Alex Steele

portrait Alex Steele

interviewed by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 87 ~ August, 2004

Alexander Steele serves as the dean of faculty of Gotham Writers’ Workshop,
a creative writing school that offers classes in New York City City, as well
as online, to some 6,000 students each year.

Steele is also the editor of a series of books being created by Gotham Writers’
Workshop. Fiction Gallery (Bloomsbury USA 2004), due out this month,
is an anthology of short stories by such masters as Raymond Carver, Dorothy
Parker, T.C. Boyle, Jhumpa Lahiri, and ZZ Packer.

The first GWW book, Writing Fiction, (Bloomsbury USA 2003), is a guide
to the craft of fiction writing, now in its third printing. With chapters about
different aspects of the craft of writing fiction by top quality writers, Steele’s
contribution is entitled “Fiction: The What, How and Why of It.”

Born and raised in Dallas, Texas, Steele graduated from Vanderbilt University
with a B.A. in Drama and English. Soon after, he moved to New York City to
pursue a career in acting, then eventually drifted into writing.

Steele has written numerous plays which have been produced throughout the
country, including One Glorious Afternoon and Lightening and Frenzy.
He has also written screenplays, articles for several publications, and books
for such popular children’s series as Wishbone and The Hardy Boys.


Author Alexander Steele
Derek
Alger
: Gotham Writers’ Workshop has just come out with Fiction
Gallery
of which you are co-editor. Why do you think it is such
a unique anthology of short fiction?

Alexander
Steele
: That’s the first question we had to address with this
book. There are so many short-story-anthologies out there. Why this one?
Well, I’ll try to answer without sounding too much like a proud father.

DA: There’s
nothing wrong with proud fathers.

AS: I
view this book as a prism, with several distinctive angles. Which angle
you see will depend on how you look at the book, and, of course, you’re
free to view the book from numerous angles. First, the book is a great
read, with accessible stories that grab you on the first page and pull
you through to the end with strong momentum.

Much
of contemporary short fiction seems designed for an elite audience — the
fiction writer or the connoisseur — but these stories, I believe, will
have a broader appeal. At the same time, these stories exemplify the best
in literary fiction.

DA: Not
to sound too much like a proud father, but as a writer and reader of fiction,
that’s how I found the stories in Fiction Gallery.

AS: If
you’re interested in learning about fiction craft, everything you could
want to study is in these pages. The book isn’t a teaching guide per se,
but I can’t think of a better book to hold up to the light if you’re hoping
to learn how great works of fiction are constructed. For example, every
type of literary point of view is represented, even the obscure ones.

DA: How
did you decide which order to place the stories?

AS: The
stories are placed in groups that deal with aspects of life — like youth,
romance, family, etc. This lets the stories reflect off each other in interesting
ways, and the whole book is arranged in such a manner that, if you read
straight through, you’ll feel a progressive flow, rather like the progression
of a novel. There’s a blend of serious and humorous stories, with some
teetering in between, and this gives the book a dazzling variety of emotional
colors.

DA: You
have an interesting mix of writers in Fiction Gallery? How did
you go about the selection process?

AS: Oh,
yes, interesting mix. There’s ZZ Packer rubbing elbows with Anton Chekov,
and they’re both looking over at Peter Marcus, wondering who the hell he
is. Most of the writers are hotshots, either the current crop or from days
past, but there are a few wild cards hanging around. At a good party, you
want the guests to mingle well but also be a little surprised by some of
those invited.

Which
brings me to the selection process. We decided that most of the stories
would be by Americans and fairly contemporary (post 1970), with a few exceptions
sprinkled in — older and foreign works. We also steered away (mostly)
from those stories that appear repeatedly in anthologies. Then we also
tried to find stories that worked (individually, and as a whole) with all
those angles I just went on about. So we had a few guidelines in place,
which gave some focus to our selection process.

DA:
Sounds like an awesome undertaking.

AS: There
were a limitless number of stories to sift through. The sifting was done
by me and my co-editor — Thom Didato, who’s the editor of failbetter,
a great online literary magazine, and also a Gotham teacher. And we had
a secret weapon — an amazing assistant, Danny Goodman, who did a tremendous
amount of work.

DA: How
did you eventually narrow down the field?

AS: Each
of us sifted through piles of stories, then every week we would meet and
discuss our findings. If all three of us (or a passionate majority) really
liked something, then we would give the story to an assortment of people,
who were not hard-core fiction types, to read. It was important that most
of these folks love the stories. It’s not that we wanted stories amiable
enough to make everyone comfortable. It’s more that we wanted to avoid
stories that the general reader would have a tough time getting through. That
may sound like an obvious point, but a lot of contemporary fiction (forgive
me) is “tough to get through.”

DA: How
did you come up with the name Fiction Gallery?

AS: Fiction
Gallery
seemed like a cool name, mixing, as it does, a sense of
the written and the visual. And I think we’ve arranged the stories in
a way that is somewhat “gallery-like”.
I go on a bit more about the title in the book’s introduction, if anyone
is keenly interested.

DA: You
also have interviews with three of the writers who contribute stories to Fiction
Gallery
within the same book. What was your thinking when you came
up with that idea?

AS: We
didn’t want to interrupt the spell of the storytelling with anything academic,
like study questions or analyses of stories. But the interviews seemed
like a great way to go “behind the scenes” without getting too scholarly
about it. We interviewed three authors — T.C. Boyle, Jhumpa Lahiri, and
Hannah Tinti. Three very different writers at differing stages in their
careers, and they each gave us wonderful stuff. Interviewing these brilliant
writers was one of the real pleasures of the process. T.C. lets me call
him “Tom” now, and I’m very excited about that. Usually the step-up is
going from name to nickname, but it works in reverse with him.

DA: You
recently were also the editor and one of the contributors to Gotham Writers’ Workshop Writing
Fiction
. How did that come about?

AS: Here
at Gotham, we thought, “Hey, we do all these fiction classes pretty well,
why not put some of our teaching in a book?” Each chapter is written by
a different one of our fiction teachers, all of whom are accomplished fiction
writers in their own right. Like our classes, we tried to make the book
clear, practical, and entertaining. People seem to like the book, and so
we’ll be doing some more of them, on other types of writing.

DA: Could
you elaborate a bit on you statement that “In a way fiction is firm affirmation
that We Are Not Alone?”

AS: That
comes from Writing Fiction’s first chapter, which I wrote. The
great thing about literary fiction, when it’s done well, is that it gives
you a secret peek into the lives of other people. Their lives may be quite
different from yours, but you see they have the same kind of ups and downs,
fears and desires. I’m not filthy rich like Jay Gatsby but you know I’ve
had problems similar to his (troubled relationships, questioned credentials,
shady bootlegging partners). There’s a story in Fiction Gallery, “Whoever
Was Using this Bed” by Raymond Carver. Pretty much the whole story is this
guy and his wife talking in bed. You, the reader, feel like you’re standing
outside the window peering in through the blinds. They’re having a conversation
that’s rather absurd, but you realize it’s no more absurd than conversations
you may have had. And, yet, by watching someone else in the situation you
see it in a more universal way.

DA: I
see you stress the idea of community among writers, that writers shouldn’t
work in a vacuum. Is that one of the main reasons you got involved with
Gotham Writers’ Workshop?

AS: Well,
on a personal level, that’s part of why I got involved. I had been making
my living just writing away in my apartment and I was finding the life
a bit lonely. So I began teaching some classes for Gotham as a way of sharing
my writing life with others. Then I received the opportunity to become
the dean of faculty, and I liked the idea of actually mingling with other
people while I worked. When I started the job, I wasn’t used to working
in an office, so I’d go to work, socialize with everyone, then go home
to do most of my business. Now I’ve actually learned to work in the office
environment and I’ve even mastered the postage machine.

But,
yes, I do think a sense of community is one of the valuable things our
classes offer. You can learn plenty about craft by reading books and you
can usually coax someone you know to give you feedback on your work. But
it helps to be around other writers, to have people with whom you can share
the euphoria, puzzlement, and hardships. It’s helpful socially and artistically,
and, best of all, the group serves as a spur to keep you going. Frequently
students in our classes will form writing groups, and sometimes these groups
stick together for years.

Nowadays
over half our classes are taught online and we’ve tried to design the online
classes so they foster a sense of community, in much the way that a live
class does. We’ve tried to make these online classes a haven for someone
who is, say, out in the middle of Wyoming or stationed at a military base
in Guam, or even a harried parent or professional in a big city who would
have trouble meeting in person on a regular basis.

DA: How
long have you been the Dean of Faculty at GWW?

AS: I’ve
been the dean at Gotham for almost four years now. It’s a big ship to steer
and it certainly keeps me busy, but I’m lucky to have the job.

DA: Plus,
you know how to use the postage machine.

AS: The
GWW office staff has become family to me, the students are endlessly fascinating,
and it’s a real pleasure working with our terrifically talented corps of
teachers. And with our online program, we have teachers and students located
all over the globe, so that plays well into my Napoleon complex, which
I shouldn’t have because I’m not short.

DA: GWW
provides workshops in many specialties, I see, from literary fiction writing
to mystery and romance writing, and from non-fiction writing to comedy
writing.

AS: We
cover pretty much all types of creative writing. I love walking down the
hallways when I’m visiting one of our New York City locations. In one room
I’ll see an aspiring standup comic trying out material on the class, in
another room I’ll see an aspiring memoirist listening to feedback on a
memoir about her checkered past, and in another room I’ll see the group
intently watching a screen as the teacher analyzes a movie. Gotham has
enough variety — among topics, teachers, and students — to ensure that
it’s never a dull place. Exhausting, yes. Dull, never.

DA: You
obviously thought dramatically in order to write plays?

AS: I
began my writing career as a playwright. Since it’s not the best career
in which to make a living (understatement of the century), I moved into
other fields, but I think it was a great place to start.

DA: Why
so?

AS: First,
it’s simple enough to get going. Writing bad plays is, I think, about the
easiest thing to write. You just put down a bunch of dialogue without worrying
about the “visual element” or the “interior thought” or without even having
to write that many words. But to write a really good play, that’s maybe
the hardest thing to pull off in the writing arena. It’s just so easy for
people to get bored or distracted while watching a play. With works of
prose, most readers will give you some leeway, and with works for the screen,
you’ve got those flashing images to catch your attention. With theatre,
there’s no safety net. The audience is either riveted every moment, or
you’ve lost them. It’s the most unforgiving way to tell a story. And if
you can pull it off, ah, then you’ve really done something.

I
suppose my experience in the theatre has given me a low tolerance for any
kind of storytelling that is more concerned with its own glorification
than holding an audience in thrall, be it a viewing or reading audience. And
when I hear feedback on Fiction Gallery, the comments I most desire will
be something like: “Wow, I’ve never been so sucked in by a short story!”