DePauw’s Greg Schwipps reflects on the newfound relevance of his 2009 first novel, the work it takes to create something sincere, his relationship to his characters, and the challenges of moving on to the next project.
by Donovan Wheeler
Drive through the newest swath of Indiana’s river of Interstate highways—the six-year-old stretch of I-69 snaking its way to Evansville—and you can see the emotional rawness Greg Schwipps writes about. Bound to the expansive stretches of corn, alfalfa, timothy, and beans by little more than a handful of unpopulated exit ramps, the new highway’s wound still bleeds along the edges of its cut. In time, it will settle into the scenery. Become the “comfortable scar” like its decades-older sister roads up north. But that time is not now. The promises of great prosperity seem generations away when you make the road trip to the southwest tip of the state. Perhaps future travelers will pass through some grand mecca of consumerism and industry. Maybe one of the most isolated regions in Indiana will one day be the heart of Hoosier economic fertility. For now, the only prosperity down there—the farms—have been ripped in twain. Those who have lost will never get over it. Those who are young will adapt and move on. Those just born will think nothing of it.
photos by Caitlin Fogle
I asked Schwipps if the I-69 debate weighed on him when we wrote his first novel, 2009’s What This River Keeps, and he answered unflinchingly with a quick “No question.” Two of them, actually. Rather than a road project, Schwipps’ novel tells the story of a rural family in southeastern Indiana (Schwipps’ home town is Milan, and his fictional towns, roads, and geography all draw heavily from there) facing the shadow of eminent domain in the form of a reservoir construction project. If built, the rising waters will force an aging ex-farmer, Frank, and his wife, Ethel, to vacate land their family had worked for over a century. Meanwhile, the couple’s estranged son, the drifting middle-aged Oliver (Ollie throughout the book) encounters his first meaningful love interest as he also struggles through his tortured relationship with his father. Caught up the swirling chaos of geographical and political upheaval, What This River Keeps is most haunting when we remember that in real life this story has played itself out many times over.
Greg Schwipps: “Two things led to this book which are very strong in my memory—they’re ruminating. One stems from my first job as a kid. I grew up on one farm, but I worked on another one—a Christmas tree farm—a few miles away. We would carry lightweight machetes, and we would walk around the trees shearing off the new growth. It was really intense work. We wore these leg-guards so that we didn’t cut ourselves. We were fifteen…sixteen years old, and we didn’t have a radio or anything like that. All we could do was talk to each other. One day we walked under a row of power lines, and we talked about how the power companies could simply come in and run lines wherever they wanted to on the farm. Then we started talking about roads, and someone among us said, ‘Well, you know they could come in and run a road through this farm if they wanted to.’ I said, ‘No they couldn’t,’ and everyone in my group gave me grief because I didn’t know about eminent domain.”
Donovan Wheeler: That’s one of two events. What was the other?
GS: “A few years later we bought our first boat, and we took it to Brookville Reservoir. We had one of those ‘hot spots’ fishing maps which told us to go a place where the water was about 30-40 feet deep. When we got there, we could see on our sonar a series of blocks, which our map told us were the foundations of Fairfield. I remember thinking, ‘Holy shit…we’re thirty feet above what used to be a town.’ Of course they moved the town, renamed it New Fairfield (and they even moved the cemeteries)…those moments stuck with me for years.”
DW: I want to talk about that moment in the novel. We spend so many pages…almost three hundred as I recall coping with the tension of this reservoir, and then it happens. You describe it in what amounts to half of a page. It’s powerful, but it’s so abrupt. Why?
GS: “As I moved closer to writing the book I kept thinking about how something like a farm, or an entire town, could transform in a matter of just a few years from a place where people lived to something that isn’t even on land anymore. I wanted to show that—capture that idea in the book without being gimmicky. And I wanted it to happen in a manner so that we could also experience the final sequence of the book, the years after it happened, where we could see that not only could this happen within someone’s lifetime, but that it could happen within the time it takes to earn a degree. This is very different from say the way Noblesville or Fishers or Avon have grown in population and changed over the course of a generation. This is much less subtle than that. So many of the people I spoke to who have gone through this in real life have talked about watching it all unfold in front of them—about watching the dam go up and then watching the river rise.”
DW: It’s powerfully written. Succinct and evocative.
GS: “My mentor in grad school was the novelist Kent Haruf—who died a little over a year ago. He wrote a book called Plainsong, and it’s just one of the best books I’ve ever read. He was one of the first readers of my book, and he told me I needed a ‘lyrical moment’ when that water comes up. So he basically led my hand through that page and told me how to write it—it was just damn good advice on his part.”
DW: And the new I-69 project was on your mind when you developed this?
GS: Cue the aforementioned “No questions.”
GS: “My wife’s family is from Paducah, so we’ve driven that new stretch of the interstate. When you look at it cutting through all of this nothing…all of these farms you find yourself thinking, ‘Oh man…what the hell?’ You know? And of course now we’re finding out that some of that land was appraised for much more than market value, and we’re also finding out that some of those farm owners were relatives of people who were on the committees which approved the route, and you wonder, ‘When does it stop?’”
What I did know was that farm would be lost. The dam would be built, and the river would rise because—in the real world—that’s the way it always happens. People never stop holding out for hope, but nothing comes of it.
DW: But it really never does stop, does it?
GS: “I’ve given talks over the book where people approached me and said, ‘I wanted more the courtroom side of it,’ or ‘I wanted to see more about how they were going to fight this.’ I don’t want to belittle these folks, but that fight gets so big and so complicated so quickly that the average person caught in it usually ends up asking themselves, ‘What the hell are we going to do?’ I know that’s how many people felt about I-69. And when you think about the state’s reservoirs, those were mostly built in the 1950s so we’re talking pre-internet…pre social media. It was so much harder for people to do their own research, so much harder for people to organize and coordinate. It’s hard to see any private interest being looked out for at all. What I think is easier to see is people who feel as if ‘This is being done to us,’ but as for their understanding or feelings about ‘public good…’ all they know is that they’re too powerless to stop it. That’s the tenor I really wanted to get across.”
DW: That’s one of the things I really like about the book: the way you capture the difficulty people have—like Frank—when they’re making an emotional argument in the face of people who are speaking from a point-of-view of strict logic.
GS: “Exactly. You can go to a map and see the Jefferson Proving Grounds. It’s 11,000 acres which the US Army claimed decades ago…they kicked all the people off of their land…and turned it into a munitions testing area. Even where I grew up, you could hear what sounded like thunder. I would ask, ‘Is it going to rain?’ and my parents would say, ‘No that’s the proving grounds.’ Eventually they decided—pre 9-11 of course—that they no longer needed it, but they couldn’t sell it because it was filled with thousands of unexploded ordinances. The ground was literally explosive. So they turned it into a national wildlife refuge. People tried to fight it, but the government said, ‘This is for the Army.’”
DW: It’s always personal, though.
GS: “It’s always personal to someone. Always. There’s absolutely no way around that. I spoke about the book at the Putnam County Library, and the topic of a 231 bypass came up. A woman announced to us that her family farms thousands of acres through the most likely route. To us it’s a way to get the big trucks out of the middle of town, but to her it’s her land…her family’s land. There’s never a moment where people sit down and have a logical conversation about this for the sake of ‘public good’ because there’s always going to be someone in the room for whom it’s too personal to think about logically.”
DW: It’s probably hard to fathom the proving grounds serving a public good so many years removed from it, but when we speak of reservoirs and highways, this idea plays a critical role in the book, does it not?
GS: “I talked to members of the Army Corps of Engineers, and there was this sort of real moment when one of them said to me: ‘Hey, don’t make us out to be the bad guys, here. We do a lot of good things. Most of those reservoirs have all but eliminated devastating floods near them.’ And even more than that…several times I would run down to Cataract and I would talk to people who had lost land (or were closely related to those who had lost land), and those people would be bitter—devastated by the takeover of their land…and understandably so. Having said that, I would often take my boat along, do those interviews, then go fish on the reservoir—or just ‘pleasure boat’ sometimes.”
GS: “I couldn’t be ignorant of the fact that, for many other people, these are great places. Not only do they protect us from floods, not only do they provide drinking water, but they’re great sources of recreation and some people have capitalized on them. That’s why I wanted show in the book—with Ollie’s friend Coondog—that among the next generation the attitude was more of, ‘Hey, this is great thing.’ And with every passing generation nobody thinks about whose land that was under the water. At the end of the book I was really wrestling with that idea: that this was devastating for Frank, less so for Ollie, and not at all for Coondog.”
DW: One of your big decisions was choosing the time, more so than the physical setting. And you settled on the mid-1980’s. Why?
GS: “When I was working on the book I had completed all this research, I was well aware that so many of these reservoirs were built decades ago. So I wanted to make the story as contemporary as I could, but I didn’t want to make it too recent because—at the time—I didn’t think we’d ever see another river get dammed. But now it’s  and we’re talking about damming the White River near Anderson…which I did not see coming. Now, of course, as it becomes easier to imagine water shortages in the future, I can suddenly we may see an entire wave of reservoir building. Of course, I also wanted to be modern as I could without creating a world which relies on cell phones or the Internet.”
DW: What is that like? To tell a story without cell phones in the plot?
GS: “That was automatic, and it was a great pleasure. And I have to tell you, I teach so many students in short fiction, and I don’t have a percentage, but I can tell you that almost every story I read has a cell phone or smart phone in it. They don’t even think about it. Asking them to write a story without cell phones would be like asking you or me to write a story with characters who don’t have hands. It’s a cliché to say, ‘I want to write about a simpler time,’ but I wanted to further the disconnection between the characters.”
DW: Which gives us characters such as Ollie who have to lay in bed every night wondering what his love interest, Summer, is thinking. Wondering where he stands with her all the time.
GS: “Yes. He didn’t know, man. And we didn’t know when we were kids, either. And young people today, they don’t get that because they are never disconnected. So when Ollie goes on that road trip, and he’s down there in the mountains, he has no sense of what Summer’s up to, and there’s almost no way to find out unless he picks up the payphone and calls her.”
DW: And hopes she answers on the other end.
GS: “And hopes she answers on the other end. And that’s what I also like about Frank and Ethel. When he’s out on that river, she has legitimate reasons to worry about him because she has no way check in on him. So to me this may be a ‘simpler’ time, but it’s also a more ‘terrifying’ time, too. And this ratchets up the tension in ways you can’t do if you set the story in today’s world. The fact is, I had to put the story somewhere. When you start thinking about time, and then when you decide to set it in the 1980’s, you’re now thinking about all sorts of intangible details: How old was Frank during the Vietnam War? How old was Ollie. But then, once you get all of that sorted out, you want the story to transcend time and become something more important than the point in history where it takes place.”
DW: In the book, Frank rescues a pup, which he names Catfish. The dog becomes not only important to Frank but emotionally important to us, especially when he reunites with Frank after an apparent tragedy. Did you always plan to save the dog when you wrote the book?
GS: “Yeah” Here, Schwipps reaches across his desk and hands me a 5” x 7” framed photo of his yellow lab, Indy.
GS: “That dog was with me, in the room, for every sentence of the novel. So, obviously, part of that decision was because he was in the room the whole time…” laughs. “I wanted to push Frank as far down as I could. I wanted him to lose almost everything. I wanted him to be pretty broken. For a long time I thought that maybe Ethel was going to die…had that in my head for the longest time. What I did know was that farm would be lost. The dam would be built, and the river would rise because—in the real world—that’s the way it always happens. People never stop holding out for hope, but nothing comes of it. I think because of all of that, I really liked the idea of the dog coming back. It’s in part because I’m a ‘softie,’ but also because sometimes the smallest comforts in our lives can make the biggest difference.”
DW: Well, it works, I think. And I feel that what makes it work is the authenticity of the novel as a whole. I also grew up in Indiana, and so many of the details you lay out fit the Indiana I remember when I was a kid.
GS: “My biggest fear was that I would finish this book and then the life-long Hoosiers who read would turn to me and say, ‘Well, you didn’t get the demo-derby right,’ or ‘that’s not the way real fishermen would cast,’ or ‘that’s not the way a real farmer would think.’ But that hasn’t happened. Not one time. Part of what took so long to write that book is that I was out there ‘earning the details.’ I was spending a lot of time fishing. I spent a lot of time camping on the White River. I spent a lot time at my grandparents’ place. My grandfather…like my dad…like my uncles—they all farmed. My grandfather lost the lower half of his leg in a Massey-Ferguson corn head. He was combining with one of my uncles, and the corn head jammed. He left the PTO running while he tried to work it loose (I still don’t know why he did that), and he got pulled in.”
GS: “That’s almost a cliché in itself, right? You always hear about that sort of thing, but it actually happened in my family. And for most of my life, my grandpa lived with an artificial leg. Today they’re made of titanium, and you can be the ‘blade runner’ in them. But all my grandpa had was one of those rigid, low-grade plastic pieces which look like wood more than anything. All of those moments confirm my belief that I’ve lived an authentic Hoosier life, so I wanted all those details in there.”
DW: It’s approaching seven years since you finished the novel. How do you feel about it now?
GS: “I’m still proud of the book. It’s still the book that I wanted to write, and I don’t think that’s always the case. I have not read it cover-to-cover since it was published, but when I read from the book, or when I talk about it, I can tell that it still does what I wanted it to. So, it’s still the book I had set out to write. I have some regrets about the last six or so years. Namely that I haven’t written another one or that that I haven’t publicized this one to a greater extent. But, damn, in terms of the book itself…? Yeah, I’m still proud of it. Still proud of the words in that book.”Schwipps told me that he’s ready to write again…he just doesn’t know what that project will be. A few years ago, he launched into a novel exploring the state’s problem with methamphetamine addiction, but having recently become a father, he abandoned it after the first hundred pages because it was “psychologically too much.” So, Schwipps awaits his muses, creatures who have repeatedly proven their fickle nature so many times that we eventually learn to stop chasing them. Sooner or later, they show up. When they do, Greg Schwipps will be ready. And whatever they give him, Schipps will hone, and refine, and he’ll make it very real.