Steven Gillis is the author of the novels Walter Falls (2003), The Weight of Nothing (2005), both finalists for the Independent Publishers Book of the Year and ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year. His most recent novel, Temporary People (2008) was a finalist on many year-end Best Of lists. Steve’s stories, articles and book reviews have appeared in over four dozen journals. A collection of Steve’s stories—titled Giraffes—was published in February 2007. A second collection of Steve’s stories—titled The Principles of Landscape—will be published by Black Lawrence Press in 2011. Steven’s newest novel, The Consequence of Skating, will be out in late 2010. A three-year member of the Ann Arbor Book Festival Board of Directors, and a finalist for the 2007 Ann Arbor News Citizen of the Year, Steve taught writing at Eastern Michigan University and is the founder of 826michigan and the co-founder of Dzanc Books in partnership with Dan Wickett. All proceeds from Steve’s writing go to Dzanc.
Hot Metal Bridge: You categorize your most recent novel, Temporary People, as a Fable, implying something meant to teach a lesson. There is a strong political and philosophical thread running throughout your work. How important is a moral vision in fiction to you, and how do you safeguard against preachiness and dogma?
Steve Gillis: Well, first, yes I see Temporary People as a fable in that it takes a classic story line and puts it in an allegorical spin cycle and gives the reader a ride toward a particular end. Which leads us to the second part of your question and I’m glad you asked, as this is very clear and important to me. I do like dealing with philosophical questions and what you call moral visions, but I am very conscious and careful not to present dogma. This is imperative to me. What I try and do as a writer is ask questions, then show the many ways that question can be answered; albeit right and wrong. As an individual, I have very strong convictions, but as a writer I want to explore the human condition and this means never to preach. I hope this is clear in Temporary People as I have my protagonist with his back against the wall, and yet the decisions my protagonist makes – his devotion to passive resistance, for example – are not cut and dry, right does not always win; ask Gandhi. It’s a real and sometimes unjust and ugly world out there and while its important to have good and brave and noble intentions, all of this ain’t worth a damn if you don’t understand the odds you are up against. You have to not only be braver and more noble than the “bad guy,” but you must be smarter. If not, the real world will bite you. So, dogma from me in my writing? Never. Only over drinks and then I will rail and defend the left of center party line like a drunken bell ringer. But my writing is an exploration, and it would be a disservice to the text if I just presented one side.
HMB: Your novels take place in fictional settings, two in the city of Renton and one in the fictional country of Bamerita. What does writing about a fictional setting allow you to do in fiction that writing about a place with a real-world counterpart does not?
SG: Well, to be honest, I am just never comfortable placing my characters in a real city as I feel terribly confined that way. A fictional city gives me room to spread my arms. That said, all my writing still conveys a sense of the real world, even with Temporary People, where the “fable” is planted around real events. So a fictional setting, yes, I am more comfortable, but the setting is still “real.”
HMB: While Renton seems to be a prototypical college town, the island of Bamerita is an unmoored, floating island controlled by an ex-TV star dictator who has turned the entire island into a giant movie set. Does a less out and out realistic conceit represent a shift in your work towards something more like fabulism or magical realism or simply the best way to tell that particular story?
SG: It’s a shift in my novels, was fun to do and necessary for telling the story in Temporary People which I felt needed a larger environment, more mythical. The style however is used often in many of my short stories which take the real world and turn it on its head, putting real people in the strangest of situations.
HMB: What writers made you want to be a writer? Throughout your career have your influences changed?
SG: Reading is so essential to becoming and remaining a good writer. I read constantly as do nearly all the writers I know. Out the gate, 100 years ago, I was influenced by Flannery O’Connor, and the Russians, Dostoevsky, Chekov, then fell in love – and remain so – with Cheever, Barth, Thom Jones, on to Carver and, man there are so many. My latest influences, people who moved my writing in a different direction, would be George Saunders, Aimee Bender, Barthelme, Powell and Hannah. There are so many great current writers I love to read and look forward too, as well. The key is just to read and read and then read some more.
HMB: You are a cofounder of Dzanc Books. What was the motivation to start a publishing company during such a tumultuous time for publishing? What has been successful?
What’s been challenging?
SG: We wanted to start a press because we knew of so many great and talented writers who weren’t getting a chance to present their work to the world by way of the “big” presses, and the small indie presses are truly amazing but its a tough haul if one doesn’t have the financial backing to launch through a small press, however well intended. Both Dan – my business partner and dear friend Dan Wickett – and I have years of experience in publishing, though coming from different ends; myself as a writer and teacher, Dan as a reviewer and lit lover and founder of Emerging Writers Network. The long and short is we had a business plan, had our finances in order – which is essential, as our plan is to be around for our kids to run Dzanc. To date, our success has been very pleasing indeed. (Publisher’s Weekly called us “the future of publishing.”) Our list of titles, being picked up for distribution by Consortium, our authors winning awards and going on national tours. The challenge is always to get the word out about a title, to do our authors justice. We are extremely well connected in the “web” world, and as our name builds steam, we expect further doors to open. We are about to launch a distribution line in the UK and have many many other irons in the fire. Man, I could write about Dzanc forever. If I could answer your question in just one way, it’s that there are many many well intended editors who launch indie presses, but Dan and I knew to be able to do all we wanted to – including our charitable programs – we had to have all our ducks in a row, which meant financing. Once we had the backing to be sure we would be around for many many, many years, there has been no stopping us. And as a 501(c)3 nonprofit, all the generous people who donate to Dzanc and receive a tax credit can be assured that 100% of their donations go into Dzanc’s charitable arm. This is where I point people to our Support Dzanc link… 🙂
In addition to Dzanc books you are the founder of the 826 Michigan as well as a professor at Eastern Michigan University. Do you find all these activities take away from your energy as a writer, or do they feed into it?
I am beyond anal with my writing, keep to a schedule and never ever deviate. (I wont bore you with details, suffice to say I don’t sleep much.) To be fair, while I did found 826, I am no longer intimately involved as all my energies go to Dzanc. Likewise, while I taught at EMU for 3 years and loved it, the demands on my time with Dzanc and my own writing, has made my days a bit too full to continue all these projects at once. With the charitable arm of Dzanc continuing to grow – we do workshops and school programs nationwide – along with publishing and my role as an editor and man behind the curtain presence in all aspects of Dzanc, my days are pretty full. And I have 2 great kids and home and a wife who has been more than supportive on my endeavors.
Do you keep to a strict writing schedule?
As noted, yeah I do and feel this is essential. I get up around 4 am, usually earlier, go for a run, come back home and write. Everyday. 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Everyone is different in what works for them. This works for me.
What new projects do you have in the works?
I have just put my new novel, The Consequence of Skating, to bed. She will be out the end of the year. I have a short story collection that will be out in 2011. Both are being published by Black Lawrence Press, with Diane Goettel as the great editor there, and they did Temporary People, too. (My first three books were published elsewhere before I had the good fortune of meeting Diane.) For the past several weeks, I’ve been working on some new stories and am percolating the idea for a new novel.
Your name is incredibly similar to mine, Stephen Gillies. In fact, I’m reasonably sure that though I spell my first name with a “ph” and my last name with an “ies” they are pronounced the same. Do you think I need a pen name and do you have any suggestions? Feel free to not take this question seriously.
Another confession. Gillis isn’t my real name. It’s my wife’s name. She wouldn’t take mine so I had to take hers. My real name is just too common so I went pen. Now everyone knows me as Gillis. I do everything but sign checks as Gillis. All my work is Gillis and I think solely as Gillis. Weird, no? As for other names IM Greate is always catchy.