Interview with Steve Stern
News Editor Kat Zhao spoke with award-winning writer Steve Stern, the visiting Fannie Hurst Professor of Creative Literature in the Writing Program at Washington University. Stern was visiting the University from his current position as the writer-in-residence at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY. His most recent works are “The Angel of Forgetfulness” (2005) and the novella “The North of God” (2008).
Student Life: The e-mail advertising Thursday’s program says you will be speaking about the craft of fiction. What specifically regarding the craft of fiction will you be speaking about?
Steve Stern: I am actually going to read an essay called “Radical Nostalgia.” It’s really about looking for an identity as a writer. We talked in some classes about various lenses that writers look at to view their world and it’s usually done through the lenses of the culture they know, and the history that’s attached to culture, and the literature attached to that history and culture. So much of that baggage determines one’s visions.
SL: Much of your works are grounded in the genre of Jewish American experience. What propelled you in this direction?
SS: I was not born into an observant Jewish family and I really wasn’t exposed to the culture or tradition growing up, so I came into it pretty late. When I did, it began to determine the way I looked at the world and my work. Because it’s not a kind of primary experience with me—the idea of Jewish culture, tradition and heritage—I’ve had to define what that sensibility means. It’s something that I sort of wrestle with all the time.
We’re pretty defined by religion and community and these are elements I’ve never experienced much of in my life. It is very much a tradition that is a part of the old world, and the connection is pretty fractured nowadays. To retrieve it, you have to look backwards.
The dark side is if you’re always looking backwards, you’re going to miss the experience of present. For me, there is an attempt to find a kind of timelessness in the stories that I write.
SL: What kinds of people in your past have been your primary influences?
SS: I’m a hard case. I was pretty rebellious as a young man. I grew up in the ’60s and we were all like that back then. There was certainly a period when I was deliberately distancing myself from the middle class as far as possible.
I am a very bookish guy, so many of the models have been writers and writing. Those have been my compasses and my gyroscopes.
SL: How much of your fiction is formed from imagination and how much is based in your true experiences?
SS: I am a firm believer in writing what you don’t know. I think that’s what the imagination is for. I like traveling to places that I can’t get on my steam and I can do that in fiction. I can’t get very far on the surface of the Earth, but [with] the imagination and a blank page, you can take flight.
SL: We have many students here at the University who consider themselves amateur writers. What kind of advice do you have for them?
SS: You write what excites you. There is little enough joy in publishing a book; there is certainly no joy in writing a book that isn’t published. The joy is in the work, and there is really no other point in doing it. I’ve often heard writers talk about the dread, the pain and the suffering. For me, there is all that, but there is more to do with finding the space, time and energy to do the work. The work itself is the light and when that stops being, I suppose I would stop writing.
SL: You have written two children’s books. How was that different from writing fiction for an adult audience?
SS: Anybody who writes a kid’s book will probably tell you it’s common sense. You can’t fool a kid. You can’t compel a kid to read something by virtue of tour de force language, etc. There has to be a story and the story has to move them from beginning to end. A kid is not going to read a book that they know they’re supposed to read. It’s really a great challenge to write something that is engaging enough and that can hold the mind of a child. And if you can do, I think you have done something considerable. But I love the idea of writing for kids.
SL: You’ve been here for two weeks. Have you enjoyed St. Louis and Washington University?
SS: It’s been pretty great actually. I hate fun, and I have nothing but resentment for having fun and so I leave with hostility and regret. The students are really talented here. This sounds like I’m sucking up, but I was knocked off my feet.