Luke Goebel interviews Susan Steinberg
Susan Steinberg’s new fiction collection, SPECTACLE (Graywolf), is a series of linked and formally-inventive short stories told by female narrators who are dealing with catastrophic as well as domestic tragedies.
The narrators of a seemingly singular history convey the stories, but are not (Steinberg says) the same narrator—or at least they weren’t written, if I understand Steinberg, as a continuous narrator. So, in this book the same events in two stories can be changed depending on which unnamed narrator—of roughly the same age, build, hair color, and city of origin as Steinberg—is narrating the SPECTACLE. This structure creates a narrative that overlaps, readdresses, carries over pain and learned approaches, and anxiety—the consummate whole getting higher in fever pitch until disaster and ultimately catharsis are reached.
SPECTACLE is an apt title—because the events of the world, the spectacles, and conflicts make narrators who are strong and clever and aware, unable to escape the pressures that build around them and at times the pressures that fall from above. Steinberg’s narrators are powerful, seductive, wounded, and aware of their roles, their performance of gender, identity, and “self.” They are tough.
SPECTACLE has been praised by the New Yorker, nominated for the year’s O’Connor Prize, and reviewed at Bookslut, Publishers Weekly (starred review), SF Chronicle, and at no shortage of other places where “experimental fiction” is most often passed over, proscribed, verboten!
Why is this book getting unvarying attention? Of course it is many things, none so much I might suggest as important as voice—replete with sex, confession, revelation, and genuine risk.
While Steinberg is not telling the factual truth in these stories, she is doing something crafted with such risqué confession that readers take her stories as factual (I admit I did. Even though I knew “better.” Even though she was my first writing teacher and taught me that fiction is fiction). Readers conflate Steinberg with her narrator(s)—and reading this book you see instantly that this is a position of danger for any writer. Because maybe you can’t make this crazy up. Because there’s risk in really talking about one’s gender. Because it isn’t crazy; it’s genius. It’s truth. These speakers are so solipsistic they lose identity, become universal in their extreme isolation and anxiety—they retain awareness and becoming weaponized in awareness of gender.
This collection can be read as an experimental novel composed of many fictions forming an aggregate and rupturing whole. Here is one you cannot look away from, which implicates the minds and bodies of the readers, which reveals what has remained taboo far too long. These stories are not political, not ideological—they are honest in such a way as to make them threatening and unnerving and difficult to talk about.
LBG: Do you mind if we start with something simple, from right off the cover of your book?
S.M.S: I don’t mind.
LBG: Okay. On the back of the book is this synopsis: “SPECTACLE bears witness to alarming and strange incidents: carnival rides and plane crashes, affairs…and amateur porn, vandalism and petty theft. In these stories, wounded women stand at the edge of disaster and risk it all to speak their sharpest secrets.”
LGB: Is this how you see the book? Is that what the book bears witness to—to strange incidents and wounded women at the edge of disaster? Speaking their sharpest secrets?
S.M.S: The book does contain these specific things: affairs, amateur porn, vandalism, planes crashes, and theft. The book also contains the abstractions you mention: secrets and disaster. But had I written the copy, it likely would have mentioned more technical aspects of the book: semi-colons, fragments, one-sentence paragraphs. I tend to think more about the “how” than the “what” when asked what my work is about. But it’s the back of a book. I think readers want the what.
But I don’t think the incidents I write are strange. Do you?
LBG: I think the incidents are…what is/are strange? I am strange. You are strange and mysterious. I have thought so since I was your student many years ago. Life is strange and filled with estrangement. It’s a word that doesn’t mean anything, so I see your point on that word—it has no referent. Let’s say, these stories of yours contain events: watching porn with a sibling, catching a family member in the sack—in coitus—stealing the radio from a past lover’s car, having to lose a family member by one’s decision—to end their life—pills, sex and the walking away after sex, plane crashes, etc., and that these events: public, private, and invaded, are powerful enough to speak to the undoing of ourselves and our world, and that’s what fiction should contain. That’s strangeness that fucks a person up.
LBG: What are these women risking when they “risk it all to speak”? What is risky for a woman to say?
S.M.S: I guess they risk being ridiculed, objectified, humiliated, unprotected, seen as “confessional,” seen as too girly, seen as stupid, seen as too provocative, seen as unimaginative. Same things the female author risks.
I didn’t answer the second part, I just realized. What is risky for a woman to say?
I don’t think it’s as much about subject matter, as it is about style. I think it’s risky to be direct.
LBG: Do you feel responsible for your narrator(s)? Do you feel that if they are too girly, or provocative, or objectified, then you are by extension, as a person, such? Is SPECTACLE speaking to this trap?
S.M.S I feel responsible to a certain degree. I often write narrators who are perceived as girly or provocative, narrators who are objectified — I mean by other characters. This tension is intentional. It’s a part of the process I, as writer, can attempt to control. What I can’t control, of course, is readers’ responses to my narrators. If a reader is judging or objectifying my narrators, then I suppose something like a feeling of responsibility kicks in. It’s more like a responsibility to understand why my narrators are seen as they are. Or why readers conflate me and my narrators. I’m fascinated by this phenomenon. And yes, this book is often speaking to it.
LBG: Ok. What do you mean by “the tension is intentional”? What tension–between how your narrators will be perceived and how the narrators knowingly play with these perceptions? What are you doing with the narrator(s) in SPECTACLE in terms of the narrator’s’ self-judgment and hyper-self-awareness?
S.M.S I mean I’m intentionally setting up situations in which there is conflict. I’m writing stories.
LBG: What is the role of confession in these stories? Does the element of confession lead readers to mistake you for your narrators? Tell me about this?
S.M.S As a response to certain expectations, I decided to more aggressively explore confession in a few of the stories — I also became intrigued by the genre of the public confession. I suppose my narrators stating,”I confess,” which they do, could result in even more of a conflation of author and narrator. But this conflation seems inevitable, no matter what my narrators do or say, no matter what I call the writing. So I wanted to see what it felt like to put some confessions out there first. I was trying to own the situations. As author.
LBG: While the conflicts in your stories are happening, your narrators are often watching themselves as well as the event of the story–and the narrators are aware and thinking of and speaking directly about gender and about performing a “self.” This strikes me as such genius, to admit to the trap of gender, the performance of it, and the performance as a woman. You do this right from the start in the first story, Superstar, to such newness of affect. Was there a moment when you realized you could do this–this everything at onceness and this maneuvering with what it means to be female? Why does this still matter? Why does it seem taboo for a female narrator to tell us about being a woman–a woman who can seduce, dominate, admit, control?
S.M.S. I’m not sure when I realized I could do this, but in moments it felt important to convey the narrators’ self-awareness, or a questioning of identity, through having them simultaneously confront the tensions between their inner and outer worlds. Perhaps the only way for them to get through the fraught or dangerous or desperate situations they’re in is to have them ask, 1) Who am I now, and 2) Who do I want/need to be. You ask if this still matters, and I assume you mean this “maneuvering with what it means to be female.” I would say that it does matter, in part because the answers to 1 and 2 are not always the same. In other words, my narrator could be a woman in a moment in which she wants to be a man. Or a child in a moment in which she needs to be an adult. I’m interested in understanding the distinctions between, and advantages and disadvantages of, all of these roles and how the potential for these narrators to shift from one to another, or to stay in or get out of a situation, is related to what she is able to perform.
And if it all seems taboo — women who talk about being women (who seduce, etc.) — I guess that’s all right.
LBG: How’s SPECTACLE being received by the world? By reviewers and the media? By your friends and family? Have there been any major surprises? Have you gotten any extreme responses? (How has the publishing game changed for you with being published by Graywolf?)
SMS: I’ve gotten a lot of good feedback on the book from all of the above. And not too many extreme responses, though a few in both directions.
Graywolf has been amazing in every way.
LBG: Come on. You can’t offer that bait and then pull it–can you? Tell all about one or two extreme responses you’ve gotten?
SMS: I’ll tell you later, between the two of us, what they were.
LBG: What is the importance of disaster in this book? How do you make even trifling events seems so threatening?
Is the SPECTACLE of this book split between the narrator–or narrators–and the outside calamities such as dying fathers, spiders that can “necrotize” your ass in every corner of every room, the plane crashes, the drugs, the muggers? Is the world today, with the constant reminder of widescale terror/destruction, helping your stories be more important, more urgent, more universal in their appeal?
SMS: I’m open to many interpretations and applications of the idea of the spectacle, and yes it can be applied to the narrators, the outside world, the performance of gender, relationships, disaster, family, all of that.
And no, I don’t see the terror in the world as helping my stories. I see my stories as helping, even if it’s just me, to deal with the terror.
LBG: Was there anything you held back from writing in this book of stories that you had the impulse to write and now feel you should have written? Or the opposite–that you wrote and now feel uncomfortable with?
SMS: I held back from writing more details of the plane crash I mention in “Supernova” and “Spectacle,” because I couldn’t do it.
LBG: Why does your narrator/do your narrators insist on no God, no meaning, no underlying purpose, and seemingly no appreciable redemption? What does nihilism add to your narrator’s power and to your stories? Or are your narrators not nihilistic? Have I misread them?
SMS: I see the narrators as questioning, not nihilistic. One narrator doesn’t believe in the soul, then refers to herself as a “poor soul.” Another is waiting for the savior. Several refer to God. When my narrators say there is no intentional meaning, no grand scheme, it’s often just tangled up in the traumas they’re experiencing or in the storytelling itself. In this way, it’s no different from how they handle issues of identity; that too is called into question and turned around and layered and redefined.
LBG: What more? What else? Are you satisfied with SPECTACLE? Do you know you’ve done something tremendous? Do you feel different? How does it feel?
SMS: Do you feel different?
LBG: Do you?
SMS: Do you?
LBG: Do you?
SMS: I guess.