Natasha Stagg: How long have you been writing?
James Steed: I started writing in 1990. I’d been doing research for a book—what I thought would be non-fiction, about life on the Rez. But when I visited a reservation and did some interviews, I realized that non-fiction was not going to tell the story I was finding. The resulting book is still unpublished, but by the time I’d gotten it finished—or at least to the point of no rewrites—I was hooked on writing itself. I got a BA in English while working on that book, and have since gotten a Masters in Secondary Ed, and another Master’s in writing.
NS: Do you write every day?
JS: I write every day. Some of this is just reflective, some is not much more than journaling and some is contributing to an ongoing project. Often I write to think through some personal issue…and often I discover that my personal issue is less personal than I thought. I mean, I find that there is a story in there. But story or not, writing is how I frame my own life, and it is how I frame the world.
NS: What are your thoughts on “writing on writing?” Ever read the advice other authors give?
JS: Well….upon retrospection I can see the truth of what they all say, but in my own head, only writing is writing. If you are reading how-to-write books, you are not sitting there hammering keys, or staring at the wall trying to envision a scene, or going for a walk while your brain tries to think of a way to get the story to its next stage. If you are unsure of your ability to write, you should be. If you sit down and write, then you are a writer. And if you discover that what you wrote is not quite right and needs to be re-written, then you are a great writer.
NS: Do you have some advice to give?
JS: Yes. Spend time on details. Stop the action and set the scene, sometimes. When the cattle rustler faces the sheriff, the color of the mountains in the distance is just as much a part of the scene as is the color of the dust on Main Street. When the detective stubs out his Camel and looks up to stare down the bore of a .45 automatic, the smell of the upholstery, the color of the rug, the memory of his favorite teddy bear might be exactly the way to make that moment sing. Those details bring life to your writing, and the reality of life is that it is bigger than we think it is. So make your scenes bigger than you think they are.
NS: Who is your favorite author of the moment, and what should we read by them?
JS: For all the success of his novels, I really like the short stories by Coraghessan Boyle. Most of the hyped books I’ve hit in the past five years turned out to be all hype—a cool-sounding set-up with no follow-through. Take Peace Like a River or Short History of the Dead. Sounded great, bought the books, and the authors seemed to run out of ideas long before they ran out of pages to fill. This does not happen with Boyle. T.C. Boyle Stories is a swell collection.
NS: What is a book that kind of blew your mind, that we’d be surprised by?
JS: Conrad’s Lord Jim—along with about anything else he wrote, but particularly Lord Jim—is a work that sets my standards. Seems like every time I open it I’m reminded of what writing can be. Always I find he gave more attention to detail, to content and to structure, than I know how to emulate.