Rethinking Small Towns and Fragments: An Interview with Chad Simpson

by Abbey Hood

Chad Simpson is the winner of the 2012 John Simmons Short Fiction Award. His short story collection Tell Everyone I Said Hi was published by the University of Iowa Press in 2012.

Chad was raised in Monmouth, Illinois, and Logansport, Indiana. His stories and essays have appeared in McSweeney’s, The Sun, Esquire, Barrelhouse, American Short Fiction, and many other print and online publications. He also is the author of a chapbook of short fiction, Phantoms, published by Origami Zoo Press in 2010. A recipient of an Illinois Arts Council fellowship in prose, he teaches at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, where he received the Philip Green Wright/Lombard College Prize for Distinguished Teaching in 2010. He lives in Monmouth, Illinois, with his wife, Jane.

The Fourth River: The collection of stories in Tell Everyone I Said Hi feels natural and complete. Did that evolve naturally or did you find yourself pushing hard to create new pieces to fill in the gaps?

Chad Simpson: Well, thank you. I don’t think anyone’s yet said such a thing to me. I’d say it’s a combination of the two. I wrote the stories in this book over a span of about eight years. During that time, I wrote over a hundred stories, and I published about forty of them. As I began to collect the stories, I tried a lot of combinations, and in the end, I worked very intuitively. I considered theme, obviously, but also how different stories were structured, and how long they were. I began to think of the way the stories were arranged as being almost a musical thing—I thought of each story as having beats, motifs, etc., and I arranged the pieces accordingly.

FR: Tell Everyone I Said Hi has an odd trim size and a very striking cover. Did you have much of a hand in picking that out, and how do you feel that it fits your content?

CS: I religiously read a couple of art blogsBOOOOOOOM!& Colossal—mostly looking to be inspired, but in the months after I found out I was going to have a book published, I looked at the images with a new purpose. Everything was a potential book cover, and I was always pestering my publisher with ideas. I probably drove them a little nuts.

In the end, though, the team at the University of Iowa Press did all of the work on the cover, and I’m very happy with it. I’m particularly drawn to a few things: 1) That abandoned-looking storefront. These are Midwestern stories, set in the kinds of towns I’ve lived in for most of my life. Places in Illinois and Indiana that have seen a lot of their businesses close the past couple decades. That storefront on the book’s cover, I pass it just about every day of my life. 2) That photographer who has captured herself in her own image, ghost-like but noticeable. Right there. A lot of my characters, I think, leave similar impressions in the book’s stories. I think I, as the author, do, too. 3) That phone booth. As the book’s title—Tell Everyone I Said Hi—might suggest, the desire to connect is a prevalent theme in the stories. The characters are always reaching out to one another, typically to disappointing ends. I like the anachronistic, old-school phone booth on the cover. I imagine it hasn’t worked in years.

FR: What other authors do you feel capture “small town-ness” well? It seems like an overlooked sub-genre, yet a vital one for understanding American life.

CS: A lot of writers I love write very well about places that would be considered small towns: Kent Haruf, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Holly Goddard Jones, Dan Chaon, Charles Baxter. I think, though, too, that people in metropolitan areas have pretty skewed notions of what small towns are. Most of the places I’m writing about have 1,000 or 10,000 or 20,000 people in them, whereas in a lot of circles, Peoria, Illinois (population: 115,000) is considered small. I think people are living rich and complicated lives outside of urban areas, too, and I’m grateful to some of the above writers for spending some or all of their pages exploring those lives.

FR: When you’re writing with a distinct sense of place in a story, do you find it’s better to be present in the landscape being described, or is it better to have some distance?

CS: I prefer to have some distance. Much of the time, I’m working from ideas nabbed from real life—images, anecdotes, characters—and in general, as I begin making such stories, they don’t really work until I’ve divorced the fiction from whatever real-life thing might have inspired it. Until I’ve rendered that thing and set it into my own fabricated world of sentences, prose. I think that having some distance on the place I’m writing about helps expedite this process.

FR: Reviewers speak of your book as “tender,” while to me, “cautiously hopeful” seems an equally good way of framing it. Do you think these are accurate portrayals of your work?

CS: I think both are accurate portrayals. , which may lead to “tender” and/or “cautiously optimistic.”  Much of the time, I begin with pretty dark premises—a guy who’s been run over by his own car, a suicidal twelve-year-old girl—and as I attempt to make these things meaningful by way of sentences, by way of something like narrative, I think what I unconsciously do is throw a little light on that darkness. It’s probably slanted light, at best, which may lead to “tender” and/or “cautiously optimistic.”

FR: Besides fiction, do you read other genres, and if so, what things do you find sustaining? How does what you read influence your writing?

CS: I read a lot of poetry and a lot of creative nonfiction—memoirs, lyric essays, etc. The thing that draws me more than anything else to writing is language, and I often turn to poets and essayists for doses of language. I’m also drawn to what they do with metaphor and structure. I think that everything I take in influences my writing: visual art, music, film. At least, I kind of hope that these things have an influence on the work I create. I mean, I like “consuming” these other art forms for lots of reasons, but I also hope that they become part of the filter that is me, the thing all of my stories eventually make their way through when I’m getting them down on the page.

FR: There are quite a few fragmented stories in Tell Everyone I said Hi. What is your sense of the fragment as a structuring device?

CS: I love fragments. Someday, I will write and publish fragments only. I think with fiction in general—and nonfiction, and poetry—but especially with short fiction, we’re almost always getting a fragment of what’s available, and being implicitly asked to intimate the absence. What I like about fragments is that they have breathing room on either side of them. Extra absence. Sometimes I manipulate paragraph length for similar effect. I’m not sure I could say how fragments work as a structuring device, other than to say they, and their accompanying absences, provide some kind of glimpse into the whole that’s being communicated.

FR: What’s the one interview question you always wished you would be asked, and never have been?

CS: I don’t think anyone’s ever asked me about the Chicago Cubs. I have so many things to say about the Cubs.

Abbey Hood is a second year low-residency MFA student at Chatham University. She lives in Palmdale, California on the fringes of the Mojave desert. When not traveling, she works as a writer and jack-of-all-trades at an internet design company. She’s currently working on an untitled series of short stories about the former California boomtown, Bodie.