Stephan Clark is the author of Vladimir’s Mustache, a collection of short fiction. His stories and essays have been published in numerous magazines, including Ninth Letter, Cincinnati Review, LA Weekly and Witness, and been recognized as notable in Best of the Web and Best American Essays. A former Fulbright Fellow to Ukraine, he earned his Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing from USC and currently teaches at Augsburg College, in Minneapolis.
What is your feeling about having mentors as a writer? Talk about the mentor relationship if you will, its importance to a writer…
I used to believe – and then hope – that a mentor could teach you how to write. You know, as if one would take your story or novel, mark it up with a flurry of red ink, then spin it round on the top of his desk and say, “See! Now it works.” Today, my thoughts are more limited: I believe a good mentor can introduce you to stories worth reading and help you believe in the quality of your own prose. TC Boyle has done this for me more than anyone else. When I washed up in his fiction workshop as an undergraduate, he had us read a handful of books, including Jesus’ Son, The Remains of the Day, White Noise (or was it Mao II?) and Lucky Jim. Each, along with his own The Road to Wellville, seemed like a minor miracle to me, as did the belief that I actually knew what I was doing, which he instilled in me then and during the years to come.
What do you do when you feel stuck or uninspired and does it work to trick the brain into working?
I reach for a book on my shelf and re-read a favorite passage, or I pace in my writing room while talking out loud. If that doesn’t work, I’ll go one of two ways: up (with a shot of espresso) or down (with a nap). Usually, it is the nap that works best.
Are there favorite writing exercises or prompts which you use regularly & will share?
A writing instructor of mine, passing this down from a writing instructor that she herself had had, once told me that all fiction can be reduced to one of three stories: a stranger comes to town, somebody leaves town, and boy meets girl (or any such combination of functional equivalents). For this reason, I often have my students read The Life You Save May Be Your Own and write a story in which a stranger comes to town. In addition to producing the stranger, the students must have him “come to town” in the first paragraph, as the brilliant Mr. Shiftlet does in the first paragraph of Flannery O’Connor’s story.
Suggestions for making characters live? Do you know who they are before you write or do you find out who they are in the writing?
The novel I’m currently working on began one day when I was feeling stuck or uninspired (see above) and I got it in my head to reread the opening chapter of White Noise. This was the summer I read Fast Food Nation and started paying attention to the artificial flavorings industry. My love of the one book and my introduction to the other resulted in a kind of mash-up. After I returned to the day of the station wagons, I pictured a scene: a flavor chemist stood at his office window, watching as a group of school-children got off a long yellow bus and crossed the street toward a wooden sign hanging over the front door: FlavAmerica, it read, in three bands of color that had begun to bubble and fade. Like that, I had everything I needed to start my novel: the flavorist’s starched white lab coat, required of all employees at FlavAmerica, was suggestive of a subculture as rich as The Department of Hitler Studies, while his teeth, thrust forward in his mouth like something too hot or too large to swallow, gave him an English childhood like mine. How had he gotten to New Jersey? And what would it have been like to have come of age during The Age of Tang and the four-compartment aluminum tray, only to enter the new millennium at a time when your daughter is demanding nothing less than organic fresh-squeezed?
What’s the best writer’s advice you ever got?
Writing is rewriting.
Please talk a bit about Vladimir’s Mustache and tell us what the stories are about, how they came together, etc. Anything about this book and the process of writing it which would like to share here.
Vladimir’s Mustache is a collection of short stories set against the backdrop of Russian history from the time of Peter the Great, through the purges of Stalin, and on into the mail-order bride agencies of the present. For some of the stories I did a lot of book research, for others I called upon personal experience, and for still others I relied on field research.
At first, I didn’t even realize I was writing a collection of linked stories. The first group of stories, set during the Great Purge, was written when Bush the Younger was in the Oval Office and I felt the need to test that old adage: those who don’t know history are bound to repeat it. This was when Guantanamo was opening up, the Patriot Act was permitting secret trials, and government officials could unilaterally brand someone a terrorist – or an enemy of the state – and be considered a champion of freedom for doing so. Why didn’t I know more about Stalin? I wondered. Hitler I had covered, but Stalin and his reign of terror? It was time to inhabit his world, I thought, so I immersed myself in Soviet history, including Edvard Radzinsky’s excellent biography, Stalin.
From there, I wound up traveling to Russia, for the Summer Literary Seminars in St. Petersburg, which in turn inspired a couple of stories about outsiders being influenced by their travels to the country: one, about a castrato brought to the Kuntskamera to sing for Peter the Great; the other about an American leftist who gets cold feet before his marriage and, in an effort to passively aggressively end his relationship, tells his Republican fiancée that he’s become a communist.
The last of the stories written for the collection are set in Ukraine, where I went on a Fulbright Fellowship to research the mail-order bride industry. These stories, drawn from the interviews and field research that I conducted over there, might have never been written if I hadn’t, just before going off to grad school, lived on the Russian River, in rural northern California, near a landlord who returned from Ukraine with a so-called “mail-order bride.” His new bride had a teenage daughter who was later forced to return to her homeland because she hadn’t been granted an immigrant’s visa like her younger brother. Before leaving, she kind of indirectly asked me to marry her. At least, she let it be known that she was looking for someone to marry, because then she’d be able to stay. And so what ever happened to Liliya? I kept wondering — proving, perhaps, that almost all of my stories begin with a nagging question.
What is next for you?
Finishing my novel, The Flavorist, finally, because I have been working on it for far too many years, and then starting another book, perhaps one set in pre-Great Recession Ukraine.
The Fictionaut Five is our ongoing series of interviews with Fictionaut authors. Every Wednesday, Meg Pokrass asks a writer five (or more) questions. Meg is the editor-at-large for BLIP Magazine, and her stories and poems have been published widely. Her first full collection of flash fiction, “Damn Sure Right” is now out from Press 53. She blogs at http://megpokrass.com.