Steve Yarbrough answers the Newtonville Books Questionnaire

Steve Yarbrough’s latest book is Safe From the Neighbors.

–Name a childhood hero.steveyarbrough

Well, my childhood heroes were mostly musicians and football players. Three who come to mind: the great bluesman B. B. King, who comes from the same town I do, Indianola, Mississippi; the country singer and songwriter Johnny Russell, who came from the nearby town of Moorhead and wrote tunes like “Catfish John”; and Ken Stabler, the irreverent QB for Bear Bryant’s Alabama Crimson Tide.

–Name a work you wished you’d written.

There are many, of course. But the book that influences my thinking about place, more than any other, is probably Larry McMurtry’s novel The Last Picture Show. Archer City, Texas, has a lot in common with Indianola, Mississippi. I also have maintained a thirty-five year love affair with Faulkner’s masterpiece The Sound and the Fury. I’d better stop there, or the rest of the questionnaire won’t get answered.

–If you had to order your work by how successfully you completed what you set out to accomplish, what would that list look like?

I’m not to be trusted, probably—almost every writer thinks his or her latest book is the best. Having said that, though, I guess my list of my own novels would look like this:

1. Safe from the Neighbors
2. The End of California
3. Visible Spirits
4. The Oxygen Man
5. Prisoners of War

–Name a writer in history you would’ve like to have been a contemporary of and why.

I would have loved to know two writers with Boston connections: John Cheever and John Updike. I admire their work enormously. I imagine Updike would have been pretty easy to talk to, Cheever less so but fun to have a drink (or ten) with. A third I’d list would be Richard Yates. I guess I was a contemporary of his, of sorts, in that I did get to have dinner with him in Boston in 1983. It was a fabulous evening. He was gracious, sweet—everything you would have wanted, up until Andre Dubus made him mad with a remark about New York publishers, at which point he became mildly combative.

–Name a work of yours whose reception you’ve been surprised about and why.

When my first novel, The Oxygen Man, came out and got great reviews in USA Today and Time Magazine, I was surprised. That’s not because I didn’t like the book but because it had been turned down by 43 publishers.

–Correct a misperception about you as a writer in fifty words or less.

I really don’t think I write Southern Gothic.

–Name a trait you deplore in other writers.

I’ve known one or two who wanted to see other writers fail, and I don’t admire that.

–Name your five desert island films.

The Last Picture Show, Pulp Fiction, The Departed, Thelma and Louise, The English Patient

–Name a book not your own that you wish everyone would read.

A fabulous one is Sandor Marai’s Embers.

–Name a book you suspect most people claim to have read, but haven’t.


–If you could choose one of your works to rewrite, which would it be and why.

You know, I wouldn’t rewrite any of them. Before I let them go, I was satisfied that they were the best I could write, and I don’t feel differently about any of them in retrospect. Whatever their flaws are, I threw my all into each of them and don’t have anything better to add.

–Share the greatest literary secret/gossip you know.

Faulkner didn’t write while drunk. He got drunk after he finished and he stayed drunk till he started again.

–Name a book you read over and over for inspiration.

Speaking of Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury. Also, The Collected Stories of William Trevor. James Salter’s Light Years. Alice Munro’s stories, John Cheever’s stories, Updike’s stories and book reviews. Milan Kundera, Graham Greene.

–Name the writing habit you rely on to get you through a first draft.

Two hours a day, every day, and constant revision while I continue to plug ahead.

–Name a regret, literary or otherwise.

I have moments when I regret that I spent so long on the West Coast. I was there for twenty years. I made a lot of wonderful friends there, wrote a number of books there, and it’s where I raised my daughters. But I never learned to love it. Strange as this may sound, the place where I live now—Stoneham, MA—reminds me of Oxford, Mississippi. I’m not quite sure why, but I’m working on figuring it out. Maybe it’s just because I feel at home here.

–Name your greatest struggle as a writer.

Facing the blank page. Once some words are on it, I’m not scared.

–Name a question you get about writing to which there really is no good answer.

“Where do you get your ideas?”

–Name a question you wish you had been asked.

Q. If you had to name one younger American writer whose work you admire the most, who would it be? A. Jennifer Haigh