The first manuscript I ever saw from Peter Stenson was about a young female junkie. He had managed to misspell Santa Claus in the first sentence (“Santa Clause,” dude? Really?), and included a couple of metaphors visible from outer space. Oh goody, I thought, in my sensitive Super Hot Prof way, now I get to crush this Bukowski-swilling fraud. It really did make me very happy.
Right about as I thought this, I reached the point in the story where the girl junkie in question, unhelpfully named Summer, sets her sights on a young man she finds in a college library. Stenson wrote:
He laughed and leaned back in his chair and they were easy like that, all of the college boys. Like I fit some sort of fantasy for them, a girl in distress stumbling into their lives, a girl with a large backpack and dreads who did drugs and you could see their minds work, all of them the same, the little vision of getting high with me and fucking me and sending me on my way the next morning.
Just like that, I knew I’d been bamboozled. Stenson could write. The rest of the story sailed past and I found hardly a single occasion to complain, which is, for Super Hot Profs, a legitimate cause for despair.
Ah well, I thought. Maybe this kid can only write from the point of view of girl junkies.
But no. A few months ago, I got my hands on an advance copy of Stenson’s debut novel, Fiend, told, for the record, by a male meth addict who must do battle with zombies to win back his ex. I had trouble putting it down. My wife kept saying, “Honey, can you put the book down. Our son is on fire.” And I’d say, “Yeah, yeah, I’m gonna. But we’re just at the part where the chuckling zombies go after the love interest.” Then I’d walk into a wall.
You get the point.
It was clearly time to diagnose the sickness…
The Rumpus: Knowing that it would be impossible to share with our readers even a fraction of the things you learned studying with me, instead take some time to comment on my wardrobe.
Peter Stenson: The first time I saw you was at a reading at the Denver AWP. You were rocking a pair of ripped jeans circa 1994, and a flannel that you no doubt lost your virginity wearing (you strike me as the kind of guy who leaves on a random article of clothing during those times). My first thought was: Who the fuck is this asshole?
Rumpus: I think this a lot. Go on.
Stenson: At the Tin House Writer’s Retreat, your wardrobe was rather memorable, if only because you never changed: jeans, a Springsteen bandana, and a tank top that was flirting dangerously with being a cut-off. And for some reason, I remember you as being barefoot.
Rumpus: I was also pregnant, though that’s neither here nor there. Let’s proceed. You write about drugs. A lot, and vividly. Tell us just how proud your mother is of this.
Last week, my grandfather was in the hospital. My mom told me she hoped he passed away before Fiend came out. I’m pretty sure she was joking, but it was one of those jokes your wife drops when you’re not fooling anyone with your comb-over.
Rumpus: As I mentioned in my pre-interview legal memo, the use of the phrase “comb-over” is strictly forbidden.
Stenson: Right. But look, in all seriousness, my mom’s, like, my biggest fan. She’s always asking to read my stories. The best compliment she ever gave me was for this story where there’s a young man at the business-end of a cardboard box-turned-glory hole. She said, “It’s like I was right there with him, especially with the detail about the butter popcorn smell.” I figured that I’d done something right. And that maybe my father doesn’t pay heed to the “cleanliness is next to godliness” adage.
Rumpus: Because I know you’ve never actually done a single drug in your life, tell us what inspired Fiend.
Stenson: Pretty much a youth spent doing narcotics. That, and AMC.
There was this time when I was sixteen or seventeen, and I kind of ran away to San Francisco because I was in love and thought I was a hippie. I’d been kicked out of school and my girlfriend was blowing her college “friend,” and I tried to cut out my soul with a shard of glass in an Econo Lodge room off of Mission. Needless to say, I wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire.
It was New Year’s Eve, post-concert, and I was trying to find my girlfriend in some hotel downtown (probably getting her rug burn on with said college friend). The entire lobby was full of tour kids completely spun/smacky-tabbed/dosed—
Rumpus: I don’t know these words. My drug vocabulary is kind of stuck on “bong.” But I’ll assume you mean these young people had taken more serious drugs.
Stenson: Right. And they were all shuffling around looking like a bunch of…dead motherfuckers. I felt a certain solidarity with these kids. I’d be full of shit if I told you I came up with the idea for Fiend right then and there twelve years ago, but this memory has never left me. I’m sure this will brush up against melodrama, but there was something about the quiet panic in each of our faces, the searching and desperation, that freaked me the fuck out. I think Fiend is somehow born out of that memory.
Rumpus: I appear to have been misquoted in my blurb of Fiend. As I recall, I wrote “Peter Stenson is a sick bastard,” which became “Peter Stenson is the bastard child of Cormac McCarthy and George Romero.” As a sick bastard, what sick bastard writers do you like to read?
Stenson: Pretty much all the usual suspects: Denis Johnson, Dennis Cooper, A.M. Homes, Burroughs, Nabokov, Lawrence Durrell. I enjoy Donald Ray Pollack. I’m not sure how much of a sick bastard Ben Fountain is, but I loved Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk (still confused how that cheerleader came without so much as a dry hump). I like the Rumpus crew (you, Roxane, Cheryl, Stephen, et al.). And there’s nobody who writes better prose than Cormac.
Rumpus: It’s the Apocalypse Showdown: Meth-Heads vs. Zombies. Who wins?
Stenson: That’s a tough one, for sure. Regarding cognitive reasoning, you’ve got a very slight advantage for tweakers. Strength goes to zombies. Numbers (outside of the Southwest) favor the walking dead. Both have teeth ground down to dark nubs. Same with limps and sore spots of open flesh vulnerable to infection. When it’s time to get well, junkies are about the most resourceful motherfuckers to ever inhabit the earth, which goes a long way. But when it comes down to it, a tweaker will pound your mother with your last rubber and then help you look for it, which is why, when everything goes to shit, they, the tweakers, will fuck everything up amongst themselves, zombies or no zombies.
But both groups don’t have a chance versus the bath-salt abusers.
Rumpus: Hard to argue with your reasoning. Last question: do you ever freak yourself out, man?
Stenson: Only when I share what I’m actually thinking. Or when I think about my newborn daughter coming across a copy of Fiend in some forgotten box.
It’s kind of funny you ask this because I’ve been thinking about this very thing recently. I just finished writing a novel about severed dicks and DPs and Tea Party politics—like 300 pages of pretty much those topics alone—and it freaked me out enough that I made a ghost folder on my computer to save it in. Something about this one feels like a little too much…
But fuck it. I can’t help how I think. I’m drawn to drug use and emasculating sex and broken people doing whatever they possibly can to keep on going. This is what makes me excited. This is why I read and write. I think my shit might come out a little more vulgar and dark than most because I came of age in a time when all of us kids in the suburbs blared Slim Shady from our windows; a decade when our family Dells were glacier-slow with virus-riddled pornography; an age when somebody figured out how to add the methyl compound to amphetamines by distilling allergy medication.
Or maybe this is what I tell myself when I’m freaked out in order to feel a little less like a sick bastard.
Featured image of Peter Stenson © by Robbie Lane.