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“Catch Me Off Guard, Then Slap Me in the Face”: An Interview with Pete Stevens

Interview by Megan Giddings February 8, 2016

AC: Thank you for agreeing to do this interview. I was really looking forward to speaking with you after I read your piece “Beethoven’s Fifth in C Minor”! I took a look around your personal website and noted that you had twenty-one other pieces of flash fiction on there. Do you have a particular one you cherish more or had struggled with the most?

I suppose they all have elements that I cherish and elements that were a struggle. It’s rare that I’m able to write a completed piece in an effortless manner. There’s always another sentence to tweak, another word to replace and reshape. My story, “When A Hitman” at Word Riot was one of those rare examples. That story was written in one take, during a slow afternoon, when I wasn’t even expecting to write. Maybe that had something to do with it.

MG: One thing that I’ve noticed since I started editing at SmokeLong is I came in a staunch defender of the second person. Now it’s been almost two years and I’ve seen the second person used as a gimmick rather than something actually adding to the story so much that I’ve had to downgrade myself to a weak defender of the second person. How do you think editing Squalorly’s fiction submissions has influenced your own writing and tastes?

I know that I can’t mess around. An editor knows fairly early if a piece isn’t going to work. I want my readers locked in from the first sentence, unable to let go. Maintaining momentum through an entire piece might be the biggest challenge for a writer. I’ve also come to appreciate when a fiction writer comes from a poetic background. They bring with them the attention to detail, the musicality of the line. I find myself, as an editor, looking for pieces that share a kitchen with poetry.

MG 3. Another thing you’ve talked about in reference to editing is the necessity of a strong first line. What are some of your favorite story opening lines?

Ah, so many. Right away I think of some of the first lines in Denis Johnson’s collection, Jesus’ Son. From “Out on Bail”: “I saw Jack Hotel in an olive-green three-piece suit, with his blond hair combed back and his face shining and suffering.” From “Work”: “I’d been staying at the Holiday Inn with my girlfriend, honestly the most beautiful woman I’d ever known, for three days under a phony name, shooting heroin.” I also think about iconic first lines, like my favorite from Kafka: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a giant insect.” Talk about being locked in. It’s great. On my desk is a copy of Deb Olin Unferth’s, Minor Robberies. Flipping through it I found this first line from “Sickos”: “Remember when we wanted to grow up and be prostitutes? Drew says.” Right away I’m hooked and want to read more. Catch me off guard, and then slap me in the face.

AC: Are you currently working on any new pieces? Or reading anything currently that is inspiring you to write?

We’re always working on something new, right? I’m just working on stories, some long and some short, for my thesis. All the pieces I’ve been writing for the last year have been written with an overall theme in mind. “Beethoven’s Fifth in C Minor” will surely be in there. And it’s funny because just this week I read “Car Crash While Hitchhiking” from Jesus’ Son. I haven’t read it in years and still it hits me like, Damn! So good. I gave it a fresh read because I’ll be teaching it to my comp students this semester. Hopefully they’ll be as broken by it as I was. Reading a story like that, by a master, is truly inspiring. Those words leave me marveled.

AC: Are there any story topics or themes that you would love to see show up during your reading week?

I don’t want to go into this week looking for any specific topics or themes. I want to be surprised by some amazing writing. It’s very exciting to have a chance to peek in on another journal, to have a say in what that magazine represents. All I know is that the chosen story will have to be special, and it’s going to have to sing.

About the Interviewer

Megan Giddings will be attending Indiana University’s MFA in the fall. She has most recently been published in the Doctor TJ Eckleburg Review and Knee-Jerk.


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