The instructions say, Make sure the skillet is screamin’ hot, and I can hear those directions drawled in my mother-in-law’s East Texas accent.

A year ago now, maybe two, I stopped calling my mother-in-law every time I wanted to make her cornbread—real cornbread, she would tell you, because the recipe doesn’t call for flour. Early on in our relationship, I scrawled her cornbread recipe onto the back cover of a bread cookbook I later found annoying, not worth keeping, and tossed, along with my only copy of the simple, six-ingredient cornbread recipe my mother-in-law could, can, rattle off with a sigh that hints she might never get tired of passing this recipe along.

This week my wife and her mother and sister are converging on the family dairy in East Texas. Almost two years ago, I made a similar trek with my mother-in-law, and together we went through that house, cleaning and scrutinizing and packing and hemming and hawing. We climbed on the roof to pull down tree branches. We turned a power washer on the wasp nests that clung to the house’s mortar. We hacked at bushes and pored over photo albums and drove back and forth from the farm to town, the sky roiling with storm clouds, as tornadoes have threatened every one of my visits to Texas.

On the last day, we trooped into the western store and I bought another pair of cowboy boots because my mother-in-law told me to and they were on sale. We killed time during a rainstorm in a couple of resale shops, petting the store cat and chatting up the lady who sold me an eggbeater and a sock monkey kit. We made fried pie in the last pan in the dairy’s kitchen, the store-bought crust browning in the seasoned skillet as my mother-in-law poked the pies with a fork so they would not burn. I watched her place teaspoons of jam in each corner of pie crust, roughly torn from the package, and carefully plop the triangle of pie into hot oil that popped and sizzled to produce a basic delicacy I was only just discovering. There was no recipe this time, just brains and experience.

The last time I called my mother-in-law for the cornbread recipe I finally had the sense to write it down. The scrap paper is stuck to my refrigerator door, along with my parents’ waffle recipe, a foolproof no-yeast pizza dough recipe I finagled from a friend, and Fannie Farmer’s basic tart crust recipe. These are the standards in my kitchen, the starting points of nearly all the meals I cook. When I made cornbread most recently, a few days before my wife joined her mother and sister in Texas, I let the skillet get a little too hot and this time it was the smoke alarm that screamed until we hauled the smoking pan outside and flipped on all the ceiling fans.

Sometimes I catch sight of those scraps of paper on our fridge and hear the voices that dictated those recipes—the Wisconsin twang of my mother’s memories about growing up with the waffle iron on every Saturday morning; the Indiana lilt of my pizza-making friend’s promise that this was an easy dough to freeze; the Pennsylvania laughter of my pie aficionado friend, who receives a portion of nearly every pie I bake because I have learned church lady hospitality from her. My mother-in-law’s precise, soft Texas insistence that the skillet be screamin’ hot. The cornbread and the boots and fried pie are not part of my history, but they’re some of the scraps of stories I’ll tell whatever descendants might come, about the ancestors that nourished me, all of me, even when I couldn’t get the accent right.

Blog Hop, or: Why I Listen to Carter Burwell’s True Grit on Repeat

Okay, so, a while ago this blog hop was going around, and going around. The extraordinary Sara Rauch tagged me; check out her blog. You may also be interested in reading the blog posts of fellow Pacific University grads Killian Czuba, Maisha Z. Johnson, and Kate Sheeran — these women and their work inspire me to make my work mean something in the world. (Next up: David Smith will wow you with words about his historical fiction.)

What am I working on?

Right now I’m working on several projects: a paper for the Harry Potter Conference at Chestnut Hill College; the edits for an article about history and fiction for The Writer’s Chronicle (I may have told everyone this already; it’s only because I have to repeat it in order to convince myself that it is true); and, oh, yeah, a novel about grief. And grandparents. And Illinois. And Carl Sandburg. And Abraham Lincoln. (No, it’s not historical fiction.)

What I’m really working on is figuring out the best way to make sure my butt gets in the chair and my head stays on the story, instead of mesmerized by whatever stupid thing is happening on the Internet. I’m extremely lucky to have a very supportive community; everyone from my partner to my boss asks me if I’m writing. At the moment I’m having a very intense experience with my protagonist, which feels like such a gift and also a good excuse to beg off too many non-writing commitments. I’m learning to say, “I have to hang out with Elizabeth,” and, luckily, people seem to understand. Or, at least, not ask too many questions.

How is my work different than others in its genre?

One way to answer this question is to offer a quote from Virginia Woolf, who wrote in Jacob’s Room, “They say the sky is the same everywhere. Travellers, the shipwrecked, exiles, and the dying take comfort from the thought, and no doubt if you are of the mystical tendency, consolation and even explanation shower down from the unbroken surface.” I don’t really think the sky is the same everywhere, but I do take comfort in the idea that a writer’s job is to observe what everyone sees and to translate those observations, that experience, into something meaningful. I’m finding a lot of inspiration in the works of other Midwestern writers, but I think my work is different in part because of my training as a historian and in part because I am a young person who has always been fascinated by the lives of older people. And my work is different from other work in the literary fiction of the Midwest simply because I’m a unique human being with a unique relationship with the Midwest: I grew up in Illinois and went to school in Minnesota, and the longer I live in Philadelphia, the more I want to sound like a Wisconsinite.

My novel is also different because it tells the story of a farm from the perspectives of a grandmother and her granddaughter. If you know of any other stories like this, please let me know. I’d love to read them!

Why do I write what I do?

As a historian I want to put a novel in a context, to explore cause and effect, to line up evidence, but as a novelist I’m interested in the human element of the longue duree. I write about the Midwest not only because it’s in my bones but also because I don’t always understand it, even when I jump to defend it against snooty East Coasters who sniff about “The Middle.” And I tend to write about the relationships among women because I believe that women’s voices need to be heard.

How does my writing process work?

I make lists: lists of things I need to do for the novel, lists of journals I want to read, lists of books I need to find, lists of ideas for the blog or for other publications, lists of things to buy at the grocery store, lists of things to do before or after or during my time at my writing desk.

One of the things I learned during grad school that it’s important to write what I find interesting, to explore the moments I find compelling, to not worry about where those scenes will fit in to the larger work. (Thanks, Mary Helen Stefaniak.) Sometimes this involves sitting in front of my computer and sometimes it involves daydreaming while on a run or deep imagining on the deck of our tree house. I try to take my protagonist and antagonist with me wherever I go, to ask myself how they would respond to an annoying Philadelphia driver or a rambunctious child or the smell of October leaves. (This is also a good coping mechanism for dealing with Philadelphia drivers and rambunctious children.)

My writing process also involves a lot of time in the kitchen. I’ve written before about the ways in which I work out plot or character through cooking. Ideally, I try to work and then take a break to cook, to let the ideas simmer on the back burner while the pies are in the oven (you know, to really hit that metaphor home…).

But perhaps more than anything, listening to Carter Burwell’s soundtrack to the Coen Brothers’ film “True Grit” usually gets me to a deadline, or at least to the place where I can say, “Yes, I’ve done enough for now.” (You can read about Burwell’s process here. He writes, “[Mattie’s] pieties derive from her knowledge of the Bible, and her courage is really a Presbyterian self-righteousness, wedded to a passion for balancing accounts.” This is not really unlike my own writing process, I guess.) The whole soundtrack is about forty-five minutes long—long enough to get into the piece I’m trying to work on, but not long enough that I can’t sit still until the very last strains of Iris Dement’s haunting “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” I’ve tried an egg timer and the two-hour spurts during blood glucose curves on my cat, but “True Grit” seems to do the trick. Plus the cadence of that soundtrack, the mood of it, is just what I need in order to be able to listen to my own work. (Check out Sharon Harrigan’s interview with Jack Driscoll, who elegantly discusses the relationship between music and his own process.) In any case, now I’ve got myself trained. “The Wicked Flee”: GO.

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