Steve Heller interview Derek Alger One on One

portrait Steve Heller interview

interviewed by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 93 ~ February, 2005

Steve Heller, an award-winning novelist, essayist, and short story writer, currently serves as Professor & Chair of the MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles, the nation’s largest low-residency creative writing program.

Heller’s novel The Automative History of Lucky Kellerman, originally published by Chelsea Green (1987) and subsequently reprinted by Anchor/Doubleday (1989), was a selection of both the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Quality Paperback Book Club. The novel also received the Friends of American Writers First Prize Award for best published book of fiction or nonfiction related to the Midwest.

Heller’s second novel, Father’s Mechanical Universe, was published in 2001 by BkMk Press. His short stories have appeared in numerous magazines and national anthologies, and twice have received O. Henry Awards.

A recipient of an Individual Fellowship Grant in Fiction from the National Endowment of the Arts, Heller’s first collection of short stories, The Man Who Drank a Thousand Beers (Charitan Review Press, 1984), has been hailed as a Hawaiian Winesburg, Ohio.

Many of Heller’s stories are set in Hawaii, where he has lived for extended periods of time, including the spring and summer of 1995 when he served as Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Hawaii. Heller also taught at Kansas State University for 22 years, including 15 (1983-1998) as Chair of Creative Writing.

As an editor, Heller helped establish two national literary journals, the Hawaii Review, which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary issue, and Mid-American Review, which he conceived and designed in 1980. He has also served as an editor of Kansas Quarterly and Laurel Review.

Heller, who is finishing up his first book of nonfiction, called Walking Through the Moon: A Story of Ghosts earned a BA in English at Oklahoma State University and also has an MFA in English & Creative Writing from Bowling Green State University. He has also earned an M.S. in English Education from Oklahoma State University, as well as an Ed.D. in English Education from Oklahoma State University.

Derek Alger: Your first novel, the highly regarded The Automotive History of Lucky Kellerman, was inspired by your father. Can you tell us about him, and the evolution of the novel?

© Steve Heller

Steve Heller: The truth is, my father, Stephen Francis Heller, Sr., was a much more interesting man than Frank “Lucky” Kellerman, the character he inspired. Frank Kellerman is a man of few words, my father liked to tell stories about his life. He never wrote them down; in fact, he was barely literate.

When I was about ten, he took an exam to become certified as an electrician. In the evenings I would read the text book to him, and try to explain the meaning of various complex sentences, which I barely understood myself, since I had little idea about how electricity works. We made a pretty good team, because he passed the exam and became an electrician, first for Sears, then at the Oklahoma State Capitol. My father always claimed that he had never read a book from cover to cover. When my novel was published, though, he told me that he’d read it. Which was a half-truth; my mother read it to him.

DA: What did he think of the book?

SH: I asked him that question myself, on the phone, the day he claimed that he’d read it. “Well,” he said, “I guess some of that could of happened. And don’t forget to bring back the chainsaw next time you’re home.

DA: The chainsaw?

SH: Yep. I never asked him to elaborate. It was a perfect comment, and typical of his out-of-the blue sense of humor. Frank Kellerman is a different sort of man: less verbal, more brooding.

DA: What led you to make the character different?

SH: I suppose because I wrote the novel in part to explore the nature of my relationship with my father. My father was a man who worked with his hands. He was a self-taught mechanic, electrician, and jack of all trades. When I was young he was always trying to teach me how to fix things: cars, plumbing, wiring, roofs, TVs, you name it. But even at a very young age, I knew I was going to be a different sort of man, someone who worked with his head instead of his hands. I hated crawling under the Hudson Hornet to change the oil, hated snaking my way into crawl space under the house in the middle of winter to replace a busted pipe. I rejected all of my father’s life lessons and complained bitterly every time he tried to impart them. I was a terrible son.

DA: Somehow I doubt that.

SH: And yet, despite all our differences, despite the fact that we fought like hell all through my teenage years, it was always clear to me that we loved each other. What was most amazing, though, was the fact my father always accepted who I was, even though I could never do the same for him until long after I’d left home. For example, he thought it was great that I intended to become a writer and a professor, even though he had almost no sense of what those occupations entailed. “You still writin’ them articles?” he’d ask me from time to time. “Yeah, Dad. I’m still writing them.”

DA: It’s clear you cared deeply about each other.

SH: When I was in my early thirties I began to wonder exactly what it was that allowed us to love each other despite all our conflicts. To answer this question, I asked myself another. What if we’d each been slightly different sorts of people — less patient, less forgiving? Then I asked myself one more question. What if one of us had made a serious mistake, something that the other could not forgive? The answers to these questions took the shape of a story, and before you know it, I was writing a novel.

DA: Would you say Lucky Kellerman is autobiographical?

SH: Yes and no. The novel begins this way: “On his sixty-fifth birthday, Frank Kellerman locked himself inside of the old stone schoolhouse filled with honey bees.” The reader quickly learns that Kellerman has locked himself up in the one-room schoolhouse on his property north of Yukon, Oklahoma. in order to build from scrap a 1932 Model 18 Ford Deluxe Roadster, as a legacy for his only child Curly, whom he has seen once in the last decade.

Kellerman is haunted by the voice of his dead wife, Babe, who seems to speak to him right out of the walls of the schoolhouse, where the bees, which he calls his “honeys,” have made their home. The walls are filled with honeycomb and hum with the sound of the bees going about their business. Kellerman is a diabetic, and he has taken forty pounds of sugar into the schoolhouse to feed the bees. For privacy, he’s boarded up the windows of the schoolhouse, but he’s left himself a peephole so that he can look across the yard and see the carport he’s built to house his automobiles.

Kellerman has had six automobiles in his life, and all but the first one are lined up in the carport. The first one he built from scrap when he was a teenager, and his father chopped it to pieces with an ax. The car he’s building is his seventh. Each car represents a different stage of his life. As he builds the car amidst the bees and his dead wife speaks to him from the walls, he looks out the peephole at the cars and reviews his life, his automotive history. Lucky’s past is revealed in the novel through flashbacks that begin with his memories.

Here are some of the autobiographical parts. When he was a teenager, my father built a Model T from scrap in a neighbor’s barn. Because he hadn’t asked his father’s permission to build the car, his father chopped it to pieces with an ax. Babe was my father’s nickname for my mother Elizabeth, and Curly was their nickname for me. Like Curly, I grew up on five acres north of Yukon, surrounded by wheat fields. There were two structures on the property: the house I grew up in and an old one-room schoolhouse. Like Lucky, my father used the schoolhouse as his workshop, fixing lawnmowers, radios, washing machines, anything mechanical or electrical.

Just as in Curly’s world, when I was a teenager, honeybees swarmed into the cracks of the stone walls of the schoolhouse, and they made their hive between the exterior stone and the interior plaster. Like Lucky, my father tried and failed to get rid of the bees. Like Lucky, he decided to share the schoolhouse with them — and learned to do his work there while covered with honeybees. Like Lucky, he was almost never stung.

But unlike Lucky, my father did not keep all the automobiles he’d ever owned, though he did own some of the same automobiles that are in the novel, such as the Hudson Hornet. My father never left my mother, as Lucky does in one of the flashbacks. My mother outlived my father, who died in 1995. My father and I were never estranged, as Lucky and Curly are. And my father never locked himself inside the schoolhouse, nor did he attempt to build an automobile inside there. Those things were invented to help answer the questions that inspired the novel.

DA: The influence of your father was obviously strong, strong enough to write your second novel, Father’s Mechanical Universe, a prequel to Lucky Kellerman.

SH: As I tell my students, what makes something a story isn’t what happens, but how you view it. After I’d written Lucky, I began to wonder how some of the same events would have been viewed by Curly, who, unlike his father, grew up to be a man with plenty of words. Lucky Kellerman is narrated in third person limited omniscient point of view, reflected through Lucky’s perspective, so that the effaced narrator could provide phrasings unavailable to the protagonist. I wrote Father’s Mechanical Universe in first person, from Curly’s point of view.

Because of this, the same events of Curly’s youth that are covered in the first novel form a very different story in the second. Father’s Mechanical Universe is written more as an homage to my father, though you’ve probably noted that the tone is unsentimental. I wanted to express Curly’s hard-earned appreciation of Lucky, and through him my appreciation of my own father

DA: You were obviously influenced strongly by your family.

SH: Yes, I’ve been fascinated by the variety of ways love can be expressed. My parents lived together for 49 years, until my father’s death. Like Lucky and Babe, they rarely expressed affection that anyone could notice. One had to study them to see it. And no one studies people more than children study their parents. But, though we observe, we rarely question what we see, and thus we miss a lot. Father’s Mechanical Universe is dedicated to “men who love the world with their hands, and the women who love such men.” My mother Elizabeth is still alive, and she has become a valuable resource for me, not merely as a source of family history, but as someone to study, someone who inspires questions of how and why and what if? The questions that haunt writers.

DA: For instance?

SH: I’ve always wondered, for example, how my mother’s vision of Hawaii, a setting that looms large in my life and work, would have been shaped, had she and my father been able to celebrate their 50th anniversary there, as they’d planned. In the summer of 1995 my first wife and our three boys and I were living in Maunawili on the windward side of O’ahu, after my semester as visiting writer at the University of Hawaii. We’d rented a great little house right up against the forest beneath the Ko’olau Mountains, and the plan was for my parents to come out and celebrate their 50th anniversary with us in August, a month early, while we were still living there.

My parents knew Hawaii only from my stories, and my Dad, who never liked to travel, was eager to see it with his own eyes. So was Mom, and she loved to travel. My mother brought his ashes out instead, and we scattered them in the ocean off Kailua Beach.

DA: It’s impossible not to ask how a kid from Oklahoma ended up writing a collection of short stories based on Hawaii.

SH: It starts in 1971, the year I graduated from Oklahoma State University with a BA in English. I knew graduate school was in my future, but I decided to take a year off and work with my hands first, to experience a little bit of the life my father had lived. So my philosophy major friend Rick and I got in my white VW campmobile and drove off to look for America, like we were in a Simon and Garfunkle song. We both wound up getting jobs in Boulder, Colorado.

He built doors; I packed books into boxes and mailed them off from a paperback distribution center. I liked being away from home and decided that for graduate school I wanted to get as far away from Oklahoma as possible. That turned out to be the University of Hawaii in Honolulu, a distance of about 4,000 miles. The day before I left, I married the woman I’d been dating since just after high school, and we flew to Honolulu to start a new life together.

DA: That’s quite a honeymoon.

SH: We both loved Hawaii in many ways, but we were unhappy there as well. Mary was a high school English teacher, but couldn’t get a job at O’ahi. I was unhappy with my Master’s program in English, though the fault was all mine. We wound up flying back to Oklahoma where we both went back to graduate school at Oklahoma State. We both taught high school for a year, then entered doctoral programs in English Education. It looked like we’d both become professors of education, and in fact after I finished my EdD I was hired as a Visiting Assistant Professor for a year while Mary finished up her degree.

But along the way, something happened. The voices I’d heard in Hawaii — the Japanese Americans, the Chinese Americans, the Filipino Americans, and of course the Polynesian Americans — kept echoing in my head. And yet in other ways, my memories of Hawaii were fading fast. To keep the place alive in my mind’s eye, I decided to write a short story set in the islands. As I’ve said in print before, I’d known I wanted to be a writer since the ninth grade, but the short story I was about to write in my mid-twenties was my very first serious piece of writing.

Why hadn’t I written before? Writing was so important to me that I was terrified of failing at it. So I planned out these long ponderous novels in my head, but I did not write them. I wrote nothing until I finally got up the courage to take a creative writing course in graduate school. The class was taught by the Head of the English Department, a novelist and short story writer named Gordon Weaver, who became my first and foremost writing mentor. Gordon was a no-nonsense sort of teacher, but he was supportive nevertheless. The story I wrote was called “The Red Dust of Lana’i,” about a young pineapple worker on my favorite Hawaiian island. It contains a good deal of local dialect, the old plantation-style English, as I remembered hearing it spoken on that island. The story is about the pineapple worker’s decision not to accompany his girlfriend to college on O’ahu, but to stay on Lana’i, the place that is so much a part of him that it clothes him like the red dust of the island coats his skin. He decides to stay, even though the pineapple industry in Hawaii is dying, and everything he loves about Lana’i is about to change. I suggest his decision indirectly in the story After we discussed the story in workshop, Gordon suggested that with a few relatively small changes, the story might be published.

DA: That must have been encouraging.

SH: It was. And in fact I sent the story out and it was accepted by a little magazine before the end of the term. I would go on to write seven stories in Gordon’s workshop at Oklahoma State, and they were all eventually published.

All of the stories were set in Hawaii, and before I knew it, I was writing a book of Hawaii stories called The Man Who Drank a Thousand Beers. I finished the book in Ohio, at Bowling Green State University, where I earned my MFA in Creative Writing after the EdD. While I was a student there, I was lucky enough to keep publishing stories and receive a Fellowship in Fiction from the National Endowment for the Arts. With a poet named Scott Cairns, I also conceived and designed a magazine called Mid-American Review, which over the years has developed into a fine international literary journal. After Bowling Green, I landed a tenure-track position at Kansas State University.

DA: From the beaches of Hawaii to the plains of Kansas, that’s quite a shift.

SH: It certainly was. Mary and I started a family at that point, and we wound up having four children, so one of my many jobs in Kansas was to learn how to be a father. I had to miss my very first day of teaching at KSU to be with Mary for the birth of our first child, David. Michael came next, then Daniel, and finally our daughter Rachel, who came along in 1996, when Mary and I were both 46. Her middle name is Lehualani, which is Hawaiian for “blossom of the heavens.” Mary went along with this because Rachel spent two of the first three months of her life on Lana’i, where I brought my family with me to do research for an historical novel about the island. That book has now ballooned into a trilogy of novels called Private Island. The research trip had been planned long before Mary discovered she was pregnant. So even in Kansas, I maintained my connection to Hawaii.

DA: Tell us a bit about your career at Kansas State.

SH: When I first got the job back in 1981, I thought an important part of my position would be working on Kansas Quarterly, one of the nation’s oldest continuously published literary journals. It started out as Kansas Magazine. But the department’s resources were limited, and it turned out I worked on KQ only one year, while my colleague Ben Nyberg was on sabbatical. What the department really wanted me to do was build a quality graduate creative writing program. I worked hard at that, writing grants, building up our visiting writers series, eventually adding more creative writing faculty, establishing an annual literary festival, and slowly building up our enrollments until creative writing and literature was the largest and best-known track of the M.A. Program in English.

My closest colleague and best friend was Jonathan Holden, who was recently named first Poet Laureate of Kansas. At KSU, one of my greatest pleasures as a teacher was to send our best students and writers on to MFA and PhD programs, and watch their careers develop afterward. I’ve had many students who have published books, won awards, and established outstanding careers as teachers. Nothing can beat the feeling you get when a student succeeds at something, then takes the trouble to thank you for whatever it was they think was your contribution.

DA: What brought you to Antioch and California?

SH: A number of things. Mary and I divorced in 1999. Divorce is hardest on the children, I believe, and I stuck around for several years for their sake. But eventually I needed a new start. In 2000, I remarried. Sheyene is significantly younger than I, so I call her “The Old Lady.” She’s also a writer, and a very good one. By 2003 we both needed a fresh start. Antioch University Los Angeles is about as big a change as one could imagine. It’s a small private school, a satellite campus of Antioch in Yellow Springs, Ohio, founded in 1852 by Horace Mann.

All of the Antioch campuses are devoted to the pursuit of social justice, and offer progressive student-centered curricula. Instead of grades, we give narrative evaluations of students. That suits me perfectly, as I’m always writing long critiques of my students’ writing anyway. I chair the Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing, a low-residency program with a strong online component and two annual 10-day on campus residencies packed with workshops, seminars, lectures, panels, readings, and social events. The sense of community is intense, almost overwhelming.

The community continues after each residency, during a five-month online project period that follows, as each student works with a different writing mentor, and participates in online writing and reading conferences with small groups of their peers. The community is maintained even after the MFA, through alumni activities and online conferences. Antioch is an incredibly stimulating place to be, and I love it here.

DA: As a creative writing teacher, what goals do you hope to achieve with your students?

SH: I aim to teach craft, develop abilities, and help each student learn to be his or her own best reader and critic. I’ve always maintained that the primary purpose of the creative writing workshop is to make workshop unnecessary.

DA: You said you believe that creative writing is not self-expression, but rather its opposite. Could you elaborate?
SH: Certainly. This is an article of faith for me. Creative writing is an expression not of the self, but of otherness. For example, as a fiction writer my job is to become someone else, on the page. To walk around in his shoes until they finally fit. To speak in her voice until it finally sounds natural. To get the details right until this made-up story is metaphorically true, until it accurately depicts what it’s like to be the person I’m writing about, doing whatever he or she is doing in circumstances I’ve adapted or invented.

Creative writing is about the engagement with the world, not about some special vision that springs magically from the writer’s imagination like a child from the head of Zeus. Without memory, there is no imagination. There is nothing. Without engaging the other, there is no conflict, and without conflict there is no story. My friend Jonathan’s first book of poems is called Design for a House. That title is very instructive. A writer’s job is to design something that will stand solid and not crumble around the people who occupy it. And they and the writer all want this edifice to be beautiful. A writer is like an architect.

DA: Or someone who builds an automobile from scrap.

SH: Exactly.