Mark Pleiss is a writer in Denver. He publishes fiction, book reviews, scholarly criticism, and essays. He worked as a freelance journalist for The Omaha World-Herald and The Des Moines Register before completing a doctorate in Spanish Literature and teaching at St. Olaf College, the University of Colorado Boulder, and Metro State University Denver. He is from Omaha, Nebraska. For more, visit Mark’s Website at markpleiss.com.
The following is an interview with Mark Pleiss.
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.
What inspired you to write this book?
For a long time, I’ve wanted to do with the Midwest what Rudolfo Anaya does in “Bless Me, Última”: tell the story of a region of the United States through its oral traditions, legends, and folklore. Something inside me wanted to present this area, and maybe others like it, not as a place of cornfields, silos, and snowstorms but as a world of stories told, forgotten, and retold by generations of immigrants, priests, natives, bartenders, farmers, and everyone else in between. I sought to frame these characters within situations and stories that are unabashedly original, although many of the stories in this collection have already been told and retold for centuries to scare children, pass on cultural knowledge, and entertain friends over long winters and endless drives across the prairie.
I also wanted to tell a story about tornadoes, but not like “Twister” or other tornado thrillers. What I was most interested in exploring is the way the existence of tornadoes affects the people and culture of an area. Going into a tornado shelter is a strange Midwestern ritual, one that begins by doing the opposite of what you probably should do – go outside. Growing up in Omaha, we would move into our basement when a bad storm would be coming, but I used to go out to my aunt’s house in the country, and when a storm would approach, you would actually have to go outside to get in the shelter, which means that you must actually pass through the high winds, sudden flashes of lightning, and the terrifying clouds in order to be safe. The situation is also complicated by the fact that people in the Midwest love their stuff, and typically it’s all stashed away in the tornado shelter, which can pose a challenge during an emergency, along with other things like mildew, spiders, radio reception, and just passing the time.
On a more personal level, something inside me and something about me comes out in each of the narrative voices in the stories, and they also serve as vehicles for sharing ideas about literature, reading, writing, and the very act of telling stories. I wrote this manuscript because I wanted to understand something that had long been inside my head, and I ultimately hope it tells the story of a place I call home.
My years of reading and writing about Spanish literature also probably had its influence. I mentioned Rudolfo Anaya’s book above, but I also spent about a decade in graduate school getting a doctorate in Spanish Literature at CU Boulder, and I learned from master scholars how some of the most gifted writers of the 20th century incorporated elements of realism, magic, folklore, and culture into their narrative works, both in Latin America and in Spain. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on a writer in Spain, Javier Tomeo, who was especially experimental in his methods of creating characters and dialogue. I think a lot of the humor, quirkiness, and oddities were unconsciously borrowed from Javier, who died in 2013. I had the unique chance to meet him for an interview right before he died in Barcelona that year, and I think his presence still visits me at times. I remember emailing him to see how he was doing about a month after we spoke, but I never got a response. I later discovered that he died the same day that I sent that email.
Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole and why did you select it?
I chose the opening pages of “Snipe Hunting,” which is the first selection of “April Warnings,” because it captures the world that will be explored throughout the book. The tornado is bearing down upon Baxter County, and readers get to feel the tensions and humor of “April Warnings.” This first story, “Snipe Hunting,” is the product of years of writing and rewriting, and it has a few lines that I am especially proud of. I left out the first paragraph of the selection, however, because it doesn’t make sense without the rest of the story. That paragraph tells the story of a priest who many think got taken up by a twister in Baxter County, although others think he was abducted by aliens. That narrative line appears and reappears throughout this first story and the others, and it answers questions that some of the narrators never answer.
I went back and forth between sending this selection and sending a selection from the second story that features two priests and an encounter with a mountain lion in Estes Park. That story, “Final Rites,” is one of my favorites, and I think it gets to the heart of something that is central to the culture of the people who were born and raised in Colorado. I’ve lived in the state for more than ten years, and I’ve always enjoyed the way that locals refer to the old days, those magical decades following the Second World War when the state was wild, laws were minimal, and transplants like myself hadn’t crowded the cities and highways. The story centers on the day that a priest heard his calling while hiking in the mountains. It involves an unlikely miracle, one that seems echoed by other extraordinary events from other priests he speaks with, but it also explores the spaces between life and death, the real and the imagined, and even the Midwest and the Colorado West.
Tell us about creating this book: any research and travel you might have done, any other influences on which you drew?
I kept a running log of stories I’d hear and observations that I would make anytime I came back to visit my folks in Omaha and the rest of Nebraska. The long drives across I-80 were especially helpful while I was imagining the towns that I would be writing about, but the real adventures were purely in my mind. I relived the moments of my childhood when I was terrified while a wall cloud passed over our house, those days when everything would stop, and you’d huddle in the basement waiting for the storms to pass. It was like something from another world was blowing through the neighborhood, and the weathermen would interrupt your originally scheduled programming to show you a terrifying map that was filled with counties covered in red – to show they were under the tornado warning.
The “Chief” stories might also be an example of this research as well. There are three stories about this character, and they’re based on a real guy. I met him while he drove our bus to Winter Park, back when I was a high school Spanish teacher in Denver. The stories are highly fictionalized, but the stories he told me about his life as an officer in a small town helped me to create what many people have told me is the best character in the story.
What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book?
The way I tell the story was probably my biggest challenge. I didn’t want the book just to be a collection of short stories. I wanted it to be a collection of stories that could also be read as one longer story, and I wanted each story to be able to be read in any order. The tough part was identifying good places where the stories would overlap and to have those connections become not only a surprise but also add to the overall feeling and meaning of the overall work.
For this reason, I think a dedicated reader will get a lot out of a second reading, if not a third. This method of adding a game-like quality is something I learned from some of the Latin American masters like Julio Cortázar, who does this with a level of mastery I doubt I will ever reach. While I’m name dropping, I guess I’d also have to mention Miguel de Cervantes and his “Don Quixote,” a book that is so rich not only in stories but also rich in the way that stories are told that you find something new every time you open it.
Walk us through your writing process: Where and when do you write? What time of day? Do you listen to music, need quiet?
I wrote most of the book on the FF2 bus during my daily commute going back and forth on U.S. 36 between Denver and Boulder. There’s no wifi on that bus, and no other real distractions, and so I would get anywhere between 2-4 hours of writing a day done about 5 days a week, depending on traffic and weather. I actually recognize the bus drivers at RTD for their work in my Acknowledgments section at the back of “April Warnings.” There were even a couple days, I remember, when I didn’t even need to get to work, but I’d just take the bus to Boulder, get some coffee, and come back, because I knew I was more productive on the FF2 than anywhere else I could sit. I had an EcoPass, so it was even cheaper than sitting at a coffee shop.
A couple songs were also important. I wrote the first story during a very difficult time in my life when I was writing my doctoral dissertation, sometime around 2013. I’m from Omaha, which was a hub for indie rock bands in the 90s, especially the Saddle Creek label and groups like The Faint, Rilo Kiley, and Cursive. But Bright Eyes was the real star, and I discovered one of their later albums, “The People’s Key,” which came out in 2011. The first song on the album begins with a crazy, cult guy who starts talking about nonsense involving reptilian humanoids, time travel, and Hitler. The humor I find in that song is at the heart of some of the comical beliefs my characters hold in the story.
There’s a later song, “Approximate Sunlight,” that has a line that, when put to music, just blows me away… “I used to dream / of time machines / and it’s been said / we’re post-everything / as a child imagining / neckties / and coastlines….” That line, complete with its melancholy beat and the world it imagines, was at the front of my mind when I wrote the first story in the collection, and I listened to it a lot, along with the rest of the album, throughout the writing of the book. Anytime I would lose a sense of the story or need a refresher, I’d go back to that song. It seems silly, but I think it gave me guidance.
Another influence was the narrative voice of Tommy Lee Jones in “No Country for Old Men.” His was the register that I wanted to hit. I think there’s a lot of that film in these stories, except they have a sense of humor, which the film really doesn’t have. The character of The Russian in “April Warnings” also was meant to have a bit of the semi-real, semi-ghost-like monster character of Javier Bardem from that movie.
What’s your next project?
I’m writing another collection of linked stories, but this time about Omaha (although Denver makes several appearances, too). It features my favorite places to visit in Omaha, especially its many drinking lounges, but it primarily extends outward from an event that takes place at a real-life day camp that most people from that city know about, Hummel Camp. Ask anyone about Hummel, and they’ll likely have a story about it, and it probably is different from everyone else’s.
The stories from this camp are wild: some are true and others are not, and they tell of murders, drownings, devil worshippers, and even an albino farm in the woods. The best legend of all, however, is the story of the hermit. They used to tell this story to scare campers and it involves some variation of a boy in the woods who gets his nose cut off, either by bully campers or in a car accident.
The boy has lived in the woods ever since, and campers were warned to cover their noses with their hands while hiking the trail that passed his house. Otherwise, he would come out of the woods and cut off your nose. I’ve heard that they no longer tell that story because it’s too scary, and they also shut down Devil’s Slide.
It was a two-story path on the side of a hill that would turn into a mudslide when it would rain, and when I was camper, you were allowed to go down it as long as you were willing to be hosed down with cold water before you’d get back on the bus. In any case, these features of the camp are central to the story, as they lead to an event that impacts the lives of a group of campers who come to that camp from a wide variety of backgrounds.
The book follows them many years later, along with other people who surround them, and I like to think it all reveals something about what it means not only to be from this particular city but also to grow up during the mid-80s and 90s.