Skip to main content

Steve Stern: On Inspiration Coming from Another Artistic Medium

Award-winning author Steve Stern discusses how a painter lost in history inspired his new novel, The Village Idiot.

Steve Stern’s fiction, with its deep grounding in Yiddish folklore, has prompted critics such as Cynthia Ozick to hail him as the successor to Isaac Bashevis Singer. He has won two Pushcart Prizes, an O’Henry Award, a Pushcart Writers’ Choice Award, and a National Jewish Book Award.

For 30 years, Stern taught at Skidmore College, the majority of those years as Writer-in-Residence. He has also been a Fulbright lecturer at Bar Elan University in Tel Aviv, the Moss Chair of Creative Writing at the University of Memphis, and Lecturer in Jewish Studies for the Prague Summer Seminars. Stern splits his time between Brooklyn and Balston Spa, New York.

Steve Stern: On Inspiration Coming from Another Artistic Medium

Steve Stern

In this post, Steve discusses how a painter lost in history inspired his new novel, The Village Idiot, his hope for readers, and more!

Name: Steve Stern
Literary agent: Liz Darhansoff
Book title: The Village Idiot
Publisher: Melville House
Release date: September 13, 2022
Genre/category: Fiction
Previous titles: The Pinch, The Book of Mischief, The Frozen Rabbi, The North of God, The Angel of Forgetfulness, The Wedding Jester, A Plague of Dreamers, Harry Kaplan’s Adventures Underground, Lazar Malkin Enters Heaven, Isaac and the Undertaker’s Daughter, The Moon & Ruben Shein
Elevator pitch for the book: A wild, effervescent, absinthe-soaked novel that tells of the life of the extraordinary artist Chaim Soutine.

Steve Stern: On Inspiration Coming from Another Artistic Medium

IndieBound | Bookshop | Amazon
[WD uses affiliate links.]

What prompted you to write this book?

A few years ago, while visiting the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, I encountered some paintings of an unearthly intensity by an artist I had not previously heard of. They were portraits, landscapes, and still lifes by the painter Chaim Soutine. The colors were kaleidoscopic, faces and bodies fluid and often grotesque, forests and villages tempest-tossed, slaughtered animals as if in the process of releasing their souls. I was spellbound and remained so long after.

Later I read a book called Shocking Paris by Stanley Meisler. It chronicled the history of the School of Paris, a loose confederacy of artists, largely Jews of Eastern European origin working in Paris in the early years of the 20th century. Featured among them was Soutine, an unlettered, morbidly shy, wretchedly impoverished Lithuanian bumpkin who had somehow been afflicted with a passion to paint. His life in that incandescent city at the center of the cultural universe has since become the stuff of legend.

In fact, legend is most of what survives of Soutine’s legacy. His friendship with the artist Amedeo Modigliani, the Cinderella tale of his success, his travels, his lovers, his shadow existence under the Nazi occupation—all have been cited by only the barest of biographical details. Soutine had a mania for covering his tracks. There are catalogs of exhibitions, brief memories by acquaintances, and little else.

As a writer of fiction, I became intrigued to the point of obsession by the mystery of his character. I felt drawn to retell the story of what is known about the maverick artist, and free to imagine the rest.

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

I was two or three years into working on another novel when I conceived the idea for a book about Soutine. Eventually the impulse to write the projected book superseded the book in hand, so much so that I abandoned the previous novel, shoved it in a drawer where it remains to this day.

I delivered The Village Idiot to my agent on Election Day of 2020, and she doggedly began shopping it around until she’d placed it in the receptive hands of Melville House and my yeoman editor Carl Bromley.

Did the idea for the book change over time? Not really. If anything, the original impulse deepened and intensified as I traced Chaim’s decades-long flight from his destitute shtetl origins—and how that shtetl, the little Jewish town with its harrowing history, immemorial culture, and pageant of superstitions, pursued him to Paris and beyond throughout all the years of his life.

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

After 11 previous books, there’s not much in the publishing process that can surprise me, except that every time I publish anything, like sex, I’m just as astonished that it’s happening as the first time.

Steve Stern: On Inspiration Coming from Another Artistic Medium

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

There was one, in fact. I had never before written a book based on an actual historical character. The surprise was that I found myself inhabiting Chaim Soutine more completely than I’m often able to inhabit the characters of my own invention.

I frankly don’t know why that was the case, but with my made-up characters I always seem to be aware of their context in the narrative; I’m viewing them objectively even as I identify with them. So, there’s some distance.

But with Chaim I felt I was in his head, looking through his eyes at the wondrous world he shambled through.

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

Given my track record, I never take for granted the presence of readers. Should I have any, I would hope they leave the book with the sense of how a vision can occupy its mortal vessel to the exclusion of almost everything else in experience—and how that vision can hound, harass, and throttle the visionary to the point of madness; that is, when it isn’t making him or her positively euphoric.

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

I would recommend that the writer have a room of their own, and that that room be situated in the top of a very tall tree.

Revision and Self Editing

Every writer knows that the journey to publication is a long and hard road. Once you finish your first draft, it’s time to start the arduous process of self-editing and revision. When you take this online writing course you will learn methods of self-editing for fiction writers to ensure your writing is free of grammatical errors.

Click to continue.

4 Tips for Writing a Modern Retelling

4 Tips for Writing a Modern Retelling

From having reverence for the original to making it your own, author Nikki Payne shares four tips for writing a modern retelling.

Faint vs. Feint (Grammar Rules)

Faint vs. Feint (Grammar Rules)

Learn when to use faint vs. feint in your writing with Grammar Rules from the Writer's Digest editors, including a few examples. Plus, we answer whether it's "faint of heart" or "feint of heart."

6 Books to Cozy Up With This Winter | Book Recommendations

6 Books to Cozy Up With This Winter

Here are 6 book recommendation perfect for winter reading.

12 Things to Consider When Writing Fight Scenes in Fiction (FightWrite™)

12 Things to Consider When Writing Fight Scenes in Fiction (FightWrite™)

Trained fighter and author Carla Hoch shares 12 things all writers should consider when attempting to write effective fight scenes in fiction.

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Unreal Character

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Unreal Character

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, have a character turn out to be less than they seem.

November PAD Chapbook Challenge

2022 November PAD Chapbook Challenge: Next Steps

Here are the final steps for the 15th annual November PAD Chapbook Challenge! Use December and the beginning of January to revise and collect your poems into a chapbook manuscript. Here are some tips and guidelines.

Valeria Ruelas: On Teaching Tarot, Brujeria, and Witchcraft

Valeria Ruelas: On Teaching Tarot, Brujeria, and Witchcraft

Author Valeria Ruelas discusses the process of writing her new book, The Mexican Witch Lifestyle.

What Is the Hook, the Book, and Cook Query Pitching Technique for Writers?

What Is the Hook, the Book, and the Cook Query Pitching Technique for Writers?

Find out what "the hook, the book, and the cook" are in relation to writing query letters and pitching books to literary agents and book editors. This post answers the question of what each one is and how to successfully assemble the pieces.

Romance Retellings of Literary Classics

Romance Retellings of Literary Classics

Author Chloe Liese makes a case for the romance genre being the natural home for retellings, and shares some tips on how to write a successful romance retelling of literary classics.