Elizabeth Crane and Steve Almond are not the only short story writers to tackle the complexities and hardships of singledom, but their abilities to write about relationships from refreshingly new angles make these two authors stand ahead of the pack. Both Crane and Almond published debut story collections that met with critical acclaim.
The New York Times Book Review called Craneís When the Messenger is Hot (2004) a ďremarkably strong and coherent artistic vision.Ē These stories are unique and heartwarming. The collection balances intelligent literary structure with tragic emotional struggle, and won Crane the Chicago Public Libraryís 21st Century Award.
Almondís debut collection, My Life in Heavy Metal (2003), injected a shot of literary energy into the tales of love and longing. ďAlmondís eye for modern types is impeccably, almost academically sharp,Ē wrote the reviewer at the Los Angles Times, aptly summing up Almondís uncanny ability to capture the reality of love gone astray. His next book, the nonfictional Candyfreak, devoted to the authorís own obsession with American candy, proved that Almondís sophisticated literary styling is not only confined to fiction.
The publication of Craneís and Almondís highly anticipated sophomore story collections, All This Heavenly Glory and The Evil B.B. Chow respectively, provided the perfect platform to discuss the differences and perspectives of female and male short story writers. Other Voices staffers Matt Pagano and Tina Spielman met with Crane and Almond at the 2005 Printerís Row Book Fair in Chicago at the Harold Washington Library for a He Said/She Said take on the author interview. We discussed their new story collections, their teaching styles and the literature of relationships.
TS: You both have published new story collections this year. How was the process of working on the second book different from the first? Did you have more creative freedom?
BETSY : My process was pretty much the same. I think with fiction in general you have so much freedom, especially once you know that they like you. I just did my own thing, though I felt a little pressure to live up to something.
STEVE: I have this book of stories and then this nonfiction book, and B.B. Chow was purchased along with the candy book and the work was just choosing what stories I wanted to publish. No one was clamoring for more stories from me or wanted me to write on a particular theme. The larger pressure was just, ďWhereís your novel?Ē The amazing thing is I donít think there are many other people whose second book of fiction is a book of short stories. I can tell you Iíve met publishers absolutely eager to not have that be the case.
MP: Although youíre working on a novel. Isnít that your next project?
STEVE: Right. They wanted that to be published right after Candyfreak.
BETSY: The compromise that I think helped me a lot was that this was one character [Charlotte Anne Byers who is followed throughout All This Heavenly Glory].
TS: How do they officially classify All This Heavenly Glory? Iíve seen it described as short stories, as linked storiesÖ
BETSY : I thought it said ďstoriesĒ right on frontó
STEVE: No, it doesnít say that anymore. They do not put ďstoriesĒ in front of story collections anymore.
BETSY: Wow. That must be very recent because Messenger says ďstoriesĒ on the front.
STEVE: Itís very recent, and itís a result of this paradigm shift. Weíre probably also the last two authors to have their second book of stories in hardback. Because increasingly they are all going to be originals in paperback.
BETSY: Which is cool.
STEVE: Which is very cool. I understand it. But not when your contract says hardback.
BETSY: My intention was for my character to have progression. I donít know what defines a novel-in-stories anyway. When Steve was talking about how the stories were written, quite a few of mine were also written already. It had always been my intention to write a complete book about this character. My original idea years ago was they would all be childhood stories, but when I started to read through a few I thought, well, maybe I should mix it up a little bit. So I tried to fill out her story on that basis and what was missing from the overall story.
MP: Does the story process involve heavy work with your editor giving you input about what to add or to change?
BETSY: Thereís so little work with the editor until itís extremely done. With everything Iíve read, I think the publishing world seems to have changed before I got into it to the extent that the editing process has become something very different. If thereís editing before you get it published, you work with your agent. She was the one who thought it was ready before I did, and I guess she was right. By the time it gets to the process of the editor, itís pretty painless.
TS: How aware are you of your audience when writing? Is there a certain reaction youíre trying to evoke from them?
STEVE: When things are going well, Iím thinking about the characters and nothing other than that. But there are two ways of answering that: I donít ever think of demographics or niches or whoís supposed to read this, which is deeply condescending to people.
STEVE: I think itís condescending to suppose that if youíre writing a particular theme or topic or styleó
BETSY: Oh, I see.
STEVE: Öthat somehow a fifty-year-old housewife in Iowa wouldnít get it. All humans are deep enough to get literature if they pay attention carefully enough. But I do think all writers of any merit think about the reader in the generic sense of not confusing them, not being condescending to them, not putting in extra words to call attention to the author. Beyond that, thatís it. You know, I never think, ďOh, gosh no, where might this go, who might like this?Ē
BETSY: Thatís interesting to me because I always feel like such a charlatan going in to teach a class telling my students that I donít think about my audience, because I know that there are people who teach you to think about your audienceó
STEVE: There is a sense that you have to think about trying to connect to your audienceó
BETSY: Yes, in that sense absolutely. But not in the particulars of who the people are or who the groups of people are. That would be utterly baffling.
STEVE: Right, thereís a word for it: itís called marketing.
TS: What does it mean for you to connect with your audience?
STEVE: Well, it means they feel more than they felt when they picked up the piece of art. It means the love that youíve felt for the character gets translated into them. Thatís what it means when you read a great book or a great story or great poem. But thatís very different than the commercial intent where the goal is to sell books. Lots of them.
MP: Then does marketing dictate where you send your stories? For example, something you might send to Playboy may be very different than what you send to Other Voices.
STEVE: Well, sort of. I am unburdened by getting into a big slick magazine. It will probably never happen. But it could, I hope it does. But Iíve given up on the idea that thatís how Iím going to build a readership, which is how I think a lot of young writers think. They think, Iím going to send this to the New Yorker or HarperísÖbut within that literal arrangement there is some work that is so graphic I know that Nerve is going to be the one who is going to run it, although really Iíd like to give Other Voices and the Missouri Review and some of these literary magazines the credit to say, ďItís a good story, Iíll run it.Ē I donít care if there are pussies and dicks and parts in congress in my stories. But I tend to think about, ďIím certainly not going to send this kind of work to Atlantic Monthly or the Georgia Review,Ē or publications I know have a particular aesthetic where Iím just barking up the wrong tree.
BETSY: I donít even think itís the graphic that keeps me out of those publications. I think, particularly with the New Yorker, that they have their Updike and their Murakami and the six other people and the occasional new voice and thatís it. I donít think itís even about the content of my work as much, is what Iím saying.
STEVE: Itís an interesting question and I want to say that thatís the sort of ambitious, almost a sort of marketing arm of our brains, to mix a metaphor. Especially when youíre writing short stories itís so difficult to get the work into the world and get noticed. And I know coming out of Candyfreak that was the big sitcom. Now everybody knows me as the candy guy so I say, ďHey, I write these short stories on the side,Ē and people couldnít care less. So thatís why I think itís difficult when you are serious about the craft to say wouldnít it be fabulous to be in one of those slicks that automatically you can say to your mother or whomever else, ďYes, I have arrived.Ē Iím interested to hear what Elizabeth has to say because I think thereís something to not having that kind of recognition that makes you find other ways.
BETSY: I find that more and more whatís been happening in my life is that I am connecting, very directlyóIím sure you have this experience because you tour so muchóto things like the Dollar Store and Sleepwalk. People come out to these events and there are other, various local zines and publications that I find myself more and more interested in because people do read them. People come out to see you. Itís so direct and so immediate that it seems to be much more what writing is about than recognition. You want to make a living.
STEVE: I think these reading series that are organically emerging from cities where a bunch of writers have respect for one another and want to enlarge the circle of literature are fabulous. Bostonís got a great scene.
BETSY: Oh, really? Thatís great.
MP: Steve, youíre doing some of those literary events, too, which include music with writing.
STEVE: Yes, we do this thing in Boston called Cover to Cover. Basically, two authors come in and read their favorite authors and then talk a little bit. So like Andre Dubus III read his fatherís work and talked about his fatherís writing, which is just innately beautiful. And then bands will come in and play all covers.
BETSY: A little bit like Happy Ending [in New York]?
STEVE: Itís a little bit like that, but imagine a room with two hundred and fifty people. And itís an interesting thing because you want to expand the sense of literature as not being stuffy and exclusive, but you donít want to water it down so much that itís gimmicky. But if you can get people out into a big public space to hear Tom Perrotta read ďWhat We Talk About When We Talk About Love,Ē you know a few of those people are going to want to go to another reading.
MP: What do you think about David Sedarisís readings, which are events in themselves?
BETSY: He is a lot of fun to go see, but itís just so mind-boggling that he brings out so many people. Iíve been trying to figure out exactly what it is about him that is soó
STEVE: Itís the literature of humiliation.
BETSY: With all due respect to him, heís not the best writer in world, you know? Heís good.
STEVE: But heís very honest and he awakens peopleís own legacies of shame gently enough to allow us to experience them. There are a bunch of memoirs that do that and theyíre great because everybody has their moments of mortification and he sort of unpacks it.
BETSY: But the fact that he brings out that many people makes me think, why arenít there more people like that? Why arenít writers celebrities, like movie stars? If thereís one, there must be room for another one.
STEVE: Well let me just say that I think, in the broader way, people donít want to experience art. Itís too intense, itís too dark, itís too true.
BETSY: Iím sure thatís true.
STEVE: They want some version of it that is gentle. So I look at a guy like Sedaris and I donít know quite what to think because I think heís funny. But Iím not sure people are going to use that as their next step to reading Martin Amisís early novels, which are really funny as hell, but dark.
BETSY: One great thing that Sedaris does is he always recommends a book or two at the end of his readings.
TS: Betsy, you have also combined literature with theatre like the Stories on Stage event at the Chopin Theater here in Chicago last March, where you read ďSuper Fantastic New Zealand Triangle.Ē
BETSY: Yes, with Megan [Stielstra of Sleepwalk]. Thatís another thing the Sleepwalk people do, which is so great. They collaborate. They have writers collaborate with artists of different kinds. Fine artists and filmmakers and dancers or rock stars to come up with something new. Itís wonderful.
TS: Since that reading combined one of your own stories with theater acting, did the experience of seeing your story acted out change the way you look at it?
BETSY: It certainly does when someone else is up there reading it and it sounds different than it did in my head [laughs].
MP: You are both known for writing about singledom, relationships and that kind of thing. What are you trying to revealówhat are you trying to say about relationships and how gender plays into that?
STEVE: Thatís a big one.
MP: Well, Steve, you often write with female protagonists and narrators. So, for example, ďThe Evil B. B. Chow,Ē and ďGeek PlayerĒó
STEVE: I just hate to think about the furniture of the story in that way. The best, the purest way you engage in your work is to have empathy for your character and their situation, which, in a lot of our stories, is struggling to find love but somehow sabotaging it unconsciously in such a way that you wind up in a ditch. You wake up and your headís very bruised. So thatís what Iím thinking about. What I will say about female characters is that they tend to ask more literary questions than guys. They ask: Where did things go wrong? What happened? Why did he turn off? Why am I turning off? Where is this going long term? And guys, for the most part, tend to default into sports or whatever. Writing from a femaleís perspective on these issues makes more sense because itís not unrealistic but much less common for a guy to go, What went wrong? What happened? What did I do? It happensó
BETSY: Oh, it does happen.
STEVE: But in the end all those questionsógender, age, theme, styleóthey are the furniture of the story. The real action in a story is the crisis the characters are in.
BETSY: Itís interesting just listening to what you had to say. It makes me think about a lot of the men that I write about. The circles that Iíve been in for so long are very artyónot necessarily literary, just broadly artyóand the men are inclined toward some level of self-examination. More than the ones that I hear about and see walking around, who look like they donít spend a lot of time thinking about these things. So I know the world that I exist in is different in that way. But at the same time, for the most sensitive guy, I think itís still sort of a struggle to be a man and ask those same questions.
STEVE: Theyíre instructed to live farther from their feelings. Women are allowed to express their feelings. There is this assumption that women should be more sort of coy and soft spoken and less cynical and all these attributes we attribute to men. It seems like a slippery slope. Because men, they read my writing and they get it. They get the story.
BETSY: Yes, Iíve had a lot of men who were rather surprised to discover that they connected to my work.
STEVE: And more and more of my readers are women, Iím sure, but thatís partly becauseó
BETSY: More women read.
STEVE: Right. Those numbers are probably skewed, but right.
MP: Well it sounds like female protagonists or narrators open up the chance to have better literature. But at the same time, it seems that the public is so dismissive of Chick Lit. Where do you think that comes from?
BETSY: I donít know what to say about that subject anymore. Thereís so much written about it. I think because itís not considered to be as well written, or it only covers certain topics. Iím just starting to lose perspective on what Chick Lit is anymore.
STEVE: Sure. And people will say Iím Dick Lit. I mean I can tell you what Chick Lit is: itís a marketing term. But I guess it mostly signifies middlebrow writing that is not as concerned with the intense, painful experiences that literature is trying to take on. And it does follow a formula, which life, by the fucking way, doesnít. So itís not about the subject matter as much as it is about the artistís intent when they sit down. You really have to be willing to go to the most dangerous places and have bad shit happen and put your characters through it, and furthermore, donít abandon them in the midst of it. And when we talk about Chick Lit, weíre talking about relationship literature. Itís doing that someÖbut to really imperil the reader, to say maybe youíre not going to have a happy ending, maybe you are going to be wronged or somehow wrong yourself in a way thatís irreparable, thatís kind of the definition of Art. So this Chick Lit stuff is sort of infuriating. If anyoneís calling your stuff Chick Lit, I would just say, ďPlease fucking grow up!Ē
TS: Do you think there is a difference between the way that females and males approach fiction?
BETSY: Iím troubled by the fact that I read more male writers.
STEVE: Well, just more of them are published. Itís just true. I mean you look at any business and women are still getting the shaft.
TS: When choosing a book to read, how conscious are you of reading an author based on gender? Does it play a role?
STEVE: Iím conscious of it when teaching. Iím conscious of it when I have to keep going back to Jane Austen and Lorrie Moore and Toni Morrison and thinking, O.K. now wait a second, I want to have a broader range of people to choose from. Thatís when I really notice how many more male authors I have to choose from, like Don DeLillo and Denis Johnson.
BETSY: And you wonder is it because women are not getting published? Or theyíre not doing the same kind of writing? Or maybe itís all of the above.
STEVE: I think itís changing though. I do think that women are publishing books that are more interesting to readers.
TS: You both write a lot about relationships, both healthy and dysfunctional. Which do you find easier to write about?
BETSY: Itís so much easier to write about the hard ones. I recently got married and itís wonderful, but I find that Iím still trying to figure out how I write about it. Whatís interesting about it? What would be interesting to someone else? Itís interesting to us.
STEVE: Thatís the problem: and they live happily ever after, which is generally the ending of a story. You know if there isnít danger in the story then the reader isnít going to get sunk in as deep. We tend to write about relationships where at some moment thereís terrible danger. Itís very hard to find books that are good books about the small quiet compromises of a successful relationship, or the small agonies of making that kind of ongoing compromise. Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge by Evan Connell are absolutely brilliant. Thereís also the Rabbit series by John Updike. But of course, theyíre always getting divorced or back together or having affairs on one another. Itís hard to find books that are really about enduring. Thatís much more subtle.
BETSY: And subtle is hard to write.
STEVE: You wonder why people are frightened of literature and itís because books are generally about things going wrong.
TS: Since youíre especially known for writing about certain aspects of dating, such as multiple partners and the quest for a suitable partner, has being in a committed relationship altered your writing perspective?
BETSY: I find myself writing a lot more from scratch. Very little that comes from my past. Which is fun.
STEVE: Because itís over. That lineís closed.
BETSY: I think Iíve mined that territory at this point. I have to wait for somebody else to get a really horrible illness oró
MP: Does it make you look at Messenger any differently? When you look back and think, the person who wrote that is just different thanó
BETSY: I was thinking like that regardless of the book. Just the other day I was thinking who am I now that I am happy? What does that even mean? Who am I if Iím not that angsty girl who goes out withó
BETSY: Yes. Maybe not shmucks, but just the wrong guy.
STEVE: Itís true. Iíve been thinking about this a lot recently. This sort of great untapped, even unidentified struggle: the struggle to exist with your own happiness.
BETSY: [laughs] Itís so true. And Iíve been starting to write about that a little bit.
STEVE: And I think it will find an audience because it is what most people have difficulty with. They need grievances and unhappiness and all the stuff they got when they were kids and need to keep it around. Itís very frightening to get to the point where youíre actualized and healthy in a good relationship.
MP: The desire for love, to be loved and to belong is so basic. So why are relationships so hard?
STEVE: Itís all the bad stuff that happens when youíre young, difficulties you have in connecting in a loving way to the immediate members of your family. Most things are indelible. They are marked in a way that canít be corrected or worked out of the system. And everybodyís walking around, god, this culture is so incredibly pathological. You spend any time touring or just in one city and you see everybodyís scared to death, theyíre lonely as hell, they have guns and big cars and theyíre fucking nuts. They are out of their minds because the things inside, the deep connections, are so chaotic and out of control. And, of course, the one place where it comes out is when they are really, closely, passionately connected to another person.
BETSY: And itís terrifying. I actually wrote a story about that based on when my husband and I first started dating, and Iím not sure itís as successful as I would like it to be. But it was so unfamiliar and I had no frame of reference to bring to it. Itís true we are attached to our problems.
TS: Is the story youíre referring to ďThe Evolution of the ThingĒ?
BETSY: Thatís the story. I was trying to indicate her complete insecurity about the fact that heís younger. That theyíre coolóhe and his friends are a lot cooler than she is.
STEVE: So even if a story involves happiness you have to say, ďItís still deep. Itís dark.Ē
BETSY: And the last story in the book takes place in the future. I originally wanted it to be this imaginary future where everythingís really nice. Like what if I lived in the country and had this really simple existence? Small town. Football games. And drinking beer on the porch or whatever. And I couldnít. It started out that way and then the woman gets a gay son and then one of them is on drugs and it still goes wrong. That characterís just as sentimental about the dark stuff as she is about the happy stuff.
TS: Both of your stories seem to be very personal and honest portrayals of relationships. Do you mostly base your short stories on your own history?
STEVE: I write about a lot of people I know and who, one way or the other, are connected. I have to feel the feelings that I feel toward my pal X in order to get the character right and itís predicated on my understanding of them, my affection for them, my intuition and insight into their character. So I worry sometimes when I write a story that I know is based on a pal, or a former lover or friend who has had some experience that caught in my craw. I worry that theyíll be angry or offended or exposed when they read my stories. But they generally tend to be very happy to have their experience recognized. Now my girlfriend inspires me to write stories. Iíll start showing off for her or just kinda riffing on something and start thinking, ĎThatíd be a good story,í and just keep going with it. If I wrote a story that was clearly based on her, yes Iíd be worried.
BETSY: Yes [laughing].
STEVE: Because you have something to lose there. But in practice, if your friends are artists or if theyíre at least artistically inclined, they recognize no one is trying to exploit them.
BETSY: Of course, yes. Iíve actually cut some things that were based on true relationships that I thought were too brutal. You know, because even if I donít have an ongoing relationship with that person, I just thought, it wasnít necessary to make the story what it is overall. Is your girlfriend a writer?
STEVE: Yes, she is.
BETSY: Howís that?
STEVE: Well, itís interesting to start with because, if weíre doing our jobs, weíre not going to make any money. If weíre really writing about the stuff thatís important, weíre not going to make much money at all. So thereís that consideration. Then thereís also the issue of two people having the same ambition and the inevitable envy. Everybodyís so under-attended to and insecure that you always turn on one another. But that being said, it would be a complication if she wasnít a writer. Itís like any relationship: itís a tradeoff. And I think itís very difficult because we do interact with one anotherís work, read it. And if itís tough in workshop to say, ďThis seems to need work,Ē or, ďIím not sure this is working,Ē you can imagine what itís like in a relationship.
BETSY: Yes. I dated very few writers and, for whatever reason, I think my own insecurities would have just completely run amok. So itís nice my husbandís art is fine art, and not writing, because he has that sensitivity.
MP: Being involved in the same artistic profession, have you ever had a shared experience your girlfriend wrote about one way and you wrote about another, creating competing narratives?
STEVE: Not yet. But that would be interesting. Thatís a good question. But if itís good writing, itís not like youíre racing to get your version out. Youíre really trying to make sense of whatever transpired. Usually itís something, as we discussed, thatís painful if not heartbreaking. And the effort there is not about exposure or vengeance but itís about forgiving the people who made those mistakes, who came to that difficult juncture in their relationship. I know thereís at least one person whoís good and pissed off about a story in Heavy Metal and I just had to say, ďO.K., I wasnít writing it for revenge and Iím going to have to decide that I think the piece of art is important enough and Iím sorry, really sorry, but Iím not not going to put it into the world for that reason.Ē
TS: Realistic relationship writing is sometimes difficult to portray, but what about writing about sex? Itís hard to write a good and convincing sexual scene in fiction. What are the elements of good sex writing?
STEVE: I have ten kind-of rules, which are very intuitive. The reason that I write sex scenes is that theyíre just very emotional. Thereís so much emotion there.
BETSY: Maybe thatís why I avoid them.
STEVE: Iím interested in the emotional mechanics of those moments because all this stuff is going on all at once and good sex writing is honoring that. I just read A Sporting Pastime by James Stevelzer, and itís startling, astonishing really, because 140 pages of the central plot, sixty percent of it, is just an American expatriate and his love affairóa very graphic, sexual, romantic love affairówith a French shop girl. And you think, Well, gosh, how is this going to be sustained? But the thing is, itís all so exquisitely emotional. That is how these characters interact. That is when things become intimate between them. The writer is expressing how theyíre going at one another physically because their bodies are saying things.
BETSY: Thatís true, and I think thatís a really good way to describe it. Where I run into trouble is getting really tripped up on the available language when trying to describe whatís going on between two people in a physical sense.
STEVE: I say never use ďpenis,Ē never use ďvagina,Ē and you donít even need to usually mention the genitals. The reason the language sucks is because our culture is so neurotic and itís the most interesting thing in the world. I mean weíre just an orgy of violence, and thereís no problem talking about or expressing violent ideation and thatís what we do, weíre number one. But the available language to write about sex is so inelegant.
BETSY: Yes, inelegant is a good word.
STEVE: Itís sad, because even the Bible, which is mostly violence, also has the Song of Songs, or itís sometimes called the Song of Solomon, and thatís just unbelievably gorgeous. Vivid. Thatís what people should read if they want to read good sex writing. Itís not long; just eight short, basically erotic love poems. And they didnít have all of the crap that we have now, screens and phones, and so everything is incredibly sensualómetaphors and imagesóor animal.
MP: Steve, a lot of people pick up on your explicitness and just focus on that aspect as opposed to the emotional. I know with Heavy Metal there was a lot of talk about that among critics. Has there been any change in peopleís reactions between Heavy Metal and Chow?
STEVE: I think so, but it always shifts. It shifts from, ďHeís the sex guy,Ē to ďHeís the pop culture guy.Ē I donít think thatís just in terms of meóthis is how it works.
STEVE: This is how the people who donít have the vocabulary to talk about the emotional aspects of art and the psychological aspectsóthis is just how they talk about writers. They go, ďOh this was great,Ē and, ďLetís start with the angsty women.Ē To me itís beautiful and miraculous when you find a critic who really loves Art. You know, as opposed to where theyíre just angry, angry at artists.
BETSY: Well, Iíve gotten reviews that were not gushingly great that I thought were very fair. You know, and thatís saying a lot, coming from a sensitive artist. I mean they help you identify your aesthetic.
BETSY: And I think thatís rare.
MP: Did that play at all into your selections for the second book? In response to those comments. For example, Iím sure people are going to react to ďSkull.Ē
STEVE: I very intentionally wanted B.B. Chow to be the title of the book, because I thought it was a strong story and it was a female narrator. I chose the first four stories very carefully and their order. I tried to do the same thing with Heavy Metal. The second story in Heavy Metal is about a widower who canít connect to his family. It doesnít have a whit of sex in it, but you can absolutely count on people not to get that. They need their tag. And part of it is cued by the publishers. Most of the stories in the collection are not young, urban, smarty-pants-fucking-up kind of stories. But thatís how itís going to get played in certain venues and whatever. This is why I travel around, to try and get a chance to get the book into peoplesí hands, because then you stand a shot that theyíll read it and go, ďWow.Ē Theyíre after something deeper than the label.
TS: How does the criticism that you receive play into your criticism of books that youíre asked to blurb?
BETSY: I donít do that much reviewing at this point. I find it too painful. [laughing] Before, I wrote very short little reviews for book magazines. It was painful. They werenít usually great, the books that they would send me. And I just found it sort of difficult to ever say anything bad.
STEVE: Yes. I think about it a lot, because I wrote a piece about how much it sucks to get bad, dismissive reviews that are just wrong. And I generally feel like your role as a writer in the world is to not be an asshole in terms of other writers.
STEVE: You know there are all these bad books, but your job is to be the best that you can be. You have those feelings, everybody has them, but when you release them into a public venue, when you fuckiníó as Bear Bryant used to say when somebody would score a touchdown, heíd say, ďAct like youíve been there before. Show a little class.Ē So be positive about the books that you love and never become a sniping, fucked up cynic. But when I review a book and I dislike it, I feel an extra burden to identify why, to put enough of the personís prose out there that the reader can decide on his or her own. Because I know how much it sucks when I just get a short, snarky, dismissive review. What really kills me is when a reviewerís picked on the work, rather than just reflecting the sensibility of the reviewer. When somebody goes, ďWell this just isnít my kind of book.Ē
BETSY: Thatís part of the reason why I donít really want to do it. Or that Iím not that interested in doing it, because I have such a particularósometimes I think itís narrow, even if itís probably not as narrow as I think it isóbut I have such particular tastes that I donít want to impose that on a book review.
TS: Is that a positive aspect of having your own blog, then, because you can talk about books withoutó?
BETSY: I can just talk about books that I like.
TS: Has that changed your writing routine because, in addition to journaling and short story writing, you now blog?
BETSY: Itís taking away from my journaling, if anything. Not from the fiction so much. But I notice Iím not writing as often.
STEVE: Do you write every day?
BETSY: On my blog? I donít force myself to, but I tend to have something to say about something. Itís really not particularly literary at all.
STEVE: You talk about recent books?
BETSY: I talk about whatever I watched on TV the night before.
MP: What about your process, Steve? You have your e-zine.
STEVE: Right, the Tip. I send it to my dozen friends, and I realized at a certain point, well, you know itís once every six months. Itís not going to burden anybody. Itís not going to be like spam, but I might as well recommend things.
BETSY: Iím on the list. I always enjoy it.
STEVE: Good. Those albums are fabulous. I make peopleís lives happier.
BETSY: I firmly believe that you should recommend the art that you really like. Books, whatever. Yes, books, records. Occasionally. Iím not a big record buyer.
TS: You guys ever think about having a soundtrack to your stories?
BETSY: I havenít.
TS: If you did, what do you think you would use?
STEVE: I fantasize a lot and thatís scary for me because I have just so much. Now Iíve got the Apple thing, so I have five thousand songs that are there.
BETSY: Can you write with music on?
STEVE: Yes. Music is always on.
BETSY: Fascinating! Thatís fascinating to me.
STEVE: On the way up, I was listening to this live show by a guy I like a lot, and he just kicked this songís ass so hard. Itís called ďAss Rockiní Beats.Ē Itís by a guy who makes the Red Hot Chili Peppers look like a little fleck of paprika. I wish I could just blare this in the red states and just force them to listen. Try to shake their ass up. Try to get them to recognize that this exists in the world. So I do think about the natural relationship between different kinds of art. Art as a larger mechanism for awakening peopleís senses of themselves and the best parts of their personality. The adult parts of their personality. Not being so inhibited that you canít dance in public. Thatís why I always, not always, but frequently do readings in bars and, if I can set it up, with a band that I like. You know, hip music. Or a deejay. Not a lot, but sometimes.
BETSY: One of my students recently was laughing because, for some reason it came up, we were talking about listening to music. It seemed surprising to her that listening to music was an activity in and of itself. She was like, ďOh. Thatís so 70s.Ē
BETSY: And that is the way that I grew up, listening. But still I canít listen and write, particularly if itís a record I really like. I cannot concentrate on anything else because it seems like a really active thing to me. Itís not just background.
STEVE: That is true. It does. And if I were more together I wouldnít listen to it at all when I write. Because when I do, it does take away some of my concentration. But now, what Iím surprised about with my students is that they have so many different narratives going on at the same time. Theyíre these little screen addicts. Theyíve got their IMs, their email, and their cell phone and text messaging.
BETSY: These are undergraduates?
STEVE: Yes. And their lives are segmented into these tiny slicesótheir intellectual metabolisms are watching the corner of a TV screen and itís just five-second cuts. Or less than that.
BETSY: But they absorb it and they process it.
STEVE: Yes, but I think differently. You just dually process it and people are not perceiving the world. Theyíre getting addicted to these various screens. And I see it in myself, because my computer is TV.
BETSY: Iím getting there.
MP: Talking about your students, have their questions or issues theyíve brought up in class helped shape or change your perspective on writing?
BETSY: Oh, absolutely. I sometimes feel like an idiot in class quite frankly because my students have contributed so much to the discussions. And, you know, come up with insights that I donít.
STEVE: I teach for a couple of reasons. Mostly because I enjoy it a lot and I find it very inspiring.
BETSY: Itís incredibly inspiring!
STEVE: I think itís beautiful that people that young are that serious about writing and the difficulty of it. At age twenty-one that just wasnít where I was at. That kind of exposure was way out of my league. But also because it reminds you why you do it and you get good ideas. And the workshop setting, if itís a good workshop, isnít the transmission of wisdom from the teacher to the student. You know more, but you donít know everything. Itís also interesting to see unsuccessful stories and why theyíre unsuccessful. Thatís how you learn. Youíre inspired by reading successful literature, but you actually learn by reading other peoplesí mistakes. I find that, while teaching, the part of my brain/heart/spirit which generates stories is activated in probably twenty different ways.
BETSY: I had an especially talented class last time. But also, in rereading some of my favorite things to prepare for the class Iíve been inspired, re-inspired, by the things I love. Because you find new things. But also I just get so jazzed about the process of teaching. In general, to see the progress and excitement that students have.
STEVE: There are very few people who will listen to us otherwise. It makes us feel masterful. Largely, if youíre writing wellónot like your stuff is great or commercially successfulóbut if youíre really writing seriously, youíre in a state of constant doubt, and youíre overmatched by it. You know it feels very gratifying to be in a setting where you can really immediately identify concrete mistakes in peopleís work and remind them and yourself over and over that when you get to this point in the story, you donít bail. This is a necessary word for this reason, because itís doing this to the reader. But more than one person will listenóyou have a captive audienceóand it sounds silly, like we shouldnít say it, but part of the motivation is to get your word out.
STEVE: And Iím also getting my aesthetic out, what I want literature to be.
BETSY: Definitely, thatís fun.
MP: Steve, you have a more activist theory of teaching, seeing yourself as a gatekeeper. Youíve talked about how if somebody is not ready to write or not serious about writing, youíll ride them much more than others.
STEVE: I just get them out. I donít want them to slow us down.
BETSY: Wow! Thatís great. Of course, Iím so new at it that Iím still finding my way in a lot of respects.
STEVE: I like to say in the first class, ďI donít believe in grade inflation. Itís condescending to you. Itís not in your best interest. And I just donít believe in it. And if you think this is a gut class, itís not. And unless you do really excellent work, youíre not going to get an A. If you do average work, youíre going to get a C. And furthermore, those grades are not just going to reflect how you did academically, theyíre going to reflect what I think of you. Theyíre my way of telling you whether I like you or not. And youíll know, long before you get that grade, if youíre doing bad work, if youíre doing lazy work, if youíre being an asshole in class and not listening. If youíre not on the bus, if youíre not really trying, youíll know I dislike you. Because Iíll make it patently clear to you and itís really going to hurt your feelings, so get out.Ē
BETSY: Iím going to have to get a little tougher. Itís a bit different at Northwestern. Along those lines, my friend teaches at several of the writing programs here and sheís told me that she does that in the first class as well. She says, ďIf you do everything on the syllabus, you get a C. Beyond that, you have to push yourself.Ē A lot of the same kind of stuff. One of the things about Northwesternís Graduate Writing Program is that theyíre adults of all ages, so they want to be there. And also, even if theyíre beginning writers, theyíre bringing something to the table. Theyíre bringing life experience with them. Even if theyíre not writing about that particularly, theyíre bringing some perspective. I think itís a bit different than undergraduate or even just straight, regular graduate school.
TS: Is it strange for you when people talk about how much your writingís influenced them?
STEVE: Could there be a higher form of flattery? Itís amazing. It hasnít happened a lot, but there have been times. Especially Heavy Metal, which seems to hit certain people a certain way. Itís very intense, and I think it mirrors a lot of the feeling states that a lot of post-adolescents have and their struggles to confess the really dirty, dark stuff. A couple of times, people who have dog-eared copies of Heavy Metal have said, ďThis is why I write,Ē or, ďThis helped me write something,Ē or, ďThis helped me write when I was blocked.Ē Thatís the kind of good feeling you really have to fight against. Your struggle with happiness is at its height when people say things like that. You immediately have to go, They probably donít mean it. And, Theyíre probably retarded.
BETSY: Right. It just seemsóitís almost surreal.
MP: Women must say that with When The Messenger Is Hot.
BETSY: They do. And I hear from friends that Iím being taught now. That Iíve been taught. Itís strange to be taught. These are people at other schools like Yale and Princeton. But I also have friends who teach here at Columbia College and at UIC and Iíve visited their classes, or my friend will tell me how much of an influence I have been on these people. Itís pretty awesome and it makes me incredibly proud.
STEVE: Those are the times you have to be really careful. Because they have so much expectation about who you are.
BETSY: And thatís the part I really donít get.
STEVE: That stuffís tough. That transference, when they ascribe to you the wisdom and marvelous eloquence that you can have in a story because itís crafted. They think youíre just going to come right out with it. So that pressure is weird. And the emotional feeling of, You understand me. Like Single White Female.
STEVE: That is strange, but itís exactly the reason I think that you have to be so careful in not letting others glom onto you in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable. But to recognize that they really want to connect to you, and theyíre really going to take seriously the way you conduct yourself. And if youíre one of those authors who bitches at other authors and complains or carps, youíre really going to hurt them because theyíre so vulnerable to how connected they are.
BETSY: I agree. And I feel so grateful just to be in the position that Iím in, and I have actually had bad experiences with authors as a fan. And Iíve seen writers, whose work Iím really impressed with, who will sit for however long the line isófor three hoursóto sign books. And if that should ever be my fortune in this life, thatís who I want to be. I care about what people think of me.
STEVE: Everybody does.
BETSY: But I admire you because youíre much more willing to put your strong opinions out there. Whereas, I probably have some of the same ones, butÖ
STEVE: Thatís part of my effort to beó
BETSY: Who you are.
STEVE: No, liked. In a basic way, thatís just my trying to set down what needs to be said about literature. Because in its best incarnation, it preoccupies meóbecause I want the community of literature to be better. To be more compassionate. To be more vital. To get out into the world and start turning it around, because this species is just zooming towards extinction. And suicide. Or, actually, a lot of homicides, given the amount of guns we have. And so, weíre supposed to be humanizing. Thatís sort of our job, our calling. But to me that noble motive is always partly narcissistic. The impulse that I want to have my say.
BETSY: Well it took me a long time to put any opinion I have about anything out there into the world. As a kid I just agreed with anything anybody said. Iíve gotten over that, thank goodness, and realized that I have quite a few opinions.