With a “heart as vast as the prairie,” as Storyville puts it, Iowa Writers’ Workshop alum Andrew Malan Milward explores the landscape and legacies of his home state through eight independent but interlocking stories in his second short story collection, I Was a Revolutionary (Harper, 2015). Revolutionary packs more than 150 years of complicated history into fewer than 300 pages, faithfully portraying the Civil War-era Confederate guerrillas, African-American “exoduster” pilgrims, Great Plains frontiersmen and modern-day academics who all seem to co-exist in the Kansas of Milward’s imagination. The author’s myriad gifts — an eye for overlooked and underappreciated characters first among them — are fully realized in this tremendous exploration of the American heartland.
The history of Kansas is as integral to the stories as the characters themselves. Were you surprised at the things you learned in researching and writing this book?
Yes, I was totally surprised by the things I discovered while researching the book. Having grown up in Lawrence, I knew a little about Quantrill’s Raid, but pretty much everything else in the collection was stuff I learned only through research over the last nine years. And if it was that way for me as someone from Kansas, then I was pretty certain most of the country didn’t know much of this amazing history. And yes, there are definitely more stories to tell. One of the real challenges of the book was figuring our what would make it into the book and what would be left, sadly, on the cutting room floor. For example, I regret not being able to give Carrie Nation her own story.
You have said before that you wanted to write a short story collection “that felt epic.” Why did you want to tell Kansas’s story in this way?
While many writers learn the craft of fiction through writing stories, I don’t think of short stories as “apprentice work” for the novel, as they’re sometimes seen. Many of our greatest writers have been story writers — Alice Munro, Raymond Carver, and George Saunders to name a few — not because they don’t know how to write a novel, but because they believe stories can do something that novels can’t. And for me, that something is a unique power that stems from their compression and intensity. Everything matters in a short story; there’s not a lot of room for digression.
All of which is to say, I love short stories and I wanted to do the book as a story collection instead of a novel because I wanted the book to function on two levels. On one level, what we might call the micro level, I wanted each story to stand alone individually, to have it’s own meaning and closure. On the other level, what we might call the macro level, I wanted the stories to talk to each other, to take on a greater collective meaning and tell a larger story in the context of all the other stories. In this way, so I hope, the experience of reading it is sort of like working through a story collection and a novel at the same time. Hopefully it captures some of what’s great about both forms. I’m basically trying to have my cake and eat it too, I suppose.
Many of our greatest writers have been story writers — not because they don’t know how to write a novel, but because they believe stories can do something that novels can’t.
You explore the connection between past and present in many of your stories. “The Burning of Lawrence” examines this relationship most directly by contrasting scenes of Confederate raider William Quantrill and his paramour in 1863 with a pair of KU undergraduates not long after the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003. From your own experience, how did a deeper understanding of geographic history re-excite your curiosity about contemporary Kansans and their experiences?
In that story I was interested in exploring the difficulty of relating to violence and trauma, whether it’s an historical event like Quantrill’s Raid, from which we’re separated by time, or the recent Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, from which American civilians are separated by distance. I think I’ve become obsessed and perhaps haunted by history. I search it out, and often sense it, in everything. So, yes, discovering all this history seemed to naturally make me look for its echoes in the present. That’s a big reason why I structured the book as I did. I didn’t want the stories to progress chronologically from 1863 to the present. I wanted the reader to feel the flux and whirl of history by having the stories jump around in time as one progressed through the book.
Which works of art and literature or stories from history most inspired your creativity in writing this collection?
In terms of literature, the books of James Baldwin, E.L. Doctorow, W.G. Sebald, Marilynne Robinson and George Orwell were very important.
In terms of music, old folk music and pre-war country blues were essential. Music was central to the creation of several of the stories. In fact two of them took their titles from songs I love. A song called “Oh Death” by Charley Patton and Bertha Lee that I listened to obsessively for a period inspired “O Death.” And “Good Men a Long Time Gone” took its title from Woody Guthrie’s song about Sacco and Vanzetti, “Two Good Men a Long Time Gone.”
In terms of films, the documentary series Eyes on the Prize — which should be required viewing for every American citizen — was very important, as were the films of Alain Resnais and Ingmar Bergman.
Do you have any book or essay recommendations for readers interested in continuing to explore the history and culture of the High Plains?
I don’t feel comfortable speaking for the High Plains in general, but in terms of Kansas I would suggest Craig Minor’s The History of the Sunflower State for a great overview of the history and culture. More specifically, there’s a terrific “Review Essay Series” in the journal Kansas History, which focuses on different aspects of the culture throughout history and into the present. They are fascinating, and free to access through the Kansas Historical Society website.