Interview with Sean Santa, Spring 2010
In Capital Letters: Having been born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, tell us how you think growing up in this part of the country has influenced your writing? Do you think your writing has a Midwestern sensibility? Do you think living in Washington, D.C., has changed your writing?
Sean Santa: Funny thing about growing up in Cleveland is that you rarely see things get any better. There are always fewer jobs than the year before, property values do nothing but plummet, and neighborhoods are increasingly more dangerous. Yet, people love it there and continue to trudge through each winter like the underdog to a welterweight championship fight. I hope I’m able to show that when I write about the city.
There are definitely Midwest sensibilities I put into my work that I haven’t found to be as prevalent in DC: the love of hard, physical, outdoor work; directly confronting someone to their face without being passive aggressive; and swearing for no good reason in every sentence.
Living in DC has been beneficial for my writing, particularly for its history. My collection of stories begins by re-imagining the true story of George Washington at 21 when he was a lieutenant in the British army and almost had his head blown off by an Indian guide in a place called Murdering Town. Moving here, visiting the monuments often, becoming (re)obsessed with the history of George Washington and the birth of America; I don’t think those things happened by accident.
Some things I’ve found here that are hard to get in Cleveland: a feeling of incredible empathy for others; busy streets teeming with people to watch; and an entire metropolis who share nearly the same identical liberal political beliefs and think that’s a good thing.
ICL: What authors, poems, stories do you return to again and again?
SS: Raymond Carver is probably the author I return to most for prose. I’ve probably read Where I’m Calling From ten times. A few favorite poems are: Letter to My Wife (Miklos Radnoti), The Impossible (Bruce Weigl), and Joe Bolton’s sonnets. The best novel I’ve read is Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion, and I’ll often leaf through that at night.
ICL: What have you read most recently that has inspired you?
SS: Glenn Moomau gave me a copy of Knut Hampsen’s Hunger; which astounded me, especially considering that it was translated by Robert Bly, who, we have come to learn in this program, is not the fairest translator. Also: Walter Kirn’s Lost in the Meritocracy; the best work about college life I’ve ever read, and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home; which I think is a truly remarkable investigation into family life.
ICL: What is your favorite and least favorite part of the writing process? The most surprising? The most challenging?
SS: My favorite part of the writing process is the gift of being allowed to study it in the first place. It’s such an indulgent thing to do; going to grad school for writing. We are very lucky. For me, what’s most surprising about writing is also what’s most challenging: it’s a field where if you’re serious, you continue to learn no matter what. You’re never done studying. Even little things, like Paul Guest’s visit to campus last year, can and do change the way I approach writing.
ICL: How did you come to writing? When and how did you realize you wanted to pursue this medium?
SS: I’ve always enjoyed reading and writing. My mother got me into literature as a child by reading to me. She got every monster voice correct. I realized I wanted to pursue writing while working on a ranch in Big Timber, Montana when I was 20. I was reading On the Road for the first time and there were terrible wildfires that caused the county to evacuate parts of the little town I lived in. I found myself without a job and nowhere to be, so I hitchhiked to Seattle and later to the coast of Oregon. I remember lying in bed at a hotel that had been condemned by the city of Seattle (subsequently charging half-price for rooms), and finishing the book. There wasn’t even a pillow; it was just a beach towel thrown into a pillowcase. I recall that moment changing my life—and not simply in an “I read Kerouac and it changed my life” type of thing, but that I was transcended from an experience with a book into an actual experience. I didn’t have a dollar to my name. I carried around a tattered bag filled with dirty clothes and food I stole from the ranch’s pantry. I slept against a building in Portland with around 20 homeless people. I was bouncing off the walls thinking about my life’s possibility. I was fucking nuts. I knew then that I wouldn’t study anything else.
ICL: As a writer of both poetry and fiction, how would you describe your need to write in both mediums? How do you decide which form to use? Which form do you enjoy the most (both in reading and in writing)?
SS: I think both mediums offer the same thing, just in different ways. Both, when successful, aim to inspire empathy, or some other equal quality that marvels at the human condition. I enjoy them the same. Right now, I like writing prose better because I think I have found a consistent voice for it. I understand the art of story-telling better than I understand the craft of poetry. What I can say about my poems is: No one’s buying them.
ICL: Are certain themes central to your work?
SS: Once Maia Gil’Adi said all my stories were about “people searching for meaning in a world with ambiguous morality.” I’ll take it.
ICL: How do your stories come to you? For example, is it by an image, character, line, phrase, idea?
SS: A lot of inspiration for my stories comes from watching television and fucking around on the internet. I know that those are two of the most boring things that I can answer; but really, the craziest, shittiest things can be found there. I like to draw my stories from real events or people, and then blast off with them into the questionable future. Every story in my collection except for two takes place before the year 2000, and some before the 18th and 19th centuries; so I did my share of “going towards” my stories with massive amounts of research after getting an initial interest from the History Channel, or wherever.
ICL: Having published some of your work, has this changed the way you write/think of your writing? What advice would you give unpublished authors?
SS: I self-published a collection of poetry and stories about Cleveland three years ago. Looking back on it, it was probably a mistake; but there’s a big counterculture of self-publication going on in Cleveland, and there has been for some time, beginning with the famous poet d.a. levy in the ‘60s and continuing today with the Junkmail Oracle ran by the poet Mark Kuhar. Recently, my work has been in The Ghazal Page, Gloom Cupboard, and Flashquake. The advice I’ll give is the advice I live by: throw it against the wall as often as you shit it out.
ICL: What have you learned while being part of this MFA program? How has it influenced your writing?
SS: To be able to work with David Keplinger, Richard McCann, and Glenn Moomau has been the biggest honor I can think of. I could not be more satisfied with this program, especially the fact that AU allows for the unique (well, shared with Minnesota) opportunity for students to take workshops in any genre. Writing in only one genre would be severely problematic for me, and learning about only one genre is problematic for every writer. Some of my friends in other programs across the country have graduated with an MFA in fiction and never had to read a single poem. How in the holy mother of ass someone can be awarded a Master’s degree in writing without ever reading poetry is beyond me.
Three quick sound bites that have influenced my writing: David: “See God in everyone.” Richard: “Do not try to impress me. Tell me a story. Make me cry.” Glenn: “You need to read more. I’m serious. Get to work.”
ICL: If your life had a theme song right now, what would it be?
SS: The National Anthem.
ICL: Tell us something about yourself that most people don't know.
SS: I shit my pants in City Lights Bookstore, San Francisco.
ICL: What projects are you working on right now?
SS: I’m trying my best to complete two different theses. The first is a book of connected short stories entitled All the Way Down in Murdering Town, Ohio, and traces the history of one family before the Revolutionary War up to the death of its last descendant in Iraq. The second book is a collection of poetry, Throw Your Gun at the Feet of the World as it Dances, and centers on the phenomenon of death. I’m also working on a movie script with my brother about union busting in the coal mines of Pennsylvania. But that project is shelved until June, absolutely.
ICL: If you weren't focused on writing, what would you be doing?
SS: As an undergrad, my second major was Pre-Law, so I might be in law school. I’m a Supreme Court junkie.