Where I’m From: A Normal Conversation with Andrew Malan Milward
By John Proctor
While the stories in I Was a Revolutionary (Harper Collins, 2015) span the Civil War years to the present day, they all unfold in Milward’s home state of Kansas, whose flat and conservative profile in the popular imagination is belied by an astonishing history of idealism, abolitionism, radical populism, and violence. In the eight stories that make up the collection Milward deftly conveys the state’s rich and troubled history. The stories overflow with the author’s enthusiasm and wonder for Kansas and with the unforgettable characters—visionaries and dreamers; radical farmers and socialist journalists; quack doctors and abortion clinic protestors; Confederate raiders and freed black slaves—who populate the state’s complicated present and past.
John Proctor: One thing I found impressive and moving in almost all of the stories in I Was a Revolutionary is the fluidity with which you move through time within the space of the Kansas landscape. As a native Kansan and writer myself I found most of the many historical scenes and occurrences familiar, but I found your renderings (to paraphrase Shklovsky) defamiliarized, strange and new, perhaps because you find so many flashpoints between local history and modern, fictional-but-accurate people and situations. Whether you’re juxtaposing the Kansas People’s Party of the early Twentieth Century with the Tea Party of our century or simply calling attention to the fact that the KU mascot, the Jayhawk, evolved from a nickname for violent abolitionists, I don’t remember a connection or transition feeling forced while I was reading this collection. I’d love to hear about some of the processes that led to these fiction/nonfiction hybrid stories.
Andrew Malan Milward: Well, that’s really wonderful to hear because the question of how to handle the interplay of history and the present, fiction and nonfiction, was a big challenge and concern as I wrote the book. It took me nine years to complete, so I guess the bright side is that I had a hell of a lot of time to think about this issue. What I came to realize is that my fictional characters and their predicaments couldn’t just be excuses to introduce the reader to a whole bunch of history I happen to find fascinating, under-known, and relevant to the present. In certain failed early drafts of stories I did just that. For example, in the early versions of “A Defense of History,” the Assistant’s storyline was slight and underdeveloped because I was basically just using him to try and tell the story of the Populists. I really had to start over from scratch, to re-vision the piece, to try to find a way to make his story matter as much as the Populists’. And I had to do this throughout the book. I had try to make my characters’ situations as interesting, dramatic, and relevant as the history I was attempting to limn. I tried different strategies to accomplish that goal. Sometimes it was an attempt to mimetically re-create the history, placing my fictional characters right into the drama of the time, and sometimes the history is mediated by a character in more contemporary times.
JP: It’s interesting you mention “A Defense of History” – I thought that story in particular must have been a challenge to write, as the central plot revolves around the act of research, not the most action-packed narrative (as opposed to, say, a good knife-fight, which you give us in another story, “Good Men a Long Time Gone”). And yet, the twist you give at the end of the story subtly challenges the whole act of historical research.
Thinking of the collection as a whole, I found the way the stories play off each other quite rewarding. I was actually trying to imagine reading “I Was a Revolutionary,” the last story in the collection, without having read the previous stories, and wondering how I would have taken it without having all the history and fiction that you bring back in the narrator’s course on Kansas history; you bring so many of the threads of other stories – personal, historical, political – to a close with that story. Maybe you could talk a bit more about how the stories coalesced in these past nine years for you. Which came first? Did any of them lead into conceptualizing the others for you? And of course, Why Kansas? (I ask this last question as a writer for whom our shared home state looms large in my own imagination.)
AMM: With I Was a Revolutionary I wanted to do something that might seem a little contradictory: I wanted to write a short story collection that felt epic. I wanted the stories to be discrete but also to talk to one another in way that told a larger story without having characters overlap. I wanted the stories to have potentially different meanings when they were read alone versus when they were read in aggregate. This is especially true in the title story. As the final story in the collection, “I Was a Revolutionary” works on two levels: it’s not only the story of Paul and his radical past, it’s also in a way the story of all the stories in the collection. It is the one that talks about everything that has come before, which I why I think reading the stories in the order they have been arranged, though it’s certainly not required, has the potential to enhance the reading experience. The book was very carefully structured.
“The Burning of Lawrence” was the first story I wrote, and I did so without any sense that it would be part of an entire book that moved through 150 years of Kansas history. I grew up in Lawrence and the story of Quantrill’s Raid was something I’d always wanted to find a way to capture in fiction. I found the process of doing so really interesting and that’s when I had the idea to expand beyond my hometown and explore the entire state. I actually didn’t know much about Kansas’s history and when I started researching I was bowled over by all the wonderful, weird, and fascinating things that I was learning. There was so much there in fact that one of the real challenges of the book was deciding what events/people would make it in and what would have to be left on the cutting room floor. For example, it saddens me that I wasn’t able to really give Carrie Nation her own story. Alas. In any case, after “The Burning of Lawrence” the next story I wrote was a first draft of “I Was a Revolutionary.” I knew very early on in this long journey that these two stories set in Lawrence would open and close the book, then it became a task of writing everything between. I more or less wrote them chronologically (moving from oldest to most contemporary), though that’s not the way the collection ended up being structured.
Why Kansas? I guess the easy answer is that it’s my home. In some sense it’s taken leaving Kansas to have perspective on it and to really get to know it. My first book was also a collection of short stories set in Kansas; however, most of the stories in The Agriculture Hall of Fame were contemporary, dealing largely with issues of meth, corporate farming, and religious fundamentalism. With this book, I felt the desire to go back into the history and see how it accounts for (or doesn’t) and informs the present. As Paul says to his class in the title story: “The history of one’s home matters. We should understand where we come from, the legacies we inherit.” My god, I just quoted myself. That’s appalling.
JP: When I read some of the promotional material for your book, I was a bit surprised to see it referred to as a fictional counterpart to Thomas Frank’s seminal What’s the Matter with Kansas? During and after reading it, though, I kept asking myself the question, What are these stories doing to me as a reader that a nonfiction polemic can’t? By this I mean to ask, In what ways is a fiction writer perhaps better equipped to address socio-historical issues in ways that are less likely to lose the reader’s faith and/or attention?
AMM: Yes, I understand why the publisher made that description/comparison in the promotional materials, but I have to admit that it makes me a little uneasy. I say this as someone who read and admired Thomas Frank’s book and find him to be an intelligent, entertaining, and valuable political commentator. I think part of my reluctance with the comparison is that What’s the Matter with Kansas? was written at such a specific moment for such a specific purpose: Marshaling progressive resistance to W’s reelection campaign in 2004. Which I think was an honorable effort. But his book is, as you say, a polemic, whereas fiction writers mostly go out of their way not to be polemical in their writing because they don’t want readers to feel like they’re being beaten over the head and preached to. When fiction becomes didactic, it shrinks the complexity of the events and characters inhabiting the story, it diminishes the beautiful mystery in human nature and too easily answers the question of why we do the strange, wonderful, and horrific things we do. Characters come to feel like props used to illustrate a point, whether it’s Ayn Rand’s novels or Soviet Social Realism agitprop. In agitprop, as in most polemics, all the arrows point in one direction. In good fiction I think the arrows often point in several directions. Fiction that achieves this is not avoiding taking a stand; it is acknowledging the vast knottiness of human affairs and in doing so increases our understanding of ourselves as individuals and a people. I should add, however, that polemical is not the same thing as political. I don’t object to being known as a political writer. Like most people I have my own strong beliefs and one thing I wanted to do in I Was a Revolutionary was to not be afraid to write overtly about politics. The key was to give political people and events the dignity of human complexity, to avoid easy answers, to let the arrows point in different directions.
Andrew Malan Milward is the author of the story collections The Agriculture Hall of Fame (University of Massachusetts Press, 2012) and I Was a Revolutionary (HarperCollins 2015). He lives in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where he teaches at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers and is editor-in-chief of Mississippi Review.
John Proctor lives in Brooklyn, New York. His work has been published recently in Atlas & Alice, The Weeklings, Essay Daily, and The Normal School, and is forthcoming in an international anthology of microfiction. He serves as Online Editor for Hunger Mountain Journal of the Arts and Dad for All Seasons columnist for the blog A Child Grows in Brooklyn, and teaches academic writing, media studies, and communication theory at Manhattanville College. You can find him online at NotThatJohnProctor.com/.