Northeast Ohio native Seth Borgen recently won the New American Fiction Prize for his short story collection, If I Die in Ohio. The stories are clever and nuanced, and the characters are honest and surprising.
Below is a conversation with Seth about writing, death and how to give ourselves up to chaos. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Noor Hindi: I loved the sense of strangeness in so many of the stories and characters in If I Die in Ohio.What influences the strangeness in the work?
Seth Borgen: Someone [said] to me once, ‘Imagine the characters on their deathbed. What are the five days they would think about on their deathbed?’ And if the events of the short story don’t make that cut, then it’s not a worthy short story.
NH: Tell me about the title of the book. I was a bit surprised that many of the stories don’t take place in Ohio.
SB: I’ve always felt like Ohio has a little bit of everything and an abundance of nothing. There’s so many places where it’s like, ‘Oh, you’re from this state? That must mean you’re like this.’ Ohio doesn’t have that. And its lack of defining feature is its defining feature. Because we have all four seasons, sort of. We have cities, sort of. We have agriculture, sort of.
I’ve been all over the place. I’ve lived in the Middle East. I’ve lived in the Mississippi Delta. I’ve traveled a bunch of places. And everywhere I’ve gone I kind of always felt like I was in Ohio. Because Ohio has so many little tiny things. No matter where you are you’re always like ‘Oh, that’s kind of like Ohio. That’s a small piece of Ohio.’ So it’s a great metaphor for anywhere.
NH: What are the moments that led to writing If I Die in Ohio? And how long have you been writing this book?
SB: I wrote big chunks of this when I was in graduate school in Mississippi. And big chunks of this were in the thesis that I defended. That was 2006-2009. But I also stripped a bunch of stories out of it. I added a couple. The last story is actually the first chapter of a novel I’m working on.
NH: What has writing the novel been like?
SB: Short stories are sprints and novels are marathons. The book I’ve been working on, it takes place in the 1920s and 1930s, which obviously I didn’t experience. It takes place in California, which I’ve never been to. It took a lot of research just to begin.
In short stories, absolutely every sentence has to be doing something. Absolutely every word has to be doing something. But in novels, you can have whole sentences, whole paragraphs that are phoning it in. Because you really can’t be swinging for the fences in every single line. It’d be exhausting to read. Also, it’s dishonest. Because sometimes, what you’re describing, it’s a pretty mundane thing and so using mundane language to describe is the right feel.
Writing a novel is years of being confused, and then you’ve got the first draft, and then you get to go back and make it look like you weren’t confused the whole time. I think the reason a lot of people give up on novels is because as they’re writing them and they’re confused they think they’re doing something wrong. They think, ‘I’m not supposed to be this confused, am I? I’m creating this. I should know what’s going on.’ Nope.
NH: What do you hope people get out of reading If I Die in Ohio?
SB: I feel like my knee-jerk response to that is, it’s not up to me. Short stories are trying to capture things that are so complex and so many things simultaneously and it’s packed. I’ve always felt that good writing, when you’re reading it, it somehow put into words something that has always been true about you, but you never had words for it before, and now you do. And I have no idea what those are going to be for anyone.
NH: What’s it like reading from the work at events now and looking at what you created so long ago? And what are your thoughts on revision?
SB: Actually, at the reading at Uncorked [Wine Bar], I wanted to stop a couple of times because I was like, ‘Well that’s just a freaking cliché. I should have done better in this line.’
[Many of these stories] have nothing to do with me anymore. I wrote [them] when I was 25. And I’m so far removed from that person. I don’t even know that person. [The old work is] a testament to something that this person who no longer exists, created. And that’s a really wonderful thing that gets to exist for them. Not for me. I’m not comparing myself to [F. Scott] Fitzgerald, but Fitzgerald hated The Great Gatsby.
Writing is like being stuck in a vast dark room, so dark you can’t see your hand in front of your face. You don’t know where the walls are. You don’t know where the ceiling is. And what you’re doing is following a rope. And that rope leads somewhere and it’s leading you across the room. The control is ‘all I know is I need to put my hand on the rope. And once I do that, all I know is I need to put my hand here.’ I have no freaking clue where it’s leading me. I’m literally walking in darkness. And human beings have evolved to be afraid of darkness because we used to be cavemen who would walk off into the dark and not come back.
But we have to walk into the darkness having no idea what’s going to be there. We have to exert so much control over everything we do. Every single word has to be for a specific reason. Every line has to be for a specific reason. But we’re always marching into a terrifying darkness. And in that way it’s complete madness. We have to be completely insane to do this. Especially now.
NH: Why ‘especially now?’
SB: No one cares. People care less than ever. But believing our work has value and believing we have something to say despite all evidence, it’s crazy. It’s absolutely crazy. We have to be crazy to do it.
NH: So what makes it worth it, for you?
SB: I was five or six years old when I was informed that I was a good writer. I was 18 when I took my first creative writing workshop. And I was like, ‘well, that’s it.’ I wasn’t very good then. I remember the first story I had workshopped, my first mentor, the first story I showed him, he took one of the pages and put a red square around the entire page, and wrote ‘No.’
That was the first time I realized I wasn’t good. But whether I was good or not, this is what I was going to do for the rest of my life. So what makes it worth it is when you decide to quit, because at some point you will decide to quit, you’ll realize there isn’t a choice. That’s the best advice any writer can give another writer who is thinking about quitting. Quit. See what happens. If you do successfully quit, it’s good you found that out. But what will probably happen is you realize you can’t quit. And what makes it worth it is realizing that you don’t have any other choice.
To order a copy of Seth’s book, visit sethborgen.com. Follow Seth on Twitter @ConsensualSeth.
Noor Hindi is The Devil Strip’s Senior Reporter. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.