Ground Zero: An Interview with Steven Church

Steven Church is the author of The Guinness Book of Me: A Memoir of Record and Theoretical Killings: Essays and Accidents. His essays have been published or are forthcoming in The Rumpus, Prairie Schooner, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, AGNI, and Passages North; and his piece, “Auscultation” was chosen by Edwidge Danticat for inclusion in the Best American Essays, 2011. He is a founding editor of the literary magazine The Normal School and he teaches in the MFA Program at Fresno State.  His latest book, The Day After The Day After: My Atomic Angst, blends essay, memoir, and fictional passages as it describes the effect the 1983 made-for-TV movie The Day After–a depiction of the effects of nuclear war with the Soviet Union–had on him, his hometown of Lawrence, Kansas (where the movie was filmed), and a whole generation of Americans who grew up scared.

S.Church headshot

Steven was interviewed by Nicholas Garnett for Sliver of Stone Magazine.

Nicholas Garnett: How do you think your training as a fiction writer has influenced your nonfiction writing?

Steven Church: Well, I guess I feel like regardless of genre, what you learn (if you’re paying attention) is the fundamentals, just the basics of how to use language and how to structure a narrative or follow the evolution of a thought. You learn how to read, hopefully. I think this is one way my training as a fiction writer influences my nonfiction writing. But it’s also about tapping into imagination, creating characters, and exploring, or essaying, by using techniques traditionally associated with fiction. Though I’m somewhat less interested these days in overt fictionalizing, it still seems to me a valid way of essaying an idea. To be clear, I’m not advocating for doing anything that the reader isn’t clued in to; but I do believe readers, if you ask them nicely, are surprisingly generous and will let you take them down paths of imagination, fantasy or fiction, even within a fairly straightforward essay. Sometimes nonfiction writers need to venture down those paths in the name of exploring and thinking on the page.

NG: You’ve written about the effect that Capote’s work of narrative nonfiction IN COLD BLOOD had on your father and on society in general.  You dad called it, correctly I think, a game changer.  That story, published in 1966, seemed to present a new kind of terror and angst to that generation of Americans.  Do you see any connections between IN COLD BLOOD and your work, either in terms of the story or the way the story is presented?

SC: You’re talking about one of the great works of nonfiction. At least in my opinion. People don’t often realize how that book completely changed the way people thought about telling true stories. That book invented “true crime” as a genre. And sure it blurred the lines and flirted with outright fabrication, but in the end I’m not sure any of that really matters. I think, like Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston, In Cold Blood is a book that transcends classification and controversy. It’s just too good to be narrowly defined. Given all that, I’m not sure I have anything in common with Capote. Perhaps one thing my work has in common with that book is the way a subject or a landscape overtakes you, how it lives and breathes like the best characters in a novel. And I suppose I share with Capote an interest in the meaning of Kansas as a place and as a setting in a larger story. I also argue that The Day After, much like the Capote crime/book/movie was a revolutionary media event, a kind of “game changer” that also featured Kansas prominently as a character.

NC: THE DAY AFTER THE DAY AFTER is structured as a kind of collage:  chapters move back in forth through time and subject matter and others contain fictionalized passages.  At what point in the process of writing that book did you decide that this was the way your story would be presented?

SC: I struggled for years with how to structure and organize this book. Oddly enough some of the first things I wrote were the fictionalized passages focused on Danny Dahlberg. These ended up operating as “inner chapters” that explored a kind of extreme reaction to the film, an experience that wasn’t my own but one that I wanted to essay because it was the kind of reaction that many people feared. These sections also work as bridges, or interludes between other sections, and they’re designed to echo the blurring between fiction and reality for which the movie was credited (or blamed). I tried to write a more linear book where the movie operated as a kind of narrative crisis point, but I found that this structure limited my ability to reflect and to include all the other threads that I wanted. It limited the scope of the book. So I finally gave myself 70 pages to establish the 3-4 main narrative threads in the book and then I tried to run each thread throughout the entire book, bringing all of them together in the final chapters. This meant I had to juggle 3-4 different present-action threads and I think this ends up making it feel like a collage.

NG: In another interview, said that you had tried to eliminate genre classifications in the prose you published The Normal School, but felt you had to revert back to classifying the work, partly because readers needed some grounding frame with which to approach it.  What are some of the expectations readers bring to nonfiction?

SC: The main reason we decided to include some subtle genre markers is because an essay I loved dearly was being read as fiction. And it could be read that way. The piece lent itself to such readings. But part of what made it an interesting essay was that it was using tropes and techniques of fiction to explore an idea. It was more interesting, more compelling when the reader understood that he was engaging in a thought experiment driven by the author’s consciousness and a kind of real-life conversation with the author. Our goal was to force readers to just read and not settle into their genre camps. But what we found was that readers did that whether we helped them or not. We sort of begrudgingly indicate genre now… But to address your question about the expectations that readers bring to nonfiction, I guess I’d say they expect everything they would expect from great poetry or fiction, but that they also expect it’s coming from the author’s actual subjective consciousness, that they’re engaging in a conversation with a writer’s mind rather than a character’s mind. I think they expect an honesty of intention. Nonfiction is art and, as such, should be afforded a certain license; but it is a license granted by a contract between reader and writer, an agreement entered into with a mutual understanding of assumed risk and reward and a shared respect for each other’s position.

NC: You’ve been editing The Normal School for five years.  Is there a new normal?  Have you noticed any change in the kinds of submissions you’ve received over time?

SC: The submissions have definitely changed, both in terms of quantity and quality. It’s not that we got bad submissions before but now we get a greater quantity of high-quality submissions from both emerging and established writers. It’s pretty exciting, actually. We can afford to be selective. For some obvious reasons some people think of us as being “quirky,” “eclectic,” or “experimental.” We publish some stuff that other magazines might not publish. But we also publish very traditional narrative forms, realistic fiction and image-driven poetry. The magazine was conceived as a conversation amongst genres, styles, and forms, and we’re still striving to keep it that way. The goal for us was never to create a magazine that only published things that fit our aesthetic but to publish a variety of pieces from a variety of aesthetics, believing that in the intersection we come close to some kind of eternal truths about literature and the larger world.

Read an essay by Steven Church here.