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Steve Stern Interview

I call him Monday morning, June 26, 2006.

Steve sounds sleepy.

Luke: "Is this a good time to talk?"

Steve: "I'm just making some coffee."

Luke: "It's 5:50 a.m. my time."

Steve: "Wow. Where do you live?"

Luke: "Los Angeles."

Steve: "Wow. You live there."

Luke: "Yes. Is that incredible?"

Steve: "That place is an abstraction to me."

Luke: "Have you spent time here?"

Steve: "One night. I had a job interview in 1982. I went to some hotel, sat in a room with some academics. They asked me a few questions which were utterly bewildering. I spent the night in a friend's apartment and flew back, not before a drive up Sunset Strip and did a handstand on Cary Grant's handprints, back in the days when I could still do handstands."

Luke: "How do you think of LA?"

Steve: "The whole West Coast. I grew up in Tennessee and developed a phobia of traveling west of the Mississippi."

Luke: "Why the phobia?"

Steve: "I came to the Northeast about twenty years ago. I really like it up here. My girlfriend Sabrina [43 yo] is in Brooklyn. We are back and forth between upstate and down. It's the best of both worlds.

"After growing up in the South with a heat that is so debilitating in the summers, the garbagemen say, 'Throw out your dead!' in the morning, I like the fierce winters."

Luke: "Can you just stay inside or do you have to venture out to teach classes?"

Steve: "I travel between my apartment and the school [Skidmore] and that's about it, though I've become a homeowner recently."

Luke: "I am 40 years old and I have friends who tease me for using the word 'girlfriend.' How do you deal with it?"

Steve laughs. "It's a problem. I've taken to referring to her as my unplatonic sometimes domestic partner, but that's a little clumsy. At 58, it's undignified to say girlfriend. But what are you going to do? We have no plans to marry. We've been together six years now. She's an old Lefty, an underground comic artist. My association with her keeps my hipness quotient up."

Luke: "Have you been married?"

Steve: "I was married when I lived in Memphis. We split up around 1986. We were technically married a couple of years. We were together about seven."

Stern has just the one marriage and no kids.

Luke: "Are you a serial monogamist?"

Steve: "I suppose so."

We laugh.

Steve: "I'm always very faithful to the one I'm with. This last one seems to be terminal."

Luke: "How do you feel about marriage?"

Steve sighs. "It's not something I think about a lot. I married my ex-wife because she said, 'Marry me or leave.' It seemed the path of least resistance. But everything changed once we had done it. I'm not comfortable with the institutionalization of relationships. But if Sabrina wanted to do it, I'd probably do it in a heartbeat.

"She's outdoorsy. I'm not. I'm an old shut-in, an anemic, myopic diaspora type. She's a vital shiksa who drags me up mountains. I've done more globe trotting since we've been together than in all the years previous, which everyone says is good for me."

Luke: "Does she make you feel 15 years younger?"

Steve: "No. She's constantly reminding me of my age and putting me through my paces."

Luke: "Do you wear bow ties a lot?"

Steve: "Not since that [dust jacket] photo was taken. That may have been the one time in my life I put a bow tie on. It was just a clip-on. It was 1986 for Lazar Malkin Enters Heaven. In those days, I was cultivating an image. I've become less of a narcissist in my twilight years."

Luke: "How does your shiksa relate to your Jewish and Yiddish obsessions?"

Steve: "She's tolerant. She's a seeker. She's much more spiritual than I.

"When I was invited to Israel in 2004, I'd never been. It was not high on my list of priorities. Sabrina said, 'You're going. I'm going with you.' When I taught [at Bar Ilan], she came and stayed for a month and dragged me to every manner of a holy place, which I'm better for."

Luke: "Where are you and God?"

Steve laughs. "It's an on-again, off-again relationship. It depends on the time of day and my mood. I've never liked the phrase 'secular Jew' or 'cultural Jew.' I don't think there's any way of taking God out of the equation."

Luke: "Why don't you like the phrase if it is accurate?"

Steve: "I remember doing a reading in Detroit sponsored by the Arbinger Ring [sp?], all these old Jewish lefties who were guardians of Yiddishkeit. I loved being with them because they were old agent provocateurs. They were also fiercely secular and atheistic yet devoted to the culture of Yiddish and kinda Zionists yet devotees of the Yiddish literature I love and read mostly in translation. I remember them asking me, 'How do we teach our children the history and culture and heritage and the tradition exclusive of God?' My answer is, 'You can't.'

"I'm an armchair mystic. My discovery of this mystical component of Judaism I came upon in my mid-thirties. I read everything in translation that I can get my hands on.

"It's a literary endeavor with me but I reserve the right to believe that the myths are real and true even if they never happened."

Luke: "I hate to sound like a Christian, but does God play a role in your life? As a practical matter, do you not do things because you believe God does not want you to?"

Steve: "It's a tough question. It's a tricky business when you feel a strong attachment to the tradition without practicing the rituals. Where's the line between authenticity and hypocrisy? I'll wrestle with that to my grave. There is real mystery to our lives but I'm not someone who pays a lot of attention to the mitzvot. I don't know where ethics come from without some notion of the divine."

Luke: "The New York Times."

Steve laughs. "I do believe in the sacred.

"You're catching me after half a night's sleep. This periodic relationship we have, it takes me a couple of nights to get used to sleeping with somebody else in the bed. So I take heavy doses of barbiturates. I'm inarticulate but probably honest.

"This morning I was reading the Zohar as translated by Danny Matt. I resonate to this stuff in ways I'm not sure I understand. I don't read Hebrew. I don't pretend that one can approach the Jewish mystical discipline without a foundation in Biblical scholarship. I've always loved the idea of the book. The people of the book is a literal concept. The state of Israel begins when the Jews who had taken up residence for some 2,000 years in the book depart. They steal out of pages and back on to the land. It's a reason I've never been able to identify with Israel.

"I'm not sure what the stories of the Zohar mean. There's something of the mysterium tremendum in my reading of the literature. I'm a bookish guy. That's the way I connect. I'm bookish without being particularly scholarly. I have a profound emotional response to the texts. That's about as close to the sacred as I get.

"I distrust myself as I'm telling you this because I don't feel that I'm functioning on all my pistons, so I'll just continue to embarrass myself. How the hell you are going to organize this..."

Luke: "Don't worry about me. This is great. How are your Yiddish skills?"

Steve: "Halting. I have some friends in town who are a husband and wife Reform rabbi team. I used to get together with Rabbi Linda once a week to study Yiddish. She was fluent in Hebrew but it was still the blind leading the blind. It made me feel that I was approaching authenticity. I grew up in the South in a Reform synagogue. My joke is that I thought I was a Methodist until I was 35. It was so completely stripped of the accouterments of the Jewish tradition.

"I came to the Jewish tradition through books. I'd been writing stories, most of which remained unpublished. They had these Jewish elements -- characters with Jewish names. That came as a surprise to me. I did not think of myself as particularly Jewish. I had few Jewish friends. My whole frame of reference was the South. I still like to be thought of as a Southern writer though it doesn't happen very often.

"I had courses reading the standard American Jewish writers. I always had a passion for [Bernard] Malamud and Philip Roth but it wasn't like they spoke to me more deeply than the post-moderns such as John Barthe, Thomas Pynchon, or Samuel Beckett.

"There just came a time when the chords began to vibrate stronger. It's still a mystery to me.

"I got a job doing oral history interviews at a folklore center at Memphis [circa 1982] researching an old Jewish ghetto on North Main Street in Memphis. This place began to reassemble itself in my imagination and became the locus for a bunch of stories and about three books.

"This imaginative territory I wanted to live in was a homecoming. It was a completely self-contained East-European ghetto community. When I began to explore that culture, it included stories and folklore and the mystical dimension of Judaism. I had no idea that there such rich Jewish folklore and these wonderful motifs such as dybbuks and golems and lamed vavniks, tzadikim, liliths, Sitra Achra, and a whole magical dimension that informed this gritty and squalid Jewish neighborhood.

"Being seduced into this world wasn't a choice. Sometimes when I look back, I wonder, 'How did I end up in the ghetto?'

"It still seizes my imagination, even if it doesn't delight too many readers.

"I've got to let the cat in."

Luke: "What was your last sentence?"

Steve: "It was a regretful notion that if you write about the ghetto, there's a good chance the books are going to remain there. Often I think that most of my audience is dead and gone and never made it past 1944."

Luke: "Can I challenge you on that as someone who has never published a novel?"

Steve: "Sure."

Luke: "My hunch is that the noncommercial aspect of your work is not the subject you deal in but the fantastical mystical multiple-thread approach rather than having a single protagonist relentlessly going in a direction."

Steve: "That's fair enough. The Jewish content compounds..."

Luke: "It's not commercial."

Steve: "When I began writing about this stuff 25 or more years ago, it seemed fresh and nobody had much heard of the dybbuks and the golem. These things have oddly become common parlance. So many younger writers such as a Michael Shaven, Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss, are using this material and they are wildly popular. I'm not sure it is the material as how it is used.

"At the risk of sounding sour grapes, I think there's a way of taking the material out of the tradition, detaching it from that exclusive Yiddish world, and bringing it into a popular arena. If it works, more power to them. I feel responsible for keeping those motifs as anchored to as authentic environment as I can. There's a reluctance to go there for readers.

"I don't know. It's something I brood about. It's my fate. I can still wake up in the morning and wonder, 'How the hell did I get into Yiddishkeit?'

"There's a story by Malamud called 'The Man in the Drawer.' The narrator goes to Russia in the late sixties and meets a Jewish communist cabdriver who turns out to be a closet writer and wants the narrator to sneak his stories out of Russia. It turns out that his stories are steeped in Jewish ritual.

"The writer explains, 'When I think Jews, comes stories.'

"I still have friends who ask me, 'When are you going to drop this Jewish masquerade?'

"I've worn the masque so long, it seems to have become a part of my face."

Luke: "Have you had a period of your life where you were observant of Jewish law?"

Steve: "No. Never. When I started getting into Yiddishkeit, my friends worried I'd show up in sidelocks and a caftan. For a while, I thought if I'm going to explore this, why not go the whole hog?"

Luke: "Why not live it?"

Steve: "The observance is not that important. I don't disparage it. I hate fundamentalism in any form but I have a lot of respect for observant Jews. I have good friends who grew up in homes I envy, where they took for granted, not just the observance, but the heritage, in ways that I will never be able to.

"Going to Israel was a reckoning for me. How does one define oneself as a Jew."

Steve laughs. "The cat wants to be on both sides of the door simultaneously."

Luke: "Were you speaking literally or as a metaphor for your life?"

Steve: "Well..."

Luke: "You have a cat there right now?"

Steve: "Yes. Sabrina has shut herself up in her studio so she doesn't have to listen to me blathering.

"For me, the Holocaust is the end of the story."

Luke: "What do you mean?"

Steve: "The Diaspora was the story I was interested in. The Holocaust made a nice operatic climax to the arc of Diaspora Jewish history. I ignored the State of Israel as an afterthought. It was too messy, too complicated. I wondered what the hell Jews were doing in the Middle East. Then I got invited to teach at Bar Ilan [for the fall semester in 2004].

"Most of my friends in Israel were quite Orthodox. There's no question of identity in Israel [even for the secular]. A kind of identity I was not used to. I was used to the definition and baggage of the Diaspora and the suffering and the neuroses and the self-loathing and Kafka as a role model. You take that to Israel and they say, 'Drop it already. It's old. We know who we are here. We're bold. We're courageous. We're warriors. We're builders. We're all the things that you anemic bookish Jews weren't. I was humbled."

Luke: "How did your time in Israel change you?"

Steve: "My experience was stereotypical. Suddenly you're faced with the existence of a place that is an astonishment. It's miraculous. And a kind of Jew that seemed like a whole other species. Men my age who had seen so much more of life, who'd been in wars, and wrestled with all the socio-political-religious aspects of their lives till sundown every day and lived in history in a way that I hadn't, except through books. I found myself humbled and admiring but knowing I am not one of them.

"My glib line is that I went to Israel feeling insecure about my authenticity as a writer and came back insecure about my authenticity as a human being."

Luke: "Martin Buber said certain mysteries are only available to those in the dance. You've never been in the dance of the mitzvot. Yet you write a tremendous amount about that life. I'm wondering how authentic can you be if you've never practiced it?"

Steve: "I wonder about that myself. I went to New York [two weeks ago]. My friend Melvin Bukiet [the novelist] has done an anthology called Scribblers on the Roof. I participated in this reading program on the roof of the Ansche Chesed synagogue. There were the usual suspects of Jewish writers. A bunch of us went out afterwards. I was with younger writers such as Dara Horn, who I admire tremendously. She's exploring and redeeming Yiddishkeit in a way that feels very authentic despite the fact that she's coming at it through books. I feel a sense of attachment to community with her that I never had. I was talking to her about this. I don't know that she is particularly observant."

Luke: "She's moderately observant [and literate in Hebrew and Yiddish]."

Steve: "She was amused by my dilemma of conscience. It didn't seem to be an issue with her, that you enter that world by the imagination and that it is as valid a means of participating in the dance as any. I'm not so sure. I reserve the right to call myself a fraud.

"I remember meeting Chaim Potok and almost asking his permission to poach this material. He didn't know me from Adam and said essentially, 'Go for it.'

"I've had the blessing of writers I regard as super-kosher -- Chaim Potok, Cynthia Ozick, Dara Horn... Even at 58, I need the assurance of writers I do regard as authentic that I'm not just an impostor.

"I'm much more a child of Kafka than of Isaac Singer. I love his paradoxes. That he can write about hopelessness in the language of midrash, connecting his godless cosmically-paranoid vision to a sacred dimension. Nobody can do it like him. That elevates him to sainthood, if there's such a thing as a secular saint."

Luke: "What do you have against linear narrative?"

Steve laughs. "Absolutely nothing. I love linear narrative. I encourage my students at every opportunity to write a linear narrative.

"I guess I broke with my own convictions in The Angel of Forgetfulness. Most of my short stories are linear.

"I love the oral tradition and folklore and those are about as conventional as narratives can be. I know I seem to have strayed in recent years from pure cantankerousness. I'm doing it again.

"I like to play with different time frames. The book embodies a kind of timeless place. If you can connect a secular narrative to a mythic timeless element, that dissolves all times into the same.

"The book I love, a revised New Testament, is Gabriel Garcia Marquez's 100 Years of Solitude. The message is to give you what appears to be a linear narrative but turns out to be something that was already written and had existed all along. It renders historical time into a universal timelessness."

Luke: "What about the poor reader?"

Steve: "I see myself as reader-friendly. I recently published my only Holocaust story. I generally concede the ground to people who were there, such as Bruno Bettelheim. Cynthia Ozick wrote about the Holocaust. She said, 'The devil made me do it.' The devil made me do it too.

"Most of the story takes place in a boxcar where the character is trying to overcome the horror by telling a story. The narrative moves back and forth between the reality and the tale. And the tale assumes its own reality. There's a deliberate ambiguity between a real horror and an enchantment."

Luke: Some argue that a linear narrative with one protagonist battling the world to achieve something he desperately wants (and in the process having a realization) is the way the human mind best responds to stories.

Steve: "I emphatically agree. It's the thing I try to indoctrinate my students with. That storytelling is a natural function of the human and there are conventions and a design, almost in our DNA. I love that. I believe there should be entertainment and fascination in telling a story. If it doesn't happen in my stories, I regard it as a failure. I don't mean to subvert narrative. Whether what I do works or not, I will leave to my four readers to decide."

Luke: "You get such glowing reviews. How does that feel?"

Steve: "I can assure you that they don't translate into sales. I've always gotten good reviews but it doesn't help. It's pathetic to be on the dinner circuit when you'd like to be on Broadway."

Luke: "May I share my experience of reading you and perhaps eliciting a reaction?"

Steve: "Sure. I'm going to hate this but go ahead."

Luke: "I enjoy the realistic portions of your writing. I feel like I am there in the scene, but when the protagonist changes or it becomes magical, it throws me. Segments of your writing are commercial. I jump into a story and I see everything going on and then suddenly there are rabbis flying in the air and ugly old women with really bad breath."

Steve: "I don't know why I'm constitutionally inclined to fantastic events. It's a matter of taste. The literature of our time that is most honored, appreciated and read is in the realistic naturalistic tradition. That's fine. But it's not where literature began. The great classic American authors were all fabulists -- Hawthorn, Poe, Melville. It's not that as a writer you decide to write stark, gritty urban realism or fabulist or magic realist.

"Don't do that! Stop!"

Luke: "The cat?"

Steve: "Yes. He's clawing the sofa.

"I was writing stories with flying human beings before I fell into Yiddish literature, but in that literature, those boundaries are largely ignored."

Luke: "How do you think spending so much time in academia has affected your writing?"

Steve: "It's completely infantilized me, made me out of touch with real world experience, made me this mewling, puking neurotic. Otherwise...

"It's something I don't know how to measure. I've been doing it for so long. I don't love teaching. If I didn't have to do it, I'd leave it in a heartbeat. But when I do it, I work hard. I'm conscientious.

"It takes a toll. The energy you give to it is not recyclable. I hear writers talk about how 'My interaction with my students feeds my work.' It's bulls---. You give them the same energy you give to your work, but it doesn't come back.

"I guess it is a measure of my failure as a writer that I am condemned to teaching until I die."

Luke: "Are your politics left-wing and how important is that to you?"

Steve: "I'm becoming more political as I get older. Part of it has to do with suddenly discovering we are in a fascist administration. Also, I'm less of a narcissist than I used to be. The more you get out of the way, the more room you give history to pour in. Being in Israel woke me up to political realities. I take history more personally. And yeah, I think it is filtering into my writing in a way I hadn't anticipated. There's a lot more bloodshed in my work than there used to be."

Luke: "There are sections of your writing that are erotic, but the eroticism always gets killed by the arrival of some old lady with bad breath."

Steve: "It had to do with that I have never had sex. I've only read about it.

"There is a lot of coitus interruptus in my stories. I haven't examined that. I'm afraid to. There's an impulse to sabotage the experience of my characters. Often they are sabotaging themselves.

"A friend was over last night pawing the paperback of The Angel of Forgetfulness, and he was saying, 'The sex scenes really are quite good.'"

Luke: "Why do you have so many old, ugly and smelly people in your books?"

Steve: "I'm a geriatric-phile. I like old people. I've been practicing to be one for a long time.

"These are interesting questions."

Luke: "I bet you haven't been asked them before."

Steve: "I haven't. And I haven't really thought about them. In folktales, there's always a hag, a witch and a hunchback. I am fond of grotesque characters. It's a way of endowing characters with mythical accessories.

"I'd like to think I'm in line with the Southern writers I admire such as Flannery O'Connor. All of her characters are grotesque. I also think it comes from something very perverse in my own nature, but I can give it a literary rationale."

Luke: "When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?"

Steve: "An acrobat. I could walk on my hands until my mid-forties when the arthritis set in."

Luke: "What's with the flying rabbis in your work?"

Steve: "It's part of my innate hostility towards gravity. It has to do with that passage between worlds and that one can elevate oneself from the ordinary to the extraordinary. With me, there has to be an element of irony, so if you have a character who does it, it has to be an old moth-eaten rabbi who's an unlikely candidate for that sort of elevation in transcendence."

Luke: "What crowd did you hang out with in highschool?"

Steve: "I hung out with the popular crowd but I was the courtjester. I was the friendly hunchback. I did not have a great sense of self-esteem in highschool unlike the incredible confidence I radiate today. After highschool, I went from the cool crowd to the wrong crowd. There were a lot of years in the counterculture, which is a dignified way of saying drug-taking hippies. Those were the lost years of Steve Stern."

Luke: "Which years of your life were the happiest and why?"

Steve: "Oh boy. I could be really corny and say now. There's truth in it. This feels like the first truly healthy stable relationship I've been in."

Luke: "You better say that or you're going to get in trouble if she ever reads this."

Steve: "My graduate school days were a lot of fun. It was unexpected. I came off the hippie commune in Northwest Arkansas and I went over to the university in Fayetville. I'd been a hippie for a bunch of years. They were colorful years, but I wasn't doing what I wanted to do. Once I got into graduate school, I became full-throttle a reader and writer. That was euphoric. I didn't realize it at the time, but looking back it seems like an idyllic period. Those were the days when I was pals with the Clintons [from 1974-1976]. They were in the law school when I was in Arkansas. Hillary's best friend was my best friend's roommate.

"I got to know them. I played volleyball with them on Sundays. They were starry-eyed idealists. Uncorrupted."

Luke: "Have you been quoted on the Clintons?"

Steve: "I don't know. Probably not. When he was elected, I wrote a long heartfelt letter, probably the best thing I've ever written. I expected that during the inauguration, he'd take a piece of paper out of his pocket, unfold it, and say, 'As my friend Steve says...' Then I got a form letter back. I'm probably long forgotten."

Luke: "Did anything that happened during the Clinton presidency surprise you?"

Steve: "Hillary was much better in bed than I expected.

"Oh, I was very disappointed. Like everyone, I had high hopes."

Luke: "Were you surprised that Bill was a philanderer?"

Steve: "No, I wasn't surprised.

"I thought he was in love with Hillary. They were the perfect couple.

"I held such high hopes for Hillary, but things like this flag-burning bill she's trying to pass feels like such a betrayal.

"Hillary had a sense of humor. She could be ironic in a way that Bill couldn't. He was always laughing. He could tell a joke.

"I remember my last conversation with Bill. He was always earnest. When you're in his zone, you're his best friend, but as soon as he looks away, you cease to exist. I didn't feel that with Hillary.

"I remember Bill asking me, 'How's the writing going?' I earnestly told him it was going well. 'I'm writing a story about a kid who escapes the Nazis and spends the war in the trees. I'm calling it Tarzanstein.' He's nodding genuinely. Hillary was standing behind him saying, 'Why do you listen to this guy?'"

Luke: "Did you have any inkling that this was the future president of the United States?"

Steve: "There was a sense then that he had a large ambition and that he had the ability to realize his ambition. He was regarded by everybody in Arkansas as someone with a destiny. That's a phenomenon I don't think I'd ever encountered before."

Luke: "Did he feel your pain?"

Steve: "Only on the volleyball court. He was a moral compass on the volleyball court. He played with the law students, all of whom were corrupt. I think he kept them honest. They cheated like crazy."

Luke: "Was he known as a philanderer?"

Steve: "I don't think so. I had a sense that it was a solid marriage. They were newlyweds. They had just bought a house.

"There was clearly a sense that he was marking time."

We've been speaking for 100 minutes.

Luke: "Would you be willing to give Bill Clinton oral sex for keeping abortion legal?"

Steve laughs. "I have some standards. But no. I'd rather let my country die for me.

"Luke, I'm going to have to go. It was fun talking to you. I hope this is something you can use."

Afterwards, I email Steve: "What kind of sexual voltage passes through attractive women when they learn you are Steve Stern, the acclaimed novelist?"

Steve: "I tend to have the same effect on women that Joseph had on Potiphar's wife. This leads to many broken hearts all around, but hey, not my problem."

Luke: "What are your degrees? From where? Years graduated? What is the name and city and year of the highschool you graduated from?"

Steve: "Nothing very distinguished. East High School in Memphis, 1965. Rhodes College, Memphis 1970, Univ of Arkansas, 1976. A lot of dropping in and out and washing up between degrees."

I ask Alana Newhouse, Arts and Literature Editor of the Forward, why Stern has not had more commercial success.

She replies: "Ah, if only someone could figure out that mystery. I presume the decreased readership for literary fiction in general must have something to do with it, but beyond that, I'm mystified. His fiction is gorgeous and funny and smart and dirty -- in short, my ideal."