A Conversation with RS Deeren – Chicago Review of Books

I vividly remember a moment when someone in one of my writing workshops described my writing as “blue collar” because I was writing about my father’s work as a Chicago firefighter. Until then, I had always viewed my upbringing as comfortably middle class. My parents worked incredibly hard and sacrificed often in order to help me through school, even though they themselves never went to a four year college. So it was strange to me to see how perception of class can shift so drastically depending on where someone comes from, and who is perceiving them. 

Similarly, contemporary perceptions of rural America and working class people are quite fraught. Media and literature too frequently portray rural communities as devoid of hope, decency, and opportunity, which misrepresents the more complex story of disinvestment and exploitation perpetrated by the American capitalist machine. The best writers of working class literature understand that there is no monolith in the lives of people struggling to get by, and the stories they tell don’t seek easy answers.

Enter RS Deeren, whose debut short story collection Enough to Lose masterfully traces the generations-long struggle to survive and thrive in the Thumb of Michigan. Deeren’s writing is as accomplished as it is generous, crafting an entire interconnected community filled with hardworking and complicated characters across nine stories. Should we as readers get lost among the ever-present threat of missed bills, backbreaking work, personal reckonings, and town squabbles, he is careful to guide us back to a larger narrative about the systemic issues that govern the characters’ lives. Enough to Lose is filled with stories that build to a deeply human existence, and it is a prime example of the possibilities in rural literature that we should hope and expect to see moving forward. 

I spoke with RS Deeren about the craft of building an interconnected short story collection, exploring the history of rural Michigan in his work, and what he hopes to see in the future of working class literature.

Michael Welch

I’m always interested in how challenging it can be to create a short story collection, especially because the writer has to perfect the world of each individual story while also building to something greater when viewed as a whole. Can you talk a bit about how these stories evolved on the road to publishing Enough to Lose?

RS Deeren

When I started, I intended on having at least a couple stories speak directly to each other, like with the same characters, only older. All I had then was a love for the rural spot where I’m from and an interest in the personal stories I had from jobs I’ve held, the people I knew, and the ways in which rural working people saw the world. Most of the odd jobs these characters have are jobs I’d done before. Some of those jobs I truly enjoyed, beyond the paycheck, because they put me in this space and around my people. The earliest stories were mostly just dispatches from this isolated place, focused on characters doing this or that. Which doesn’t sound very interesting and is why only one story from that draft remains, “Bridge Work.”

Moving to Chicago for my MFA was a great opportunity to see my world from a distance. I benefited from hearing the opinions of people from the city and learned that there are many misconceptions about rural life and people, especially those living close to the poverty line. I’d read great works about Detroit or Michigan’s west side, but not about the Thumb. So I started writing. 

A critique I got throughout grad school was, “if life is so hard in this place, why don’t the characters just leave?” That has stuck with me. It’s not a real world solution, as we know, and it’s a comment rooted in classism. People can’t simply cut ties to the only life, people, and support systems they’ve ever known, even if that support is minimal. But this tug-of-war between who leaves this place, who stays, who gets left behind, and the repercussions of these choices came out in later drafts of the book. I was able to write with more attention to how the characters in individual stories navigate this space. Some who stay find happiness and success, some try to get out and fail. Once I had some stories that had this tension, I focused on showing how this seemingly quiet place can be unforgiving: environmental disaster, drug and alcohol addiction brought on by economic crises, social and political polarization. 

Michael Welch

Many of these stories are set in or near Caro, a city located in the Thumb of Michigan. Can you describe the city a bit and its importance to this collection and your writing overall?

RS Deeren

The Thumb is a unique place. I’ve said before that it’s a peninsula on a peninsula, so people who go there do so with intention, or not at all. The closest interstates are I75 and I69, but from Caro, those arteries are almost an hour away (if you drive the speed limit). Between these interstates and the Lake Huron/Saginaw Bay coasts, there’s a lot of sugar beet fields and forested state land. Hundreds of thousands of acres where people live their lives for better or worse. 

Most are everyday people who pack their lunch in the morning and go to work each day. But there is also a sordid history the Thumb has to reckon with. Michigan as a whole has one of the largest white supremecist militia movements in the country, and Terry Nichols and Timothy McVeigh, the two who carried out the Oklahoma City Bombing, finalized their plans twenty miles from where I grew up. What I’m getting at is the isolation the Thumb provides creates two very different worlds in one small space: those who love the quietude which people usually think of when they picture rural places; and those who wish to cause others harm and know they won’t have many eyes on them. I always think about this when I write about the area.

As for Caro: it’s not a big place, only 4000 people. It’s the seat of Tuscola County, so there is a large law enforcement presence. Kids go to school with the same kids K-12. When I was living there, I think there was something close to two dozen churches. From the outside, it’s like any small town. It’s also one of the larger communities in the region, so it does draw people from the smaller unincorporated areas and villages.

Caro in the book became where the multiple sides of the Thumb meet, and this meeting place is where I found conflict. 

Michael Welch

Related to the setting, one of the things I really enjoyed were the subtle interconnections between the characters across the differing stories in ways that seemed to really reflect small town life, as a number of your characters have a basic understanding of one another even if they aren’t always interacting with one another. What was your approach to building a world on the page that accurately depicts the community and the people living in it? 

RS Deeren

The old chestnut is that everybody knows everybody in a small town, but it’s more like “everybody knows somebody who knows something about someone.” Caro may be small, but it’s big enough that people can have this pseudo-anonymity. There’s never a full story and I was interested in depicting that. Some characters get this legendary status, like Al from “The Mirror,” while others get a bad reputation that kinda warps them over the years, like Dick from “The Run” and “Too Close, Too Loud.” The reader then becomes this owner of knowledge, like they know all the town gossip!

Rereading a middle draft of the book was a lot of fun because I would read a story and there would be a background character and it hit me that instead of that character being nobody, they were actually the protagonist from a previous story. This allowed me to see how the decades depicted in the book change the characters.

Michael Welch

In many ways the book is structured by a series of events that haunt these characters and their home—the Great Thumb Fire of 1881, the historic flooding in 1986, and the Great Recession and its aftermath. Can you talk about the decision to use these traumatic moments in history as the frame for the stories you told?

RS Deeren

I wanted to highlight how people in the Thumb navigated these traumas: some band together, others hold onto that idea of American Individualism. Rural places get forgotten all over the United States and that is true across race and class. Sometimes this gets waved away as a self-fulfilling prophecy: rural people like their solitude, so they get left alone.This is an oversimplification, and I’ve already talked about the pros and cons of this isolation, especially when it comes to economically-depressed rural white communities. I can’t help but think of Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones and how, in that novel, rural Black communities in the lead up to and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina were left to fend for themselves. This leads to a strengthening of bonds in marginalized communities forgotten by dominant ones, whether that’s rural/urban, Black/white, rich/poor, or any intersection of those identities. 

The flooding in 1986 is more of a personal story. The Thumb was hit hard by generational flooding and that happened to be the first year my parents had moved to the area from the Downriver, Detroit area. They turned out alright, but I was taken with the idea of what would have happened had they not? A common thing rural people hear is that they lead “the simple life.” The couple in “The Mirror,” who are Detroit expats, want that mythical “simple life,” and they learn rural life isn’t that.

The other traumas are rooted in capitalism—go figure. The Great Thumb Fire was the second great fire to hit the region—the first coming during the same dry summer as the Great Chicago Fire. This was a result of greed: lumber barons wiped the pine forests from Mid-Michigan and left a highly-flammable land in their wake; twice in a decade. The Great Recession never ended in rural spaces and it only made issues already there worse: opioid addiction; rising number of suicides; lack of faith in all levels of government; un/underemployment. I wanted to depict the lives of people living in this aftermath. For many, they just got used to living a life that wasn’t what was promised them.

Michael Welch

There’s so much writing out there that oversimplifies, demonizes, or just flat out misinterprets rural America. But you bring so much humanity to the characters you write while not shying away from the challenges the region faces (I’m thinking for example of the ways characters in the story “Too Close, Too Loud” repeat misinformation about wind turbines that they themselves have been fed). What is your approach to striking the right balance between generosity and critique?

See Also

RS Deeren

I’ve already talked about holding people accountable for what they get up to way out in the country. My less-than-savory characters needed to have some sense knocked into them as their story drafts evolved. On the other side, there are some characters, like Jamaica, who love their rural life, despite having had the opportunity for something else. I think it’s easy and also misguided to believe rural people are some kind of rough draft for city people. Like, a person doesn’t really “make it” unless they move to a city and succeed. 

Then there’s people who think everyone outside a metro area is somehow less cognitively developed. Someone once told me that rural people can just Google themselves into, I don’t know, some state of enlightenment about the rest of the world. I’m still salty about it because in many rural places, reliable internet is not a thing, either because of no infrastructure or the cost. During the pandemic, school districts in the Thumb turned buses into roaming wifi hubs for students to connect to class. I just saw an AT&T commercial where the company was patting themselves on the back for doing just that. 

That’s just the practical side of things. You said “misinformation,” and that’s exactly right. When an entire swath of the country’s most reliable form of information comes from local news—40% owned by right-wing Sinclair Broadcast Group—it’s unwise to say rural people have the same access to information as those in urban places. Rural people, particularly the poor and working class, are being fed fear and lies about the rest of the country. This says nothing about social media algorithms tunneling our vision. “Too Close, Too Loud” came from driving the backroads of the Thumb and seeing yard signs claiming wind turbines do any number of bullshit: they change the earth’s rotation; they heat the surface of the earth and catch farmland on fire; they’re government spy cameras. This misinformation fuels the culture wars, but people still need to pay rent and go to work (if they’re employed). I wanted to show a character who’d seen the Thumb break in two, who had her own beliefs and her own dreams, and see how she navigated the world we’re all living in now. That’s the character of Delaney; a name that might sound familiar from “The Mirror.”

Michael Welch

What do people usually get wrong about literature about the working class? 

RS Deeren

I think literary and, to an extent, academic circles have broadened the scope of working-class literature beyond white men writing about white men during the Great Depression. This is amazing to see, the voices and stories of working-class writers from queer, Black, Indigenous backgrounds, women, even writers from middle- and upper-class backgrounds with the class consciousness to write the working class thoughtfully and generously are getting a larger readership and even accolades. The working-class stories I come back to and celebrate and teach are the ones which highlight the complexities, beauty, struggles, and victories of financially precarious life. I have a feature coming out with The Chicago Review of Books that lists a handful of titles that do this.

That’s not an answer to your question, I guess. Class is culture, with its own norms, ways of being, and in how working-class peoples navigate power dynamics. Much like how a country kid isn’t a rough draft of their true self until they succeed in the city, the working class is not the minor leagues for the middle and upper classes. This code comes through in many middle- and upper-class works and those with working-class backgrounds know this code and are distrustful of it. Works which use the working-class as a literary device, a foil to their own middle- or upper-class senseabilities, are a detriment to class solidarity because they package a reductive image of the working class into a diorama for readers to gawk at. There’s an important, but fine, line here because reading a novel, a story, an essay or whatever, is an invitation from the author to the reader. There is a contract of voyeurism in storytelling and a true working-class piece has the voices of the working class speak on their own terms.

Michael Welch

What do you wish to see in the future of the genre of working-class literature? 

RS Deeren

I would love to read a graphic novel about rural working-class life. Send it my way if you know of any. Broadly speaking, I’d love to see a generation of working-class writing that doesn’t have to justify itself against middle- and upper-class norms. The type of literature that eats its fried bologna and cheese sandwich and leaves the lobster to rot in the fridge.

Enough to Lose
By RS Deeren
Wayne State University Press
Published September 5, 2023

Source link