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Malinda McCollum: How I Write

"It’s also a mysterious and sometimes maddening place to me, especially in recent years, with the state’s political shift toward bombast and bigotry."

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Malinda McCollumShort story writer Malinda McCollum’s work has been recognized with a Pushcart Prize, the Plimpton Prize, and the prestigious Stegner Fellowship. Her first book, The Surprising Place, winner of the Juniper Prize for Fiction, is a collection of linked stories set primarily in Des Moines, Iowa. Deeply affecting, her stories about Midwesterners and their struggles are engrossing and full of humanity.

Though the stories in The Surprising Place take place pre-2000, before technology became a ubiquitous part everyday life, her current writing project involves present-day stories that roam up and down the East Coast.

Why short stories?

In Tobias Wolff’s Paris Review interview, he says he values short stories for their “exactitude, clarity, and velocity.” I think the qualities of “exactitude” and “clarity” draw many writers to the genre – short stories allow for a precision that may be tougher to achieve in novels. But for me, it’s the term “velocity” that truly captures the short story’s appeal. A great short story is urgent, insistent, and propulsive. It’s like a whirlwind or a whoosh!

On teaching writing

When I was younger, I thought writing ability was innate – you either have it or you don’t. Luckily, my foolishness was tempered by studying with brilliant teachers like James Alan McPherson. Jim had a way of enlarging the stories that were up for discussion. He’d take a draft others might dismiss as shallow or stupid and – without relying on empty flattery or intellectual sleight-of-hand – locate something distinctive and essential about the piece. Jim operated on the assumption that everyone has valuable stories to tell and that workshops can help writers discover and evolve those singular stories. To this day, I try to follow Jim’s example in the classes I teach.

Midwestern settings

I was born in Des Moines, Iowa, and lived there until I was 17 and went to college in California. Since then, I’ve resided all over the country, but I still go back to Iowa every summer. It’s a deeply familiar place to me. It’s also a mysterious and sometimes maddening place to me, especially in recent years, with the state’s political shift toward bombast and bigotry. In my stories, I wanted to go beyond the archetypal image of Midwesterners as clear-eyed and level-headed – or as provincial and repressed – and explore characters with more complexity.


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The physical landscape of the Midwest fascinates me too, as does the region’s collection of natural disasters: floods, tornadoes, and the 17-year cicadas that pop up throughout my book. I remember the cicadas emerging one summer when I was a kid, and being amazed and horrified by their non-stop singing and by their crispy corpses on the sidewalks and in the trees. Those cicadas transformed an ordinary landscape into something unsettling and surreal, and I aimed to do something similar with the stories in The Surprising Place.

Creating a linked story collection

I didn’t plan to write a collection of linked stories set in Des Moines. Instead, it was a gradual process, as I found myself revisiting earlier settings and characters, sometimes years later. I also started to notice certain images resurfacing in multiple stories, which got me thinking about how different characters’ paths might intersect. My hope is this indirect approach to structuring the book has kept the collection from feeling overdetermined or contrived.

Allison Futterman is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, North Carolina.



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