Bookforum talks to Meghan O’Gieblyn

Interior States: Essays BY Meghan O'Gieblyn. Anchor. Paperback, 240 pages. $16.

“The Midwest is a somewhat slippery notion,” Meghan O’Gieblyn writes in her debut essay collection, Interior States. “It is a region whose existence—whose very name—has always been contingent upon the more fixed and concrete notion of the West. . . . It’s difficult to live here without developing an existential dizziness, a sense that the rest of the world is moving while you remain still.”

As a lifelong Midwesterner, O’Gieblyn’s personal existential dizziness is compounded by the loss of her faith. Raised in an evangelical Christian family, O’Gieblyn studied at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago but dropped out after a few semesters. She spent most of her twenties depressed and adrift, reeling from the seismic aftermath of the simultaneous loss of her identity and sense of purpose. Eventually, she began writing.

The essays in Interior States examine the concerns and crises of contemporary middle America, from Mike Pence’s evangelicalism and its implications for the future of American politics to the Flint water crisis, Midwestern “niceness,”and megachurch pastor Rob Bell’s notions of the afterlife. Comparing O’Gieblyn’s writing on the Midwest to Didion’s essays on California might seem too easy, but the comparison is apt. Both authors seem to be looking for a way out of their homeland, even as they admit they’ll probably never leave.

O’Gieblyn and I talked recently over the phone about faith, the Midwest, and how these themes play out in her new collection.

I just read your piece in the Paris Review on the novelist Marguerite Young’s book, Miss MacIntosh, My Darling. Young is a Midwesterner, but you say that she writes about that part of our country “in a way that is entirely unfamiliar.” What makes a Midwestern writer?

A lot of the writing that I read about the Midwest is very bleak, and a lot of it was written by authors who had left the region and were looking at it as an outsider. Like Jonathan Franzen; The Corrections is based on a fictional town in Missouri. It has a very bleak view of the Midwest as a place where everyone is old, dying, very slow, and has a bovine look on their face. I’d also read a lot of Lorrie Moore’s stories, which are sort of the opposite; many are about an East Coast woman coming to live in the Midwest and feeling out of place, like there’s no culture—all of the stereotypes about the Midwest.

In the past year, I’ve been thinking a lot about the legacy of the Midwest in American literature. I discovered Marguerite Young because I had been doing a lot of catching up on Midwestern writing that I had never read, like Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street and Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology. What I loved about Young is that she talked about the Midwest as a place of possibility, of imagination. I used a line from her essay “The Midwest of Everywhere” in one of the epigraphs of my book: “The Middle West is probably a fanatic state of mind. It is, as I see it, an unknown geographic terrain, an amorphous substance, the ghostly interplay of time with space, the cosmic, the psychic, as near to the North Pole as to the Gallup Poll.” I was excited by that; I had never heard anyone talk about the Midwest as a place of expansiveness.

What other contemporary Midwestern writers do you like?

I’m reading Ling Ma’s Severance. She lives in Chicago. It’s mostly about New York so far, but there’s a post-apocalyptic subplot where the characters are traveling through Midwestern towns. I love Rebecca Makkai, and Aleksandar Hemon, who are also based in Chicago, and Roxane Gay, who no longer lives in the region, but has written about being a black woman in rural America.

One of the main themes in your book is the experience of loss. Beyond losing your faith, you write that life in the Midwest is inherently full of loss, not only because people and jobs are leaving, but because living in the middle of two places makes it seem like everything that matters is happening elsewhere. When did you come to that realization?

I didn’t know I was writing about loss until I worked on the preface and was forced to think about what linked the essays together. I began writing about the Midwest in late 2015, early 2016, around the time that my husband and I moved to Michigan for a year. I found myself basically back in the town where I had grown up, and it had changed so much. The paper mill that had closed, and a lot of the other factories had closed. Now there is a farmer’s market, and all these farm-to-table restaurants; the town was trying to turn itself into a tourist destination. I think a lot of the writing about the Midwest is just trying to make sense of what it meant to live here during a time when the industries that built this region, the manufacturing plants—the auto industry, basically—are no longer a thriving sector of the American economy.

Looking over all the essays, I saw these links. When I was a Christian, I felt my life was going somewhere; it had a very clear purpose. Not only my personal life, and my spiritual purpose, but also that history was going somewhere. The Christian redemption narrative says that history is going to be redeemed, that there is going to have been a purpose for everything. The fracturing of that narrative, the loss of that purpose in my own life, was very seismic. I saw that experience mirrored in what the people of the Midwest are experiencing right now—we thought we were this driving life force of the economy, and now no one’s sure what we’re supposed to be doing here.

Why have you and your partner chosen to remain in the Midwest?

It was never a conscious decision. I spent most of my twenties thinking I’d end up somewhere else. It seemed like that happened for a lot of people I knew; young people leave in enormous numbers to go where there is more opportunity.

I still think about it sometimes—am I going to end up going somewhere else? Is that a possibility? I feel like now it’s too late; I’ve lived here long enough, it’s part of my identity, whether or not I want it to be. I do feel very connected to this place, and that I would lose a very essential part of myself if I did leave.

A large part of the book is about your struggle with leaving Christianity. Has writing about that experience changed how you feel about your religious life and your decision to leave?

When you come away from faith, you don’t have answers. I don’t feel like I escaped; I feel like it was something that happened to me, from the outside. When I first left, I thought I had a distinct rationale for why Christianity was illogical or unjust. Now, that certainty seems somewhat elusive to me. I think a lot of it had to do with emotional, psychological things I was struggling with at the time.

I live in Madison now, which is a liberal city. Most of the people I know here are baffled by evangelicals, or religious people in general. It reveals how close-minded people are when they talk about how Christians are brainwashed, or under some spell of false consciousness. I never felt brainwashed; I believed something logically and rationally and then I believed something different, which was also logical and rational.

Non-religious people underestimate Christianity, thinking it’s all about blind faith, mystery, and a belief system that has no logic to it. In reality, it is a very intricate system that is as complicated as any secular philosophy—at least, at the level at which I studied it at Moody Bible Institute. There, we were taught apologetics, how to respond when challenged, and we read a lot of secular philosophy. We read Nietzsche and were taught how to respond to someone who was giving arguments about the relativity of morals across history. It made sense in its own universe of logic; of course, once you step outside of that universe, it seems insane. Within it, it was a self-contained, complete system. It’s difficult to explain to people who haven’t experienced it.

In the ten years since I left my faith, I’ve often thought that if I’d had earlier access to the internet, I would have left Christianity sooner. How do you think the internet has changed Christianity?

It’s tempting to believe that more information—or more technology—is naturally enlightening. But the internet also breeds division and misinformation; the alt-right thrives online. It’s become clear in the last few years that technology confirms narrow worldviews because people surround themselves with like-minded individuals. If anything, the internet now helps people stay cloistered in what they already believe.

I have noticed there’s more attention within the Christian community—not a total reform, of course—to sexual assault and abuse in general, which is something that was not present when I was younger. It seems like a lot of women, in particular, feel more comfortable talking about that, and I think that’s largely because of internet-based movements like #MeToo. Maybe that’s one positive thing that’s come out of online communities. They have their own hashtag now, #ChurchToo—it’s basically a Christian #MeToo movement. I can’t imagine this would have happened even ten years ago, that anyone would have listened to these women or given their stories any credence.

Naomi Huffman is a writer and editor. She works at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and is the director of Book Fort.