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Stephen J. West: On Art and Masculinity

Writer Stephen J. West discusses the decade-long process of writing his new nonfiction novel, Soft-Boiled.

Stephen J. West is the author of Soft-Boiled, out from Kelson Books July 5, 2022. His writing has been published in Brevity, Ninth Letter, PANK, and other places. He is the curator behind the Undead Darlings series. Currently, he lives in Rochester, NY, where he is Visiting Assistant Professor of English at St. John Fisher College. Find him on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Stephen J. West: On Art and Masculinity

Stephen J. West

In this post, Stephen discusses the decade-long process of writing his new nonfiction novel, Soft-Boiled, the importance of addressing one’s own privilege, and more!

Name: Stephen J. West
Book title: Soft-Boiled: An Investigation of Masculinity & the Writer’s Life
Publisher: Kelson Books
Release date: July 5, 2022
Genre/category: Nonfiction/Memoir
Elevator pitch for the book: Blending memoir, reportage, criticism, and detective thriller, Soft-Boiled is a self-reflexive portrait that grapples with questions of artmaking, responsibility, and masculinity.

Stephen J. West: On Art and Masculinity

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What prompted you to write this book?

Honestly, I just needed something to write about! I had just finished an MFA in creative nonfiction, and for my thesis I transcribed an edition of Best American Essays and inserted my voice throughout the volume in footnotes. I’ve always been into conceptual art, and I was hoping the project would work as a commentary on appropriation in art. It was pretty esoteric, and obviously unpublishable. It was only after I was done that it dawned on me how smart my peers were to approach their thesis projects as manuscripts that would be ready for publication upon graduation. What a smart idea! I’ve never been the most strategic person.

So, a year after completing the MFA, I found myself living in Morgantown, West Virginia, having trailed my spouse there when she got a tenure track position, teaching four courses a semester as an adjunct instructor with my fancy writing degree and nothing to show for it. One day I was walking down Don Knotts Boulevard when I saw a shingle hanging from a storefront advertising Bob Clay Investigations. It made me think about one of my all-time favorite conceptual artists Sophie Calle, how she had a private eye follow her around for a day to document her routines. I figured, why not? I originally imagined Bob Clay would shadow me, report on what he found, then I could spin that report into an essay.

I called Bob Clay but chickened out when it came time to hire him to follow me around. I asked if I could interview him instead, but he had no interest. He gave me the phone number for another private investigator named Frank Streets “who might be into what you’re into.” After I met Frank and he agreed to let me ride along with him, I knew the project could become more than just a single essay.

How long did it take to go from idea to publication? And did the idea change during the process?

Oh gosh, 10 years! I called Frank Streets in the spring of 2012. I spent the first three years reading and researching detective stories, shadowing Frank Streets on multiple cases, interviewing other investigators in West Virginia—I even attended the annual conference for the Private Investigators and Security Professionals of West Virginia. I spent so much of those first several years transcribing audio recordings and interviews, trying to figure out just what the shape of the book would become. I didn’t have a complete first draft of a manuscript until nearly six years after the research started.

And yes, the project changed shape A TON—especially in the last few years. After sending the first draft to some agents and a handful of small presses, I kept getting the same feedback: The writing is good, but so what? What’s the point? I needed to have a reason to write a book about a private investigator in West Virginia. It was around that time that I would occasionally Facetime with a close friend from my MFA days to read and respond to drafts of each other’s work.

When I told her about the feedback I kept getting, she asked, “Well, why are you writing this book? What’s the point for you?” and I replied, “Well, I’m not interesting enough to write a memoir, so I need Frank Streets. I need someone or something interesting to dig in to, and he’s interesting.” And she asked why, and I replied, “Well, he’s like the epitome of a private investigator, a total man’s man, but he’s so much more than the tropes, too.” “Well,” my friend said finally, “you’re a straight, white man that wants to write a book. You could dig into that.”

After that conversation I cranked up the volume on the self-scrutiny in Soft-Boiled, investigating my personal desires and how they influence my relationship to both art and masculinity. It was a natural parallel to the private investigator storyline—really, it gave that conceit a purpose—and was my best attempt to live up to the brand of conceptual art that I admire.

Stephen J. West: On Art and Masculinity

Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?

Yes. Even when I thought I was done with the book—I had a good, complete draft that Kelson Books said they wanted to publish—I learned that I still had a long way to go with the actual writing. My editor Scott at Kelson Books made a thoughtful and strong argument that I should heavily revise the transitions among the narrative threads to make the voice consistent. The version of the book they accepted for publication had abrupt shifts in voice and register between the various threads: The PI narrative with Frank Streets read like detective fiction, the memoiristic sections about my life in West Virginia as a new spouse and parent read like memoir, and the researched sections on received notions of heteronormative American masculinity read like scholarship.

I didn’t think I had it in me to complete another substantial revision—especially one that required line-by-line editing for voice or whatever—but I was able to, thanks to the huge support from my Scott Parker. He is a champion and everything a writer could hope for in terms of personal, dedicated support. The level of attention and care Scott gave to me and my book is what makes small, indie presses like Kelson Books so special.

Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?

Not especially. I knew it would take me a long time to finish it—if I ever did. I’m a slow writer.

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

I believe there needs to be more attempts by white, het cis male writers like me to address our privilege and the relationship we have to America’s current state of brokenness. It’s not the most comfortable terrain to explore, but that’s the point.

Soft-Boiled doesn’t do it all—it can’t, not even close—but it’s an attempt to say and do more than just retweet a few memes once in a while that supposedly show that I’m an ally. And even if it fails, which I think it must, I hope readers will see it is still important to try.

If you could share one piece of advice with other writers, what would it be?

I wish I had some novel or unique advice to share, but I don’t. Maybe it’s because I find all of the writing clichés are true! Take time each day. Be brave. It’s OK to fail.

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