Writing materials

Writing working-class vocals full of rhythm, muscle and wanderlust

You won’t find the writer Madison Christopher Chambers on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or God forbid, BookTok. (“I’m terrible at marketing and all that,” he says.) But you’ll find it in the voice of his sharp, cutting news, the latest of which is bound in a new collection this month from Cornerstone Press, a imprint of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. “Kind of Blue” packs 27 richly concise stories into 203 pages, delivering wisdom and strained heart through mostly working-class Midwestern characters. Chambers himself is originally from Wisconsin and has lived in North Carolina, Michigan, Minnesota, Florida, Alabama, Texas and Louisiana (but in Madison since 2015), and his current roles include editor acting from Wisconsin People & Ideas Magazine, bartender at the Working Draft Beer Company and instructor for the Wisconsin Prison Humanities program. His short stories have been widely published in reputable outlets such as Best American Mystery Stories and The Southern Review – and, our favorite, Madison Magazine, where “Fair Oaks Dinnerfirst appeared in December 2021. Her previous two books are “Delta 88” (short fiction) and “Inter/views” (poetry). “kind of blue» is available via Cornerstone Pressspecial order from your local and online independent bookstore.

Most of these stories have already been published in anthologies, journals and magazines. When and why did you decide to publish a book? How was this collection born?
Most of them have already been published, but not all. The collection started as a master’s thesis when I was in Alabama. Over the years, the title has changed, stories have been added, others have been removed, and all have been extensively revised. An earlier version was a finalist for the Mary McCarthy Award and shortlisted for a few other competitions, which encouraged me to continue working on it. I tried to order them so that the collection would work as a whole, juxtaposing pieces that seemed to work together.

These stories are set in rural Wisconsin, Minneapolis, Duluth, Milwaukee, Detroit, New Orleans, Houston, and South Florida — mostly places where you lived and worked. What are you looking for, what gives a place its essence and flavor, what catches your writer’s eye?
They say you have to write what you know, and for me that starts with location, which I think is as important to fiction as character. In some ways, the setting of a story is like another character. I find that I can see places more clearly after I leave, although it is of course crucial to pay attention while you are there, being one of those on whom nothing is lost. I love stories with weather, sensory details, things I can smell, taste and hear. I like diners and dive bars. I love architecture, so I pay attention to buildings. I dream a lot of buildings. I’ve always loved cars too, tools and machines, so I pay attention to those things and how people interact with them and what those things have to say about the world.

What do you identify with so closely in this working class voice and experience?
I come from working class background and until I was almost 40 I supported myself by doing what is generally considered blue collar work: farmhand, slaughterhouse worker, Teamster, bartender, construction worker. I continued to do carpentry when I returned to school in my mid-thirties. When I got a college job after grad school, it was like winning the lottery. I taught undergraduate for 16 years. It was a great experience in many ways, but I always felt like an accidental teacher. I like to work with my hands and I renovated three houses in New Orleans during those years, which I guess could have been three novels. I have no regrets about it, although I think I’m done with the houses and ready to start the novel again. I see writing as a kind of construction project, the process, to paraphrase William Carlos Williams, of making “a machine made of words”.

You work as a magazine editor, bartender, and teacher in a state prison. What did each of these roles add to your writing?
I am convinced that the editorial staff, which I have practiced for thirty years in four different magazines, has considerably improved my writing. Spending time reading, evaluating, and helping to revise the work of other writers inevitably sharpens one’s own writing skills. Of course, it also takes time and energy that you could spend on your own writing. Bartending, you meet people and hear stories. It’s a nice change of pace from staring at a computer screen or reading manuscripts, which is how I spend so much of my waking hours. Teaching at Oakhill Prison has been one of the most fulfilling and rewarding experiences of my career. They are the best students I have ever had, guys who are eager to learn, have strong stories to tell and read more than most people on the outside.

Some of your stories are very short – even just a paragraph – a form known as flash fiction. What attracts you to the short form and how does it differ for you from poetry, for example?
The brevity of form appeals to me as a reader and writer. I used to teach flash fiction, finding it easier to break down a one or two page story than a 20 or 30 page story. You can read it and reread it in one go, and see it as a whole. I write short prose and poetry when I don’t have time to delve into something, which seems to be most of the time. How is it different? I don’t care much about how to label a piece of writing, but from my point of view, prose is usually written in sentences and paragraphs, poetry in verse and stanzas. Flash fiction will also tend to have some sort of story arc, distinguishing it from prose poetry.

Music is such a pervasive theme in your stories, and your voice is lyrical and rhythmic. What is this relationship between music and writing for you?
I like to say that I became a writer because I couldn’t play the guitar, and I’m a little jealous of writers who are also musicians, forming bands and making records. I’ve always loved music and I listen to a wide variety of it. And I am drawn to writing that favors the voice. The sound and rhythm of the language are as important to me as the old tricks of the plot, and I revise with my ear. I’ll forgive a beautiful voice in a story where not much more happens than a dull voice telling a gripping story. I’ve heard that music is the art form that all other arts aspire to, and I wouldn’t dispute that. My writing is probably as influenced by the work of musicians as by other writers. Tom Waits, Patti Smith, Leonard Cohen, Vic Chesnutt. Of course, they are also writers, working as much with words as with music.

Do you have a favorite story in the collection? And can you say why?
I like some of them better than others. “Best Western” that I like. It’s one that has never been published in a magazine, and that was the title of the book for a long time. “On Montegut Street” is one of the courts that I feel pretty good about, and “Fair Oaks Diner”. I like to think there’s humor in them, no matter how dark, and hope they hit on most cylinders, generating honest emotion.

I was of course delighted to see Fair Oaks Diner complete the collection. Remind me, did you have this one ready when I reached out, or did you write it just for us?
I wish I could say I wrote it just for you, but I believe I had already written it, inspired by a rereading of Richard Brautigan’s collection “Revenge of the Lawn”. As luck would have it, it was the right length and set in Madison and seemed to fit your call for short tryouts just fine. I was thrilled to see it appear in Madison Magazine.

Was there a story that changed a lot from its original incarnation, or gave you tantrums?
This has all changed a lot since the first drafts and gave me adjustments. I find it difficult to evaluate my own work. “Sunshine, Park Bench” remained unfinished for a long time, a promising start that I was not sure where to go from. “O Happy Living Things” is a post-Katrina story, difficult to write for several reasons. Even under the best of circumstances, New Orleans is a tough place to write about in a fresh, true way. It’s one of those stories that now seems to have been written by someone else.

Many of your stories are told in the first person, but that’s clearly not you, is it? And yet themes, places and circumstances often reflect your life. What can you say about the distinction between the personal and the fictional in your work, or your POV decision making when it comes time to write?
True, there is always a distinction between the author and the narrator, who is a character built to tell a story. That said, I really like what is sometimes called “autofiction”, work that blurs the boundaries between memory and fiction, author and character. See Robert Bolano, Lucia Berlin, Eduardo Halfon. As a reader, I’m not interested in whether a story is “true” (by which we really mean “factual”), only if it engages and moves me. I suspect that all fiction writing is a combination of experience and imagination, and so is all memoir. Fragments of experience are a starting point, but immediately the imagination kicks in. The only question for me is whether a character or an event, a phrase or a word, serves the story, whether that sounds right.

There’s a kind of existential longing that runs through every story, a longing that I’m not sure I can put my finger on. Can you?
Oh, I wish I could. I guess I’d be worried if there wasn’t existential longing in there, if these stories weren’t somehow struggling with what it means to be alive in the world at this place and at this time.

Find “Kind of Blue” on Cornerstone Press.