If Mike Alberti weren’t a fiction writer, I imagine he’d be a master builder, the kind with the square pencil behind his ear who constructs a house so every inch is level and sturdy and glowing. His stories are built from that kind of care. Alberti’s debut collection, Some People Let You Down, won the Katherine Anne Porter Prize, and it’s easy to see why.
His characters live at the intersection of rural America and loneliness. “First there was nothing, just the silent empty prairie and the darkness that hangs over it.” This is how “Prairie Fire” begins—with a sentence that could speak for the entire collection. The landscape—itself a character—is capacious and haunting. It leaves its mark on characters who are left to fracture or endure in the face of loss.
Though Mike and I have worked together for years running the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop, we’re far more likely to talk about a grant application or a student publication than our own creative work; that’s the nature of nonprofit life, even if that nonprofit is a literary arts organization. So, it was a rare pleasure to take an hour to talk about Mike’s fiction. Fittingly, we spoke a few days after the Capitol riots, and in addition to toxic masculinity and landscape, we talked about literature’s role in showing us our human failings.
The Rumpus: You grew up in New Mexico, but you have this deep, creative attachment to the Midwest. What is it about the Midwest that calls to you?
Alberti: I’m interested in that idea of only having one landscape. And part of it, I think, has to do with the constraints of a small town—almost like a formal constraint. Well, I’d also say part of my interest in landscape is in how the human or built environment interacts with the natural landscape. And in particular, I’m just interested in ruins and relics of human habitation and human use.
Rumpus: And the Midwest stands for ruins?
Alberti: Yeah. That kind of leads naturally to an interest in these dying towns. I’ve never really lived in the Great Plains for any amount of time. But I’ve driven across it dozens and dozens of times, and, and something about that landscape really captures my attention. You know, there are the Woods, Kansas stories that I think of as the gravitational center of in the book. And Woods is an abandoned town. There’s just something kind of narratively and spiritually interesting about that, to me. I mean, the Great Plains are full of these abandoned structures and grain silos, barns, houses, whole towns that have just been left there. They’re just there for years and years and years.
You think about those ruins in terms of, history, like, this is what used to be here. But it’s also, in a weird way, a harbinger of the future.
Rumpus: Did you have coastal insecurities like I did out as a kid on the Texas Panhandle?
Alberti: Growing up in Albuquerque, the state motto is The Land of Enchantment, but people call it the Land of Entrapment. And that’s because people feel like they’re stuck there. I had this feeling that I wanted to get out, which I think infuses the stories, you know, feeling trapped, but wanting to leave. But then when I did get out and I went to college on the East Coast, I experienced this kind of inferiority thing. In a really direct way. Just going to school with these rich, sophisticated, East Coast, artsy kids. You know, I think half of the people from Vassar are from New York City, or something like that.
The first time I went to New York City, I was like, totally overwhelmed, just really a fish out of water. So I felt that created a certain kind of resentment in me. I think that my characters also have this. It’s a weird paradox, where you’re thinking you resent the place where you’re from, but then you resent the places that contrast with that place, and also how they make you feel.
Rumpus: Every one of your stories is filled with negative space. It’s quite often beloveds who are missing. In “Summer People,” it’s those empty houses, and Janine’s brother, then Lorna, then Lorna’s father, then Lorna. In “Upper Peninsula,” there’s a son who drowned. And on and on. It just strikes me that absence is very present in almost all your stories. What are your thoughts about that?
Alberti: That’s really perceptive. I haven’t exactly thought of it that way. But I think that’s really exactly right. Yeah, I mean, again, if there’s something that I’m obsessed with, you know, it’s kind of these abandoned spaces, these ruins and then what kind of life they have afterwards. And really tied up in that is negative space and absence and loss. Thinking about what was here and what wasn’t, and what is here now.
Rumpus: That’s hard to write. I mean, you do it well. The absences are so very mournful. Again, with “Summer People,” there was so much loss in that story. It was tender and beautiful and filled with a lot of love, but also my gosh, absence.
Alberti: Yeah, well, there’s this kind of idea of impermanence. You know, you might have an attachment, and you might love a person or a place, or you might have an idea of who you are, and where you belong. And that might just be wrenched from you. Yeah, if there’s some sort of, you know, ontological reality of the book, that’s what’s going on.
As soon as you step into the book, it’s like, you’re very much in danger of having something taken away from you, and having to grapple with that loss. But I also think that’s true of life.
Rumpus: I find it fascinating the way the physical places mirror the losses the characters experience.
Alberti: Yeah, I think there’s one thing that ties them together. And in terms of narrative, I love thinking about that. There’s the emotional drive to write a story, you know, the kind of content that you’re interested in writing about. But there’s also this, more intellectual interest in discovering what other kinds of narrative structures are out there, and what type of content fits well into the structure. You could think of loss in the normal narrative arc, where you know, you’ve gained something, and then you lose it, or something like that. But if you’re staying with the loss, and the story doesn’t end, then the story shapes itself around that loss, right? This is something I’m interested in. Like, how do you tell a story where the loss happens on page two?
Rumpus: It doesn’t ever really end, does it? In your stories?
Alberti: I think about loss as echoes or circular structures. It’s just—the character goes on. Time passes, right? But the loss continues. It keeps coming back, it reverberates. Or sometimes I think of it as a different kind of visual metaphor, like a black hole, that the characters are orbiting around, you know. That becomes the central point of your identity and of your life. And you just go around and around and around.
Rumpus: That seems right for your work. I mean, not in a grim way. There are some stories, like “Upper Peninsula,” that reckon with loss not with not resolution exactly, but acceptance? And in “Prairie Fire,” it’s almost celebratory.
Alberti: Yeah, if the character can come to terms in a way. Like, this is what it is. Yeah. I have to just go on and live. That’s what I’m going to do.
Rumpus: There’s almost an ode to ordinariness for both people and place. But a lot of your characters get a fleeting moment of being special. Except it doesn’t endure.
Alberti: Well, it never does, does it? It also has something to do with a kind of suffering, too. And the character is able to connect somehow with the world around them. Those are moments that I look for in what I read. I feel like I’m kind of obsessed with this idea that part of being human is this ability to transcend yourself occasionally, very rarely, you know, so that’s what we’re looking for, and it can happen.
Rumpus: I love that. It articulates for me the moments of hope that I feel in your stories. Speaking of transcending the self, why do you write so often from a female point of view? Not an accusation. Just truly curious.
Alberti: Yeah, it’s a good, hard question. I guess I see so much wrong with the kind of normative masculinity that’s so pervasive that I find it hard to write a sympathetic male character.
Actually, when I wrote the title story, “Some People Let You Down,” it was a conscious attempt to do so, even though it’s from a woman’s point of view. I wanted to think about the dad as being a sympathetic character. I think it’s telling that he’s gay.
Rumpus: It seems like the male characters are kind of imminently concerned about themselves. In the short term, anyway: their sexual gratification, their violent urges, their next fix, their glory, their job. They’re very self-focused. The characters who do transcend the ordinary—am I exaggerating to say?—are almost always women. The dad in the title story and the townsmen who helped put out the fire are exceptions. But when there’s a tight lens on any of the main characters, for the most part, it’s the female characters who seem like they have the ability transcend the self.
Alberti: I really think that’s so right. I think that’s such a good observation and makes me think in kind of a new way about about the stories, too. And, raises this question of like, why am I writing about this kind of myopia? It is narratively interesting in the same way that the myopia of a small town is narratively interesting. You know, there’s a line in “Pestilence” about a character. He is only six, but the narrator says [of him], “he couldn’t see beyond the limited horizon of his most immediate concerns.” That’s kind of the task. It’s the same for the town. But it’s also these men. There’s just something missing there that they can’t, they can’t see past. They’re confined to their constraints by themselves. They’re doing it to themselves.
Rumpus: I know you, and you are not these male characters. Where in your world are they coming from?
Alberti: [Laughter] Where are they coming from? It feels like they’re everywhere to me. Not in my family, but it was all around me growing up, this kind of patriarchal, misogynistic ethos. And even though I’ve always found it repulsive, it’s impossible not to be influenced by it, for some of it to rub off. And that demands a kind of active disinvestment from it, which requires trying to understand it. Even though it’s all around us, I still feel like I don’t fully understand it. Like, I don’t know, you see these guys breaking into the Capitol and you’re like, okay, yeah, this is real. I mean this kind of awful, toxic masculinity that you know is out there. I don’t totally understand any of this. So, some of it is a desire to look into it.
Rumpus: Well, fittingly, I guess, I don’t think any of your male characters are ever forced to have a reckoning. Not unlike many of the rioters at the capitol. Shit goes down and you think, okay, here it goes. It’s on such display right now that the world is going to say, Enough. Put your big ass guns away. But there never seems to be a real or permanent reckoning.
Alberti: This brings up a big, a larger question that I struggle with in writing and also, kind of, in teaching. There’s a degree to which I think art can do a good job of simply reflecting the world in a different way so that it becomes more clear, and we understand it better. And there’s also a way that art can imagine better ways to be. I haven’t really gotten to that second one so much, you know, in my own writing. But, yeah, it’s just what’s true. I mean, there is no reckoning.
Rumpus: Also, no redemption?
Alberti: I’m not super interested in redemption for these characters. So, it’s not really something I think about. I don’t want them to be redeemed. I want them to be roundly condemned, right? So for example, there’s Wayne, in “Woods, Kansas.” I wanted to start the collection with that story, because I think, to my mind, it’s the bleakest story and, and I want to kind of move generally speaking from bleak to less bleak, to some extent, although I knew the risk. That’s a hard story, but it was important to me to lay that groundwork for the arc of the book. And also to make this kind of statement, which is, if you’re looking for some kind of redemption, or a happy ending or something, you’re in the wrong place. But then as the book goes on I kind of do try to mitigate that somewhat, because that’s part of life, too. Sometimes people do change, and sometimes they apologize, and sometimes they don’t let each other down.
Rumpus: My last question is about our students through the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop. I’m sorry to have to ask you, because I hate it when people ask me. But I do wonder if you’re conscious of any of the ways that the work in the prisons affects you personally, professionally, or even at the level of the craft.
Alberti: I guess to paint with way too broad a brush, I would say that a lot of fiction writers and writers, any kind of writers in general, seem both in their lives and in their work, to be almost extraordinarily removed from the pervasive suffering that seems to be the defining feature of how our society is currently constructed. And I’m in that group, you know. I don’t mean to exempt myself from it, but there is also very little kind of curiosity about it. I see very little attempt to wrestle with the suffering that we do to each other. So, you just spend time in a prison and you learn what that life is like, and that’s one kind of view you have to fit that into your understanding of what the world looks like.
It has the flip-side, you know. I mean you’re working with these men and women who are so much more well-acquainted with those circumstances, and I don’t want to be too bombastic about it or whatever, it’s complicated, but often they are able to make their lives meaningful and positive. It’s actually so remarkable. I mean, everything in their environment is intentionally punitive, dehumanizing, demoralizing, and they’re still able to make beautiful art and do good in the world and just be good people. It rescues me from fatalism. To the extent that this book is not fatalistic, to the small extent, I really credit them.
Photograph of Mike Alberti by Kristin Collier.