September 2013

Matt Bell


An Interview with Susan Steinberg

I read my first Susan Steinberg story in Issue 47 of American Short Fiction, where her story "Cowboy" appeared several years ago. I was immediately captivated, drawn into the story from the incredible hook of the first sentence -- "There are some who say I did not kill my father" -- through its fast-moving, sharply-rendered series of short paragraphs, each a confession or accusation, retraction or correction, on toward the end, where at last the narrator makes a sudden movement toward her listener: "There I was, just some poor soul. Same as you." More than anything else, the ending of the story reminded me of the famous final words of Denis Johnson's "Car Crash While Hitchhiking," "And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you," which always struck me as an incredibly difficult last line to write, one that required skill and guts to even attempt, and then more of each to actually pull off.

Thankfully for us, Steinberg makes these kinds of skilled, gutsy moves on nearly every page, and she clearly possesses the talent and bravery and intelligence to make them work. Her extraordinary new collection, Spectacle, is more than just a worthy successor to her previous books, The End of Free Love and Hydroplane: It also raises the bar for what a Susan Steinberg short story can be, in part by raising the stakes again and again, page after page. I've read very few short story collections where every word matters more than they do in Spectacle, where every utterance is beautiful and heart-wrenching not just for its own content but also for how it lays bare what it cost the narrator to speak it, the artist to write it.

Here, Steinberg generously answers my questions about the role of anger and aggression in her work, and about writing stories we don't want to write, performance and radical revision techniques, and how experimental writing is better thought of as a process instead of a genre.

This has been a strong year for angry protagonists in art, at least in the places I'm reading and watching and listening, both old and new: For instance, Claire Messud's The Woman Upstairs has attracted a lot of attention for its narrator Nora, who declares her own anger on the first page ("How angry am I? You don't want to know. Nobody wants to know about that"), and many critics seem to have found this kind of female narrator atypical enough to make that the centerpiece of their reviews. And I recently caught Kayne West on Saturday Night Live, where he debuted two songs from his new album Yeezus, both of which were absolutely dripping with anger and aggressiveness, in their content and especially in his performance, which seemed to be taking a different stance than what I was used to from popular music. And these are just two examples of recent work: I've also been reading Kate Bernheimer's Gold Sisters trilogy, which are often infused with a grieving or saddened anger, regardless of which sister is narrating, and I've also been reading a lot of Anne Carson, both her own books and her translations. In the introduction to her translations of Euripides, Carson writes, "Why does tragedy exist? Because you are full of rage. Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief."

To bring it around to your book, the narrator in Spectacle also strikes me as one of the most aggressive voices I've read, often openly angry about the events of the story being delivered but also angry in her mode of delivery -- and part of that aggression is her tendency in some of the stories to be confessional first but then to subvert that confession by retracting previously offered information. This tactic is part of what I loved so much about this book, but it's also an aggression against the norms of storytelling, in which even an unreliable narrator is at least consistently unreliable, rather than undoing the ground of the story's past as she moves forward, as your narrator often does. Can you talk about the root of the anger and aggressiveness in Spectacle, or how you mean it to work upon the reader? Are anger and aggression the core emotions or tactics of the book to you too, or did it generate out of a different space? Would you prefer to see the book approached or experienced by readers in some other way?

I think the Anne Carson quotation, above, sums it up. My narrators suffer through different types of loss throughout the stories, and their feelings of anger and grief are entangled. So I can and will say that yes, anger is a core emotion of the book, and that yes, my narrators are totally angry. Admitting this, I realize, is a risk, as readers often conflate my and my narrators' lives. I mean I'm running the risk of a being called an angry woman, which too often is viewed as unacceptable, in art and in life. Honestly, I think this is why I've always had such a messed up relationship with anger. In the past, I did anything to avoid feeling it. I replaced it with sadness or longing or guilt or any of a huge collection of emotions I'm better at.

All to say that while I didn't enter into these stories with an agenda of writing my own anger, the process of writing them helped me to access a lot of the anger I hadn't, but should have, experienced. Through these narrators and these stories, I found ways to be confrontational and aggressive and furious, and unapologetically. So though the stories are fictions, and though they often narrow in on the core of the most brutal or charged moments in these narrators' lives, the root of their anger is the root of my anger. And at the root of this anger is grief.

I'm interested in this idea that the process of writing the stories in Spectacle helped you access anger you "hadn't, but should have, experienced." I've noticed that I can, if I'm writing well on a particular day, make myself feel a lot stronger emotions from what I'm putting on the page than I usually feel in my normal life, or even from what I felt in the actual moment of whatever memory or past emotion I'm accessing. And of course the same thing happens (maybe even more powerfully) when I'm reading or listening to music and so on. Is this something you feel too, in a conscious sort of way? In other words, is the point of writing to find a way to feel these strong emotions, like the anger you hadn't? And if so, how do you translate your experience into something meant for a reader?

I don't think there's a difference between the intensity of the emotions I feel when I'm writing versus when I'm doing other things. But when I'm writing I sometimes have more control over what the emotions are going to be. I didn't write any of the stories in this collection until I was ready to risk feeling certain awful ways. I was terrified, at times, to get too close to some of the content. But if it got to be too much, or too sad, I could always just go for a bike ride or call a friend; it wasn't like living in it the first time around, if there was one. In real life, a plane crashed, and I became a limited person for a very long time. In my writing, a plane crashes and I feel strangely limitless, if that makes any sense.

And no, I wouldn't say the point of writing is to feel something strongly, though I also don't think there is just one point to writing. Perhaps getting to experience strong emotions, or to re-experience them, is just an extra part of the process, and you can either see it as a bonus or as a detriment.

Your narrator is also often self-aware of herself as a narrator, and sometimes of the power that being the one telling the story gives her: I'm thinking now of "Superstar," the opening story, and how the narrator says, "I was just so fucking powerful in that moment. Like how I'm just so fucking powerful in this moment." She is recounting a moment in the past in which she was "just so fucking powerful" -- but also reveals that the telling of the story contains the same emotion for her, a similar power as the original experience. Is this something you find to be true as well, as a fiction? That in the telling of our stories we exert (or attempt to exert) power or control over experience?

Almost all of the stories in Spectacle started as stories I didn't want to write, things I had been avoiding writing for a while, either because I was afraid to revisit certain subjects or emotional truths or because I was afraid of crossing over into sentimentality. I had to perform a lot in my mind to get these written: I performed gender, I performed power, I performed author and authority, and this gave me a certain amount of control over the process and the content. It doesn't mean I'm over the plane crash that's behind the story "Spectacle." I will likely never be over it. And I will never have power over that event. It just means that in writing it, I was able to access a feeling of empowerment, however private or temporary. I guess that's a type of power. I don't know. It's as close as I can get.

Can you talk a little more about what you mean when you say that you performed gender and power and author-and-authority? That's a really interesting way to say it, and I'm curious about the process of doing that as you're writing, or what that might feel like. Can you share how the process of these performances unfolds as you work?

I still have a lot to learn about performance and its connections to writing, though I often throw the word around as if I'm an expert. It would be easier to talk about this if I were interested in the performance of reading work aloud, how certain writers' bodies or voices or gestures often correspond to those of the narrator or the action of a story. But I'm interested in how performance is related to the process of writing, to what happens as one thinks as and writes narrators. I started getting interested in performance (both its connection to writing and gender performance) when I realized that my work was being perceived as nonfiction, no matter how many times or ways I called it fiction. I wanted to understand why readers made that leap and what it was I was doing, as a writer, to enable it. Among other things, I wondered what I was performing to be convincing. Or what role I was taking on when writing. Or if it was all beyond my control. Was work by women automatically perceived as confession?

I wanted to confront and complicate all of this in Spectacle, to set up more challenging experiments for myself, to ask harder questions. Like, how do I, as writer, embody abstract yet identifying concepts (like age and gender) to get them written? Does writing female mean having to perform girly or vulnerable or powerless? Does it mean having to defeminize? Which is more powerful in a fraught situation? And then what does it mean to perform power? In trying to sort through these questions, I was aware of having to take on certain ways of being, if internally. So certain ways of thinking. Perhaps this is what it is to have an active imagination. But that we have to call upon the imagination in this way to get us closer to understanding, and what happens when we do, this is what interests me.

This isn't a great answer, but I'm still trying to understand it all.

In a fantastic craft essay on the Graywolf Press blog, you wrote about your experiences with punctuation, concluding: "As a child, I liked to watch people write. I would copy how they held their pens. I would scribble a string of loops. But I was mostly intrigued by that mark they all did at the end of a line. That emphatic jab at the page. That exquisite control I didn't understand. And I didn't yet need. But I secretly already wanted." I'm entranced by that idea, of recognizing the "exquisite control" of punctuation, and all the other exquisite controls other people exercise, that we may or may not possess ourselves at different stages of development. At first I thought of it mostly in an art-making sense, but that's not necessarily what you're saying, because most of the people you watched write when you were a child probably weren't making fiction or poetry, but more everyday kinds of prose. And yet there was something you recognized there, wanted there, a kind of power or ability. Is fiction writing another form of "exquisite control"? How did you go from the writing equivalent of watching people hold their pens to the stories you're doing now, which, to me at least, seem so singular and unprecedented? It seems that by the time you were in grad school you were already in possession of a kind of writing that set your work apart from the norms being practiced around you.

In the time between watching people write as a kid and writing this book, I was a visual artist. I initially translated that "exquisite control" into aggressive visual marks or gestures, as opposed to ones that would end sentences. My writing grew directly out of painting -- I didn't even know what the norms in literature were when I started grad school -- and so I see all aspects of my stories, including punctuation, as visual, as character, and as device. I've learned there are easier approaches to writing stories, but I prefer to make it hard on myself. This isn't stubbornness; it's just the result of years of art school and making art, meaning years of calling my work and my tendencies into question.

I'm at an artist residency now, and last night I was working on a new story and feeling completely constricted by its form. It was perfectly fine, but it felt safe and dull and inflexible. So at some point, I decided to replace all of the periods with semi-colons, just to open up the story, to re-envision it. It involved a simple find and replace on the computer. But the change complicated the story so much, visually and emotionally, that I felt overwhelmed and had to leave my studio and walk up the road to buy beer.

Thanks for sharing this experience: I've never heard anyone else describe this kind of formal change as overwhelming before, while also using it as a tactic to reopen the possibilities of the work. I make similar moves, although I've never thought to do it with punctuation, which I now want to try. As an example, I recently took all of the chapter breaks out of my the first hundred pages of the manuscript-in-progress, and, as soon as I did that, the book seemed more dramatically broken, which meant that I had to summon a more immediate effort to try to fix it. It helped push me to do the work and to do it now, because I couldn't stand to see it in such bad shape. Part of me thinks there has to be an easier way to get the job, but making it hard on myself has always worked in the past, and I don't think I'd trust my process if it felt too easy. Is there ever a danger of overcomplicating the process, or of these self-imposed difficulties creating other kinds of bad habits? For instance, I sometimes worry that I'm really just using some of these extreme revision tactics to dodge the work of staying in the scene I'm in and just getting it right.

I think one definitely can overcomplicate the process, in writing and in visual art, and sometimes that kind of work can be exciting in its focus on process and experimentation, and sometimes it can seem over-managed and precious and clever. I often imagine certain overly complicated experiments, and I can get interested in them for about a second. But then something -- perhaps laziness or a lack of ambition or not wanting to be overwhelmed or my tendency toward minimalism -- keeps me from taking them on. A lot of it has to do with not wanting the experiment to overshadow the story I'm trying to tell. I still want to work with narrative, as outmoded as it is in certain areas of experimental writing.

Absolutely: I couldn't agree more. It seems like the usual story we're told in discussions of experimental literature (or even "literary" versus "commercial" fiction) is that writers inevitably prioritize either story and plot or language and form, but I think a lot of the writers I like best are the ones who find ways to have both, as you said. Who are some of your favorite experimental writers who you feel successfully strike that balance, where their narrative aren't overshadowed by the experiments?

Woolf and Faulkner; even their most complicated stylistic moments create or contribute to narrative. And, among others, essays or stories by John D'Agata, Ander Monson, Lucy Corin, and John Edgar Wideman.

You wrote an essay for Publishers Weekly titled "What Happened to Experimental Writing?" which works as both a meditation on the label "experimental" and the actual act of experimenting in writing. Near the end, you discuss your own process, writing, "Each story presents me with a new set of concerns. Each book is another set. Then it's up to me to find a way through it. And I'm willing to fail." As a twist on the standard "what are you writing next" question, can you tell us a bit about how you determine your concerns? How do you move from the experiment that became Spectacle into future discoveries?

My concerns are usually those things I didn't have the courage to write in the last collection, and I guess that's what I've been focusing on lately. I'm experimenting more with story length and ways of connecting pieces. I'm also trying to push confrontation, awkwardness, and self-reflexivity. As far as content, I've been thinking and writing about art (by male artists) and nature and beauty and the search for the sublime and the why of that search. All to say, more anger, more girls.