The first time I talked to Kevin Sterne was at the pizza bar, The Boiler Room, in the Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago. This was after our joint reading at The Whistler (another bar in Logan) in August of 2019. Kevin sat across from me and next to Match Books’ Lauren Zallo. Also with us was Long Day Press’s Josh Bohnsack. Plus artist Christina Quay who was sketching the scene as it unfolded.
In the midst of our pizza munching and beer drinking, Kevin, as I’ve learned he’s prone to do, asked a pointed question having nothing to do with our conversation.
“Chase, have you heard of Skunk Ape?”
“It’s like Florida’s Big Foot. I’m interested in people and places and the weird and mysterious aspects of those people and places.”
I hadn’t. But I shouldn’t have been surprised when months later he said he wanted to talk to me about my Florida book, What’s on the Menu out with Long Day Press. Since then, a friendship has blossomed. We share works-in-progress and we talk about the odd jobs we work and the customers that make our lives hell.
A couple months ago, Kevin sent me a copy of his new book, an 18 story collection called: All Must Go, out August 31 with House of Vlad. Kevin’s story collection is part love letter to his hometown, Chicago, part absurdist comedy tour centered around the jobs he works and the people he meets.
Kevin Sterne’s tales of odd jobs, including crafting a makeshift skylight with a lumberjacking saw and babysitting while bigfoot may or may not be roaming the nearby woods, seamlessly moving from hyperreal to surreal. One moment you will be laughing so loud your neighbor kicks your front door open and demands you hand over this book that has you laughing in such a loud and unsettling manner, and the next moment you will be balling until you are dehydrated and begging your neighbor to quit messing with your plumbing.
Sterne’s work might hurt sometimes, because while the emotional traversal might be seamless you can still feel the needle popping in and out of the skin, each word being written with sewing thread as you read, and although it hurts his work is refreshingly free of cynicism.
Active, but not reactive, his Desperate House Guy character sometimes simply sits and listens to his clients who are lonely and just looking for a drinking buddy with opens ears.
The world can be a cold and lonely place, and even though we’re globally connected it seems that we have lost our neighbors and all those closest to us. Instead of giving up and going world-weary, Kevin Sterne makes connections in places forgotten. Hazy corners of your mind will come into focus as you read All Must Go like that street you didn’t realize you pass every day on your way home from work and that when you finally notice and hang a left onto this street that you swear popped into existence overnight, you find a pizza place with the best pizza sauce that has ever touched your taste buds.
We’re all so busy and tired, but Kevin takes the time to crack open a couple Hamm’s with a couple strangers.
And, this is why it hurts.
Because, we miss it.
We miss people.
We wish we could be both globally and locally connected.
We want it all and know that we cannot have it all.
Kevin Sterne is part Raymond Carver, part Julio Cortazar, part Laozi, part Miranda July, and all Sterne. All Must Go is a dazzling collection that swirls from tales of family life and work-life to surreal incantations that bop and flow like a sacred text and written in a highly quirky and original style that is all Sterne and dripping with an earnestness that hurts so good.
All Must Go broke my goddamn heart a million times and I am so thankful for it. I feel like a better person having read this gorgeous, hilarious, gut-wrenching collection.
Chase Griffin: This book feels like a great indie-rock concept album. Cursive’s Ugly Organ comes to mind. So does How Memory Works by Joan of Arc. Was it your intention to create an interconnected short story collection or did it happen organically?
Kevin Sterne: I’m loosely familiar with those two albums. Obviously, Tim Kinsella means a lot to this city, but I’m a bigger fan of his brother’s work in American Football. But, yeah, I was always writing the same characters and the more I wrote these characters the more I felt the world developing. I was drawn to writing about Chicago and I think in the years I was working on All Must Go, it made sense to write what I knew and what was close to me. I took these characters of my imagination and mixed them with stories I was actively living in my day job and personal life.
CG: Hell yes. I think the best art in the world is made that way: examining place.
KS: I think that concept was always there. In four years, I wrote about fifty stories and I think most of them were tangentially related to this idea of place and my life in real time. I took the ones I liked the most or the ones that resonated the most with people at readings. I was always conscious of making it work as a Winesburg Ohio or Visit From The Goon Squad kind of thing.
CG: How much of AMG is autobiographical?
KS: Damn, I don’t know. I guess a solid amount of AMG is based off of or influenced by my day-to-day activities working in irrigation, working in landscaping, working as a handyman, and stuff with my family and my dad, or stories that my friends told me, or things that I would encounter, and I would take those real-world experiences and filter them through the AMG lens. The desperate house guy is the character that is closest to me. Jerry is made up. Hans is total imagination. I’ve heard writers talk about their first books. Specifically, Mark Z. Danielewski author of House of Leaves, and said that was his most personal work and it was the closest to him, most autobiographical. I think that was probably true of this collection because a lot of it was me learning how to be a writer. This is my first full-length book. I think I was just writing what came close and what came natural and pulling a lot from my own real life.
CG: When one of your day-to-day activities hits you in the face as a great story idea, what’s your process following the idea-pie-in-the-face? Do you let those events bop around in your head before writing it down?
KS: No, I write it down immediately. I have a little notebook in my pocket at all times and if I’m out at a bar or with friends somewhere, I pull it out and start writing it down. The “Radiator Demon” story started with me and my buddy, Joe Demes—who was a huge influence and creative help with a lot of the stories. But the story started with a dumb line of dialogue that we thought of and then we just spit-balled back and forth as we were walking back to our apartment late one night. Then I took the story from there. The “Phish Show” story came from my buddy Joey (different Joe) traveling to New York and going to a Phish concert. He told me that after the concert he helped this guy pick up all these spent nitrogen balloons. I immediately began writing this story because I thought it was hilarious. Some of the stories didn’t come out right away. Some are heavily revised. Some took a couple of years. They sat around and I couldn’t do anything with them and then I came up with a new idea and I reformed the story to fit that. Some of the stories are very spontaneous and happened very quickly and some took a very long time, but I think that’s art.
CG: That happens to me too. I’ve noticed that my best stories either take one hour or two years to write and there’s nothing in between. I’ve heard it’s like this for a lot of writers. Is there a name for this phenomenon, by the way? Can we coin a term right now? How about the Creative Spontaneity…
CG:– I like it. Term coined. Minted. Why do you think it happens this way? The CSS, I mean.
KS: So, it’s funny because Phoebe Journal just asked me for a quote on this exact topic. The short answer is: I don’t know. The long answer is that I’m always trying to capture the immediateness of my creativity. I’ll think of how musicians will improvise and it’s so easy to make music on the fly. A drip painter can make spontaneous decisions. It’s so much harder to capture that immediacy in a piece of writing, specifically a short story. It’s like trying to jump from the side of the road into the bed of a Chevy pickup roaring past you at ninety. Precise spontaneity is what I’m always going for. I’m trying to fight the analytical mind and just get out the quick thought and I think it takes a long time to train yourself to get down the quick thought and to have it come out in the proper sensibilities and size for what you’re trying to do.
CG: Give me an example.
KS: For the story “From Your Jerry” I actually sat down and told myself I’d give myself an hour to write a story. And, aside from a few sentences, that thing was written in one go. It’s funny because at readings, that’s usually my most popular. People love Jerry.
Some of the other stories take a long time though. One of the stories that didn’t make it into the final collection, I worked on and rewrote and analyzed and couldn’t get satisfied with for two years. I feel like if I have to really work on a story I’ll give it away or if I’m not feeling the vibe of it, I’ll set it aside. I don’t know why that happens though. Why it’s either an hour or two years. I think that happens to everyone. There’s so many musicians who will write a song when they’re making an album and they’ll get rid of it. Neil Young ditched and recycled so much material. Some ideas get abandoned. Some ideas aren’t right for that moment. Why do you think some ideas take a long time and some ideas come right out?
CG: I have no earthly idea. It’s really weird for me because since I’ve become aware of this anomaly, I’ll sit down to sort of force the quick, spontaneous story almost like a magickal ritual, but it almost never results in something I’m happy with. It’s almost like if I sit down with too much intent, I’ve created too much pressure for myself. The only time the quick, spontaneous story happens is when I’m not thinking about it. A lot of times those stories will come from a writing session with a totally different story. When I’m writing I’ll let myself ramble and go off on tangents just for fun. And, a lot of times when I go off on the tangent it will lead to a new story and I finish it inside the document and when I finish, I’ll pop it out of the story I was originally working on. You should see this super long, messy word document that all of my finished stories come from. It’s this tome of false starts. One day, just for the hell of it I’ll see if anyone wants to publish it.
KS: Call it False Starts.
CG: I’m using that.
KS: If I start working on a story and life gets in the way and I can’t go back to it for a bit, the story will lose its energy and so I have to keep the energy and the momentum of the piece going because I feel like my mood or what I’m interested in is very fleeting. So, if I get an idea I have to work on the idea for that week. I think a week is a good length of time to work on a two-thousand-word story. I spend as much time as I can in that week and really try to keep the momentum of the story going and then finish it, but I have to work on it and I have to take a week off because if I’m really busy with work or go on vacation and then I come back to it and I’m like, “Well, what the fuck was I doing here?” And then it’s hard to find the vibe of the story again because then I’ll have fresh ideas and life experiences happen and then I’ll be like, “Well, what if I try to do this to it?” Or I just say “Fuck it, I’ll write something else. I don’t remember what I was originally trying to do, but it didn’t feel like this.”
CG: How did you fall into this writer thing? What happened?
KS: I don’t know. I didn’t learn to read on my own until I was in the third grade. I think that’s because I have ADHD. I don’t know about you but I was always tutored. I think they made me do an extra year of pre-school too. I was always getting pulled out of class for extra help. I was a slow learner. I guess what I did have was creativity. In eighth grade, I had a composition teacher who pushed me to write creatively and I would write goofy stories and she would look at them with me in homeroom or study hall, and then I would type up stories in my bedroom on this super old fucking computer. I’d save them on floppy disks and I would print them out and mail them to my grandma who lived in southern Illinois. This is all before I understood email. Email was around but my grandma definitely didn’t use it. But, yeah, I didn’t really read anything in high school. I was a terrible student in high school. High school kind of sucked all the creativity out of me. I got C’s in all my English classes. I read maybe two or three books in all of high school. And then I went to college for film. After a year and a half, I changed my major. I thought I needed to be a better writer if I was going to write scripts. So, I switched to English and then, yeah, went from there I guess.
CG: How’d you get into landscaping and irrigation and handyman work?
KS: I was working this shitty office writing job and hated it. And I realized I could make three dollars more working in landscaping. They were paying me 12 bucks and all these other jobs were paying at least 15. So I applied on Indeed to this guy named Dan The Aquaman. No joke. I told my boss at the time that April 1st would be my last day and I was going to go work for Dan the Aquaman. He didn’t believe me. And, yeah, it was my first landscaping job and I was mostly
installing and fixing landscape sprinkler systems. I actually love it. I think it’s my calling. I love being outside. I love learning how to do this kind of stuff. I love trees. I think writing is my passion, but my love is for the outdoors. You can’t make any money as a writer, unless you want to sell out and you want to write copy for an ad agency or if you want to be a freelance journalist but that’s hard as fuck to get into. Health writing pays, but it’s super dry and super boring and it’s really straight-laced. I’d rather write for myself on my own time.
CG: Getting paid to write sounds god-awful. Like, anything I’ve ever gotten paid to do makes me hate the thing eventually. I love writing too much to do that to myself. I can’t afford to go to a psychiatrist. That’s my therapy. I don’t want to kill it by getting paid to do it.
KS: One hundred percent. And, I have a hard time sitting still. To sit in a chair for eight hours and work at a desk as a professional writer, that was so hard. I was so depressed when I was doing that. Every day I road the L with the 9 to 5ers and worked in a cubicle across the street from the Sears Tower. I wanted to commit suicide every day. I can’t do it and I’m not interested in teaching either. I don’t have a passion for teaching and I don’t have the degree for it either. I really like what I do.
CG: The world has changed a lot since the last time we spoke. How has everything going on affected work and writing?
KS: I haven’t been out of work because landscaping and construction and tree care is considered an essential service. I was doing tree care specific work for several months. During the most intense period of the quarantine, I was making house calls every day. I was showing up on people’s properties and I was always having to talk to people. So, I was wearing a mask and sanitizing all the time. It was wild, but on a greater scope I’ve been working the whole time. It’s been super busy. I’ve been incredibly fortunate that I hit overtime every week. So, I am incredibly lucky. And from a writing perspective, I have a lot more time. I’m not going out. I’m staying inside. Either I’m staying inside or I’m going for a run or I’m going to work or I’m going to the grocery store. That’s all we do. I just use that time to write or read. It was very hard at the beginning. I was super depressed. Wasn’t getting any writing done. It’s been weird. I have a hard time with transitions. I like change but there’s always a buffer period for me. Something of this magnitude was really hard to adjust to, but you have to try to make the best of it and find the positives in it. I’m like, “Well, I’ve got all this free time. I should work on a novel.” So I’ve been working on a novel.
CG: Oh, a Sterne novel. Tell me about this novel.
KS: I wanted to something very different after putting out All Must Go. Like a total tonal shift. I want to make a conscious step in a different direction. So I’ve been writing a noir about the water crisis in the American West. That’s all I’m going to say right now. I’ve been very reclusive and I think I will be for a while. I haven’t been writing stories at all and I haven’t been submitting anything either. I think it’s a weird time to try to publish and get things submitted especially as a straight white guy from Chicago. I don’t think my work is what needs to be read right now. And I don’t think it’s what editors want to read and I don’t think it’s what people want to read. I’ve gotten stuff published retroactively because publishing takes so long. And I’m not on social media either. You can’t reach me. I’m thinking about getting a flip phone even. I think right now is time for a lot of us to look inward.
CG: Agreed. Tell your writing habits?
KS: I write in long hand in a notebook. I write in cursive.
CG: You write in cursive?
KS: Yeah, I learned it from my grandma. It’s quicker.
CG: I didn’t know anyone still used cursive.
KS: I don’t know anyone else that does it. I’ve got to be one the only one. If someone else is doing it, then we need to talk. We will have a club of two.
CG: Do you do most of your writing at work?
KS: It depends. I had this one job where I got a really long lunch break and I was in a truck a lot and so I was constantly writing on my phone, but that’s when I was still working on stories. I’ve switched to a new method now that I’m working on for my novel. This is my third time trying to write a novel. I wrote a lot of this novel on my phone. I got to about one hundred and fifty pages and I printed it out and now I’m making notes on the printout. And, I write the notes and extend scenes and shift things at work. I work at home and I work on the weekend mostly. Whenever I have time now. I don’t stick to a word count. I try to write every day, but I also don’t have a good attention span. I can’t do long spurts. Half hour to an hour is good to me. I can’t sustain my focus for very long. I have to write in bursts.
CG: I have a lot of trouble focusing too. Can we talk about the Midwest for a second? I don’t know why I’m so fascinated by the Midwest. I think it might have to do with the fact that half of my family lives in Illinois and Michigan, so maybe it feels like home to me. AMG feels like an instant classic, quintessential Midwestern book. I feel the flow of the region in your book. What is the Midwest experience to you?
KS: I think of All Must Go as a book about Chicago. Chicago is lot different than the rest of the Midwest. I wanted to write a book about Chicago because it is where I’ve lived for the past eight years and I wanted to write about the city in a way that would resonate with people from Chicago. I wanted to reference very specific things. The Pizza Hut that reoccurs as a location at Western and Fullerton, it’s not even there anymore. There’s an Italian restaurant that I reference that’s in Irving Park. It’s an Olive Garden. It was really cool to get Alex Higley to blurb the book because he lives here and he knows Chicago and I think he really picked up on a lot of the Chicago specific references or lesser known streets or lesser known neighborhoods that I talk about or situate the stories in. It’s an interesting place, but the Midwest in general is home and I think about this a lot and I think about place especially because what I’m working on now is very tied into the Great Lakes and the Chicago waterway system and the rivers of Illinois and the Mississippi. There’s something about growing up around water. There’s something about the land. This is where the prairies are and the rest of the country doesn’t have that. This is the agriculture center. It’s flat here. The people are super nice. Everyone is neighborly. Everyone will try to start a conversation with you. I’ve visited a lot of the US. I’ve visited both coasts. I’ve visited Alaska. Especially on the west coast, people are really stand-offish or harder to engage genuinely. I think people in the Midwest are very genuine, but we’re also tough because the weather here is fucking awful. It beats you down on all ends. We had a negative fifty-degree day a few winters ago.
CG: Negative fifty. As a Floridian that makes zero sense to me.
KS: The weather beats us down, but we are resilient people.
CG: I’m envious of the friendliness, but I’m not envious of the weather. And I have a theory about Florida and it’s related to the Midwest. All the snowbirds are the people that were not only not tough enough for the weather, but they’re also the grumps who couldn’t take the friendliness of the Midwest. By the way, Florida, I love you. You’re my home and I will always cherish you. You know I gotta poke fun. This state is a cluster sometimes.
KS: The weather makes us bond. We’re all in this together. You Floridians are like, “I’ve got all this sunshine. Everyone besides me can take a flying fuck to the moon.”
CG: HAHA! You Midwesterns are like, “Let’s all take our clothes off and huddle and smash our bodies together for the heat.”
KS: We’re not like the south. There’s nothing like southern hospitality.
CG: That’s not real. Southern hospitality is a myth. If there is such a thing as southern hospitality, as Christina Quay says, “It comes with a piping hot side of systemic racism.”
KS: There’s good people here and that’s hard to find.
CG: That’s why I love Chicago so much. I always feel so welcome. The whole Midwest. I always feel like everybody is about to pull a gift-wrapped parcel of warm meat pies out from behind their back and hand it to me.
KS: Our pizza here is square.
CG: What about deep dish?
KS: So, if you’re from Chicago you don’t really eat deep dish.
CG: The hell? Kevin, don’t say things like this to me. You’re fucking me up right now.
KS: Some of the deep dish is good, but you’re not eating that all the time.
CG: Not false. One slice of deep dish does make me feel like I’ve swallowed an entire loaf of bread and somehow the entire starting line of the 1985 Bears including head coach Mike Ditka.
KS: Growing up in the suburbs it was harder to find good quality deep dish and every once in a while one of the restaurants from the city would open a second restaurant out in my neck of the woods so we’d get to sink our teeth into a slice of the 1985 Bears. It would be a treat and I would eat that shit up. But, in the city, come on. There’s so much good pizza here. Everyone is making good pizza.
CG: What’s this the square pizza you’re talking about?
KS: It’s called tavern cut. Vito and Nick’s is a great one. Lauren and I butt heads on pizza shape all the time because she’s from New York. They have their triangle pizza so we’re always fighting with each other about it.
CG: Why do you think square is better than triangle?
KS: There’s more availability for preference. You can get a piece with no crust, a fat cheese piece, or a piece with crust, or you might even get a tiny triangle. Those are great. There’s usually four of those with a tavern pizza. With those pieces, it’s mostly bread and a little bit of sauce. With tavern pizza, you get smaller pieces so you can carry around two slices in a napkin in one hand and your pop or beer in the other hand.
CG: Are you an anchovy kind of guy?
KS: We’re really in the weeds right now. I’ll put a pineapple on my pizza. I’ve done it before. I’m not against it.
CG: I’m not going to stop talking about pizza. I want most of the interview to be pizza related.
KS: That’s fine.
CG: When the quarantine is over, and Christina and I come up to Chicago, will you and Lauren give us a pizza tour? And, can we finally go cryptid hunting together? What if we found a new one? How awesome would that be? Also, we should totally co-write a book about us as ourselves hunting fucking cryptids.
KS: Let’s do it. Hell yeah. Come on through.
CG: That’s Midwest hospitality, baybay! Would you do me the honor of also giving me a tour of your influences?
KS: Miranda July was someone that really influenced me, especially with the last few stories that I added to the collection.
CG: No One Belongs Here More Than You totally shifted my consciousness. I didn’t know stories could be written like that.
KS: She’s one of the best living artists. In college, George Saunders was another big influence. Denis Johnson too. But, my influences continue to change and evolve. Who’s writing right now in the indie lit scene is what I’m the most focused on. I love Scott McClanahan’s work. Bud Smith is amazing. There’s nobody like Joseph Grantham. Catherine Lacey is another influence. I think what Nathaniel Kennon Perkins is doing is incredibly fun. There’s Sally Rooney, Jennifer Wortman, and Alex Higley. Their work is goddamn superb and floors me. There’s Amanda Rozmer, Joe Demes, Laura Manardo, and Cody Lee who are also from Chicago. Nick Rossi, who wrote the introduction for AMG, is the best poet I know and he writes about the Midwest. There’s a group of writers in Chicago right now who are writing about living in the Midwest. Kyle Francois writes essays about the Midwest. He’s from Iowa and he grew up on a farm. He lives here and he worked irrigation with me. He basically took my job when I left. He writes some of the best, most insightful stuff about this region. He’s one of the best writers of working-class people, except for Nick Rossi. They do it in different ways. That’s the conversation that’s happening in my immediate literary community. I think Josh Bohnsack also touches on the Midwest in a very unique way. A lot of my friends are working-class people and writers whether they’re working in the service industry or Nick Rossi who works for a brewery. Shouts out to Whiner. Shouts out to Nick Rossi. Shouts out to Manhattan Illinois! And that circles back to what you asked me about what influences me and it’s those people. The people in my circle of friends and the people in my immediate literary community.