Driven by artists and fringe-dwellers in a down-but-not-out Detroit, the stories of Steve Hughes’s outstanding debut collection Stiff run on sex, controlled substances, and music. A dry absurdist humor energizes these takes on charged and troubled lives: see a cowboy ride a horse down the streets of Detroit, see a man in a bird suit take flight, see the Stooges’ “Search and Destroy” set a couple to ecstatic naked dancing in a club. There are also pheasants, heroin, and fire. Hughes has had his ear to the concrete (and bar tops) of the Motor City since moving there in 1995, and he’s come up with a book that Donald Ray Pollock deems “astounding,” claiming:
…[it] reads as if Franz Kafka and Denis Johnson hooked up in one of the meaner sections of Detroit and spent the next year together in an abandoned pizza parlor writing short stories. Yes, it is that damn good.
I’ve had the pleasure of observing the action in Steve’s art gallery and performance space called Public Pool in Hamtramck, MI. It’s a distribution hub for his long-running zine, Stupor, and it’s the site of his reading series, the Good Tyme Writers Buffet, a pretension-free zone, featuring a pot luck buffet, provocative art on the walls, and storytelling. There’s no stage or podium at the Good Tyme Writers Buffet. The writers on that evening’s menu just stand on the floor in front of their peers and talk their stories, one person to another. I don’t know another writer who conceives of their short fictions first as publicly spoken stories, as Steve does. He’s sort of the punk Homer of Detroit.
I interviewed Steve via email after having read Stiff and listened to a cassette of his band, The Stupor Sound Experience, playing some soul-jarring songs.
The Rumpus: As the editor/writer of a Detroit zine called Stupor, you’ve been told a lot of stories about sex, drinking/drug use, and busted relationships that you’ve adapted into pieces for the zine. Did hearing all of those nonfiction stories from other people shape the content or the style of the stories you wanted to tell in Stiff? Or are there other sources for these stories?
Steve Hughes: I suppose you could say that stories in the book cross similar territory as those in Stupor, but they don’t have similar sources. Stupor stories start with a video-recorded transcript. The transcript becomes my launch point, or rough draft for the story, which will eventually appear in the zine. I shape the stories with a writer’s instinct, developing the character, adding elements to drive the plot. The stories in Stiff have a looser origin. They come from a loose thematic prompt which connects to a specific art show we had up in the gallery I’m part of, the Public Pool in Hamtramck, MI. So for the story “Her Walls Not Mine” we had an eight-foot wall bisecting the space. One side of the gallery had a stark office-like quality while the other was full of colorful reflective works about the Muslim world. To get across the wall, you had to drop into a stairwell and climb under. It was awkward and limiting even a little dangerous. So when I started working on this story, I was thinking of things that separate us, from ethnic prejudice to the walls of the neighbors’ houses to walls that skin makes on our bodies, and how no matter how close we are together we are always only in our own skin.
Rumpus: One of my favorite aspects of this collection is the prevailing narrative voice, which is amazingly well-calibrated: dryly funny, matter-of-fact, lyrically colloquial, and informed by a painter’s eye for the telling detail. Where did this voice come from? Did you have to make any conscious choices to arrive at it or is it second nature to you?
Hughes: I wrote each of the stories with the intention of reading them aloud at my lit series the Good Tyme Writers Buffet. I wanted them to come off as if they were being spoken directly to you by a real person narrator and not just read to you by the author. The first person POV is good for this. I tried my best to inhabit the voice, so I was careful with my descriptions. I think a writer can get lost in them. I mean, I love a good metaphor. I love getting that description just right, but also I’m wary that too much of that can muck up a story. So I tried not to be too “writerly.” I tried to keep my own voice behind the scenes and just let the narrator do the work of telling. Also, across the board I write out-loud. I read as I type and revise. Then I practice reading it aloud over and over before I finally perform it. I tell my kids, it’s important to use as much of your brain as you can when you’re writing. When you read aloud, you’re using your eyes, your ears, your mouth is forming the words and your brain is up there in your head putting it all together.
Rumpus: There are a number of surreal moves in this collection: a man with a carved pumpkin for a head, genitals that grow and detach from the bodies of a couple, a man flying under his own power. What does surrealism allow you to do, or show, in your fiction that you couldn’t get to if you were a strict realist?
Hughes: Magic can be like relief valve in the story. Take the story of the pumpkin head. When I first wrote it the protagonist was just a normal dude in a pathetic situation, screwing up, getting dumped. Sad story. Well after a draft or two I realized it just didn’t have legs. I mean, even as the writer I needed something more to stay engaged with the piece. Changing the guy’s head into a pumpkin added all these new elements and possible complaints and weird situations that I had to think through. Certainly it adds humor, and absurdity, and makes light of all the serious subject matter, making the story a more enjoyable read. I like the idea that fiction is a long, well-disguised lie. We’re all just making it up. And in the lie, anything is possible—and should be.
Rumpus: This collection is also immersed in the reality of contemporary Detroit. If Detroit is a character in your stories, what has shaped its personality and how would you describe that personality?
Hughes: Detroit is such an underdog. The city is beaten badly but ever rising. The Detroit I describe in the book is the one that I lived in from the time I moved here in 1995 to around 2013 when the great recession was finally ending. Despite its ruins, its recently closed factories, its swaths of abandoned roads flooded over and grown with cattails, it’s a place with immense possibility, super fertile, with the rich black dirt of a flood plain, i.e.: poor as I am, I was able to open a community art space, and start a lit series. As a character, Detroit is one that’s been cut at the knee, crippled bad, but that’s ever searching, trying for redemption and here and there is finding it. Truly, I love this city. I dedicated Stiff to it. I couldn’t have written these stories anywhere else.
Rumpus: This collection frequently depicts sex and naked bodies in graphic, unpretty, and beautiful ways. Is there anything about the typical depiction of sex and the body in fiction you were working against or is there a certain aesthetic in representing these things that you wanted to stand up for?
Hughes: I’ll stand up for sex, typical or otherwise. “Stand” was actually the working title of the book. It was drawn from the story about a couple that decides to burn down their house as opposed to giving it to the bank. In their happiness they come together, and for the first time in months, he’s able to make good on his desire. Sex is an overwhelmingly basic human event. It’s elemental, dirty, and maybe even magic. We’re wired to want it, to need it. It drives us together. Deeply connects us. Lack of it can be painful and might make us take crazy chances, just to touch or hold and be held. I’m interested in the tension around the want. I’m also interested in the build of the body, the blood that runs through us, bones that frame us and skin that holds us all together, and in the fact that despite the qualities of physical beauty, we are still earthy with odor, pores that clog, errant hairs, etc.
Rumpus: Music plays a big role in several stories in the collection. Do you see a relationship between music and storytelling? Is there any overlap for you in what a short story does and what a song does?
Hughes: I listen to music while I write. I choose bands that fit with the story, either tonally or by subject matter. The words are important. They can’t be distracting. For “Dexter’s Song” I listened to Coltrane’s later period, the wilder stuff, where it seemed like he was really reaching, trying his best to connect to a spiritual presence in the universe. For “Forest Parker,” I had Slayer and Mastodon—angry, mean stuff. As I write this interview, I’m listening to early Dire Straits. I think the music helps me create an overall tone for the story. Sometimes I wake in the morning with a song in my head, something I’ve been writing to. Then I know it’s time to get up and start working. Even right then, I’m in the zone, already thinking about the piece.
Also, there’s this: I love the raw energy of performers like my hometown heroes Iggy and the Stooges. Iggy seems pure, unfiltered, dense with emotion. His early albums are cathartic. Singing along can be, too. I want to write like Iggy sings, like he did in the Stooges, with full-on, head-on intensity.
Rumpus: Two musical styles from the 70s—punk and glam rock—seem to be spirit guides for this collection. Can you say how these musical styles or music in general has shaped your sensibility?
Hughes: I like all sorts of music styles. Glam is great because of the cross-dressing dudes, the makeup, and the space-traveling jumpsuits and funny hair. At heart, I’m an old punk. I wasn’t so punk in the 70s but as I got older I espoused the ideas of DIY; I also have a healthy appreciation of anarchists. Really though, the Do It Yourself ethic is one that has guided me in my decisions and connections to the world—from the very punk rock effort of making a zine to the more adult effort of running my own gallery and lit series.
Rumpus: Your characters often engage in what judgmental types might call “short-term thinking,” an impulsiveness that makes for propulsive storytelling and sometimes disastrous lives. Did writing this collection change your sense of what it means to act on impulse or instinct?
Hughes: I have a great empathy for people who make bad decisions, especially those who are trying so hard to do their best but are simply unable. Something gets in the way and makes them slip. I think, Wow, that’s messed up. Then I think of the circumstances that caused the failure. I know this: if everyone were perfect this world would be a pretty boring place. It’s too bad that so many of us keep screwing up, but at least we’re trying. I mean we’re trying to be good people and to work things out. We just aren’t super good at it. Hopefully, though, there is redemption in the effort of trying.
Rumpus: In one story, you’ve got an alcoholic couple who bond over the prospect of committing arson. There are also a lot of characters who cheat on their partners. What is the role of transgression in your fictional world? Which is more powerful, love or transgression?
Hughes: While love is pure, beautiful, and may be the one thing in the universe that could be absolutely perfect and save us, really save us, to transgress is human. It’s human that we fail ourselves and fail our partners. Failure is a subject that resonates with me. Failure makes us real, and real people are interesting and complex.
Rumpus: The stories in Stiff sometimes feel traditionally structured (the textbook narrative arc) and other times they resolve themselves in sly and surprising ways. How were you thinking about story form when you wrote this collection?
Hughes: I appreciate resolution. It doesn’t have to be huge or even super obvious. Sometimes endings are more powerful when you don’t expect them.
Rumpus: “Stupor” seems like a significant word for you. It’s the name of your zine and your real-life band, as well as the name of the freaky body vibration band in a story from the collection, “Part Plant, Part Animal, Part Insect.” One member of that band has this to say about being in a stupor: “if you’re in one, you stop wanting or even needing to want.” Is stupor a sort of Buddhist antidote to the desire that’s otherwise rampant in your work? How does the concept inform your fiction?
Hughes: Mostly the word “stupor” has negative connotations, but I like the idea that from a stupor one might find some way to refresh or restore their thinking. Like a reset of sorts with opportunity for reflection and reevaluation of choices.
Rumpus: In another interview, you talked about this collection in terms of the characters searching for a sense of home. What keeps your characters from a sense of home? What helps them find it?
Hughes: Human desire is maybe just a symptom of our need to find place in the world. We really want to love. Desire is more than a simple hormonal event. It draws us together, and in some cases keeps us together. And when things are just right, there is home. A place of complete comfort. There’s a line in a song by Blind Faith, goes like this, “and I’m wasted and I can’t find my home.” It’s like the saddest thing, to be searching and not finding. To be totally lost. For sure, my characters are all looking. They want to love. They want to be loved. They want to find home. For some of them that sense of home is fleeting, and/or lost, and they are trying doing their best to recover it.
Rumpus: What are you working on now?
Hughes: A collection of stories that connect as a novel. A book of poems. More issues of Stupor.