Interview by Lara Lillibridge
At its center, Soft-Boiled follows Stephen J. West as he shadows a private investigator by the name of Frank Streets. What starts out as West’s last-ditch effort to write his first book — while juggling responsibilities as a husband and a new father — becomes a critical reflection on art-making, storytelling, and masculinity in America. Blending memoir, reportage, criticism, and detective thriller into one capacious yet focused narrative, Soft-Boiled is a lyrical and aching self-reflexive portrait of an artist that asks the questions so many men are afraid to ask. (Kelson Books)
I had the chance to catch up with Stephen to talk about his writing process, publishing journey, and the art of the essay.
Lara Lillibridge: First of all, tell me about your publishing journey, and how you wound up with Kelson Books.
Stephen J. West: It’s actually kind of a long story. Scott Parker, who is the prose editor at Kelson Books, is actually someone I met through a close friend from when I was in the Ph.D. program in English at Iowa. I’d always been kind of moonlighting while in the program, taking nonfiction classes before I was even accepted into it or anything. And then my friend said, “My sister is dating a guy who loves essays and is an essayist. I should get you two in touch.” So Scott and I emailed a little bit. This was like 2008.
LL: So a really long time ago.
SJW: Yes, a long time ago! And Scott, I think, was just starting to apply to MFA programs at the time. So we were both young and aspiring writers and into experimental, weird stuff. We bonded over that. We didn’t keep in touch, but I ran into him randomly at The Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) annual conference in LA. This was in 2013. And he asked, ‘What are you working on now?’ And I said, ‘Well, to be honest, I’m trying to figure that out.” I told him about the early stages of what would become Soft-Boiled, how at first I wanted to hire a P.I. to follow me around and write about it.
Like I said, Scott was into conceptual projects, so I knew he would think it was cool. No one else would, probably. And we talked about the book idea for like, 30 minutes. I told him that I had met this P.I. in West Virginia, Frank Streets, who agreed to let me shadow him. And he thought it sounded like a neat project, and asked me to keep him in the loop. I didn’t — we fell away for a while.
Fast forward to spring 2021, the main draft of Soft-Boiled was finished and sitting on my hard drive for a few years, after being rejected by a bunch of presses and contests I’d submitted it to. I was in a bad spot with my writing at the time. I’d been home since the beginning of the pandemic, zooming, teaching, parenting, with no time or space for writing. And I got an email from Scott out of nowhere. This was a reply to a thread from like six years before.
He’s like, “Hey, just wondering whatever happened with that book The Private I that you were working on?” That was one of the early titles I had for it. And he’s like, “I hope it’s still available”’ This was after several editors had given me good feedback and it had gone through several revisions. And I said, “Well, actually, it is still available. And here’s the most recent version.” And then the rest is kind of unfolding right now.
LL: What an awesome story. That’s so hopeful, you know?
SJW: I know, yeah. But it also introduces some self-doubt, too, because I’m not by any means the most well-connected writer. But you start to wonder about if there’s some kind of stamp of approval if you throw your work into the slush pile and someone selects it, versus someone that you know, who you share some kinship with in terms of aesthetic. And I don’t mean to diminish it, but…
LL: We all have Impostor Syndrome, right? And we always look for a reason to discount our successes. When I got my first book deal, I thought, “well, they must accept everyone who submits.” You know, like, there’s no way my work can be good enough.
SJW: I know. It’s so sad, isn’t it?
LL: Yeah, we find ways to denigrate ourselves always.
SJW: Yeah, it’s heartbreaking. But I guess it might be part of the makeup that lends itself to the people who are dedicated to the craft. Maybe it’s not the most positive inspiration, but, most of the writers that I admire that I’ve heard in interviews, I’m stunned when they’re like, “Oh, yeah, I have imposter syndrome.” I can’t believe how many talented and successful people still feel that way.
LL: But I think the fact that he liked your writing and remembered it for all those years is testimony to your talent. He wouldn’t have hunted you down if he thought that you were a hack, right?
SJW: That’s actually very generous of you. Thank you. Yeah, he didn’t need to rekindle that seven-year-old email thread. We had a great editorial relationship because of that foundation—and he gave me some pretty serious feedback about what needed to change to make the book a bit more narrative. In the version that I shared with him, I had separated the kind of memoiristic narrative thread from the more theory-driven and idea-driven discourse, and so much so that I was using a different register — a more academic tone, kind of alongside the more accessible narrative or memoiristic tone. And he and David Oates, the publisher at Kelson Books, thought it would be better to make the theory stay closer to the memoiristic tone.
I was reluctant to that change at first because I always wanted this to be a weird book, and I worried that if it gets too accessible, it’s going to feel kind of schlocky or something. So Scott was very critical, but also generous. He read through the book several times and gave me detailed line notes—I couldn’t have asked for a better editorial relationship.
LL: I love experimental writing, and I thought this book was really interesting. And I can’t think of another book that is about writing the book –the book is the journey of the book.
SJW: So, Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage is about his failure to write the book he sets out to write, if you’re into that type of thing. Which, believe me, not many people are, because it can be a little annoying. I think his book is over the top ‘meta,’ but I’m into that kind of obsessive self-consciousness. It works for me.
LL: Was there a moment when you knew that the detective story was your way in to writing about masculinity? Or was it just this random idea that came to you in that coffee shop, with the private investigator across the street?
SJW: So I mention this artist in Soft-Boiled named Sophie Calle. She’s a French conceptual artist, and she had this project where she had a P.I. follow her around and write up a report of what he observed her do as she just went about her life. And then all of the documentation, all of the ephemera of that report becomes the artwork. I thought that was really cool.
I decided to take that concept—what if a private eye follows me around and I write about it? — that was where the conceit for the project started. Now, the way into masculinity came later. I was just thinking, “Okay, the P.I. gives me something interesting to write about,” and as someone coming fresh out of a nonfiction MFA program, I was maybe high-minded and a little suspicious about what it means to self-investigate and reveal yourself on the page. Can we ever really say something authentic about ourselves if we’re the ones commanding or directing the narrative?
But as I got further into the project I started to think, “What am I actually trying to write about? What do I want to say in the book?” I didn’t have answer.
I had a conversation with a writing friend from Iowa, and she helped me see the P.I. story in the book could be a way into investigating my relationship to masculinity. She said, “What about your heterosexuality, your whiteness, your masculinity, your anxiety about not having something to write about because of that?” And she was like, “We need people, especially het cis white male writers to dig into that.”
It was nerve racking, because I didn’t know how it would be received. It can feel quite contentious, honestly, to be a white male writer, and as someone who identifies as an ally, I understand why. So, as a white man, I write a book about being a white man that honestly doesn’t need to be written or even read, and it’s taking up space in a way. So it was kind of hard for me to commit to it. But I’m like, ‘well, this is honest self-investigation, right? To dig into some of my position as a straight white man who wants to make art?’ And it was my writing community that helped me see that could be an interesting conversation to include alongside Frank Streets, who is the pinnacle of traditional masculinity. It was an a-ha moment, with the help of some really smart people that helped me see it.
LL: You have a quote, that goes along with that,
…my self—was not something to draw attention to. Was in fact something to avoid in writing. It was something that needed an alibi.
And I think as a woman and a feminist we need the other side of the conversation. I found the tone of voice in the book to be humble—you’re not coming to mansplain to anyone. Rather, you’re here on a journey and you’re bringing us along with you to see what does it mean, at this point in your life to be a father, a writer, a white man, all of that. So I personally think this book definitely adds to the conversation.
SJW: Thank you. I want to make sure I’m on the right side of the conversation because I believe it’s important. But it’s impossible to be, always, even though that’s where I believe I should be aiming in my work. I still have moments where I think, well, I need the book to be about whiteness more. But it could also just feel like it’s trying too hard, and I don’t want the book to come off as pedantic. So, again, my smart friends were like, well, you don’t have to be the spokesperson for your whiteness and your masculinity and straight parenthood all at once. And, that kind of liberated me a little bit from just trying to address all of my measures of privilege in a single book. This is the book where I try to investigate masculinity as some part of my privilege. And it doesn’t have to be my last word on it.
LL: Colson Whitehead was the keynote speaker at AWP in Portland in 2019. He said this in regards to writing about race, but I think it goes with a lot of things—if you muck it up the first time, just learn from it and do better next time. That to me was so freeing. And another writer i admire, Kao Kalia Yang, said that our books are a snapshot of who we were when we wrote them. It is not who you will be for your entire life.
We want to write more books, right? You have to save something for the next book.
SJW: Yeah, I mean, this book has gone through so many different iterations because of my ambition to have it be weird, and comprehensive, and far ranging. My editor Scott helped me — it’s still a complicated conversation I’m having I think, but maybe just less ambitious in some ways, which is okay. Because like you said, if I muck it up, that’s okay. I’m doing what I can. I’m trying. I’m still trying. That’s the essayist in me.
LL: That was one thing that in your book — maybe I took it the wrong way, but the tone is a little scornful of the memoirist in a few places. You wrote about George Orwell’s craft essay that says there’re four reasons people write: historical impulse, political purpose, aesthetic enthusiasm and sheer egoism, and that you ask students to stand in a corner of the classroom dedicated to one of those reasons. But to me, it’s like what of essay as a verb? To essay, to explore, to attempt. The desire to figure out what we think about something, or to work something out on a page, I think doesn’t really fall into those categories. I wanted to argue that point in your book.
SJW: That’s interesting. Yeah, I actually don’t personally ascribe to the taxonomy that there are only four reasons we write. I just think it’s an interesting conversation starter, especially for beginning writers to think about. If you start to choose to do this writing thing, and you’re not just assigned it, why are you choosing it? And I love that you’re bringing up the idea “to essay” is “to try” and “to make an attempt,” right?
SJW: When I present this idea from Orwell to students, I walk over and stand with the sheer ego group, mostly, because that’s a part of why I write—I think it’s a part of why everyone writes. But I can just as easily walk over to the historical impulse group or aesthetic enthusiasm group and make an argument that I also fit into those categories. But the reason that I wanted to stand in the ego corner at the beginning of this book is that I was attempting to dismantle that part of my writerly persona — the ego driven part. And I think Soft-Boiled, in some ways, is trying to ask questions about all of our identities and the makeup of ego as a part of identity, the things that we want other people to see and the things we don’t.
LL: That feeds into another one of my questions. I feel like, in some ways, you are often really hard on yourself in this book, and you never try to make yourself look good. And one of the most vivid, vibrant scenes is this fight that you have with your wife in Mexico. And instead of doing the sort of normal, ‘she was wrong, I was wrong,’ thing, I felt like you kind of wanted us to view you in a more critical way. And you wrote, a few pages later, “I’m open to your judgment, reader, please, this is my crisis of masculinity.”
But I thought the book starts by talking about writing for ego. And then here, you’re really kind of showing the narrator in a less positive light. And I just was curious about why you chose that particular moment to include.
SJW: Yeah, I wanted to be hard on myself in this book, I’m glad that resonates. I want that scene to be a little bit ugly, because I think that it’s real and important to show that. This is a moment where I try to bring the conversations of craft and why we write and how we pose, how we want to be received together in the book. And I was hoping in some ways to model a type of self-scrutiny, to expose this necessity men feel of being viewed a certain way, even if we don’t often live up to it. I feel like as an act, maybe as an essayistic act, that men need to embrace self-scrutiny even when what it reveals is ugly, and to own it and share it. To be open to judgment. I think that’s the opposite of toxicity.
SJW: So in that sense, the writer on the page in that scene is acting in a certain way that I didn’t want to take the pressure off of, because I wanted the writer behind the words to be demonstrating awareness of the ugliness of the behavior by depicting it in the scene. I don’t know if it’s successful, but I wanted to say, “here’s me at a low point in time, really something that’s unflattering, something you don’t even want your spouse to remember, let alone have it in a book and share it.” I think it’s important to demonstrate beyond display, even when it’s less than flattering. I think men put so much energy into fabricating — lying to ourselves about who we are, how powerful we are, how important we are. Rather than looking into, like, why do I need to be viewed a certain way? Why do I act how I act? That reflection — it’s therapy. And I think that men need therapy.
LL: That’s what I thought was so interesting about Frank Streets — you talk about how he is also acting and trying and failing in his own way to live up to this uber male persona.
SJW: I actually just sent him a copy of the book. I’m going to meet with him for the first time in eight years to talk about it. I have no idea what he’ll think.
LL: That sounds terrifying.
SJW: Yes, absolutely. I’m having that experience that memoirists have, when their parents or family they write about reads their book. I wanted to show Frank in a positive light, but then also give him the same type of scrutiny that I was giving myself. I tried to draw a parallel in the book between myself as a writer, trying to be a ‘writer,’ and Frank Streets, a really successful private eye trying to believe he is the only voice of justice in West Virginia. I wanted to really show that parallel desire, and have a reader question some of the choices we both make to try and be who we want to be. I didn’t want to be overly harsh or critical, because I don’t think it needed to be. I just wanted it to show that like me, Frank makes some choices about the story that he’s hoping not only others will believe about him but maybe he himself wants to believe, deep down. I hope he thinks that I was fair to him.
LL: I found him to be a likable character. The little dog and the whole ghost hunting parts really humanized him. And with the ghost hunting, he said that he had no idea what he thought about this. And I found that endearing that he was willing to not be a know-it-all about it.
SJW: He’s a fascinating guy. He just loves to talk. I had so many pages of dialogue that I had to cut, because he just narrates everything. I recorded and transcribed everything. I thought that was important — if I was bringing someone else’s voice into this book, I didn’t want to be fabricating some of the dialogue or bending it to what I needed. I thought it was important to let the words speak for themselves and be as accurate as possible. And then it was just kind of selecting which interviews to keep. But yeah, Frank’s a dynamic guy. And I think, super smart, too.
LL: I hope he has a good reaction to it.
I do want to go back to writing as a parent, because it’s something that I see a lot of conversations about with mothers, but it’s not a topic that men are even asked about that often in interviews—how do you balance writing and parenting? I’m sure you’ve seen in literary journals and other magazines the outrage of female writers saying, ‘you would never ask a male writer that’, and yet you write about how your creative life is 100% affected by the birth of your son, as all parents’ lives are.
SJW: Yeah, that’s a really interesting question. It’s complicated. There was a passage in the book that Scott helped me edit, where I was making a claim about sharing parenting with my wife and it being about 50/50. And he said, ‘don’t put 50/50. You don’t want it to come across like you’re measuring.’ And he was right. I got to thinking about how co-parenting in an even split is almost never true. Even with two working parents, it seems the vast majority of time in straight relationships the mother is still doing more. And so I just wonder about the outcome of some of those conversations about parenting and writing, how productive it can be — like, how a group of writers could talk about the impacts that parenting can have on an invested, involved parent that’s also a man, without it turning into a kind of debate about his having more privilege. I actually think that it would be an important conversation, and it’s valid, but it could be difficult to have.
LL: But you know, in Mexico, you were the primary parent. Right?
LL: And so that was very much out of the traditional gender role, and dealing with what a joy small children can be all day long in the summer heat. You know, we love our children, but we don’t necessarily love every moment with them.
SJW: Ha, yeah. I do think that it would be interesting to have more conversations about men and writing and parenting, and I think it would be cool to have it be wide open. I think it would need to be inclusive and have many different perspectives in it, rather than it just being a panel of men talking about that time they were in Mexico — like, just ‘oh, yeah, that one time I was the primary parent and trying to write and it was hard’ — how quickly it could be critiqued as, ‘here come the men again, now they’re centering themselves in a conversation about parenting and writing.’ It would need to have parents who are men of color, women, people who don’t have kids. What a generative conversation that would be.
LL: I think that our society right now is polarized in very many ways — we set ourselves up as adversaries. And I absolutely agree that more voices would be a way to overcome that — being more inclusive of different points of view, which I can do easily about parenting, not so much about politics.
SJW: That’s actually a great point. I wonder if a conversation about parenting and art making in particular could be a way into discussing diversity without it becoming politicized.
LL: Well, speaking of art, your wife gave you this giant canvas, and you had no desire or creative impulse to make art, and you just started pasting rejection letters all over it, which I thought was cool, because now you were making art out of this thing. Whatever happened to it? Did you finish it? Did you burn it?
SJW: That’s funny, no, I didn’t burn it. The project ended when the conversion to mostly online submissions happened and those little generic rejection letters stopped coming in the mail. I didn’t stop getting rejected of course, but it felt too contrived to print them out and paste them to the canvas. But I still have the giant canvas in my basement. During the early days of the COVID lockdown, we needed more space, so I fixed up the basement and created easels and different zones for ‘basement school’ for my two kids. I ended up putting Gesso over the canvas, and my daughter, who is a super right brain little maker person, she and I would paint on it together for ‘art class.’
It’s funny, because you can still see the relief of the letters and envelopes that covered about half of it. but then we made this kind of abstract painting over it, then we went back in with Sharpies and outlined fun little shapes. It’s become this kind of collaborative, father and daughter artwork that we return to from time to time.
LL: Oh, that’s excellent. That circles back to the beginning of the book, where there is a line — you’re quoting someone else — about children becoming the death of the writer.
SJW: It was nine years ago—Jonathan Franzen and his editor.
LL: I’d say that it wasn’t the death of the artist, rather the art changed.
SJW: Yes! Right. And also, maybe this is why I foreground ego in Soft-Boiled. Because when I’m painting in my basement with my daughter, it’s about the process and the craft and that connection, versus the concern over what will become of the work we’re making. The pressure to publish or exhibit somewhere, or have it be critical to my career or whatever. And not that that kind of ambition is bad. We all have to think that way at times, but the canvas became a work that was about making art and sharing that experience with my creative little person, not about anything else.
LL: So that art is about the journey, and this book is about the journey of making art also. So I actually see that as very connected.
SJW: That’s cool. It’s probably been a year since she and I have worked on it, but it’s over in the corner of the basement and now I’m like, “Well, I wonder what its next life will be, when will it come back?” So yeah, it’s become pretty important, like a living metaphor. I mean, I don’t feature it anywhere important, but I think, “Oh, this still has more life to it.”
LL: I want to talk about how you ended the book, because you didn’t really end in resolution, but the publishing of the book sort of is the resolution — the ending comes off the page and into the hands of the reader. And can you talk about just your decisions and ending it in that way?
SJW: I knew I was going to disappoint a certain kind of reader. Because it’s like that writing cliché; if you introduce a gun in the first chapter, it has to go off by the end, right? And Frank Streets has all the guns and none of them are fired. And for me, that’s a fun little irony. But the ending is going to be unsatisfying to someone who wants a really crisp kind of narrative conclusion to the case with Frank Streets, the conspiracy theories of the charges against him, the self-scrutiny of my own desires to find a storybook ending, all of that. And I love that you’re seeing it as kind of breaking that fourth wall. That’s kind of what I had always hoped. The published book will be a kind of conclusion, and it might be satisfying to readers who are into conceptual books, but someone who just wants a traditional ending to a detective story might be a little annoyed. So I’m aware of that too.
But the current ‘inconclusive’ ending came about when I realized that the story had become more about my spouse and me and our son, and trying to leave West Virginia, and our relationship to that period of our lives. So that when she got the job offer up in New York that felt like, well, this is where this period of my life ends, and saying goodbye to the thing I was chasing — the project that will make me a ‘writer,’ that part of my ego and identity. I remember thinking at some level, ‘I need Frank Streets to go to prison because what a book, right? But what if he goes to prison and I’m not there to write about it?’ But that’s terrible of me, right? Like this real person who has a hilarious little dog, and is the super SJWeetest, most generous person I met in West Virginia, and I want his story to end badly because it will make the book I’m writing about it better. So my solution with the ending was to make explicit and self-conscious that kind of crisis of the writer to think about how to conclude a book, to let it go and be inconclusive, because that’s real, and have the case of Frank Streets fail to be resolved as a kind of narrative death.
It’s not a strategy every reader will love, but there’s some meaning in it that I like. I had moved toward accepting a kind of failure in my life at that time, so maybe it’s fitting.
LL: But it’s honest. We are all evolving. You know, it gives the reader permission to just say, you know, that was the conclusion of that time. And it doesn’t have to rise up to some Hollywood ending.
SJW: Right. It’s a tricky thing about memoir. How does it ever end?
Soft-Boiled: An Investigation of Masculinity & The Writer’s Life debuts July 5, 2022 with Kelson Books. See Stephen West at the Debut Creative Nonfiction Author Showcase & Panel at HippoCamp 2022. Find Stephen online at his website, Twitter, and Facebook.
Stephen J. West is the author of Soft-Boiled, out from Kelson Books July 2022. His writing has been published in Brevity, Ninth Letter, PANK, and other places. He is the curator behind the Undead Darlings broadside series. Currently, he lives in Rochester, NY, where he is Visiting Assistant Professor of English at St. John Fisher College.