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Steve Weddle Interviewed By Tim Hennessy

steveweddle (1)Steve Weddle Interview
By Tim Hennessy

Steve Weddle’s debut novel-in-stories Country Hardball revolves around a small Arkansas community’s struggles, heartbreak and secrets. It’s a truly exceptional collection of stories that mixes working class tragedy with elements of the crime genre and if that’s your literary sweet spot, you’re in for a fantastic read. In addition to working for a newspaper group, Steve edits Needle: A Magazine of Noir, blogs at Do Some Damage and teaches online classes at LitReactor.

Tim Hennessy: What gave you the inkling to try writing fiction? Was there a piece of writing that really excited you? Were you successful with your first attempt at a short story that made you want to go back?

Steve Weddle: I went to LSU to study poetry. While working on my MFA, I took a fiction class with Vance Bourjaily and started working out some story ideas, some ways of developing characters with bits of language and images. The rhythms started to carry over into prose. The dialogue in “Hills Like White Elephants” and the quiet moments in Raymond Carver started to come together for me, I guess, and I got more and more interested in fiction. Also, with poems you tend to have so much weigh up the “meaning” of the piece. I got kinda fed up with that nonsense, too, this expectation that you have to carve out the meaning of a thing in twenty lines and thumbtack it up on the wall. To me, that was too limiting, too diminishing.

TH: As you were beginning to find your way as a writer what were some of the bumpy paths you took with your work that got you where you are today?

SW: Bad deals? Early submissions? I don’t know. Mostly, I think I’ve done a great deal of trying to figure out how to build a character, how to make a story. There’s a Lemonheads song that says someone is the “puzzle piece behind the couch that made the sky complete.” I think that’s a wonderful idea. But, as I writer, I found myself coming across all these pieces on the tables in the basement. I’d find a string of dialogue in a grocery store. I’d think of a different twist to an episode of something on the television. So all these pieces would be piling up, and I wouldn’t have the front of the box for the puzzle, you know? I wouldn’t know what the thing was supposed to look like. So I’d just have these puzzle pieces and try to fit them into what I thought the puzzle looked like. A landscape. A domestic mystery, I had pieces, but no clear picture of what the overall puzzle looked like when completed. Heck, I think I’m still doing that, trying to look for pieces that fit together, maybe looking for an edge and I can start from so I can start working my way into the heart of the thing.

TH: You studied poetry, created a crime journal, and have a short story collection that involves as much working class tragedy as it does baseball. As you were developing the stories in this collection did you allow yourself the chance to explore different directions or were you making conscious choices that would accommodate a larger narrative?

SW: Thanks for asking that, because that’s a good question. It gives me the opportunity to sound smart, to make it seem as if I knew what I was doing. But I didn’t’. Heck, I don’t. I went down so many different directions, as you put it. I just didn’t know they were bad directions. Sometimes I’d be working on a story, like one of the Roy Alison pieces, and I’d realize that I ended up in the wrong place. I’d get to the end and realize that I needed to be way over there, you know? Like I could see across the field and know that I’d taken a wrong turn, had headed in the wrong direction. I just couldn’t always figure out where I went wrong. I was Bugs Bunny who should have turned left in Albuquerque. So I’d have to start the story over, once I’d figured out where I wanted to be. The roads wouldn’t meet up, you know, based on the directions I’d gone. So I ended up with quite a few stories that had to be tossed aside, forgotten.

In fact, Country Hardball has a few stories that don’t tie in to the greater narrative of the plot or the characters, but serve to develop the setting a little more, the character of the place more than the protagonists. That was important to me. I was less interested in chasing down the MacGuffin than I was in developing the community.

TH: You mentioned Carver and Hemingway and I know that you’re a fan of narrative poets like Andrew Hudgins, and that brings to mind one the fascinating elements of this collection – the way you use space, not just on the page but with narrative itself. Characters are given room to talk without long narrative passages getting in the way. Connections between characters aren’t always implicitly drawn, but everything is a part of a larger mosaic. Obviously, short story writers and poets whose economy of language has had an influence on your work, how did you find a balance between those influences and a style you were comfortable writing in? What did it take for you to have confidence in your craft and tastes in storytelling?

weddleSW: While I enjoy “style” in other writers, I don’t pay much attention to it while I’m writing. That makes sense, I suppose, as it needs to be muscle memory. In his first 120 or so major league at-bats, Ichiro Suzuki swung and missed something like twice. He had foul balls and ground outs and base hits, sure, but he rarely missed. He was in that groove where you don’t give it too much thought. If you start thinking about the amount of pressure you put on your front foot, on turning over your hands as you swing through the pitch, then your focus is on all the wrong things. That has to come naturally. Of course, it comes from years in the batting cage, from watching tapes, and so on.
For me, Hemingway and Carver and Beattie have been major influences on my writing, but so have the stories I’ve been handed by friends and family. And not just the words, but the way they lean in from the couch on a certain part when the story gets really good, the way an eyebrow is raised when I’m a kid hearing the story and the grown-ups are supposed to catch something on a different level.
The balance comes, when it comes, from giving all of that my full attention before I step into the batter’s box and face live pitching.
Whatever confidence I have, if you can call it that, is really more what you might call a “reckless abandon.” I’d written some mystery novels that never quite worked because I was trying to force something that wasn’t natural for me. While I was writing the stories that became Country Hardball, I realized that the literary world would be just fine without me. Good lord, that sounds stupid to say, but I hope it makes sense. I don’t have to sell this novel. I don’t have to write a certain kind of book. I don’t have to fit this into any space on anyone else’s shelf, you know? I just have to put these words together how I want. If there’s a rhythm in a sentence that works better by dropping the coordinating conjunction, then rock on. See, that’s a good example. If I’m writing a story and think “coordinating conjunction” then I’m in a world of hurt. I’m thrown clear out of the story. Then I have to get up, brew another cup of coffee, and let everything settle back down.
I think the confidence comes also from having smart friends, clever readers who know when to keep criticisms to themselves and when to let me hear them. There’s a heck of a skill to being a good beta reader. You have to be able to give the writer enough to keep him going, while also being able to steer him clear of dead-ends. Of course, that’s a completely different question, isn’t it? Still, being blessed with great friends who are brilliant readers — and an amazing reader in an agent I don’t deserve — is a bigger help that I have words for.
If I can be at all helpful to anyone who might be struggling with finding confidence, let me just say that, in my limited experience, I found it much easier to write when I realized that no one cared whether I wrote anything. No one was waiting at the door for this story. Everything was up to me. That was freeing.

TH: I really enjoyed the relationship between Roy and his grandmother and the tension that was underneath the love and pain shared between them.

History and family play big roles throughout Country Hardball. As I’ve read, you’ve said that these characters are as much elements of your neighbors as they are parts of yourself.

In giving such empathy and attention to character what do you look for in your characters?

SW: I look for people instead of characters. You know how you get that line about someone in a movie or novel, that part where they tell you sex and job? “Kate is a woman in her mid-30s who works as a nurse.” OK. What does that tell you? I think most of the time you try to get into the heads of these characters in terms of motivation. Why would she investigate the murder? Why wouldn’t she just call the police? That sort of thing. Knowing the characters’ motivations so that you can cleanly move the plot along. Well, in my writing, I don’t care about moving the plot along. I mean, that’s great for some writers and books. I dig some books like that. I don’t mean to diminish that skill. I don’t have it. What interests me, though, isn’t so much what’s at stake for Kate in terms of finding the MacGuffin, but, especially in Country Hardball, I’m interested in understanding these people between the stuff they do, you know? The quiet points, the blank spaces. I want the reader to understand the people so much that when Kate is doing this thing, whatever it is, you know how painful it is for her to do, but how she couldn’t do anything else. How she has to do this thing and how it tears her up inside. I’m not as interested as much in the thing she does as I am in what it does to her.
In the book there’s a story called “All Star” about a boy moved from catcher to shortstop in a game because the coaches want to see if he can play short. I wrote that first as a poem 20 years back. I wrote it from the son’s perspective, because that’s who I was. I came back to that a couple years back, now seeing it through the father’s eyes, seeing what it would mean to a parent. When I’m making a character, maybe I start with something I’ve thought about, some shard that’s gotten caught in my heart that I need to work loose, but pretty quickly the people start existing on their own. I start with that connection to the person in the story, the people in “All Star,” but they do things and say things and feel things within the confines of that world and it’s up to me to show that to reader, to bring the reader along to understand these people, too.

TH: Have you had any conflicts from people drawing parallels between the colorful fictional families in your collection and your own?

SW: Not that I know of. My family’s been supportive through everything I’ve ever done, and this is no different. Of course, ask me again after next year’s family reunion.

circus_elephantTH: In “Good Times Gone” a circus elephant buried near the supermarket where the story’s protagonist works plays an important role in the story. The elephant is such a striking image, where did the idea originate? What came first, the metaphor or the story that’s built around it?

SW: The elephant really happened, at least the coming to town and dying parts. I was a teenager and remember the larger brush strokes of the event. Having a circus elephant die in your Piggly Wiggly parking lot is kind of a big deal. I tried to deal with it in a poem I called “The Circus Comes to Milltown.” In that poem, a little boy sees the bearded lady, watches pretty girls talk to boys, and gets angry with the elephant for dying. I’ve written worse poems, I’m sure.

So, in that sense, the story itself shares an origin with “All Star” in that each story began decades ago as a poem. And like that one, this story needed levels I wasn’t capable of, layers I couldn’t understand back then. In the poem, the boy is angry because, he says, the town needed something better than a dead elephant. For the poem, dead elephant equals dead town, dead hope. It was a one-to-one relationship.

But it’s more complicated than that, isn’t it? You have the broad brush strokes, sure. But the elephant — the absurd, laughable, heart-breaking death of that elephant — demanded so much more than the vague notions I’d had in that poem.

I started “Good Times Gone” with the elephant, with the guy working at the Piggly Wiggly, and with the line from the Van Halen song that gives the story its title. The elephant became part of the story, part of the fabric of what was going on to the main character of the story, Clint. He’s seeing these things collapse around him. If I were writing it as a poem, I guess I’d draw parallels with the collapse of the circus tent. But that’s too neat. The elements in the story developed to the point at which they sort of layered into each other, if that makes sense.

In a class I had on semantics, the professor stood at the front of the room, pointed to his coffee cup, and asked us what he was trying to signify. People guessed that he meant cup, of course. Some said “white,” for the color of the cup. Others guessed that he meant hot. A long list of things that were wrong. He said he’d meant “empty.” The one thing, signifying many. Objects in stories are like that, too. If you’re trying to make a thing carry some poetic meaning, you’re probably doing it wrong. At least I was.

So, I certainly didn’t start with a metaphor. I wasn’t interested this time around in making meaning out of a thing. I was more interested in understanding it for myself, in looking into the people there and working my way through their lives. I’m not trying to provide any grand answers. I think the point of fiction is to ask the question.

TH: I understand you’re working on a novel now and it carries Roy Alison’s family. What challenges have you encountered now that you have less of a compressed narrative to work within? Does the effort with this work feel different than the previous attempts you’ve made at writing a novel?

SW: Don’t tell my agent, but this next book could take me a decade to write. You know those people you hear about who have a book come out and there’s that tagline to their name that says “whose last book came out 12 years ago”? I get the feeling that’s going to be me. That is, of course, if anyone gives a darn at that point.

The challenges with the narrative are really some pretty amazing opportunities. I can weave in threads in much different way. Country Hardball is kind of a quilt, with all the pieces forming a whole. If you’ve ever seen a good quilt, the artistic kind, then you’ve seen how each square exists on its own, but can also have a motif you find in the whole.
This novel is more threads than squares. Maybe it’s an afghan instead of a quilt. I realize that I’m belaboring the comparison to the point of uselessness, but it’s important to me to understand how the pieces fit together.
Country Hardball is, in a sense, a collection of small projects. Today I’m going to clean the living room. Tomorrow I’ll do the dishes and mop the kitchen. You can handle that, as long as you’re not faced with having to clean the whole house at once. Good lord, why are my metaphors so domestic? Quilts and housecleaning? Let’s get back to baseball. You know that cliché they all tell you about taking one game at a time, one at-bat, one pitch? It’s like that. You can’t think about 162 games in March. So, yeah. The narrative is less compressed, in a sense. But each person in the new book still has his or her own story. The woman caring for Franklin Rudd. The boys in 1933 Arkansas hiding the community’s pigs from the taxman. This book wants to be one of those in which each of the first half-dozen chapters belongs to a different person, then you get back to those people in order and eventually you see how their stories meet up. I’m about two months from having to start an Excel spreadsheet.
The mystery novels I wrote were first-person, so that kept things limited, which is good and bad. Here, with everything in third, the whole world is opened up for me. I have time to figure it out, though.
Country Hardball was a one-book deal. I’m not under contract for anything, so I’m essentially back to the point where no one cares about what I’m writing, where no one is waiting for me to deliver a manuscript.

TH: Baseball plays a big role in Country Hardball, were you an athlete growing up? Is there a team you follow?

SW: I grew up in a small town and went to a small school. My graduating class was about two dozen, so I played all the sports. I started playing catcher in Little League because no one else wanted to. So I’d stand up next to the coach in practice while he hit grounders and fly ball to the rest of the team. He’d talk to me about different players, how Frankie needed to pull his head out of his tail. He’d wait until Frankie was looking somewhere else, then hit a quick grounder out him. I’d watch the middle infielders mess up their assignments trying to cover second on a steal. Catcher was the perfect position for someone who wants to be involved, but at a distance – someone who wants to see everything develop. I played football up through the ninth grade, and standing on the sidelines for the entire game was somewhat similar.
I played high school basketball, starting every year. Like I said, it was a small school. One of the things that has stuck with me, that many people don’t talk about, is the long bus rides to and from games. You’re sitting there on this school bus for hours, with a book or a Walkman to keep you company. I remember walking around at a track meet and having a copy of some sci-fi novel in my back pocket. I remember two girls laughing at me for having a book in my pocket, asking me over and over if that was a book. I probably should have been traumatized by that, I suppose, but I remember thinking, “OK. Guess you’re not my people.” So, even as an athlete, if you want to call it that, I was still removed. Which I think is good. I could say something about how authors are best when they observe and that you have to be at a distance to observe. But I think we’re all at a distance from each other, you know? We all have these points where we feel like we don’t belong, these moments where we’re waiting to be discovered as outsiders.
Playing sports as a kid was great for so many reasons. I was able to fail spectacularly and in public. The time clicking away on the scoreboard and the bounce pass to you because you’re open and all you have to do is draw the foul or make that layup and you clang it off the rim and your team loses by one. It’s terrible at the time, of course. The world ends. Everyone hates you. “Jesus, Weddle,” says the coach, the only one to talk to you at all. The long ride home. The Psychedelic Furs in your ears, as loud as they’ll go. Your parents asking how the game was. You tell them it was fine, but you lost by a point. “Oh, that’s too bad,” they say. And you say, yeah, it’s too bad. Then that fades away. Because everything does. The bad and the good. You just get through it, you know? Couple months later you make a no-hop throw from the wall in right field to the catcher, who tags out the would-be tying run in the bottom of the ninth and everyone on your team whoops and throws their caps and mobs you as you trot in across the infield. And that fades away. Because everything does.
So you live in the moment, knowing that there’s bad and good for everyone. And eventually you see someone else miss that same shot and you know to go up to that person and say something about how the refs should have called a foul or how if Chris would have made his free throws earlier, it wouldn’t have come down to the last second. And maybe that helps a little. We share that.
Which brings us back to the second part of your question.
My wife and I are Nationals fans, since we live in Virginia now. I wasn’t an Expos fan, but when the team moved to DC, they became our team. From Cristian Guzman to Bryce Harper, we’ve been pulling for them. You want to talk about taking the good with the bad, just look at the past two seasons for the Nats. Of course, it’s a whole new world when Spring Training kicks in for 2014.

TH: You’ve been editing Needle: A Magazine of Noir since 2010 how has being on the editing side influenced your writing?

SW: Editing the magazine has shown me how much talent there is out there, how many great storytellers are just out there, sending out their stories day after day. It’s also shown me how a story can be hitting on all cylinders, with everything heating up, and suddenly you’ve got this vapor lock in the story. And it just stalls out. Maybe a character does something out of character or there’s some dialogue that just pulls you right out of the story. So you have to figure out how to get in there, how to mess around with the fuel line, the carburetor, the float chamber. The problem might not be obvious, but it’s just this one little thing that keeps the whole story from finishing cleanly. Often, that’s near the end of the story. I’m hoping that reading instances of that has helped me better structure my own stories.
When I taught college English, I eventually got to the point where I could see the trees and the forest in the papers students wrote. You get to where you can see things being set up and you get an idea of what to expect, what’s at stake. And you have a better sense of whether the writer was able to pull it off, and whether it was worth it. Being able to read as a reader and an editor at the same time is tough, same with reading as a reader and professor. You want to be immersed in the piece, but you also want to see how the pieces work together. Newspaper editor is another job demanding that. So editing the writing of others has helped me keep an eye out for what’s under the hood, you know? Also, reading stories five or six times makes me work that much harder to make sure my stories hold up to multiple readings.

TH: Obviously, a positive review doesn’t guarantee your book the financial success or audience it so rightly deserves even if it is validating, but when the New York Times reviews your book and says, “Steve Weddle’s writing is downright dazzling” how do you spend the rest of the day?

SW: Thank you. Yeah, that’s some amazing validation, right there, ain’t it? Here’s the thing, though. You work night and day on the book, sending it off to readers, as I mentioned earlier. And they’re amazing and so insightful. And your agent helps you through points, helps you see things you could never work out on your own. And then the super-bright publisher has some thoughts. And the clever editor you work with has questions, so you dive back in to clear up some points. And then the line editors go at it. And the publicist gets the book into the right hands, doing things you could never do on your own, understanding worlds you didn’t know existed. And all these people have worked so hard on your behalf. And then after all that work, one day the New York Times says something amazing about the book. And it’s glorious and fireworky, but you know how many people worked to get that praise for the book, how many people it took to get that done on your behalf, how many people don’t get their names mentioned, and you know you’ll never be able to thank everyone enough, Stacia and Ben and Ashley and Bethany and everyone. And then as soon as the news breaks, the email and direct message channels are flooded with so many friends saying how thrilled they are for you, how great it is that “one of us” made it. And then you’re happy that they’re happy, that this thing you started scrawling into a notebook years back has somehow made people happy, even for a little bit. Then you get overwhelmed and start sniffling and tearing up like an idiot.

TH: If you could talk to a younger version of yourself just beginning to write seriously, what advice would you share.

SW: First, thanks to you, sir, for taking the time and going to the effort to put up with my nonsense, I appreciate the smart questions.

Now, what would I tell Young Writer Me? I’d tell him to take his time, to make all the mistakes he has to make. I’d want him to go down all the wrong paths, because somehow that’s how we ended up here. There’s a song from the Avett Brothers with a line about not changing the past, because “all my mistakes brought me to you.” Or maybe I wouldn’t give him any advice, wouldn’t want to have a chat with him. Maybe, once he saw me, he’d be worried that he wouldn’t age well.
I’d be sure to slip him some books, though. Get him some Ann Beattie a little earlier, maybe.
I’d slip him contact information for the woman I married, suggest he find her sooner.
Fiber, I’d tell him to eat more fiber. Good lord. I’d tell him that.
And I’d say be careful not to do interviews that make you sound like a doofus, complaining about mean girls at track meets and making all your metaphors about house cleaning. I’d say it from my big, loud motorcycle, like the one I’m on right now, on my way to kill some grizzlies and get a neck tattoo.