All Screwed Up, Benu Press, 2009.
Steve Fellner’s first book of poems Blind Date with Cavafy was released by Marsh Hawk Press. It won the Thom Gunn Gay Male Poetry Award. His non-fiction has appeared in The Sun, North American Review, and Western Humanities Review, among others. He currently lives in Brockport, NY with his partner Phil.
Your award-winning book of poetry touched on some similar territory as the memoir (gay identity, dysfunctional family life), though the voices in these two projects are startlingly dissimilar: the humor is heightened somehow in the poems; the prose, though funny at times, elicited a more sympathetic reading response. It’s interesting because you exercise compression in the prose pieces—most of the entries are only a few pages—so if it’s not the length, is it the approach to exploring the story of this young man’s life that made these two books different experiences? Can you speak to the process of writing these two projects that overlapped thematically? Were they written simultaneously?
They weren’t written simultaneously, but the projects began in much the same way. I’ve always regretted not being a person who likes to take photos (I still don’t even own a camera, which drives my partner crazy). But I am obsessed with images. So both the book of poetry and this current memoir were attempts to assemble scrapbooks but with words instead of photos.
Years before I had used variations of a few of these images in a long poem. But there was a particularly visual memory that had never made it into my poetic work that kept coming back to me: when my brother and I were kids, my mother, an ex-trampoline champion, used to tell us in all seriousness that she had once bounced so high she once reached out and touched a bird. That was the image that started this project. I wish I had a photograph of that! Instead, I decided to create autobiographical short-short stories, all self-contained yet linked, focusing on my mother and I. Relying on images, I tried to “tell” as little as I could. I wanted vignettes to come as close to photos as possible.
As to why I chose prose this time over poetry, I think my silly hypochondriac tendencies had something to do with the form of this project. Being a connoisseur of emergency rooms, I’m always afraid of death, ignoring lab tests and doctors who say nothing’s wrong. But one day when I was particularly (irrationally) convinced I was dying, I decided that I needed to write my mother a love letter. That was the last thing I need to accomplish before I passed away. So that’s what I tried to do. Poetry is only possible when I’m calm, centered. Concentration is key. With prose, I feel I can be sloppy. Someone else will clean up the mess. That someone was my partner Phil. He helped remember stories I told him, edited, proofread, and helped assemble the final product. I wish I could tell you that he doesn’t always tidy up after me. But I can’t.
Readers will either appreciate or raise a brow at the level of honesty and revelation in All Screwed Up. The young Steve stumbles his way through adolescence and early adulthood with plenty of heartache, rage, but also courage (he’s a survivor, even if the narrator never admits to it). The characterizations of the unconventional mother and the father, who abandons the family and then returns as a vagrant, are shocking but sympathetic portrayals of two imperfect people who somehow parented. But in the end, this book is mostly about a relationship between a woman and the boy she adopted. The one character who remains in the margins is the brother. How did you negotiate the focus of the narrative and how did you gauge the level of participation of the various family members? The inevitable follow up question: What has been the response, if any, by members of the family who have read this book?
Not to sound disagreeable, but I don’t see myself as a survivor. I wish I had been one. It would have been easier to justify telling my life story. With the current economic crisis, I’m even reminded more that, like many people, I simply continued. That’s all I’ve ever done.
There’s nothing special about living with a single mother in a trailer park, being gay, and wanting to meet your biological mother.
I’m obsessed with the ethics of creative non-fiction. It’s important, I believe, to be emotionally honest, but kind. Too many family memoirs are written out of revenge. That desire didn’t motivate my project.
The book is composed of small chapters, no more than seven pages in length, several are even just a brief paragraph long. I decided that after I finished all the vignettes, I would send them to my mom. I told her to place each piece in one of three piles: one marked “O.K.”, one marked “You’re making things up,” one marked, “Too personal.”
Without asking for explanation, I excised any vignettes marked “Too personal.” For the ones marked “You’re making things up.” we talked about them, trying to reach a compromise. Only a couple of times did I resist her and kept them in the book. The O.K.’s were of course untouched. As for my brother, he is a private person, and I wanted to respect that.
The setting is Illinois, not far from Chicago, in a typical Midwestern town, and the family is markedly working class. It’s interesting that, though sexuality is an important component of this young man’s identity, it’s his role as an adopted son (and a child in a relatively poor family) that fuels his anxieties. This is not a coming-out memoir, and in many ways, it’s not a memoir about triumph or transcendence, but about trauma, which, in this case, isn’t paralyzing though it does cause emotional damage. How did you position your story (if at all) in terms of other memoirs written by gay men? Was it important (or unavoidable) to emphasize class?
I’m happy that you didn’t see it as a coming out memoir.
Coming out wasn’t that difficult for me. Growing up everyone read me as gay. The only people who I ever convinced I was straight were a few of my best friends. “Everyone thinks I’m queer,” I said to them, “So wouldn’t it be easier for me to admit it if I really was?” They bought that argument (but even then, only for a little while).
So I gave in to the inevitable. And if I announced my sexuality, I thought, I’d develop all these new friends, huge social life. People would be standing in line to talk to me. It never happened. Instead, I read and wrote more.
I wish I could tell you something like Paul Monette’s Becoming a Man impacted me. But it didn’t. He was wealthy. And it’s good that you mention class, as Monette’s “coming out” memoir did bother me a little, when I first read it. His sentences reflected his privilege; they were clean and neat. I just couldn’t connect. I liked being poor. It meant I could act up and people would blame it on my trashy parents. There are many writers I like and admire—big names like James Merrill and Edmund White—who were part of the early gay ‘canon.’ But it was hard not to notice that much of this work came from a fairly privileged background. I think as social progress continues to move forward, we’ll see more memoirs that reflect economic backgrounds where it’s been historically more difficult to be openly gay.
More than any gay author, Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted influenced me the most. It reads like a play, which gave me permission to do the same.
BONUS QUESTION: What recent small press title do you recommend to Critical Mass readers? Why?
I’m obsessed with Aaron Shurin’s amazing King of Shadows, City Lights Books. It deals with queerness, growing older, the writing life, and nature. Nature writing usually bores me. I planned to skip over those sections. Much to my surprise, I didn’t. I was never bored.