Cedar Rapids serves as the setting for a number of Keith Lesmeister’s short stories in his debut collection, “We Could’ve Been Happy Here.” In this e-interview, Lesmeister, who grew up in Cedar Rapids and now lives in Decorah, discusses the reason he is drawn to characters who are down and out, and his favorite stories.
Q: Tell me about growing up in Cedar Rapids and how your experiences are reflected in the stories that make up “We Could Have Been Happy Here.”
A: I loved growing up in Cedar Rapids. And I think I appreciate it more now with some distance. Specifically, I appreciate the blue collar nature of the city. I was at my sister’s house recently, which is a rental near NewBo, and while she lives within walking distance of the market, artist studios, a record shop, kick-ass breweries, and a great indie bookstore, her house also is in view of smokestacks and industry along the river, which is really the backbone of this community.
I guess what I’m trying to say is this: that blue collar work ethic is an essential aspect of the city’s ethos. It’s also deeply embedded in my family, a talented, motley-crew of mechanics, sheet-metal workers, and business owners dating back to my grandparents, and that kind of tenacity, persistence and hard work that they modeled is part of who I am. And while writing this book, what got me through start to finish wasn’t talent or giftedness (there are plenty of writers more gifted than me), but rather, the hard work and persistence needed to return to the page every day. I think that’s how Cedar Rapids and my experiences growing up here, are most genuinely reflected in putting together this book.
Q: In this collection we meet a lot of troubled or struggling individuals — and they don’t always find a path to something better in these pages. What attracts you to this kind of character and story line?
A: I’m attracted to characters who are at the end of their rope in so much as it is one of my greatest fears. For me, addiction, estrangement from loved ones, being misunderstood constantly — those are situations I’m most fearful of, and that’s what I’m trying to explore in these stories. And most of the time — in real life — most of our situations/conflicts don’t resolve so much as simply come to a natural or maybe not so natural ending point.
Q: Do you have a favorite among the stories? Was there a piece that was more difficult to write than the other, and if so, what caused the difficulty?
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A: I think I’m especially fond of the second story, which features a foul-mouthed, suicidal grandmother whose being carted around by her unsuspecting grandson. There’s a lot of Cedar Rapids landscape in that story, namely the river and the smells. I’m also quite fond of the title story, which features a narrator estranged from his family, riddled with addictions, but deep down he’s a decent person and tries to do the right thing, though his ailments and addictions are keeping him from moving forward.
The most difficult for me to write was “Between the Fireflies.” The story is told from a retrospective lens (a graduating high school senior looking back on a summer when he was in the fifth grade) and while it seems pretty straightforward, there needed to be some “reason” for telling the story. Why this story, why now? And it took a while for me to find that reason, which isn’t revealed completely until the end.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on another collection of stories, all set in familiar regions, mostly Iowa, but also other parts of the Midwest. Short stories are what I love to read and what I love to write, so it feels a natural next step.