Steve Mitchell writes with a grace that most of us dream of developing. It’s one of the first things I noticed about Mitchell’s work when I picked up his short story collection, The Naming of Ghosts, from Press 53.
I met Mitchell at a writing seminar in Winston-Salem. He said then, in part, that the mind is like a cluttered attic. You have to write through bits and pieces to get the place organized, even just to assess what’s there.
That stuck with me over the six years or so since. Mitchell has gone on to become one of my closest friends and I was delighted to read his forthcoming novel, Cloud Diary, when it was still a work in progress.
Cloud Diary is the story of Doug and Sophie, a young, artsy couple living in a re-emerging downtown landscape much like the Winston-Salem of 15 years ago. Their relationship is torn apart by a random act of violence. Both are hurt in some way and the relationship suffers as a result.
Doug goes on with his work and Sophie becomes a distant memory, followed in conversation or news clips about her career as an artist. The novel takes a turn when a life and death struggle brings them back together, giving them each a short window in which to live a lifetime.
The novel is beautiful and poetic, and Steve’s worked hard to include other writers and artists in his success. Steve believes in the “primacy of doubt” but we’re confident you’ll find his work meaningful.
An interview with Steve Mitchell:
Lit South: I’ve read that you’ve written a couple of novels and set them aside. Why this novel? Why these characters?
Steve Mitchell: I think most writers have written novels they wouldn’t want anyone to see; some admit it, some don’t. You learn how to write a novel by writing a novel. It’s such a completely personal, soul-searching process.
I think, at first, I believed I could write without somehow examining myself, my own beliefs, my own assumptions. Eventually, I understood that writing for me is exactly that: a way to look at how I think and how I feel, and for the most part it’s not self-indulgent because it’s really about how we all think and feel.
So, ‘this novel, these characters’, at least in part because I’d persevered to a level of proficiency and had begun to feel comfortable in my writing skin: the sense of how I want to write and what I’m concerned with. Still, it took four years to write.
LS: You’ve said that one of the ideas for the novel was your desire to explore powerlessness. What about that intrigues you? What generated that idea in your head?
SM: We in America hate powerlessness. We see powerlessness as weakness and will do anything we can to pretend we have power when we don’t. Our movies, our books, are full of people barreling through situations to get what they want or set things right.
I wanted to put a couple of people who loved each other in situations where they knew they had no power and try to understand how they managed. It’s easy to love when we believe, rightly or wrongly, that everything is under control.
There’s also an issue around death in Cloud Diary, around how we approach dying and how we claim or relinquish control over how it happens to us. It’s an important question for me because I think we have a problem in the US with allowing people to die and to die in their own way. We use terms from war to describe dealing with illness and see death as a kind of failure. This isn’t an issue book, but that is an issue I care about.
LS: Love, loss, memory, time: what else is Cloud Diary about? Tell us how the name evokes the story?
SM: The title came in an association with the phrase ‘cloud cemetery’ in a Roberto Bolano book. 2666, I think. I started thinking of a cloud diary, that is, a diary of the ephemeral, the fleeting, the things that would never happen again. The image fit with ideas of memory and how we remember parts of our lives. It was only later I discovered that a cloud diary is a real thing; that some folks keep a record of the clouds they see (there are websites!) and I loved the idea. Before that there were many very bad titles. I don’t want to talk about that.
For me, Cloud Diary is about intimacy, in the moment and over time. How it feels, how it changes us, how we struggle with it, succumb to it, push it away. How it confuses and confounds us. How it makes joy possible.
LS: There’s a significant time gap in the novel as Doug loses Sophie and then she returns to his life. How did the idea of memory play into your characterization of this couple? Is wholeness in memory important or just the parts we cling to?
SM: The sense for me is that wholeness in memory is an illusion. I cannot and do not remember anything whole. I remember in snatches and weird details. I remember myself standing in one part of the room when I was actually in another part. I remember someone being present when they weren’t there at all. Real memory captures something very specific, but it isn’t the facts.
What we often call memory is the construction of a story, a narrative. This happened, then that happened, then that. This story tells something else about the experience, and the way we construct that story speaks to our desire for control over our past. These narratives are often what I see that we cling to, even in the face of insurmountable evidence.
There’s a tension within each of us between these two methods of understanding our lives and fascinating things happen in the intersections and between the cracks. That’s where our personal myths arise, our true belief systems, our models of the world around us. Cloud Diary was written in the first person, from Doug’s perspective, because it gives me a chance to explore those nooks and crannies.
LS: What challenges arose as you tried to stay on the surface and not move into backstory? Was it easier or harder than you expected? Why did you want to avoid backstory in this novel?
SM: So, to catch everyone up, one of the challenges I put to myself (or ‘obstructions’, as Lars von Trier would say) was to write a novel which followed only Doug and Sophie with no subplots or what we call ‘B’ story. There are other characters, but they make minimal appearances. As a kind of additional obstruction, I didn’t allow myself backstory outside of their relationship; that is, no flashbacks to childhood memories, or first loves, or bad parenting. It was only included if they shared it in conversation.
I wasn’t sure I could pull it off. But because the book is about intimacy, and because intimacy has to do with creating a unique ecosystem between two people, it seemed important. I think Vonnegut called it ‘a world of two’ in Mother Night.
The challenge of staying on the surface as you put it, felt more like staying in the moment to me. I had this sense as a writer of not being able to look away or distract myself. It was very demanding at times. There’s a long scene in the middle of the book where Doug and Sophie are sitting at a kitchen table. They’ve just met again after eight years and they’re trying to reconnect, to catch each other up on their lives.
It was a real challenge to write because I couldn’t go anywhere else; throughout that scene I needed to stay right there at that table with them, for as long as it took. What that means as a writer is that you spend months at that table with those two people. So, it’s about going deeper and deeper into the moment.
LS: What was the experience of selling the novel like? What was harder than you expected?
SM: I’m the worst salesman in the world. I can’t sell anything, so it can’t be harder than I expect. I expect it to be impossible. But I did believe in this book in a way that was new for me and I did entertain the possibility for quite a while that I might interest an agent or large publishing house. I spent about a year and a half, almost two years, working on that. I received a good number of positive responses. The best was a very kind and supportive note from an agent at the same agency that represents Joan Didion. Joan Fucking Didion!
But, in the end, it was always the standard lament that, in today’s market books like mine were a difficult sell. We wish you all the luck, etc, etc.
Cloud Diary found a home, after three years, at C&R Press, which pleased me immensely. There were only a handful of small presses I wanted to approach and C&R publishes incredible work, makes beautiful books. Working with a small press is so rewarding, personal, and just—I don’t know— human.
LS: Now that you’ve been part owner of a very popular bookstore for several years, how do you feel your voice fits in among all the other works of fiction you’re surrounded with each day?
SM: You know, I think writers write and we work to write in the best way we possibly can. Our only real hope as writers, I believe, is to do that, because no one else can write anything like our best work. Only we can.
There is so much beautiful, meaningful, important writing going on now. It’s an exciting time to be writing, and reading, and I’m constantly surprised, invigorated. It’s just stunning to open a box and see what’s come into the store each day.
So, I think artists create to change the world and I embrace that. I’m unembarrassed by that ambition.
That said, I don’t think writers decide where their voice lives, how their books fit, or what they mean. Readers do that. It’s always the reader who tells the writer what they’ve said.