Susan Steinberg is the author of The End of Free Love, a collection of short fiction published in 2003, and most recently a second collection titled Hydroplane. She has a BFA in painting from the Maryland Institute College of Art and an MFA in English from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Her work has appeared in McSweeney's, The Gettysburg Review, Conjunctions, Boulevard, Quarterly West, and other publications. She has been awarded fellowships from the University of Massachusetts and Yaddo, and she teaches at the University of San Francisco.
You used to be a painter and even got a degree in painting. What made you turn to writing?
I was painting all day, every day, and when I got home from my studio at night, I had so much energy, I needed another creative outlet. So I started bringing my typewriter into my bed and writing these terrible rants about people I didn't like or something my boyfriend said or someone I had a crush on. Then I was buying these cheap spiral notebooks and filling several of those a week. After a while, I took a writing workshop in Boston, then another. So it was a gradual shift.
Do you think this, in any way, makes you a more 'visual' writer?
I think that depends on how you define "visual." I don't think I'm much into creating standard setting or character description. But I think there's a visual component to my stories, on the page. And I have a tendency to track images through a story in the same way I did when painting.
Do you think you'll ever go back to painting?
I don't know. I think there are a few ways to answer this question. Part of me wants to admit that I generally don't go back to things. When I do, it's because I want to repair or resolve something, and I don't have that relationship with painting. Perhaps this is because -- and here's the other way I want to answer the question -- in some ways I never left it. Painting and writing are extremely similar processes for me.
A lot of your stories deal with sex--not the act itself so much as the approach of it, the awkwardness or embarassment of adolescent sex, the ways people shape their sexual identities... Discuss.
When I write or paint, I feel most alive and most like I'm creating actual art when I find myself up against a boundary of some sort (put up by either the literary world or myself) which I then destroy. I usually knock down the more structural/formal boundaries, but on occasion, I find these walls firmly planted in the content of a story, as well. So if I find myself thinking, You can't write that, I'll force myself to write it. It seems these content-blocks present themselves to me the most, perhaps, when dealing with characters' sexual identities, because in some ways it's more risky to write the awkwardness of adolescent female sexuality than it is to write a full-on sex scene or erotica (which I have no desire to write).
Your writing tends to contain a certain kind of recursion, a circling back of certain words, phrases, and images that become a sort of framework of a given story. Did this happen naturally in your writing? Where do you see the root of this part of your technique?
Some of this circling happens naturally; phrases or words get stuck in my head and reaapear in a story serendipitously. Though often enough, I'll consciously return to a phrase and try to rework it in a new context or section, to give it new meaning, or to emphasize the importance of it -- compulsive as that may be. As for the "root," I don't think this technique is about just one thing. It's a rhetorical device, but this isn't something I'm thinking about as I write. Sometimes I'm just in the zone, and sometimes I'm trying to create echoes and rhythm, build momentum, and recreate characters' obsessions or obsessive natures. I did the same thing when I was painting. I would build a cast of characters (or an alphabet) -- objects, lines, shapes -- and repeat them throughout a piece.
Where do stories usually start for you? With a situation, a phrase, a voice?
I've been asked this question before, and I'm just now starting to realize that my stories all start in different ways. For example, the story "Away" began with an image of clouds looking like a ribcage. That was it. No story, no voice, no scene. But "Isla" started with a voice and then a list. And "To Sit, Unmoving" began with a scene: a man getting punched in the face on the street. Maybe it's more important to say that I never ever ever start with plot.
Do you see yourself primarily as a short story writer?
As opposed to another kind of writer (like novelist or poet)?
Or as opposed to teacher? Or person? I suppose either way the answer is yes.
What do you have to say about the term 'experimental'?
I have to say that it's not a genre (like "romance" or "mystery").
What's the opposite of experimental? Conventional? Is everyone who's not conventional experimental? When does an 'experiment' become commonplace anyway, like stream of consciousness, which has been around since Joyce and Woolf and doesn't seem so experimental anymore?
I'm not convinced that the opposite of experimental is conventional. There are some wonderful conventional stories that have enough experimentation in them. The stories in Jesus' Son, for example, rely on some fairly conventional techniques, but then Johnson'll throw in these mindblowing swerves, unlike any other writer's, that make the reader feel like he's encountered something for the first time. Perhaps the opposite is "formulaic"? If "experimental" suggests someone has been in the lab trying out new things (whether the results are successful or not), well, formulaic suggests the opposite. As far as the experimental becoming commonplace, the avant-garde, sadly, has a short shelf-life. Something's startling and banned one second, and everyday product the next. So perhaps Molly Bloom's soliloquy isn't as wild as it once was (though it's still totally wild to me), but it's up to us, I think, to advance whatever is spinning its wheels, to take that stream of consciousness technique, for example, and do something new with it.
Name some novels and short stories that were a significant influence on how you think about writing.
I wasn't originally influenced by writers. I was influenced by visual artists and one girl from art school who wrote these little stapled-together books of enraged poetry. But the books I love are To the Lighthouse, Nadja, The Lover, Mrs. Dalloway, The Maverick Room, and Halls of Fame.