Steve Yarbrough Interview – Thursday, October 15, 2009
Interviewed by current poetry student, Juan Guzman
JG: First off, on behalf of SJLA and the MFA program at CSU, Fresno, welcome back! We are all eager to hear about what you’ve been up to in these recent months, since you joined the faculty at Emerson College. Obviously, you’ve gone through a tremendous change since the last time I’ve seen you in Fresno and I’m curious as to how you are adjusting to life in Boston?
SY: Boston’s great, Juan, and the main problem there is choosing what to do. The other night I did a reading at Barnes & Noble on the Common that overlapped with a Jill McCorkle reading at Harvard, and there were something like five other readings around town that night, including at least three that I wished I could have gone to. There’s great music all the time, and you can see any film you want to see. And there are the Patriots, too, and you know how I love football. But you still have to keep the focus on work—on doing your own and helping the students do theirs. You can’t let attractions become distractions.
JG: Has the move inspired you to write?
SY: No, I inspire myself to write, just like I did here. But when I get out of class at night and, say, Pamela Painter sends me a text and says come next door to Remington’s (a bar) because “we’re all here” and I know that “we’re all here” might mean Margot Livesey, Ladette Randolph, Dan Tobin, Alice Hoffman, Tom Perrotta, Rick Russo, etc.—you realize you’re in a very big pond where you’re just one more fish that had better keep doing what a fish does best. But there are some fine fish in Fresno too—the Haleses, Steven Church, Tim Skeen, Alex Espinoza, Dave Borofka—and I hope all the students appreciate them.
JG: Tell me about Emerson: Top rated MFA program; wonderful, gifted faculty; historic, scenic town; Ploughshares! Don’t get me wrong, being a part of the writing community here and reading the work of my peers and professors, I really am proud to be a part of CSU, Fresno’s MFA program. But you’ve joined a university which is considerably older than Fresno State, and, not only that, a university which is strictly dedicated to two huge components of our trade: art and communication. What is that like as both a teacher of writing and a writer?
SY: Well, I believe I’m right in saying that creative writing is one of the two top majors at Emerson. So it’s really huge there, and it’s one of the main reasons students choose the school. Right now, I’m seeing the biggest differences in Emerson and Fresno State at the undergraduate level. I’m teaching an advanced undergraduate fiction writing class, and almost everyone in it is working toward a BFA in creative writing. They’ve been focused on fiction writing since the day they came there; so what I see in that class—it’s called WR407—is worlds beyond what I’d see in a typical 163 class at Fresno State, though I often saw some very good writing in that class down through the years too. (For instance, I almost never see a student making a grammar or spelling mistake at Emerson, whereas in the last couple of 163 classes I taught here, I spent most of my time correcting sentence errors.) Furthermore, my undergraduate classes are limited to twelve students, so I can give all of them a lot of time. We also have a huge program in publishing, and one of the effects of that is that the writing students have been exposed to all aspects of the publishing business and tend to understand things like the importance of reviews, the politics of submissions, and so on. Now, as far as graduate students go, I’ve sure got some fine ones at Emerson. But man, I also had some devilishly good ones at Fresno State. I’d put the graduate fiction students I had here during the last three or four years up against anybody else’s anywhere. They were that good. They are that good.
JG: I have to ask, tell me something we have at CSU, Fresno that they don’t have at Emerson? They won’t find out, I swear.
SY: They most certainly will find out. In fact, they already know. You have one of the most innovative literary magazines out there—The Normal School—and my friends at Emerson are really impressed by it. Emerson certainly has one of the greatest ones, Ploughshares, but the Normal School is doing some things no one else is. It’s carved out a special spot for itself.
JG: I remember reading your 2006 novel The End of California and being excited that Fresno played a big role in the storyline. Do you find yourself writing (or wanting to write) about Fresno since you’ve left? Is that urge greater, or different, from what it was like when you lived in Fresno? I guess, ultimately, I wonder if (or how) leaving Fresno, which was your home for a long time, affected your writing.
SY: Well, that’s a great question. Twenty-something years ago, moving to Fresno made me think a lot more about the place I come from, Mississippi, and I started focusing on it in a way that I never had before, and that had a lot to do with distance and being forced to live in my imagination. When I lived here, I almost never wrote about Fresno. But now that I’m somewhere else, maybe I will. Right now, I’m working on a novel that’s set in Virginia, where I lived before I moved to Fresno. Some things take decades in gestation.
JG: Recently, I hear, you read from a short story that was written from the point of view of a woman in her 50’s. Where do you find the voice to write a story like that? You are clearly not a woman; so, tell me, how do you come to trust yourself in that voice?
SY: You may recall from being in my classes that I deeply distrust the advice “write what you know,” if that advice means only “write what you yourself have experienced.” I have less perspective on my own experiences than I do those of almost anyone else. As far as writing about women characters, well, I have a wife, two daughters and a dog named Lucy. I’ve spent a lot more time around women than I have around men, and if I may say so I tend to like them more.
JG: In that story, the woman recalls conversations between her 3-year-old self and her father. The story also tends to break from the chronology of time, weaving the narrator’s adult voice with the voice of her childhood, am I correct?
JG: I’m a writer of poetry, but I’ll always be a huge lover of fiction and I think narrative design, or structure, is one of the biggest hurdles I’ll have to conquer if I ever decide to dabble in that genre. Finding a voice, or voices, that your readers can trust and believe is really challenging enough and I’m assuming that your story played with time and its constructs, so I wonder, how do you gauge that sort of power over your fiction? When are flashbacks and bends in time too much and when do you know they are absolutely crucial? How does a writer commit to a narrator and still make all the other characters jump from the page?
SY: Some people hate hearing this, but I find something infinitely mysterious in the choices I make when it comes to such matters as structure and technique. The first line of that story you’re asking about is “What she remembers, in the time she allots for remembering, is how cold the house got in winter.” I wrote that line fourteen years ago in my office at Fresno State. I don’t remember why I wrote it the way I did. But everything else in that story—the distance between the events being written about and the position of the POV character in the present; her ability to turn memory on and off; her occasional distance from her own feelings; and a coldness motif—all of it came from the first line. My first sentence, which I don’t remember writing, told me how to construct the remainder of the story. Isn’t that a mystery?
JG: What are your thoughts on narrative (or other forms of) design/structure on the novel as opposed to the short story? Do you think it’s different for the two?
SY: I’d say that the story invites—no, forces—you to confront form on every page, in every line. The novel allows you more leeway. I find writing novels easier, in the sense that you sink into the narrative and live with it for years and the checks you keep writing don’t have to be cashed for a long time. But I love the story more than any other form. It forgives nothing. It’s the ultimate jealous, possessive lover.
JG: Your newest book, Safe from Neighbors, hasn’t even been released yet, but I’m expecting it’s going to be a hit. You can pre-order it online, but it’ll be out from Knopf in January, and from what I’ve read of it, it sounds really powerful and also really rather dark. Just my style! It takes place in Loring, Mississippi, a place all of your readers are certainly familiar with by now. Steve, I guess I’m just obsessed by landscapes today, but Mississippi is a landscape that you belong to. Is it easier for you to write about places like Mississippi rather than places like Fresno, which is still another landscape of yours?
SY: I’ll always go back to Mississippi in my work, Juan, and it may be because I was a child there—tabula rasa—and the things I witnessed and experienced made an enormous impact on me. I lived through the Civil Rights Movement, and most people today, when we have an African-American president, cannot even begin to imagine what I once saw Black people go through.
JG: Let’s talk about that. Safe from Neighbors is a book which, at times, will be set in the segregated south. The novel flashes back to Loring, Mississippi, 1962; a pivotal decade for civil rights and the south. How much attention to historic detail did you pay while writing this novel and was that important to you? Was it important to the novel?
SY: Well, I lived though those times, as I said above, but I certainly did a lot of background reading on the James Meredith crisis before starting to write the book. I learned things I didn’t know and recalled things I’d forgotten. As for detail, I want the period details to be right, but I don’t want history to overwhelm the fiction. It’s still an act of the imagination, you know?
JG: Obviously, the novel has to tackle racial issues, in what ways is this subject difficult to write about? I know you and so I know that this is really a personal issue for you. How does your personal connection with this part of the country, in this particular time in history, come into play when writing a novel like Safe from Neighbors?
SY: I had finished the novel before Obama was elected president. But a lot of what I’m seeing right now makes me very glad I wrote this particular book. I thought that when Jimmy Carter said much of the opposition to Obama was the result of racism, he was one hundred percent correct—and maybe it took a white Southerner to say it. The vitriol the President is facing is unlike anything I’ve seen before on the national stage. But it’s exactly like what I witnessed every day growing up in Indianola, Mississippi, where a Black man was supposed to know his place and remain there.
JG: In which ways do you think writing a short story (or novel, for that matter) about racial tensions in Loring different from writing one that takes place in Fresno, for you, I mean. Which would you have a more difficult time writing? Because don’t you think there are similarities in both situations? I’m just really fascinated by the fact that you do carry a number of landscapes with you, you even belong to Poland! How do you manage that, as a writer, how easy is it for you to switch between them?
SY: More mystery here, Juan. I could always write about Poland. I once wrote a pretty good story set in Italy after spending all of a week there. But Fresno never quite captured my imagination as a landscape for fiction, though, as I said above, maybe that will change now. I’ll say this: some of the racist remarks I heard in my twenty years here were every bit as virulent as you’d hear anywhere in the South—or anywhere on earth.
JG: Will you be back for a reading and signing when the book is released? Maybe an appearance sometime in the spring?
SY: Knopf hasn’t set up the book tour yet. But I’ll go wherever they tell me!
JG: You know, Phil Levine will be on our campus for a reading in April…jealous?
SY: Dude, I’m sitting at Phil Levine’s desk right now!
JG: Who are some of the writers coming to Emerson this year? Any suggestions for SJLA? We’re looking to bring people to Fresno right now.
SY: We had Kathryn Harrison at Emerson recently, and the poet Alan Shapiro, a great reader, is coming soon. I’d suggest you guys try to get Tom Perrotta, Ron Rash, Margot Livesey, all fine writers and great readers.
JG: What are you working on now?
SY: I’m working on a novel tentatively titled The Fork. Can’t say much about it, except that it’s a struggle.
JG: Beside the wonderful poetry, what do you miss most about Fresno?
SY: I miss the many people I love. They enriched my life more than they will ever know.
JG: If I give you some of my poems, can you force Ploughshares to publish them?
SY: I can’t even get them to publish me!