Friday, October 28, 2011

Interview: J.J. Steinfeld

TDR question (in three parts):

Please tell us about your interest in the short story by
(a) telling us a bit about your recent collection (e.g., how did it come about? does it have a recurring theme? do you have a particular story or passage that's a favourite?)

Writing stories in an ongoing process for me, and after I finish one, I send it off to a journal or magazine in an attempt to “test” my current exploration of the worldly or the otherworldly. Then, for reasons that elude me, I wake up one tormented morning and decide to gather up some of my stories, sometimes in their original form, other times reworked, and put them in some sort of order and literary shape.

For my latest (and tenth) short story collection — I have also published two short-fiction chapbooks — I selected, as is my idiosyncratic tendency, a variety of stories so I could present the themes that engage my sensibilities, and this collection wound up having the most stories, twenty-eight, of all my collections, surpassing the twenty-six of my 1993 New & Selected Ragweed Press collection, Dancing at the Club Holocaust. As for describing the themes in my latest collection, and in much of my other work, I’ll use the description from the back of the book (and the publisher’s website):

“The twenty-eight short stories of A Glass Shard and Memory deal with the influence of the past and memory on the present; how the turmoil and struggle of existence stir some people to rage while paralysing others; the significance of love, creativity, and madness in the lives of individuals as they attempt to deal with the not always hospitable world around them. These stories are interwoven with the tragic and the absurd and sometimes with the darkly humorous.”

While I don’t have a favourite story, I do have a title I particularly like: “The Only One in the Beautiful Magician’s Audience Who Did Not Look Like Kafka.” As you know, Michael, I have a lifelong literary fascination with Kafka’s work and references to Kafka and his writing find their way into some of my writing, including this story, the title (and opening) story,“ A Glass Shard and Memory,” and the collection’s concluding story, “Historical Perspective.”

Since I prefer to allow my writing to speak for my work rather than describe that work, here’s a passage from “The Only One in the Beautiful Magician’s Audience Who Did Not Look Like Kafka.” that attempts to capture the narrator’s entrapment somewhere between the absurd and the existential of his life. Just so you don’t think this narrator is anything like me, he has sky-blue eyes and mine are earth-brown. There, I’m off the autobiographical hook:

…Nervous, a bit disoriented by my disrupted sleep, I arrived early at the old, recently renovated building. Outside, the weather was unseasonable, spiteful; inside, I found my seat near the centre of the third row, and sat with my eyes closed as the audience entered. It was not long before I was enthralled by the featured act, a young top-hatted magician, sensual, long-legged, superbly talented, creating a name for herself making small, growling animals and large, antique cars vanish from the stage. I am here for the beauty, not the magic, I shouted out, forgetting for a instant that I was not alone in the audience. But the magic is beautiful, I declared as a plea for forgiveness. I looked around, nervous about my outburst, waiting for the beautiful magician to perform her next feat of magic, and saw that everyone resembled Franz Kafka, their faces exactly the same. A joke, I thought, a peculiar coincidence, but no, how could that be. I thought of the photographs of the brooding dark-eyed writer I had seen in books, and the resemblance was indisputable. I counted over a hundred of the Kafka-faced, re-counted, looked for discrepancies, slight deviations, but no again, the evidence resolute as the Seven Wonders of the World. Confusion and fear exerted their boisterous language, and I was a poor translator, a frightened linguist. I ran to the washroom, my heart beating faster than confusion or fear, and looked into the mirror: ah, reprieve and a sigh of familiarity, recognizing the reflected face I knew, the well-worn, unhandsome shape. I studied my face half-heartedly, disappointed, and wiped the mirror in unmagical despair, mouthing the words homely and ugly, then peculiar, odd, hideous, unusual, my words a memory stammer. I wondered about the life I would have lived had Nature smiled more favourably on my features or dreams, or if a skilled surgeon would have fashioned my face into something else.

— from “The Only One in the Beautiful Magician’s Audience Who Did Not Look Like Kafka,” pages 14-15 (in A Glass Shard and Memory by J. J. Steinfeld, Recliner Books, 2010, copyright © 2010 by J. J. Steinfeld).

(b) recommending a short story or collection by someone else that you admire (and why?)

I am reluctant to single out one short story collection but being gnawed at by my sense of literary fair play and attempting to repay a kindness, I will recommend Rebecca Rosenblum’s new collection, The Big Dream (Biblioasis, 2011), for two reasons: 1) it is an exciting, well-crafted, captivating, insightful collection, and 2) Rebecca said some generous things about an earlier short story collection of mine, Would You Hide Me? (Gaspereau Press, 2003), in an interview she did in this very same TDR. So, that makes as much sense as any other way of making a recommendation. I first ran across Rebecca’s work in the form of her first short story collection, Once (Biblioasis, 2008), when I was one of the three judges for the 2009 Danuta Gleed Literary Award, and was greatly impressed by her writing. And if life were a short story, here’s an interesting plot twist: Rebecca is now engaged to a good writer friend of mine, Mark Sampson, but when I was judging her work I had no idea that they even knew each other, let alone anything romantic was in the air for them.

(c) reflecting on the 21st century and the short story: Are they a good match (and why)?

Gee, is it the 21st century already? My, how angst-ridden time flies when your synapses and psyche are grappling with writing new stories (and poems and plays). I like to think the short story transcends time and place and century, but I guess I do reside on a planet that requires categories and calendars and existential snapshots of our times. Technologically, everything seems to be speeding up, information is accumulating at a ridiculous pace, and perhaps the short story can accommodate this spiralling heavens-knows-where century through language that can be as absurd or realistic or fanciful as a writer wishes in an effort to either depict or deconstruct or reinvent the comings and goings of the century we are caught in but can certainly embrace or escape (either back or forward in time, and with old or new writing techniques) through the short story. Personally, I seem to be writing more and more minimalist short stories in an effort to deal with a century that is becoming more and more cumbersome and overloaded. Seems appropriate to end this interview on an absurd note. Happy (and sad) reading! Happy (and sad) short story writing!

Photo credit: Brenda Whiteway

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