RB: Was there a single moment in your childhood when you wished you were a writer, and did you become one then, or wait until later on?
SA: I never had a real Eureka moment, though it was always clear to me that my family valued words and writing, my mother in particular. I was really more of a talker than a writer (still am, to some extent). I went into journalism initially, which seemed a more respectable way to use words. But I got bored of the attempt at objectivity, which is just another word for obfuscation, when it comes to matters of truth. By my late 20s, I felt the deep need to write in a way that would allow me to feel more.
RB: What are the things that motivate you to write? Is it hearing music, reading someone else's story that gives you a kick in the ass, or is it something that just flows when you sit down?
SA: It's all those things. The basic impulse is usually, in my case, a moment of empathy. I see something happen to someone, or hear about something, and try to imagine what the person in question is feeling and let my imagination run, but guided by the emotions that I'm picking up from them. It's really, again, just a way of connecting my insides to the outside world, or perhaps projecting my insides onto what I witness.
RB: Although you've co-written a novel with Juliana Baggott due out soon, it seems clear that your heart is with the shorter form, stories and flash fiction. Do you plan another novel, and if you do, will it follow the general tenor of your work so far?
SA: The voices of commerce are forever urging story writers to produce novels. I've suffered a good deal of that already, and will continue to until I can grow up and produce a novel. The money grubbing part of this is standard bullshit. But the part that matters is that I do want to write a novel, on my own, because the novel is a singular pleasure, an act of commitment that I'd like to make, to my characters and to my own capacities for mercy. I'm not there yet, but I hope to get there. Much as I love stories, at some level I'll feel like a failure if I don't produce a novel. That's fine, as long as I don't let the self-loathing cripple me. In fact, guilt and fear are great motivators in the proper dosage. (Ah dosage — there's the rub.)
RB: Do you feel as if people tag you too often as 'the guy who writes about sex?'
SA: It's about heartbreak, not sex. But whatever. At this point it's abundantly clear to me that people are going to engage work in their own ways. The writer can't control that. So there are lots of people who read my stories and go, 'Wowza. Lotsa sex!' Just like there are lots of people who read and said, "Cool! A book about candy! I love Hot Tamales too!" They don't engage the deeper aspects of the book. That's beyond my control. I'm trying to get myself to the point where I'm just glad that people are finding the work, which seems, in this era of inattention, mitzvah enough.
RB: Where Heavy Metal seems all of a piece, BB Chow has a couple markedly different stories, in my mind: "The Soul Molecule", "Lincoln, Arisen." Were you trying to do something odd, stepping out, in other words, or did these come the way other stories do?
SA: They're more dreamy and associative, less confessional. And I'd say that I wrote them with a bit lighter touch, with less ardent intent as the words were set down. But the stories worked the same way as others in the emotional sense: I was trying to put my characters in danger and not abandon them. That never changes. It's the guiding aim.
RB: You've advocated in many place the notion 'fuck style, tell the truth.' In your SmokeLong Quarterly story "The Evening of the Dock," (http://www.smokelong.com/flash/658.asp) and in a few others, notably my favorite of your stories "Run Away My Pale Love", when you close, you address the reader directly by rhetorical question, or other means, which can have a didactic, ponderous feel to it, but feels right in your work, inevitable, as if it whatever is going on should apply to readers as well. How would you advise writers who aspire to your level of success to deal with this sort of only-in-the-editor's head axiom? It can't merely be: 'tell the truth.'
SA: Yeah, I mean, you have to earn those moments of didacticism. You have to put your characters in the heavy shit and stick with them and slow down where it hurts most, before you can turn on the reader and begin interrogating them. As for the matter of truth —I'm not interested in this word in the objective sense. I only mean that the emotions of the story have to be true: the fear and desire and shame and hope. The rest is just furniture.
RB: In Heavy Metal nine of the stories are in 1st person, in BB Chow, six. Do you feel as if these characters are speaking through you, or are you the listener and the transcriber? Is it easiest to write in 1st person, or more natural?
SA: Certainly in Heavy Metal I felt like I was doing some direct confession, in a voice close to my own speaking voice. But for the most part, I don't really think a lot about POV questions. This seems more a matter of craft than truth. I just think about whether I'm feeling my character, connecting to them, loving them enough to expose them in the way the story demands. I don't mean that POV isn't important, but for me if the POV wobbles it's usually because the writer isn't in deep enough with the character in question. It's more symptomatic than etiological.
RB: From the advance review of BB Chow you wrote for your website: "He has long been Boston's most shameless writer, a guy who will write anything for attention; in the vernacular of the free press, a whore." Is it compulsive—words must be put down, no matter where they come from—or is it something conscious on your part to keep your name in the public eye? I ask because this has come up enough that you feel the need to answer it before the critics do.
SA: Well, two questions here. First, on the self-review. It's a little mojo I put out there, almost a superstitious thing, where I'm basically saying to myself (and the public): Hey, whatever you write about me, whatever contempt you express, I've already felt it about myself at a much deeper level. It's also an attempt to call me out on my own worst impulses. I do want my name out there, for the simple reason that very few people in the current historical circumstance read, let alone short stories, and they need to be reminded maybe four or five times before they even think to pick up a book of stories by a particular writer, and I want people to read my books. Another important thing to remember: I don't publish stories in the big slicks (New Yorker, Atlantic, Esquire etc.). I don't get big reviews in the big papers. I don't get my stories anthologized in the Best American. Oprah is not begging for me to come on her show. I'm basically having to work from the ground up. I also happen to like to write about a lot of shit. Again, it's how I connect to the world. So it's not like I sit around trying to figure out a marketing plan. I simply respond to queries people send, or write about the stuff that's running through my head. That's what writers do: they make public their private feelings and thoughts.
RB: In speaking about Gunter Grass's Tin Drum and Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close on MobyLives recently you said:
"To read either of these novels is to recognize, at once, the profound sorrow of our historical circumstance. This is the whole point of art: to confront the heartbreak of this world without the reassuring promise of repair."
Many of your characters, men, in particular, are willfully ignorant of women, politics and the over-arching umbrella of social strata, and your stories paint broadly a certain strain of male sensitivity, but contain none of the larger life you seem to call for in the above statement.
SA: How about "How to Love a Republican"? Or "Appropriate Sex"? Or "Summer, As in Love"? All these stories risk being considered polemical because they express my outrage at the cruelty of the current political landscape. There's moral outrage in most of my work, as there should be. But in the end, the point isn't to preach, but to lay my people bare. That—in and of itself—is a political act, particularly in an era so bent on fraudulence.
RB: "Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that most people in this country don't really want what art has to offer — they'd prefer bathos draped in the self–ennobling finery of art. We don't want to face a world in which the murder of a father might destroy a kid, let alone a kid who hates his dad and wishes he were dead. Faced with the moral complexities of modern consciousness, we have opted for narratives of false actualization."
I'm interested in how you think the moral complexities of modern consciousness differ from the past, and as a follow-up, which writers today do you find most capable of dealing with modern consciousness, especially as the now-famous post-WW II generation of American writers—rightly or wrongly, the standards by which literature is consumed and judged in America—become less active and less part of the cultural lexicon? And where are the narratives of true actualization? Who's writing them?
SA: Oh Christ, dozens and dozens of writers. There's no reason to make a list of my favorites— that would only represent my limitations as a reader. One example, though: the novel Stoner by John Williams. It's one of the most powerful novels ever written and it sold 2000 copies in hardback and went out of print.
No, Rusty, it's not that we don't have great books—we have more now than ever. It's readers we're lacking. People who are willing and able to ignore the constant 'buy' messages and slow down and face the chaos of their insides (as expressed in books). That's part of the reason I'm so insistent about putting my work into the world and doing readings and all this other shit: it's about the larger mission of getting people reading (and feeling) again. Because otherwise, we're sunk, as a species.
If the current pattern of behavior and feeling persists, we are absolutely going to kill ourselves. Only a fool would deny that. And art is one of the ways we're going to rescue ourselves. Not the fraudulent kind that tells us everything will be better if we just wish it, but the true kind that makes us aware of our moral duties to fellow human beings.
RB: "Buy art, okay? Quit mucking about like a cheapskate and wolfing down burgers from Fat Food. Stop throwing your money down Hollywood's sewers. Vote with your dough and vote for the stuff written or sculpted or filmed by the ugly. Actually concentrate on who you're having sex with. Hold your one and only heart to a higher standard. And so on.
I'm proud to be ugly, and proud to make pretty things.
What are you?"
You don't fear being over-earnest. Do you see this tendency as something that aids your fiction?
SA: Moral outrage isn't something I can control. I'm just trying to convert those ugly feelings into something more hopeful in my work. It's basic sublimation.
RB: Which story gave you the most pain to produce? Is the pain always worth the result?
SA: The truth is, the good ones come more easily for me. And with BB Chow, I tried to include only the good ones. Not saying any of them were easy to write. They all required multiple drafts and self-flagellation. But the basic flow of the stories came quickly. And yes, of course the pain is worth it. I wouldn't write otherwise.
RB: What are your plans for the next book, the next step?
SA: Julianna Baggott and I will put out Which Brings Me to You next spring. We're both stoked. After that, shit, I don't know. I'm considering putting out a book of essays, some political stuff. We'll see.
About the Interviewer
Rusty Barnes grew up in Mosherville,Pennsylvania. His fiction and essays have appeared in many journals. You can find more info at http://www.rustybarnes.com. He co-founded and edits Night Train (http://www.nighttrainmagazine.com).Night Train V (Spring 2005) features some of Steve's flash fiction and the 2004 Richard Yates Short Story Award Competition winner Dylan Landis, as chosen by Steve.
Editor: Mark Budman