Interview with Stephen Tuttle

We had a great time hosting Stephen Tuttle’s reading on campus, so Black Rock & Sage reached out with a few more questions for our visiting author.

Black Rock & Sage (BRS): What does your creative process look like?

Stephen Tuttle (ST): Creativity is a hard thing to pin down, which is why we sometimes describe it in almost mystical terms. But I tend to agree with thinkers like Kirby Ferguson who argue that genius is not a matter of creating entirely new things but of finding new combinations of familiar elements. So, for me the process is about allowing a lot of different, seemingly incompatible, elements into my brain at the same time and then sitting with them long enough to see if connections start to emerge. The real trick, though, is being ready to capture those connections when they show up, and that’s where a daily writing routine becomes so valuable.

BRS: Your piece “Leah, Unloved”, recently published in The Baltimore Review, is particularly compelling as a retelling of a familiar narrative which seems to be part of a larger project; what is the benefit of returning to stories and engaging with them in such a critical way?

ST: “Leah, Unloved” comes from an ongoing project in which I retell or reimagine well-known stories from the Old Testament. The goal for me has been to take a familiar starting point and play with it or stretch it and maybe find something new in it. It’s a project I came to sideways, thinking at first that it was just a way to clear my head as I worked on longer projects, but I soon found it dominating my attention. The project has allowed me to see just how complex and narratively rich the Old Testament is and to appreciate the way stories inform other stories. The name for this kind of writing is “midrash,” which is a scholarly tradition dating back to the second century. The hope, always, is to better appreciate or understand a text that might otherwise seem to have been exhausted. What I’m learning is that nothing is truly exhaustible.

BRS: Are there specific works or writers that have had an impact on your own creative style?

ST: Steven Millhauser is probably the writer who has influenced me more than any other living writer. Aimee Bender is a close second. Both mix the ordinary and the magical in ways I find captivating. I love everything Amy Hempel has written (I’ll go out on a limb and pre-love anything she’s going to write in the future). Kelly Link is a national treasure. Tom McCarthy (particularly his novel Remainder) is the kind of weird I can’t stop reading. I wish I could do what Lydia Davis does. Yoko Ogawa takes more risks than any writer I know, and I have so much respect for that.   

BRS: How do you balance your roles as both professional writer and educator?

ST: It’s never easy to balance roles that could each, if we let them, take all of our time, and I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes I get the balance wrong. But when I’m most successful, it’s the result of scheduling very specific times for my writing and not letting anything else steal that time (once I open my email, I’m a goner). If I make the writing a priority, I usually find plenty of time for the rest.

BRS: What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

ST: Having an active, enthusiastic writing group has helped my writing more than anything. The goal is to find two or three other writers who will agree to share work slightly more often than feels comfortable (I like deadlines that force me into truly rough drafts). A good writing group doesn’t need to include other writers with your same interests (you might all be working on very different things), but it should include people who are willing to take your work seriously without pulling their punches. Also, read until your eyes burn. Writers can never read too much. You should read things you love, things you want to emulate, things that are nothing like what you want to write, things you feel guilty for never having read, things that other people won’t shut up about, and things that will make you dangerously smart.  

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