Tag Archives: I Was a Revolutionary

An Interview with Andrew Malan Milward

20 Aug
Andrew Malan Milward's collection I Was a Revolutionary zeroes in on the complex radicalism of Kansas.

Andrew Malan Milward’s collection I Was a Revolutionary zeroes in on the complex radicalism of Kansas with stories that range from the burning of Lawrence to the assassination of George Tiller.

Andrew Malan Milward, a Lawrence, Kansas native and graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, is the author of the story collection The Agriculture Hall of Fame, which was awarded the Juniper Prize in Fiction by the University of Massachusetts. He has served as the McCreight Fiction Fellow at the University of Wisconsin, a Steinbeck Fellow at San Jose State University, and has received fellowships and awards from the Lannan Foundation, Jentel, and Yaddo. He lives in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where he teaches at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers and is editor-in-chief of Mississippi Review. His most recent book is the story collection I Was a Revolutionary.

To read Milward’s story “I Was a Revolutionary” and an exercise on building plot, click here.

In this interview, Milward discusses using specific cultural references, trusting the reader, and mixing history with present action.

Michael Noll

One of the things I love about the story “I Was a Revolutionary” is that it contains references to things I grew up with. For example, the narrator goes to a bar and drinks a “schooner of Boulevard Wheat,” a beer that I know well. I’m curious, though, whether you ever questioned such specific references. Did you ever consider just having him go out for a beer, rather than a Boulevard Wheat? 

Andrew Malan Milward

Yeah, I know what you mean, and it did give me momentary pause. However, I realized with a story like this that is so interested in examining a specific place, in this case Lawrence, Kansas, it was important to render that place as specifically as possible. So it was important to me to have the protagonist not only drinking Boulevard but to have him doing so in Louise’s and later in the 8th St. Taproom—real bars in downtown Lawrence where I’ve passed many boozy nights—even if most readers won’t have done so themselves. Obviously the story doesn’t depend on the reader knowing these specific references, but it’s a nice little winking fist-bump to those who do.

Michael Noll

The history that you tackle in the book as a whole is fascinating. Of course, I’m a native Kansan, so I love this stuff, but my wife, who’s from Delaware, also became interested in the history when she read the book. So, there seems to be an inherent appeal to the Bleeding Kansas days. But, the stories must still, at some point, give the reader a reason for the history’s presence. How did you approach that problem? Did you start with the history and find a plot to contain it? Or, did you start with a story (adjunct college instructor whose wife leaves him) and build the history into it?

Andrew Malan Milward

Yes, this was a real challenge. I knew that my fictional characters and their predicaments couldn’t just be excuses to introduce the reader to a whole bunch of Kansas history I happen to find fascinating. In certain failed early drafts I did just that. For example, in the early versions of “A Defense of History,” the Assistant’s storyline was slight and underdeveloped because I was basically just using him to try to tell the story of the Populists. This made the story lopsided and I had to find a way to make his story matter as much as the Populists’. This was a macro-level challenge for the whole book. I had to find a way to give my characters the dignity of human complexity. They couldn’t be afterthoughts. I had to make their situations as interesting, dramatic, and relevant as the history I was attempting to limn.

Now as for how I did that, I tried different strategies. Sometimes, as in “O Death,” it was an attempt to mimetically recreate the history, placing my fictional characters right into the drama of the time. And sometimes, as in “The Americanist” or “A Defense of History,” the history is mediated by a character in more contemporary times. A story like “The Burning of Lawrence” does both at once.

Michael Noll

Andrew Malan Milward's collection, I Was a Revolutionary, takes a fresh look at the complex history of Bleeding Kansas and its role leading up to the Civil War and the aftershocks that are still present today.

Andrew Malan Milward’s collection, I Was a Revolutionary, takes a fresh look at the complex history of Bleeding Kansas and its role leading up to the Civil War and the aftershocks that are still present today.

The title story, “I Was a Revolutionary,” contains several unexplained references—to history, to books (What’s the Matter with Kansas), and to the Obama presidential campaign. For example, the story mentions “the Ayers stuff” but doesn’t explain what it is, relying on the reader to know. How did you know to trust the reader to figure it out? 

Andrew Malan Milward

As a writer I always try to respect the reader as much as possible and that involves a lot of trust, because as readers we’ve all had the unpleasant experience of a writer not trusting us and we resent it. Oftentimes this is an unintended consequence of writers with good intentions—they’re trying to invite us into the story and don’t want us to feel confused. But we don’t like to have our hand held because it feels condescending. As readers we like to feel smart and when a writer doesn’t trust us enough to know something or “get” something, when they’re trying too hard to guide us through their work, we react against it. We think, I knew that. You didn’t have to tell me.

And you’re right, the title story has more references than the others because as the final story in the collection it’s working on two levels: it’s no only the story of Paul and his radical past, it’s also the story of all the stories in the collection. It the one that talks about everything that has come before it. A lot of the references in it are to events and people that have been explored in previous stories in the collection (which I why I strongly suggest/hope readers read the stories in the order they have been arranged). However, there are a lot of references to people and events not covered previously in the book. I suppose I’m trusting the reader to either know or maybe be curious enough to look them up. I like to think, however, that the story still holds together even if they don’t.

Michael Noll

Kansas is at an interesting political moment. Its governor, Sam Brownback, has enacted tax cuts that are the dream of every Tea Party member, and, as a result, the state has experienced a revenue shortfall and is struggling to fund basic things like schools and highway construction. Not surprisingly, Brownback has become massively unpopular. And yet I’m not sure what will happen in the next election. In the recent past, when Republican governors and candidates have veered too far to the right, Kansans have elected Democrats (Joan Finney and Kathleen Sebelius). But, as you point out in I Was a Revolutionary, this is a state that also has a long history of political extremism. I’m curious how you’d read the state’s political tea leaves. Do you think it will move back toward centrist politics? Or are there enough voters with an extremist conservative ideology to keep pushing the state further to the right?

Andrew Malan Milward

It’s incredibly hard to square Kansas’s warring instincts for progressivism and conservatism. Much of the book was guided by that question: How did such a forward-thinking state that was founded very bloodily to enter the Union as a free state instead of a slave state—inciting what would become the Civil War—arrive at its reactionary present of the Westboro Baptist Church, a militant anti-abortion movement, and the top-down class warfare of the Koch Brothers and Governor Sam Brownback? As the protagonist of the title story tells his students in class one day, “Kansas is and always was a radical state.” I certainly found that to be true. And, you’re right, the present isn’t very pretty—all the risible insanity that makes Kansas look like the meth-lab Winnebago of American democracy. I’m not sure what will happen, but if there’s one thing that Kansas’s history has proved it’s that the state and its inhabitants are capable of dramatic change, which is certainly what’s required right now. Personally, I’m hoping we become as smart and civilized as farmers in Kansas were 125 years ago. Those Populists organized a true grassroots party, the People’s Party, as an alternative to the Republicans and Democrats that at its core was a movement against corporate hegemony. Think about that for a moment: a movement against corporate domination of society in 1890. Incredible. They certainly saw the direction we were heading and they had the courage to try to do something about it.

August 2015

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Give a Story’s Plot Enough Fuel to Finish

18 Aug
Andrew Malan Milward's collection, I Was a Revolutionary, takes a fresh look at the complex history of Bleeding Kansas and its role leading up to the Civil War and the aftershocks that are still present today.

Andrew Malan Milward’s collection, I Was a Revolutionary, takes a fresh look at the complex history of Bleeding Kansas, from the burning of Lawrence to the aftershocks still present today.

As writers, we all eventually experience this moment: we’re sitting at the computer, and the story just quits. It won’t move forward, no matter how many guns we hang on the wall or strangers we have knock on the door. So what do we do? Very likely, go back to the beginning, searching for that wrong piece that has fouled everything up. It’s often the case, though, that the problem isn’t a wrong piece but not enough pieces. A story needs multiple plot threads, multiple questions for the reader to wonder about. The solution to writer’s block, then, is often to find ways to introduce more plot threads at the beginning of the story.

A terrific example for how this can be done is Andrew Malan Milward’s story, “I Was a Revolutionary.” It’s the final story in his new collection, I Was a Revolutionary, and was first published in Virginia Quarterly Review, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story has three primary plot lines, and each one is introduced right away. Here’s the first:

On the first day I tell them: “When searching for the Seven Cities of Cibola, Coronado was so disappointed by what he found in the land that would one day become Kansas that he strangled the guide who’d brought him here and turned around.”

No one laughs. Their blank stares communicate only this: It’s the first day of class. Don’t get cute.

The narrator is an adjunct instructor of Kansas history at the University of Kansas. He’s developed a passion for the subject, but his students are less than enthusiastic. Will he be able to get their attention, and, if so, what will happen? The first plot line is established.

Here’s the second line:

I check e-mail and find my wife has written. We used to speak openly and directly. Now we e-mail, and hers arrive with all the formality of a communiqué. Paul, I would like to get some more of my things this evening. Please leave the house from 7-8. —Linda. Strange to think of her across campus, over in Sociology, composing this terse missive. Stranger still to think that when the divorce papers arrive, we could, if so inclined, settle the whole matter via intracampus mail.

The narrator’s wife is divorcing him, and, as with all good divorce stories, being separated just mean they’re physical parted. They still work in the same place, which leads to the final plot line:

I’m debating whether to reply when Brad, the chair of the history department, pops in to say hello.

“Welcome back, partner. How was break?”

“Cold,” I say.

He laughs and asks if my eleven thirty went okay.

Brad toes a fine line between administrator and concerned colleague, a fact that seems to color any conversation I have with him. I shouldn’t complain; he’s always been pretty good to me. When the university hired Linda almost twenty-five years ago, he took me on as an instructor.

Not only does the narrator work in the same place as his soon-to-be ex-wife, but he is also, to some extent, dependent on her for his job, which his boss makes clear through awkward concern.

The story introduces these plots lines succinctly but clearly. This is important to remember because it would easy to read this story and several of the others in the collection and focus on the innovative way that Milward combines history with present action. This story in particular includes long lists of historical facts and events, and it might be tempting to view it as idiosyncratic or experimental—which it is, in a way. But it’s also quite deliberate about the way it introduces plot, which helps get the reader to buy in to its more unconventional qualities.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s introduce multiple plot lines, using “I Was a Revolutionary” by Andrew Malan Milward as a model:

  1. Identify a primary plot line. In “I Was a Revolutionary,” this is probably the narrator’s divorce and deteriorating relationship with his wife. Because he’s getting divorced, his job is in jeopardy and he gets involved with two students in a way that he might previously have avoided. This also happens to be the most usual of the plot lines; marriage/divorce stories are a standard of pretty much every genre. So, consider which of your potential plot lines most resembles a standard plot line, one that would drive a popular film. Sum it up in a line.
  2. Build a plot line from the world of the plot. What is happening around this primary plot. In “I Was a Revolutionary,” the characters work at a university. This may have been deliberately chosen by Milward, or it might have just been a job he stumbled upon when writing the story—it doesn’t matter. Whatever exists around the plot, make it matter. Find a way to make its very existence hinge on the outcome of the primary plot. For example, if the divorce goes badly, we know the narrator’s job could be at risk. So, find a way to put the foundation of your characters’ lives at stake: jobs, home, children, whatever makes them happy or secure. Connect it to the primary plot.
  3. Build a plot line from the characters’ interests. This may be the most idiosyncratic plot line. As with the Spanish Inquisition, no one expects an obsession with Kansas history. Yet there it is, figuring dramatically in the story. Milward accomplishes this by making it relevant to the narrator: he was once part of the Weather Underground, and so when he discovers the revolutionary past of Kansas, he’s naturally drawn to it and feels compelled to share it with other revolutionary-minded individuals—in this case, his students. Of course, revolutionary is a hazardous career path, as is working with people whose fervor dwarfs your own. The important thing is that the narrator’s interest in Kansas history ties in with his job and, thus, his divorce. This may seem inevitable, but it’s not. Lots of people who are not college instructors visit war sites and re-enact battles. But Milward found a way to channel this interest into the world he’d created for the story. So, identify an interest or obsession in your character and a way to connect it to the world of your story.
  4. Play with the connections. If you build these plot lines from the same basic materials (the world of the story), then they will eventually collide, which is what you want.

Good luck.

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