Tugging at Jewish Weeds: An Interview with Steve Stern

By Royal, Derek Parker | MELUS, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Tugging at Jewish Weeds: An Interview with Steve Stern


Royal, Derek Parker, MELUS


In the narrative world of Steve Stern, the unexpected is not uncommon. Rabbis take flight, the ghosts of dead writers literally haunt their readers, children trap themselves in their own dreams, angels become petty thieves, and golems are created out of the mish-mosh of forsaken alleyways. The same kind of unpredictability could be said of Stem's life as a writer. By his own admission, he was surprised that his first two books--Isaac and the Undertaker's Daughter (1983), a collection of stories, and The Moon & Ruben Shein (1984), a novel--included Jewish characters and subject matter. Born in 1947 and raised in a completely assimilated household in Memphis, Tennessee, Stern had little exposure to traditional Jewish culture. He received his bachelor's degree from Rhodes College in 1970 and his Master's of Fine Arts from the creative writing program at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville in 1977, and between 1979 and 1986 taught as an adjunct instructor in almost every institution of higher learning in Memphis. In the mid-1980s, his relationship with his Jewish heritage took a fortuitous twist; unable to find steady work as an adjunct instructor, he obtained a job at the Center for Southern Folklore as a transcriber of oral histories. Here he inadvertently stumbled upon Memphis' Jewish past through his introduction to the Pinch, an old ghetto community whose unearthing was, in the author's words, "as strange as discovering the lost city of Atlantis." In much of Stern's subsequent fiction, this lost neighborhood would take on almost mythic proportions and energize his writing in ways that he could not have imagined.

His efforts met with critical success. The first collection of Pinch stories, Lazar Malkin Enters Heaven (1986), won the Edward Lewis Wallant Award for the best Jewish American fiction, and both Lazar Malkin and A Plague of Dreamers (1993) were New York Times Notable Books for their respective years. The Wedding Jester (1999) received the National Jewish Book Award, and Stern is also the recipient of an O. Henry Prize and two Pushcart Prizes for short fiction. His stories and essays have appeared in a variety of notable publications, including Epoch, Salmagundi, New England Review, Prairie Schooner, Tikkun, and The Jewish Daily Forward. Such wide-spread attention brought him an invitation from Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York, to serve as their Writer-in-Residence (a position he currently holds), and most recently a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation. According to the blurbs on his books, Cynthia Ozick calls herself "a zealous admirer" of his fiction, and Harold Bloom has pronounced him "a throwback to the Yiddish sublime."

Yet despite these many achievements, Stern feels himself to be an obscurity, an author whose presence is as ethereal as his found memories of the Pinch. Much of this attitude is due to his reserved manner. He is often uncomfortable about discussing his own work, but when he does he brings a healthy dose of self-deprecating--and highly insightful--wit. Much of this humor can be found in the email-based interview I conducted with him between November 2005 and March 2006. I asked Stem, for just a little while, to put aside any reservations he might have in discussing his work and share with me his experiences as a writer. During our dialogue he was forthcoming on the genesis of his subject matter, and he willingly shared with me his philosophy of fiction. What follows is an interview in which Stern touches upon a variety of subjects, from the inextricable links between fact and fiction, to the current popularity of Yiddishkeit (Jewishness), to the development of The Angel of Forgetfulness (2005), his most recent novel.

Derek Parker Royal: A lot of your fiction takes place in the Pinch, a Jewish neighborhood in Memphis, Tennessee. What are the origins of this setting?

Steve Stern: Much of the Pinch originates in my imagination, but it was indeed an actual place--an East European Jewish ghetto neighborhood that existed from the 1880s till just after World War II on and around North Main Street in my hometown of Memphis.

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