September 29, 2009

3Q with Lily James

Not Normal, Illinois is a collection of stories about the Midwest. We all know there’s clipped intelligence in the Northeast, flashy thrills in California, and gothic romance in the South, but what kind of writing comes from the Midwest? Mashed potato recipes (You smash a potato.)? Descriptions of how the corn grows up (Vertically.)? Or is there something weirder, something more profound, in the flyover space between New York and LA, outside Chicago and around those Great Lakes we keep hearing about? Something “Not Normal”? Lily James, who has a story in the collection and is one of my favorite writers, would say yes.


She is the author of High Drama in Fabulous Toledo, and she is an amazing talent. I met her years before either of us ever published a word and I fell in love with her writing---she has such brio combined with boundless imagination and wicked humor. She has been my writing/crit partner and hero for murmble-murmble years now, and here murmble mumble is represents a VERY LARGE NUMBER, so largeI can’t remember exactly what it is, like 17 or 25 or 20? Anyway, large. So large it gives away too much about exactly how dern old I am. (Which is 41. BUT STILL. )

I asked Lily to drop by and answer three questions.

Joshilyn: Your story in the collection, “Round,” is set in Toledo. Your novel is also set in Toledo. What is the deal with you and Toledo?

Lily: Well, when the authors of our time were all choosing favorite cities, I felt safe in picking Toledo, because I knew I’d never be challenged.

No, seriously, there’s something belligerently grandiose about Toledo that has always captivated me. I was born in Detroit, but I went to school in Northwest Ohio, and experienced firsthand the excruciating winters, the relentless flatness, the cultural vacuum. I know why people who are born in this region are instantly desperate to get out. They go to Chicago, go to New York, even go to Cinncinnati or Columbus, anything to get out of Northwest Ohio and everything barren that’s there.

No one aspires to someday be in Toledo. No one yearns to go there, and live there, establish a dynasty there, put down roots. And yet, impossibly, there’s still a city there, the city of Toledo. Impossibly, there it is. There’s a daily paper that calls itself “one of the nation’s best.” There’s a zoo, and a university, and an art museum. There’s even a skyscraper. Toledo, stuck firmly in the rust belt, with a stalled economy and a failed manufacturing industry lying in tatters around it, still calls itself the Glass City, as if an inherent optimism and ethereal beauty could be impressed on the beholder by a trick of the light, by a celestial name. It’s just so absurd, you have to love it. Toledo makes no sense; it is pride in the face of obscurity, a poignant ruin oblivious to its decay, it’s a gorilla in a tutu, a string quartet out of tune on a sinking freighter carrying rubber balls. Cleveland has always been a joke of a town, but Toledo, built on a battle ground, lost in a swamp, and home of the Glass City Rollers, is so absurd as to be sublime.

Joshilyn: What is your story about?

Lily: The story is about a Toledo that has been destroyed by tornadoes. The female main character tries to keep her family together on the outskirts of town, scavenging from the rubble, forging protective connections with other survivors, and trying to stay positive. It’s one of those stories where you might give birth to a sea turtle, or be okay with living in a ditch for a while. Kind of like the three little pigs, if Toledo were the straw house, and the pigs were your family, and in the end your husband got eaten by a harpy.

Joshilyn: What is your favorite other story in the collection?

Lily: There are so many good ones, I can’t choose. Let me give you a few titles. Mine has the shortest title; it’s called “Round.” Other much longer ones: “Talking to My Old Science Teacher about Drawings in which I Killed Him,” “Metaphysics of the Midwest,” “Some Notes on the Cold War in Kansas,” “A History of Indiana,” “River Dead of Minneapolis Scavenged by Teenagers.” And among the authors represented are Robert Coover, George Saunders, Rikki Ducornet, and Louise Erdrich. Hers is called “F*** with Kayla and You Die.” Now how can you not want to read that?

I think that when Michael Martone was looking for stories to include, he was not specifically seeking formal experimentation, but a uniquely Midwestern viewpoint expressed in a voice that was defiantly “not normal.” So the result is actually a fair representation of the literary avant garde of the moment, but not from New York, or Boulder, Austin, or LA. From the Midwest, with all its belligerent, absurd grandeur.

Posted by joshilyn at September 29, 2009 5:40 PM

I am totally Googling this title, "Talking to My Old Science Teacher about Drawings in which I Killed Him" in hopes I can find the actual piece. Thank you so much for sharing Lily with us!

Posted by: Mit at September 29, 2009 7:34 PM

Toledo is fabulous indeed when you live north of Detroit like we did. My kids loved the Toledo zoo. Maybe those cute animals were "not normal" and we just didn't notice because ... well, we weren't quite normal either. I will look for these stories!

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Posted by: lyndiminte at September 30, 2009 7:46 AM

Heh. I was born and raised in east central Ohio and now live in Austin (for the past 30 years) and I'mma tell you what, they are two different WORLDS. I'll definitely look for this collection as it will allow me to wallow around in the culture of my birth without actually having to GO THERE. It's a win!

Posted by: Badger at September 30, 2009 8:09 AM

It's funny, growing up in MN, Toledo always seemed south. Far south, like near Georgia. It's still a bit of a shock to realize where it really is.

I love discovering new writers through this type of post. Thanks!

Posted by: Jenn at September 30, 2009 8:38 AM

Whee! I loved "High Drama in Fabulous Toledo" and reading this makes me want to read it again AND get this book.

Posted by: Aimee at September 30, 2009 10:48 AM

Sounds great - the crazy Midwest. Can't wait to read about Toledo and all the rest. I'm ordering it now!

Posted by: cheryl at September 30, 2009 10:56 AM

LOL. This is a great interview of someone I actually know. Who knew? Thanks for sending me the link. I haven't read a collection of short stories in years and now I can wait to get my hands on this on and read all of the. I lived in Dayton for a few years and the description of Toledo just brought back so many memories. I'm not sure I wanted to remember all of them. Thanks.

Posted by: Cindy at September 30, 2009 12:32 PM

I will have to order this one because it doesn't seem like Ms. Jackson (Thats what I call Joshilyn because it takes me back to my Janet Jackson days- "Its Miss Jackson if you're nasty!") It doesn't seem like Ms. Jackson will ever put out another book. Uh oh, what if she becomes like Jack Kerouac and stops writing? Don't be Kerouac, he was a pervert. So I will read this collection and put in a suggestion, please get the next book out Joshilyn. Don't get me wrong, I loved The Girl Who Stopped Swimming and Between, Georgia (Audiobook is the best) but if the next one could be anything like Gods in Alabama that would be great. Because that is the second best book I have ever read (No 1 was Old Man and The Sea by Hemingway). Maybe the next book will be number 3!

Posted by: Jason at September 30, 2009 1:35 PM

Great interview, Miss Joshilyn! My to-read list is getting out of control, though.

OAN, I've been to a lot of small towns, but never to Toledo. All I know of Toledo is this:

(BTW, I hate the last line. It's mean.)

Posted by: Lulu at September 30, 2009 2:26 PM

Dear Blog-bots Milsongaon and Lyndiminte,

Um, what??



Dear Joshilyn,

Thank you for sharing Lily with us. She is right, "F*** with Kayla and You Die" is definitely a title that piques interest. And I, too, am smitten with Lily's wordplay. Gorilla in a tutu? That is an image worthy of Nose-Beverage. Almost as good as "cat-headed poodle walrus."


Posted by: JMixx at September 30, 2009 3:08 PM

Ack, I should have made it clear that it's the last line of the song in the video I linked that is mean, not the last line of your blog post!!


Posted by: Lulu at September 30, 2009 3:29 PM

As someone raised in northwest Ohio (including a 6-year stint in Toledo)...yes. Yes yes and yes to all that you said about that region of the great state of Ohio.

Also, I know of many many folks who never aspired to get out of the region. Indeed, I know of many many folks whose only aspiration was to get to Toledo. I know folks from high school who went away to college, then married their high school sweethearts and moved back to our small town and are now living in their parents' old house (down the road from their in-laws).

So although many of us couldn't wait to leave and have no desire to return, there are many't want to leave and came back as soon as possible.

Posted by: Erin at September 30, 2009 6:37 PM

Forgot my finishing line, which is that all of the above (the folks who never wanted to leave NW Ohio) perfectly supports Lily's view of the area: that it's absurdly sublime.

Posted by: Erin at September 30, 2009 6:42 PM

I don't know If I said it already but ...I'm so glad I found this site...Keep up the good work I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say GREAT blog. Thanks, :)

A definite great read..Jim Bean

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Posted by: washbourne at October 1, 2009 9:54 AM

My father grew up in Toledo and that's where my grandparents stayed. How can you not love a town with a baseball team called the Mud Hens???

And yes, the Toledo Zoo is a fantastic zoo - where else do they let you ride the Galapagos tortoise? (They may not do that anymore... this was in the 70's)

Posted by: Beth R at October 1, 2009 1:14 PM

aE1I4r I want to say - thank you for this!

Posted by: lilikindsli at October 4, 2009 6:58 PM