Steven Dunn is the author of the novel Potted Meat (Tarpaulin Sky 2016). He was born and raised in West Virginia, and after 10 years in the Navy he earned a B.A. in Creative Writing from University of Denver. Some of his work can be found in Columbia Journal and Granta Magazine.
TBL Author Q&A Series: Steven Dunn
This is one in a series of brief interviews with a diverse array of writers, editors, and other industry professionals. Check back over the coming months for more!
What ignited your writing career? You’ve been living in Denver now for several years— what do you think of the literary scene and how has it affected your writing?
I wish I could point to a moment of ignition, but thinking along those lines of what it takes for something to ignite, let’s say fire: Heat, Fuel, Oxygen. It’s the same with careers, multiple elements in community and collaboration. My wife and daughter, and bosses when I was a security guard, supported me through school. I had supportive and generous teachers, friends, and other writers. Small presses and literary journals doing the hard work they do, and people hosting reading series, and people listening at those series. Which leads me to your question about Denver’s literary scene.
There are tons of readings to go to and learn from, and people are welcoming and genuinely interested in you and your work. The FBomb flash fiction reading series, and the Don’t Yell At Me reading series are two communities I’ve been involved in. I also notice that the literary scene here isn’t that diverse: I’m often the only, or one of a few, people of color at a lot of these places. Or the universities have insulated communities. I don’t see very many BA, MFA, or PhD students at readings outside of things or people associated with their schools. Nor do I see the opposite that often. But we all can learn from each other. I know some of that is a result of being in a big city and of course there will be pockets of people with different interests. But it seems like there isn’t an intentional effort to blend some of these different pockets, which gives us communities of convenience. And of course I don’t know everyone’s intentions and reasons, and there are people who actively seek to not be insulated (like the poets William Seward Bonnie and Dustin Holland, and writer/professor Leah Rogin-Roper), so this is my limited view. This isn’t simply a matter of diversity for the sake of buzzword diversity, but it’s a matter of whose stories and voices are heard and valued in public places.
After participating and reading relentlessly at the Mercury Cafe’s FBomb flash fiction series, what was it like writing and publishing a novel? How would you describe getting your work printed?
I read there almost every month, and have hosted once. I got involved with the FBomb after graduating school (sometimes a community of convenience), so I had to make an effort to support that community. I say that because, that same community supported me when my book was published: people purchased the book, set me up with readings, wrote reviews, shared the book, etc. That’s what it was like getting published: feeling loved and supported by people who I also love and support. And on a more dreamy-excited-celebratory note, my two good friends/writers who helped me write the book (Brian Lupo and Lorenzo James), and my wife and daughter, we all stared at the book, like wow, this is it, it’s a fucking book. I put it on my bookshelf, ha! Just thinking, “Man, I contributed to the book world, to this thing I love so much.”
Can you give us a glimpse into the themes and particulars that you associate with writing? How have you changed as a writer over the years?
The best way I can answer is to explain my revising metaphor. (In a class years ago we were encouraged to create a metaphor for how we approach revision, which of course changes over time.)
When I revise/write, I morph into a Truffle Hog: the hogs that root around in the dirt, sniffing for truffles that grow on tree roots. Hogs have a natural ability to root, but they also require training. Same is true with writing. Truffles vary in shape, size, density, smell, and so on. So do stories. My job is to root around and find these stories, to not damage the truffles, to get the other stuff out of the way, including myself.
Also, I’ve said elsewhere, when asked about plot, that I prefer the other definitions of plot, like a burial plot or garden plot. Plot is a place to dig, cultivate, etc. So looking at those two things, I think the themes I associate with in writing are themes of digging, excavating, dirt, roots, discovery, wallowing in filth, physical labor, uncertainty, respecting the shape of things. Not that those things always show up on the page, but they are the themes of the process.
That’s how I changed over the years as a writer. But before that metaphor, I was focused on “crafting” the story, or “creating” it, instead of finding it and listening to, and smelling it on its own terms. I was too involved, or was getting in the way of the story. And that meant that, me and all of my bullshit, were being too controlling. I’m still learning not to be—it’s a constant practice, but my current metaphor helps put that in perspective.
When did you decide to write a novel and stray from the flash fiction game? What was it like to shift into a longer and larger scope?
It wasn’t much of a decision as much as it was unknowingly writing myself into a novel after writing these vignettes that kept lingering, whispering. I wrote the novel (in vignettes) before I’d heard of flash fiction. I was late. And you know, I had no idea I was writing flash fiction and I’m still not sure if that’s what I write, but I don’t care if people call it that or not. I’m not a huge fan of the term, because it’s often discussed on the same terms as conventional short stories: “flash fiction often contains the classic story elements: protagonists, story-arcs, conflicts, obstacles or complications, and resolution.” With that said, Potted Meat is made of vignettes/fragments, and I think those terms are more fitting, because the stories aren’t often concerned with conflicts, resolutions, or protagonists. Vignettes and fragments can be prayers, meditations, anti-resolution circular thoughts/events, still lifes. They can function as commas, and especially as ellipses pointing to silence and continuation. So I guess I write “short prose” because the term is open and can hold more and the pieces can be whatever they need to be, or are: a grocery list, an obituary, a letter, a dream. The pieces might even need to be longer. It’s what the moment calls for.
Keeping in mind that Potted Meat is set in your home state of West Virginia, how much of the novel was stranger than fiction and how much was invented?
Who knows? I’m not trying to be clever or obscure here, but I was working with memory and we all know how pliable and (un)reliable memory can be. I’m always hesitant to answer this question, because I think by saying, “this really happened and this didn’t” implies a binary value system that isn’t necessary for connecting, or not connecting, with the work. Overall, I have invented a narrative out of scraps, ephemera, dirt, dreams, etc., which is an act of fiction. I guess what I’m saying is, I place a lot of holistic value in fiction, and me asserting “truth” to some elements, would lessen the overall value. Maybe. And I carry the same thoughts when reading fiction.
Who do you read now and who have you never stopped reading?
Lately I’ve been reading over and over Katie Jean Shinkle’s novels, Our Prayers after the Fire, and The Arson People. Mairead Case’s novel See You in the Morning. Also, poetry from Khadijah Queen and Nikki Wallschlaeger. And I’ve never stopped reading Nas, Outkast, A Tribe Called Quest, Curtis Mayfield, Sly and the Family Stone, Van Hunt, Cold War Kids, Kid Cudi, Kendrick Lamar, Erykah Badu, and Janelle Monae.
In terms of publication, is there something specific you look for when approaching different presses? Tarpaulin Sky obviously was a great fit, seeing as how you won their book prize last year. What caused you to gravitate their way?
When I look at a press, I look at their aesthetic, what they publish, and have I read books from any of their authors. I try to read at least two books from a press before I submit. I like to listen first before I ask them to listen to me. I’d been reading Tarpaulin Sky books for about four years before I submitted to them. I knew they made beautiful books, and was publishing writing that I felt were taking risks and fucking shit up. So when they decided to publish Potted Meat, I knew I was in good hands, and in good company with all of the other badass writers they have published, are publishing, and will publish.
What were your formative writing years like at DU? Which professors do you still keep in touch with?
This relates to my previous answer. When talking about trying to publish, Selah Saterstrom says to publish from a place of abundance rather than trying to publish from desperation. Meaning supporting presses and journals, going to readings, writing an author to let them know what you liked about their book, knowing the work from a press, etc. Giving to the community that you’d like to give to you, not in a cheesy business networking way, but in a sincere way built from reciprocity. So by doing what you can, practicing, learning, supporting, advocating: is a way of building abundance, and when you submit, you feel good about it, and when you get rejected, it’s still disappointing, but okay because you have an abundance of whatever that will sustain you. It’s a way to keep doing the work you need to do, the writing. That’s what my years at DU were like, having conversations that I always return to about being a writer/reader.
What might you whisper in a fledgling writer/artist’s ear to give them a push in the right direction?
I wouldn’t whisper, I’d yell, “Be a dog about this shit!” Then I’d lower my voice and be reasonable and tell them what Selah Saterstrom told me: “Publish from a place of abundance rather than trying to publish from desperation.” But I think it takes both, a doggish tenacity and some great insight about abundance and reciprocity.
Now that you’ve punched a major notch in your literary belt, what are you up to next? Where do you aim to take your writing—or, perhaps, where is it taking you?
I wouldn’t call it a notch in my belt, because that sounds like a type of winning/victory. For me this isn’t about winning, it’s about doing the best work I can with integrity and care, and respecting the living beings called stories and languages. I am grateful for being published. But I just don’t want a seat at the publishing table, things need to change. How can I make space for other people whose voices go unheard: women, people of color, people from the LGBT + communities? How can I support presses who publish those voices? Is my bookshelf filled with only white men? Why is the staff for a lot of presses and journals mostly white? That’s where my writing is taking me, to a place of advocacy, generosity, questioning the “business as usual” and the “I’ve made it” attitude. Made what? A difference, a change? And you know, I’m just trying to be a better writer and listener, mainly a better listener. I’m trying to pay attention to all the places narratives happen, and what conditions make narratives arise. A pinecone growing is a narrative, what form does that narrative take, and why that narrative? I’m learning to ask better questions of my existing questions.
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