Steve Yarbrough is best known for writing in the Southern tradition, but his most recent novel, Realm of Last Chances, is set in suburban New England. We met up with Yarbrough when he presented at the Newburyport Literary Festival and asked him a few of our burning questions about his work. Here, he discusses the debt he feels to Andre Dubus, feeling at home in New England, and how teaching writing to students teaches him something new every day.
Bookish: The central characters in The Realm of Last Chances are Kristin and Cal, who relocate to and begin to unravel in the suburbs. The suburbs are so endlessly boring and yet they are so utterly fascinating to all of us. What is it about the suburbs that make them such rich fodder for novelists?
Steve Yarbrough: This is the first time that I have lived in something that could reasonably be called the suburbs. I lived either in small towns disconnected from any other place except that plot of land and I lived in a relatively large city in California. The suburbs have some qualities common to both large cities and small towns. I don’t have the sense where I live that if you walked around downtown that everybody knows everybody else. Within a small area, like a couple of blocks, everybody does know everybody. By the time you’ve lived there a couple of years, everybody knows everybody’s business. That situation is prevalent throughout the suburbs. Even when I was growing up in the cotton fields in Mississippi, the writers that I was really attracted to—Andre Dubus, Richard Yates, James Salter—were writers who wrote primarily about the suburbs. How I got on that track I don’t know.
Bookish: Though no longer a reader, Kristin can’t quite quit academia and exists on the outskirts, within the safe buffer of bureaucracy. Cal, her love interest, has lived a life that seems quite opposite to hers, one not quite so risk averse. What impulse within you brought these two together?
SY: I have always been interested in the notion of how people who are really different come together. In my own marriage, we have multiple degrees. She’s a writer. I’m a writer. But she’s from another world. I’ve always been interested in that dynamic.
Once somebody asked me if Cal was based on so-and-so, and I said, “Let’s think about this for a minute. He’s a very tall guy. He plays bluegrass music on the guitar and the banjo and the mandolin. He likes to drink his whiskey. Did it ever occur to you how much he’s got in common with me?” Except that I can’t take a hammer and nail and do anything with them without bashing my hand off.
Bookish: Like many writers, you teach creative writing. How does teaching inspire your writing and vice versa?
SY: It actually does. I’ve been fortunate to have some really good students, and I’ve never had better ones than I’ve got right now at Emerson. I love them. It’s a rare class when I don’t see a student writing something that just feels fresh and unique. Whenever you’re in the presence of that, it gets you excited. It’s also a rare class where I don’t see somebody making a mistake that I have either just made myself or need to remember not to make the next morning when I sit down and write. It makes me a little more aware of what I do. It doesn’t matter how much I’ve learned about writing in the 40 years; I need the lesson again every day.
Bookish: Was it challenging for you to inhabit New England in your mind in order to write The Realm of Last Chances?
SY: I’ve been a few places in my life that I knew I could write about the moment I set foot in them. Almost immediately when I got to New England, I started feeling attached to the place and feeling like I could write something here. One day I was sitting on the steps with a neighbor, drinking a beer, when he said, “I think this is the best place on Earth.” I said to my neighbor, “You mean America?” and he said, “No. I meant this block.” I thought, okay, I get it. I’ve thought long and hard about what the affinities are between Southerners and New Englanders, who mostly don’t like one another in the abstract. The big thing is an attachment to place. These are both places with histories. That’s the common ground. That’s what I warmed up to. I started the novel maybe 15 months after I moved here.
Bookish: What’s it like being a writer in the Southern tradition while living in New England?
SY: Since I moved to New England I’ve mostly quit writing in the Southern tradition. My last book was set in Massachusetts and the next one is set in Poland, California, and Massachusetts. I’m probably getting ready to write another novel set in the South, but New England worked magically on my imagination. It’s quickly become home.
I came up here in 1983 to visit Andre Dubus; he was a hero to me. He signed all of my books and one of them says something along the lines of: “Have endurance, rather than ambition, anticipation rather than dread, and good luck with your writing. You’ll need it.” He had that effect on me. He lived for his work. There was not a day when he wasn’t thinking about it or focused on it, good and bad. But certainly for his work and his readers like me, he had an enormous effect. I don’t know if I would be sitting here right now if I hadn’t met him right when I did.
Bookish: You have gone on record with how important the writing of Richard Yates has been to you. When was the last time you read Revolutionary Road? Does it hold up?
SY: Last time I read it was about four years ago. I taught it in a class. That was probably the fourth time I had read the novel. Not only did it hold up, if anything it was even more of a bravura performance than I appreciated. On a first read, it’s really easy to look at Richard Yates’ writing and to say, like I read in a review, that you wished he were more interesting in a technical sense like Frederick Barthelme. That enraged me because if anything Yates was most interesting to me in a technical sense because of that gliding point of view, the shifting distance between the narrator and the characters. It looks easy because you are never aware of the writer but that’s why it’s hard. He holds up. Lord does he hold up. For most of his life he was overlooked and underappreciated, but there’s never been a time in my life when there weren’t a lot of literary people talking about Richard Yates. He’s going to last. I’m as convinced of it as I can be.
Bookish: How many books have you written versus how many have been published? Exactly how important is persistence to a writer?
SY: I’ve written two more than I’ve published. I’ve gone back to the drawing board on a number that I’ve published. The first one that I finished and didn’t publish was my first attempt at a novel. I’ve been glad that that was a total flop. It was a spy novel. I had an agent who was sending it out. I had the bad luck to finish it in the summer of 1989—a Cold War novel right when the Cold War ends. So he kept making me make changes and finally there was nothing else to do for it, and I realized that it’s not what I needed to be writing anyway.
I finished the most recent novel back in July. I had finished a novel about 13 or 14 months earlier that my agent and I decided not to try to publish. The surest sign that it was the right choice is that when we had the conversation about it, I got despondent for a while and he said, “If you want me to sell the novel, I’m sure I can sell the novel. I’m not sure it will do you any good because I don’t think it will do that well.” Within about a week, I thought, he’s right. And I have another idea and I care more about it. I have never regretted it. If somebody walked in right now and said, “Could we have that novel?” My answer would be no. I can’t rule out the possibility that at some point in the future I might figure out what bothers me about it, but my guess is that I won’t. There is some spark that isn’t there. It’s not bad. I don’t regret the time I spent writing it. It helped me work harder than I’ve worked in a long time on the next one. I busted my rear on it and I needed to. I think I might have been getting to that point where I had to worry about whether or not I’d have a publisher for a book. I think that brings out bad habits in a lot of people.
Bookish: You have the unique perspective of splitting your time between the United States and Poland, where your wife is from. In one interview I read with you, you said that part of being an American is believing we all “have our own stories.” Is this not true in other countries?
SY: It’s true in other countries, but I don’t necessarily think the guy walking around on the street in Krakow thinks it or is empowered to it. I’ve often said, and she might disagree now if she were sitting here, but I don’t think my wife would have ever become a writer if she’d stayed in Poland. In Polish society, you have your place. It’s very traditional. On the positive side, writers are revered, especially poets, in a way I don’t think they generally are in this country. I think she had a notion when she came here that writers were somehow different from her. She actually started translating fiction and poetry and then ended up writing an essay one day. Her first book is coming out in January, a really great collection of essays. The guy in Krakow might think he has a story but he doesn’t ever expect to have it told, but I think most Americans do, preferably in a movie.
Born in Indianola, Mississippi, Steve Yarbrough is the author of five previous novels and three collections of stories. A PEN/Faulkner finalist, he has received the Mississippi Authors Award, the California Book Award, the Richard Wright Award, and another prize from the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters. He teaches at Emerson College and lives with his wife in Stoneham, Massachusetts.