Fiction Points: Susan Steinberg

Susan Steinberg

Susan Steinberg is the author of the short-story collections The End of Free Love (2003), Hydroplane (2006), and – most recently – Spectacle (2013). She teaches in the University of San Francisco’s MFA in Writing program and holds a BFA in painting from the University of Maryland and an MFA in English from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Steinberg was the 2010 United States Artist Ziporyn Fellow in Literature. She received a Pushcart Prize in 2012 for her story “Cowboys” and helped McSweeney’s win a National Magazine Award for excellence in fiction with “To Sit, Unmoving” in 2007. Steinberg has held residencies at the Blue Mountain Center, Ledig House, the MacDowell Colony, New York University, the Vermont Studio Center, the Wurlitzer Center, and Yaddo. She served as the fiction editor for Pleiades: A Journal of New Writing from 2000 until 2006.

Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them you’re a writer. When they ask you what you write about, how do you answer?

If two nuns and a penguin approached me in a bar, I’d want to talk about other things. I’d answer their question to be nice—I’d say I write about being female—then change the subject.

Points is a blog primarily for drug and alcohol historians. What do you think this audience would find most interesting about your work?

 I’ve written a lot of scenes in which drugs/alcohol are in the background, but not necessarily a large enough part of the lens to be the cause of my narrators’ unreliability.  In other words, the drugs/alcohol are in the room or in the backstory, like a sort of haze, but the narrators are often removed from them, either by the passing of time or abstinence or because the drug use belongs to a secondary character.  So perhaps drug and alcohol historians would find it interesting that the drugs/alcohol are often connected to the settings my narrators move through—after hour clubs, the backs of cars, Baltimore streets, memory—rather than to what the narrators have ingested in the “real-time” of the story.

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Fiction Points: Ed Falco

Ed Falco

Ed Falco teaches literature and writing at Virginia Tech and most recently authored The Family Corleone (2012), a prequel to The Godfather. His previous novels include St. John of the Five Boroughs (2009), Wolf Point (2005), the hypertext work A Dream with Demons (1997), and Winter in Florida (1990). His 2011 short-story collection Burning Man made it on the longlist for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, the collection Acid (1996) secured him Notre Dame’s Richard Sullivan Prize, and he won the Virginia Quarterly Review‘s 1986 Emily Clark Balch Prize for the titular story from his debut, Plato at Scratch Daniel’s & Other Stories (1990); another collection, Sabbath Night in the Church of the Piranha (2005)combines previously-published stories with new writings. Falco’s fiction has earned him a Pushcart Prize, a 2008 NEA Fellowship, the Mishima Prize for Innovative Fiction from The St. Andrews Review, and a Dakin Fellowship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. As a playwright, Falco is the recipient of the Hampden-Sydney Playwright Award for Home Delivery (1992), a Virginia Commission for the Arts Fellowship, and the Governor’s Award for the Screenplay from the Virginia Festival of American Film. His work as a poet includes the prose-poem chapbook Concert in the Park of Culture (1985) and the hypertext poetry collection Sea Island (1996). An early innovator in the field, Falco edits The New River, an online journal of digital writing.

Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them you’re a writer. When they ask you what you write about, how do you answer?

I explain to the nuns that I went to Catholic Sunday School as a child, where I had dramatically impressed upon me the guilt and fear so essential to being a writer. For instance, I vividly remember a nun in a black habit looming over me, asking me to imagine the pain I’d feel if I held my hand over a flame, and then to imagine that pain unending, for eternity, with no hope of release, ever. So, I learned to live with the fear of hell. I’d explain this to the nuns, and then turn to the penguin and ask her what she thought of terrifying a child in that manner. I imagine the penguin being sympathetic. Maybe patting my back with a flipper. I’d buy her a beer. Then I’d talk a bit about the moral anguish I felt as I child because I couldn’t really imagine loving God more than I loved my mother–which is what the Sunday-school nuns insisted I must do to be a good Catholic. So, welcome guilt. The bar nuns at this point might ask me if I got anything good out of Sunday school, and I’d answer that, sure, I got lots of material I’d use throughout my life as a writer. All that guilt, all that fear–it found release in my writing. In fact, I’ve spent much of my writing life thinking about the tension between sin and piety. (I’d use these terms for the nuns, though really I’d be thinking freedom or abandon and domesticity and restrain, or the classical terms Dionysian and Apollonian). I’d explain further that a lot of my writing is about exploring the consequences of my characters’ choices, which is my writerly way of exploring human behavior, and perhaps that exploration of individual choices with unique consequences is a direct rejection of the dogma of religion. By this time I’m pretty sure the nuns would have left, and I’d hang out and get a little buzzed with the penguin.

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Fiction Points: Dan Barden

Dan Barden is a professor in the Creative Writing Program at Butler University in Indiana. His essays have appeared in Esquire, GQ, Details, and Poets and Writers, among other journals and anthologies. He is the author of the novels John Wayne: A Novel (Doubleday, 1997) and The Next Right Thing (Dial Press, 2012). The latter is a crime mystery set inside a recovery story, told by a hardboiled ex-cop for the ages. Check out the novel’s page for a glimpse of the rave reviews it received in all the right places, from The Atlantic to He speaks to us today about the human beings who inspired it. 

Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them that you’re a writer. When they ask you what your last book was about, how do you answer?

I’d like to think I’d have a different answer for the nuns than I did for the penguin. To the nuns, I would say that I was trying to justify the ways of God to man insofar as the book — The Next Right Thing, which is a literary crime novel set among a community of AA members — is about what I find beautiful and honorable and appealing in the lives of men and women who are recovering from addiction to alcohol and drugs.

Dan Barden (© Liz Pinnick)
Dan Barden (© Liz Pinnick)

Why would God do this to these folks? Why would He vex them so much with these intractable emotional and spiritual problems? And then make them so charming and wonderful on top of all those vexing and intractable problems? To the penguin, I would say that the book is about how strangely human beings are to love each other in the strange ways that they love each other.

Points is a blog primarily for drug and alcohol historians. What do you think this audience would find most interesting about The Next Right Thing?

I hope that The Next Right Thing is a novel about the beauty of codependence, if such a thing is even possible. I guess I wasn’t kidding when I just said that thing about “justifying the ways of God to man.” It really bewilders me that I have spent so much of my life loving alcoholics and addicts.

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Thoughts on the “Geographical Cure”: Where would Alcoholics Anonymous be without it?

In Alcoholics Anonymous lore, twelve-steppers are taught to beware the “geographical cure.” The AA program imparts a common-sense lesson: when you move, your problems often come with you. The warning that changing locations doesn’t necessarily have the desired influence on habits runs contrary to the grand American ideal of re-invention. The maxim also harkens back to a historical tradition of vacation-like therapies—the sorts of escapist cures that it pithily dismisses.

Even so, AA’s own cure, in its early years, was geographic in other ways. Like any historical phenomenon, it was rooted in a time and place. And before the movement generated national press attention in the early 1940s, its spread relied on the mobility of members—mostly salesmen— who “carried the message” on their travels. The initial dissemination of AA’s solution to the problem of substance dependence reflected regional differences. As the first Detroit member claimed, “Psychiatry had not penetrated the Middle West.”

 Sigmund Freud, G. Stanley Hall, Carl Jung,  Abraham A. Brill, Ernest Jones, and Sandor Ferenczi at Clark U in 1909; Bill Wilson and fellow AA members in 1941
Sigmund Freud, G. Stanley Hall, Carl Jung, Abraham A. Brill, Ernest Jones, and Sandor Ferenczi at Clark U in Massachusetts 1909 (via; Bill Wilson and fellow AA members in 1941, in the Saturday Evening Post.

Jack Alexander, the author of the Saturday Evening Post article credited with making AA a household name, contrasted the recruitment strategies in the early chapters of Alcoholics Anonymous. While AA co-founder Bill Wilson trolled the halls of New York’s Towns Hospital in search of potential converts, “in the Middle West,” Alexander wrote, “the work [was] almost exclusively among persons who have not arrived at the institutional stage.” AA co-founder Bob Smith’s Akron home was hospitable to Protestant religious traditions and functioned as a halfway house for the hardest alcoholic cases. Recovering alcoholics from Akron eventually spread AA’s gospel westward to Cleveland, Indianapolis, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, and Los Angeles.

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Fiction Points: Eleanor Henderson

Eleanor Henderson

Eleanor Henderson is an assistant professor at Ithaca College and holds an MFA from the University of Virginia. Her short story “The Farms” was selected for inclusion in Best American Short Stories 2009 and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Henderson’s fiction and nonfiction has appeared in journals including Ninth Letter, Salon, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Her debut novel Ten Thousand Saints, which revolves around a teen’s conversion to a straight-edge lifestyle following the drug-related death of a friend, was published to wide acclaim in 2011. The book was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times’ 2011 Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction and made the longlist for the 2013 IMPAC Dublin Literary AwardTen Thousand Saints was also named a New York Times Notable Book of 2011; reviewed on the cover of the New York Times Book Review; and included on lists such as Amazon’s Top 10 Debut Fiction Titles of 2011, the New York Times’ Top 10 Books of 2011, and the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Top 100 Books of 2011. Henderson previously served as a contributing editor to the magazine Poets & Writers and chair of the fiction board for The Virginia Quarterly Review.

Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them you’re a writer. When they ask you to describe Ten Thousands Saints, how do you answer?

This is exactly how it feels to describe one’s novel! I tend to say it’s about a sixteen-year-old boy coming of age in the straight edge scene in New York City in 1988.

Points is a blog primarily for drug and alcohol historians. What do you think this audience would find most interesting about Ten Thousand Saints?

The straight edge scene. One of the main reasons I wanted to write about straight edge is because I’d never encountered it in fiction before. It’s such a fascinating subculture—this group of young people who are eschewing drugs and alcohol and yet embracing a punk ethos. It’s Just Say No with an edge. Many of my main characters, who are teenagers, go even further and give up sex and meat, too. In many ways it’s a rebellion against traditional forms of rebellion.

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Introducing the Fiction Points Interviews

Editor’s note: In recent weeks Points contributing editor and media liaison Amy Long has secured interviews with a host of leading contemporary fiction writers about the role of alcohol, drugs, and addiction in their work. The resulting interview series, which we’ve christened “Fiction Points,” will run weekly, beginning tomorrow with Eleanor Henderson. Today Long and Points editor Eoin Cannon introduce the series by discussing the relevance of fiction to drug history and the importance of drugs to the current state of fiction. 

View the entire series here or use the links at the end of this post to navigate to a specific interview.

"In the Court," Luke Fildes' illustration of the opium den in Charles Dickens's "The mystery of Edwin Drood" (1870).
“In the Court,” Luke Fildes’ frontispiece to Charles Dickens’s unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), depicting a scene thought to be based on Dickens’s police-accompanied visits to real East End opium dens.

EC: Fiction plays a unique set of roles for those seeking to understand the nature and meaning of drugs in history. Some survey it for depictions of the social realities of drugs’ procurement and use in a given time and place—data to join that of letters, newspaper reports, and medical treatises. Fictional representations are invented, of course, but they can be traced to real-life models, and in proper context can make vivid the phenomena under research.

Others look to literature for a rarer kind of access to the subjective experience of a drug’s effects and social meanings—a narrower view, because particular to the writer’s identity, style, and ability, but a deeper one. This depth comes not just in the sense of submerged mental experience, but in the possibility of foundational insight, the kind that can shape the very questions we ask about drugs in history.

Hallucinations as history--Leon Masson's 1920 illustration for a French translation of Thomas de Quincey's Confessions of an Opium Eater (1821).
Hallucinations: non-realities that really happened. A 1920 Leon Masson illustration for a French translation of Thomas de Quincey’s nonfictional Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821).

Drugs are threads in the social fabric, but they are threads that tend to tell us something significant about the pattern of that fabric beyond their own limited place in it. Drug use facilitates a wide variety of social behaviors (both mundane and unusual) and it defines the nature of ordinary versus altered consciousness. When authors depict drug use they limn simultaneously the structures of outer social order and inner mental life. Far from being the “escape” they provide for some characters, drugs tend to drive stories themselves toward the heart of things.

Consider how Edith Wharton uses drugs to render the plight of her character Lily Bart, in a brief scene toward the end of The House of Mirth (1905).

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