Inscape: In your view, how does fiction relate to truth?
Stephen Tuttle: There’s an old axiom that fiction is the lie that tells the truth, and I don’t disagree with that at all. Good fiction inevitably has to find some basis in the world we now understand and care about, or we don’t care about it. Even in the hardest science fiction or the most fantastic fantasy, you have characters who in one way or another resemble you and me—they want something, something else gets in the way of those desires, and they try to overcome what’s hindering them. This represents in some way the human experience: we want things, things hinder us from getting what we want, so we fight until we get what we want—or we give up or fail. Whatever we do, our relationship to those desires and hurdles is a reflection of the human condition. On one level, all plot and narrative tension comes back to this question of people—whether they are actual people or mystical beings or animals—getting close to or being pushed away from something they desire.
What I write is a kind of realism. I’m inspired in many ways by magical realists, but I write a considerably less-magical magical realism. Realism, I think, strives to represent the world in ways we recognize, in ways that we wouldn’t see in fantasy or fable. What you get with the writers who most inspire me—people like Kafka and Borges and Calvino—is a combination of the two. It’s the world we know and recognize in many ways, but a version of that world turned upside down or twisted, a version that borrows from fable. But I think fiction’s primary goal is to illustrate and demonstrate problems of the world. I balk at the notion that fiction is the made-up stuff, whereas nonfiction is the true stuff, because I think fiction is as true as anything else.
Inscape: There’s a quote by C.S. Lewis that says fiction doesn’t just represent reality but that it adds to reality. What are your thoughts on that?
ST: I would say that fiction distills reality. When I write a fictional story based on an actual event—maybe something I heard, or an anecdote—inevitably I chip away some of the rough edges so that it will roll a little more smoothly. I will tweak and twist reality a little bit just to make a neater, more condensed story. I think fiction has the potential to distill reality into a more precise version of itself. Reality, if we really look at our lives, is filled with things that nobody wants to read about. It’s filled with minutia—everyday, boring, uninteresting things. Nobody wants to watch a character go through the thirty-minute procedure of waking up, showering, brushing teeth, all those things. That’s just not interesting. It might be made the focus of a certain kind of text because it’s mundane, but we don’t need to see that in the lives of our heroes. We don’t need to see the mundane habits of Beowulf; we just want to get to the important stuff. In that sense, I think fiction absolutely distills reality into a more compact, neater package. Whether or not that’s adding something to reality, I don’t know. The C.S. Lewis quote suggests that something more is given. It sounds promising, but I don’t know what fiction adds. I think fiction, at its best, reflects reality.
Inscape: How would you describe your writing style?
ST: As far as subject matter goes, I’m interested in suburbia— in the life lived quietly on tree-lined streets. But I’m interested in the way it can be made complex or more interesting by exploding details we might not see on an ordinary street. I’m not a fan, for example, of the notion that everybody’s miserable in suburbia, which is a notion I often find in contemporary depictions. I don’t believe that suburbia is just this place where the depressed live, the people who would rather be living in Paris, the people who would rather have “fulfilling” lives. I think suburbia is filled with all kinds of interesting stories and people. That said, I think those lives often go unobserved because they happen quietly behind doors and don’t come out. What does come out are these pleasant conversations over fences perhaps, but I like to think that there’s a real tension underneath the surface. That’s why I’m drawn to somebody like Steven Millhauser, who regularly shows us that beneath the veneer of suburban quietness there is a dark or interesting or problematic or fascinating world going on—sometimes he does this quite literally through tunnels and things that happen inside people’s mysterious closets, but often he does it just by showing us that the people who live in suburban spaces merit stories. This is something we see with the introduction of the novel—we turn away from the epic, which is so much focused on the hero and the national identity, and turn to Emma Bovary, a woman who lives a life filled with passions and quiet frustrations. It is an ordinary life made epic, and I think that’s what I would hope to do: to take suburbia and make it, not epic perhaps, but larger.
The more structural side of my answer is that I am very much a formalist. I rely on structures when I write, so a lot of my work is broken into numbered sections, each section looking exactly like the others but doing different things. Or I’ll use titled sections or anaphora, so that every section begins with the same language. I rely on forms—even if I’ve generated the forms myself—to move the story forward.
Inscape: How much of your style has been taught to you through your education, through books that you’ve read, and how much has come from writing yourself and discovering new things you’ve latched onto?
ST: If I’m being fully honest, I don’t feel like I’ve discovered anything on my own. I feel like everything I’ve done is either borrowed from some better writer who came before me, or it’s a combination of things I’ve learned from multiple teachers. It’s refreshing to think that there are always people out there producing things that can inspire me to write, but it’s also frustrating—it’s easy to feel that my writing will never come close to matching that better work I see in so many books I love. I don’t think I could say I’ve learned very much outside of reading, though. I think my education has been a reader’s education. Some people will talk about how they live their lives and learn by what they see. That’s a part of my writing certainly; I write from my own experience, in some small part at least. But my experience is largely that dull suburban thing I was describing before, that thing I don’t want to write about. I’ve lived a relatively peaceful, quiet life, and I’m happy with it—but no one wants to read about it. So a lot of my education comes from watching what other, better writers have done and then trying my best to mimic them without fully plagiarizing. I hope to add something new. I hope to write something good and valuable that only I could have written. But I owe nearly everything to the books I’ve read, the books I’ve loved.