, you know? Humans have our cultural metaphor for grief all wrong, and we should use a geographical one. If you’re overwhelmed by grief, then maybe it means you’re going there too often or making your visits too long. Laynie and Jacob both beat themselves up for not being able to “get over” their grief like they think they should. In the novel, I want to help them understand grief geographically and simply stop going there as much.
Jacob and Laynie are both visual artists, and you write really beautifully about their work. Are you an artist? What was your experience writing about another art form?
In my ideal life, I’d be making art all the time. Painting, sculpting, playing music — all forms of artmaking intrigue me, and many of my characters are artists because those are the people who interest me and the kinds of people I’ve imagined myself becoming. Heck, I’m well into the second half of my life and still imagining myself becoming a sculptor or musician when I’m done with my day job. Art is my way of connecting to the world, and if my characters feel the same way, I have better footholds in their psyches.
The nature of their art says something about them, but it can take a long time for me to see exactly what. Jacob doing lost wax casting in bronze mirrors his desire to pull together something that will endure, which is exactly what he wants to do by creating a family. Laynie painting micro-landscapes on glass reflects both her own obsessive self-scrutiny and her sense that things could crash to pieces any moment. In this way art is not simply my metaphor for my characters, but their metaphor for themselves too.
Toward the end of the book, Jacob half-way acknowledges that his and Laynie’s addictions are part of our country’s much larger opiate crisis — a fact that snuck up on me because of how intimate this story is. How do you go about taking such a widespread thing and whittle it down into something so personal? What kind of research (or perhaps non-research) did that involve?
I grew up with addiction in my family. It killed my uncle and my father decades before it got my brother, and I’ve wrestled with it myself, so it wasn’t something I had to do a whole lot of external research on. One reason I wanted to make this book happen now, as opposed to letting it sit in my file cabinet for another fifteen years, was the way my brother’s death forced me to think about the addiction I carried within myself. I never had a big, terrible substance habit, but I did have several smaller, seemingly innocuous habits that my brother’s death made me confront.
Finally rolling up my sleeves and saying Let’s finish this book went hand-in-hand with me saying Let’s look at your relationship to what killed three men in your family. I can’t pretend that writing can substitute for therapy, but writing this novel was certainly therapeutic. As I guided Jacob and Laynie through the course of their addictions, I saw myself and it scared the pants off me. I had to change my life just like they had to change theirs. So my overall process wasn’t one of writing about addiction from the outside in, but writing from the core of addiction — this thing I grew up around and carry with me — toward the specific expression of it in two imaginary people.
How do you approach other aspects of the research process? Where in the grand scheme of writing a novel does it come for you, and where do you turn for information?
I’m of two minds about research. On one hand, it’s important to me to avoid enslaving myself to it, because I’m not presenting my work as factual record. I focus instead on plausibility. Does this scene play out within its setting in a way that readers see as plausible? If the answer is yes, I’m happy with that and concentrate on the emotional resonance of my words. Jacob and Laynie live outside of Clark, SD, which is a very real town. But they live on a hill that doesn’t exist, at the end of a road that doesn’t exist, in a house that doesn’t exist. The coffeeshop where Laynie works and the hardware store Jacob shops don’t exist (though Clark has businesses of both kinds). Many time I drove past “their house” and made stealthy trips into Clark to absorb the vibe of the place, but I feel no need to replicate it exactly because I’m writing fiction. If I were writing nonfiction, my standards would obviously be different.
On the other hand, I don’t want to screw up because that breaks the reader’s trust. So for some aspects of the story I did a disproportionate amount of research, such as Jacob’s lost wax casting. It shows up for only a few pages total, but I spent days studying how it’s done so I wouldn’t make an obvious mistake. That’s not just for the reader, it’s for me too. If I know the details of how my characters relate to their physical world, then I’ll be able to write their minds better.
You mentioned in an email that you’ve been doing just “bread and water rations” when it comes to writing, but I’m wondering if you’re working on anything new. Do you know yet what’s next?
I’m working on a short story collection for a couple reasons. Number one, I’m in a time crunch because I’m a professor, and everybody in our industry seems to be getting squeezed right now. It’s hard to find the time or emotional space to focus on a novel — especially right now, when helping The Leave-Takers make its way in the world of readers is a primary concern.
Number two, I’m feeling the need to talk about the territory of the Great Plains beyond the eastern and western poles I’ve established with my novels. My first, Of Fathers and Fire (2019), was set in Colorado, and The Leave-Takers is set in South Dakota. But what about the many other spots on the Great Plains that call to me imaginatively? I want to give time and attention to them. Having two books in the Flyover Fiction Series has made me more aware of myself as a writer of the Great Plains, and I want my work to roam within that territory more broadly than a novel would let me. The University of Nebraska Press has rights on whatever I write next, so when it’s ready I’ll send it their way. It ranges between Colorado and South Dakota, as well as north to Bismarck, ND and south to Wichita, KS. I’ve got a title, but my copious superstitions won’t allow me to say it. Down the road after that is another South Dakota novel that I’m keeping secret even from myself.