Portage Magazine: First off, tell us about your connection to the Upper Midwest?
Steev Baker: I was born and raised in the Upper Midwest — Wisconsin, Illinois, and Michigan. My family has been in the Great Lakes region for several generations as farmers, preachers, and factory workers.
PM: How long have you been writing?
SB: I have been writing for publication since 2010. Before that, I had worked on poetry and short stories off and on since high school. I have a literature degree from UW Oshkosh, but was mostly involved in poetry and music while I was a student there.
PM: Your story mixes the rural Midwest setting with an air of mystery, which may surprise some readers who view the Midwest as bland. For you, how do these elements work together in your story?
SB: Any setting can be strange or otherworldly, regardless of where you live. Even so, people who don’t see the mystery in the Midwest landscape really haven’t been looking very closely. If you get a mile or so away from the interstates, you start to find massive, crumbling barns, abandoned factories, empty one-room schoolhouses, miles of twisting forest trails. Put an interesting character into any of those settings and weird things will happen.
PM: What ideas, experiences, or motivations helped shape or inspire your story “From the Road”?
SB: Bike riding, of course, and the sense of isolation you get riding alone on country roads. And I still remember that feeling from being a kid and not really understanding the world. Everything was potentially mysterious or uncanny and rational explanations belonged in the grown-up world. There was an old cement farm garage near the corn field behind my house when I was a kid, and we used to crawl through a broken window and explore the mazes of dusty boxes and sheet-covered furniture. There was the possibility that anything could have been hidden in there and it was up to us to discover it.
PM: What are three books that have shaped you as a writer and in what way?
SB: My two biggest influences are Flannery O’Connor and Ray Bradbury. Not necessarily the sci-fi Bradbury, but his novels Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes. Both he and O’Connor have this wonderful way of mixing the commonplace with the extraordinary, where the setting almost becomes another character and the supernatural haunts the edges of their work.
PM: Lastly, how would you describe the literary and artistic scene in the Upper Midwest? And what do you see as the future of this scene?
SB: The music scene is obviously getting a lot of attention these days, but I think the arts in general are flourishing in the Upper Midwest. Both Madison and Milwaukee are great places to be a writer — Madison has one of the best MFA programs in the country and so attracts a lot of the academic literary crowd. Milwaukee, on the other hand, seems to be a great scene for small presses, zines, and indie projects. With digital publishing so accessible, anyone can get their work out there in the wild and into the hands of readers. I don’t know that we’ll ever really see a regional style, although some have suggested that “Midwest gothic” is a good term for work like mine.