Carol Roan: What inspired your short story “Yield?” I’ve heard you say that an image will come to mind, and that you then write to incorporate that image. Was there an image for this story?
Steve Mitchell: “Yield” began from a story someone told me of having to jump from a high place and finding they could not will themselves to do it. The best they could do was lean into the open space until they fell. I liked that image and the idea of “leaning in” in various ways. The story formed around that, but went in other directions, too.
CR: I’ve had a strange reaction to your work, one that I’ve only experienced with Richard Powers’ The Time of Our Singing, which I threw against a wall after reading a few pages. When I was a child the only book in our house was a Bible – I think my mother distrusted books – so since then I’ve always handled them with the care due precious commodities. Although I love secondhand books in which earlier readers have underlined meaningful passages, added notes, turned down corners, I’ve never been able to take pen or pencil to a book myself. So why my anger at that book? And at yours? I didn’t throw The Naming of Ghosts, but we do joke about the level of anger I experience at your readings – a ten? or a piddling nine? It’s not merely envy of your skillful writing. Maybe it’s partly because I can usually figure out the theme that runs through an author’s work, and I don’t have a clue what your theme is. The life puzzle you’re trying to solve.
SM: Intimacy – the search for, or lack of. The ways people connect with each other and what it means.
CR: What I had found fascinating was how you work with time and memory. “Yield,” for example, contains three discrete events, but you gradually dispel the time between their occurrences until the three become folded into one.
SM: I’m trying to replicate my actual experience of time in the present. I think most ideas of “stories” are incredibly artificial. My experience of the world doesn’t match the “A leads to B, which leads to C” formula. I work with what I call faith. Not in a religious sense, but the ways people order their experience and the kind of overarching belief systems they develop in that ordering. Everyone develops an idiosyncratic belief system that doesn’t necessarily fit within the regular systems.
CR: I’ve seen a video you made about your writing method. The image I remember has Post-Its everywhere.
SM: I make lots of notes before I ever begin a piece. Often my notes end up being longer than the piece itself. I have large whiteboards in my office where I draw diagrams or write notes. Once I begin to write, I write in public places. Bookstores, coffee shops. I need activity and things going on around me. I have to print the draft out, and edit and rewrite on the physical paper. Often eight, ten, twelve different times. One of the final stages is to read the piece aloud, and to continue to read it aloud until I’m happy with it. Then I put it away for a week or two and come back later to decide if I’m still happy with it.
CR: The style of your video – or the grammar, as you put it – is very much akin to your writing style. Not necessarily the bouncing around in time, but the almost abstract visualness, if there is such a word. Is there anything else that you want readers to know about you?
SM: I’m not all that interesting, and my work doesn’t arise directly from deep personal experiences. I don’t think my own history is very relevant to my work. My personal experience is in there, of course, but it’s in with everything else. I think work is best approached when the reader knows nothing about the person who wrote it.
CR: You’ve written in many different forms – fiction, nonfiction, poetry, plays. In which are you most comfortable?
SM: For a while I was writing a bit of everything all at once, but now I’m concentrating on fiction. Plays, however, are good training because they force you into dialogue and movement. And working in theatre is one of the most satisfying things in the world.
CR: How so?
SM: Writing is so solitary. Working with actors is dynamic and communal. Things are up for grabs, and you make discoveries about your own text. I had a scene in one of my plays that wasn’t working. I didn’t know why and couldn’t seem to fix it. I was considering cutting it entirely, but at the next rehearsal something happened. The actors had found their way into the scene. They hadn’t changed a word, but they’d made it real. It’s one of those magical things that can happen when you’re working with others.
CR: You’ve also been a performer in multi-voice poetry programs. That’s not a format I’m familiar with. Were they like the choral reading we used to do in school?
SM: No. I had stumbled on Einstein on the Beach, in which Glass had two or more voices talking or singing different words, different music at the same time. I was intrigued with what could be done in that form, and started to write poetry for different voices, sometimes speaking simultaneously. The longest was with six people speaking for twenty minutes. But mostly I wrote for two to three voices. Then I had a residency in Vermont where I met a sculptor who asked me to do multi-voice poetry with his installations. I’d like to pursue making a film of one of those performances, where words are used as sound, rather than being dramatic or emotive. Robert Altman does this in films like Nashville. He used 8-track recording so you’re hearing more than one conversation at a time as he moves from scene to scene. He forces the audience to make choices. Theater can do that, too, when the action is not framed.
CR: Would you say that you’re always experimenting with form?
SM: Why do anything, if it’s the same old thing? I want to find something that’s interesting, or something that’s beautiful. Or something I can’t quite imagine.
CR: Have you also been experimenting with your day jobs? From cowboy to chef is not a common career path.
SM: I bore easily. Some people can work the same job for twenty-five years. Those people impress me. I can’t do that. I’m always looking for something – music, books – I’ve never read or heard, and that carries over to the jobs. I’m interested in what’s going to catch my eye tomorrow, and in what other people will do and how they articulate what they do. Fiction was important when I was growing up. It was how I met people, and my first connection to the outside.
CR: Where are you going next?
SM: One project at a time. I have no sense of a goal, only a direction. I always want to write better. I’m always aware that I never quite accomplish what I want to. It’s always about exploration, always taking on things I don’t think I can do. The next project is always one I don’t think I can pull off. There’s always a sense of uncertainty, which becomes one of the most wonderful things about writing.
CR: Who are your literary heroes and what are you currently reading?
SM: My heroes are Joan Didion, Marguerite Duras, and Nabokov. Raymond Chandler, Michael Herr. Herman Melville. Melville is God. I’m gradually working through classic literature. Anna Karenina is next on the list. I also look at contemporary novels and short stories, and I’m interested in work from other countries. Currently, I’m on Roberto Bolano’s Antwerp, Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families, and Errol Morris, whose written a great book about photography, Believing is Seeing. I’m about to start W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz.
CR: What are you currently watching and what do you listen to?
SM: I don’t watch much television. I tend to watch movies. Those of my favorite directors, like Kubrick, Lynch, von Trier. Foreign films like those of Godard, Reygdas, Haneke, Noe. And I like really bad horror films. I listen to Meredith Monk, Beethoven, Johnny Cash, heavy metal. I like international pop – the Sufi Qawwali singer, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Currently, I’m all caught up in David Lang and Bruce Peninsula.
CR: How have these influences affected your writing?
SM: It’s all this sea of impressions we swim in, that we’re all trying to make some sense of. Everything is an influence. I know that any writing in the twentieth century is heavily influenced by the different language of film. Without the grammar of film, would I have bounced around in time as I do in my fiction? The first thing I wanted to do was to be a filmmaker. Kids of my generation wanted to do this because certain kinds of films were being made in the 60s when the studio system had broken down. It seemed like anything could happen. But the making of a film is so complex, involving so many people and so many variables. Of course, as a writer, you get to control everything.
CR: The theme of this journal is recovery. What does recovery mean to you?
SM: It’s funny, I hadn’t really thought of that. I don’t know that I have a good answer. I think I’m always in a state of change. For better or worse.
Carol Roan fell in love with the sound of words as a child and began singing them professionally at seventeen. Thirty years later she had begun to write her own words and was elected to Poets & Writers of New Jersey. Her two nonfiction books are Clues to American Dance and Speak Up: The Public Speaking Primer, and she has recently won a few awards and publication for her short stories. She now teaches voice and stage presence in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where she is president of Winston- Salem Writers. She also edits writing and leads writing workshops.