Q&A with Kate McIntyre - Author of "Mad Prairie"

October 5th, 2021

In one of the latest additions to the University of Georgia Press’s Flannery O’Connor Award Series, essayist and fiction writer Kate McIntyre renders unsettling, complicated, and borderline fantastical the lives of seemingly ordinary people in a seemingly ordinary place. The prairie is simultaneously a place like no other and one where many Americans could see themselves represented. 

In the correspondence below, Mad Prairie’s author shares some of her cinematic influences, her intentions, the peculiarities of Midwestern diction, and the ways in which the last five years, shaped by a violently divisive presidency and a pandemic, have marked her writing and this particular book.

Q: What moves/drives most of the characters in your stories? 

The characters are largely motivated by chips on their shoulders. They desire to prove their fitness—for a job, for a role in a family, for living. For the governor in “Prairie Vision,” this need comes from a mixture of lower middle class shame and confusion about identity. His worthiness can only be earned by the approval of people from whom he’s always felt alienated—a lonely existence. Miriam, the main character across three stories, has been warped by grief. She wants to reengage with the world, but the world seems to have hardened and weirdened in the meantime. She wants community; she wants to help, but she can’t seem to get a handle on the rules of her new town.

Q: Being trapped or landlocked (whether by geography, greed, madness, or disease) seems to be a central theme in the book. People can't escape each other even when they think they have, which is perfectly reflected in the structure of the book. Could you talk a bit about your process, connecting all those moving parts that are also constantly coming back to the center of it all? 

Connecting the parts was my very last step in the writing process! At first, the stories didn’t share geography, even. I was unsure when I began to link the stories whether the collection would work. I was thinking about Robert Altman’s film Short Cuts, which linked up multiple Raymond Carver short stories, so characters kept bumping into each other across narratives. The film never quite satisfied me—the coincidences felt too engineered, too clever. But then I also considered the linked story collection Revenge, by Yoko Ogawa, in which the connections seemed more organic—mystically ordained, even. The difference was in the stories themselves—Carver’s realistic world versus the strangeness of Ogawa. Like Ogawa, I’m not writing straight realism. Weird things happen in my stories, and that gives more room for coincidences that might, in a different sort of project, strain believability. 

Also, for me, at least, the way the characters keep popping up in each other’s stories is a long-running joke about just how few people live in the rural Midwest. That’s a small town for you. The dentist is the tee ball coach is the volunteer fire chief.

Q: Going a bit off of the previous question, in what ways does Kansas influence not just your content or setting, but the way you use language and cadence? 

I love this question! My husband Joe Aguilar, a brilliant writer as well as my first reader, is alternately amused and befuddled by my diction. A few phrases he’s questioned recently: “got shed of” (walked away from, washed one’s hands of) and “tidge” (a rare confluence of “tidbit” and “smidge” and much more pleasing than either). I wanted to hit a certain odd musicality I hear in the Midwest, and I have fondness for short, one-syllable words, so I can rack up the stresses across a sentence. I also made hay with characters’ names, pushing just short (I hope) of unbelievability: Harland, Mylan, Tuxton, Clay, Durftig Farms.

Q: Could you speak to the political climate under which you wrote Mad Prairie? What would you like the reader delving into these stories now take from them? 

These stories are a product of the Trump years, of course—the slow erosion of objective, knowable truth that makes you question your own sanity. I learned that this collection had won a publication prize in September 2020, just a couple months before the election. It’s hard even now to feel as though we’ve escaped. The misinformation mills built under Trump grind equally fine now when we need truth more than ever. The novella “Culvert Rising” was one of the last pieces I added to the collection, and, as such, it’s maybe the most heavily imbued with the slow-moving horror of that time—the environmental devastation in the form of pollution, fire, and natural disaster; the cruelty toward women, people of color, immigrants, and non-Christians; the jingoistic patriotism; the stubborn inclination by some to act against their own (and the world’s) best interest so they can withhold help from others. Places have the power to warp perspective until insanity looks like good sense. The collection gets at the claustrophobia of the last five years.

Q: Could you talk a bit more about how your writing has been influenced or affected by the events from the last five years? What do you find hardest to write about right now?

Scales have fallen from my eyes. I still believe people generally tend toward the good, in the absence of powerful forces that warp them. But wow are folks warped. We’ve learned the price of propaganda, of believing convenient falsehoods, of distrusting expertise and evidence. That price is death, sometimes for those who hold dear lies and wrong ideas, sometimes for their families, sometimes for unlucky strangers. 

Fiction writers concern ourselves with stakes—what characters stand to gain or lose over the course of a story. The stakes in the United States are much higher now than five years ago. If fiction’s project is basically mimetic, to capture faithfully the writer’s impression of reality on the page, fiction needs to change, too. Plots that might have seemed ridiculous in the recent past now strike me as sufficient. 

 That’s the birds-eye-view answer. The day-to-day answer is that I’ve badly missed interactions with strangers during the pandemic. Chatting, joking, eavesdropping, learning. When I flew back to Kansas to visit my mother this summer, I was amazed at how many people filled the airports, how many people exist in the world. 

Q: What are some of the biggest challenges of writing about one's hometown?  

If I were a visual artist, I’d be more of a Leonora Carrington than an Ansel Adams. I’m not attempting photorealism with these stories, but instead trying to get at the hidden feelings of settings, the sticky realm of the surreal, the unconscious. While real places show up, I use exaggeration to heighten effect—everyone and everything is amplified, canted crosswise. The book is infused with tropes of gothic literature made new for the twenty-first century, laying bare the mechanisms that enforce white supremacy and misogyny: confinement and escape, the sins of the fathers affecting future generations, and the strange and sinister home with its patriarch. This Kansas is an imaginary place that gets at the truth of one person’s lived experience through embroidery of the truth. I’m eager to see if the folks from my hometown recognize the place. I won’t be surprised if they do or do not.

Q: What was the most surprising aspect of putting this collection together? 

I couldn’t believe how much changing the order of the stories brought the book into focus. I had this idea that the first story should be “The Moat,” because it traces so many of the themes that show up across the collection. But that story is more about quiet, creeping horror—when I switched it later and put “Prairie Vision” (one of only two stories told in the first person) up front, the manic rush of the governor’s soliloquy awakened the whole collection

Q: Are you working on anything currently? 

Yes! I have two novels in progress. The first is a literary caper novel about the theft of rare houseplants, written in the spirit of the terse and suspenseful hard-boiled American crime fiction of the 1940s and 1950s. The other is a collaborative work of speculative fiction in which a climate emergency causes all the dogs in the world to suddenly get very smart and bloodthirsty.

Kate McIntyre’s fiction and essays have appeared in such journals as Denver Quarterly, the Cincinnati Review, Copper Nickel, and the Cimarron Review, and she is a recipient of residencies at Hambidge, Playa, and the Spring Creek Project. She has a notable essay in Best American Essays 2014 and Special Mentions in the 2016 and 2019 Pushcart Prize anthologies. An assistant professor of creative writing at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, she lives in Worcester, Massachusetts.

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