canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: J.J. Steinfeld

Fiction writer and playwright J. J. Steinfeld, who writes poetry at the precise moment when late at night turns into early in the morning, has lived and written in Charlottetown since 1980, after abandoning graduate school in Ottawa and moving to Prince Edward Island. He has published a novel, Our Hero in the Cradle of Confederation (Pottersfield Press, 1987), and nine short story collections, including Forms of Captivity and Escape (Thistledown Press, 1988), Dancing at the Club Holocaust (Ragweed Press, 1993), Should the Word Hell Be Capitalized? (Gaspereau Press, 1999), Anton Chekhov Was Never in Charlottetown (Gaspereau Press, 2000), and most recently, Would You Hide Me? (Gaspereau Press, 2003). 

His poems and stories have appeared in numerous anthologies and periodicals, and over thirty of his one-act and full-length plays have been performed in various forms in Canada and the United States, ranging from staged readings to full productions. His most recent full-length plays are The Franz Kafka Therapy Session, which was produced by Gemini Theatre Company as part of The Pittsburgh New Play Festival 2003, and The Golden Age of Monsters, or, My Father Gave Me Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem for My Twentieth Birthday, which was produced by Pinking Shears Productions at this year’s Hamilton Fringe Festival in June and the Toronto Fringe Festival in July. He was the 2003 recipient of the Award for Distinguished Contribution to the Literary Arts on PEI and the winner of Regina Little Theatre’s 2003 National Playwriting Contest. 

In 1984, The Globe and Mail review of Steinfeld's first book The Apostate's Tattoo (Ragweed Press, 1983) asked, "Are we nurturing a Canadian Kafka on Prince Edward Island?" Every morning since then, when Steinfeld wakes up, he checks to see if he hasn't been metamorphosed into a giant insect. If he is still in his earthly form, he continues on with his writing about the human condition, leaving the lives of giant insects to others.

Michael Bryson interviewed Steinfeld by email in August 2003.

Read TDR's review of Would You Hide Me?

TDR: You have recently published your tenth book of fiction, Would You Hide Me? You have also written numerous plays, and you won the 2003 Award for Distinguished Contribution to the Literary Arts on Prince Edward Island. We usually start with a question about biography. Could you say a little bit about who you are and the path you've followed to PEI, 2003?

Hey, look, we have an interview to do.

What are you talking about, fool?

We have some questions to answer about our existence and the writing life.

Speak for yourself. I didn’t agree to this interview.

Well, I did, and don’t be such a bad sport about it. Raise your profile. Get yourself a literary identity. Get a tasty little lick of literary immortality. Lick, lick…

Oh, screw you. I don’t like doing interviews. A writer’s work should speak for the writer. And as for biographical details, what does that really say except that you’re born, stumble around the planet for a while, then…

So, I’ll do it, you idiot. Why do you have to make life so difficult for us?

I never asked you to open your big persona mouth.

It’s open, kid, and here I go. Go have a beer and stare at the wall. You’re good at staring at walls.

It’s part of the creative process.

And so is banging your head against that aforementioned wall.

I’ll be doing that while you answer the interview questions.

Fair enough. Watch the old noggin’. We both have to share it, after all.

While Steinfeld the writer is banging his head against the wall, I’ll let you in on his existence, what there is of it. I’m the more outgoing persona anyway:

I’m going to skip a lot, because the (damaged) head persona will get pissed off if I flesh in too much. I can compromise, it won’t kill me. After I—we—got my master’s in history at Trent University—"The Clash of Cultures, the Collision of Gods: A Study of Missionary, Police, and Indian Affairs Officials Attitudes Towards Indians in the North West Territory, 1870-1900" (Unpublished M.A. Thesis, Trent University, 1978), neat title, eh?—I wandered off to the University of Ottawa and spent two less-than-illustrious years in the Ph.D. program in history, then abandoned the academic life. Writing was the calling, the pull at the heart and spirit, so off I went to Prince Edward Island, where I knew not a single soul. Made sense to me. To write. To be a writer. Exiling myself, so to speak. As I had started mumbling, I’d rather be a failure as a writer than a success at anything else. Be careful for what you wish. That was 1980. I’ve been living in Charlottetown ever since, writing, the outsider finally finding a home, no longer believing it is a self-imposed exile. Fast forward to April 2003: I get the award from the PEI Council of the Arts for the Distinguished Contribution to the Literary Arts on Prince Edward Island. Not many stranger things have occurred in the history of CanLit. I was deeply moved to receive the award, to have my writing life and body of work recognized and appreciated. Displaced and misplaced, I have a place, sort of, and it’s the Island. This is my home, and my only major question is where will they bury me after my writing hand gives out. In other words, where do you bury a Jew on the Island? There is no Jewish cemetery on Prince Edward Island. Maybe I’ll investigate the locale for my final resting place during a dream, or a nightmare. Nightmares are actually good times to reflect on one’s comings and goings… There we have a non-biographical biography of the writer who is doing a superb job of banging his head against the wall. Good you can’t hear the banging noise—it’s obnoxiously loud. 

TDR: Turning from biographical identity to aesthetic identity ... In one of the emails leading up to this interview, you wrote: "Kafka and Beckett have always been the two writers who make the most sense to me." And yet, each of those writers has a reputation for producing work that doesn't make a whole lot of sense. I mean that in two ways: (i) their work is often described as absurdist, (ii) it also leaves many people just plain confused. My question: What kind of sense does the work of Kafka and Beckett make for you?

Ah, a little cogitating about K and B.

Woe is me!

Oh, lighten up. I’ve got some serious thinking to do. I would appreciate it if you limit your contribution to background noise. That’s better. Where was I? Yes, the sense of Kafka and Beckett. I don’t have a good answer for that. Any answer I offered would probably sound absurd, which makes sense, in an absurdity sort of way. Actually, I deal in questions and not answers, so I’m caught. Okay, let me try to mess up a perfectly good blank space. While I have been drawn to the work of Beckett and Kafka because they make me feel not alone, I cannot explain why they tickle my fancy. Simply put, their writing makes sense to me. Of all of Beckett’s extraordinary work, it is his play Waiting for Godot that I have often revisited as a source of (disturbing) comfort. In fact, the only play I’ve ever directed is a short one I wrote, Godot’s Leafless Tree, about a character who is convinced that today is the day that Godot finally arrives. I also have a story version of this play, and it appears in Would You Hide Me? In the play, the opening directions are “A man, wire-rimmed glasses on, wearing patched jeans and a ragged jacket with large pockets, is dancing near a leafless tree on a country road, in the evening (as is the setting and time in Act I of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot).” I set the story version on Prince Edward Island, specifically in Kings County. I have another short play, Beckett Arrives, which deals with two actors who have been fired from their roles in Waiting for Godot and are “waiting.” Waiting, to me, is a powerful metaphor for the absurdity of life, or the orderly sense-strangled aspects of life, take your pick. I haven’t answered the Beckett part of the question, so I might as well go on to the Kafka part. Absurd enough logic? Here I’m going to fudge a bit, and rely on a version of a short essay I wrote a few years ago. The bonus of this essay is, along with dealing with Kakfa, it also goes over a few biographical details.

Don’t use that nonsensical essay. Make up something new.

Shut up. You don’t look so well. You’re the one who makes things up. I’ll quote you— what’s the crime in that?

You’re such a damn tyrant.

Watch the hyperbole, kid. 

Do you realize that Beckett (1906-1989) lived about twice as long as Kafka (1883-1924)? 

What in the world does that mean?

I don’t know, but the thought just hit me like a malformed metaphor. And, if you require a little biographical tidbit, my age is somewhere between the length of Beckett’s and Kafka’s worldly stays.

Thank you for the nonsensical interruption.

You’re welcome, you trouble-making persona. Don’t forget, we’re the exact same age.

I’ll keep that in mind, but I really do need to get back to the interview and that essay I mentioned. First let me give the bibliographical background: "Two Fictional Friends of Mine: Kafka's Gregor Samsa and the Hunger Artist" is a shortened version of an already short essay that appeared in The New Quarterly, Vol. XX, No. 2, Summer 2000, and in turn that essay is based on a short essay I wrote for a library journal on Prince Edward Island—The School Library Advocate, Volume 8, Number 2, Spring 1998—in response to another literary question, concerning a book which has been influential in my life. The book was Kafka's The Penal Colony.

"Two Fictional Friends of Mine: Kafka's Gregor Samsa and the Hunger Artist"


J. J. Steinfeld

When pondering which fictional character I would want to be, two doomed, outwardly pitiful characters from Kafka immediately jump to mind: Gregor Samsa, a man who wakes as a giant beetle, in "The Metamorphosis," and the eponymous character of "A Hunger Artist," whose entire existence revolves around not eating. I hate to choose between these two literary friends of mine the one I would like to inhabit, so I won't. I want to be both Gregor Samsa and the Hunger Artist. But why?

All my life I've had a passion for books and writing, but as a young man I had no idea how to use this passion to form a profession or career. During my fourth year at university, after I'd been accepted to law school, I read for the first time all of Kafka's published stories. The world he was writing about, on the surface, was completely alien to my existence, yet I felt a strong attraction to Kafka's work. Throughout Kafka's stories is a desire for some sort of meaning and purpose. The beauty of the language, even in describing the struggles of the human spirit, reached deep into my being. Two stories in particular, "The Metamorphosis" and "A Hunger Artist," touched my imagination. 

I went off to law school, was beset by doubts as to my choice of a career path, and wound up rereading Kafka's stories. Within a month, I had quit law school, but with no idea what path to follow in life, knowing only that I had a passion for writing. Years later, after I had returned to the academic world, received a master's degree, and was enrolled in a PhD program, the passion that had never left me became overwhelming, and I decided to abandon graduate school, move to Prince Edward Island, and attempt to live as a writer. Once more I returned to Kafka's literary world, became lost in "The Metamorphosis" and "A Hunger Artist," met again with my old friends Gregor Samsa and the Hunger Artist.

A 1984 Globe and Mail review of my first short story collection, The Apostate's Tattoo, said I was "Blessed with an imagination as dark as Franz Kafka's." (Or as a sharp-witted friend said, "Shouldn't that be 'cursed with'...") I was flattered and confused by the comparison with Kafka. My world, my life, my artistic vision were galaxies away from Kafka, yet there was a strange thread. The thread of creativity, the need to confront the darkness and celebrate the wonder of the human spirit. I figure one of the best ways to understand myself, and Kafka, and the world around me, is to become two of Kafka's characters, Gregor Samsa and the Hunger Artist, doomed "outsiders" who provide strong insights into the people and the world around them. So, being a giant beetle or engaging in the vocation of fasting would be a joyous, Kafkaesque excursion for me. But after a little while I would sure need to have a big, scrumptious chocolate-chip cookie. Even an angst-ridden writer needs some comfort food.

TDR: What are you reading right now? Anything inspiring or disappointing? (What characterizes books that inspire / disappoint you?)

My head is killing me. I can’t think, I can’t write, I can’t even check the baseball stats on the Internet.

Shut up, you’re not making any sense. I do have some real activity to conduct, this interview. So just keep doing your cranial rap-tap-tapping, and let me handle the words:

I’m a haphazard reader, a jump-around-all-over-the-place reader. And I often have several books and plays on the go. I’ve recently finished Carol Shields' Unless, Coastlines: An Anthology of Atlantic Poetry (edited by Anne Compton, Laurence Hutchman, Ross Leckie and Robin McGrath), Hubert Aquin’s Next Episode—as part of my Distinguished Contribution to the Literary Arts on Prince Edward Island award I received a gift certificate to my favourite Charlottetown bookstore, The Reading Well, and these were the three books I picked up. I’m currently reading Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why, along with two new books by authors living on Prince Edward Island, Hugh MacDonald’s poems Cold Against the Heart, and Michael Hennessey’s novel The Betrayer, and I was able to attend their summer book launches. I’m rereading poet John MacKenzie’s Sledgehammer and a non-fiction baseball book, Robert K. Adair’s The Physics of Baseball, which John gave me as a gift. We’re both big baseball fans, by the way; interestingly, when we bump into each other in downtown Charlottetown, we talk about baseball as often as we discuss writing or literature, maybe more often. Because of this interview, I've been revisiting some of the work of Kafka and Beckett. And I usually have a few short story collections on the go, where I can dip into from time to time; currently William Trevor’s Collected Stories, Alice Munro’s The Love of a Good Woman, and in addition, Nothing Makes You Free: Writings by Descendents of Jewish Holocaust Survivors (edited by Melvin Jules Bukiet), in which I’m the only Canadian included, with my story “Dancing at the Club Holocaust.”

As far as analysing the nature of what I read and its effects on me, I’m not keen on offering any kind of literary criticism. I like books and plays that are well written and get their teeth into the struggles of being. Being what, I’m not certain. 

Oh, now you want to make a little contribution to the interview.

I wasn’t very impressed by your rambling, so I thought I’d help out.

You’re a nuisance, if you ask me. 

TDR: Some people would say that each writer tends to circle around a single subject. Is this true of you? If so, how would you articulate that subject?

I write about a great many themes, but they might fall into the large description of "captivity and escape.” In fact, the title of one of my short story collections was Forms of Captivity and Escape. A lot of my work deals with captivity—spiritual, emotional, physical—and the attempts to flee or escape, that is, to find meaning and purpose and sense. But one person’s captivity might be another’s escape, and the other way around also. I have written many stories that deal with the effects of the Holocaust on subsequent generations, but I don’t see that as a single subject except in the broadest sense. The stories in Would You Hide Me? deal with many of the themes that have occupied me in my nearly quarter-century of writing: the influence of the past and memory on the present; how the turmoil and struggle of existence stir some people to rage while paralysing others; the significance of love, creativity, and madness in the lives of individuals as they attempt to deal with the not always hospitable world around them. As Gaspereau Press publisher Andrew Steeves wrote of some of my previous writing: “J. J. Steinfeld explores the way in which the modern mind is both haunted and helped by the past. Steeped in post-Holocaust sensibility, Steinfeld's writing demonstrates that history's impact is as much psychological as it is physical, exploring the many facets of survival. Through his characters, Steinfeld details life's tragic, often absurd moments in a voice that is compassionate and unsentimental.”

TDR: What are you working on now? What can we expect next from J.J. Steinfeld?

I’m working on the pain of existence.

You can dress him up, but you can’t take him to an interview. He’s not looking too good. I’ve lost track of how many times his head has hit the wall. My head feels good, so let me address your final question:

I’m working on stories and poems and plays, and struggling to write a creative non-fiction biography of Milton Acorn. I don’t know if I can pull the Acorn bio off. I was flattered to be asked to write this bio—I personally knew Acorn the last five years of his life—but dealing with a person who actually existed, and one whose work I admire greatly, is jabbing terribly at my psyche. I’ve not published much poetry—thirty poems so far—but lately I have been writing poetry and sending it off. I don’t know if this is a good idea, but it makes sense in an absurd sort of way. One of the poems I recently finished is called “Gregor Samsa Was Never in the Beatles.” I do have a poetry manuscript, Indelible as History, under consideration at a publisher, but I hold out no hope that it will be accepted. I also have a new short story collection—working title Magic Upstaging Beauty—that I do hope will see the light of day before I have to start worrying about where they will bury me on the Island. The title piece of the new collection again connects to absurdity and Kafka and the desire for sense. The narrator is obsessed with magic and magicians, but is lousy at it and therefore feeds his love of magic by attending magic shows whenever he can. He falls for an incredible magician, a beautiful top-hatted young woman—her specialty is making growling animals and antique cars disappear from the stage. The spirit of Kafka, not to mention the reality, plays a big role in this story, and one of her tricks involves Kafka. I have a novella, Word Burials, under consideration at a small press, and I have no idea if it will ever be published. And I have to rewrite a play, Past Artistry, which won Theatre Prince Edward Island's 2000 Playwriting Competition in the full-length play category [The F. R. Seaman Award] and also won Regina Little Theatre’s 2003 National Playwriting Contest. I will be having a chapbook of some very short stories published in late fall 2003 by Mercutio Press, in Montreal. The manuscript contains seventeen stories, but I don’t know yet how many will be used in the chapbook. I see these stories as a dialogue with the Eternal. 

Give me SENSE… Give me LOVE…Give me MEANING…Give me PURPOSE… 

He can’t shut up, can he?

Maybe life isn’t absurd or frighteningly random. Maybe my writing is some sort of dialogue with the Eternal. Maybe that is senseful, maybe it is absurd. I really don’t have an answer or an adequate description. 

Back to the question of what is forthcoming from Steinfeld: The working title of the chapbook is This Wordful Argument, but I’m not certain if that’s the title I’ll be going with—“wordful” doesn’t really exist as a word, at least not in the dictionaries I’ve checked, but I don’t know if that matters. Perhaps worrying about the title and whether a word exists is absurd. Ah, back to the absurdity. Okay, Steinfeld, you can take back over again. Interview done! Steinfeld… He’s unconscious, one knock against the literary wall too many. Oh well, I’m sure he’ll come to soon and get back to what he does, write.

And if he doesn’t, then I’ll deal with where to bury him on the Island.

Michael Bryson is the publisher/editor of The Danforth Review.







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