10 Unmissable Books From the “Flyover States”

The coasts don't have a monopoly on great writing

When I lived in Washington, D.C. we considered the “flyover states” anything between the east coast and the west coast, a place where one would only touch down if forced to refuel. Well, now that I live in Michigan I take great offense to that notion. We have a coast line here that could rival California’s, but most of you will never see it and that’s fine with us, thank you very much. 

A flyover state is technically a state that experiences the largest discrepancy in the ratio of destination flights to flyovers. A (perhaps less than scientific) study conducted by ChampionTraveler reveals that West Virginia is currently the most flown-over state. The top ten “flyover” states, according to ChampionTraveler, are West Virginia, Kansas, Mississippi, Iowa, Kentucky, Wyoming, Virginia, New Mexico, Arkansas, and Alabama. But anywhere writer who’s in between New York and L.A. runs the risk of being sidelined in the literary world.

Here are some exceptional writers to know from the often-overlooked middle of the country.

Sara Pritchard, Crackpots

I was introduced to Sara Pritchard and her prize-winning novel-in-stories, Crackpots, when I attended the West Virginia Writers Conference in 2007. It’s still on my mind thirteen years later. And, I wasn’t alone in my favorable appraisal. Crackpots, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and was chosen by Ursula Hegi as the winner of the coveted Bakeless Prize. The book, which centers on a spunky girl named Ruby Reese, is jam-packed with superb imagery like “I touched hands that were hard and cold like lawn Jesus,” but still manages to be a moving tribute to a resilient young woman. Pritchard, who refers to her own state as “West-by-Gawd, Virginia,” has been the recipient of several literary awards, including the West Virginia Individual Artist’s Literary Fellowship (twice) and in 2010, a Pushcart Prize for her story “Two Studies in Entropy,” which was originally published in New Letters, and is a part of her 2013 short story collection, Help Wanted: Female.

Katy Simpson Smith, The Everlasting

Born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, Katy Simpson Smith fourth book, The Everlasting, is a transportive historical novel spanning 2000 years, which takes place in Rome, Italy–about as far away from Mississippi as one can get both figuratively and geographically. This novel, punctuated with commentary from Satan about the choices we all have to make between earthly or spiritual love, right and wrong, momentary desires and everlasting pain, follows four sets of lovers through two millennia. The erudite, lyrical prose is bound to capture you on page one and convey you right through to the end on what might feel like wings. 

Beth Ann Fennelly, Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-memoirs

Beth Ann Fennelly, the poet laureate of Mississippi, received her MFA from the University of Arkansas, and unfortunately I am not as familiar with her poetry as I am with her sixth book, Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-memoirs, which was published by W. W. Norton, and was a Goodreads Favorite for 2017. I loved this book, and it’s impossible to do it justice in a blurb, because each memoir is as beautiful and singular as beach glass, or as one Goodreads reader put it, like a shot of chartreuse—”exquisite and barbed.” That about sums it up. 

DaMaris Hill, A Bound Woman is a Dangerous Thing: The Incarceration of African American Women from Harriet Tubman to Sandra Bland

A Bound Woman is a Dangerous Thing is a mesmerizing hybrid text honoring the history of black women freedom fighters. Hill, a celebrated poet and academic, includes poetry, prose and photography to capture the complicated history of black women for whom being “bound” has taken many forms throughout U.S. history. As Roxane Gay noted, “This book offers an education. This book bears witness. This book is a reckoning.”  This is a book that, as Ada Limon said, “serves as a much needed resurrection.” A riveting, necessary read. I could not put it down.

Jeffrey Skinner, The 6.5 Practices of Moderately Successful Poets

I love Jeffrey Skinner’s hilarious, yet moving self-help memoir. Though Skinner has been published everywhere, including Poetry, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and other prestigious journals, he’s a charming, helpful and unassuming poetry coach. Once upon a time, Skinner worked as a private eye, and he intersperses the self-help chapters in this book with humorous anecdotes about his life hunting down bad guys. The best parts of the book aren’t new—all poets know that discipline, revision, and persistence are keys to creating a successful writing life, but Skinner reminds writers that we are supposed to be having fun. This is a book about getting down to the work, which, we all know, is the only thing that counts.

Sarah Gorham, Study in Perfect

Study in Perfect is an erudite, yet accessible collection of lyrical essays, exploring the concept of flawlessness. Bernard Cooper chose this collection as the winner of the 2014 AWP Award for Creative Nonfiction, praising it for its lyricism as well as its entertainment value, which we all know doesn’t always go hand in hand. In prose that calls to mind contemporary essayists, Maggie Nelson and Lia Purpura, Gorham renders the human experience in a new and potent way. Even ruminations on real estate holdings are awash with existential meaning. “The Changeling,” a poignant piece about Gorham’s mentally handicapped sister, Becky, succinctly, yet tenderly, examines the myriad joys and challenges she brought to the household. On a sentence level this collection is exquisitely crafted: “We toss our very human experience over the landscape like a soggy net,” Gorham says at one point. Fear is described as “amplified tinnitus and as an ant that bears “the whole mind away.” Reading Study in Perfect, one is constantly reminded that this book was written by a writer with an extraordinarily poetic voice.

Daniel Mueller, Nights I Dreamed of Hubert Humphrey

Daniel Mueller’s first collection of stories, How Animals Mate, won the Sewanee Award and garnered some acclaim, but this second collection, Nights I Dreamed of Hubert Humphrey, which I absolutely loved, seemed to fly under the radar when it was published in 2013. These stories run the range: there’s the boy who decides to emulate the neighborhood sociopath, and the corporate systems analyst who is trying to come to terms with his homoerotic childhood within his conservative family, and other parents and children doing middling to crazy things to each other. In terms of empathy and erudition, Mueller rivals Elizabeth Strout and Alice Munro. As Paul Harding said in his blurb of the book, half of these eleven stories “made me want to sleep with the lights on, and all of them reaffirmed that Dan Mueller is some kind of mad artistic genius.”

Wendy Rawlings, Time for Bed

The thirteen stories in Wendy Rawlings’s Time for Bed are sumptuous, and boy, are you in for a wild ride as these stories veer from acerbic to serious to hilarious. Coffins for Kids! first published in The Kenyon Review takes the reader inside the life of a mother who embarks on a road trip to find the perfect custom fit coffin after her daughter is killed in a school shooting. In one of her last stories, Again, a grown woman crawls back into the womb of her mother in order to begin her life again. In another a college student contends with her parent’s impending divorce. Her father has left her mother for the “cafeteria lady” at her high school. Rawlings has been a celebrated “writer’s writer” since her twenties when one of her first stories was published in The Atlantic and she landed a much-coveted scholarship to Bread Loaf, but she has yet to garner wide acclaim. Her first collection of stories, Come Back, Irish, was stellar, as was her novel, The Agnostics. I loved them all. Not to be missed.

Desiree Cooper, Know the Mother

Know the Mother, the debut short story collection by long-time Detroit Free Press columnist Desiree Cooper, is a finely woven blend of humorous and unflinching tales. The stories in Know the Mother are about real people grappling with relationships. Just about every variation of relationship is covered here: married couples, adult children, aging parents, adults looking back on childhood. Because each piece touches on a different topic there is something for everyone. One doesn’t finish this collection feeling defeated by the world. Humans are fallible, as a collective, but we need each other. We are capable of treating each other better.

Christie Hodgen, Elegies for the Brokenhearted

I have been a fan of Hodgen’s for years. A quick search of my online shopping history reveals that I have given her book, Elegies for the Brokenhearted to thirteen friends, and I think that number is way low. A novel-in-stories, Elegies is comprised of five elegies for people who have impacted the life of the main character, Mary McCarthy. Even though Mary spends the entire novel addressing dead people, it’s not the least bit dismal. For Hodgen, telling the story in elegies provides a container for unpacking what makes us human and endears us to one another. The beloved people she pays tribute to includes a wayward uncle, a childhood classmate, and a gay coworker. These vignettes are brilliant, and they serve as a reminder that even abbreviated relationships can change the course of a person’s (and possibly a reader’s) life forever. 

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