Since the election of Donald Trump, Ohio has served as a sort of political Rorschach test. Depending on the ideology or affiliation, some squint and see the state as the avatar of humble, plain-speaking “Real America.” Others view it as a downtrodden place that embraced Trumpism after being abandoned by Hillary Clinton and the Democrats. Then there are those who see a state of racist white people angry about the crumbling foundation of white supremacy.
But former Chicagoan Stephen Markley hopes his novel—named after his native Great Lakes state—will help readers think of Ohio as not just a swing state but a diverse, complicated region full of flesh-and-blood people. It’s a book that attempts to be both a murder mystery involving four former classmates who return to the fictional town of New Canaan and a social critique about a place devastated by social, political, and economic upheaval over the last generation.
Out this week, Ohio (Simon & Schuster) is an ambitious debut of fiction from Markley, whose last book was a boozy, irreverent travelogue of a stint in Iceland (Tales of Iceland, or Running With the Huldufólk), written in 2013. Prior to that, in 2010, was Publish This Book: The Unbelievable Story of How I Wrote, Sold and Published This Book. The 34-year-old native of Mount Vernon, Ohio, cut his teeth as a freelance writer in Chicago, with jobs including a gig as a columnist for RedEye, then attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Before making a Chicago stop on his book tour on Thursday evening, Markley spoke with the Reader about his topsy-turvy career, the politics of military service, and, yes, Ohio.
How did you go from writing an absurd travelogue in Iceland to serious fiction about your hometown?
The way I’ve been describing it, I have wanted to be a novelist this whole time but I got sidetracked because I was getting paid to write that jocular stuff. And that led to Publish This Book. And I just sort of found myself in a different career than I actually wanted. A major turning point was getting into Iowa. Just saying, This is what I’m gonna get myself into, full-bore. Five years later I emerged with this novel, but it is like a pretty serious departure from everything else I’ve written.
It’s funny because I read some blurb where you’re hyped as some hot new talent.
Yeah, it’s weird, you’re slogging away for your entire adult life—I’ve been working on this since I was 22. Maybe I’m new to them but I feel old and beat up. [Laughs.]
This is sort of the book I’ve been wanting to write for a decade or more. There was something about getting distance and time away from the absolute breakneck, broke-ass life of freelance writing that was what I needed.
How did you decide on this book specifically?
I had plenty of unprocessed material from my hometown in Ohio. Year after year I’d go back home and hear of various tragedies that had befallen people I’d grown up with, some of whom were very close friends and others who were peers or people I looked up to or admired in high school.
That sort of coupled with what I have been referring to as a social, political, and economic chaos that has sort of defined my adult life. I think the lives of a lot of guys from our generation—I was 17 going on 18 on when the towers fell. In college, I was protesting against the Iraq war, and when I graduated it was into the teeth of the recession and the financial crisis. And then you look up and suddenly we’re in the midst of this current major institutional failures. And I think all of those threads are present in this book.
It’s basically a snapshot of this Ohio town through four people’s lives as they return to their hometown the same night—all of whom graduated around the same time and knew each other or were at least aware of each other. It starts with a soldier character killed in Iraq, and the parade to honor him is being thrown in the town square. None of the main four characters are present for it. They’re all missing. That’s sort of the blank-space way of introducing them—why aren’t they there?
And you’ve had friends that have enlisted in the military and fought overseas?
Yes, and I leaned on their expertise and experience. There’s one character in particular who is a veteran, and I think he is not based on anybody in particular—he is his own original person. But I certainly mined the thoughts of the people I know and the stories they told me over the years.
I read a recent interview with you where the publication made it sound like you were once against our military involvement in the Middle East but had changed your mind?
That’s a strange characterization. No, I remain very fervently opposed to our military presence in the Middle East. Writing the character, it’s important for me to understand the ways in which people are drawn to military service, especially during that post-9/11 period when the impetus to intervene in Iraq was so strong. I tried to put that onto the page with as much honesty and understanding and empathy as I could possibly manage.
Sure, it’s possible to be against the war yet show some sympathy for the individuals who choose to fight in them, especially when they’re young and the army offers a steady salary and benefits.
And especially if you talk about reasons in the midwest, where de-industrialization and our staggeringly inequitable economy means there are few options in terms of advancing oneself. It’s a very attractive option.
People who serve in the military tend to be an abstraction to most of us. Did you think about trying to humanize them in this book?
Absolutely. I think it springs from the fact that I know normal human guys who served. Because it’s such a small percentage of our population that actually does serve, there’s this weird way in which it’s alien to some people and venerated blindly and sort of ignorantly by a lot of others. And troops are used for political reasons, or to sell car insurance or cell phones or whatever else.
Sometimes our only interaction is standing up and cheering for them at a football game.
And that’s another way we’re all propagandized into not thinking about what it means to actually send 18- to 23-year-olds to fight overseas.
Speaking of a group of people that have become abstractions, the white working class in states like Ohio has become this political football since the election. Does your book address how we should think about these working-class people who may have voted for Trump or not?
What I got lucky with is that I wrote the whole book before it was even a figment in anybody’s imagination that Trump could possibly be president. November 16th definitely helped me sell the book, but it was not something I ever saw coming. Later, I went back and read it and it looked—and this is going to sound self-aggrandizing—weirdly prescient and strikingly relevant.
From my perspective, I’m writing every single character as a full human being who has been hurt by somebody, who’s loved somebody, who cares about the people around them and could easily be any of us if we were brought up in whatever position and condition they were. And that also applies to the self-righteous liberal character. I just wanted to write a book about people and have those political themes emerge through their characters.
What exactly is it that you’ve seen since 9/11 in your hometown that influenced you?
To be clear, the town in the book is not my hometown, they’re different beasts. The really shocking one has been the opioid epidemic. I don’t know a single person who hasn’t been affected in some way. I’ve known people who’ve died or overdosed—it’s just really jarring.
I grew up in central Illinois, and in my own I’ve seen the opioids and alcoholism, suicide, and just this profound sense of alienation and decline.
That’s sort of the town here in the book, the sense that the breaking down is really . At the center, there’s this despair that is eating the place out from under itself.
Do you think in some broader sense too that you’re trying to also put a human face on Ohio itself? Since the election, it’s become shorthand for all kinds of political ideas.
It’s interesting, I’ve gotten a lot of questions about that. I had no idea of propaganda behind the name. You’re just looking for something stark and effective. I think the word itself is sort of haunting—Ohio has this ghostly quality to it and this novel is essentially a mystery. But, no, I really didn’t have any swing-state notions behind the name.
Maybe all of our brains are just broken by politics. And the fact that everybody is trying to put everything and everyone in a political frame means we’re part of the problem.
You’re exactly right. And I’m guilty of it too. Obviously, that was part of my past writing. It’s hard not because that’s the paradigm that’s forced down our throats every single day.
But no, this book is not concerned with flipping the House of Representatives. It’s about human beings, and seeing certain political events through the eyes of various people and giving them their full view in terms of how they feel and what they think.
So even though it’s called Ohio, John Kasich isn’t in it?
Nope, he didn’t make the cut.
Stephen Markley will be at Barnes & Noble, 1130 N. State, on Thursday, August 23, at 6 PM.