Portage Magazine: First off, tell us about your connection to the Upper Midwest?
Christopher Hagge: I was born and raised in a small, one-screen-theater town in south-central Minnesota. Then the theater closed, transformed into a Greek steakhouse, and torched for insurance money. Then it became a two-stoplight town.
After high school, I attended Drake University in Des Moines, majoring in advertising. I lived in my wife’s hometown of St. Louis for a couple years, then I convinced her to embrace the northern winter and move to Minnesota. My beloved North Star State has been our home for the past thirteen years.
PM: How long have you been writing?
CH: Ever since I realized I was a horrible artist, so back in my wide-lined Big Chief Pad elementary school days.
But if you’re asking how long I’ve been a serious writer, I don’t have an answer because I try not to take anything too seriously. If you focus on something so intently, and you get caught up in the trappings of whatever it is, you lose your ability to see what else is going on around you. You become isolated from all those experiences that help you grow both as a human being and as a writer.
PM: Stories with rural settings often become classified as “sentimental,” “Almost Elysian” seems to avoid much of that, was this an intentional choice?
CH: I’m not an overly sentimental guy. I don’t watch The Hallmark Channel because I’d be reaching for the Rolaids ten minutes in. Sometimes I find myself writing something that at first glance seems pretty good, but after a quick read, I find it to be so overly schmaltzy that the recycling bin is too good of a punishment.
I prefer my characters to be more firmly rooted in the place where they are rather than some fantasy world. For example, take Anthony Bukoski’s stories of blue-collar life in Superior, Wisconsin. I find these characters to be easily accessible because you share their experiences in a straightforward way. You have a better understanding of how they live, work and feel directly, without having an extra coat of paint slapped on for curb appeal.
PM: Where do you find inspiration for your writing?
CH: There’s no specific well from which I draw ideas. I simply hoard muses. I read a lot of news tidbits every day regarding pop culture, science, sports, history, technology. Whenever something strikes me as odd or particularly interesting, I file it away. Sometimes it means butchering the Sunday newspaper so my wife can’t read the article on the other page. Sometimes I run across something online and save it in Evernote. Sometimes I take photographs. Or sometimes it’s simply something I overhear, so I have to jot it down. Ideas are all around. You just need to make sure you use a very coarse filter, otherwise you’re liable to miss something.
PM: What are three books that have shaped you as a writer and in what way?
CH: Only three? You’re making this difficult.
The first would have to be A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore. I could have picked just about any of Moore’s books (such as Fool or Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal), but the misfit cast of characters maintains a careful balance between the worlds of the living and dead, and that fascinates me. Stories of the afterlife have long intrigued me because though we all have theories, no one is really sure what happens after our batteries run out.
I often am enamored with Moore’s characters. Though offbeat and dropped into situations as far away from reality as possible, the protagonists are so normal, so human. They try to figure things out as they go along. They try, fail, and try again. But they learn from their mistakes and carry on, no matter how bizarre the people and happenings are that they encounter.
The second book is North County by Howard Frank Mosher. I first picked this up over twenty years ago, and I find myself having to re-read it from time to time. It’s a travelogue of sorts (though his style makes it feel like he’s spinning a collection of well-honed yarns), chronicling his experiences as he drove along the U.S.–Canadian border, and the effects the people and places he’s met and visited in his lifetime have had on him. Mosher pushes past people’s exteriors and finds their quirks, emotional connections and their humanity. He paints their pictures on the pages in such a telling way that the reader feels like you’re riding shotgun on his journey of self-discovery.
For the third, I’m going to cheat and give you two books from my childhood that I can’t put down to this day: Roald Dahl’s classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends. Both were given to me by my grandparents when I was very young, and both are saturated with crazy characters, bizarre settings and absurd situations. Though they are directed at children, both books have stories and lessons to tell adults as long as we’re willing to read beyond the words on the page.
PM: How would you describe the literary and artistic scene in the Midwest?
CH: Since I live in the Minneapolis area, I find myself fortunate to be in the company of hundreds of writers and artists far more talented than I am. But that means there are so many opportunities to learn. I love being able to visit The Loft in downtown Minneapolis, where writers give their time to nurture other writers of any and all levels of experience. Then you can catch a concert at the venerable First Avenue, home of Prince and Soul Asylum. Grab a book at Micawber’s or Magers & Quinn, then take in a show at one of the dozens of theaters in the Twin Cities. There’s always something going on to stimulate your mind.
What sets us apart from the rest of these United States is that we don’t really have a swagger (except for Chicago, which has its own gravitational pull). The Midwest doesn’t have a “cool” factor like Portland, San Francisco, Boston or Miami, or a rugged stereotype like Alaska or Texas. We’re never going to be trendy, and that’s okay. We’re just here because it’s home, and there’s something to be said for that. I think that’s reflected in a lot of the writing that’s here.