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Northfield writer Scott Carpenter and the art of short fiction

The literature professor’s “This Jealous Earth” is the first book published by Midwestern Gothic Press.

Scott Dominic Carpenter
Courtesy of MG Press
Scott Dominic Carpenter

Scott Dominic Carpenter thought writing a novel would be easy. He’d studied literature from every angle and deconstructed numerous books with his students in his 22 years as a literature professor at Carleton College. He was certain he knew how the things worked.  How hard could it really be to write one?

“I was shocked to find out how hard it was. I thought I would just poach on the other side for a while and write a novel. I’d been so close to literature my whole life, I thought writing a book would come naturally. But when I actually sat down to do it, I encountered all kinds of very tricky problems, from the creation of the characters to achieving a balance between the amount of information you give the reader and the amount you withhold,” he said in an interview. “If I’d have known how hard it would be, I don’t think I would have undertaken it to begin with.”

But Carpenter stuck with it, and when he needed a break from the novel, he turned to short-story writing. Short fiction turned out to be more compelling for the writer, and he found homes for those stories at a wide variety of literary journals. That turned out to be one productive procrastination endeavor, and when one of those journals, Midwestern Gothic, put out a call for book-length submissions, Carpenter gathered up his stories and sent them in.

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Three months later he found out that his collection, “This Jealous Earth,” would be the first book published by Midwestern Gothic Press. And not long after that, he sold his novel to another press. 

In “This Jealous Earth,” Carpenter watches a man sort through his dead father’s possessions, follows an Ohio woman on a long-awaited — and strangely  disappointing — European vacation, and follows children as they roam unsupervised, getting into troubling situations. In one story, adults complain about the scheduled  nature of modern childhood — until a tot goes missing at a house with a pond in the backyard. In another, a boy has an uneasy set of experiences with a neighbor kid with devious intentions.

“When you look at the stories dealing with childhood, something unsupervised or uncontrolled is happening, and those are very interesting, very formative experiences to have — as long as you  survive them,” said Carpenter. “But those close encounters and exposure to dangers offer something to learn.”

The collection also includes several very short stories — some just a page — which act as interludes. Carpenter is fascinated with economical writing forms, and calls 19th-century French poet Charles Baudelaire a major influence.

“He was the first prose poet,” Carpenter asserts, and then takes it a step further. On his Twitter feed, the writer experiments with the very, very short form. (“We feed and cherish the circles of our lives. So why do they become so vicious?”) He is teaching his students to tweet with greater meaning.

“Although everything in our media and society encourages short attention spans, it’s still important to say something meaningful in those opportunities,” he said. “To be succinct and to say something interesting and meaningful is one of the greatest challenges a writer can take on.”