What This River Keeps is a heartfelt tale of a family's love—for a place, and for each other—and the staggering cost of that love. IUP journals marketing manager Linda Bannister wrote a great review of this book last April. She interviewed author Greg Schwipps to get his thoughts on storytelling and writing, his authorial influences, and his intimate connection with the rolling hills of Southern Indiana.
Details, details, details: my writing students hear me preach on this subject all the time. But what else is there? I tell my students, “The way to the universal is through the specific,” and by that I mean, don’t write generally, presuming that somehow by utilizing more generic description of place and mood that you’re allowing more readers to access your work. Write very specifically, and you’ll find that readers—through your use of those very specific descriptions—have been pulled into your narrative.
So while I believe in tight prose, I also believe in taking the time to set the stage for the reader. But I also know that writers must earn those details. Try to write about prison life without doing the necessary research—being incarcerated would be one way—and prisoners would read your fiction and know you to be a fake. I felt the same way about writing about rivers and farms—that I had to prove I know those places well enough to write about them. I earned those details, I like to think. First by living on our farm in Milan, Indiana, and later by fishing the White River many, many days and nights. I did those things and I paid attention. Later, while writing, I conjured up those details from memory.
Writers—even fiction writers—do many different kinds of research. If you have a character who fishes a lot, then even a fishing trip can be called research. I grew up doing the things my characters do in the same kind of places. The writing comes after the living.
What do you think are the most important elements of good storytelling?
Art thrives on conflict. Setting ought to matter; we all know character matters. But art needs conflict. So storytelling begins with a character wanting something, or wanting something not to happen. And whatever that thing is, someone or something is threatening to keep our character from getting it.
Once the conflict is ready, you add characters that best exploit that conflict, and in a setting that does interesting things to the conflict. Let’s say the conflict is a lost dog. Well, is he lost in Chicago or Sunman, Indiana? And who’s looking for him? A ten year old boy or an eighty year old woman?
Tell us about a part of the book that you are particularly satisfied with and why.
I like those moments when Frank is on the water. I especially like the moment near the end when Frank fishes the river as he knows it for the last time. I wanted those river moments to ring true for even the most dedicated river rat, and I’ve heard from some who felt like those moments spoke to them, so that made me feel good. I like the scenes with Ollie and Spring, for all their awkwardness. People think it’s a male-centric book, and it is, but I think Ethel carries the book. I like watching Ethel explore her attic again.
Choose one of the characters and tell us how he/she developed for you.
I really thought Ethel was going to die during the course of the novel. While writing some of the early chapters, I’d think, Oh, Ethel, it’s such a shame you won’t be here to see how all of this turns out. But she made it, and I think she is possibly the most stalwart character at the end of the story. She’s stronger than Frank thinks she is; she’s certainly stronger than her son thinks she is. She’s been brought low by the events, but she’s seen enough during her life that she can adapt.
I created every character to fill a need. I wanted the act of eminent domain to adversely affect someone supremely connected to a place, so I created Frank and Ethel, and made them older, with longstanding connections to their farm. I created Ollie to show how such an event might affect (or not) a member of a younger generation. I created Summer to raise the stakes for Ollie, and Spring to raise them even further. I created Coondog to give Ollie someone to sound off on. So every character is trying to do something to move the story forward. So Ethel does her part, I hope, to show how this conflict is affecting these characters, but more than that, she’s just one of my favorites.
Tell us how you feel about your own connection to the land and why is it important to you.
My parents bought our farm around 1970—I was born in 1972, so those hundred acres were the only home I knew growing up. That’s important to me. People move more frequently now, and they tend to move into places (subdivisions) that look largely like the one they left. My brothers and I knew our land, and we knew it intimately. We knew where the stillborn calf was buried, we knew where Tim had gotten thrown by our horse, Kate. We remembered which cedar tree once held a pair of mating black snakes. So we built a family history on that place.
When we got our first real fishing boat, we took it to Brookville Reservoir, where we saw on our sonar unit the shapes of the submerged house foundations. Thinking about that—how the government could take your land and turn it into something that isn’t even land anymore—really stuck with me. I wouldn’t want someone to take our farm. So this novel grew out of the fear and wonder of what that might be like.
What is your favorite personal fish story?
So many. The night after my 30th birthday, my wife was with me when we caught two flathead catfish about 20 minutes apart—one was 48 inches long, the other was 49.5. We took photos and released them. Seeing a fish like that rising out of the dark water on the end of your line is something you won’t ever forget.
Do you have a dog like Catfish? And does he fish with you?
I did. For 13 and 1/2 years, we had our yellow lab, Indy. He is no longer with us, but he was the perfect dog for a long time. He boated; he fished the White River. I miss him every day.
Did your family have roots in Indiana as deep as Frank, Ethel and Ollie? What does that mean to you?
I have photos of my great-grandfather farming Indiana soil with draft horses, and it probably goes back further than that. The Schwippses have one farm that bears the blue and white “century-owned” sign, and we have other farms that we’ve had for decades. So we are very much attached to this state and this land.
What writers have influenced you the most and why?
Kent Haruf was one of my teachers at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, and his approach to writing about rural life resonated with me. His blue-collar approach to writing itself—which is to say, go to work every day and just write—spoke to me, too. I also enjoy the books of Cormac McCarthy and the late Larry Brown. Those are writers who honor the details. Those writers can render a place.
What do you hope readers will learn or experience while reading your book?
When I give a reading, I tell anyone who happens to show up with a copy of my novel that they have given me a great gift—they have read and taken my work seriously. A writer can’t ask for more than that. I don’t care if you have a million readers or five, every reader who sticks with you through the pages (in the case of my novel, over 300 pages) is giving you a tremendous gift. They presumably have other things to do with their time. When I wrote this novel, I finished a draft of over 600 double-spaced pages without anyone reading a word of it. I didn’t know if anyone would ever read it. So I’m just happy to have readers, and that’s the truth.
Beyond that, if they say they thought I got the characters right, I feel good. If they can recognize the world that I tried to create, that feels good too. My mom gave the book to a friend, and that friend’s husband read the book. He’s a farmer, and he told his wife one day, “I need to go rake hay, but I want to keep reading that damn book!” I heard that and I thought, to keep a farmer out of the field with hay down? That’s the best review I’m ever going to get.