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Between Living and Not Living: An Interview with Susan Steinberg photo

The twelve stories in Susan Steinberg’s stunning third book, Spectacle, limn the desperate, neon-lit reality we’re forced to confront when we wake up from the American dream. They make me want to use an annoying word like “limn.” If these pages contained scratch-n-sniff stickers you still wouldn’t get a better sensory appreciation for the stale smoke and beer and spilled sour mash. Some of the stories are set Baltimore it feels like the best book about that city since Save Me, Joe Louis, but Spectacle also includes the most evocative description of the state of Missouri—“misery,” get it?—I’ve ever read:

“When I mention Warrensburg, Missouri, people say, Where the fuck is that.

“I tell them there are cowboys there. I tell them there are tornadoes that can blow your house across the state. There are brown recluse spiders, I tell them, in every corner of every room. It’s a shit hole, I tell them.” (24)

Violence, abuse in particular, lurks around every corner, and that makes Spectacle a bit more like life than any of us would prefer, but I also love it when artists are brave enough not to ignore that sad reality. It’s no exaggeration to say this sentence kept me awake one night: “And the second guy called me certain names reserved for women, certain other names I’d been called before and would be called again.” Sweet jesus that line hurts. The first-person voice (or is it voices?) expresses itself or themselves in punchy, often one-sentence paragraphs that taken together make up terrifying lists. Seemingly simple sentences stack on each other like wobbly chairs and threaten at every moment to topple over and crush someone. It sounds like sacrilege, I know, but I have no problem with mentioning Spectacle in the same sentence as Jesus’ Son. There—I just did.

Having read a few of these stories in Conjunctions, I’ve been really looking forward to this books for some time. When the advance uncorrected proofs arrived I put it aside until I could give it my complete attention. Now that I’ve done so, I want more people to read it, so I emailed Steinberg’s publicist at Graywolf Press, who put us in touch via email in January. 

[Editor's Note: Check back tomorrow for an excerpt from one of the stories from Spectacle.]

You do opening lines as well as anyone I can think of. It’s so impressive. Do you write those first? How do your stories develop? Do they take you long to write?

Thanks a lot for saying this. I guess some of the first lines are kind of close to what they were originally, but others aren’t at all. I revise a lot and can’t always remember how things started. I always write super ugly first drafts, which I don’t call drafts. A draft, to me, implies it’s reached the end, but I never get there. I usually just write for a few pages, or a few paragraphs, then go back to the beginning and fill things out, and repeat this several thousand times. I also read aloud a lot. And this often tells me what the first line should be. And all of my stories take me forever to write. Months and months.

What advice do you give young writers? What’s the advice you wish you had heard when you started writing stories?

Try to put your ambition, hunger, longing, and desire into the writing itself, not into the publishing of it. This isn’t to say don’t publish. It’s just to say, the writing is the project.

And you don’t have to write a novel.

What makes Spectacle not a novel?

I guess to answer this question, I’d need to have a better understanding of what makes a novel a novel. And if I had that understanding, perhaps I’d be more drawn to claiming that form as a possibility. But most likely, I’d just resist it. It’s not that I don’t like novels, though I admit I gravitate toward shorter forms. It’s just that my work is often re-categorized. The stories in Spectacle have been called poetry. They’ve been called essays. And I’m totally fine with readers defining the genre for themselves. But I wrote the book as a collection of short stories. And I guess I want to defend the form, as it is, as of now, the one I work in. I actually abandoned a writing project, possibly a novel, to write these stories, and it felt amazing to leave that mess. I felt like I had control again. Even over my life. It’s hard to explain, but there’s something about shaping these smaller pieces. Something about attempting to make a complete statement with each. And though you know you’re never going to get it exactly right, you also know you get to try it again with the next piece. 

I was a painter before I was a writer, and my process, then, was the same. I worked in a series and created echoes from piece to piece. But the paintings lined up on the wall, while part of the larger collection, were individual, stand-alone pieces, each with its own story. So perhaps I’m saying the categorization of my work is more connected to the process than to the product. 

The other answer is this. I was taking a contemporary poetry class when I was a grad student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. We were discussing a collection of narrative poems, and the professor read one of the poems to the class. It was a pretty dull poem, as I recall, just a long, overly accessible narrative with really predictable line breaks. After the professor read it, we all sort of sat there, until one of the students raised her hand and asked the professor why the piece wasn’t called a short story. The professor (who I’ll leave unnamed) put down his book, stared at the student for about thirty seconds, during which I thought I was going to cry, and said, “Because it’s a poem.” So there’s that.

The timeline here zigzags in ways that make the themes—love, heartbreak, loneliness, being broke—shine in fascinating ways. Can you say a bit about the order in which there written or organized?

I wrote the stories “Signified” and “Universe” a while back, not thinking they’d be part of a collection. I think I wrote “Cowboys” next. Then “Superstar.” But it’s hard to say, as I work on several stories at once. At some point, I started seeing thematic and formal connections between the stories and then tried to come up with even more direct or aggressive ways in which to link them—like retelling stories, pairing titles, and repeating forms and lines. I didn’t start to think about the structure of the whole collection until all of the stories were written. It was like working on a puzzle. Each possible order prioritized different content or a different form and therefore sent—perhaps just to me—a different message. It took me a while to realize that “Superstar” was the place to begin. But I guess I always knew that “Universal,” which was the last story I wrote, would be the last one in the collection. And there is a timeline, in a sense, which is as connected to the emotional states of the narrators as it is to the events. 

Genre is the least interesting way to describe a book. Can you cite a few texts that helped you write this, or that made writing it more difficult?

I guess I’m going with written texts. I worked on a lot of these stories while I was on a year-long academic sabbatical. I spent the year at different artist residencies and was able to write most days. I don’t usually read a lot when I’m writing, but that year, a friend and I decided to read a book together every week. I guess part of this was about reading the books, but part was about wanting to have this one thing I had to do every week in a year when little else was required of me. And almost every week, no matter where I was, or where he was, we’d find the time to discuss the book. We read Nabokov, Plath, Stevens, Foucault, Butler, Woolf, Celine, Montale, Artaud, everything. So while I can’t say that any one whole text helped me to write my book, I can say that parts of what we read, a line here or there on punishment or performance or desire, inspired me. And the process, too, was inspiring. I have this vivid memory of sitting late at night in an artist colony phone booth. Those weeks we talked about Woolf and Stevens and I think Charles Wright. But I mostly remember the graffiti on the wall. And this violent thunderstorm that came through. And thinking then that someday I would write about it.

Did you leave any graffiti of your own?

Do you think I did?

I can only hope so. What’s the best graffiti you’ve ever seen?

There’s a lot of graffiti I like, but this is my most recent favorite. A few weeks ago, I had parked my bike outside a bookstore, and walking toward it, I saw that someone had painted in black “I Like You” on the sidewalk in front of it. It was just so average and understated and casual. Something about its lack of enthusiasm appealed to me. It wasn’t love. It wasn’t spray painted across a wall in red. But, still, it wasn’t passionless.

image: Jane Carlson