This is a selfish interview on my part. I’ve been wanting to pick Steven Baird’s writer-brain since I began following his blog a couple years ago. I love his writing, his fresh, lush imagery, his exquisite word choice. I picked up his book Ordinary Handsome and then his book A Very Tall Summer. I became a groupie. My review of Ordinary Handsome is here.
So, I convinced him to answer all my questions under the pretense of a blog interview. I hope you enjoy!
1. Welcome, Steven. Thanks so much for letting me satisfy my curiosity about you and your writing. You state in your bio that you started writing at age 10. But you didn’t publish until 2015. What took you so long?
That’s a good question. I have written a lot over the years, submitted some manuscripts, did some editing work, but nothing clicked. So I focused on improving the writing, experimenting with different genres, shifting pov’s, playing with the language. I wanted to see what I could do. It took some time because I am so self-critical. I had a lot of uncertainty and self-doubt, and that can be crippling. What did I have to offer, and was it worth the reader’s time? And now, yes, I think I do have something to offer.
When I started as a kid, I was cribbing off writers I admired, unconsciously mimicking their styles, and it was a terrible hybrid. The first attempt at a novel was after I read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. Man, I dug into that… the story, the cadence, the narration, everything. And then Hemingway’s ‘The Old Man and the Sea’. And then Faulkner’s ‘The Sound & the Fury’. My writing was awful, as you can imagine, but I was so excited! It was a melange of enthusiasm and bad writing! But it was a learning experience. I was putting things down on paper! In those days, that meant typing on a portable Brother typewriter… reams of paper and gallons of White-Out, and carbon copies of everything. It took a long time to physically prepare a submittable manuscript.
Back then, I sent out almost everything to publishing houses and magazines, and collected piles of ‘unfortunately, your work doesn’t meet our criteria’ rejection slips. Stories to Reader’s Digest, Field and Stream, and, yes, even Playboy. I kept at it. They should have sent me Christmas cards, I was that persistent. I published a couple of short stories in regional magazines, and poetry and weird little vignettes. I wrote a weekly humor column for the newspaper I was working for, and that lasted ten years until I gave it up… humor is a hard gig! Eventually, I found the whole ordeal of writing-and-rejection discouraging, and stopped writing anything substantial for about five years. My confidence was shot. And then I started again, working on a novel called ‘The Penitent Thief’. It was abrasive, violent, vulgar, and I fell back into it with gusto.
Self-confidence has always been an issue with me, and I couldn’t quite come up with a tone I was happy with. I have at least a dozen or more trunk novels stored away, and probably twice that number of unfinished pieces. I was learning.
I wrote a novel called ‘Cronic’ shortly after I was married. It’s available on Amazon, and it’s an unusual, violent story of a kidnapping. Creatively, it’s a transitional novel. I really played around with the dialogue and settings, and discovered a more confident, rollicking voice. And then I wrote – after a few false starts – ‘Ordinary Handsome’. That was the one. I decided to completely rework the core concept of ‘The Penitent Thief’. My voice was calmer, and the only similarities between the two are the main character – Jimmy Wheat – and the consequences of a tragic getaway, how they spread into other people’s lives. I couldn’t have written Handsome as a younger man. I didn’t have the experience or maturity.
2. I remember the old typewriters and correction tape. I don’t think I would have had your persistence without the advent of personal computers. I’m thrilled that you kept with it. What do you enjoy most about writing? What do you dislike?
I love those moments when it all clicks… when all the elements come together. I like how it still surprises me. How those big ‘what if’ ideas take shape and add texture and dimension. Honestly, I don’t know where the ideas come from, but sometimes they’re like bursts of fireworks, real ‘wow!’ moments. I didn’t know for certain how to end Handsome until I was closing in on the ending. Then it hit me, and I wrote the last couple of thousand words in a single sitting. It’s a huge rush when it works.
What I dislike is my own uncertainty. Can this work, is there enough of a story to sustain it, do I have the chops? Beginning a new book is hard because you’re still high from the last one. You have to invest so much of yourself: time, energy, and heart. It’s sort of like trying to fall in love again, and with this stranger who smiles and then shrugs. Sometimes it works, sometimes not.
3. One of the things that impressed me about your prose is your precise word choices and rich sensory imagery. Does that come naturally or do you have to work on it? Any tips on writing prose that you’d be willing to share?
Well, I really don’t like cliches. Everything’s been said that’s going to be said, so why not find an interesting way to say it? I’m selective and patient. Does it come naturally? At this point, I think so, yes, but after years of practice. The words are the ingredients in the stew, and I want that stew to have the right flavor. I play around with a lot of flash fiction pieces. Snapshots of characters and conversations. It’s a great exercise… there’s that freedom of not having to plot or finesse. And they’re great for coming up with larger, more substantial ideas.
4. I agree completely on the freedom of flash fiction – it’s all the fun without the labor. You describe yourself as a slow writer. Tell me about your process. Do you use a particular structure? Pantser or outliner?
I guess a little of both. Before I start, I let the idea grow in my head. Think about the characters, the setting, the overall story… map it out until it gels into something workable. Sometimes it’s a particular image: A woman standing alone in a cornfield; a boy dying at the side of a road. They capture my attention and I want to see more. I don’t write outlines, but I do develop the story in my head. Sometimes it pans out, sometimes not. I make cheat sheets on the characters, phrases, the geography of the landscape. I don’t have specific endings in mind, because I want it to be natural and not tacked-on or forced. I follow my instincts, and I trust my characters to take me to there.
When I write, I edit what I’m doing after the chapter is done. Immediately. Strip it down, tighten the bolts. I don’t like to open the document the next day and see messy, rambling copy. I cut a lot of the extraneous stuff, and there is a lot. I’m merciless.
5. Another thing I enjoy about your writing is that you write with an incredibly tight point of view. The result is almost no narrative backstory. Instead, the story percolates up through the characters’ (often unreliable) memories and perceptions. Tell me about this choice and how you balance the tight pov with your readers’ need for cohesion.
Well, thank you, Diana. It’s just the way that fits me, I guess. I know the characters very well, and I like to focus on what they’re seeing and feeling. Their past is a catalyst to how they react, and it feels more fluid if it’s revealed along the way. I want the reader to share the characters’ journey, involve them in the intimacy of the story rather than handing it out in large blocks.
I’m not really a complicated writer, but I try to weave the story so everything stitches together in the end. Sometimes a little reading patience is necessary, but if the reader is engaged, I think it’s worth the trip. So I have to make it engaging… through the characters, the mood, the flow of the story. Create empathy and believability. I think I do that.
6. That reader patience definitely pays off! I noticed a common theme in character and setting in Ordinary Handsome and A Very Tall Summer. Both have characters struggling with poverty in rural settings. Tell me about this choice and how it’s meaningful to you.
I’m familiar with poverty, or at least living paycheck-to-paycheck. I grew up with it and still struggle. I’m a working-class guy. I know these people; I played with them as a kid, I’ve worked with them, I’ve gone hungry with them. It’s real stuff. There’s no pretension: this is who I am, this is what I do, this is how I survive. Those are stories I’m interested in. There’s no abstraction in being poor. There’s grit, but there are also huge dreams, huge courage.
7. The grit, dreams, and courage comes through and gripped me as a reader. Both books I’ve read have a ghostly quality or “thin grasp on reality.” This gives your books a paranormal feel, but they’re more than that. How would you characterize your books? What kind of reader would enjoy them?
I’d like to say I write literary fiction, but that sounds so fancy-pants. It’s not really supernatural or paranormal, but I’ve used those elements. I do like the concept of employing a dream-like reality, where these people have a fragile understanding of what’s going on, how they’re looking for the core of what it means. I think there’s a deep romanticism in the characters – and in me… a yearning for something better, something with a solid foundation. Literary fiction, I guess, is probably the broadest category to describe it. I hope any readers would come away with something that will stay with them for awhile, that it will be something relatable.
8. Your books do stick with a reader. I’m proof of that. Any advice for aspiring writers?
Read tons. Write tons. Believe in what you’re writing. Write what interests you, not just what’s popular or current. Learn the fundamentals: grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Don’t be afraid to fail… the more you write, the better you’ll become. Be daring!
9. What are you working on now?
It’s a fairly ambitious project titled ‘The Stone Age’. It’s set in the ’70’s, about three children growing up in Upstate New York. The title refers to a terrifying incident that happens to them that sets their childhood in stone and establishes who they become as adults. There’s love, betrayal, and a very human monster who shapes their lives. I’ve wanted to write something about childhood for a long time, about all its frailties and innocence, and how it fades into adulthood but never completely leaves. I can’t say more than that, but I think it’s going to be pretty substantial book.
10. Give us a teaser for one of your books.
This one comes from “Ordinary Handsome”. It’s a few quiet moments between the main character Jimmy and his dying wife. His confidence is badly shaken after a botched getaway, and his heart is breaking.
I kissed Arlene goodnight. The room was shrouded with blankets and black curtains. A dull 40-watt light bulb constantly shone on her night table, displaying a cluster of pill bottles and cups of stale water. Her forehead was warm, and her hair dull and fine. Her breathing was steady but shallow. The skin on her face looked too tight. And her hair smelled like black tea. I don’t remember if that was its natural smell or if it’s just a never-ending memory, a smell concocted from the drugs and the sweat of dying. I think her hair always had that smell, and it was something always uniquely Arlene. I don’t remember a time when she wasn’t dying.
I can’t tell you how much my heart broke with every goodnight kiss. I sat beside her for a few minutes each night and stroked her hair. I don’t know if she knew I was there, or even sensed it, but it calmed me. I would cup the side of her face and, though it was always damp and somehow greasy, I could feel the soft underneath-skin, the skin I caressed and kissed and marveled over. Minutes would turn to more minutes until I was afraid to leave her, afraid to stay. I don’t know that I had the courage to see her – feel her – die in my presence. I think that kind of courage was beyond me. But I would. I wanted her last physical perception to be my hand stroking her hair, with a kindness that let her know I was still amazed that she chose to be with me at all.”
Steven Baird is an author, amateur photographer, and 36-year newspaper compositor. He does not like speaking of himself in the first person. He has published three novels, including his latest, A Very Tall Summer, and has been writing since the age of 10. He is a slow writer.
Steven is a native Canadian living in southwest Virginia with his wife Angela, a horse, dog, cat, and a Neurotic Band of Chickens (their official stage name). He does not take himself as seriously as his portrait would suggest.
Link to Steven’s Amazon Page: Here
Steven’s Blog: Ordinary Handsome