canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Andrew Steinmetz

Interview by Michael Bryson

Andrew Steinmetz's new book, Eva's Threepenny Theatre (Gaspereau, 2008), tells the story of his great-aunt, who appeared in the workshop version of Brecht's "Threepenny Opera" in the 1930s, before fleeing the Nazis.

A mixture of fiction and memoir, Steinmetz's "novel" explores the intersection of history, family, identify and artistic creation.

His previous books include a memoir, Wardlife: The Apprenticeship of a Young Writer as a Hospital Clerk (Vehicule, 1999), and two collections of poetry, Histories Signal Edition/Vehicule, 2000) and Hurt Thyself (MQUP, 2005). 

Wardlife was shortlisted for the 2000 Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction as well as for the 2000 Quebec Writers Federation (QWF) First Book Award and Mavis Gallant Prize for non-fiction. Histories was shortlisted for the 2001 QWF A.M. Klein Prize for Poetry.

Steinmetz has been the editor of Esplanade Books, the fiction imprint at Véhicule Press, since 2002. He told TDR: "To my surprise, I found that I enjoy editing as much as writing. Maybe that has something to do with the writers I’ve worked with: Andrew Hood, Liam Durcan, Jaspreet Singh, Lolette Kuby, Nicholas Maes, David Manicom, to name a few."

Website -

[December 2008]


Your most recent book mixes memoir and fiction. Before getting into the specifics of that book, how did you balance the fact/fiction paradox. Is it all just storytelling? How would you describe the differences/similarities? Is your book like a Tom Wolfe-type New Journalism novel?

For me, yes, it is all storytelling. Words in order in rows on the page. I don’t know much about New Journalism, but I will say this: if New Journalism borrowed from literary fiction, I wanted to go the other way and borrow ‘devices’ from non-fiction to tell a fiction. 

So in my book you have the ‘transcripts’ of interviews, the ‘author’ doing research and quoting from it, and a facts-first narrative voice, and so on. 

There are layers, multiple voices and narrators, and each has it own sensibility that will (or will not) trigger reactions from the reader. In the end, though, Eva’s Threepenny Theatre is fiction about family memoir, or fiction about writing family memoir.

The novel starts off with a quote from Brecht (they are also the first words spoken on stage by a beggar, in The Threepenny Opera): Something new is needed. My business is too hard. For my business is arousing human sympathy. 

I wanted to write about my great aunt Eva who, as a young actress in Germany, had a connection to Brecht’s play early on. But I didn’t want to write a family memoir. Although the literary marketplace calls for it (and publishers and agents will tell you this is the road to Hollywood) I find the family memoir genre is tired. And I don’t like the idea that the marketplace is having such an influence on writers, and on what they write.

As Brecht said about the old theatre (before making his innovations and his brand of Epic Theatre): the old theatre – I say: memoir – is like some mismanaged circus robbed of its magic. Family memoir doesn’t interest me as a reader (though I want it to), and the challenges of the form do not interest me as a writer, either. It’s a trap for sentimentality, a parlour game. A lot of it is kitsch, or too earnest for my tastes. As a socialist playwright, Brecht wouldn’t touch naturalism, seeing it as an endorsement of a bourgeois or genteel world view, and I have to say, as a writer, I could never approach writing a family memoir wearing a straight face. Eva was schooled in Brecht, and so it felt right that the novel’s form would reflect that. and at the same time bring about some genre consciousness. There are different narrators and different points of view, there are the transcripts and the research and historical fiction and a frame-story you could say I did my best to alienate readers. Structurally speaking, the book is montage. The montage is meant to bring about genre-consciousness.

When I mention genre-consciousness, I mean it playfully but also seriously. Genre-consciousness, for readers and writers alike, makes us aware of this class system, or caste system, in which genres of non-fiction and fiction have their place. (Some people believe in the power of fiction, others in the power of non-fiction. By power, I’m assume it’s truth-telling power.) One reason I wanted to re-enact the family history genre or memoir on the page, using ‘transcripts’ from interviews and a frame-story, and extending that to include different types of fiction or narrative voices, was to show that each genre or mode has its own sensibility (even the supposedly and decidedly non-fiction texts like the Brecht’s own FBI files). Different folks are seduced by different sensibilities and tropes; by seduced, I mean, they trust one more than the other, as a more credible source in this business of truth-telling.

So instead of plunking Eva’s story on the page, I began with a frame story: the family historian goes off to interview his subject; he tape-records her and, as well, he records his feelings about the process. The more he learns about Eva, the more inspired by her story he becomes, and, ultimately, he begins to fictionalize it. Not only does he re-write the transcripts of their interviews, but he writes stories in third and second person, using different voices, different styles. He becomes a writer in the process. In the book I wanted to re-enact that apprenticeship on the page, chapter to chapter. That’s why the word ‘theatre’ is in the title. I think of it that way.

In the end, genre-wise, you have a new breed; not a hybrid of fiction and non-fiction, but something new, I hope. I didn’t want to end up with a half-hearted compromise, or with some kind of creative non-fiction in drag kind-of-thing. So I pushed it and structure then is a montage.

Your book also bridges the gap between past and present. You write about yourself in the context of telling the story of your great-aunt and Brecht. I want to make this question different from the preceding one. When we visit the past, do we go there -- or do we bring it here? That is, when we grapple with the past, are we really grappling with the present?

We do both. In some parts of the book you go to the past (if I have done my job). The Workshop chapters, which replay a purported workshop of The Threepenny Opera set in Breslau in 1928 (there never was a workshop in Breslau!) are ‘played’ like historical fiction and meant to transport the reader to the past. The story, Vienna, told in a claustrophobic second person voice, about a rape, is also meant to bring the reader back in time. In Heimat, which is told in a third person historical fiction voice, the reader is meant to wander the streets with a young Eva and be transported to the past. This story (Heimat) retells from a different angle a story Eva has already monologued, as a older woman. The reader has the ‘transcript’ of this episode. Eva never completely transports the reader to the past because she is an object of the present tense, she’s been there, she has the experience, she knows the beginning, middle, and end of her own life, and so her telling of her own story is informed by too much knowledge. Like a good Brechtian actor, she understands that she is not her character. She is detached from it. She creates her character, or her past self, from memory. Likewise, the writer persona who appears in the frame-story and who he hates doing research but must, he, too, is of the present. He self-consciously drags the story from the past into the future, into his own life.

One thing that surprised me about this book (as I got deeper into it) was how the story of your grandfather counterbalanced the story of your great-aunt. They were antagonists in many ways, but as a reader I felt deep sympathy for them in complex and sometimes contradictory ways. The title highlights your great-aunt, but in some ways I found the story of your grandfather more compelling. My question is about the contrast of those "characters." They are each remarkable, but so different. Can you tell us a bit about each of them and how you compared and contrasted them?

Well, the novel was originally named Eva and Her Brother; so that tells you something. In early versions of the manuscript Eva’s brother (my grandfather), Hermann Hans, was given a more prominent ‘role’. As sister and brother, they are joined by love and hatred, by a repressed, quasi-incestuous bond. Their mother dies early. They are Weimar era inventions but both are formed or deformed, differently, by their times. Born in Breslau, they have a Jewish heritage, though they don’t know it until the Nuremberg Laws pass 1935. Eva becomes an actress, he a medical student. She plays a prostitute onstage, one of Pirate Jenny’s girls in The Threepenny Opera. He gets involved in a public health strategy to reform street walkers, off the stage, in Breslau itself. 

Because Eva is female, she is, in her own words, ‘powerless’ within Weimar society. This is why she wants to join the theatre in the first place, and why she wants to learn the art of acting: she wants to become someone else, she wants to play a major role. But like I say in the novel for Eva the world is no stage, it is a cage, and the cage is the fit of her female body. To survive she must adapt, change herself, or manipulate those around her. Eva is all verb, she is in constant motion, in perpetual metamorphosis. In contrast, her brother is all noun. Hermann Hans is. He is elemental. His nickname, HH, resembles a symbol from the periodic table. Unlike Eva, he refuses to adapt to his times, and therefore is deformed by them. Eva is verb, he is noun; she is becoming, he is being; she is transformed, he is deformed. In terms of characters from The Threepenny Opera, Eva is identified with Polly Peachum; she is ‘homespun’, the beggar king’s daughter who dim wittingly marries a criminal. On the other hand, my grandfather, Hermann Hans, is Mack the Knife. He’s a dark character, more dangerous than Eva.

These distinctions were important for me, as the writer, but I bet for readers you can derive different reactions to them from the narrative voices in the novel. For the most part, Eva is delivered to the reader by her own oral story telling. She is an eighty-two year old woman diagnosed with cancer. English is not her first language. She has theatre training. The texture of her character is formed by her own telling or manner of delivery. On the other hand, Hermann Hans never speaks for himself. He is at a remove. His son, Roland, tells us about him, again through oral storytelling. But Roland’s use of English is much more sophisticated than Eva’s. Therefore Hermann Hans’ character is nuanced in a way that Eva’s never is.

History with a capital "H" looms throughout this book. The Nazis figure prominently, as does a certain revolutionary playwright. Eva at one point makes a comment about Brecht being a famous dead person. She's not interested in him. He's gone. But as readers we are interested in what's gone. The story you tell is one of personal intimacy and also one of historical context. You balance these elements extremely well, in my opinion. I wonder if you felt the large shadows of the past would overwhelm the personal details. How did you deal with the weight of this history? Did you worry about how well your story would "translate to our time"?

I was/am more interested in how history comes ‘down’ to us, than in History itself. So there is this emphasis on process in the novel and on storytelling and on how a novel or a memoir or family history gets written. In the real world there are historical forces and movements. In novel-writing there is ego and imagination and genre and obscene self-confidence and insecurity. So process is an important part the equation. I didn’t want to research ‘a period’ and then assimilate and accommodate and regurgitate and put on a pleasing Merchant-Ivory drama. Maybe its just I don’t have those skills. 

The writer persona in frame story of the novel is very much like me: he says that doing research is a purely proletarian activity, that it is akin to wearing a hairshirt, that it is licence, that it is a reparation payment made by the writer with a weak imagination. He doesn’t know how to ‘use’ all the research he has dug up, and his character Eva isn’t interested in it either. There is something very Protestant and puritanical about the historical novel, from a creative standpoint, that puts me off. What we write about today becomes historical fiction in one hundred or two hundred years. For me Dickens is a very good historical fiction writer. 

In my novel history comes to the reader via a number of contemporary narrative voices, that is, it comes to us through people who are alive. People deal with the weight of history, not third person omniscient narrators. Eva’s personality is saturated with history. And the ‘making’ of history comes to the reader via the novel’s structure, the montage shape it has, which I hope is modern, or at least I hope it is intelligible to multitasking mind of our times. I didn’t worry so much about the long shadows of the past as about my craft as a writer and my ability to create different characters who could then speak to those shadows in their own voice, framed by a structure that deconstructs the reading.

I want to end on a general question. This is a complicated book, which welcomes and rewards dedicated readers, I hope it's fair to say. There are some, like Philip Roth, who are predicting the end of literary readers in the next coming decades. As an author and editor (and writer about the survival of characters through dark times), I wonder how you perceive the state of literature and the role of complex narratives and forms in the 21st century. Reading the business pages, it seems not much has changed since the 1930s. What would Brecht have to say to us today?

How do I perceive the 'state of literature today'? I'm afraid this question is a set-up and I can't answer it without either sounding uber pompous or falling into a deep depression - so I'll skip this portion if I can and return to Master Brecht.

Today, Brecht would say to us, Join the revolution, Comrade. He would proclaim: things that have not changed in a very long time strike us or appear to us as unchangeable, when in fact they can be changed. 

About the Wall Street bail-outs, he would probably repeat what Mack the Knife says in The Threepenny Opera, which is: What’s the crime of robbing a bank compared to owning a bank? But of course, the fella from Augsburg was flawed. Brecht targeted capitalism as a system of slavery that exploits the many and serves the few, and he was sarcastic and droll about humanity’s bestial nature, while at the same time he was ready to accept the Stalin Peace Prize in Moscow in 1955 (and the prize money, which apparently he flipped into a Swiss bank account). 

There is a lot to criticize about Brecht. But, in terms of the theatre, and as an artist, he was an innovator. That’s what interests me. He changed the way theatre is put on; and, in theory anyway, he wanted to inspire spectators to change the world after they left the theatre. I wanted my book to have an Anti-Brechtian Brechtian flavour. It’s not that complex. I’d like to think, in terms of its essence, it’s only keeping up with the mindset of a gamer generation and the DJs of our time for whom it’s normal to splice and dice and multitask and go for long meandering hyperlink walking tours of the internet.




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