This spring, we had the opportunity to ask J. David Stevens, author of I and You and Mexico is Missing, a few questions about writing, history, and, of course, love.
Q: First of all, thanks so much for doing this Q & A with me. There are so many facets of your writing that I’d love to ask about, and much of these topics are inter-related, so I’ll do my best to de-tangle them enough to ask specific and pointed questions.
Let’s start at the beginning: family origins. Your essay “Four Memories: The South,” published in River Teeth, considers the hold the past has on the present. At one point, you write, “We are absolved of our ancestors’ sins even as we must make amends for them.” At the same time, characters in I and You, and most specifically the narrator in “Turkeys,” seem to pose the question, “What if I don’t know my ancestors’ past?” Then, there is the introduction of I and You, which includes the history your wife’s family. It seems that I and You and your recent essays are attempting to view and review history.
Of course, most writing is a looking back of sorts, but your work seems particularly focused. You also write a lot about Richmond, Virginia, and I’m wondering if there is something particularly Southern that has shaped your interest in family history, and maybe legacy or heritage. Can you comment further?
A: I don’t think Southerners have a special claim on exploring the past. They are merely navigating a fraught parcel of it. I happened to grow up in Richmond with a family history in Virginia that goes way back, so that’s where I personally begin. But I do not imagine that I feel particularly compelled by my birthplace. Let’s face it: few of us truly know the details of our ancestors’ lives. What we regard as history often owes as much to legend or conjecture as documentable fact. Indeed, some Americans have gone to great lengths to obscure both their own cultural history and other people’s. So, like Raymond in “Turkeys”, we are all trying to figure out the truth, regardless of our starting point.
Somewhat on that point, the line above regarding sin is a brief paraphrase of scholarly interpretations of the Old Testament (in this case, Deuteronomy). The idea is that God does not punish us for the sins of our ancestors, but He does want us to set past injustices right. A faithful person does not live up to his or her creed when he or she ignores the crimes of history and the violence they allowed, even if that person had no direct involvement in those crimes. It is just one place (among hundreds) where Scripture encourages the faithful to be charitable and compassionate in the present, regardless of the historical circumstance that have brought each person to this moment. Both of my grandfathers were Baptist ministers, and though I am no longer religious in a grand sense, I remain compelled by the human obligations that Christianity—among all major religions, as far as I can tell—underscores. In this way, looking back is a necessity. Without doing so, one has little frame for how to act in the present.
Q: I always got the sense that all of the main characters in I and You are struggling to understand and know the people they are closest to. For most of them, that means family. But then I read “Why I Married the Porn Star” from your collection Mexico is Missing. Here, the narrator often asks others, and maybe himself, “What do you know about love?” That particular question seemed to click with how I read the stories in I and You. It resonates with my understanding of your essays as well. Is it fair to say that when we’re talking about history and family, what we’re really talking about is learning how to love?
A: Maybe—but love is a slippery fish. It informs myriad impulses. Trying to tease it out as a distinct force seems like an impossible task. I do not see love and perfection as synonyms. Love can be positive, negative, or anything between. Here, the English language probably fails us. Other cultures have more than one word for love. But English elevates the idea into its own category. We can qualify love with adjectives, some of which diminish or taint it: unrequited love, self-love, jealous love, and so forth. But it’s always the adjective doing the dirty work, not love itself.
I think Americans are particularly naïve in this regard, and I count myself in this indictment. We like things in boxes. We often reject confusion and complexity as inherent features of life—perhaps its defining features. I am constantly trying to “tidy” my world. I want to know where people and things fit. But of course, relationships change, sometimes overnight. There’s an uncertainty principle at work in all of our lives, from the quantum level to the cosmic. Ideally, the best love—whether romantic or familial or even religious—seems rooted in the acceptance of change. A lover is a person who feels intensely in the moment but also honors the fragility of that moment. In this way, he or she is able to look back with gratitude even when a relationship ends, avoiding the sense of betrayal that many of us feel when the universe shifts beneath our feet.
My daily life does not look like this ideal. Instead, I feel a lot more like my characters, who apprehend love or family or faith in a sudden, new way and wonder “What the hell just happened?” It’s difficult to fleck insights from such moments, especially while in them, but time has a way of lending perspective. We are rewarded with peace more often than revelation.
Q: One more question about love. In your essay “For Janet, at Age 40” published in The Gettysburg Review, you begin with a bold statement: “Love begins and ends with the body.” This essay offers a way more concise definition of love than anything in Mexico is Missing. At first, I wanted to ask if you’d say you now understand what love is. But while I don’t know how old you are, I believe this essay was written a few years ago. Would you still make that same statement with such assurance? What do you know about love?
A: So that essay has a very specific context. I wrote it when my wife and I turned 40 (we were born two weeks apart). I have known her since the sixth grade, and I think it fair to say that our love for each other blossomed about the same time we were becoming more physically involved. We are now over 50, and it seems likely that our love will end in a literal sense only when one of us dies—or perhaps both of us. So yes, I am still comfortable with the claim that love begins and ends in the body, at least in this particular case.
I don’t think I am telling a secret, though, to say that popular literature in America still treats love as a magical force. People meet their “soulmates,” out of which love is born. I have a problem with that. Not the idea of romantic attraction, mind you. I get that certain couples are drawn to each other, and that magnetism helps them weather whatever trials life throws at them. But there are other blueprints. The idea that the Hollywood brand of love is a pure pinnacle—that it can be divorced from lust, cultural expectation, personal duty, and countless other forces—is horse pucky.
My wife comes from a culture where, up until recently, many marriages were arranged. Most people in the generation before hers (and a few in it) chose their spouses from a limited array of candidates pre-selected by relatives. I have read enough to know that such matches are not always good ones. They can lead to dysfunction and even abuse. But in my personal orbit, every arranged marriage is still going strong, some after a half-century. Western marriages do not have the same sterling record. How can I deny the love in those arranged marriages? How can I be so prejudiced as to say that what holds those arranged marriages together is not love but something else?
I know I am ranging from the original question you asked. I guess my answer is that essayists should occasionally say provocative things about love even when they are not universally true. It jogs readers off other ideas we have about love which are also not universally true.
Q: Let’s talk about style. Mexico is Missing is a collection of very short stories and most of them are rather quirky and absurdist. They’re very different from the longer, more serious realism that comprises I and You. How do you think about form and style, and how has your writing evolved in these terms?
A: Early in my career, a magazine editor rejected a story by heaping praise upon it then noting that it was “more concept than character.” I never understood the objection. Why should every story veer toward a realistic depiction of the fake people it contains?
Nevertheless, experiences like that one made me think about how long “concept” can carry narrative. And my personal response was, “Not too long.” Indeed, “concept” seems to me most effective when most efficient. I have a hard time reading experimental novels. Even long stories can be a chore. While I recognize the brilliance of people like David Foster Wallace or (a little shorter) John Barth, I am particularly drawn to Donald Barthelme, whose prose seems as efficient as Hemingway’s in its way. John Barth actually wrote a famous literary obituary for Donald Barthelme and Raymond Carver, who died around the same time. When it was published, I do not think I recognized the essential similarities of those two writers. Style, tone, subject matter—so much of what they do seems worlds apart. But both demonstrate an incredible talent for linguistic economy, which may be their most defining trait. As a matter of craft—especially when I think of a story as a stylistic vehicle—I tend to emulate their brevity.
The realistic stories stir the opposite impulse. I could go on longer than I do. It is perhaps not surprising that even positive reviews of I and You have suggested that some of the stories could have been novels (“Cleave” and “Old San” especially). Though I have not written a novel, I feel this most recent collection pushing me that way.
Q: What writers inspire you? Who do you see as your literary forefathers and foremothers? Whose sins are you atoning for?
A: Barthelme and Carver. Chief among living writers: George Saunders. Otherwise, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Dorothy Parker, Flannery O’Connor. Kelly Link and Etgar Keret and Gish Jen. I am not a huge fan of Melville, but “Bartleby the Scrivener” is possibly the best short story ever written. A decent number of Canadians: Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, and especially Alistair MacLeod.
I am an eclectic reader, and I find inspiration in myriad places. I am less dedicated to authors than to individual novels or collections or stories. I like recommendations but hate feeling pressured to enjoy an author’s work. There are plenty of acclaimed books for which I never developed a taste and plenty of lesser-known works I find fabulous. I once went to a magazine party where I was thrilled to spend much of the evening talking to Budd Schulberg, author of What Makes Sammy Run? and On the Waterfront. Sadly, most of the other guests—all writing professionals—had no idea who he was.
But of course, my tastes are constantly evolving. Some of the things I enjoyed in college now seem overwrought to me. Other things—once obtuse—have become clearer with age. Or perhaps I have become more obtuse. Whatever.
As to sins, I write to atone for mine only. Though some are inherited, it is also true that some part of me has welcomed them. I am still in the process of shining light on the dim corners of my soul. It’s a job that will likely require more than one lifetime.