Writer's Block: Mike Steeves
Anyone dubbed "a literary Larry David" is someone we want to know more about, which is why we're thrilled novelist Mike Steeves - most recently of Bystander (Book*hug Press) - answered our Writer's Block questionnaire. Read on to find out what first inspired Mike to start writing, the weighty book he's read most, and which superhero holds a special place in his heart.See more details below
All Lit Up: Which writers have influenced you or had the most impact on your own writing?
Mike Steeves: The Gospels had a powerful impact on me as a kid and that impact has carried through in ways that I’d have a hard time articulating in this questionnaire. They were in some ways the most meaningful stories I heard at that time that weren’t told to me by my family, and I responded to them more than the stories I encountered in the books that I read or were read to me, or even to what I watched on TV, or in the theatres. By ‘respond’, I mean that they were some of the first stories that I tried to extend, or change, or fix, like I was writing fan fiction, though it was all in my head.
When I was twenty-two I picked up a copy of Ulysses, and took it to a pub and started reading it at the bar. While I was being justly mocked by the other patrons for being pretentious I had a very predicable, clichéd and utterly profound reading experience. I didn’t understand what was happening in the book and it was absolutely exhilarating. I’ve had other profound reading experiences before and since, but this was a biggie. So I went pretty deep into Joyce. I have not read him in years and he’s no longer a polestar for me, but credit where credit is due.
ALU: What do you enjoy reading?
MS: I read mostly fiction, and all the para-reading that goes along with that (reviews, thinkpieces, listicles, etc.). Lately I’m reading mostly contemporary fiction. I might dip back a century or two, but that’s about as far as I go these days. I haven’t looked back on Shakespeare in years. I read poetry, but slowly, and I’ll usually stick to one or two poets for a year or two. I’m partial to Russian fiction, and European writers, skewing to the German language ones I guess. That’s where I’m at now, though that wasn’t always the case. There was period of my reading life where I thought I’d be content to read exclusively English language writers and that I didn’t need to bother with translations. I used to think I might become a bit of an armchair expert in Irish literature. Those days are over.
ALU: Do you have a book that you’ve gone back and read several times?
MS: I’m not a big rereader because I feel like I’m always behind and still need to catch up, though that feeling has started to wane. I recently got out all my old comics that I’ve held on to from when I collected them as a kid. Some of those issues I’ve must’ve looked over hundreds of times. I’d completely forgotten about how I’d actually tried to mimic the styles of the artists, and even had ambitions in that direction, though I kept those fantasies to myself, for the most part.
As far as capital L literature is concerned, I feel like I come back to writers more than to particular books. But I think the book I’ve reread the most is Crime and Punishment, though that was almost certainly unintentional. It just kind of worked out that way.
ALU: What’s one book you always recommend?
MS: That would depend on who I’m making the recommendation to. I was in a bookstore recently and overheard a customer ask the bookseller if he could recommend a book for someone who was looking to get into poetry. The bookseller was speechless at first. He eventually recovered, but not without doing his best to try to narrow things down a bit depite the patron’s insistence on his original phrasing. I kept silent as I didn’t want to tread on the bookseller’s area of expertise, but I wanted to recommended Palgrave’s Golden Treasurary because that’s a book that someone gave me when I was young and impressionable and completely unread in poetry, not that I’m much further along in that department now. So I have recommended books as various as Victor Frankel’s Man’s Search for Meaning, Svetlana Alexivich’s Zinky Boys, Bernhard’s Woodcutters, and David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs. If I had to name only one, I guess I’d recommend Gerald Murnane’s Barley Patch because that’s what I just read last week and everyone should read something by Murnane.
ALU: Do you have any rituals that you abide by when you’re writing?
MS: I try not to be precious about it, but preciousness has creeped in despite my best efforts. My dad gave me a fancy fountain pen twenty years ago. I write my first drafts with it. I thought I had lost it last year. Those were dark days. Blessedly, my eldest daughter found it between the couch cushions (I swear I looked there). But the experience pointed out a weakness, so I did some research and bought a backup fancy fountain pen. The type of fancy pen that my dad got me has increased in price beyond what I can afford, but thankfully I discovered there is another brand of fancy pen on the market that was within my budget, though it still felt ridiculous spending over a hundred dollars on a pen. But it was worth it. I now prefer my new fancy pen to the one I’d been using for twenty years, and which is worth many times more than the backup. And now if I lose one, I’ll be able to continue to write with the other.
Mike's writing advice (via Rilke).
ALU: Who is your favourite fictional character?
MS: My favourite fictional characters are narrators. The narrator of Proust’s novels is a character that I think of often. The narrator of Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels - I could read that voice all day. Bernhard’s narrators, especially in his memoir and his later books, are a source of delight. I read Tove Ditleven’s memoir recently and while it wouldn’t be accurate to say the narrator of those books is one of my favourites, it’s a voice that will be with me for the rest of my life, and the effect of that voice has been a powerful one that is still doing it’s work on me. Conrad’s narrators are great companions, the most famous being Marlowe, though I think the narrator in The Secret Agent might be his greatest creation. The narrator of Wuthering Heights - my god. And though I haven’t read him in years, the narrators of Faulkner’s books, especially the ghostly intelligence responsible for Absalom! Absalom. The narrator of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man - I spent years of my life trying to approximate the range of that voice, though it was the voice in the preamble that really got to me.
I’m also a huge fan of Batman.
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Mike Steeves was born in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia and lives in Montreal, Quebec. His first novel, Giving Up, was published by Book*hug Press in 2015 and was a finalist for the Concordia University First Book Award. His work has appeared in The Globe & Mail, Matrix Magazine, The Shore and others.
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