Jerome Stueart interview (pt. 1)
The Clarion e-Bulletin caught up with Jerome Stueart (Clarion 2007), who is currently an adjunct professor at the University of Dayton. He joined Tiffany Davis, e-Bulletin co-editor, via Skype to discuss his current and upcoming books, his Clarion experience, Christian werewolves, and Sister Act, among other things. Due to space constraints, we could only publish a small part of the interview in the February e-Bulletin. You can now read it in its entirety below; due to its length, we are publishing it in parts.. Enjoy!
Interview with Jerome Stueart (part 1)
Tiffany Davis (TD): Let’s talk about your latest collection, The Angels of Our Better Beasts. I read the blurb (which is prefaced with the intro,“The Beasts have plans for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. But you’re going to have to trust them.”) and was like, “Wow…griffins and …wow…”
Jerome Stueart (JS): Yeah, I did sort of a bestiary. Most of my stories have an animal in them somewhere, and the animal plays a larger role. I thought, I have enough stories with animals in them, that I can do this sort of theme. OR monsters, yea.
TD: The animals…does that come from growing up in the Yukon? What’s up there? Bison? Deer?
JS: Actually, I’m a newcomer to the Yukon, was there for about ten years, and I’m in Ohio right now. I grew up in Missouri and Texas, mostly.
JS: *laughs* Yeah, cattle. I don’t know. I mean, I’ve always loved our pets, and animals, and zoos. I just felt an affinity with animals. I read a lot of animal stories growing up: you know, Black Beauty, and Rabbit Hill, and Watership Down, and Wind in the Willows. There was just something magical about those books, and Stuart Little, and The Trumpet and the Swan, and a lot of the E.B.White books. As a kid, you just want animals to pass on some sort of wisdom that other people are not passing on to you. Because animals seem like they want to talk to you more than the adults do. I think that probably stuck with me.
TD: Do you have any pets yourself?
JS: I do not. I am such an apartment dweller, and I move around a lot, that I’ve not been able to have my own pet for a long time. In fact, back when I lived with my folks as a teen, was the last time I had a pet. I’ve always wanted a dog but, again, I’ve only been in a place long enough to get a degree. When I was in the Yukon, I thought I would stay there, until I fell in love–and that didn’t work out, but that’s okay–I thought I would be there for a while but the apartment that I got…the good apartments, as you know, are usually the ones that don’t allow pets. There’s something appealing about…you want the good, safe, apartment, but you decide. And I travel so much, I don’t feel like doing that to a pet until I have someone else in the house who will help take care of it when I’m gone.
TD: Where do you like to travel?
JS: Well, obviously I go back to the Yukon as much as I can. I still have lots of friends up there. Conferences and conventions; I find myself going to probably three or four a year. And then I travel back to see my folks in Texas. My birth mother lives in Indiana, so I like to try and go and see her.
Sometimes I go back to New York City; I’m doing some work on a book that’s set in Long Island; I”m just trying to finish up the last few chapters that are set in NYC, so I’m trying to schedule little trips to see specific things. I’m only a Greyhound bus ride away from Chicago–it’s a long ride, 14 hours–but it’s cheap! Oh my gosh! It’s only $60 to go to NYC., if you can endure 14 hours on a crushed bus, you know, where you’re with a lot of other people. Most of the time, I take the night bus, so I just sleep through the thing and get to NYC and I can do what I need to do, and I stay with friends there.
JS: Yeah, it’s cheap!
TD: You have another book coming out in summer 2018.
JS: One Nation Under Gods. It came from a short story I had printed in Tesseracts 14.
My now-publishers were the editors of that particular volume of Tesseracts and they liked it so much, they were like, “Can we have the novel version of this? Do you have it ready?” I was like, “Noooo!” *laughing* I mean, no, I didn’t have it ready but wow, I would love to have it ready! We have been working to get that novel out and it should be out by June of next year.
TD: Is that coming out on ChiZine [pronounced as “Shy-zine”] as well?
JS: Yeah, ChiZine [pronounced “Chee-zine”] is publishing it as well.
TD: I see “Chi” and think “Chicago”, or “The Chi”.
JS: I know! That’s funny. I always wanted to call them ChiZine [pronounced “Chy-zine”] too. But, you know, I know they’re going for the word “chi”, the idea of chi…
TD: Like “energy”
JS: Yeah, and I think that’s wonderful! And “zine”, of course. So, yeah, I’m really happy that’s coming out next year. It’ll be my first novel.
TD: The Angels of Our Better Beasts contains poetry. So you’re a poet, as well?
JS: Well, *chuckle* those two poems are…I mean, I have a few poems out there, but I don’t really count myself as a poet only because that’s not the first form I think of. The two poems in the collection are narrative poems, so they’re very much telling a story. The last one in the book, “The Song of Sasquatch”, I actually modeled that off the “Song of Solomon” in the Bible. I read “Song of Solomon” over to catch the rhythm and the language style, and then I replaced the characters with Sasquatch and the cryptozoologist that follows him, and have them fall in love and talk about the idea of being found, and wanting to be found, and not wanting to stay hidden. The sasquatch wants to reveal himself or come out in some way, but his community of sasquatches don’t want to allow that.
And that’s the same…in the Song of Solomon, the young girl who the king is in love with, is not accepted by the other women who Solomon has as wives. Her friends are nervous for her, that she is going to experience racism, and a lot of other things, because of her race. The poems are set up very similarly but I had a lot of fun with “Song of Sasquatch” for the first part of it–it’s kind of campy–and then it turns serious. Again, they’re narrative poems and I felt more at ease telling a story in a poem. There’s some amazing poets out there and I don’t know that I would call myself yet a poet, only because I’m still strongly telling stories in sort of a poetic form.
TD: On your website–I grew up Southern Baptist–
JS: Oh, me too!
TD: –You wrote a passage and I was like, it was from the Bible, but I can’t remember which verse–obviously; I kinda left all that alone–
JS: I wonder if the verse that you’re thinking of is the tag line on the book, where I say, “The beasts have plans for you, plans to make you prosperous and not harm you…”
JS: In fact, someone told me, “Should this be in quotes?” And I said no, the people who get it are going to get it. It’s almost a direct reference to–it’s Jeremiah 29:11–where the verse starts, “The Lord has plans for you…” I’m purposely echoing that because I want to give those religious echoes occasionally in the book, just because I want to play with the idea of trusting…how we trust things: trusting animals that we don’t understand but are mysterious; in the same way we don’t understand God, and He’s mysterious too, and we don’t have all the answers but we put a lot of trust in Him. I’m just playing with some of those themes.
TD: I like that…like you were talking about with “Song of Sasquatch”. I like that you are incorporating your Christian beliefs in a way that’s not heavy-handed. That’ll reach people.
JS: I grew up Evangelical, and the problem I had with Evangelicalism is that it didn’t rely on the idea or belief that you had your truth and people would be attracted to that truth. It relied on the fact that you, in some ways, forced people to hear you out and condemn them if they didn’t want to be part of that. To me, if you have a truth, any truth, it should be powerful enough to work by itself. I don’t feel a need to be as pushy…I mean, obviously, that pushiness is something I grew up with… but I learned a lot when that kind of pushy was aimed back at me.
When I came out, I lost all my friends in the Yukon church I was in –almost all of them; there are still a few of them that stayed with me–but it was such a devastating blow. I mean, that was 150 people who wouldn’t speak to me. That was so hard to believe, that all of a sudden it shook my idea of all that shared truth about love…you know, as a Christian, why aren’t my Christian brothers and sisters still with me? I’ve not stopped being a Christian, I’ve not changed at all, I just revealed something that I discovered about myself. All of a sudden, we’re no longer loving each other. That, to me, was a breach in this faith that I’d grown up with.
I decided that I wasn’t–I couldn’t be that kind of person who would browbeat or judge my friends. Everyone is living out their truths. If they were going to see any truth in my faith, it had to be from the positivity in my own life. If it leaks into my stories, great, but I didn’t want it to be heavy-handed.
Perhaps the most faith-built story in the whole book is about a werewolf that is hiding inside a Christian bluegrass band as the banjo player. And they know he’s in there, and he’s killed before, so they lock him up every full moon but they weigh–because they’re such a successful band, and because they’ve brought a lot of souls to Jesus–if we kill him, then we stop the good that he’s giving in the world. So how much good outweighs the deaths he’s caused?
I wanted to bring up that dilemma of trying to evaluate people based on the good and bad that they do, and how difficult a position that is. I critique their values but, at the same time, I never in the story say that they are bad for wanting to have that faith, for having that faith, and they’re trying to make good decisions, but they’re torn. Their faith has caused them to be blind in some areas that they shouldn’t be blinded; but how do you just purposely kill somebody?
Most of the stories don’t touch deeply on faith, except for the two we’ve talked about.
Continue reading part 2 of the interview here.