Denise Stephenson lives in Oceanside, California, and serves as the Writing Center Director for MiraCosta College. She took her PhD in American Studies from the University of New Mexico. She wrote her dissertation about emerging forms of academic writing because she was angry with a professor who said she couldn’t write. Staying inside of boxes or forms has never been her strength. Over the years, she’s published over 20 academic articles and book chapters, many of which stray from traditional conventions. In Michigan, just before the turn of the century, she started writing monologues for her theatre company, Attention Deficit Drama. She’s also written, produced, acted in, and teched plays, including her all-time favorite, Voices From the Edge, a group of intercut monologs of loss following the falling of the World Trade Towers. Stephenson loves to collaborate and many of her academic and theatre works are co-authored. Recently, a group of theatre students at CSU, Channel Islands gave a staged reading of Hibakusha (http://csuci.tumblr.com/post/45092063626/hibakusha), a play about nuclear disasters which she wrote with Bob Mayberry. She hopes to one day see it performed on stage.
Stephenson’s novel, Isolation, is her first piece of fiction to pass seven pages. Sometimes she feels like she’s living inside the dystopic world she created, and then she remembers that it begins in the present where bacterial-tainted food can kill people, and she realizes that she didn’t create the chaos, but yes, she does live in it. For over a decade, Stephenson has also been a book artist (http://www.sandiegobookarts.com/gallery_bio.aspx?id=29). In the summer of 2011, she spent two weeks at Penland School of Craft outside Asheville, North Carolina, where she created her first letterpress book, What She Said (http://www.abecedariangallery.com/assets/content_files/abc%204%20online%20catalog/denise%20stephenson.html). The book has been in three national shows, will be shown in a published collection later this year from Lark Press, and one copy was purchased by the Yale Library Special Collections. With What She Said, Stephenson feels she’s arrived as a book artist! She needs to get the novel published so she can return to her physical book creations.
Bob Mayberry’s interview with author Denise Stephenson:
Bob Mayberry: So you’re publishing a novel. What’s it about, in a sentence or two?
Denise Stephenson: My novel starts where we are today—uncooked spinach can kill you, a cantaloupe can kill you, a hamburger can kill you—you get the picture. As my novel moves quickly into the future and bacteria get out of control, the government legislates that we can no longer touch our faces, and from there, the entire culture changes. Think about it, if babies can’t put their fingers in their mouths, how do they learn about the world?
BM: How long did it take you to write it?
DS: I wrote the first 300 pages of my novel in three months in Kapa’a, Hawaii, and then finished the remaining 120 pages in the following four months. So seven months.
BM: Can you describe your process for us non-novel writers?
DS: There so many aspects to my process that it’s hard to know where to focus the answer to this question. Perhaps by saying that where to focus is the challenge in writing a novel, too, especially starting it. Where to begin? How to begin? I’m an organic writer; I rarely plan. I follow an idea and see what happens. For the novel, when I was supposed to start, there were far too many questions all wanting answers at once. After days of fear and avoidance and research passing for working on writing, I finally decided to look away. I began with a news article much like the one that announced the spinach E. coli contamination of 2006 which killed five Americans. Then I began writing a story about a man who had just become vegetarian and chose double-washed bagged baby spinach over organic spinach at a coop because he didn’t want to wash it. I wrote that story and sent it for critique and revised. Then I was off. I wrote story after story after story, assuming I’d find a way to suture them together later. On the few days I wrote 10 pages, I was so wiped out the next day that I’d only write a page or two. I found that I could write a maximum of 7-8 pages a day and stay productive the next day. I also found I sought feedback less often than I normally do. After that first story, I wrote until I hit 200 pages and decided it was time to start thinking about how the stories fit together. I needed someone who had read them to bounce ideas off of because I still had a number of possible structures in mind. In the final two months, I got regular feedback from a couple of writers I trusted which helped me tighten a few stories and decide to intercut the stories so that the pace of the novel moved more quickly for a reader.
BM: Where did the idea for the story come from?
DS: The germs of this story came from the fear of a swine flu epidemic in the fall of 2009, the changes in behavior that swept through the country like “sleeving the sneeze,” my concerns about the overuse of 99% bacterial killing soaps and sanitizers and a line that came into my head: “and laying a finger aside of his nose.” The flu that year went pandemic, around the world, but not epidemic; though it killed 18,000 world-wide, that’s a tiny, tiny fraction of the population. But the fear of it was rampant. Various national and international health organizations mounted campaigns to reduce the spread of virus by teaching us to cough and sneeze into our elbows rather than our hands. They also produced signs about the importance of hand-washing. Simultaneously, access to hand sanitizers became ubiquitous in many public places, like grocery stores. Though I’m not a scientist, I worried that we didn’t want to kill all of our bacteria because I knew that we needed it for digestion and to build a healthy immune system. So I worried personally that we shouldn’t use all of the 99% bacteria-killing products. But I was clearly in the minority. When I heard the line “laying a finger aside his nose” from the “Night Before Christmas” echoing in my head, I imagined a boy who found this children’s story in a box of old things that had belonged to his mother. In seeing Santa touching his nose, the boy recognizes the book as contraband, since face-touching is not allowed. He secrets it under his mattress like the pornography it is until he can show it to a friend. That got me thinking about a world in which face-touching was prohibited. It didn’t seem that far off. Then along the way I realized how much our food supply had already been contaminated as well as the dangers of GMOs and Agri-Biz became the evil backdrop to the dystopia I imagined.
BM: What was the impetus to write it?
DS: The ideas bred in my head for a couple of years. I read news about the various threads and occasionally wrote a short vignette that I shared with my writing group, but I didn’t imagine I was preparing for a novel. Then I had the opportunity for a sabbatical. As a writing center director I created a project that asked me to write more than 100 pages of fiction. The intent was to recreate for myself the conditions college students face when they have to write a longer paper than they know how to write in a genre or discipline they have little experience in. And the stage was set for me to write Isolation. Though at the time, I kept emphasizing that I wasn’t writing a novel, just a long piece of fiction and I’d see what happened.
BM: During the writing, what surprised you? Did you make any discoveries?
DS: One of the most important discoveries was that tense is a decision that must be firmly made up front. I wrote some of the stories in present tense and some in past. When I made the decision to use past tense, cleaning up the others was pure hell. I’ve railed for years against teachers who instruct students that they should limit their essays to one tense because it’s more complicated than that. This experience taught me how much more complicated. I’m a native English speaker, a writer—tense is easy and unconscious for me. But changing from present to past is complex because other tenses constantly interrupt and once interrupted, whatever tense is primary reads fluently so I would find that I wasn’t making the correction I had intended. Perhaps I learned not to have esoteric discussions about the use of tense in literature because I’m pretty sure that’s what led me down this thorny path.
BM: Why a dystopia?
DS: I love dystopias. They show us our world but focus on a particular flaw or set of flaws and demonstrate what will happen if we let the flaw grow and win. I think of them as a fiction that calls us to action.
BM: What writers have been important influences on your writing?
DS: Margaret Atwood has been the greatest influence. She’s written three dystopias. Her first dystopia, Handmaid’s Tale, made me a reader. I’d been abused by teachers giving me Jane Austin and Jane Eyre when I was in my early teens because I was in the top reading section of my class, but they bored me, and I stopped reading. At 25, I was handed Handmaid’s Tale and read the whole novel on a plane trip cross-country. That changed everything. Atwood also has two dystopias in a start to a trilogy which should complete this year in which the flaw is our scientific hubris over genetic alterations. But like Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake and Year of the Flood also bring in religious fervor showing us where we go wrong there as well. Love Atwood. Love her!
BM: Why not publish the book more conventionally?
DS: I began that way. I didn’t want to deal with the business end. And I think I wanted the glamour. I researched agents, wrote and sent inquiries, wrote varied lengths of synopses. But I realized that the paradigm has already shifted. We don’t even call it vanity publishing anymore; it’s self-publishing and quickly becoming indie publishing, moving more and more away from the pejorative to the attractive.
BM: What is Kickstarter? How does it work?
DS: Kickstarter is a crowd-funding mechanism for artists of many stripes. The way I think of it is as a way to fund projects that are larger than an artist could fund themselves. Though sometimes it’s also testing the waters to ensure there’s enough interest in a project. Anyone who pledges economic support of a project chooses a reward level. When a Kickstarter project reaches its goal in the set time, often a month, then the funds are charged to contributors’ accounts and the artist gets the proceeds. That starts the next clock ticking—the time it takes for the artist to make good on the project and the promised rewards. It’s a very cool idea. I’ve supported a few Kickstarters of friends and strangers. This is my first time to seek funding.
BM: Do you see this as the wave of the future?
DS: I do. I think the tide has turned. The ship has sailed. And several other oceanside clichés are apropos.
BM: What hopes do you have for your novel?
DS: I dream that it will make a big splash, which would mean a movie deal.
BM: Will you write another?
DS: Everyone asks that. I have no idea. To be honest, I never expected to write a first novel. But when the muse calls, I answer. I enjoyed the process and hope it will happen again.
BM: What’s your biggest fear as a writer?
DS: That I’ll stop hearing the voices.
BM: Why write at all?
DS: You might as well ask why breathe? I don’t think about breathing, but I do it or I wouldn’t live. Ok, so I can live without writing; I’ve done it for periods of my life. But the creative force can’t be confined or something important dies. I’ll leave you to decide what that is.
BM: Do you feel like you’ve joined some club since completing your novel?
DS: In a way, though I feel a bit like an impostor. I know many writers who want to finish their novels, or publish their novels, but they don’t. I never expected to write a novel. So it’s a kind of weird thing when I talk with other writers. I’m in the club, but my membership wasn’t prepaid.
BM: Where do you keep your Writer’s Magic Decoder Ring?
DS: On the counter next to my writing space.
The Masked Interviewer, aka Bob Mayberry, is a playwright, short story writer, and dabbler in baseball poetry. His latest poem, an epic about the Negro Baseball Leagues in the style of Alan Ginsberg’s “Howl,” can be enjoyed at BaseballBard.com.
More about Denise Stephenson:
To find out more about author Denise Stephenson and Isolation, visit www.facebook.com/DeniseStephensonIsolation
To find the author’s Kickstarter Project for Isolation, visit http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/926117424/isolation
When TreeHouse asked Stephenson to recommend an organization that she’d like us and our readers to support, she chose Food Democracy Now. The author notes, “They are paying attention to both the fine details—like what deadly substances are being genetically coded into our food supply—as well as the larger picture—like when to write to Congress or mega-corporations to try to keep our food sources safe. I don’t want to end up living inside my dystopian world; it’s supposed to be fiction!”
To learn more about this organization, visit: http://www.fooddemocracynow.org/campaigns/