“No matter that my stories were being typed into thin air, I just wanted to experience the process of writing.”
Midwestern Strange: Hunting Monsters, Martians and the Weird in Flyover Country (University of Nebraska Press, 2019)
Could you tell us a bit about your growing up and your path to becoming a writer?
When I was in the first grade, I snuck a glance at my teacher’s “teacher edition” of a writing book called Writing Express. I’m not sure why I did it; I suppose I figured it held all the answers to the universe. I leafed through it, and near the end, came across a pair of pages that served as a two-dimensional keyboard. This was before my family had a computer, and since I knew we likely wouldn’t get one for a few more years, that Christmas, I asked my parents to buy me that book, instead. I wanted that two-dimensional keyboard to write stories on. No matter that my stories were being typed into thin air, I just wanted to experience the process of writing. After a year or so of typing stories into air, my parents opted to buy an actual computer. I traded in the two-dimensional keyboard for a three-dimensional one. And I’ve been writing ever since.
How do you decorate or arrange your writing space?
As a father of young children, my writing space is whatever space happens to be the quietest in the house at any given moment in time. I’ve written in closets, in bathrooms, in the garage and the backyard, too. I’ve even written in our parked minivan. I do have an office (which lately seems to double as a storage area), and on its walls I have a Bigfoot sketch. Read on for more on that!
Could you share a representative or pivotal excerpt from your book? Perhaps something that that invites the reader into the world of the book?
“Of the many items that have found their way into my basement’s cabinet of curiosities, perhaps my most beloved is a Bigfoot sketch drawn for me by a friend. There he is tromping through the underbrush: arms swinging, gaze fixed, his trailing footprints the only evidence of his being there.
“Each day as I sit down to write, that Bigfoot sketch remains squarely in my field of vision: a reminder of my first, true cryptozoological love. We first met when I was eight years old, a spry young man with a library card and a mother who trusted him to use it. While cruising the collections one day, I came upon him. No, not loitering the romance section, but within the books themselves, sharing shelf space alongside dozens of other books dedicated to creatures whose existences were equally in question.
“Enter the Loch Ness Monster, the Yeti, among a much larger cast of characters, all of whom I’d have invited to my birthday party had I thought they might attend. These creatures soon consumed my childhood. While most kids my age asked Santa for dolls or toy trains, I asked for plaster of Paris. You know, in case I had to cast a Bigfoot print.
“After carting most of that library shelf home with me, I did what any monster-loving eight-year-old does: I founded the Indiana Monster Research Center in the storage closet adjacent to my bedroom. There, amid stacks of dust-covered photo albums and wooden tennis racquets, I waited patiently for the phone to ring. After three days, our funding was cut (read: my mother needed her phone back), and so, amid public outcry (my own) the research center shuttered for good. Down but not out, I tried a new tack: laced my boots, packed my backpack tight, and ventured into the ‘field.’ By which I mean my backyard.
“Metaphorically speaking, I’ve never quite left it. Even today, every walk in the woods doubles as a Bigfoot hunt, and every swim in a lake leaves me scanning the surface for scales.
“It’s not that I’m obsessed, I assure friends and family, I’m just open-minded.
“Yes, they smile politely. You certainly are.”
Why did you choose this excerpt?
This excerpt is from early in the introduction. It sort of lays the groundwork for where I’m coming from.
What obsessions led you to write your book?
I’ve long been fascinated by strange phenomena, not necessarily because of any individual phenomenon, but because of our seemingly limitless ability to believe in such things. This pulled into sharpest focus in the aftermath of the 2016 election. I was astonished by the ability to weaponize stories. With no evidence to support a variety of false claims, a good chunk of the population chose to believe those claims nonetheless. I began to question how we might better hone our critical thinking skills. I began to wonder how hard-to-swallow subjects such as the strange might serve as a testing ground for critical thinking.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your book?
The book is broken into three sections, each of which includes three case files: “Monsters,” “Martians,” and “The Weird.” In this way, I try to create a flow for readers, even within the wide range of the case files. For me, “Monsters” are sort of a fun entrypoint into the subject; “Martians” can be a little scarier, and “The Weird” is more of a catchall that leaves room for everything from folklore and legends to top secret military operations.
As for the title, Midwestern Strange: Hunting Monsters, Martians and The Weird in Flyover Country, it was my attempt to capture all that the book is. The main title situates this strangeness to a geography, and the subtitle (I hope!) explains all that this oft-overlooked geography has to offer. In this way, I was hoping not to limit the audience by way of geography, but to nudge readers from all over to look a bit closer at the strangeness run amuk in so-called “flyover country.”
Which essay in your book has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?
Perhaps the story that hits closest to home involves the Kensington Runestone. The short version is this: In 1898, a farmer in Kensington, Minnesota unearthed a 14th century stone inscribed with runic symbols. If authentic, the stone would prove European explorations throughout middle America long before other European “discoveries.” For over a century, scholars have disputed the stone’s authenticity, with some pointing fingers to a late 19th, early 20th century professor named Ole Hagen as the perpetrator of the alleged hoax. Hagen lived just down the road from me in Rock Falls, Wisconsin, and his career was jeopardized, in part, as a result of the accusations. He spent a good portion of his life trying to disprove his accusers by studying the stone, and after years of work, he was nearing proof of his innocence. Of course, just as he was closing in on the truth, his house caught fire, destroying all of his research. He died shortly after. I’ve visited his grave. I’ve spoken to his granddaughter. As a professor myself—and as someone who knows at least a little about selecting one’s research subjects wisely (as well as the ramifications of failing to do so)—Hagan’s story has long resonated with me. For me, his story seemed a cautionary tale of what can happen when a professor becomes entangled with the strange. Given that I’ve written this book, I worry that I didn’t learn his lesson.
Could you share with us a glimpse of your writing practice or process for this book?
For me, every project and piece is different. Sometimes, you must look inward for the truth; other times, you must look outward. The work that I’m most proud of involves both processes. For Midwestern Strange, I had to literally search the skies as well as my soul. (Okay, that sounds a little dramatic, but you get the idea.) It involved less of a writing “process” in the conventional sense, and more of a “fill-the-car-with-gas-and-hit-the-road” approach. But after tracking the stories and examining the locations and talking with the witnesses, it was mostly business as usual. I looked at what I’d gathered and tried to make sense of it. I wrote, rewrote, trashed the bad stuff, pushed harder on the not-so-bad stuff, and tried to craft an engaging narrative that might propel a reader forward. It’s hard to make UFOs and monsters boring, yet you’d be surprised at how often my earlier drafts were. Thankfully, eventually I found my stride. The trick was recognizing that while the information was important, it became even more so within the context of my own personal story. This book is a reflective journey. It’s my public attempt to make sense of the mystery.
If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, dance, etc.) what would it be and why?
Is collaboration an artistic path? If so, I choose that. Few things give me as much pleasure as working alongside an array of artists within an array of mediums. We writers are in a unique position to collaborate since words as so wonderfully versatile. We can (at least in theory…) write lyrics for musicians, write work to inspire visual artists, and write scenes for actors to perform. The more we work together, the more opportunities for all. And there’s nothing strange about that.
B.J. Hollars is the author of several books, most recently Midwestern Strange: Hunting Monsters, Martians and the Weird in Flyover Country. Hollars is the recipient of the Truman Capote Prize for Literary Nonfiction, the Anne B. and James B. McMillan Prize, the Council of Wisconsin Writers’ Blei-Derleth Award, and the Society of Midland Authors Award. He is the founder and executive director of the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild and an associate professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. He lives a simple existence with his wife, their children, and their dog.