Interview with Steven Huff
by Solstice MFA Intern Jiao Fu
- What has shaped your sense of humor and what do you want to express from it?
It was Auden who said that humor is the only sane way of approaching modern life. We live in a complicated and brutal world, but it is our psyche that most of us have to protect, more so than our physical well-being. Nature didn't give us claws or large teeth or quills, but we were given a sense of humor. I think that most higher animals have it to some extent, particularly cats. But humans need it for our sanity.
- What inspired you to write the book A Pig in Paris? Why and how do you organize these short stories into three parts? Is there any correlation among the three parts? If yes, what is that?
The book is a collection of very short pieces that I wrote for public radio when I had a Saturday show in Rochester called "Fiction in Shorts." There is no particular thread running through it, except the short-short format. I expanded some of the stories to longer pieces before publication; others I changed in smaller ways.
- It seems like you have a wild imagination. (e.g.: the story “The Book Proposal from Hell”). How do you combine your imagination with reality?
For me a story creates its own reality the way a story establishes setting, time period, and so forth. One has to be consistent about it; that is, if the story is going to depart from what most of us would call reality, then the reader must be signaled to that effect very early in the piece. You can't suddenly switch to magic late in the story to find resolution.
- Many of your stories are very short. How do you make sure to express your points and ideas in a relatively small number of words and still keep the story interesting?
I didn't know that I could write such short pieces until I was given the 4- to 5-minute format on radio. Then I went back and read very short pieces by people like W. S. Merwin, Borges, and Calvino with new eyes. Character development has to happen very quickly. Action has to occur on the first page. Then too, you sometimes find that you just have to strike out in a new direction and hope that it works out--which it does sometimes. An example of that might be the story about the alcoholic clown.
- Your poetry is about “…the on-going struggle for dignity and psychic survival” and “the attempt to understand what it means to be human.” Do you intend to tell readers your understanding of life or rather attempt to let readers figure out by themselves? Why?
Yes, I suppose I do. If fiction is working, if poetry is firing on all its pistons, then I suppose the reader is learning a little more about what it means to be human, and that can be very challenging for the reader. If these genres, I mean on the literary level, were not doing that for us, then we might as well watch TV and forget it. But I think most writers are surprised when they read a review of their work and realize that there are things going on in their work that they did not realize are there.
- What is your working process when you search for, define, and describe symbolic items or beings in your writing, such as the pig?
I do not think about symbols or metaphors when I am writing first or even second drafts, and I didn't with the pig story. If I had I would have fallen over the pig. Sometimes, later, I might realize the symbolic or metaphorical possibilities in some element of a story, or maybe someone will point it out to me. Then I suppose I might revise with an eye to strengthening that element.
- What is your advice to those who want to be writers according to your “filing system”—is it better for them to keep notes or not?
I do not think that advice in itself goes very far. Most of the courage and perseverance that a writer needs comes from one's self, from seeking out the company of other writers, taking classes, reading widely and deeply, and writing. Writing is a path.
- Which genre do you personally prefer writing—poetry of fiction? Why?
I have often thought that if I had stayed with one genre, rather than dividing my energies, I would have been more successful. That is probably true. But I don't care; it's too late now, I can't choose between them. I'll have to stay married to both.
- You have stated that you have a “prejudice for the classics.” In which way or in what aspect do you think the importance of the classic novel should be treasured? What is your advice for reading and analyzing classic works?
I think that, to understand where you fit into the whole tradition of literature, you should read everything you can get your fingers on, from the Iliad to the present. Of course no one can read everything, no one can come close. But read as though you could. As for the prejudice, well, I love the classics. As for analyzing them, that is a big subject for another day.
- What do you think the key connection between the poet and reader is? If poems can’t be explained, how can the readers can understand what the poet wants to say?
I guess we write some poems with the understanding that something has to get us across the creek; that nothing will get us there but the heart’s intelligence. Language can create that kind of buoyancy, I think.
- You keep working on figuring out the question of “what it means to be human.” What is your current personal answer to this question?
Well, for me it is to keep reading and keep writing. That may sound simplistic. But with every poem or story I guess you're turning over another rock. You reach a point in life when you realize you're not going to figure it all out; and that is kind of liberating.
- Is the process of figuring out an approach to life a propellant to your career and life, or a barrier for you to move on sometimes? Are you stressed or frustrated when you come across a time when you are confused about life? If yes, what do you do?
My only approach to life that is in any way constant is reading and writing. And even with that, I think I have been on a zig-zag walk through most of my life, following my nose. Everyone gets stressed and frustrated. We're all seeking some idea of order. The Quakers have a phrase, "as the way opens," meaning they will proceed as they find the road. And that makes a great deal of sense to me.