Steve Gronert Ellerhoff, Talented American Writer and Editor, on Fiction Writing:
"Writing is my way of metabolizing those aspects of life I don’t know how to digest in any other way."
Interviewed by Elham Nosrati | April 16, 2018
This week we had the pleasure of interviewing Steve Gronert Ellerhoff, talented American author and editor. Writing for Steve Ellerhoff, is beyond a passion, as he has dedicated his education and career to creative writing, English literature and literary criticism. In his short story collection, Tales from the Internet, he offers a valuable experience to readers, to laugh and enjoy each story and at the same time, to ponder about effects of the internet on our daily lives without us noticing. Dr. Ellerhoff is also co-editor of George Saunders: Critical Essays published in 2017 on this Man Booker Prize winner’s writing influence on Americans twenty first century short story. Steve Ellerhoff is currently working on his new novel.
1- When did you decide to be a writer?
So, right up until I was fifteen years old, I was determined to be both a paleontologist and a cartoonist. I was going to excavate and name new fossil species by day while moonlighting for the morning newspapers with a syndicated comic strip to make people laugh. This completely achievable goal was waylaid at fifteen, however, by a prolonged trauma that gifted me with the vocation of writing, in which there is almost never a chance of succeeding. The conscious decision trailed what I was innately becoming with the support I received from my English teachers Rick Pfander and Vicki Goldsmith. And now I’ve written about dinosaurs and doodled accompanying cartoons to some of my fiction, so those loves never really burned off.
2- Does world literature, in languages other than English, ever influenced you? If Yes, please mention some of the most influential ones and please explain why?
One of my greatest shortcomings is that the only language I really know is English. So literature in other languages is nothing I’ve ever proficiently experienced. My kind, ever-patient Classics professors at the University of Iowa tolerated my attempt to learn Ancient Greek for two years, but I never got past reading without a lexicon beside me. However, world literature has absolutely changed my life. My mentor at Iowa, Peter Nazareth, took me to Africa through its literature. He was born in Uganda, grew up there, and was expelled with all Asians by Idi Amin in 1972. He fed me writers I would never have read otherwise and let me do an independent study, reading all of the novels of his friend and contemporary Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Later on, I did the MPhil in Literatures of the Americas at Trinity College Dublin. Philip Coleman and Melanie Otto assigned works from across North America, South America, and the Caribbean, which broadened my awareness in necessary ways—and complimented what Peter had taught me. I loved, for instance, reading Wilson Harris, a writer Peter had told me to read for as long as I’d known him. I also, living in Ireland for four years, fell in love with Irish literature. My favorites from there are Sara Baume and Edna O’Brien because they do with English what I wish I could do.
3- What is your favorite genre? Fiction, fantasy or? Is there a reason behind it?
I’m privately grumpy about genre. It’s nice to be asked this question because it’s rarely ever something I think about. My foremost preference, whether reading or writing, is for character-driven, observational fiction that shows us what it’s like to be someone else and lets us feel and think about the experiences it portrays. If that plays out in outer space or the belly of a whale or feudal Japan or current-day Dubuque, I don’t fuss. Any genre, any setting can be the dressing—so long as the story doesn’t scrimp on the intimacy and diversity of human experience.
4- With the influence of advertisement, there are known authors whose new books are well sold while they are not in the same level of their initial brilliant works. Do you agree that this is taking the attention away from new talented authors?
Gosh, I dunno the workings of how all that happens. I do know that people in the publishing business are extruding new authors through business models that have been insincerely conceived on questionably-sound demographics that make no room for literature as an art. I think it’s distasteful that there are books out there dreamt up by marketing groups who handpick a writer, supply him or her with a title, list of characters, and plot, set him or her off to write-by-number, and then publish it as if that writer came up with it all on his or her own. It’s disingenuous and exploits talented people whose books, as dreamt up by themselves, just might be better than what they’re tasked with writing. It’s obvious that a good editor is hard to find—and furthermore, it seems good editors are being listened to less and less, falling down the hierarchy under the marketing team, whose veto power hinges upon whether or not they think any given work will sell gobs and gobs. It’s common, when we go back and study the history of literature, to find that a great number of the best writers published their own work or had it published by friends and benefactors, having truly struggled to be taken seriously by the publishers in their own times.
5- What portion of your day is reading?
I break it up, you know? Throughout the day I sneak it when I can, even if just for ten minutes here and there. Then I always read at bedtime until I fall asleep.
6- What is the main factor which makes a book remain, read and reread over time?
Maybe it comes back to intimacy—or the lack of it. If we don’t connect with a book, we close its covers and move along. But if it catches us, if it is takes us through something we are grateful or compelled to experience vicariously, there you go. Personal taste surely accounts for a lot in this phenomenon. Any beloved book will also have its haters—just as any detested book will have some sort of readership out there.
7- Have you read a book over and over and enjoyed each time? What was the book?
I have reread by John Kennedy Toole many times and it makes me laugh on every page. I’m a very slow reader and I love short stories more than novels at this point in my life, so I should say that “The Rocket Man” by Ray Bradbury always gets me, as does “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” by Flannery O’Connor.
8- Do classics play a role in your reading or writing? What is your favorite classic? What you found in the book that makes it interesting to you?
Yes, they do. I love A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, both for its sort of genre-defying premise and its language. I also love Thomas Hardy’s fiction and poetry—his attention to women in his books astonishes me. Tess of the D’Urbervilles always gets me but my favorite work of his is his first published version of his novel The Well-Beloved.
9- Is there any special routine that you follow for writing?
My peak hours for writing come between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., but with teaching in the morning and whatnot I am not able to always stay up that late. But writing for me is something of a compulsion, so instead of forming a routine around writing, I tend to form routines around all the other stuff I need to get done. If left to my own devices with no commitments and responsibilities, I’d write and kind of forget about everything else—which would be dreadful, because those commitments and responsibilities are good to have.
10- While you were doing your PhD in Dublin did you see any difference[s] in creative writing in Europe and America?
I’ve had the good fortune of living in three literary cities in my life: Iowa City, Portland, Oregon, and Dublin. What I love about Dublin is that its literary community spills out into the community of Dublin—and Ireland itself really. Others talk about how literary the Irish are, marveling at their significant number of literary artists for the size of their population. I really think it’s symptomatic of people broadly appreciating fiction, poetry, theatre, and cinema. In the USA writers are spread out, perhaps a bit more isolated (in an already rather isolating vocation), and the nearest pocket of literary community may indeed be far away. In Ireland, you’re going to find a poet or a writer of novels or short stories somewhere close by—and typically, today anyway, you’ll meet neighbors who like having them around. I myself have the sense that it’s likelier to be a point of pride to have writers living in the community over there than it seems to be over here. This is a shame because our literature, which is the most diverse the world’s ever seen out of one nation, is something all Americans can and should take great pride in.
11-When you read a story what captures your attention the most?
If it makes me feel something, that is what tends to do it. So, for instance, the 1935 short story “Annunciation” by Meridel Le Sueur, this marvelously private story meditating upon the inner life of a woman who is pregnant and will give birth despite the negative opinions of people around her. I’m just some guy, so pregnancy is one of those experiences biology prevents me from ever living out. The closest I can ever get to what it’s like is to listen to the women in my life and to hear or read about it from women I do not know. Le Sueur takes us right into the beauty of this mystery, quietly, acknowledging the antagonisms pregnant women encounter from others while honoring the main character’s wonder at a pear tree growing outside the boarding house where she and her husband live. “I’ve never heard anything about how a woman feels who is going to have a child,” she writes, “or about how a pear tree feels bearing its fruit.” Well, me neither, until I read this story, which offers a chance of empathizing with this character’s experience and carrying that forth in one’s real-life interactions with others.
12- You are both a creative writer and a successful editor, do you edit your works? How much time you give to a writing to sit and then to start editing?
I do edit and revise my work, absolutely. Each and every project is different. No two are alike. I have had the experience of the steady marathon writing/editing/submission and I have also had books that sat on the shelf for years before I returned to edit them. I can think of two stories I’ve written where I wrote the first half and then they sat, again, for years and years before some realization hit me and then I was able to finish them. The nice thing about having written consistently since I was fifteen—and I will be thirty-eight soon—is that I’ve got all this work either to write fresh or revisit.
13- Your book Tales from the Internet opens readers eyes to the unintentional effect of the Internet on our lives, while reading the book is enjoyable and entertaining. How did you manage to make the reader both enjoy the book and ponder?
If I managed to entertain a reader and gave him or her something to think about, this is the first I’ve heard of it so I thank you for the compliment—Haha! Each of the stories in caused me to ponder what the Internet is doing to us—and has done through software that’s already gone the way of the dodo. To me, it is a new landscape, a new frontier (which Americans have always been obsessed with, in iterations continental, orbital, solar systemal [wait, what?])—it’s the Wild West of the past twenty years. I wanted to find out what sorts of stories the Internet has given us the chance to tell. If it’s enjoyable, I hope that comes from my efforts to not waste a reader’s time. The secret ingredient, however, is the art Kevin Storrar did for the book—along with composing its cover, he also did a piece of art for the title page of each story in the book. The way he always surprises me with his art changes the way readers take in fiction I write—for the better.
14- As a reader, I know that readers’ love, life, breath and being can be among lines of a book that writers create. Now my last question from you: As a writer “What is writing to you?”
Writing is my way of metabolizing those aspects of life I don’t know how to digest in any other way.
15- How much time do you spend on research?
For me this process is near constant, hand-in-hand with writing. I am constantly looking up words, reading up on this, that, or the other. Being a literary scholar as well as a fiction writer makes research a typical part of my day. When writing, the imagination can pitch any number of curveballs that humble me into admitting I know doodley squat about damn near everything. I oftentimes find myself looking up whatever I can that might relate to the tangents imagination offers. If I were banished from learning while I write, I would be unable to write.
16- Do you want to impress by your rich vocabulary or use simple prose?
More than anything, I want to be precise with my vocabulary. If some uncommon word is the most precise one for what the story is wanting to say, and if it works in its sentence and does not disrupt the sentences surrounding it, the uncommon word goes in. If it snags like a hangnail on the page, it gets clipped off and that sentence gets reworked in relation to those around it with an eye and an ear to the feel of the story as a whole.
17- What was the worst piece of writing advice you were given?
This is really hard to answer because nothing really leaps out in my memory. Does this mean I have been blessed in the advice I’ve been given on writing? My tutors at Lancaster University in England, where I got an MA in Creative Writing, were Graham Mort and George Green. Both were the sort of writers you want leading workshops. They engaged with your work and the work of your peers, tossed out ideas to get everybody talking, and provided encouragement to keep writing. I am indebted to them for instilling in me the constant discipline of writing when I was young.
18- How do you come up with worthy, catchy ideas? How do you ensure that the interest is not lost to the plot until the end?
I don’t think I come up with any of the stories on my own. I make decisions along the way, but my primary investment is in receptivity while imagining. Faith in imagination plays a central role in my life. In the past, I tried to exert supreme control over a failed novel I spent three years writing. It’s longer than Moby-Dick. It’s also a dud and I knew it was a dud but I lucked out in giving myself the opportunity of writing a dud because it let me cut my teeth a bit. After that project, I forfeited conscious control, turned to faith in imagination and dialogue with it, and found the work immediately improve by a strong measure. I don’t trust myself with plot, having failed so terribly at it—typically I just try to listen to what the story at hand wants to be and trust in that. If readers accompany me to the end, I am thrilled.
19-How many drafts you usually have?
This is hard to say because most of my work tends to be done on my desktop computer at my little writing shrine on an old Singer sewing table that my uncle fixed up for my mom ages ago. Usually I remember to save different drafts of stories and articles. I certainly do with novels. But it is a common occurrence for me to suddenly realize something, go in to make changes, and then save a file without backing up what it had been before. Computers allow for great promiscuity when it comes to revision. Seems like there are usually at least three to six drafts of a piece of writing. I’m not someone who has a hundred versions of a story, though I do save over old work more than perhaps I should?
20-How many beta readers and critique partners?
I sent the novel I’ve just finished to twenty-three people whose feedback I wanted for a variety of reasons. I am always grateful for the feedback I receive from those initial readers who are willing to spend time reading something I hope to improve. It is tricky, too, because after that, whatever changes I make, the story will be different for those readers than it is for anyone who comes to it later. Asking people to reread work is asking a lot, so I really try to get it as good as I think I can get it before I dump it on those friends and family who are saintly in their willingness to tell me what they really think and feel about it. Their engagement allows me to retune the work in ways that have overcome some of my own blind spots—making such readers invaluable to the vitality of a story.
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