The stories in Seth Borgen’s collection If I Die in Ohio (160 pages; New American Press), winner of the New American Fiction Prize, are like bars where I have learned more about people and about writing than anywhere else, except perhaps from books. And like those bars, they are places where people who would never have crossed paths come together—a retired, well-known architect and a young high school dropout, for example; a slacker, stoner, atheist and a Mormon. The characters do not seek each other out, but once they do, something happens. Nothing huge or life-changing but something that helps combat the loneliness and the despair, the inability to make decisions, to leave or to stay, or to love.
Borgen’s characters, while not transformed, are still are able to get up the next morning. They are sometimes even a little bit stronger or more hopeful, like you might be after a night talking to a stranger in a bar. You don’t walk out of there less lonely or knowing what to do with your life, but later you wonder how the other is doing, whether they got home okay, and hope today will be a better day for both of you, and then, maybe it is.
The following interview with Borgen, who lives in Akron, Ohio, where he teaches creative writing and writes full-time, about his first book of stories was conducted via email.
ZYZZYVA: A lot of your characters are men who can’t act or make a change even if it means they’re miserable. Is this the American archetype now, the new hero in a botched society?
Seth Borgen: I don’t know if it’s a new hero, but it sure is a lot of men. More and more, it seems men are raised to be vessels of inaction. They’re given very strict guidelines regarding what it means to be a man, which happens to include being ashamed of the existence of their own emotions. The moment life gives them something they don’t expect, they’re not prepared to handle it. They shut down. The light goes out and it can’t light again.
Some of the stories are perhaps born out of my own anxiety over becoming one of those men who do and value all of the things culture tells them to minus the emotional infrastructure to adapt or change. But more than that, as a writer, I’m fascinated by the processes that lead to inaction rather than action and that being able to capture that formless thing is a more meaningful depiction of the world.
The line on me back in workshops was that nothing ever happens in my stories. And I was always like, yeah, because nothing ever does. Where I come from, my people don’t act. They die inside their own lives but still breathe and walk around and buy stuff for two, three more decades. And I think that’s people from a lot of places. And I don’t think that makes their stories any less worthy.
Z: Can you talk about how you came up with the seeds for some of your stories? Mormons, ice-sculpting, any others you are interested in.
Always get the last word.
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SB: Short stories tend to come from some combination of two places—from someplace within the writer or from someplace beyond the writer. Sometimes what we’re doing is litigating or relitigating personal experiences. The other times, we’re like professional stenographers following around people who don’t exist and we have absolutely no idea what they’re going to do or say next. For the former, the writing is an act of will. For the latter, it is an act of discovery. Personally, I’m more interested in the discovery. I’m more the stenographer than the litigator. Actually, what I am is one of those bugs that carries around on its back every bit of junk and debris it finds. My stories tend to begin with some extraordinarily unremarkable true thing. An image or a feeling or part of a feeling. I carry it with me and, over time, people, places, entire worlds that have absolutely nothing to do with me build up around that zygote of an idea.
For example, there was a time I went to the same bar several nights in a row. To get to the bar, I had to cut through an alley. That first night, there was a discarded ice sculpture in the alley tipped on its side like it was drunk or dead. Because it was winter, it was there the next night and the next night. That image, and what it felt like to step over that piece of ice four, five days in a row eventually became “I Really Can’t Stay,” a story that bears virtually no resemblance to anything that actually happened to me. The origins of most of my short stories follow a similar pattern.
Z: Were you really studying to be a dentist? Are you glad you decided to be a writer?
SB: I never actually studied dentistry. I just wish that I had every day. And talk about it, like, all the time. What I like about dentistry is the idea of clear objectives and quantifiable goals. On any given day, you might have to fill five cavities and perform a root canal. You know exactly when you’re done for the day. With nothing left on your list, you leave and who you are away from work resumes.
When you write for a living, you’re never not working. It’s all working. There’s no leaving the office and winding down because the office is inside your stupid brain. Every day you wonder, Did I do enough? Did I write enough? Was it good enough? What part of myself did I leave on the page today? Am I still a person? And, you know what, there really aren’t satisfying answers to these questions we ask ourselves every day. I might be wrong, but I just feel that if I were a dentist, I’m not sure how often I’d leave work asking myself if I’m still a person.
Z: How did growing up in Ohio influence your writing? People who have never lived there like to think of it only in political terms, as a battleground state. How was it different from the South and your experiences there at the University of Mississippi, where you received your MFA?
SB: I was raised in the suburbs of Akron, little homogenized hamlets that largely grew out of populations fleeing dying cities. I did my undergraduate work in Columbus at Ohio State, a college laid out more like a sprawling, steam-belching factory than a college. And no matter where you stand in Columbus, if the wind is blowing in a particular way, you can smell the farms. So, as a state, are we industrial or rural? Both and neither. Are our best days ahead or behind? Both and neither. Every election cycle, is Ohio blue or is it red? It’s both and neither. Being from Ohio means being defined by the absence of a clear definition. We have a little of everything and an abundance of nothing. Born out of that absence of a clearly defined identity is a sort of perpetual frozen pragmatism. It’s a self-defense mechanism—a survival mode that never shuts off.
I feel like that frozen pragmatism is everywhere in my writing. And then I did my graduate work in Mississippi. Before moving to Mississippi, I didn’t fully understand that Northern fiction was a thing and Southern fiction was a thing. I didn’t fully grasp the ways in which individual writers could be coming out of traditions that were larger than they were. I mean, I was pretty dumb. Everyone else in the program probably knew that already, but, boy, I sure didn’t. So, anyway, there I was, a very northern writer suddenly immersed in the South and its literature. The result, I’ve come to understand, is an accidental and haphazard layer of otherworldly dreaminess woven into my precious frozen pragmatism. The result of that, I’m not claimed as a Northern writer or a Southern writer, which is very, very Ohio.
Z: You have three stories in your collection that take place in another time in history that are quite different from each other. How did this come about? How is writing about another time period different from writing about the present?
SB: Most of my stories are set in some version of the past, whether that’s clearly established in the text or not. That’s largely because I’m not particularly drawn to characters who carry smart phones. But, yes, sometimes a story decides it’s necessary that we go way far back. And, for selfish reasons, I’m glad when that happens. A segregated lake in 1952. An Akron slum in 1919. A swanky hotel in 1920 Paris. The more removed a character is from who I am, the easier the writing becomes. When the characters are nothing like me and they are inhabiting worlds that are nothing like my world, I’m less inclined to ruin my stories by asking myself what I would do.
On top of that, I appreciate the ways in which the past offers an illusion of knowability. The past feels to me like a ship that’s already sunk. The wreckage can be explored and studied and parts of it might be salvaged. But the present feels more like a ship in the process of sinking. It’s hard to reflect meaningfully on anything while holding on for dear life. Fuck today, really. Today is dumb. There are other writers more adept at sorting that out.
Z: People love to know about process, so this is my process question: How do you do your best thinking about your characters and stories?
SB: I don’t know if this will be of much use to anyone else, but, for me, the most crucial information when unlocking a character is their name and what they do for a living. And as annoying as it is to say this, their names and professions are not up to me. They choose to reveal that information or they don’t. If they do, everything else begins to fall into place. If they don’t, they stay strangers. The story or book doesn’t get written. Before I start a story, it’s like I’m barely awake in a dark room looking for a coffee cup. I absolutely know the coffee is there, but it doesn’t matter what I know or what I think I know if I can’t find the handle. The name and profession is my handle. There are writers, probably a lot of them, who name their characters whatever they want and move on. And who’s to say that’s not a better way. It sounds a lot faster, if nothing else.
Z: What authors or books have you learned the most from?
SB: I was in my late teens when it hit me that I was going to write books and stories for the rest of my life. I was desperate to become a better writer and I was the wettest clay I would ever be. And when that’s where you are, something finds you. What found me was a collection of F. Scott Fitzgerald stories on tape. Tapes, if you can believe that. Each story was read by a different celebrity. Parker Posey. Blythe Danner. Campbell Scott absolutely crushing “May Day.” And for years, those tapes were the only things I listened to in my car. A thousand trips between Columbus and Akron. To Birmingham and back multiple times. That strange combination of passive and active absorption, it altered my DNA. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was developing a more three-dimensional relationship with language and character than I would have otherwise. That has never left me.
I had many life-altering relationships with books and stories since then and before then and during that time. I was reading Richard Ford’s Rock Springs when I finally figured out why being a writer has any value whatsoever. Good writing puts into words things that have always been true about ourselves but we never had words for them before. And then that new understanding helps us live. I was reading Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America when I realized there were levels of good I’d never achieve and that’s totally OK because there can’t be two Lorrie Moores. But nothing is more responsible for what kind of writer I became—for good or bad—than those tapes.
Z: Why do you write, and don’t say because you have to. Well, you can say that, but you have to explain why.
SB: I think most lives come down to some personalized version of keeping the chaos at bay. Everything wants to kill us. Everything wants to run right over us and make us nothing. And it will, eventually. For me, writing is my version of keeping the chaos at bay. We get through so much of what we get through by telling ourselves that there’s got to be some meaning to all of this. So I comb through the vast garbage can of human existence and the much smaller garbage can of my own personal experiences looking for scraps of meaning. That’s where it started, but I had options back then. I could have done other things. But that’s not really true anymore. Existentially, I wouldn’t do anything else if I could. Pragmatically, I’m not really qualified to do much else at this point. The fallback options used to be things like newspapers, magazines, video stores, teaching. All that’s basically gone now. In a way, that’s a good thing. The cake is baked. People who pay people to do things don’t want to hire me and I don’t want to work for them. We’ve all decided that writing really is what I should be doing with myself. I fantasize about becoming a dentist. But I’d be a fucking terrible, miserable dentist.
Anne Raeff’s second novel, Winter Kept Us Warm (2018), won the silver medal for the California Book Award for Fiction. Her short story collection, The Jungle Around Us, won the 2015 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Raeff’s next novel, Only the River, will be published in May 2020. Her wife, novelist Lori Ostlund, was the judge for the New American Fiction Prize awarded to Seth Borgen.