An Interview with Andrew Malan Milward, by Liz Mathews
March 2, 2016
In considering Midwestern states, there are lots of things that the general population doesn’t know—that even the residents of those particular states don’t know. Consider Kansas. Were you aware that the largest-circulating Socialist newspaper, Appeal to Reason, was published in Kansas City? Or that women were granted the right to vote in Kansas eight years before the federal government made it an amendment? Or that male impotence can be cured by the implantation of a goat testicle? Actually, that one is not true, but a man named John R. Brinkley was pretty good at selling the claim, and he had several unsuccessful bids for governor of Kansas.
All of those things I learned about Kansas upon reading Andrew Malan Milward’s story collection, I Was a Revolutionary (HarperCollins). And after reading, I had the chance to ask Milward about what drew him to Kansas (aside from being born there), and what it was like to take curious historical fact and create illuminating historical fiction. He also touched on important things like writing stories versus writing novels, writing processes in general, and what writing journeys he’s bound for next. Please, meet Andrew Malan Milward.
In deciding to write about your home state, was there a particular story (whether included in the collection or not) that you found most fascinating or outrageous? Was there anything you opted not to include, but still consider working on?
Well, it’s interesting. Yes, I was writing about my home state, but so much of what’s in the book are things I had never heard of until I started doing research nine years ago, which was shocking and exciting. In terms of most interesting, it’s hard to top the story of John Brinkley, the Goat Gland Doctor. It is so fascinating and weird. I thought it had to be made up. And there were stories that deserved to be in the book but were left on the cutting room floor (or never even made it to the cutting room floor). Perhaps most notably would be Carrie Nation, the radical temperance activist, who was infamous for smashing up bars with a hatchet. I could never quite find a way to tell her story, which is a shame because it’s important. Also too, I would have liked to give a better, fuller accounting of the white war of aggression to remove native peoples in the state from their land.
The voices in I Was a Revolutionary come from many different perspectives. Did you find it more or less challenging to write any certain character—an Exoduster, a divorced college professor, a woman reflecting on lost love via the events of Quantrill’s raid? Was one a favorite for you?
One of my goals for the book was to write about a wide range of vastly different characters and that meant writing from the perspectives of people who’ve had vastly different experiences than me, whether due to material conditions and temporal distance or factors such as race, gender, sexuality, or class. And yes, this was incredibly challenging and at times made me very uncomfortable. And I think it should. It shouldn’t be easy for a thirty-six year old white, heterosexual, privileged male like myself to write from the perspective of an Exoduster in 1879, or a gay man in 2003, or an African American woman in 1962, or a Native American man in 1863, or a Salvadoran refugee in 1993.
However, I don’t think that means a writer should not be allowed to write from perspectives of people unlike him- or herself. After all, that’s what fiction is about, and it’s one of the civilizing effects of literature that it challenges us to make empathic leaps as writers and readers. So to answer your question more directly, I found it all very challenging (and illuminating), but particularly the stories that were more historical, simply because it was harder to imagine my way into the experiential aspects of being a human being, whatever your race or gender, at a time so distant from my own.
What called you to writing collections of stories, rather than, say, a novel? From a previous interview I note you are working on a novel about one of the characters in “The Americanist.” At the time of the story writing did you know you had a novel on your hands?
Given the lucrative short story market, I obviously did it for the money—har har har. No, there were a few reasons why I wanted this to be a story collection instead of a novel. It’s not that the thought didn’t cross my mind to make this a kind of Forrest Gumpian “one family’s bumbling journey through 150 years of notable events in Kansas history,” as awful as that sounds. I suppose it’s because I wanted I Was a Revolutionary to work on two levels. I love short stories and I think they can achieve an effect novels can’t because of their intensity, compression, and brevity. So I wanted these stories to be able to stand alone discretely and have their own individual meanings and experiences for the reader. But I also wanted someone who reads the entire book to see the way the stories have common thematic interests and subject matter, and thus experience how the stories talk to one another in a way that hopefully gives the book a novel-like unity and sweep. Basically I was trying to have my cake and eat it too, I suppose. It sounds pretentious and grand, but I wanted to write a story collection that felt epic in the way only a novel can.
And with respect to the second part of your question, I am working on a novel about the Goat Gland Doctor, who does appear in the story “The Americanist.” At the time of starting it I didn’t know I had a novel on my hands. I thought I was going to write a nice 25-page story about him, but it kept getting longer and longer and spiraling out in a Ragtime kind of way to include all these other people like Eugene Debs, Fatty Arbuckle, and many others, and by the time it grew to 150 pages it was just too big and unwieldy to cram into a story collection that already had a few long stories in it. So I took it out, which pained me because given the book’s overt interests in politics and radical Kansas history it felt like a crime not to include the Goat Gland Doctor, who was kind of like an ur-President Trump, if Donald Trump had made his money injecting goat glands into men to improve virility instead of real estate investment and speculation. At the same time I was also feeling anxious that I hadn’t found a way to capture the rise of the militant anti-abortion movement in Wichita and the assassination of George Tiller, so I tried to find characters and create a narrative that could touch on both of those things. It seems like a strange pairing on the surface, but I’m pleased with the way it turned out. That was the last story I wrote for the book and it started as a desperate last-ditch attempt to find any way to get the Goat Gland Doctor into the collection.
Given the amount you learned about Kansas while working on your most recent collection of writing, are there any other places or times in history that you’d like to explore? And for your next work, do you have a sense of what you might want the uniting theme to be?
Yes, definitely. I hope that soon I’ll have Kansas out of my system so I can finally write about somewhere else, like the state I now call home, Mississippi. Much has been written about the ugly parts of its history, and rightfully so, but I’m kind of excited to write about its present, which is much more complex and, in some cases, inspiring than I suspect most of the country would think, given we’re generally seen as the reliable butt-end of most national jokes.
When you sit down to write, how do you get started? Some writers have a scene or opening sentence and they write to see where they end up, while others might have an ending that drives them backward to a beginning. Or some do both. What’s your process? And were you surprised that what turned out was I Was a Revolutionary?
I like to have some sense of what I think is going to happen—in an incredibly rough plot outline kind of way—when I sit down to work on something. Doing a bit of that work up front, instead of free writing and seeing what happens, is just a hell of a lot more efficient than trying to do it on the back end. It also alleviates some of the what-the-hell-do-I-do-now anxiety that descends upon me each morning when I’m staring at a blank Word document and the cursor’s blinking, silently judging me. So, for example, knowing that by the end of this scene I’ll need to have this character get out of bed, go to work, and speak to her coworker is like having handrails I can latch onto and find my way into a story. It also frees me up to concentrate on the stuff that’s more exciting to me but harder to plan for ahead of time, like style, language, voice, and tone, which in my experience tend to come about most effectively in the act of creation (try telling yourself ahead of time: “In the first paragraph of page five I will need to write a kick-ass metaphor” and see what happens). But I do this rough plot outlining with the understanding that I am not beholden to it at all and that the story will inevitably change in ways I can’t foresee as it works to communicate its meaning to me. That’s part of the fun after all, the thrill that comes when characters do something unexpected, and I need to be willing to follow them and see what happens.
Author photo by Kristin Teston
Liz Mathews is a former publishing veteran recovering from her years in New York by living in Minnesota.