By Jon Lauck

The short stories in Charles Baxter’s forthcoming book There’s Something I Want You to Do (Pantheon), which will be released in February 2015, are set in Minneapolis. This literary form and setting were not what Baxter had in mind when he first started writing as a young man in Minnesota. But after an initial rejection of regional literature and three failed novels early in his career, Baxter began to focus on Midwestern settings. One of his early stories set in the Midwest finally propelled him on a course that made him one of the nation’s greatest craftsmen of the short story and the frequent recipient of the highest literary accolades. Baxter was born in Minneapolis and attended college in St. Paul and has taught most of his career at Wayne State University in Detroit, the University of Michigan, and the University of Minnesota. In this interview, conducted December 6, Baxter reflects on his life, his writing, the American Midwest, and regional writing more generally. Baxter appears February 4 at St. Paul’s Micawber Books, February 11 at the Seminary Co-Op Bookstore in Chicago. February 12 at the St. Louis County Library, and February 19 at Nicola’s Books in Ann Arbor, Michigan. See for more information.

BELT: When you graduated from Macalester, you took a job as a schoolteacher in Michigan?

BAXTER: Yes. Teaching fourth grade.

BELT: How did it happen that you made the transition to Michigan as opposed to Idaho or California or some other place?

BAXTER: We all knew there was a teacher shortage in Michigan, a severe teacher shortage. You could get a job there just by having a B.A. And, if you were teaching in the public schools of Michigan, the Michigan State draft board would give you a deferment.

BELT: And how soon after you earned your Ph.D. did you begin teaching at Wayne State?

BAXTER: Immediately. I received my Ph.D. in the late spring of 1974 and I began teaching at Wayne State in the fall of 1974.

BELT: What did you think of Detroit? Let’s put it this way: did you ever think about how pleasant Minneapolis was in comparison to Detroit when you arrived in 1974?

BAXTER: It’s a leading question. Of course I did. The kinds of social problems that were, and still are, bedeviling Detroit, had never in the same way touched Minneapolis. But I had had a taste of that in Buffalo [during graduate school]. Buffalo was a city going through a steep industrial decline when I was there. I was quite provincial. I had no idea that cities could self-destruct. All I was used to was Minneapolis. And Minneapolis is not like Detroit or Buffalo, economically, socially, or in any other way.

BELT: During your time in Pinconning, Michigan, where you taught school, or Ann Arbor [where you lived while teaching at Wayne State], did you begin to think about the “Five Oaks, Michigan” that would become so prominent in your future fiction?

BAXTER: Yes. Half of my work would have been impossible for me to write if I hadn’t lived in Pinconning. Saul and Patsy wouldn’t exist. “Gryphon” wouldn’t exist. And it would have been impossible in another way if I hadn’t lived in Ann Arbor. And probably impossible if I hadn’t lived out in the middle of nowhere, beyond Excelsior in the part of Minnesota that — well, we didn’t really live in Excelsior. We lived out west of there between Excelsior and St. Bonifacious.

BELT: Did you first begin to focus on Midwestern characters and Midwestern settings when you began writing fiction in Ann Arbor?

[blocktext align=”right”]My first few stories, published stories, had nothing to do with any region. Maybe the region of the mind.[/blocktext]BAXTER: When I first began writing fiction I was very much in the shadow of people like Donald Barthelme. I frowned on regional fiction because I thought its goals and horizon were limited and dated. I imagined myself as an avant-garde post-modernist, an experimentalist, which is actually a bogus category. My first few stories, published stories, had nothing to do with any region. Maybe the region of the mind. Then I wrote a number of failed novels, which also had nothing to do with the areas of the country I grew up in. But I was so traumatized by the failure of these novels that I thought, well, I’ll try writing about the areas and the sorts of people that I actually know. And the first few stories in which I did that — one called “Xavier Speaking,” which appeared in the Antioch Review[1] and “Gershwin’s Second Prelude”[2] — take place in the Midwest. The first story that I wrote that really did have some feeling for the Midwest was “Harmony of the World,” whose locales are Ohio and Indiana.[3] I turned to that sort of writing because I had no gift for the other kind.

BELT: Do you remember the moment when you began to abandon your hostility to regional literature and you began to realize that writing about the region you are from might be fruitful?

BAXTER: Probably with “Harmony of the World.” In that story, I was trying to develop an idea of the size of one’s personal world and what happens when somebody whose horizon is relatively small moves into a world where the general, intellectual, emotional context is larger or cosmopolitan. The opening paragraph of that story encapsulates this whole problem. In some sense it describes what happened to me. When I was growing up, my intellectual compass was narrow. And the older I got, the more I could see the size of the world. I wanted to write about that experience. Now, that’s a very old theme. It’s Sinclair Lewis. Hell, it’s Flaubert and Stendhal. It’s a story of being wised up. And, of course, the war had this effect. The political unrest had been part of it. We were all affected. No matter where you lived in this country — and I think Garrison Keillor made a point of this in your recent interview[4] — you couldn’t think in exclusively local terms any more. You had to think of America as a global player, often a bully, sometimes with terrible consequences.

BELT: In “Harmony of the World,” you describe a much-lauded young man with musical talents in a small Ohio town who makes the transition into the broader world of music and discovers his talents are nothing special. Do you think a lot of small town Midwesterners are defeated by such realizations?

BAXTER: Yes. They give up too easily.

BELT: When did you come to know [New Yorker fiction editor] William Maxwell?

BAXTER: Much later. I had already published several books, and we had mutual friends who thought we should know each other and, in effect, I had letters of introduction to Bill. I first met him in the 1990s. Almost all of his best work was done by that time. I think his book of stories All the Days and Nights (1995) was yet to come out. So I knew him during the last decade of his life.

American author Charles BaxterBELT: How important was the Midwest to his work?

BAXTER: It was crucial to it. He would say, “I was always a Midwesterner, no matter where I lived.” I once asked him whether he considered himself a New Yorker. “Oh, no,” he said, “my imagination’s home is Illinois.” And I said to him, “Well, I’m worried about being taken as a provincial. I don’t want to be taken as a provincial.” And he said, “Oh, I do.” That was disingenuous, but in some sense he meant it.

BELT: What did he mean by that?

BAXTER: He meant that he wanted his readers to know that his emotional investments were in particular localities and the people who had lived in them. Most of his emotional investments were in people and places from his boyhood in Illinois. Some of his later stories such as Over by the River (1977) take place in his neighborhood on the Upper East Side and another story called “Thistles In Sweden,” is meant to replicate for his New York neighborhood what he did for Lincoln, Illinois.[5] But I think it’s the work that takes place in Illinois that he’s going to be remembered for, especially So Long, See You Tomorrow (1980), which is a memoir, a book of sociology, a confessional, and a great novel.

BELT: Do you consider your emotional homes Minnesota and Michigan?

BAXTER: Yes. These are the places that I think of when I close my eyes and start to daydream. Everything I see happens here or in Michigan.

BELT: In your essay about Maxwell you note that he was “incapable of hysteria” and the absence of “satire and cartooning” in his writing and his “steady refusal to be glib.”[6] Do you think these human qualities are in greater supply in the Midwest?

BAXTER: Generalizations are dangerous, but yes.

BELT: You’ve compared Maxwell to his fellow Midwesterner James Wright, who you also call a “sworn enemy of glibness” who recoiled from careless cocktail party witticisms, cynicism, and the creation of pointless spectacles.[7] This reminds me of the argument of David Foster Wallace, who was from Maxwell’s Illinois, that “irony is ruining our culture.”[8] Do you think literature should be more sober, less glib, and less ironic?

BAXTER: Literature should be anything it wants to be. [Wallace] was one of the great ironists of our time, but he suffered it. Irony is the new chastity. There’s plenty of it around. You don’t necessarily have to add to the supply.

BELT: Joyce Carol Oates once said of your writing about Midwesterners that the characters had a zombie-like quality. Is that the impression you wanted to leave with readers?

BAXTER: No. She wrote a book called Zombie. I didn’t. I don’t even know what she means by that. She also accused Anne Tyler’s fiction of zombie-ism. It seems condescending to me, patronizing, snobbish, snide. My characters, I think, are often passionate, often angry, they have a lot to say. I think they’re funny, many of them. They are not always psychopathological or violent or angry all of the time. If that means that they’re zombies, too bad.

BELT: Do you think we need a revival of interest in and writing about the American Midwest?

[blocktext align=”right”]I think regionalism as we knew it is probably gone forever[/blocktext] BAXTER: What I think we need is a revival in interest in environments. If there’s going to be a revival in interest in regions and localities, it’s going to be because of environments and questions of sustainability. I think younger generations, if they are interested in North Dakota, for example, are concerned about it partly because of what’s going on in Williston, the Bakken Oil Fields. What a mess that is. Among younger people two changes of consciousness have occurred, among others; one is the dissolving of the old idea of regionalism because of the internet, screen culture, mass media. Mass media constitute an acid that dissolves what was once distinctive about isolated places into a kind of quasi-global village. You can’t imagine Sherwood Anderson’s stories happening in the same way that they once did because of the isolation in a place like Winesburg. The context has become much larger thanks to the internet. I think regionalism as we knew it is probably gone forever, although there are those that say that if you grow up in a small town right now things haven’t changed that much, particularly if you feel like an outsider, if you are gay, if you are a lesbian. Homophobia lives on, that’s for sure. If there’s something distinctive about you that the town will not tolerate, you still have to leave.

But I do think that the way regionalism is going to find itself returning has to do with landscapes, with real estate, and with what sorts of elements in a locality are being used or misused.

BELT: Is it true that your new book of short stories will be about Minneapolis?

BAXTER: It will be about events that occur in Minneapolis. But I did try to get the ruins near the Mississippi River into the stories. I tried to get into the stories that feeling of the ghost city, the “ghost” of manufacturing down by the Mississippi River, and the way that that area has been taken over for expensive condominiums, where nothing is manufactured except ennui. Minneapolis is like many other American cities — commodities were once manufactured here, and now what is manufactured mostly is imagery — advertising. Money is moved around in retail and law, but there’s a ghost of the old city. I tried to get that ghost of the city into the stories as well as I could.

[1] Antioch Review vol. 36, no. 1 (Winter 1978), 21-36.
[2] New England Review vol. 15, no. 1 (Winter 1993), 9-19.
[3] Michigan Quarterly Review vol. 20, no. 2 (Spring 1981), 22-44.
[4] Jon K. BELT, “Garrison Keillor: An Interview,” Salmagundi no. 184 (Fall 2014), 46-67.
[5] Maxwell, “Thistles in Sweden,” New Yorker, June 21, 1976.
[6] Charles Baxter, Michael Collier, and Edward Hirsch (eds), A William Maxwell Portrait: Memories and Appreciations (New York, W.W. Norton, 2004), 87, 93, 102.
[7] Baxter et al, A William Maxwell Portrait, 105.
[8] See Matt Ashby and Brendan Carroll, “David Foster Wallace Was Right: Irony Is Ruining Our Culture,” Salon, April 13, 2014.

For the full version of this interview please see:

Jon K. Lauck received his Ph.D. in economic history from the University of Iowa and his law degree from the University of Minnesota. Lauck is the author of American Agriculture and the Problem of Monopoly: The Political Economy of Grain Belt Farming, 1953-1980 (University of Nebraska Press, 2000), Daschle v. Thune: Anatomy of a High Plains Senate Race (University of Oklahoma Press, 2007), and Prairie Republic: The Political Culture of Dakota Territory, 1879-1889 (University of Oklahoma Press, 2010) and co-author and co-editor of The Plains Political Tradition: Essays on South Dakota Political Culture (South Dakota State Historical Society Press, 2011) and The Plains Political Tradition vol. 2 (South Dakota State Historical Society Press, 2014). Lauck’s newest book is The Lost Region: Toward a Revival of Midwestern History (University of Iowa Press, 2013). Lauck has worked for several years as a full-time professor, a part-time professor, and a lawyer and is currently serving as an adjunct professor of history at the University of South Dakota, as the Associate Editor and Book Review Editor of Middle West Review, and as president of the Midwestern History Association.

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