Illustration by Milano Chow
Vice: How did you get started writing?
Stephen: I was a newsman in D.C. when I was 22 years old, and I was drinking a lot at night. I had nothing to do and no friends, but I wanted to do something. I sat down and wrote my first story, and it was a great feeling. So the next evening I wrote another. Pretty soon I had thirteen or fifteen stories. My brother Jimmy was a writer, and he came to town and I showed them to him. He took a look and he said, “A couple of these are pretty good, but you’ve got to finish.” That’s when I knew.
I heard from someone that you get annoyed with smaller presses that sort of act like they’ve rediscovered you…
That’s not true. I’m appreciative. To me, publishing is philanthropy for the writer, because books don’t make money. One time a book of mine did earn a publisher some money… But no, in fact I like small presses better, if anything, just because they seem to work harder.
e thinks: She sees him through the kitchen window taking off his clothes to put in the washer. It’s night, past 12; his wife’s in bed, going to sleep. Their young neighbor, who lives by herself since she got divorced a year ago, shares a driveway with them till it goes past their house and only goes to hers. He thinks: He’s taking off his clothes, first the shirt, then the sweatpants—he isn’t wearing undershorts; the pants feel better without them—and his neighbor’s just rolled her garbage can down the driveway to leave at the end of it for the morning trash pickup. Walking back to her house, she looks through the kitchen window—he doubts she intended to spy on him; probably just saw a light go on in the kitchen and looked that way—and saw him taking off his clothes. He’d planned to go to the bedroom naked, after he dumped the clothes into the washer, and put tomorrow’s long-sleeve t-shirt over his night-table light to make it easier for his wife to fall asleep, and if she was already asleep, so the light wouldn’t wake her. He’d been in the living room the last few hours, reading and drinking and napping and listening to music and for about a half hour, because his wife wanted one, trying to get a fire started with wet wood. After covering the lamp he’d planned to get into his side of the bed and read a biography he’s been reading in bed the last two months, no more than five to six pages a night, when he gets too sleepy to read, and then shut the light, snuggle up to his wife, rub her buttocks if she has her back to him, her thighs if she’s on her side facing him or on her back, put his hand under her nightshirt no matter which way she’s facing and feel her breasts—she lets him about every other night and always, or almost, says OK if he says “All right?” or “Please?” or “Just for a few seconds,” or something like “These are my sleeping pillows—I can’t fall asleep without them.” But tonight, in the kitchen, he turns on the light—his wife had turned it off when she went to bed—and takes off his pants and shirt and socks and puts them in the washer for tomorrow’s wash. It’s more than half-filled, so he knows there’ll be one. He doesn’t know his neighbor is watching him. He hadn’t heard her drag her huge trash can down the driveway to place it, as she always does, next to his two smaller cans. If he had heard her can rolling on its wheels, he wouldn’t have taken off his pants and shirt, or would have taken them off without turning on the kitchen light and dropped them into the washer with the socks. That way, since there’s no light in the kitchen from the street or sky, he wouldn’t have been seen. But she saw him standing in the room naked and putting the clothes in the washer and thought, Jesus, for an old guy, he hasn’t got a bad body. In fact it’s pretty good, almost a flat stomach and his muscles are big and hard and he’s got a nice-size cock too in what looks like the relaxed position. But his body is more muscular and youthful than she ever imagined. She goes to his door. He’s at the sink now standing in front of the window she saw him through, running the water and then putting a glass under the tap, filling it and drinking it down. He always has a glass of water before going to bed at night, and if he’s drunk a lot of alcohol, two to three glasses of water—best way to avoid a hangover, he’s found—and usually another glass in the middle of the night. She rings the kitchen doorbell. It doesn’t work—hasn’t for a few weeks and he knows he has to call in someone to fix it—so she then raps on the door window. He’s startled, puts the glass down without drinking the second water and looks at the door. “Hi,” she seems to say, and is smiling. He thinks: Is she nuts? I’ve nothing on, can’t she see? She points to him and then to her chest and presses her hands together and holds them out flat and moves them up and down in quick motions. He looks for something to cover himself with. Dish towel hanging on the refrigerator-door handle, but it’s too small. Looks at her. “Open up,” she mouths, and he backs his way into his wife’s study with his hands covering his genitals and shuts the door. Goes through the study to his older daughter’s bedroom, out that to the hallway, to his bedroom, looks at his wife—she’s sleeping—puts his bathrobe on and goes through the living room to the kitchen, hoping she still isn’t there. If she is, what will he say? “I apologize for exposing myself like that, it was a complete accident, I didn’t think anybody would be outside so late, but did you come to the door because something’s wrong and you need help?” He unlocks the door and opens it. “Hi,” she says. “Hello.” “I saw you through the window there before and I have to confess something you might not want to hear, but I’m not one for holding back, so here goes…” Puts the pants, shirt, and socks in the washer, shuts the light, turns the light on in the dining room and lowers the thermostat to 66, shuts the light and goes into the hallway bathroom and looks in the medicine-chest mirror. My body, he thinks—God, it’s become so old. I’m always controlling how much I eat, haven’t had a slice of bread for weeks so I can lose weight and haven’t eaten desserts in months and never ate much of them and drink lots of water—couple of quarts a day, maybe—to fill me up, and I still have an ugly paunch. Can’t be the water. Has to be something to do with age—the body going through some natural settling. And my chest. I go to the Y four or five times a week and exercise for an hour or so on the weight machines and stationary bike and though my arms are muscular and hard, bigger than they were when I got married, my chest sags like an old man’s. Where’d that strange fantasy with Vicki come from? Never thought of her before in that way, and I know she’d never act like that. What could I have been thinking that a woman so young would be attracted to my body, admire my cock, would be anything but repulsed or simply turned off seeing me naked? Sandra’s never said anything about the changes in my body, the chest hair and much of the pubic hair turning gray, the beginning of a turkey neck, and so on. And I never say anything about the changes in her body, which haven’t been much. She still has no gray hairs, or maybe just a few in front, though the blond hair when I first met her is now, except for her eyebrows, light brown. She hasn’t gained weight or developed a paunch, her legs and butt are still pretty good, her breasts seem a little larger and have fallen somewhat but are still attractive, and her face and neck show no signs of aging either. Well, she is nine years younger than me. Anyway, don’t take your clothes off in the kitchen no matter how late at night unless the light’s off and they’re also off in the rooms on either side of it. That’s what I learned from that scene I imagined, and also don’t think you’ll ever have the body you once had or even close to it except the upper arms, besides… besides what? Nothing. It’s ridiculous looking in the mirror except to shave. Everything’s changed, you’re getting old, in ways you’re already old, and nothing you do—no exercise, no diet—will bring any of it back or do anything to stop it. That’s a dumb thought. Go to sleep. Washes his face, brushes his teeth, flosses, uses the water pick, brushes his hair a few strokes—don’t need a mirror for that—goes into the bedroom, puts his pen, watch, and handkerchief on his night table, gets tomorrow’s long-sleeve t-shirt out of a dresser drawer and drapes it over his lampshade, gets in bed, picks up his book and opens it to the pages a strip of torn paper’s sticking out between, tries to remember which paragraph he was reading when he started dozing off last night, can’t and just starts reading the first complete sentence on the left page. “Don’t you want to go to sleep?” his wife says, on her side with her back to him. “Light keeping you up?” “No, I can fall back to sleep. Just thought it’d give us a chance to snuggle.” “I’ll shut the light if you let me put my hand inside your shirt till we’re both asleep, right?” “Only if you turn off the light now.” “If I read a couple more pages and then shut off the light?” “Outside, not inside.” “But the deal is I get to keep my hand inside your shirt until we’re both asleep, right?” “Okay.” He moves his two pillows closer to hers, shuts the light and snuggles up to her and puts his hand inside her shirt and fondles and then holds her left breast and then her right one and then both with one hand and feels himself going to sleep. Her last words to him, or the last he hears, are “That’s better, isn’t it?”
Vice: I’ve heard from a couple of good people that you are one of the best writing teachers in America.
Stephen: That’s nice to hear. I don’t know how true it is, but it is nice. The first thing I do is tell the students not to worry, that they would have to work hard not to get an ‘A’ in my class. Then I work with a series of exercises and assignments so that my students can really write fiction. They start writing right away. If they turn in something late, that’s OK too, because writers don’t write on a timetable. I give detailed criticism, look at punctuation, and treat all of my students like real apprentices.