Stories from an ‘outsider’

Eliot Treichel talks geography, early Soul Asylum and being an outsider

Eliot Treichel is from small-town Wisconsin, and he’s not trying to hide it. His short stories and essays inhabit, nay, breathe a world of rushing rivers, fishing holes, desert highway expanses, and guns and pickup trucks. His characters are laconic, solitary and tough, even while the author tenderly and quietly exposes their vulnerability.

Eliot Treichel talks geography, early Soul Asylum and being an outsider

Eliot Treichel is from small-town Wisconsin, and he’s not trying to hide it. His short stories and essays inhabit, nay, breathe a world of rushing rivers, fishing holes, desert highway expanses, and guns and pickup trucks. His characters are laconic, solitary and tough, even while the author tenderly and quietly exposes their vulnerability.

COURTESY OF Eliot Treichel

Author Eliot Treichel is releasing his debut short story collection through PSU’s Ooligan Press this week. Way to go, Eliot.

Treichel has been publishing short form fiction and freelance magazine pieces for years. His first book-length project, a short story collection called Close Is Fine, will be released at the end of this month by PSU’s Ooligan Press. Ooligan and Treichel celebrated the release of Close Is Fine yesterday evening at the Doug Fir Lounge.

I recently had the pleasure of talking with Treichel about himself and his writing. Here’s how it went.

Vanguard: How long have you been writing?

Eliot Treichel: I got started writing…I think it was in 1992, 1993, I think. I had done some really crappy poems in high school about my girlfriend or whatever. But I was at Prescott College at the time, and I actually needed a class…the class I was in had gotten canceled, and my friend said, “Hey, I’m in this creative writing class, you should take it,” and it sounded really fun. I was like, “All right, that sounds cool.”

I took the class and started writing short stories, and something about it clicked in a way that writing had never really clicked for me before, and along with that, reading sort of became a new thing for me. So I’ll let you do the math, 1993 till now.

VG: Did it take long before you were like, “I wanna do this for a living,” to pursue it, to try to get published? Or did it happen organically?

ET: While I was still at Prescott College, one of the first stories I wrote won a student writing contest and got published, and I received positive feedback from an instructor, and I thought: “Yay! I’m going to be a writer.” Then I had a few other things published while I was still at college. Then I had this long period where I really wanted to be a writer, but I kept getting rejection after rejection. Thinking it was still possible, I ended up doing some other jobs.

I worked as a whitewater kayaking instructor for a very long time. I decided to go to graduate school, get an MFA—with the understanding that if I had an MFA, I could just get a teaching job. It wasn’t really until I was in graduate school that someone, I think it was the director of the AWP [Association of Writers and Writing Programs] came and said, “You know, it’s going to be really, really hard to get a teaching job. It’s going to be really hard to be a writer,” and that sort of thing.

So the reality of things started sinking in that this wasn’t going to be something that I could make a lot of money at. For better or for worse, that did not deter me, so I took jobs doing landscaping, construction, working in a bakery, stuff like that. More recently, within the last 5 years or so, I started doing freelance writing. I was able to make a little bit of money doing that.

I’ve started teaching. I teach at Lane Community College, so I’m able to make a living teaching—and writing and being a writer are definitely two different things. I feel like I am a professional writer to a certain extent. But I feel like I’m not able to put enough food on the table as a writer yet.

VG: That leads right into my next question, which is, does teaching writing influence your writing? Does it help?

ET: I would say yes, overall it does. I primarily teach composition courses, which is a little different than teaching creative writing. It does make me more cognizant of what makes for good writing, thinking about things like genre and grammar. I think it makes me empathetic as an editor. It’s tough to balance, to find time to be a creative writer while teaching composition.

If something happened where I was able to be a full-time writer, I think I would still really want to teach because it influences me in a certain way. I think it makes me a better writer because it makes me a better person, if that makes sense. I will say the thing that probably helped me the most was when I was a reader on the Northwest Review, which was a literary journal at the U of O [University of Oregon] which has now gone under.

But being a reader for a journal or something like that is probably one of the best things you can do as a writer, to become better, because you see a lot of people who are similar to your position and you really understand the difference between “almost good enough” and “good enough” in a very clear way.

VG: Where in Wisconsin did you grow up? What kind of a place was it?

ET: I grew up near a town called Appleton, Wis., which is just south of Green Bay in the Fox River Valley. That was kind of small-town Midwestern…a mill town. Outside the little town [were] mostly dairy farms, lots of corn fields. I would not classify that as rural Wisconsin. But then, after college, I moved to northern Wisconsin, near the Menominee Indian Reservation at the headwaters of the Wolf River. I think that is more of what the stories in Close Is Fine reflect.

In northern Wisconsin there’s lots of white pine, lots of forest, little creeks and marshlands and that sort of stuff―not very many towns or cities at all. Oregon is the first place I lived in after Wisconsin, and it’s sort of similar to me. I think that’s partially why I love it here, ’cause Wisconsin’s very flat and dull, and obviously Oregon has the Cascades, and the ocean and the high desert. But there is something sort of similar here, the small-town-ness of certain places.

VG: You mentioned that that sort of landscape influences Close Is Fine. What does that title mean, by the way? Obviously I guess there’s a story titled that…

ET: So there is a title story called “Close Is Fine,” and in that story there is a piece of dialogue that actually comes from a piece of dialogue that I heard working on a construction site that sort of stuck with me. Partly what it reflects is that many of the stories in the collection have to do with proximity, physical proximity, such as being close to a lover or a family member or pushing them away, but it also has to do with striving for certain things.

I think we don’t often quite reach the things we strive for and have to deal with that disappointment of not quite getting what you want to get, or not being who you want to be. So it’s a sort of an acceptance of the journey, maybe, I guess is a good way to put it. It’s not necessarily about the destination, but it’s the journey and getting close is sometimes good enough under some circumstances.

VG: Something I was thinking about when I was reading the personal essay about Soul Asylum: I didn’t realize that Soul Asylum had been playing and recording since the early ’80s. So I went back and listened to some early Soul Asylum, which I really liked. But it struck me that Soul Asylum is like this quintessentially Midwestern hardworking success story: just grind and grind away for years and inch closer and closer to marrying Winona Ryder. So I’m wondering, does that worldview, does that say anything about your view of artistic success at all?

ET: I think that’s the case a lot of times. Maybe I’m reaching here, but I think that [there] is [a] certain Midwestern value of hard work and just going about it day after day after day. But you can see it with all sorts of writers. Cheryl Strayed is an example recently, best known most recently for her memoir Wild, which has become an Oprah book, and she was doing the “Dear Sugar” columns on The Rumpus.

Several people called her an overnight success, when in reality she’s been writing for years and kind of going on about it steadily. Alan Heathcock is another example. He wrote Volt―it did really, really well. People called him an overnight success, but I think he had been working on that book for 15 years or something like that.

It takes time. Writing is about hard work, and getting published has a little bit to do with luck and just kind of falling in the right place at the right time. But I think many overnight success stories are really just long, long success stories that people haven’t heard about. I have to say I’m really excited that you went back and listened to old Soul Asylum stuff, that’s pretty cool.

VG: I absolutely hated Soul Asylum growing up in the ’90s, and I’m glad I did [revisit them] because I listened to…I forget the name of the album, the one with “Freaks” as the opening track…

ET: While You Were Out…

VG: Yeah, and I listened to the rest of that album. I’m a big Replacements fan, and the center of that album seems to have a Replacements influence. So yeah, I’m glad you introduced me to it. But speaking of hard work, what is the hardest thing about writing?

ET: One of the hardest things for me, because it’s really hard to be a professional writer and just write for a living, there’s often a second job involved, there’s a family involved, a boyfriend or girlfriend, wife, husband that sort of stuff; so really finding the time, making the time to do it. Finding the energy to get up at 5:30 in the morning before you go to work, to write, or gathering the energy at night when everybody’s gone to bed, to write, is one of the hardest things.

I think there’s a bit of a difference between fiction writing and nonfiction writing. With fiction writing it’s really an act of faith. I’m working on a novel now, I’ve been working on it for probably close to two years and…there’s probably another two years left—and you put in all this time and then you really have no guarantee that anyone’s really going to publish it.

And you’ve put in all this work and there’s a huge leap of faith that’s hard to sustain, in many ways, living in this culture where it’s instant gratification and how much income you make and that sort of stuff. So those are the hardest things for me, personally.

VG: The pieces I’ve read, “Novitiate Falls” and “Open Boat, Open Mind,” and the Soul Asylum essay, “Sometime to Return”—I notice there’s a common theme running through them of insiders versus outsiders.

And in the personal essays, the speaker is not necessarily dwelling on the fact that they are an outsider, but they very obviously feel like an outsider, and then in “Novitiate Falls” there’s kind of a twist in that the outsiders, the natives, are actually inside the structure, the novitiate. I was just wondering, is that a recurrent theme in your work?

ET: It is a common theme; it’s not always intentional. I think that most writers were, and always are, outsiders to a degree, and I think that not fitting in, being on the edge, kind of leads them to writing as a way to express themselves and [to] give commentary on being on the outside.

That’s what draws me to writing to a certain degree: I never feel like I fit in; I always feel like I’m looking for my kin. I’m not an extrovert. I’m pretty introverted. Writing gives me a way to put myself out there in a way that I normally wouldn’t. I read some quote somewhere that all artists are outsiders—I have no idea who said that or if I’m just making it up. I think it’s hard to comment on anything when you’re in the middle of it, but once you remove yourself, it becomes obvious.

It really wasn’t until I left Wisconsin that I was able to write about it, and I really wanted to start writing about it once I left because I wanted to share my experience with everyone. The Wisconsin I knew was not the Wisconsin I was seeing portrayed on TV or the caricatures of people talking about eating cheese and the Packers and that sort of stuff.

VG: So it’s a matter of the artist providing perspective by virtue of being outside. Like with anything, with any society, you can’t see anything when you’re immersed in it. It’s like a physical object.

ET: Exactly.