A native of Milwaukee myself, and a great lover of my city, I talked with editor Tim Hennessy — also a local bookseller and reviewer for Publishers Weekly — about the upcoming Milwaukee Noir anthology, a collection of 14 short stories highlighting the issues, character, and grit of Milwaukee, the darker aspects of this city by the lake.
ERICA RUTH NEUBAUER: How did you go about choosing contributors for the anthology? Can you talk a little about this process?
TIM HENNESSY: Before I pitched the project, I spent a year researching anthologies and searching for writers with a connection to Milwaukee. I’ve been a huge fan of the Akashic Noir series since its early days, so I reread favorites and sought out more recent entries to get a complete sense of what others have done and how I might shape mine. I also dove into crime fiction and literary anthologies, not just looking for potential contributors but trying to discern what qualities I wanted to incorporate. Two of my favorites — LEE, an anthology inspired by Lee Marvin, and Hard Sentences: Crime Fiction Inspired by Alcatraz. The stories are wide-ranging in tone and style and form a loose narrative I hoped to emulate. The quarterly lit mag Midwestern Gothic also was a fantastic resource — I love the tone and wanted contributors with a similar eye toward Rust Belt sensibilities.
We didn’t have an open submission, and I sought out work with writers from varied backgrounds — I’ve always found it exciting to read incredibly skilled writers approaching a form outside their comfort zone. There’s a risk involved with that approach, and I wanted to challenge myself to be actively involved in helping with revisions and shaping stories, if necessary.
Before approaching any of the writers, I did background research, reading samples of their work and anything that might give me a sense of their relationship to the city, and how it could potentially fit into this project.
Did you make a conscious decision to diversify the authors? What does this bring to the table in terms of the different experiences portrayed in the stories?
This project needed to have different perspectives to speak to the experience of living here. As much as crime is something we all experience directly or indirectly, it would look ridiculous to have a homogenized representation of trauma and crime when it affects our population disproportionately.
Also, I work in a bookstore, and during my research phase, I focused on trying to answer and support my theories of who reads mystery/crime books based only on my anecdotal interactions of customers’ buying and selling habits. No surprise: overwhelmingly women of all ages bought mystery/crime novels in large volume across the genre — true crime was huge too. The curious part, most short fiction crime anthologies overwhelmingly feature male-identified writers, certainly reflecting a whole separate set of circumstances. Working to appeal to that audience didn’t just broaden the scope, it brought a vibrancy and variety to the stories, opening up aspects of the city that are overlooked or underrepresented.
What’s your own relationship with Milwaukee? How do you present it to outsiders?
I was born here but grew up outside of it, nearby in Racine. Both my mom and grandma exposed me to different aspects of Milwaukee — I spent a lot of time with my grandma who lived here her whole life; her stories of growing up in a hard-luck family during the Depression shaped her outlook, which bled into my family. My mom grew up here and taught early childhood in the public school system for nearly 40 years. As an educator who spent her career teaching kids with a wide range of backgrounds and family dynamics, she always came home with hilarious and heartbreaking stories. For many of her students, she was one of the few reliable adults in their lives, and it gave my sister and me an appreciation for what we had.
I’ve always been fascinated and frustrated by Milwaukee: allured by its history and disappointed by its ongoing struggles to progressively evolve, which makes me a shitty tour guide. I used to work as a cable guy, and the job sent me into homes and businesses all across the city, giving me access to nooks and crannies in neighborhoods and situations most people never encounter. My co-workers and I witnessed firsthand the tremendous economic and class disparity, and for a brief moment, we had windows into their situations. Those are the people and places I want to read about and explore.
Do you think the city is accurately reflected by these stories? Do you think they highlight the personality of the city?
I do think the city is accurately reflected. We strived to get the details right. First and foremost, this is a story collection about Milwaukee; it was crucial that it ring authentically to the people it’s seeking to represent.
There’s a sense of humility here, I don’t know if it’s the blue-collar mentality of generations of Rust Belt Midwesterners who’ve had to be resilient, but it’s always appealed to me. The stories in the anthology capture the sense of disillusionment and the resilience of people let down for generations, who bear the brunt of a city mismanaged but possess the stoic resolve to carry on and persevere.
Milwaukee — and Wisconsin in general — might seem like one of those flyover places and it’s not often mentioned in literature. Can you talk about how — if at all — Milwaukee is portrayed in books?
Growing up, the rare occasions Milwaukee or Wisconsin was referenced in pop culture, I ate it up, however fleeting it was. We’re usually portrayed as amorphous Midwesterners, out of touch, out of sync with progressiveness and broadly painted with painful accents.
When fiction has been set in Milwaukee, it tends to focus on the past. Our complicated socioeconomic circumstances and issues with race present a narrative challenge, similar to a lot of other Rust Belt cities not a lot of people are looking to tackle. Unfortunately, the book that has Milwaukee down cold is Matthew Desmond’s Evicted. As a cable guy, I was regularly in many of the places he wrote about, trying to navigate the needs of tenants and landlords in hopes of providing service. His book brought back vivid memories. Gary Brandner’s 1973 novel, Saturday Night in Milwaukee, offers up the sleazy pulpy side “foaming passion and full-bodied action.” Between the two extremes, there’s a lot of narrative ground left to cover. If anything, I hope this anthology motivates someone to write about their Milwaukee experience.
Erica Ruth Neubauer is a book reviewer and author of the forthcoming Jane Wunderly mystery series.