Name: Kevin Sterne
Current publication: Kevin Sterne's "All Must Go" is available from House of Vlad. Kevin also has a patreon with his partner where he posts a lot of his current writing.
Recommendations: The album On the Beach by Neil Young; The book "In the Distance" by Hernan Diaz.
Both old but hey.
If you enjoyed this interview with Kevin Sterne, visit his official website for more information about him and an overview of his work.
When did you start writing- and what or who were your early passions and influences? What what is about literature and writing that drew you to it?
I liked being pulled into a world and living with the characters. That dream world a book can create. I loved that.
When I was 10 or so I typed up stories on this old Gateway desktop. It had a big computer tower and loud fan. I printed them up, mailed them to my Grandma. She lived in the part of southern Illinois called “Little Egypt.” You could save with floppy disks back then.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
It started with Dav Pilkey and the Captain Underpants series. I was just writing long narrative stuff like that and sending it to my Grandma. Denis Johnson was a big turning point. "Jesus’ Son" kind of pointed me in a certain direction.
I just made a book with my partner Lauren called "You Can’t Sell This" where I wrote short vignettes to her water color paintings. The voice in that is softer, it has a gentler soul than in my book "All Must Go". Maybe that’s my voice now.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
My identity changes depending on the context. I just moved from Chicago to New York and I’m very protective of my Midwestern sensibilities. I work in landscaping, so I’m usually known as the gringo who works hard but doesn’t like to work and wants to go home early every day to write.
Creatively, I’m always trying to find moments when something can really speak to me and hold my attention. Has your hair ever stood up at the sound of trees rubbing each other in the wind? How it sounds like squeaky cheese. That’s what I live for.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
Understanding what stories are worth telling and how to tell them. Telling a story the way it wants to be told. Understanding that art is a precious thing. That life is fleeting. Listening to my intuition.
How do you see the relationship between style, form, plot and storytelling – and how would you rate their importance for you, respectively?
I don’t think in these terms, to be honest. I’m looking for the essence of something. The heart. The voice. The little blips and fragments and subtle nuances of our reality. I desire to put those on the page. And if I can tap into something, the story will take on a life of its own. Sort of write itself. When that happens, style, form, plot, etc.—they all sort of fall in line.
Observation and research are often quoted as important elements of the writing process. Can you tell us a bit about your perspective on them?
Being able to find or know what resonates with you as an artist is so ephemeral. I think that’s what makes someone an artist in the first place— they’ve been struck by something. They feel compelled.
Research is obsession. Observations can be dreams. Or memories of watching westerns on the TV with your Grandma while she knifed half a stick of salted butter on her bran muffin.
How do you see the relationship between conscious planning and tapping into the subconscious; between improvisation and composition? When dealing with the end of a story, for example, do you tend to minutely map it out or follow the logic of the narrative as it unfolds itself?
I keep a small notebook by my bed and write my dreams big and messy in the dark. I’ll write to Lauren’s paintings. I’ll write to photographs we find at the antique store. Quick, messy, one-draft flashes. It’s a way to get loose, try to tap into something.
Every ending of every project is different. Since quarantine I’ve been writing a western cowboy book about water. It has no clear ending right now, but it does have a lot of gunfights.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do writing and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
Today at work I had to landscape a pet cemetery. Native plants: Rhododendron, False Indigo, Red Maple, Ostrich Fern. My boss kept checking on me, making sure I hadn’t dug up any bones.
I write after work or on the weekends. But most of the time I read or watch baseball. In the winter, when there’s no work, I write more.
Can you talk about a breakthrough publication in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
I wrote this story “From Your Jerry” in one go and felt, at that time, the closest I’d felt to making real art. Felt like I’d tapped into something. That was a real breakthrough for me. SmokeLong Quarterly published it and they’re just a great outfit up and down. The publication experience with them was as good as it gets. And I made that story the first one in "All Must Go".
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
Ideally the day would begin with me backpacking up a small mountain and at the top having lunch and preparing a large pot of coffee then walking through a beautiful meadow with grass like waves to a desk under a cedar forest where I can write and drink coffee and smoke weed until golden hour.
Words can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for literature and poetry as a tool for healing?
I wrote and read the eulogy at my dad’s funeral. It’s the closest thing to art I’ve ever done. If you want to feel healed, turn off your phone and go in the woods.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
I believe anyone can write whatever they want and what they write should have fair consequences.
Literature works with sense impressions in a different way than the other arts. How do you use them in your writing? From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
You have to set a scene for your reader. If you’ve done it right, their imagination will do the rest.
As a writer I’m asking my reader to see and hear and feel things in their heads. I have to open myself to my own sensations, that means knowing my own body, knowing my breath, opening myself to the world around me. Then translating it for you.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
Writing is the way I process the world around me and process the things in life that compel me. Sometimes I let other people see it, sometimes I don’t.
What can literature or poetry express about life and death which other forms of art may not?
The best stories will cause you to fill gaps in your own understanding of this life. It will make you see and hear and feel things in your head. It’ll inspire you in a profound way.
Rarely, literature will haunt.