Research Notes · 03/20/2020

Heartland Calamitous

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Michael Credico writes about Heartland Calamitous from Autumn House Press.

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From Indiana

  1. The oldest story in the book is “I Bought Her a Bird,” about a woman and a man and the literal widening distance between them. I wrote the first draft in 2012.

  2. The woman explores the West. The man suffers himself at home.

  3. Real people how Elizabeth Hardwick describes them in Sleepless Nights: “living in the family house alone… set up at last, preparing to die.”

  4. “I Bought Her a Bird” was my first graduate workshop submission. It was big whoop.

  5. I wrote the book as I learned to write. Meaning, I was learning to read. I was reading towards it.

  6. I could only title stories “The this” and “The that.” “I Bought Her a Bird” was called “The Bird.”

  7. I was learning to read more than I write in every way that can mean.

  8. I was living towards it.

  9. I think about how a book begins. It isn’t how or when you expect. You don’t sit down and begin a book. At least, I don’t. I’ve tried.

  10. I don’t have a copy of the first draft of “The Bird,” but I know it was no beginning of a book. And somehow it was.

  11. One day there’s enough of something that it has to be something.

  12. Matters of accumulation.

  13. I’d read like real tongue-stuck-out research — for instruction, permission. I tried to establish boundaries to work inside of, the shape of a story, the sound of it, as if a story is a single boundaried thing.

  14. Beginning with these four collections: Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, The Collected Amy Hempel, Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America, and Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories.

  15. From Barthelme’s “The Balloon”: “The balloon, for the twenty-two days of its existence, offered the possibility, in its randomness, of mislocation of the self, in contradistinction to the grid of precise, rectangular pathways under our feet.”

  16. From Moore’s “Willing”: “There were moments bristling with deadness, when she looked out at her life and went ‘What?’ … It had taken on the shape of a terrible mistake. She hadn’t been given the proper tools to make a real life with, she decided, that was it. She’d been given a can of gravy and a hairbrush and told, ‘There you go.’ She’d stood there for years, blinking and befuddled, brushing the can with the brush.”

  17. From Hempel’s “The Harvest”: “I leave a lot out when I tell the truth. The same when I write a story.”

  18. And Johnson’s “Beverly Home”: “She sang with the unconsciousness, the obliviousness, of a castaway. She must not have understood that somebody might be able to hear her.”

  19. The woman returns home in short bursts with souvenirs from the different places she’s been. The souvenirs accumulate around the man.

  20. “I Bought Her a Bird,” was published in 2016 by Blue Mesa Review, after years of accumulation.

  21. The first draft was missing what I didn’t know yet. The Pizza King, for instance.

  22. I’m not from Indiana. I’ve never been to Indiana, other than passing through it to and from Ohio.

  23. Indiana could be anyplace, like Ohio. From Ohio, Indiana begins the West.

  24. I’ve never been to Hollywood. Or Japan, where in “Postwar Heartland,” an American Little Leaguer attempts to retrieve a baseball from the Akaishi Mountains, finding instead a talking bearded serow.

  25. Accumulation, then subtraction.

  26. When I quit smoking, so did my characters. When I started running, I’d already been writing about running, about real people.

  27. In 2016, the book was a bloated 200+ pages called The This and That.

  28. And then these four anthologies, two each edited by Kate Bernheimer and Ben Marcus, respectively, from which I learned so much, especially names: XO Orpheus and My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, and The Anchor Book of New American Stories and New American Stories.

  29. From Manuel Muñoz’s “The Hand”: “The neighborhood had grown quiet, all the doors closed, the orange of the evening casting a light on everything that the boy would later know as loneliness, but back then, he knew only that the light meant the day had ended.”

  30. From Shelley Jackson’s “The Swan Brothers”: “Because you’ve also lived — you’ve been living and reading for years, sometimes both at once — you are not surprised that people often repeat their most unpleasant experiences.”

  31. From Gary Lutz’s “People Shouldn’t Have to Be the Ones”: “His failings? A waviness around all he felt bad about, a slovenry mid-mouth. Timid, uncivic behaviors that went uncomprehended. Before the layoffs, he’d been a subordinate with at least thorny standing among the otherwise harmable. He had left it to others to take everything the wrong way.”

  32. From Deborah Eisenberg’s “Some Other, Better Otto”: “So, marvelous. Humans were born, they lived. They glued themselves together in little clumps, and then they died.”

  33. The Pizza King comes from the eponymous pizza chain in Indiana. I’ve never been to one in person, but I’ve eaten a pizza shipped overnight to Cleveland.

  34. “I Bought Her a Bird” ends with the woman’s decision to pursue Hollywood under the guidance of the Pizza King.

  35. The last story I wrote for the book is “A Black Eye. A Drowned Eye,” about somebody turning into an eyeball. Its beginning, “It begins…” is quoted again later in the story, a confirmation, or reassurance that yes, this is happening, and here’s why.

  36. I cut away from the book until I found the small book inside it. Heartland Calamitous is 128 pages.

  37. The first story in the book begins: “No good western begins with Indiana.”

  38. And later “Redbird” begins: “Beginning this day and time forward, I am no longer in love with the redbird.”

  39. Despite repeated references to the West and to westerns as a genre, there’s only one real western in the book.

  40. In the story “Heartland Calamitous,” Clem sings a song which excerpts a poem called “West Texas,” published in John Lomax’s Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads with the following note: “Sent by Prof. Newton Gaines, Texas Christian University, Fort Worth, Texas, 1922: He says that the poem was written by a fourteen-year-old high school girl, Leona Mae Austin, who had lived in Childress, Texas, for several years. Mr. Gaines remarks: ‘Leona Mae Austin evidently went through the droughts of 1916-18, and her words probably repeat the complaints that she heard from the lips of her elders.’”

  41. The last words I wrote for the book: “thank you.”

  42. I keep an anthology called Flash Fiction on my desk so I can reread “Pumpkins” by Francine Prose, a perfectly accumulating, escalating short story. But picking it up again today, I’m surprised to find names like Stuart Dybek, Julio Cortizar, Paul Lisicky, Diane Williams, and Michael Martone. I’ve had this book so long without reading past the beginning.

  43. Michael Martone is from Indiana.

  44. I’m always trying either to get away with something or get away from it.

  45. I love the feel of a small book, like those incredibly titled Diane Williams collections, Meredith Alling’s Sing the Song, Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge, Rita Bullwinkel’s Belly Up, Katie Farris’s boysgirls, Christian TeBordo’s Toughlahoma

  46. I love the length of a book of poems. I think of James Tate, Mary Ruefle, Dorothea Lasky, Karyna McGlynn, Lucie Brock-Broido, and Patricia Lockwood…

  47. From near the end of “Pumpkins”: “…before long it comes to him. Because for once the truth is not submerged, but bobs on the surface like a buoy, tied to a time he often revisits in looking back on his life.”

  48. From Patricia Lockwood’s “The Quickening”: “This whale is an intellectual, she has designed a book that even whales can read; a book that surrounds them.”

  49. Beginning these notes, I thought nothing unnecessary.

  50. I thought everything up to this moment, where do I begin?

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Michael Credico received an MFA in Fiction from the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts program at Cleveland State University. He also holds a BA in English from Cleveland State University. His fiction has appeared widely in print and online, including Black Warrior Review, Columbia Journal, Denver Quarterly, DIAGRAM, Hobart, New Ohio Review, NOÖ Journal, Puerto del Sol, Quarterly West, and others. He has received an Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council. He works at Cleveland Public Library. He lives in Cleveland, Ohio.