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Writing West Virginian: A conversation with fiction writer Kevin Stewart
By Gordon Simmons
Avid readers always relish the chance discovery of a skilled and accomplished writer. For readers in the Mountain State, such a discovery is all the more satisfying when the author is a West Virginian. With the publication last year of his novella, Margot, Princeton native Kevin Stewart arrived on the literary scene accompanied by rave reviews and national critical acclaim. What other creative artists can appreciate — and what few readers might realize — is that the road to such recognition is neither straight nor swift.
Stewart details the detours he traversed and the dues he paid in an often humorous and occasionally unsettling article in the Summer 2001 issue of Now & Then, “How to Write West Virginian.” By turns cautionary and encouraging, his account might well serve as required reading for all aspiring writers, as well as those who put a value on good writing.
As many published authors know, precious few can make a living solely by having their works in print. The prospect of a day job has led Stewart, like many others to a position as a full-time instructor in writing and literature; he teaches at Louisiana State University. Getting there, however, was a journey of several years, and meant working at a series of jobs that (if they allowed time for writing) paid very little or (if they paid well) left little time for practicing his chosen craft. So Stewart alternated between working in his father’s auto upholstery business, finding professional employment in architecture and engineering, and serving as an adjunct professor at various institutions of higher learning.
To be sure, there was literary recognition along the way. Stewart racked up an impressive string of honors and accolades. In 1992, he received a $3,500 Artist Fellowship from the West Virginia Commission on the Arts. In 1997, Stewart received both the Elizabeth Simpson Smith Fiction Award for Carolina Writers and a South Carolina Academy of Authors Fellowship for Fiction. In 1999, he won Now & Then’s Appalachian Fiction contest and Kestrel’s Short Story Competition. That same year brought Stewart the Texas Review Novella Prize for the manuscript of Margot.
His educational preparation was hardly a direct route, either. Despite degrees in English from Concord College and Radford University, Stewart studied architecture and civil engineering at Bluefield State, degrees that went a little further in securing a day job. He knows that not only writers and other artists have to leave the state for the sake of career. In his Now & Then essay, he describes the task of enlightening others about what can be a West Virginia story:
“. . . there are stories about characters who both love and hate where they’re from. They hate where they’re from because they can’t stay there and find fulfilling jobs, thus they have to leave the mountains they love. It’s all about love. Tell them the best West Virginia stories are love stories.”
Margot has been described as “a juxtaposed tale of romance and violence. The contrast of modern times encroaching on the backwoods is clear in every paragraph, and Stewart’s mastery of the sensibilities of those caught in the middle elevates this . . . tale to a level worthy of James Dickey.” Although the novella is set in the Ozarks, the parallels with Appalachia would be clear even to a reader ignorant of Stewart’s personal background. In his essay on writing West Virginian, however, he makes the comparison explicit in an imagined encounter: A yuppie in a bar easily switches from telling demeaning jokes about West Virginia to ones about Arkansas. It’s a parallel that Stewart comes by honestly, having earned an MFA in Creative Writing at Little Rock.
Earlier this year the author took time to respond to a few questions for ArtWorks, the text of which follows:
AW: How did you come to choose writing as a career?
Kevin Stewart: Not sure it’s a career yet! I’d be making maybe an average of about $500 a year solely off writing, but I guess it has gotten me my teaching jobs. I stumbled upon writing accidentally, after not getting any encouragement in public schools or my early years in college, when I was an engineering major. Inspired by rock journalist Dave Marsh, I started by writing a music article for the Bluefield State College student paper, then wrote music articles for a weekly paper published for Mercer and Tazewell (VA) Counties. Once, after I’d written sort of a narrative letter-to-the-editor, one of my professors read it and liked it. He called me and said I should pursue writing more seriously, which was strange because he was my engineering prof.
AW: You mention rock journalism; what other writers or kind of writing influenced or inspired you?
Stewart: When I read Breece D’J Pancake and Raymond Carver, I realized I had stories to tell, that literature wasn’t about only the glamorous or the aristocratic or the cosmopolitan. Their work opened a door for me. And music also played a part. Springsteen, John Prine, James McMurtry were all writing about similar characters. I still draw from them now, but also from Chekhov, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Cheever, DeLillo and Dubus.
AW: What should aspiring writers expect to face or deal with along the way?
Stewart: Long periods of loneliness, doubt, rejection, dejection, frustration, work, revision, more revision interspersed with brief moments of success and accomplishment, not just in terms of publications and other external validations, but in knowing you’ve succeeded in finishing a story or even a scene.
AW: Do writers in West Virginia, or Appalachia, face additional obstacles or difficulties beyond the usual ones?
Stewart: Maybe. We could feel a little defensive. I don’t think editors reject a writer because he or she is from Appalachia, and I’m not sure we should try to get into print via some affirmative action or multicultural thing by claiming unique ethnicity. I do, however, sense that editors are much more receptive to images of the region that don’t challenge their notions about it. It seems that some writers get a bit more notice for perpetuating stereotype than the ones who work against type.
AW: Is it helpful to have an agent?
Stewart: Yes. It’s not impossible to get a book deal without an agent. I know one person who managed to do so. However, an agent has connections, has a list of successful clients and has the ability to get a writer’s work noticed. Getting an agent’s attention isn’t always as difficult as some believe. My agent has been called the hardest working one in New York because he scours dozens of literary magazines for talent. So, publish, and then let those accomplishments help get an agent. Still, you have to do good work unless you can fill some niche or current fad or trend.
AW: Do university and small presses play a more vital role in today’s publishing environment?
Stewart: Yes, especially for poetry. Poets have fewer outlets than fiction writers, and few poets get published by the major presses. Also, these are good outlets for short story collections, which are difficult to publish at major presses if the writer doesn’t also have a novel. Their biggest role is to keep literature alive by publishing quality work that gets neglected in a mass-market culture, and by reprinting older books that the majors have let die (like Chuck Kinder’s Snakehunter).
AW: It seems as if West Virginia has in the last few decades produced an extraordinary group of fine literary talents. Why?
Stewart: Maybe for the same reasons I started. West Virginians realize they also have stories to tell. Look at who’s published since the 70’s — Kinder, Pancake, Phillips, Giardina, Settle, Hickam, Gates, Benedict, etc. — and it’s an impressive list. More are coming, too. There’s a new collection out from Ann Pancake, who’s from Romney. So we’re establishing a tradition, and I think most of these writers are aware that they’re doing so.
AW: One final — and self-serving — question: Do fellowships and grants really benefit artists?
Stewart: Yes, if not only for the time and stresslessness that the money can create by allowing the writer to take some time off to write without worrying about starving, then also for the validation, knowing that someone believes in your work. That’s very important, and you feel a sense of obligation to whoever believes in you. And you try to do work that merits their gifts to you.