Tag Archives: Stephen J. West

11.1 | Interview

Julia Grunes

An Interview With Stephen J. West

Stephen J. West is the author of Soft-Boiled: An Investigation of Masculinity & The Writer’s Life, a book-length essay published by Kelson Books in July of 2022. In describing West’s book, Lucas Mann, author of Captive Audience, perhaps says it best. He writes, “In tackling a subject as ever-present and fraught as masculinity, it’s easy for writers to retreat to the two poles of the conversation: romance or ridicule. All the more remarkable, then, that Stephen J. West dances around that trap, with prose that is wry and funny and skeptical, but also deeply heartfelt and true. Soft-Boiled leaves no stone unturned in its investigation of this unified myth of American manhood, and West is a smart, fun, kind-hearted investigator, willing—like Frank Streets, the enigma at the book’s center—to let us ride along and see what happens next.” In addition to Soft-Boiled, West’s work can be seen in Brevity, Ninth Letter, PANK, and more. He is also the curator of the Undead Darlings broadside series. He currently lives in Rochester, NY, where he is a visiting assistant professor of English at St. John Fisher College.

Gandy Dancer: Soft-Boiled: An Investigation of Masculinity & The Writer’s Life is a book-length essay that encourages leaning into discomfort, and your narrator leads by example from the beginning, defining himself as someone who “blushes over [his] immense privilege” as a straight, white man. Was this vulnerability and self-awareness in your writing something that you struggled to reach, and if so, how did you manage to find this authorial voice?

Stephen J. West: My comfort zone as a writer has always skewed toward self-consciousness and wide-openness on the page. I think this is part of the reason that as a teenager and college student at SUNY Geneseo, I didn’t feel fully comfortable writing poetry and fiction even as I felt a strong desire to write. I hadn’t really heard about creative nonfiction at that time, and felt a little lost without a “home” genre. I mean, how can someone call themselves a writer if they don’t have a form they are comfortable writing? I would fill notebooks with ideas I had for stories, outlining plots and character conflicts, thinking through metaphor and meaning, and really all of the “ideas” of writing without any of the art.

After I graduated from Geneseo, I went to graduate school for a PhD in English at the University of Iowa. But really the main reason I applied was because of the reputation of their fiction and poetry programs. I think it was a bit of luck that I discovered the Nonfiction Writing Program at Iowa. I was able to take grad workshops in CNF and learn about the essay and, voila! I found a form that fit my instinct for self-consciousness and thinking aloud on the page. I’ve been leaning into it ever since.

GD: Throughout Soft-Boiled, you explore the differences between Frank Streets and your narrator, between a private investigator and a writer, while also honing in on the similarities. At what point in your writing process did you start to make these connections, and how did that inform this book as one that explores masculinity and what it means to be a good man?

SJW: I’m glad you see that the book cares about the work that writers do! I had a feeling early on that the dialogue between a private investigator and an essayist could lead me to explore the ways that writers—particularly in creative nonfiction—pursue the truth of their experiences. After I graduated from Iowa, I was skeptical of how truthful CNF can ever really be. So much of the “truth” of the genre hinges on the trust of the writer-as-narrator. I was suspicious of even my own relationship to truths, how easy it is to manipulate information into outcomes and meanings that I desire as a writer—the tail wagging the dog (I’ve always hoped to find a time to use this cliché, and here we are!). So, before I even started writing the book, I knew that I was interested in using the context of private investigation as a means to explore the relationship between writer and reader—and writer and self—that is fundamental to the genre.

The masculinity part came later. I came to realize that a project aimed at questioning the core values of creative nonfiction and how it goes about presenting subjective truth could feel too academic, too impersonal, unless I aimed that scrutiny and investigation at myself. After a few encounters with Frank Streets and my awareness of how different he and I are as people—as men—I spent some time drafting meditations on my relationship to masculinity, and then the larger cultural conversation surrounding hegemonic white masculinity became necessary the further into the writing I went.

GD: A large part of the journey in your book seems to revolve around connection with place, and how for so long your narrator “forged an identity in feeling displaced” until he makes a conscious decision to accept where he came from—Western New York. Can you talk more about the way that your perspective on place has changed, and what that means for you as a writer?

SJW: I still think the book could be even more about place. One big craft question I ask in the book is: what responsibility do writers have to the peoples and places that they present in their work? And this feels even more pressing when talking about creative nonfiction, and a book like Soft-Boiled in particular that uses the lives of real people and the places they identify with as an engine for the writer’s self-investigation. Place is a vital marker of identity and culture in Appalachia, and I think writing this book helped me see how important that is to the people that live there. How that place is represented matters, and I’ve been thinking more lately about how even a region like Western New York and its displacement—are we Upstate? Sub-Canadian? Eastern Midwestern?—has meaning to the people that call it home.

GD: In your book, you tell the reader so much about yourself and your inferences about the people whom you speak to, but draw the line at telling your wife K’s story of her vision loss. In your experience, how do you know what is your story to tell and what isn’t?

SJW: I don’t really know which stories are mine to tell and which aren’t! Making inferences is one thing, but the tricky nature of assuming the experience of someone else’s trauma felt like a point worth emphasizing in the book, given the importance I wanted to place on that larger question as it relates to craft. I guess for me the interesting part is the question itself—and I know that is an evasive answer.

GD: How do you deal with the imposter syndrome that you describe feeling in your book, and has that changed since Soft-Boiled has been published?

SJW: I wish I had a good answer for how to deal with it, but I don’t. It is so common. I saw a post on social media where someone was saying, “it’s impossible for everyone to have imposter syndrome but it seems like everyone has imposter syndrome,” or something like that. And it does seem so pervasive among writers and artists. I kind of think it is a good thing? Because doesn’t it suggest you are self-critical? And shouldn’t that be good for artists and writers, especially if they are trying to capture something real and truthful about the world? It can go too far of course, but I think some self-scrutiny is a good thing.

GD: Near the end of the book, there is what seems to be a pivotal moment while you are comparing “quiet and quarantined” art in a museum to the street art that you see in Oaxaca, how that street art was “the kind you can touch.” How does the idea of having art “you can touch” inform this book and the type of artist that you are today?

SJW: Thank you for pointing to this moment! I think it has to do with authenticity. What is an authentic experience with art? I think that “quiet and quarantined art”—art that is finished, archived, respected, hallowed, etc.—feels like an exercise in historicizing. I want art that is an exercise in what is here and now, raw and unfolding.

GD: In Soft-Boiled, you discuss the importance of the mundane, of being satisfied with a “small and simple life.” What advice do you have for writers who worry that their lives aren’t interesting enough? Your narrator, for instance, says that he might have “a transcendent moment looking at the time stamp on an ATM receipt.”

SJW: I still worry that my life isn’t interesting enough. I’m convinced that it isn’t. But the essayist in me says that the mind can be just as important as the events of a life when it comes to writing, the thinking and the processing of it. You can aim your mind at just about anything, from the flickering lightbulb to the infinity of the universe, and trace that thinking on the page. How many essays might be written from a meditation on a single ATM receipt?

GD: Lastly, in addition to your writing, you are the curator of the broadside series Undead Darlings, which publishes pieces of authors’ works that did not make it to their final drafts. Can you say a bit more about this project, and what inspired you to create it?

SJW: I’ve always been interested in visual art along with writing. I proudly have a BA in studio art from the now defunct SUNY Geneseo Art Program. When I went to Iowa, I continued to take art classes and became really interested in bookbinding and letterpress printing through the University of Iowa Center for the Book. I’ve kept up with my self-education on printing techniques at Flower City Arts Center in Rochester, NY, and that’s where I work on Undead Darlings. Undead Darlings is a series of broadside editions where I collaborate with authors to come up with print editions that feature selections of text they deleted out of published books—the cuts that hurt the most for them to make. It’s been a rewarding way to use my training in printmaking, build more connections among the literary community, and make pretty material things as a result. You can see some of this work at undeaddarlings.com.

Comments Off on 11.1 | Interview

Filed under Interviews

11.1 | Book Review

Elizabeth Roos

Stephen J. West’s Soft-Boiled: An Investigation of Masculinity & the Writer’s Life: A Review

Stephen J. West’s Soft-Boiled follows the writer as he shadows the private investigator Frank Streets. Though much of the book takes place in rural West Virginia, West is a western New York native and attended SUNY Geneseo. To say the book is a memoir is a limiting description, as West also writes as a reporter, critic, and essayist—not only does he report his interactions with Frank Streets, but he also reflects upon his childhood and adolescence, his relationship with his wife, his experiences with fatherhood, and his purpose as a writer. In addition, West attempts to answer a question that many of us as writers grapple with: why do we write? And what does it mean to be an artist?

West’s title, Soft-Boiled, is a pun upon the genre of hard-boiled detective fiction, which the book both analyzes and scrutinizes. Intertwined with discussions of masculinity and artistry, West takes time to talk about the purpose of “escapist reading” and cites passages from W.H. Auden. In particular, West analyzes how these “whodunits” connect back to the idea of the Self-Made Man—a concept that West interrogates in detail in his book. He compares, alongside Auden, the mystery stories such as Sherlock Holmes to the hard-boiled, “depressing” stories of The Maltese Falcon kind—a story that Auden believed to be “works of art.” However, West proposes a different conclusion: as the narrative concerning Frank Streets culminates in his arrest, West drops the fiction analysis, and begins comparing his motivation to write to his own metaphorical Maltese falcon. He begins to wish that Streets is guilty, so that his book can conclude with excitement. In the end, however, he finds himself ashamed of this fact—while also finding it ultimately inconsequential to the heart of his own story.

The Self-Made Man is a concept that is central to this book—it is one of the main ideas West seeks to understand, and it is discussed alongside other concepts such as “traditional American masculinity” and “authentic American brand of manhood.” These concepts seem to arise out of West’s questioning of his own motives: why is he writing in the first place? Very early on, West recounts an interaction between him and a writer friend, where he confesses that he is “uninteresting at a macro level” and could be described by sociologist Erving Goffman as “the one unblushing male in America.” However, West continues on about his experiences with gender theory, and writes, “Yet I blush, dear reader. I blush for my desire to matter more than my privilege. I blush for my need to make art, even when my art is not needed.” This raises an important question that is, perhaps, unanswerable—however, by the end of his book, West makes a strong attempt to answer it.

West’s analysis of masculinity majorly remains focused on himself throughout the book. However on occasion he also extends his internal discussion to the subject of his writing inspiration, the private investigator Frank Streets. As previously mentioned, West is motivated by an interest in detective fiction; it is for this reason that he chooses Frank Streets to interview and shadow while writing his elusive first book. In West’s description of his first meeting with Streets, there are numerous comparisons between the reality that West experiences and his previous knowledge of fiction: “He’s no hard-boiled private dick,” West writes, “he is a man of obtuse angles, not the stuff dreamed up in a hard-boiled novel.” However, this is not to say that Streets completely subverts West’s expectations, or that he is something beyond West’s conceptions of masculinity. In fact, West writes that Streets is a “bear of a human” and that “the room felt smaller with him in it,” all familiar descriptors for a stereotypically masculine man.

It is evident in West’s recounting of interactions with Streets that he views himself and Streets in high contrast—West, in dissatisfaction with his own masculinity, describes Streets as incredibly masculine, and himself as unfortunately feminine. This is most evident in the handshake the men share: “My hands are not small [but] grasped in Frank Streets’s calloused paw, my hand looked girlish, like he might crush every bone in it by accident.” This is perhaps one of the most common ways that West reflects upon his masculinity throughout the book. In his descriptions of the interactions he has with others, he commonly writes his actions and dialog with negative and/or demeaning descriptors. Later on, during a meal shared with Streets and others, West describes himself as the following: “I sniffled and swallowed…I squawked…I chuckled and buried my face in my soda.” I found this detail to be intriguing; instead of using neutral descriptors, West chose these—why?

Perhaps because it lends itself to the idea that West embarked upon writing this book not only as “An Investigation of Masculinity” as the subtitle says, but as an investigation of “the Writer’s Life.” Aside from his chronicling of interactions with Frank Streets, West also analyzes his relationship with his wife and his experiences with fatherhood. In his recounting of a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, to support the writing of his wife K, West laments, “that was before El and I nearly missed our flight because he wasn’t listed on my boarding pass; before I learned that a man traveling alone with an infant is more likely a human trafficker than a father…” What follows is a moving account of West struggling with his purpose in Oaxaca, his importance to his wife and child, as well as what it meant to be an artist. Following a tense conversation with K and an interaction with a street artist, West truly seems to open up to the possibility that he will never be a “writer smirking with the secrets of the world.”

It is at this point that the main ideas of the book come to a head. To be a writer has been West’s primary motivation for writing the book—a perhaps cyclic philosophy, but not one that has gone unquestioned by West. “Fuck books. Fuck art. Fuck the desire to be petty,” West writes. “Fuck all of it. I like being ordinary…Can I also be a man? Can I also be an artist?” Eventually, Frank Streets is cleared of all charges. Despite this, it appears that West has departed from his reasoning to writing about Streets. K has received a position teaching at SUNY Geneseo, and the pair have left West Virginia. West does not return to speak with Streets about his story; instead, he takes the final pages of the book to define himself. He reflects, once again, on the idea of his purpose. At the end of the exploration, West becomes content with his insecurity, and leads the reader to become content with theirs, as well.

Comments Off on 11.1 | Book Review

Filed under Reviews