Somebody Did Say That Once, It’s Not Like I Made That Up: An Interview with Steven Barthelme

Domestic lassitude, Siberia, stray cats, curb-stomps, that new car smell—they all flirt together in Steven Barthelme’s new collection of short stories, Hush Hush. Characters fall up, in, and out of love, finding solace and grandeur in the darkest pockets of modern America. Barthelme conducts a masterful ensemble of has-been’s, never-was’s and coulda-and-shoulda-been’s in the lonely neon maelstrom of our current world. You may connect with these people in ways you do not want to.  Even then, how mystically gratifying and affirming it is. Mr. Barthelme and I discussed craft, DeWalt power drills, influences, box turtles, and his family, among other things.

Steven Barthelme teaches English at the University of Southern Mississippi.  In addition to Hush Hush, he has also authored an earlier collection of short stories: And He Tells the Little Horse the Whole Story, a collection of essays: The Early Posthumous Work, and a memoir: Double Down: Reflections on Gambling and Loss (co-authored with his brother, Frederick Barthelme).

–Ryan Skrabalak

INTERVIEWER

Are there any odd methods or rituals you practice in order to write? Is there a specific methodology you employ to focus during writing?

 STEVEN BARTHELME

I typically write late at night, have often wondered whether it might be easier then because the superego was wearied late. When I was young, years ago, I used to play Doors records at ridiculous volume, over and over, to sort of obliterate the surroundings. Later Mozart for the same reason and with the same effect. Mozart, the Lizard King of his day.

 INTERVIEWER

Which writers are your biggest influences? Do other artists (musical, visual) inspire you to great degrees? Is there one short story or novel that you can recall having significant influence?  One song?

 STEVEN BARTHELME

As to influences, too many to list. Brother Don was a huge early influence both on the prose and for the hieratic notion of what an artist is or should be, a notion that has since acquired a certain doubt. And I knew Dave Hickey in Austin. I lived in the back of his art gallery there—it was some kind of insurance dodge, I paid $20 and got a tiny room; he needed someone to be living in the building—and I learned a great deal from listening to him talk and from reading essays he wrote and published back then, both in terms of form and of content. Jack Barth at Johns Hopkins, later, a wonderful guy and great teacher.

At greater distance, all the writers one admires in some way that’s more visceral than aesthetic—Chekhov, especially “The Lady With the Dog” and a throwaway piece called “An Encounter,” which by itself will teach you that one great idea is not a full serving—you need three or four, the Joyce of Dubliners, Jean Rhys’ early books, especially After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, a textbook for what “tough-minded” means, Nikolai Gogol, postmodernist about 120 years ahead of everyone else, Maupassant, Kafka, Alice Munro, and many others. A whole list of people in the category “Poor Fuck”—Scott Fitzgerald, et al. And many people and things less lofty—a sports car mechanic I once knew named Galen Lyons, The Rockford Files, Justified, a breathtakingly yellow DeWALT cordless drill, the herpetologist Raymond L. Ditmars, Chuck Berry, Billy Joe Shaver and Waylon Jennings, three or four cats, the Catholic Church, the cheese enchilada plate at Taco Cabana, etc. etc.

INTERVIEWER

How often would you say you write from personal experiences?

 STEVEN BARTHELME

Seems to me all writing is always from personal experience, but personal experience that has been put through the machine. Something captures your imagination—the way “Lost Shaker of Salt” is printed on the $2.50 chip at the Margaritaville Casino, say (or that they have a $2.50 chip at all). Or one afternoon you see a box turtle trying to climb over the curb onto your yard, and falling backwards, repeatedly—and then it’s in the machine until one day, or one night, you need it and it comes out the ends of your fingers on the keys.  It’s personal experience but its place in life was one thing, its place in a story or a novel is likely entirely different. In Hush Hush in the story  “Acquaintance,” for instance, all that stuff is straight out of life, in this way—there’s an argument I once had and a tree with butchered limbs that I once saw and a house I once lived in inside which occurs an attic that you reach through a panel in the ceiling which has no steps or stairway, so you have to stand on a stepladder or a steamer trunk and hoist yourself up, and the woman in the house is based on a woman I met who had this nervous tic of throwing her hair behind her ear, over and over. In life the tree is in Louisiana, the house is in Austin, the woman lived in New Mexico when I met her (in Mississippi), and the argument (in a bar in the story) happened in a different house in Austin. Each thing had intuitive or imaginative life for me and it’s all personal experience, I just moved it all to Boston, where I also lived for a while, and mixed it all together to make the story I wanted to make. There’s also a bald, black cabdriver in the story who is described as looking like Woody Strode; he doesn’t just look like Woody Strode, he is Woody Strode. I had seen him in various movies and he captured my imagination. If the cab driver had somehow developed a larger role in the story, he would no longer be Woody Strode because he would get blended with other people and other personal experiences.

 INTERVIEWER

Is there a story in Hush Hush that you are particularly fond of? Is there a story you had particular trouble writing?

 STEVEN BARTHELME

I like them all. I like the sentences, most of them. Maybe “Claire” and “Heaven” because they’re each suffused with affection for people I love. I don’t know that I had particular trouble writing any particular story. Embarrassing as it is to admit, I sweat blood over all of them. Maybe not to any good effect.

 INTERVIEWER

When I read some of these stories, I’m reminded of E.B. White’s now exhausted quote, “Be obscure clearly.” Is this an adage you’ve been conscious of while writing these stories? Likewise, describe your editing process: do you like to obscure or clarify?

 STEVEN BARTHELME

I intend to be clear, and thought I had largely succeeded. Some things don’t make any sense (that turtle just needed to move six or seven feet to the left and he could’ve shot right up the driveway) and fair reproduction of those things involves reproducing non-sense. Failure, nonsense, the obvious—these things have a delight of their own. One of my favorite lines in the earlier short story book occurs when a guy is driving, talking with the young woman hitchhiker he has picked up—she turns the knob on the car radio and nothing happens, silence, she says, “What’s the matter with it?” He says, “It doesn’t work.” I still think this is very funny and beautiful, though there were reviewers who used it as evidence of how dull witted the book was. Well, maybe. Maybe there’s more of this sort of thing in my life than in the rest of y’alls. My private fear is that my stories are too clear; I need to put in some credit default swaps for depth.

 INTERVIEWER

One of my favorite stories from Hush Hush is “Good Parts,” a physically sparse and somewhat unorthodox narrative that stands out amongst the other stories. It’s filled with a beautiful, if somewhat vague sense of interpersonal ennui. How did this particular story come to fruition?

 STEVEN BARTHELME

It’s a story about marriage, in the cartoon style, which a lot of writers sometimes use. The ennui is certainly intended, but it’s also supposed to telegraph the pleasure of the domestic life; these people do love each other, they’re tight. It didn’t occur to me until you asked, but it’s probably derivative in some way from Don’s [Barthelme, brother] story called “Critique de la Vie Quotidienne.”  Only smaller, of course.

 INTERVIEWER

So many of the stories’ narrators share common feelings, dreams, and disasters—yet Terry Quinn is the only character that appears multiple times in Hush Hush. Is there a specific reason, or is his reappearance arbitrary?

 STEVEN BARTHELME

I think he’s in four of the pieces.  I once wrote a 300 page novel which many fine publishers wisely refused to publish. Quinn’s in that, too. Too much in that.

 INTERVIEWER

About your family. Were there any sorts of traditions or family events that really shaped or fostered you as (or towards being) a writer? Were there points growing up with your brothers and parents that you felt overwhelmed by your environment? You probably get this all the time…was your father a good cook?

 STEVEN BARTHELME

The family was in all ways a great blessing. They were possessed by an incurable irony and an incurable idealism, which in some ways are the same thing. They loved to talk. They believed writing was of great value, and they were all good at it. Both mother and father were extraordinarily gifted.  Don and Rick of course. My brother Pete was a top advertising guy in Houston and published three detective novels. My sister Joan rose from being a PR writer to vice-president of Pennzoil Corporation before she retired, recently wrote a play, she told me. Father was a wretched cook, but he was very good at pan-frying a steak, a skill that I learned, and which has served me well for many years.

INTERVIEWER

Are there contemporary writers whose work you admire?  Can you give a few examples?

 STEVEN BARTHELME

Many. All the usual suspects, plus Maile Meloy, Alicia Erian, Ben Fountain, Jr., Akhil Sharma, John Dufresne, Thom Jones, Louis Menand, Dave Hickey, and a lot of younger people, some from our own program who are just beginning to publish—Sam Ruddick, Andrew Plattner, Jane Armstrong, Kerri Quinn, Colter Cruthirds, and others whom I am forgetting, but will recall tomorrow. One of the best writers I have read is a woman named Elizabeth Wagner who was in school here until a year ago and has published very little so far, but her stories are simply breathtaking, stunning stuff. Every once in a while you read something that reminds you why we’re doing this, writing. That’s what I felt when I read her pieces. We had to twist her arm to get her to send any of it out. God willing, the foolish, foolish world will find and appreciate her, and the rest of them. And, you know, Visualize World Peace.

 INTERVIEWER

If you had a time machine, where would you go and what would you do there?

 STEVEN BARTHELME

I would go back to six or sixty nights I was up a thousand or two thousand dollars at a casino to the moment just before I began returning their money to them. “Color up,” I would say, and then reach into my pocket for my car keys, cash out and waltz away.

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One comment

  1. Beddh

    Why did Melville House decide to publish this?

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