Interview by John Wisniewski
JW: When did you begin writing, Curt? What were your first published stories?
CS: I began writing in my late twenties. I’d always wanted to be creative, but it took some time to find what would eventually call me. I’d done some 8mm films—and I was getting into woodwork (which might have been more practical in the long run). I’d written a little early on in college. I can’t remember if my return to writing was triggered by a story—I was reading a lot of story collections then—but once I started writing my own stories, no matter how horrible they were, I knew I’d found my outlet. So I started writing—daily, often twice daily—and to be honest, not too many days have passed since where I haven’t put pen to paper (or whatever task the process demanded at the time).
My first published story was in The Antietam Review, 1991, and it was later cited by The Best American Short Stories, which was a thrill. I thought I was on my way—but the next decade was a slow and steady learning. I’d publish two or three stories a year—and send out lots of others that went nowhere—all the while toying with a novel, which also went nowhere. Now I understand most of those nowheres were really steps in the march. In my early 40’s, I started publishing at a better clip—and it was because I started understanding the craft—and myself—better.
JW: What inspires your writing?
CS: I write because writing makes me happy. Or is soothes some compulsive itch—but maybe that’s happiness enough. I’ve told folks this—imagine those intervention reality shows—where addicts talk about their first time doing their substance of choice. It’s blissful and transcendent and beautiful. Then the bottom falls out and everything goes to shit. But for me, every night I can sneak a half hour or hour at my desk is like that first-time high. It’s an immersion—a trance. Sure, not every night—but even the toughest nights are good. What am I going to do anyway? Watch TV?
JW: Any favorite authors? I know that you like the writing of Kurt Vonnegut.
CS: Where to start? Rick Bass, Margaret Atwood, James Salter, Milan Kundera, Richard Ford, Joy Williams, Ann Beattie, John Barth, Tobias Wolff, Cormac McCarthy, Andre Dubus, John Williams, Ellen Gilchrist, Fitzgerald, Hemingway. I really enjoy the flash fiction of folks like Kim Chinquee and Kathy Fish.
Here’s a confession—sometimes I won’t finish a book I’m really enjoying. The reading motivates me to get to my own work, to try to create something as lovely as what I’m reading. Eventually I’ll return and finish the book—but not before taking care of my own work.
JW: Do you write screenplays? Do you ever envision one of your books in terms of film?
CS: No, I don’t do screenplays. At one time, I thought I might want to try but I haven’t made that leap. My second novel has been made into a screenplay and is currently looking for funding out in LA–but outside of an occasional email update, I’m not that involved in that project. I could see my third novel being a movie–but that transformation would have to be someone else’s baby. I’m too involved with promoting the new book and working on my current projects.
JW: Curtis, you often write about the subject of communion, or communion as symbol. Is this a theme that you wish to explore? You also write about a father’s relationship to his son.
CS: I experienced the notion of communion first through my son’s First Communion–and I guess that got me thinking about the concept. In a way, much of life is a kind of communion–our interactions with those we love (and don’t), with nature, with our beliefs. A lot of my nonfiction centers around parenting. It’s an eye-opener in many ways–one lives in the moment yet flashes back to their parents and their own childhood. Fatherhood allowed me to see the world through a new set of eyes–and as a writer, this change in perspective fascinated me. The essays that involve my son are rarely about him–at least on a deeper level. They’re more about the things he’s helped me see and understand.
JW: When writing your essays, Curtis, you give us glimpses into other ideas, or fragments of life. The term flash fiction has been used. Could you tell us about this style of writing essays?
CS: Much of my writing uses a fragmented lens–a portrait of disparate pieces that I then try to weave together. In the Vonnegut book, I wrote about collage and assemblage–stating they were my favorite types of art and, I believe, the truest expression of our experiences. I think this is reflective of life in general. Nothing really makes sense or comes to us in a logical order–but it’s up to us to arrange it into some kind of picture that makes sense.
JW: Could you tell us about any upcoming projects and writings?
CS: I’m always juggling a couple different projects–it allows me to focus on whatever one is calling me at the moment. I completed a cycle of new stories at the end of spring–and I’m just starting to place them in journals. I’ve just finished a draft of a new novel, and I’ve mapped out a novella. I’m toying with the notion of tackling another book-length nonfiction project–but I’m not sure if that’s going to work out. We shall see.