Interviews · 05/01/2018

An Interview With Steve Yarbrough

It’s just that he’s already found what he spent his twenties looking for. How this came to be seems every bit as mysterious now as it did seventeen years ago. A geopolitical event got him sent halfway around the world, and he stumbled upon the right person. That his domestic happiness is firmly grounded in happenstance sometimes unsettles him, but when he looks around at other contented couples, their stories are often similar. You can’t say why fate smiles at some and sneers at others.

Taken from a conversation between protagonist Richard Brennan and his brother-in-law, the quote above describes the intrinsically complicated relationship between geopolitical events, happenstance, and fate. This complicated relationship is at the heart of Steve Yarbrough’s recent novel The Unmade World (Unbridled Books, 2018). Set in Krakow, Poland and Fresno, California, The Unmade World begins on an evening whose tragic events link a group of strangers, impacting their lives for the next decade. Exploring the dynamics of tragedy in all of its permutations, The Unmade World shows us that an event which appears to be the product of one’s bad luck and poor decision making may in fact be a manifestations of one’s reaction to a cataclysmic geopolitical event.

I recently spoke with Yarbrough about The Unmade World, his literary forebears, and the importance of place and language in his writing.

Who are your literary parents? If you had to limit yourself to naming just a few authors and texts whose works have impacted your writing or thoughts about writing, to whom would you be most indebted?

Larry McMurtry’s novel The Last Picture Show looms large in my literary cosmology, so much so that I recently wrote a memoirish book about it for the Bookmarked series. That’s the novel that made me want to be a writer. Richard Yates’s work has always meant a lot to me, Graham Greene’s too. James Salter’s lovely novel Light Years is certainly an influence. Elizabeth Spencer’s novel The Voice at the Back Door made a huge impression, as did David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident, which I think is one of the greatest American novels, now largely unknown. Milan Kundera, William Trevor and Alice Munro remain gods.

You’ve lived in California, Massachusetts, Mississippi and Poland, just to name a few places, and have written stories and novels set in all of these locations. How long do you have to live in an area before it begins to show up in your fiction before you feel you can depict these locations in an authentic manner?

You know, the connection between a writer and a place remains mysterious to me. About half of my latest novel, The Unmade World, is set in Fresno. I lived there for twenty-one years and wrote eight books there, yet by and large Fresno never figured in any of them. I’m tempted to say that I had to leave it to write about it. I am also tempted to say that I had to leave Mississippi to write about it. Except for part of my novel Visible Spirits, which I completed while spending a year as writer in residence at Ole Miss, I have hardly written a word of fiction in Mississippi, though my first eight books were all set primarily in the state. I once spent a week in Florence and wrote a story set there as soon as we got back from Italy. But to generalize: I need to live in a place a long time to set a novel there. I need to know it much more deeply than I do when writing a short story.

When did you know you would write about Poland? What about the place suggested a story?

I first went there in 1987 and knew immediately that I could and would write about it. People there are passionate, larger than life (like so many Southerners), and it’s a country with a troubled history (like the South, which I do regard as a country unto itself). I connected quickly. I set several stories there down through the years and frequently wrote nonfiction that concerned itself with the country. But I didn’t feel capable of placing a novel there until I started The Unmade World in the spring of 2015. It takes a while.

Your story “The Orange Line” is one which I greatly admire. When I look back upon it, I seem to see hints of your newest novel echoing in that earlier short story — the wife from Eastern Europe, the husband who is a journalist. You’ve stated elsewhere that this novel was inspired by the summer you spent waiting for Ewa’s return from Poland, but “The Orange Line” also seems to have influenced the novel as well, to some degree. What connection, if any, is there between that short story and The Unmade World?

Thanks for the good words about the story, Amina. As an admirer of your beautiful short stories, I’m honored. I hadn’t thought of that story in connection with The Unmade World, but certainly your observations about it are right on. I’ve written several stories in which there’s an American man and a woman from Eastern Europe, so that’s a little part of my own biography that keeps working its way into my fiction. The man in “The Orange Line” who’s married to the Hungarian woman is also from Mississippi. I’ve often thought about links between the Deep South and Eastern Europe. I think it’s fair to say that both regions are full of passionate people, many of them larger than life, and they both have great literary and musical traditions. Beyond that, though, both regions harbor some unpleasant truths — the racism directed at African Americans in the South and the anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe. These societies are riven, and a country or region in turmoil is always a draw for fiction writers. So I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about both areas, and for all their many and obvious flaws, I love them, because there are people in both of them that I love.

One of the recurring themes I’ve noticed in some of your work is the difficulty of expressing one’s deeper emotions. In The Realm of Last Chances, the husband and wife experience such a difficulty — she finds it hard to express her unhappiness after their move — and in Prisoners of War, Dan can’t express the friendship he feels for LC. Insecurities hinder these characters and at times obstruct their attempts to connect with others. In The Unmade World, both Richard and Bogdan, two men on two different sides of the world, seem similarly self-defeatist. What is it that gets in both Richard and Bogdan’s way and makes it so hard for them to connect with others, long after the tragedy has passed?

I think that in Bogdan’s case, it’s pretty simple: guilt and shame. He’s not a terrible man, but he did a terrible thing, and he knows he ruined someone else’s life and cost two other people their own lives. I think that with Richard, he simply can’t get past the loss to an extent that would allow him to love again. He manages to function. But he doesn’t recover. A novelist I admire, Nanci Kincaid, wrote me the other night about the novel and told me that she was afraid I would try to convince her, at the end, that Richard had healed. She said she wasn’t going to believe that and was glad that the novel didn’t try to make her believe it. I guess I don’t believe it either. I think that if I lost my family the way he lost his, I might remain functional, I might be able to write and teach, but I wouldn’t heal. I know myself. That’s just me, though, and I am happy for those who are able to move on.

In your novel, Richard’s hopes are dashed within the first few pages and there doesn’t seem that there will be any way for the characters involved to ever recover from that fateful night. Yet, they eventually do. How do you write about hope and what does it mean for you to imbue your characters or plot with such hope? How important is the concept of hope to your writing?

Though I didn’t know it, when I was younger I was essentially a nihilist. About all I believed in was my own despair. I was personally unhappy, had never had a satisfying relationship, hadn’t had a happy childhood, may have had the blues in the womb. About the most hope I could accede to was the kind that’s present at the end of The Sound and the Fury, when Benjy quits screaming because Luster is driving the buggy in the proper direction. Meeting my wife, shortly after I had decided that there was no one in the world who was meant for me, changed everything. And having my daughters changed everything again. As of the current moment, the world is in a royal mess. Everywhere you look, the forces of hate and intolerance are on the march. Yet in the main, I agree with Dr. King: “The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” So I hope for better times. My own life has taught me that better times can come.

In addition to developing The Unmade World’s major plot concerns, you also spend time exploring the contours of language and showing the problems people encounter when they attempt to speak across languages or express themselves in languages which are not their mother tongues. Richard’s nephew Franek faces this difficulty once he arrives in California and back in Poland, Bodgan and his Ukrainian girlfriend Elena do as well. What are you suggesting about language and expression or their limitations and possibilities?

I will put it in these terms: my wife, as you know, is perfectly fluent in English, though it’s her third or fourth language. Yet when she is back in Poland, she becomes a different person. She looks different, she sounds different — even when speaking English — and she walks different. She’s a lot more effusive, decisive, confident. And I am different there too. I become a lot quieter, a lot more observant. I walk and I sit and I watch. Unless I’m around very close Polish friends, I don’t engage. Whereas here, I’m an extrovert. I’m myself in Ireland, the UK, Canada, anyplace, really, where I can speak my own language. When I can’t, in some real way, I am not myself. I think this is true for many people.

You enjoy the enviable position of being married to a fellow writer. How does having a spouse who is a fellow writer impact or influence your own storytelling and writing? Is being married to another writer a blessing, a curse, or something in between?

In my case, it’s been a blessing. She’s been my first reader on everything except the first three stories I ever published. I trust her like no one else. She’s a great reader, with a great literary mind, and she knows my work even better than I do. She also never lets me slide. She tells me the truth. I often react badly, and it always ends the same way, with her getting mad and threatening not to ever read another word that I write. In all fairness, when I read her work and offer criticism, she reacts the same way. We get by.

You’ve published eleven novels and numerous short stories. How has your writing evolved over the course of your career? Who were you when you began writing and who are you now? What has being a novelist taught you about yourself?

Well, it’s actually eleven books, total. Seven are novels, three are story collections and one is a nonfiction book. To stick to the fiction, my early work was a lot thinner in terms of characterization. I was a young writer trying not to make big mistakes. I didn’t publish a novel until I was forty-three years old, and when I finally began to write in that form, I mostly stopped doing anything else. I’ve concluded that as much as I love stories, I probably need a little extra room to do what I do best. As far as what I’ve learned about myself, I suppose the most important thing is that I really feel privileged to have been able to make a life by doing something I love. I don’t think everybody gets that opportunity. So at the end of the day, I want to be able to say I did it diligently and that I always put my best on the page.

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Steve Yarbrough is the author of eleven books including the nonfiction title Bookmarked: Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show, the short story collections Veneer, Mississippi History, Family Man, and the novels, The Realm of Last Chances, Safe from the Neighbors, The End of California, Prisoners of War, Visible Spirits, The Oxygen Man, and, most recently, The Unmade World. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Fiction, the California Book Award, the Richard Wright Award, and the Robert Warren Award. He has been a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award and is a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers. The son of Mississippi Delta cotton farmers, Yarbrough is currently a professor in the Department of Writing, Literature and Publishing at Emerson College. He has two daughters — Lena Yarbrough and Antonina Parris — and is married to the Polish writer Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough. They live in the greater Boston area.

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Amina Gautier is the author of At-Risk, Now We Will Be Happy, and The Loss of All Lost Things.