Hi, I’m Kelly, Editor over at Great Jones Street. This interview with Steve is one of many we’ve conducted with our writers to help give you ideas, confidence, encouragement in your own work.
Steve is a writing coach living in Austin, TX. His fiction has been nominated for Pushcart Prizes and is anthologized frequently.
Would you tell us anything about your process regarding the invention of your fictional characters? Are these people you know, or are they bits of people you have met? Are they parts of yourself?
They can come in a lot of different ways. The two stories we’re talking about came from images. One of the images can be tracked very clearly to my personal history with those two sisters; the second can’t be tracked to anything at all. I’ve also written stories where I’ve stumbled across a news event — a woman about to be executed in North Carolina choosing Cheez Doodles as a last meal, a Japanese fishing boat sunk by a horse that fell from the sky (Snopes says this never actually happened, but what do they know?). But the thing that ties both approaches together is they presented me with a situation that a) hummed with meaning, and b) I didn’t understand. And so I wrote in order to understand. A third process I’ve found concerns voice, such as when I’m writing, or thinking about writing, and a voice takes over. I follow where it seems to want to go.
When you began writing these pieces, did you have the end result in mind? Did you discover what would happen to these characters while doing the writing itself, or did you know what would happen when you began?
Best answer is: All of the above. Though it does help me to at least have a notion of where a piece is headed — what happens, if not quite how it happens. In “The Fish” I knew a final shot would be fired. In “Keeper” I knew the boy would decide he couldn’t go to L.A. with the girl, but would return to the carnival to take care of The Thing. But how those moments played out, and what appeared in and around their playing out, I didn’t know until I wrote them.
Tell us about a regular day for Steve Adams. What are you up to? What’s ahead?
Well, a big part of my day is writing coaching. That’s how I make my living, and I’m working with some really interesting people right now. As far as my writing I’m (coincidentally) hard at work turning “Keeper” into a novel. I don’t think this is often possible for short stories because they need to be complete, but from the time I wrote “Keeper” I felt it wanting to open up into a larger story. I’m at the endgame of the draft now, trying to manage all the elements coming in for a landing, something like an air traffic controller at Chicago O’Hare. It’s a little harrowing, but it’s been fascinating how the story’s changed and what’s come of the characters.
Please tell us about what inspired you to write these stories, “Keeper” and “The Fish”. How did they evolve? Anything you can tell us about the original seeds for these stories?
The story around “The Fish,” the shorter piece, is of course the longer tale. But two of the core best friends of my life, Bonnie and Linda, are sisters I met as an undergrad, and our paths crossed regularly over the years. They were, and still are, creating brilliant art (one’s a painter and the other makes sculptural clay vessels). They’re from a small rural town in West Texas. You can see the landscape, the desert, reflected in their work. My path had crossed Linda’s in New York City where I was writing plays and she was painting, when the state of Texas announced its plans to put a nuclear waste dump over the aquifer used by the family ranch and their community back home. Linda and Bonnie, together with their mother and father, founded the county-wide effort stop the dump. It broke my heart to see Linda, who was working to establish her artistic life in New York, suddenly have to disappear for months and go back home to fight the state. Bonnie was doing the same from Austin. But this is how they lived — pursuing their creative life, then putting it on hold for months at a time to go back home to fight — for 16 years.
As these years went by my interests switched from playwriting to a two-year attempt at screenwriting in Los Angeles. During my stint there I drove out to visit Linda — who’d moved to El Paso to be nearer the fight — where she was speaking about the dump at a hearing in her hometown. I’d been to their ranch once before, but it’s hard to keep in your mind how beautiful the landscape is there. And it was so sad and touching to see these local hard working people, ranchers, and shop owners, and propane delivery drivers, in their cowboy boots and cowboy hats, talking to each other softly outside the tiny courthouse, trying to decide the best course of action to protect their water supply. Seeing Linda present her material with clarity and impact and nerve to state bureaucrats and the local judge who looked, and pretty much acted, liked he’d stepped out of a Dukes of Hazzard episode, gave me a new level of respect for her. While I’d been chasing my career she’d grown into a leader. The work had taken a lot from these sisters, but it was gratifying to see it had also given them something back.
That evening Linda’s dad made us whiskey sours and her mother cooked us dinner. The next afternoon as I drove down their dirt road toward the highway that would take me back to L.A., I was filled with admiration for my friends, frustration over what they’d had to give up, anger toward the state and our species in general for the way we pollute, and a sorrow over that beautiful landscape that would likely be destroyed. An image suddenly came to my mind of an old woman late at night rocking on the porch of her house on that same land and listening while her husband shot every cow they owned, and I also knew that he loved those cows. I scribbled it down in a notebook. A few months later when I painfully, and finally, gave up screenwriting and turned for the first time to prose writing, I pulled out those notes and wrote that story in an attempt to understand what the image meant. (Addendum: After 16 years the State of Texas abandoned plans and abolished the agency in charge of siting the nuclear waste dump.)
A year or two later, “Keeper” came to me in a single vision and I have no idea where from. I saw a boy, horrifically sunburned, walking out of the desert into a tawdry carnival in the middle of nowhere. He heard a terrifying, death rattling screaming from a small tent. Drawn to it, he pulls open the flap, looks inside, and the screaming stops. Inside is The Thing, though at that point I didn’t know what The Thing was. I still don’t.
What is the last story you read that stole your heart? Give us a short story recommendation please.
At AWP this year I picked up a stack of lit journals, and inside a New Ohio Review (Issue 19) I found a wonderful short story called “The Stability of Floating Bodies” by Craig Bernardini. It’s beautiful and strange, about a man whose father moves in with him and his wife, only to begin living in their pond. Things are going on under the water, of course, and I’ll say no more because I couldn’t do the story justice. But it never falters, and I was utterly taken with it. It was a complete surprise.