USF Professor and English Department chair Susan Steinberg is the author of four books and recent recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship. Awarded on the basis of prior achievement and exceptional promise, Professor Steinberg was chosen from a group of almost 3,000 applicants in the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation’s ninety-sixth competition. Our conversation discusses her writing achievements and plans for the future.
When did you realize you had a passion for writing?
I liked to write stories as a kid, and I kept diaries as a teenager, but I was always more interested in visual art—I went to art school and majored in painting. At the end of my junior year, I was injured in a car accident and couldn’t paint for months. During that time, I was writing a lot—they were mostly rants that I wrote in columns in a spiral notebook—and I continued to work on these after I was back in the studio. I gradually started taking the writing more seriously, and after graduating, I decided to take a few workshops and was encouraged by a teacher to pursue an MFA in fiction.
How did you end up at USF?
After grad school, I taught in a small town in western Missouri for two years. It was a great experience, but I wanted to live in a city again, so I applied for several teaching jobs and was most excited about USF.
How has winning a Guggenheim Fellowship impacted your writing?
The Guggenheim has coincided with the pandemic, and I haven’t fully benefitted from it yet. That said, I feel inspired just knowing the support is there, and I’ve been hard at work on a new project. Once we can travel again, I plan to do much of the writing in Paris and Rome.
Describe some of your recent work.
My most recently published book, Machine, is an experimental novel that follows a group of teenagers living in a beach town in a summer during which a girl drowns; the narrator is a girl who’s fixated on the night it happened. My previous book, Spectacle, is a collection of linked experimental short stories.
How have the themes of your writing evolved over time, and have recent events changed those?
I’m often convinced that we write one story for our entire lives; it just takes on new forms and details from piece to piece. Recently, I looked back at some things I wrote when I was a teenager, and I was amazed by how much it resembled the writing in my books, even formally. I often write about family dysfunction, relationships, gender, privilege, trauma, and loss. Recent personal events have shifted the themes even more, but recent global events haven’t contributed as much. It’s unlikely I’ll be writing about the pandemic or the election.
How do you bring these themes to your courses at USF?
I don’t intend to bring my own writing topics into class, though similar issues often appear in the work we’re discussing, whether it’s published or student work. My course topics are often on whatever I’m questioning at the time. Most recently I’ve taught courses on Point of View, Excess, and Literary Controversy, and next semester I’m teaching a course on Distance at the University of Iowa.
What are you looking at next?
I’m currently working on a novel which attempts to subvert the literary “trope” of the “missing girl.” It also explores perceptions of masculinity.