Steve Katz on mythology, memory and mining
Recently, there have been a slew of ill-advised memoirs from people far too young and inexperienced to share their stories with the world. Steve Katz doesn't have that problem. The 75-year-old Denver author started writing his memoir five years ago, and it has since become a collection of over 100 individual stories, half of which will be released in the book Time's Wallet this week. For those unfamiliar with Katz, he's been publishing fiction since the '60s and has taught creative writing at a slew of different universities -- including as the director of the University of Colorado Boulder's program -- and has also received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. Twice. We caught up with Katz to talk about American mythology and the memoir process.
Westword: You don't tend to take a straightforward approach to narrative in your novels. Did that influence how you wrote your memoir?
Steve Katz: When I thought about the issues around writing a memoir, I thought, what bores me about most memoirs is how a writer strains to create out of his or her life a narrative arc. So I decided not to do that. I decided to do it in bits or vignettes or short pieces, more or less at random because that's the way my memory works and that's the way most people's memories work. Memories come up and you shape them. I call them "memoirrhoids;" pain in the ass memories. I give each of them a title and they're arranged in alphabetical order by title. It seems to be an order, but what it actually does is randomize them. It's kind of a risk, but it's the only way I could think of doing it while being honest to memory.
WW: Did you try to write the book as a straightforward memoir at any point?
SK: No, I never did. I decided this was the way I was going to do it, and I knew this was taking a bit of a risk. I showed it to my old agent, George Broussard, and he said he didn't see a book in it. I'm always sure I know better than people professing the industry, but I think it is a book. Once it's all published, if people want to they can assemble the threads.
WW: How much research did you need to go through to recall these memories?
SK: It's amazing when you sit down to do this how much you have stored in your mind. I did go back to certain things to verify information. I've been writing it for four or five years now, letting each one take it's own form and shape.
WW: Did you decide to start writing this for yourself?
SK: I do it for myself, and since I have such a history of writing, I assume I'll find someone that wants to read it. I also did it for my grandkids, so my passage, if they're interested, will be available to them.
WW: Is this the first overtly autobiographic work you've done?
SK: Although I shunned "autobiography," when I look back on my work I realize I've written more autobiographically than I thought I ever did. Even though my work is kind of crazy and on the fringe, in a lot of ways, it comes from an autobiographical source, and I think that's inevitable.
WW: How do you feel the writing you've done has shaped this particular work?
SK: It occasionally rises or lapses into fantasy. Not as much as my other work, but because my other work often edged into the grotesque, fantastical or weird, it made me feel like I had license to do it. Like where I was touching on American mythology, when I was working for the forest service, Paul Bunyan comes in. That fantasy in particular is an American kind of fantasy. I feel like I honor being an American author by allowing that.
WW: So did there end up being a lot of these memories that had these mythologies embedded in them?
SK: Well a lot of it was just in my life. I tried to work in the woods, but I just wasn't strong enough. I worked in a mine for little, not a deep mine, more of a surface mine. I had to jackhammer and all that crap. The strength of the people that do that stuff for a living becomes mythological. When I wrote Creamy & Delicious, I was working at this mine in Nevada. I had to get this horse from a pasture every morning and get a saddle on it. I was a guy from New York City and I'd never even smelled a horse before. So I had to ride this horse up to the top of this mountain in Nevada and work in a mine all day.
I realized that if I worked an eight-hour day I would've been fucked -- I mean, it would have killed me. I worked for a guy who didn't even have a jackleg for his jackhammer, so you had to breast the jack into the walls to put the charges in. It'd shake like crazy. I'd come down and I couldn't eat. I told him, "I'm a writer, and I can only work half a day." And so I'd work in the morning and I'd come down around one o'clock. So I decided I'd start writing these mythologies. So here's Achilles and Ulysses and mythological figures, but there's also Wonder Woman and Nancy and Sluggo. It saved my life, in a certain way, to write these mythologies. I always loved them because they have this meta-view of human activity.
WW: What other types of labor-intensive jobs did you have then?
SK: A lot of those were when I was young. After that I got smart and took on teaching.
WW: Have you noticed any major changes in the publishing industry since you've started?
SK: Well, electronic media has totally changed the game. They're just totally confused as far as I can see. Particularly with fiction. Poetry has always been the same, but writing fiction the way I write it is more like writing poetry. If you're going to write -- and I don't care for this term -- "serious literary fiction," you have to think of yourself as a poet and not a best selling author. The problem with big publishers is they decide the priority of who gets the hype -- it all works in this way that makes reading feel like a real chore.
WW: Is that why you infuse so much humor in your writing?
SK: It's just who I am. You can't look at the shit that's going on and not have a sense of humor.
Steve Katz releases Time's Wallet on on Saturday, November 13 at the Mercury Café. Read a preview of the book on the publisher's website.