I am a big fan of Harry Crews, Daniel Woodrell, Barry Hannah, and Larry Brown — Southern writers so gritty you have to clean bloody dirt from your hands after reading their stuff. After finishing her debut novel, A Tree Born Crooked, I am compelled to add STEPH POST to this list. Post is the realfuckingdeal, and I feel lucky to have interviewed her before she inevitably signs a huge book deal and wins a bunch of literary awards. Besides her novel, her short fiction has most recently appeared in or is forthcoming from Haunted Waters: From the Depths, The Round-Up, Stephen King’s Contemporary Classics, Foliate Oak, and Vending Machine Press. She currently lives, writes, and teaches writing in St. Petersburg, Florida. In this interview, we talk about tattoos, tacos, underdogs, badass female characters, and how shitty season two of True Detective is.
KEVIN CATALANO: What was your first tattoo? When did you get it?
STEPH POST: I got my first tattoo in the middle of a crazy road trip on my 18th birthday. It’s a lotus flower on my back. I had always talked about getting tattooed, but my family wasn’t on board. I called my mom on my birthday, and the very first thing she said was, “Please don’t tell me you just got a tattoo …” And it only progressed from there.
Do you have an idea for your next tattoo?
At the moment, I don’t have anything in mind. I usually get tattooed about once a year, and I’m not due for a little while. I got my last tattoo a few months ago — the Canis Minor constellation. One of my best friends, my little girl dog Lucy, passed away early this year and the tattoo is for her.
I feel like a writer is always writing, even when she’s not literally writing. What I mean is, the writer is always thinking about the novel he’s working on, or the next story idea. Some do this in the car on a long trip, or in the shower or while taking a crap or jogging. Where do you do your best non-writing writing?
Well, yes, you’re correct — a writer is always writing. Always. Even on Sunday Fundays, when the last thing I’m supposed to be doing is writing. I think my best ideas have always come when I’m in motion — either walking or driving. Whenever I’m stuck in a scene, I’ll grab a leash and take a dog for walk. It always helps. I always spend a lot of time talking ideas out with my husband, and this usually seems to occur in a bar. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve gotten strange looks from bartenders as we’re arguing loudly about whether or not a character would actually do something. But I suppose that’s all part of the job.
It’s no mystery that your writing is dark. Do you ever wonder where the ‘dark stuff’ comes from? Does it ever scare you when you write something super disturbing?
I don’t really think that my writing is dark, so much as human. As true. And so this ‘dark stuff’ comes from trying to be honest to the story and the character, and to myself as a writer. Sometimes, I have gone back and read drafts and wondered, did I really dare to go there? Will it be too much for the reader? But if it’s true to the story, I have to keep it and hope that the reader will understand. They generally do. And sometimes, it does scare me, and this is a wonderful feeling. This, or writing something that thrills me or enrages or makes me laugh or mourn. If I can elicit those feelings in myself, then I know that I have accomplished a large part of my job.
Do you feel that if you didn’t write noir, you might become a criminal, or someone who wanders the Florida swamps, spearing frogs and chattering to yourself?
Um, yes … But in all seriousness, isn’t this what half of writing is about? Getting to be different characters, live different lives, have different experiences. If I had to be only myself, all the time, I would most certainly end up wandering the swamp. I would go crazy.
Can you point to anything in your childhood or adolescence that might have shaped or inspired you to become a writer?
I have always been a storyteller. Ever since I can remember, I made up characters and imaginary worlds. Always in my head, though. I never thought to write anything down. When I was in 8th grade, I was given a history test that had a written portion. One of the question options was to write an imaginary conversation between two of the presidents we were being tested on. I was thrilled. I spent the entire class period writing this conversation, pages and pages. I completely failed the test because I forgot to take the rest of it. I realized that day, though, that I could write down the voices of the characters I had been daydreaming about for so long.
The dialogue in A Tree Born Crooked is ridiculously good: it reads organically while establishing character and moving the plot along. In a previous interview with The Indie View, you said that creating the dialogue was the easiest part of writing the novel. I wonder why that was so easy for you. Do any of these explain it?
A. You have an ongoing, imagined dialogue with people in your head, and so writing dialogue comes naturally;
B. You like to engage in conversation with people — friends and strangers alike — and so you understand how people speak;
C. You don’t like to talk much, and that’s what makes you a good listener; therefore, you have a great ‘ear’ for dialogue;
D. You know your characters so well that the dialogue writes itself;
E. All of the above;
F. None of above;
D. And tacos. Because I really like tacos.
When writing about down-and-out, morally-ambivalent, ‘low-class’ people, I imagine there might be a risk of judging the characters. But the strength of writers like Harry Crews, Daniel Woodrell, Larry Brown, and you, is that y’all refrain from any judgment, though neither do you exalt the characters’ flaws. When you were writing James, Rabbit, Marlena, and the other characters in A Tree Born Crooked, was it difficult or easy treating them with respect, even if they might not deserve it?
One of my goals as a writer is to tell stories about the underdogs, the losers, the people who only get stereotyped or used as foils, and to tell them beautifully. To give these characters as much dignity and respect as you would any character in the literary world, and to do that, I have to write them honestly. Doing this, presenting all sides, allowing the characters to be complicated, keeps that balance between casting judgment and using the flaws to create stereotypes. In this sense, it was easy. The hard part is making sure that the reader is able to respect the character, as well.
One of the things I loved about A Tree Born Crooked that sets it apart from other noir is how you weave humor in with sadness. Here’s an example:
“After high school, Rabbit had planned on being a Gator and playing for UF. He hadn’t won any football scholarships, but still thought he had a chance of making it in the big leagues some day. He drove over to Newberry on a Saturday and took the SAT, but did so poorly he had to rethink things. His guidance counselor at Crystal Springs High, knowing Rabbit’s true academic potential, hadn’t wanted to break his heart by telling him how getting into college really worked. The counselor had neglected to tell him that he had to be smart to get into college. A buddy from school was going to Alachua Community College, so Rabbit signed up, hoping to move on to University in the spring. After realizing, though, that he didn’t stand even a chance of passing Math for Morons or Literature for the Illiterate, Rabbit gave up on his football dreams. Fifteen years later, the bitterness, and vague sense of being cheated out of his future, still lingered, eating him up inside.”
This is so funny and so tragic! Do you have any thoughts on the importance of humor, even in the darkest narratives?
I think humor works as breathing spaces for the reader. Everything can’t be dark; if it is, then you risk over-saturating the work, which creates the worst thing ever: a boring story. One of a writer’s jobs is to take the reader for a ride. If you’re going 90 miles an hour, but you’re on the interstate, it’s boring. If you’re going 50 through the backroads, with curves, straightaways, moments where you have to speed up, slow down, the ride is more interesting. So you have to have contrasts to create an engaging narrative. And humor works well in the midst of darkness and ugliness.
There’s been a lot of talk lately on social media regarding the ‘straight, white, male writer’ — that white men should submit less (and be published less) to allow space for under-represented voices. (I hope I’ve paraphrased that fairly.) As a female author, do you have an opinion or position on this issue?
I do. It’s a complicated discussion and one that I certainly don’t have time to get into here, but I don’t agree with the notion of telling any group of people to submit less. I do think that editors, critics, and readers should be open to more voices. As a female writer in a male-dominated genre, this is something that I genuinely hope for. But at the end of the day, I want killer authors publishing killer books. Period.
I followed the energetic panel discussion on True Detective that you had over at Barrelhouse Magazine last month. In short, how do you feel about the second season so far?
Don’t get me started. Season two is breaking my heart, probably because I was so in love with season one. I think a lot happened, writing-wise, production-wise, things that viewers don’t see, that created this shitstorm of a season. I’m hoping everyone involved learned from this and can do better the next go round.
I really liked the question you posed during the panel discussion about Ani’s character: “But I was really disappointed in how she was the character who had ‘family issues.’ I mean, why can’t a chick just be a badass? Why do they have to have daddy issues or a messed-up sister on the scene? I’ve seen this time and time again when it comes to tough female characters, and it’s frustrating. If a guy can just be an asshole, why can’t a girl just be an asshole?” Have you written a female character that is just a badass/asshole? Or are you working on a character that fits this description?
I think Marlena from A Tree Born Crooked is badass. I love this little passage describing her:
“James was slightly surprised by the ease with which she could switch from a pistol to a pillow. She was unlike any woman he had ever met. She drank the whiskey, carefully set her glass back down, and looked past James out the kitchen window.”
All the female characters I write are badass. In different ways, with different agendas, but they’re all tough chicks who aren’t afraid to be dangerous and complicated and real. In my second book, the main ‘bad guy’ is a woman whom I would definitely consider an asshole in some respects. And she just is. She’s also terrifying. I think that’s what frustrates me so much about Ani and many other female characters. They’re allowed to be tough if they have some reason for it. It has to be because they survived something traumatic or had a bad childhood or something along those lines. Why can’t they just be tough on their own? Why do they have to have this hitch, this explanation that works almost like an apology? Let them be badass in their own right.
Who would you like to see cast in the third season of True Detective?
Walton Goggins. The rest of the cast wouldn’t even matter.
Interview originally published on 9/9/15.