Susan Steinberg is the author of Hydroplane and The End of Free Love from FC2. This interview was conducted upon the publication of The End of Free Love in 2003.
I don’t usually come up with “ideas” for stories but, rather, start with a line or image or even a scene. I then develop the story around these things. I find it too limiting to have the story “plotted” and prefer to let it grow out of combining what I already know with the surprises that come up when writing.
Do you think being a painter influences your writing technique?
Yes, I think so. Stories, like paintings, are, for me, a place where one moves scenes and images around until there’s a sense of order or structure, a shape of the whole. I think if the two differed more, I would probably need to continue to paint as well as write.
How do you decide which stories to include in a manuscript? Do you aim for a central theme in a short story collection?
In The End of Free Love, I included all of the stories that I didn’t despise, and I made sure they “spoke” to each other on some level. I don’t generally aim for a central theme, but obsessions have a way of making themselves known in a collection. For example, so many of the narrators have an intense desire to run away, to get out of a situation and into a new one. There’s also a great deal of bullying throughout the collection. But I had no plans to push these themes throughout the book.
People have said that the stories included in The End of Free Love are about finding identity. Do you agree with this?
Yes, there’s a search for identity in some (all?) of the stories; the characters are trying to “find” identity and “form” identity. So while characters are trying to come to terms with what it means to live in cities, in suburbs, to be Jewish, to be female, to be a mother, to be in therapy, to be young, they’re also doing a great deal of role-playing, creating identities for themselves. They want to be superheroes, stars of television commercials, in short, worshipped.
How did “Isla” take form?
“Isla” started out as a list of things my grandfather had said to me over the years. I didn’t even know I was writing a story when I started it — I was just angry or feeling sorry for myself, I suppose, and wanted to own these lines by putting them on paper. Then of course it became a piece of fiction, and I decided to leave the numbers in to give the girl in the story a voice — these are her memories, not necessarily direct quotes from the father.
Hearing you read in Tallahassee last fall gave the stories a whole new dimension. Do you recommend people try to read your stories out loud to get the full feel?
Thanks. I don’t generally recommend people read my stories aloud (though I do recommend my students read their stories aloud), but I have always wanted to give a reading of someone else’s work — and that person, of course, would read mine.
Do you feel that writing short stories is more appealing than writing a novel? How do you think the two differ in content and form?
I am working on my first “novel” now, and I still hesitate — made clear by the quotes — to use that word. I call it a novel because it’s long, because it follows two threads throughout, and because the same character is narrating. But I must confess it helps me to write it if I think of it as a collection. So I’m approaching it the way I approach writing a collection — I’m working on many smaller scenes (or stories within it) simultaneously and trying to figure out how they go together.
How would you teach your students to write? What would a crash-course in your fiction technique class be like?
I would never teach a crash-course in my fiction technique as far as form or style goes. I think each story asks for its own unique way of being told. But I do tell my students this (and I stole it from the fiction writer Nick Montemarano, and I don’t know if he stole it from someone else): All stories need to start with these lines: “Sit down. I’ve got something to tell you.” Then, of course, after the story is written, you remove those two lines. But I like to stress the importance of urgency, conflict, delay, voice, and, of course, style and form.
Now that your book has been out for a while, do you have any regrets? Any changes you would like to make? Any qualms that have been eased by how well your book has been received?
I’m simultaneously thrilled and freaked out that the book is in the world. I have no regrets and there is only one word in the whole book I would like to change. And I won’t tell anyone what the word is.