Rusted Words

A boy and his father wander the rural areas of Tennessee and Kentucky scavenging through the gutted skeletons of foreclosed houses. A grieving everyman muscles for control of a business slipping precariously out of his grasp. Trey Burke sails a basketball past Florida’s bloated economic turmoil into the waiting arms of Tim Hardaway, Jr. These are the stories faithfully bound in the pages of Midwestern Gothic, a quarterly literary journal based in Ann Arbor that strives to tell the honest stories of the Midwestern region—whether good, bad, or ugly.

“We thought of the Midwest as a very undervalued place—people think of us as blue collar workers and not much else,” says Rob Russell, who co-founded Midwestern Gothic with fellow writer Jeff Pfaller in 2011. “We wanted to show that there are great stories and great storytellers here.”

Regional push

Up until Midwestern Gothic leaped onto the literary scene, there was no push toward recognizing the Midwest as a region fertile for literary exploration. Though a few Midwestern writers, such as Jonathan Franzen, Frank Bill, and Bonnie Jo Campbell, have made names for themselves on the national stage, the rust belt and its satellites are still very much unrecognized in the rest of the country.

“People think that we don’t have a lot of value because we don’t have the ocean; we don’t have glitz and glamour,” Russell says. “And I think that’s our mentality—we’re overlooked types of people. We don’t necessarily like to brag and boast about ourselves.”

The co-founders describe the Midwest as a location rooted in community and local pride. “We might not be the prettiest region in the world. We might not have the best jobs, or the best-looking people, or the most interesting things to do, but you know what? It’s ours,” Pfaller says. “And if you don’t like it, we’re gonna punch you in the mouth.”

Pfaller and Russell met many years ago while working as servers at a Mexican restaurant. As Pfaller was closing down the restaurant for the day, he noticed Russell writing in a notebook. The two quickly bonded over a mutual appreciation of literature, and their friendship grew from there. They roomed together while in college at Michigan State, survived through numerous failed projects (writing collaborations, a comic book, a magazine), and these experiences eventually became the buds that led to Midwestern Gothic. Now more than two years old, the journal has published 10 issues and one full collection of short stories, and has its first collection of narrative nonfiction on the way.

Loving the Middle West

Ann Arbor seems like the perfect place for a literary journal about the Midwest to lay down its roots. What other city can boast that a mere year after superstore Borders closed down, two independent bookstores sprung up to take its place? “It’s such a literary town,” Russell says. “For a city this size, the number of bookstores in the city, the number of literary events, the number of things that happen is mind-blowing.” Last month, Midwestern Gothic held a reading by contributors Russell Brakefield, John Rodwan, Joe Sacksteder, and Michelle Webster-Hein at Literati Bookstore and plans to set up a table at the Kerrytown Book Festival this September.

Though editing Midwestern Gothic takes as much time as a full-time position, Pfaller and Russell still each carry an additional day job. Unlike many other literary journals, Midwestern Gothic is not affiliated with a university, so the two co-founders have gotten remarkably good at attracting interest through social media. Their goal, Russell says, is to expand their readership to other areas around the nation, not just the Midwest. Put simply, they love this region and want to share that love with the world.

“There’s something about this place that sticks with you,” Russell says. “It just sticks in your gut, and you can’t get rid of it.”

Meet the editors

Jeff Pfaller is a novelist and short story writer. A Midwesterner through and through since the day he was born, Jeff has transplanted his wife, two children, dog, and cat from Michigan to Des Plaines, Illinois. 

Robert James Russell is a Pushcart Prize nominated author whose work has appeared in Gris-Gris, Joyland, and The Collagist among others. His first novel, Sea of Trees, was published in 2012 by Winter Goose Publishing. Find him online at

Midwestern Gothic is a quarterly literary journal dedicated to featuring work about or inspired by the Midwest, as written by midwesterners. the journal collects the very best in midwestern fiction writing in a way that has never been done before: cataloging an often-overlooked region of the United States ripe with its own mythologies and tall tales.

Midwestern Gothic prints quarterly. Issue 11 hits the streets on October 1, and will be entirely devoted to Creative Nonfiction (their second theme issue). 

Tree City residents can pick up copies of the journal at Literati Bookstore. MWG will also participate at the Kerrytown Bookfest in early September and the State of the Book festival in late September, where Russell will lead a panel-—so folks can pick up copies of the journal there as well, or find it online at

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