Thursday, August 23, 2007

Editorial Profile: Dawson Steeber

Fiction Editor Dawson Steeber gives us the lowdown on reading submissions, writing in the NEOMFA program, and enjoying stories with "dirty-realism."

MB: Dawson, since you don’t blog (to my knowledge, at least) you are still an enigma to many of the folks who are reading this interview. Could you please tell us five interesting things about yourself: four that are true, and one that isn’t? Don’t tell us which one is a lie.

DS: Hmmm…I’m really not that interesting…1) I have a sweet bullet wound on my hip from being shot at through the door of my old truck. 2) I prefer the classics in literature and music. (See? Not very interesting) 3) I once traveled from Vancouver, B.C. to Eugene, Oregon in the trunk of a ’77 Pontiac Grand Prix. 4) I’m the proud papa of a beautiful chubby baby boy called Giovanni. And 5) I once arm-wrestled Rick Flair and won. Okay, that was a lie, but I did have a drink with him in a hotel bar in Indiana.

MB: Has the editorial experience at BOR surprised you in any way? What is your approach to reading fiction manuscripts? What kinds of stories are the most interesting to you? The least interesting?

DS: The entire experience has been a surprise. I consider myself to be very lucky to be thought of for the position. I guess I’m also surprised by the number of submissions coming in from abroad.

As far as my approach to reading manuscripts, I sit down to read every submission as if it were already a published piece. I also read every word of every story. I don’t ever want to be one of those editors that gives a writer two-three paragraphs to convince she/he to continue reading. That said, it can get a bit tiring sometimes; like walking through wet concrete.

I like all kinds of stories. I like the dirty-realism slices of life, the painful rainy day depressing types, but I also really like the kind of story that isn’t afraid to be nice. I’m not sure if I’m articulating that very well. I remember a friend telling me once that, “Nice stories are boring.” Though I completely agree, a story’s conflict and crisis need not always be of gargantuan proportion. Ultimately all I hope to find when I sit down with a story is a good story. Every writer, when she/he sits down to write a story, I would hope, attempts to write the best story they’ve ever written. Every writer wants to write a story that is bigger than the story. The problem is that that mission often times gets in the way of the writing. It’s hard to remind ourselves that it’s okay to just tell a good story, and if it is in fact a good story, the other bigger parts are almost inherent in that writing.

So, I guess the least interesting stories to me are those that try too hard to be something other than good stories. If I wanted to read a lecture on modern philosophy, the state of the nation, or global politics, I’d sign up for a class.

MB: What advice do you have for writers submitting stories, both to BOR and other journals? Are there common mistakes that writers should avoid making?

DS: I think I may have answered that above. Certainly, getting your hands on previous issues to the journal you intend to submit to is the best piece of advice I can give. Where possible, get to know what type of stories the journal tends to look for. I certainly wouldn’t send a piece of dirty-realism to Black Secrets, or True Confessions. Granted, if it’s a new journal like BOR, well, shake the dice and let them roll. And please, please, please—I think GT said something about this—proofread your work. If you aren’t sending out your best work, why are you sending it?

MB: You’re in your third and final year of the NEOMFA program. Please share your thoughts about the MFA. How has it helped you grow as a fiction writer? What are you working on now? If readers out there are considering applying to the NEOMFA, what are a few benefits of the program?

DS: My time in the NEOMFA program has been of great help to me as a writer, a reader, and as a person. Sounds cheesy, I know, but it’s true. It has been of immense help to be part of a community of writers learning and honing their craft together, and to have the opportunity to learn from such an array of excellent writers has been invaluable. I’ve been exposed to, and facilitated a session at, the Winter Wheat writer’s conference in Bowling Green, Ohio. I’ve been exposed to AWP this last year in Hotlanta. Wow! I’ve seen and heard accomplished writers from all over, from various lecture series to applicant interviews to classroom visits. I was also chosen, along with four fellow students, to participate in a summer workshop in Bisbee, AZ. at the Wick Ranch under the tutelage Maggie Anderson. All of this has helped me to grow and mature as a writer. I’d always scribbled, but now I’ve learned and been exposed to the elements of style and voice, the ways in which to make your metaphors earn their place, the requisite components to good story writing. I have also grown a much greater appreciation for poetry.

I am currently working on my thesis whenever I can find a spare moment. It is intended to be a collection of short stories, but, as evidenced in my responses to your questions, I have a real issue with brevity. The majority of my stories are over twenty pages. I guess I missed the class on minimalism.

The NEOMFA is full of great opportunities. Not unlike any other MFA program, it is an excellent opportunity to share three years with other writers while learning the trade, and you are guaranteed large readership through several workshops (no more calling up a buddy to beg, “Hey, man, you want to hear a story?” or annoying a significant other, “Hey, you got a minute?”). But what really separates the NEOMFA from the rest is the opportunity to soak up the resources of four different universities. No one writer is shackled to the same two or three professors, or the same five to ten students. Every semester students have the opportunity to learn from different professors and students with different backgrounds, different ideas, and skill levels; after all, the more eyes reading your work the better.

MB: As a writer, who have you been influenced by? What single short story best defines the genre for you, and why? Conversely, are there any writers whose work you’ve never been able to connect with, even though you admire it?

DS: I think I’m influenced in some capacity by everyone I’ve read. Most of my influences are novel writers—Céline, Dostoevsky, Nabokov, Malamud, to name a few—and that is probably why I have a problem writing truly short stories. Of course there are the big guns: Chekhov, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Maupassant, the list goes on; but I feel I’ve learned a great deal from the stories of Bellow, Fante, Goyen, and most recently Richard Yates and Patrick McCabe.

Though I hadn’t mentioned her, one of the short stories that best defines the genre for me is a story called “Bones of the Inner Ear” by Kiana Davenport. It is a story so rich with language, a sense of place, loving and loathing, family legacy—it is simply a truly visceral experience every time I read it, and it is all wrapped up in eleven pages. There are plenty of other stories that might better define the genre (e.g. Hills like White Elephants, The Lady with the Little Dog, Babylon Revisited) but this story always stays with me.

Hmmm…I guess I’d have to say that I’m not sure how much I really connect with most of the POMO writers, though I have read and reread David Foster Wallace, Pynchon, and Safran Foer, and enjoyed their works very much. There seem to be elements of the zany for zany’s sake, more cheeky than clever puzzle box writing in that genre that I feel isolates and/or distances readers unnecessarily. That’s not to say that I don’t recognize and respect its place in the fiction world. I just don’t connect as well with that type of writing.

MB: Finally, since the fiction section of BOR is still in the works, tell me which two poems you like best in the issue thus far, and why you were struck by them.

DS: That’s a tough question. There are so many excellent poems to choose from. I really enjoy both poems by Nin Andrews for their sad sense of place and their simple truth telling. I am also partial to Clay Matthews’s “Self-Portrait as an Aging Human Type” simply because I can relate, though I don’t search for old classmates on the internet. In fact, if I see old classmates I usually duck into the nearest store or alley. I remember nearly getting beaten up by two brothers after trying to avoid an old friend by pretending to get into the nearest car; their car. The commotion drew this friend’s attention and cost me an hour of, “So how’ve you been…” conversation. Anyway, in danger of following the pack, I found Corey Mesler’s “It was a Test was What they Told Us”, though (and maybe because) it leaves me asking so many questions, to be an excellent achievement in minimalist story telling. Fiction is my bag after all, and for that reason (though not solely) Nin Andrews’s “Youngstown, OH” and “The Years the Mills Closed” are at the top of my list. Notions of work and the deceit inherent in the American Dream have always been of great interest to me in both my reading (pleasure and scholarly) and my writing.


Thanks, Mary, for sharing our time. I hope I haven’t rambled too much. Thanks to my fellow editors for the opportunity to be a part of this project, and thank you to all of our contributors. This is sure to be one hell of a journal. See you in New York.

8 comments:

Hem said...

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Fayfay said...

Do you have a current email for Dawson, or a way I can get in contact with him? he's a former professor of mine and I'd like to say 'Hello'. Email me at scribbleandrepeat @ gmail.com, if you're at all able. Thank you! ~Fay

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