Susan Steinberg is the author of the short-story collections The End of Free Love (2003), Hydroplane (2006), and – most recently – Spectacle (2013). She teaches in the University of San Francisco’s MFA in Writing program and holds a BFA in painting from the University of Maryland and an MFA in English from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Steinberg was the 2010 United States Artist Ziporyn Fellow in Literature. She received a Pushcart Prize in 2012 for her story “Cowboys” and helped McSweeney’s win a National Magazine Award for excellence in fiction with “To Sit, Unmoving” in 2007. Steinberg has held residencies at the Blue Mountain Center, Ledig House, the MacDowell Colony, New York University, the Vermont Studio Center, the Wurlitzer Center, and Yaddo. She served as the fiction editor for Pleiades: A Journal of New Writing from 2000 until 2006.
Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them you’re a writer. When they ask you what you write about, how do you answer?
If two nuns and a penguin approached me in a bar, I’d want to talk about other things. I’d answer their question to be nice—I’d say I write about being female—then change the subject.
Points is a blog primarily for drug and alcohol historians. What do you think this audience would find most interesting about your work?
I’ve written a lot of scenes in which drugs/alcohol are in the background, but not necessarily a large enough part of the lens to be the cause of my narrators’ unreliability. In other words, the drugs/alcohol are in the room or in the backstory, like a sort of haze, but the narrators are often removed from them, either by the passing of time or abstinence or because the drug use belongs to a secondary character. So perhaps drug and alcohol historians would find it interesting that the drugs/alcohol are often connected to the settings my narrators move through—after hour clubs, the backs of cars, Baltimore streets, memory—rather than to what the narrators have ingested in the “real-time” of the story.
What led you to write about drugs and alcohol in the first place?
I grew up in Baltimore and stayed there until I was in my mid-twenties. This is the place I always seem to write about, even when the stories are set elsewhere. Drugs were/are always in the background in Baltimore—on the streets, in the schools, in the bars, everywhere. If I’d grown up by the ocean, perhaps I’d write more about that. But in this city, it was drugs, and I was simultaneously terrified and fascinated by their pervasiveness. And when I left the city, it was in large part because of this terror/fascination.
How would you describe the way that drugs and alcohol function in your work, whether in terms of thematic concerns or the choices you make about how to craft a story? Do you think there are things that you wouldn’t be able to explore as successfully if drugs weren’t in your writing arsenal?
I don’t think I’d be able to accurately explore a lot of the moments in my stories without writing drugs/alcohol into the scenes. It’s not that I set out to tell stories about drugs or characters on drugs and those characters’ paths toward recovery, or not. That’s not the “what” of my stories. It’s more like drugs/alcohol function as props or background in some stories, as secondary conflict in others. The core conflicts in my stories are generally related to loss or grief, and in the narrators’ dealings with these conflicts, often through various transgressions, drugs/alcohol are along for the ride. Shining an occasional light on these details adds a certain tension or urgency to situations that are already fraught.
What do you personally find most interesting about how drugs and alcohol work in your writing, and where do you see that interest leading you in future projects?
I find it interesting to write about drugs and alcohol unapologetically and with no moral agenda and no irony. I guess it’s this interest that has me writing yet another story in which drugs play a part.
BONUS QUESTIONS: Let’s hope that your most recent collection Spectacle gets adapted into a major motion picture. What song do you fantasize about hearing as the credits roll?
A few months ago, I put together a playlist for Spectacle for the Largehearted Boy website. I chose a song for each story in the collection, always one I listened to when writing the story. One song I listed was Pavement’s “Gold Soundz,” and since it reminds me of Baltimore, I’ll go with that one.