Alabama Steve (Sundress Publications, 2014; Destructible Heart Press, 2008)
What are the advantages and disadvantages of publishing an online chapbook?
There are plenty of advantages to publishing a book online. For one thing, the wait time between acceptance and publication is usually much shorter; there’s not nearly as much editorial backlog and the production timeline is simpler when you don’t have to worry about printing budgets, distribution, etc. Online publications are also universally accessible, so there’s the possibility of a wider readership. That said, there’s still a vague stigma surrounding digital publication–the impression that it’s not a “real book,” that if it’s free it must not be very good. While I too romanticize (perhaps even fetishize) physical books, there’s no denying the shift towards digital publishing. I think people are getting increasingly comfortable with it.
What’s the best writing or publishing advice you’ve ever gotten?
An undergrad writing teacher told me, “Your only job is to not give the reader an excuse to stop reading, to get them from the upper left-hand corner to the lower right-hand corner of the paper.” Makes it sound so simple, huh? I think about this whenever I’m feeling blocked: it’s not that I have to be brilliant; I just have to move the reader from here to there in a not-totally-sucky way.
What’s the worst?
When I told a visiting poet that I had gotten in the habit of writing a poem every day, he told me to “stop raping the muse” (!) Then again, I used that line in a poem, so, in retrospect, I’m glad he said it.
Does what you read as you’re working on a project influence your writing?
Usually, what I’m reading doesn’t affect my current project too much, though it occasionally sparks a new project. Movies and music, I’ve learned, definitely affect my writing in a very immediate way, so I have to be careful about what I’m watching and listening to when I’m really working on something. If I watch a film noir, that noir aesthetic is going to creep in to the very next thing I write. If I’m listening to Scissor Sisters, I know my writing’s going to get more campy & exuberant. This is probably a big reason why my poems are full of pop cultural references–particularly in regards to film and music.
Did you have a particular writing process for Alabama Steve?
The titular character came to me in a dream during a period where I was writing a lot of prose poetry and flash fiction. I dreamed about this “Alabama Steve” character for about three weeks straight, but he kept showing up in various guises, and I kept writing about him. The process was actually very collaborative. My longtime writing partner Adam Theriault and I started imagining the book as an “ambitious narrator who keeps getting drawn into a world of Steves and Steve-ness.” From there, we had a lot of fun teasing out the narrative and creating a Panopoly of Steves. The original publisher, Adam Rubinstein, had a big hand in shaping the book as well. We all just got super obsessed with the idea of Steve.
In a previous interview, you said that this was the work you were the most proud of. Is this still true? You said you like it because of the mythos surrounding its creation. Could you tell us more about this mythos that brought it about?
It’s not true today. Today I’m most proud of the book I just finished, Hothouse. I guess that’s pretty natural, but I’m still a big fan of Alabama Steve. I talked a bit about the mythos of the book’s creation above, but it was just this really exciting and productive time right after I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl got accepted. I had the momentum to keep working and was still having all these weird dreams, but I wanted to do something more fun and freewheeling, something less compressed and haunted. So Alabama Steve became the conduit for all of that, and I was really lucky to have all these people around who were equally invested in the mythos of Steve. We did this big guerilla marketing campaign where we created fake Myspace, Facebook, and OkCupid profiles for the main characters. We even created a fake geocities website for Stephen Brownblatt’s 2003 workshop, Poetry Ship: Manning the Craft (!)
Where did the cover art for this chapbook come from? What was it inspired by?
Sundress Press designed the cover art for the e-chap. The original print cover was green with a praying mantis in the middle of it. I wanted the design of the e-chap to call back to that, so I’m happy they included a mantis. The mantis is a reference to one of the book’s few recurring non-Steve characters, Alejandro the Giant Mantis (who later becomes a flight attendant).
We were intrigued by the Introduction. We initially assumed it was just going to talk about you, your writing, and how this story came about. Instead, it appears to be part of the story—an in-depth look at the character of “Steve” from his point of view. What made you decide to introduce the story this way?
The “introduction” was another thing that grew out of the collaboration between me and the two Adams after the chapbook had already been accepted. It’s purportedly written by Writer-in-Residence Stephen Brownblatt, who is one of the recurring Steve characters (not to be confused with Alabama Steve). I think a lot of people skip over it thinking it’s just some boring introduction, and that’s unfortunate because I think it’s one of the funniest parts of the book. And then there are the people who just don’t get it–I remember going home one Christmas and having my aunt tell me in all earnestness how sweet it was of my former writing professor to write such a thoughtful introduction for me. I think I choked on my eggnog. In any case, I think the introduction–despite being more of a spoof–does actually help bring readers into the surreal world of the book by immediately blurring the line between reality and fiction. It characterizes Brownblatt and actually unpacks a lot of the idea of Steve-ness, albeit in Brownblatt’s ridiculously prolix and pompous way.
You have some particularly fascinating chapter titles in Alabama Steve. Do you typically begin a chapter with a title, or do you write the chapter first and add the title once it’s written?
I don’t really think of the pieces as chapters; I think of them more as interlinking parts in a flash fiction series. Titles are really, really important to me (all of my students can vouch for that one!), so I spend a lot of time thinking about them. But there’s no real consistency in terms of when I title things. Sometimes the title is the first thing I think of. Other times it comes later in the process. In any case, I don’t believe you really know what a piece wants to be until it has the right title.
How/why did you decide to italicize certain words within the stories?
Ha, yeah, this was one of the things I actually argued with my publisher about. They initially wanted to strip out most of the italics, slang, and vocal tics. I think they thought that I didn’t know any better (maybe because of my performance background), but I finally convinced them that it was an informed aesthetic choice. I did, however, eventually agree to tone it down with the italics, which was probably a good choice. As it is, Alan Bajandas described the narrator as “an excitable gay 12 year-old gangster trying to mingle at the National Book Awards.” I think that’s along the lines of what I was going for with the diction and italics.
Are any of the more realistic passages based on your life, or the lives of people you’ve met? Are any of them metaphors for real-life situations? Is Steve based on any real people?
This is the least autobiographical book I’ve written, but yes, some of the characters are inspired by real people: Stephen Brownblatt is a caricaturized version of one of my early writing professors and Alabama Steve is a mash-up of men I was around growing up in the south: hipster, hippie, and redneck somehow rolled into one. And, yes, I do think that many of the scenarios in the book can be read pretty clearly as metaphors for my anxieties about being a young woman in academia.
Some of these stories make sense as dreams. Was that a connection you intended to make?
Yes, but I wanted to foist the reader into the world of dream logic without ever acknowledging the dream as such.
Are these stories arranged chronologically, or organized in some other way?
Yes, there’s a loose chronology here that follows the trajectory of the narrator’s “relationship” with Alabama Steve from their initial encounter with all the “neighborhood kids,” on through college and grad school, to the ending where both are transformed into hybrid fictional characters. However, I don’t think the book has any sort of traditional plot. I tend to look at the beginnings and endings of pieces to see how they “speak” to one another when I’m trying to arrange them. Then I edit some more to highlight specific themes, motifs, and narrative threads that I discovered during the ordering process.
How do you know when you’ve finished a piece? Is it done once you’ve reached a certain word count, or do you have some other guideline for determining this?
That would be awesome if I could tell a piece was done when it reached a certain word count, but alas! I think knowing when and how to end is something that comes with practice. It takes a certain amount of confidence to “end” a piece. So many things can go wrong! You don’t want the “emergency escape hatch” ending, but you also don’t want a Big Red Bow ending. A well-written piece will usually “tell” you how to end it if you’re willing to listen and get out of its way. If I’m having trouble with the ending, it’s usually an indication of a deeper structural problem with the piece, so instead of trying to “fix” the end, I’ll start revising again at the top.
Karyna McGlynn is the author of I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl, Scorpionica, and Alabama Steve. Her poems have recently appeared in The Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, Black Warrior Review, AGNI and Witness. Karyna received her MFA from the University of Michigan and her PhD from the University of Houston, where she was the Managing Editor of Gulf Coast. She is currently the Diane Middlebrook Poetry Fellow at the University of Wisconsin and the Senior Poetry Editor for Devil’s Lake.