Bart Schaneman on Writing About the American West


The Silence is the Noise, a new short novel by Nebraska-born author Bart Schaneman, is a story of the West. But it’s not a Western, per se, or a gothic fantasy like the work Cormac McCarthy’s been knighted over. This is a novel of the West as it is now—the dying small towns, diminishing natural resources, corporate eco onslaught.

The book, which came out August 30th on Trident Press, reads like America feels right now—divided, troubled, at a crossroads between the empire of the past and an uncertain future. It’s literary but plot-driven, clean and well-paced. Like all of his work this one has a certain Midwestern sensibility and has the particular leanness of a writer who grew up writing journalism.

I talked to Bart about writing stories of the West, leaving home (he now lives in Denver), rural life, anti-Midwest bias, and work spaces.

Full disclosure, Bart and I are longtime friends. He also released two earlier works on an imprint I helped run. I have been a fan of both him and his work for many years now. Here’s what we talked about over the course of a few August days…

Where do you write? Tell me about that room.

I live in a building that once was a garage where a hundred years ago the Unsinkable Molly Brown parked her electric car. My writing desk is wedged in the corner of the apartment next to a brick wall. Behind me, through the window that looks out over the alley, I often hear people rummaging through the dumpster. On a shelf above my desk is a clock-plaque that reads 1996 Scotts Bluff County Fair Market Steer Champion. Post-its cover the wall underneath with notes like “Give Yourself Good Assignments” and “Write What You Want to Read.” On top of the printer sits a straw cowboy hat bought in Steamboat Springs for $6.98. Nammin’s pan-frying cod and oven-roasting vegetables for dinner. Our malamute-cross Alfie has a swollen muzzle from getting too curious around a wasp nest yesterday. Ben Howard plays from the bluetooth speaker on the bookshelf. A storm’s blowing through Denver and I can hear distant thunder from the skylight.

Before Denver you were in Nebraska, where you’re from. What was your writing space like there?

I wrote down the notes I used for this forthcoming novel at the same desk, but in Nebraska we were able to afford an entire house with a backyard. My office looked out on a locust tree that sheltered our dog’s kennel and cast shade over the garden and back lawn when the sun was setting. The room didn’t have a door, and I got used to that. My writing space now doesn’t have any walls that separate it from the rest of the apartment. I’ve learned I can write most anywhere; the space doesn’t matter much. I just need a flat surface and sometimes headphones.

The new book is set in Nebraska and is very much a novel of the American West, which is a place people are interested in right now, both in literature and, maybe even more so, cinema. Why do you think this is?

We’ve always loved the stories of cowboys and the places they lived. That’s obviously where it started. But now we’re starting to tell different stories of the West. Of course, any thinking white person is carrying a lot of guilt about how we came to live in this part of the world and that’s beginning to finally come out. So in cinema like Wind River and books like The Son we’re getting re-tellings and different angles on that time in our history and the aftermath of it. The aftermath of our genocides and the atrocities that continue to ripple outward. The artists interested in this region are showing a more complete, complicated picture and I think that people are gravitating toward that deeper truth.

But I also think it’s other factors driving people to seek out today’s American West. We value recreation more than we ever have. My grandpa, who grew up in post-Depression era rural America, would have never been caught dead going for a hike. Or fishing. Or owning a boat. He worked on Saturdays, and every other day of the week. Except Sundays were for church and visiting with family. But now it’s become commonplace to spend time in the woods. The trails in Colorado where I live are, as they say here, loved to death. That’s modern America. If you can’t spend the weekend enjoying some crowded recreation and posting about it then you’re not really living. We try to act like we’re escaping our screens, our technology by going to the beautiful, wild places of the country. And while that might be the true motivation of some people, there are also plenty of others who are going into national parks and state forests looking for material to post on Instagram. The social media accounts need to be fed. The West is great for that.

I feel like your new book is a cowboy novel without being about cowboys. I mean, that’s in there too but it’s secondary. Your dad had cattle and you grew up in that world. When you first decided to write novels did you have any plans to write about home or did you want to be Kerouac like every other kid?

I’ve always wanted to put western Nebraska in a book. I haven’t read a novel set in the area around where I grew up, which I think is extremely beautiful, so I tried to do it. The first novel I wrote more than 10 years ago was set there as well. I didn’t know much about writing books when I attempted that one—I still don’t know that much—but I feel like this novel is a little better.

But, yeah, I also wanted to be Kerouac like a lot of other young writers. I tried to write the On the Road version of living in East Asia once and it didn’t turn out very well. I spent a good three years working on that book only to have it come out shallow and vapid. I’m glad no one let me talk them into publishing it.

What are some of the things about your part of Nebraska you miss now that you’re living away?

I miss the sky. The land there is so wide open and empty that you’re drawn to look up. Rural folks talk a lot about the weather, not because they don’t have anything else to discuss, but because it’s so important to their livelihoods. And in a place where you can see storms forming from fifteen miles away, you learn how to read the sky and plan accordingly. But it’s not just the weather. It’s the stars, the sunrises, the sunsets. All of it.

I also miss living in a place that I know. I mean know down to the type of weeds growing in the borrow pits. The birds, the trees, the insects. There are places in that part of the world that I can get to where no one else goes, where no one will bother you, where you can truly be alone. And they’re not just places to hide. They’re places where you can look out on a vast expanse of the plains, watch a meteor shower, sleep on a blanket under the Milky Way. I’ll take you some time.

Why do so many people hate the Midwest?

Y’know, when you’re living there, you almost never hear people talking shit about the Midwest. It’s always the people who have left, who live in cities, who talk about how Everyone Back Home is racist, stupid, ignorant, backwards, etc. And that’s just not true. Especially in 2018. A lot of the people I went to high school with lived in other places before they moved back home. They went to college. They traveled overseas. They’re culturally aware. Most of them chose to live in the country because they wanted to be close to their families, and that’s a good, honorable choice. The older generations in rural America aren’t as open-minded, or liberal, but that doesn’t make them bad people. They live and think the way they know best. And we’ll see how well we handle change when we’re their age. I know a lot of people who voted for Trump who I could count on to help my family if we needed it. We might not agree politically, but there are a lot more important things to agree on. Like one of my characters says in my novel—there’s nothing more unattractive than being ashamed of where you’re from.

Would you consider yourself a regionalist?

I have a hard time making a claim as a regionalist with only two novels written and a few short stories published. That said, I do try to write about places I know and put my characters in those places. I wouldn’t want to limit myself to only writing about western Nebraska, because the way things are now I don’t know if I’ll ever make it back there to live again. Maybe I’ll be considered a Great Plains writer, or an American West writer, one day, but even that seems kind of limiting. For now, I’m just trying to understand the place where I set my next story as well as I can—the flora and fauna, the weather, the climate, the living conditions—and how that all shapes the lives of the characters. So I would say if anything I’m a place-focused writer, but not necessarily a regionalist.

How do you go about writing about place?

For me, writing about Nebraska comes easier than writing about any other place. Growing up in the country I learned, out of necessity, about the plant and animal life around me. When I was tasked with spraying the bindweed, for example, or separating a Charolais steer from the herd, I lived and worked around the flora and fauna that would later make for believable details in my writing. The details are what convince the reader of your authority and bring the place to life, make it visible. But I don’t think you have to grow up on a farm to learn how to write about a place. Observe. Pay close attention. Take notes. Learn the names of the things in your environment, from the insects to the architecture. If you can do all that then you can convincingly render any place believable. It’s important to have your characters react to and interact with their environment. You can’t just write landscapes. The setting needs to interact with the story.

Who do you like to read as far as writers that really nail “place”?

Willa Cather wrote about Nebraska better than anyone. She knew how to describe the sky, the weather, the land, but she also knew how to embody the place in her characters. My Antonia is about the land as much as it is about the people and how they tried to survive that place. For a guy from Michigan, Jim Harrison did a pretty good job of describing the Nebraska Sandhills in Dalva. I imagine he would have done his homework and effectively brought to life pretty much anywhere he chose to write about. Annie Proulx captures Wyoming in Close Range, again, as much with her characters as with her landscape descriptions. My fiction kept getting compared to Kent Haruf in my last writing class, which I take as the highest of compliments. The fictional town of Holt would be about 150 miles to the south of where I set this last novel. With Haruf, his spare language evokes the place in a way that is perfectly intertwined with the landscape. Daniel Woodrell is another favorite. He has his own Faulkner-esque postage stamp of a region, the Ozarks, and you can tell he knows it well.

Who are you reading right now?

Some of the highlights so far this year have been: Lorrie Moore’s Self-Help, Haruf’s Where You Once Belonged, B. Traven’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Noah Cicero’s poetry, Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, and several craft books that I won’t share because I don’t want to give away all my tricks. Also, I just finished reading William Styron’s Darkness Visible, which anyone who is struggling with depression and suicide should read. It’s an incredible book that really could save your life if you let it.

I go back and forth about whether it’s better to write a book with a purpose like Styron’s or just to tell a good story. What would you say your new book’s purpose is?

Books are artifacts. They’re written records of a place, of a time, of a few people who may or may not have lived in real life. People used to get their news from novels. It was the way they learned about how other people lived. I still believe in that. Not from a journalism perspective—novels should be more nuanced and ambiguous than journalism—but if the writer does a good enough job, then the reader can have a deeper understanding of what it’s like to live in a certain place at a certain time. That’s the main purpose I see in a novel, aside from it being entertaining, which is completely subjective and can mean all kinds of different things. I simply tried to make a piece of writing that recorded what it’s like to live in western Nebraska, how it looks and feels and all the other senses we have, at a certain time in history, that goes beyond what you can read in the newspaper or see in a documentary.


Photo: Mathew Staver

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