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10 Questions for Carter Meland

On December 17, 2019, Lou Reed suspended his wild walk with death long enough to show me the cover art for the vinyl version of the extended single he had just recorded, a seventeen-minute-and-twenty-nine-secon rager called "Koy A'hoga." The only image I have from this dream is the cover with Lou's thumb clasping on the lower right corner.
—from "Crossing Cuyahoga," Volume 61, Issue 4 (Winter 2020)

Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
Fifth grade. It was an English class back in the 70s, back when we weren’t woke enough to call it language arts. We had to write a piece of fiction and I wrote something about an amazing invention that could do some sort of amazing thing. So amazing I can’t even remember it now (perhaps it erased memories…?). What I do remember is that every noun and verb in the story started with the letter B and when I had to read it in front of the class, I cracked myself up. Not anyone else, of course. I’m still the best audience for my own jokes.

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
I spent my whole late adolescence and early adulthood trying to write like S.J. Perelman and his baroque stylings really helped me learn to control what sentences could do and how to set up readers for a punchline (whether it’s humorous or an epiphany). Since then, writers like Susan Power, Louise Erdrich, and Richard Wagamese, with their intensely drawn characters and lyrical voices, have shaped my own desire to go deep on character and metaphor. Writers who have influenced how I think and how that shapes my writing include Thomas King, LeAnne Howe, and Gerald Vizenor. I’m seriously indebted to great Native writers and thinkers.

What other professions have you worked in?
College prof in American Indian Studies these days (writer after hours), but I have worked in public libraries and liquor stores in the past. I’ve flipped a couple houses because teaching and writing doesn’t always lead to pots of gold. Neither does flipping houses, but it offered a decent income supplement.

What did you want to be when you were young?
Growing up in Space Age America and being fascinated with all the technological breakthroughs of that era, you’d think I might have wanted to be an astronaut, but I didn’t. I just wanted to be off this planet. Not a job so much as a desire for something different and “out there.” Writing is a good way for me to get out there without much tech infrastructure.

What inspired you to write this piece?
The first paragraph of “Crossing Coyahoga” sums up the inspiration. I woke from a dream and all I had from that dream was the image of the record cover and a sense of what Lou Reed had told me the song was about. From there I decided to explore pop culture engagements with Native peoples, environmentalism, and appropriation. But at root, Lou came to me in a dream and set that cascade in motion.

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
Rambling along the north shore of Lake Superior and hiking along the Mississippi River where it carves its way through Minneapolis are both places that kind of pulse along underneath my work. That watery movement is something that informs how I want my writing to feel. Like there’s an unseen current just beneath the surface pulling at you.

Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
Lately it’s been Japanese psych and space rock bands like Acid Mothers Temple, Boris, and the Boredoms. Musically they’re inventive and they tend to compose long tunes so you can kind of get into a rhythm with the music and it’s not changing every three minutes. They also have their own watery, violent, chaotic, calming energy that is good to have running as I’m typing (the Boredoms' Seadrum/House of Sun is playing at the moment), and since they sing in Japanese (mostly) I’m never distracted by the lyrics. I can’t write if someone is singing in English.

Who typically gets the first read of your work?
The Cabal. That’s all I can say. It’s very secretive and there are severe penalties for revealing anything about it. I may have said too much already. . (looks apprehensively over shoulder.) Oh, and my lifelong friend Paul Udstrand always gets a first look. He sometimes knows the way the Meland mind works better than I do and can help me bring out what I was really trying to say.

What are you working on currently?
I’m working on sort of a hybrid critical and creative nonfiction book, Strange Spirits: A Memoir in Monsters. The monsters of the subtitle are the wiindigoo (or wendigo as US pop culture prefers) and bagwajinini (or bigfoot). In the book I unpack the Anishinaabe and other Native meanings of these spirits (because monsters is a colonial disparagement of them). At the same time, I also unpack our family’s Anishinaabe story and the histories that led to that part of our family identity being lost (spoiler alert: the real monsters here are those of assimilation and settler colonialism, with bits of intergenerational trauma and denial throw in). I’m looking at how the wiindigoo and bagwajinini stories in Native teachings help me make sense of that loss as well as how they may be directing me towards a recovery of that connection.

What are you reading right now?
I’m just finishing Thomas King’s Indians on Vacation. As suggested above, I’m a big fan of King’s bitter, dark, satirical humor and how he uses that to give us insight into emotionally resonant characters and their various challenges. He really knows how to balance that sort of cerebral satirical stuff with the heartfelt emotional stuff; it’s a tricky line to tread I think and Indians on Vacation does it beautifully. Once I’m finished with that I’m dipping into Cherie Dimiline’s The Marrow Thieves and/or Linda LeGarde Grover’s In the Night of Memory. So many great Native writers are getting published these days that it's hard to keep up!

CARTER MELAND is a tall, left-handed descendant of White Earth Anishinaabe. He takes writing seriously but does so with good humor. His novel Stories For a Lost Child invokes the waters of Lake Superior and the Mississippi River, and the deepwoods voice of Misaabe (Bigfoot) to help his characters make sense of the problems in their lives. By day he teaches students in the department of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth about the wicked smart, moving, and profound things that Native writers have to say about the world, and by night he tries to rise to the standards they set. Stories for a Lost Child was a finalist for the 2018 Minnesota Book Award.

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