Flavorwire posted a list of ten of the best books set in the Midwest, and since I’m currently reading Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (#1 their list) and residing in our nation’s heartland (right around where much of Freedom is set), I figured I could help those of you who are unfamiliar with this vast terrain. Here are five things that make the Midwest such fertile ground when it comes to novels.
1. The illusion of safety
Sure, there’s probably less crime (there are, after all, fewer people), but the Midwest is also full of folks less likely to report certain behaviors as criminal. If you have a character who needs to get away with some things, there are a whole bunch of Midwesterners more than happy to look away and tend to their own business, or the neighbors are so far away they’d hardly notice anything awry. This doesn’t mean privacy, exactly; it just means there is more space for those wanting to be left alone. Midwesterners gossip, but we usually don't ask questions.
2. Everybody knows your name
Everyone is in everybody’s shit all the time 'cause they all know each other and there isn’t much more excitement than other people’s shit. If you don’t share with everybody, everybody will talk shit about you. They’re all paying attention. Newcomers and committed outsiders are easy protagonists because it is easy here to rub against the grain.
3. Nature will scare the shit out of you
In the Midwest, nature isn’t just something pretty to describe; it's a force that no one can control and that affects everyone’s day-to-day life. Just askAnder Monson. Nature can be a legitimized mood swing or full-on devastation of life and home. Looking for a villain but don’t want to look too hard? Set your novel in the Midwest and look up. Or down. Take cover and build your ass a canoe.
4. Desire for days
A person cannot help but want something bigger, brighter, and more fantastic if they happen to be confined to the Midwest. Desire will not likely be satisfied here. There will be compromise. The Thai food will not fulfill even your lowered expectations (though if you try really hard you can get great Indian in Ohio and the Cambodian in St. Paul is phenomenal). There is always something better, on either coast, in any big city. All characters must want something, and if your characters reside in the Midwest, they inherently want more. And most of them want out.
5. Space and time (way too much of them)
This is how John Jeremiah Sullivan describes his home state: "when I say "Indiana"…blue screen, no?" There is little to blame frustrations on other than yourself, and yet there is also little to be distracted by, so you’re constantly aware of your own failure/discontent/alcoholism. What’s wrong is your soul: your natural, uncomplicated, and unfettered soul. In a true Midwestern novel, it’s not society that’s fucked; it’s people. I like to think of this as clarity, and it’s great for fiction that strips off the superficial nonsense and cuts right to the bone.