Charles Baxter's roots in the Midwest are deep. He was born in Minneapolis and grew up in Excelsior. "I grew up among farm people," he said. "Where I lived, Swedish was still spoken. There were first generation Swedes in the neighborhood." After graduating from Macalester College in Saint Paul, Baxter left to do graduate work in English at the State University of New York at Buffalo. After many years away—first teaching at Wayne State University in Detroit and then the MFA program at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor—Baxter returned to Minneapolis. He now teaches in the MFA program at the University of Minnesota.
Baxter says he never used to think of himself as a Midwestern writer. Early in his career, he would set stories in generic locations. "I always thought I was just a writer and the region that a writer was from was almost irrelevant," he said. If anything, the Midwest seemed to surface in a negative context for him. Baxter recalls a review of A Relative Stranger in a Seattle paper:"It began with 'although Charles Baxter's characters are from the Midwest, they are nevertheless quite varied and interesting,'" Baxter said,"I thought, 'When critics talk about writers they often are looking for pigeonholes, and that's the pigeonhole I'm going to be put into.' It's not one that I have for myself."
Photo: Jeffrey Thompson
But Baxter says he has come to believe that location is destiny. "I think any writer is finely influenced by the places he or she grew up, the kind of people the writer has known and lived with," he said. "And when you close your eyes and think of your imagination's home, it has to look like something. For me it looks like Minnesota." That means he is now perfectly comfortable setting stories in locations like Minneapolis. Baxter believes there are benefits to living and working in Minnesota. He says he's not as obsessed as writers in New York seem to be about their value on the literary stock market. "I don't think about those matters because I don't have to. It's a kind of blessing living in a place where there are enough writers and not too many."
Baxter is the author of four novels, five collections of short stories, three collections of poems, a collection of essays on fiction, and is the editor of other works. In 2007, his "breakout" novel "The Feast of Love," was a finalist for the National Book Award, and was made into a movie, starring Morgan Freeman and Greg Kinnear, in 2007. His latest collection, "Gryphon: New and Selected Stories," was published by Random House earlier this year and includes the short story "The Winner," which we adapted for radio. In addition to teaching at the University of Minnesota, Baxter teaches at the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers.
Many thanks to Random House and Charles Baxter for permission to reprint "The Winner" here.