Smoking With Peter Stenson

by Gay Degani Read the Story June 27, 2011

What strikes me about your story, “An 8mm Clip of Violence” is the voice. There is energy, immediacy, and edginess in that voice. Is voice something you work on consciously or does it “just happen.”

I’m all about voice. I love it. I can’t define it, but I guess it’s like obscenity: I know a strong voice when I see it. That’s pretty much how, up until very recently, I chose what to read. I’d walk through the store and first look at the covers, then the first sentence. If I liked the voice, if it was something other than “The wind blew through the last leaves of autumn” — something that wasn’t overly “literary” in a no-personality-kind-of-way — then I would read it. With that being said, my appreciation for differing, more subtle voices has grown over the last few years, but a forceful voice is still the first thing I react to.

As for myself, the voice for this story is more or less my natural way of writing sentences. Sure, it changes from story to story, my third person voice is a wee bit smarter and more sarcastic (which annoys the piss out of me), but in a prose suspect lineup, I’m pretty sure you’d be able to pick out my writing. That’s probably both good and bad. But whatever — this is my natural voice, and I’ve read worse, so I’ll go with that for the time being.

You mention “up until very recently” you’ve read what you wanted. What’s happening now that you are reading other things?

Just through school. I’m working on my MFA at Colorado State. It’s been a damn good experience, learning a lot, writing every day, surrounded by other talented writers. As far as my reading habits changing, I think it’s just being exposed to other writers, ones I wouldn’t necessarily seek out on my own, but am glad to have come across.

Your story is complex with several points of danger: making the narrator so young, giving his lover a daughter, throwing up “maroon sheets” as the only nod to privacy. I want to ask how this story came to you, but more importantly, I’d like to know more about your overall process.

This story came to me with the first line, or the first part of the first line — “so we were tired from sex and maybe with each other” — as most of my stories do. From there, I just wrote a character who would think in those terms. A mentor of mine, Steven Schwartz, told me that given enough page space, writers will always write themselves into their obsessions. It took about a thirty words for me in this piece — sex as a means of avoidance, drugs, codependence, men looking to women as a motherly solution. Of course I didn’t think about any of this while writing the piece. I just wrote whatever came next. I never really know why I write certain things and have no idea what they mean, if anything, until subsequent drafts. And personally speaking, I think that blind faith/ignorance that something will arise from putting characters in difficult situations is key to writing anything remotely interesting, and I guess that’s about all I can really say regarding my process.

What authors have influenced your writing? Or a better question might be, what writers do you think you are most like?

No real unique or clever response here. My major influences are pretty much the same list that intro lit teachers use to trick smelly teenage boys into liking books — Tim O’Brien, Denis Johnson, Richard Yates, Steve Almond. I’d be lying to say that Chuck Palahniuk isn’t also a guilty pleasure. Fitz is far and away my favorite — I’ve always felt some crazed-stalker delusional connection to F. Scott because we were asked to leave the same Minnesota prep school.

When I Googled you to find your website, I ran across Peter Stenson the actor. Is that you? Where is the “Peter Stenson — Writer website” and where can we find more work from you?

No, unfortunately I am not Peter Stenson the actor. But I’d quit this writing thing in a second if I were handsome enough for the silver screen.

The whole idea of self-promotion makes me want to paper cut my eye, but I’ve been told it needs to be done. So my brother-in-law, Robbie Lane, was living with my wife and me over the winter and his payment was building me a website. It’s petercstenson.com. I think it’s pretty sweet. I have a blog there too where I write about things I’m psyched on — Justin Bieber and stretch marks and things like that. It has a list of my pubs and a picture of me where I look tired and not so handsome (at least not enough so for movies). As for bigger works, my agent and I are in the final round of edits for my new novel, so keeping fingers crossed with that whole process.

Is there any one lesson you’ve learned about writing that you’d like to share with others, something that might have seemed obvious once you learned it, but that eluded you for a while?

I’m not sure who said it originally, Edward Abbey maybe, and I’m bastardizing it for sure, but it was something along the lines of only writing stories you would want to read. This seems idiotic in its obviousness. But it helped me more than anything. It somehow gave me permission to write anything — gritty realism or genre or fantastical or something in the middle. I just wrote a story about a woman whose nether region emits 80s power ballads. Why? Because I would be stoked to read a story like that. And I may be the only one, but whatever. It’s just hard for a young writer to look around at what is being published, and not say to herself, So this is literary fiction, and try to force that aesthetic into her own work. But if we remember to only write what we want to read, it’s pretty hard to veer too far off course.

About the Author:

Peter Stenson has stories and essays published or forthcoming in Post Road, Passages North, The Pinch, Blue Mesa Review, Crate, The Coachella Review, Gulf Stream, REAL: Regarding Arts and Letters, and Upstreet, among others. He is currently working on his MFA in fiction at Colorado State University.

About the Interviewer:

Gay Degani has been nominated here and there for Pushcart consideration, Best Small Fictions, and a few various and sundry honors including the 11th Glass Woman Prize. She is the author of a full-length collection of short stories, Rattle of Want (Pure Slush Press, 2015) and a suspense novel, What Came Before (Truth Serum Press, 2016). Her micro "Abbreviated Glossary" appears in the anthology New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fictionedited by James Thomas and Robert Scotellaro. She occasionally blogs at Words in Placeand is currently working on another novel of suspense.