Back in the summer of 2018, I joined an intensive poetry group at the Antioch Writers Workshop and met the author for this month, Dave Essinger. His novel about ultrarunning, Running Out, is newly released from Main Street Rag Publishing Company. His writing has appeared in Gargoyle, Sport Literate, and Midwestern Gothic. He received his MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and is a fiction reader for Slice magazine and General Editor of the AWP Intro Journals Project. Currently, Essinger teaches creative writing and edits the literary magazine Slippery Elm at the University of Findlay, in Ohio. Please join me in welcoming Dave to our community of readers and writers.
Janet Irvin: Tell us a little about your life and writing career to this point, especially your involvement with the Slippery Elm Journal.
Dave Essinger:: Well, I’ve always been writing things down in story form, working things out with characters and convoluted plots and all that. It helped that my mother, the poet Cathy Essinger, was always supportive of that, when other kids’ parents were pushing them to major in something immediately employable in college. My undergrad in a fantastic but now sadly defunct Interdisciplinary Studies program at Miami U allowed lots of creative freedom, and my senior project was a novella and a screenplay, some of which we shot, for fun. After my undergrad, though, I didn’t plan on more school, but a surprise fellowship from the OAC encouraged me to keep writing, and then after a short career in TV (running Master Control in a little room with like a hundred tiny screens), an MFA started to look more attractive.
J.I.: So, how did you end up at the University?
D.E.: I’d always said that the last thing I wanted was to end up teaching—are you sensing a theme here yet?—I started adjuncting, got a few breaks, and then somehow lucked into a full-time job at the University of Findlay, where I’ve been teaching creative writing (and, almost literally, everything else in the department, and lots outside) for the last fifteen years.
J.I.: Since U of F has been your home for a while, was the journal already up and running or did you initiate it?
D.E.: We started Slippery Elm five years ago, when I figured there was no good reason UF shouldn’t have an external lit mag, and I kept pitching the idea until people let me try it. A lot of this was stubbornness, when everyone said it couldn’t be done with our staffing, infrastructure, budget, etc., and now the magazine is very nearly self-supporting. I’m especially proud that, of all the “open” (as in, not in-house or undergrad-only) and pretty selective (we publish ~5-7%) lit mags I know, Slippery Elm is one of the most thoroughly and diversely student-run around: students from every discipline make just about all of the major decisions on the magazine. We don’t limit it to an English department thing, or a grad-student-only thing, or anything like that, and our students have risen to establish a solid creative aesthetic. As Editor, I’m just around to provide continuity, I tell people (along with shameless plugs: Slippery Elm’s new spring issue is open for submissions until Feb. 1! Free to submit, but the contest entry is only $15!). I’m also very proud of the ways we’ve been able to promote our authors over the years, with a high quality print edition, archives of all back issues online, and an active website featuring more multimedia content now too.
J.I.: Your novel, RUNNING OUT, is about a long-distance runner. Can you tell us about your running background?
D.E.: I ran track and cross country in high school, unremarkably, then for the next ten years hardly ran a step. My wife Alice and I got back into exercising a bit just before our wedding, and when we moved to Findlay we fell in with a really active running club in which everyone was training for marathons. After a few years of that, Alice and I started training to qualify for the Boston Marathon, and in that time we figured it might help to do a local 50k as over-distance training. After a couple years of that, we both found we liked the trail ultramarathons a little more than road racing, and Alice turned out to be really fast at these. In 2008, she won more 50k races than anyone in North America; I don’t win much myself, but around that time I started running 100-mile trail races, with my fastest finish under 23 hours, and my longest taking well over 30 hours. The ultra and trail-running community is just fantastic, and I’ve started captaining an aid station at my favorite race, which is a trip in itself—picture just being dropped in a deep forest with a dozen volunteers and extensive supplies, to take care of a few hundred strung-out runners over 30 hours or so.
J.E.: Obviously, you bring your personal experience to your novel. Is that what compelled you to tackle the subject?
D.E.: Well, part of it is write-what-you-know, and I already enjoyed the deep research into how the body performs in extreme situations, and comparing that with my own racing and experiences. As you notice, though, also: there just aren’t that many well-written novels about running. There’s a huge amount of nonfiction, especially about ultras, proving there’s an audience. And there are a few famous works of fiction, mostly about running shorter distances, up to and including the marathon. But I was finding very very little fiction about ultras, and within that, nothing describing the sport accurately and fairly and in a way that would stand up as literary fiction to an audience beyond just runners. I’m not the fastest runner or the best novelist out there, but between the two, well, I care about the sport and it was important to me to get it right in fiction. Runners have received the book overwhelmingly positively, which is validating, but so have non-runners, people who said they hadn’t expected to enjoy a book that’s so deeply about running. So I’m glad that runners find it relatable, and others find it approachable.
J.I.: The novel moves from past episodes in your protagonist’s life to the present situation. Early on, your protagonist, Dan, struggles with his commitment to the sport. How does this conflict affect or inform his later decisions?
D.E.: Ah, OK, that’s an interesting question! Part of it is, there’s some insider-running stuff going on here. There’s some tension between trail- and road-running communities, and between ultrarunners and marathoners, and so Dan’s defection from one side to the other amplifies tensions in his marriage and gets at some of the conversation between these two sides in real life, too. Also, more within the narrative itself, every runner with serious goals experiences doubt and conflict, and I wanted to write a story not about the singularly gifted champion—to me, the struggles of basically everyone else, the ones not constantly winning, are more interesting and have more bearing on real lives. Then, also, I was getting very into themes of guilt and fatherhood and indecision, and all of the role models in Dan’s life, and what they wanted for him and had done themselves, gave me a lot to work with here. If anything, I’m a little ambivalent about having written a psychologically stressed runner character, suggesting that anyone who does this is “running from” something, because actually, most of the runners I know are very happy and well-adjusted people—but where’s the drama in that, right?
Structurally, to get at that part of the question, the flashback structure seemed obvious from the beginning. I mean, a character just literally running the whole time would get old pretty quickly. Running’s not a constantly entertaining sport, but what you think about while running can be.
J. I.: For me, the ending was ambiguous. What made you decide to stop the narrative where you did?
D.E.: Great question! Now, how can I answer it without giving too much away? Well, I’ll say that I considered the obvious alternatives, revolving around the question of “Will he make it or not?” and decided that either one, in itself, would be too one-dimensional and reductive, a let-down to what I’d been trying to build in the shadow of the escalation of that question. So the question for me was more, can it become about something even more important than that, and can I make readers care about more by the end than just the simple resolution to the initial apparent conflict?
J.I.: What would you like your readers to take away from this novel?
D.E.: I think with any fiction, we want readers to take away some new insight to life & the human condition, all that, right? For that to work, we need to care about the character and what happens to him. Tangentially, if readers come away understanding a little more about why someone would drive themselves this way and what they get from these kind of extreme endurance sports, that’s one thing, but the important thing there is a feeling of understanding for a character who’s not them. Most of us obviously aren’t elite athletes, and aren’t familiar with the human stories and perspectives involved there. I think good fiction’s job is to give us vicarious experience of lives very different from our own.
J.I.: How do you balance your teaching and family responsibilities with writing?
D.E.: Ha, poorly! My writing doesn’t get the attention I’d like to give it, but what does? I think most educators also live in between the ideal classes they can imagine conducting and what they can get together on a daily basis. And, another piece of “writing advice”: just give up on finding quiet perfect writing time; knock out a few lines between the kids’ events at a swim meet, or on your way to classes, between meetings. If you can’t kind of tunnel-vision and write what you want when people are screaming all around you, I don’t know how you expect to get anything done in this world! I’m honestly perplexed by writers who say they’re too distracted by the internet or social media or whatever; distraction exists, deal with it.
That said, I’m very involved with my kids’ lives and projects, coaching soccer and den-leading for Cub Scouts and volunteering with the swim teams, which gets pretty encompassing in a small town like ours, but I wouldn’t want to be less involved. Sometimes the work we do for pay or “for our art” is among the least important contributions we’re making to our world and community
J.I.: What future writing projects do you have planned?
D.E.: I’m excited about this sprawling near-term post-apocalyptic novel set near Dayton OH! Teen protagonist Rosa takes shelter with her family deep under an airbase that’s a lot like WPAFB, when chaos erupts after a massive blackout. When they come back up…everyone’s gone, everything electronic is dead, and most of the adults are mysteriously confused. Other storylines follow her father’s last improbable mission, bumbling ecoterrorists, and few scattered and shattered badass survivors. I’ve had great fun researching all kinds of conspiracy theories, and am enjoying weaving all of these storylines together now, and the narrative is trying to do a it of everything. You know, one of those snarky dystopian coming-of-age-at-the-end-of-the-world thrillers. Stay tuned.
J.I.: I always ask a few questions just for fun. So, here goes. Do you have a favorite go-to food reward when the writing gets tough?
D.E.: Not so much for rewards really, but coffee is good for productivity. On race day, my favorite things to find at an aid station are bacon and black coffee.
J.I.: Do you have a favorite writer or genre?
D.E.: I don’t know. George Saunders is pretty amazing, and Jonathan Lethem writes some really fun stuff. I like some work from TC Boyle and Elmore Leonard. Genre-wise, I’ve been reading a lot of post-apocalyptic writing, given my current project, and most of what’s coming out lately really seems split into two kinds: there’s the fast-reading kind of pulp that tells a clean plot with lots of action—a lot of which is being done really well ostensibly for YA but really for adult readers too—but in my mind these plots wouldn’t be derailed much by a beautiful sentence or two here and there, and a little more literary sensibility; and then there are the very literary and artistic novels with so much plot ambiguity, like Station Eleven and Find Me and Severance and Annihilation, that are just engrossing but wander, and risk getting arbitrary. I feel like neither “plot” nor “literary” have to be reader turn-offs, and I’d like to see more works that are trying to do both of these at once, and support reads at multiple levels.
Dave is available for readings, visits to classes or groups, book signings, and more–contact him at dave-essinger.com/contact or firstname.lastname@example.org.