Featured Fiction Writer: Samantha Steiner
For our last issue of the year, we spoke with Samantha Steiner, author of "Pinky Monster." Join us for a conversation on the relationship between visual art and writing, the greater and lesser cornua, and more.
Ethan Brightbill: The illustrations in "Pinky Monster" are fascinating. They're fairly simple, and the story is already compelling without them, yet it feels like something vital would be lost if these drawings weren't included. What did you hope they would bring to this story? And were they always a part of your vision for the story, or did they come later (or earlier)?
Samantha Steiner: I knew from the first draft that this story would live just as much in silence between conversations as in the conversations themselves. To stretch those silences even longer, I wanted to invite the eye to linger in the passage breaks.
In the earliest version, I borrowed a drawing of a hand from the internet, which I later replaced with an outline of my own hand. When I read through the story, I noticed that while the characters were changing over time, the drawing of the hand wasn’t.
I needed my drawings to participate more actively in the storytelling. I challenged myself to summarize each section with a gesture of my own hand. In some cases I took a photo of my hand to use as a reference for the drawing, and in others I traced the outline of my hand directly onto the page. In this way, I introduced a new character into the story: the narrator, a fictionalized version of myself.
EB: While this story doesn't directly reference fables or fairy tales, it nevertheless feels like one. From the repetition of language and scenes to the focus on adolescence and magical solutions to life's problems, many of the same elements are there, even if they don't play out in the same way. Was that something you had in mind as you were writing this story? And more broadly, how do you think the form and structure of this story interact with its themes?
SS: I structured the story around a series of family reunions. While the story only moves forward in time, it feels like the same day is repeating on an infinite loop. Over the course of these repetitions, the protagonists find their way from the airy, technicolor dreamscape of a crowded lawn to the barren and menacing woods. As in many fairytales, the woods symbolize the world outside of human control, a place of both danger and discovery.
EB: You've published prose in Coffin Bell, The Citron Review and elsewhere, but you're also a visual artist whose work has appeared everywhere from The Emerson Review to a scientific paper on telemedicine and COVID-19. Has your visual art changed the way you approach fiction and other forms of writing, if at all? And what opportunities do you see in combining the two mediums that artists who work in just one might miss out on?
SS: It’s a chicken and egg scenario: the writing feeds the drawing feeds the writing feeds the drawing. I often use visual details as engines for storytelling. For example, in “Pinky Monster,” the narrator compares one character’s teeth to Swiss cheese. This image tells a story of a neglect so fundamental that it literally eats away at the self.
I believe that all artists are keepers of stories. Every decision is a trade-off, and so the question I return to again and again is: which choice tells the story I want to tell? Because I’m fortunate enough to work in multiple media, I get to combine those media in what feels like a file containing multiple forms of information. In doing this, I ask my readers to participate in the storytelling by synthesizing all of this information. I trust them to reach their own conclusions.
EB: What goals do you have for your writing and visual art going forward, and what are you working on now?
SS: Since June, I’ve been conducting an experiment with the help of the writer Maddy Burns. Maddy and I have only met in person briefly, but her writing is funny and frank in a way that inspires me. Five days a week, I email Maddy a letter about myself. I tell her stories, make lists, and attach drawings. All I ask her to do is receive them, but she honors me by actually reading them. Today I’ll write Letter #119. I’m not sure what will come of all these letters, but I’ll keep writing them until the next step becomes clear. For right now, my goal is to keep going and see what happens.
EB: Finally, what’s your favorite bone?
SS: The hyoid! It’s the only bone in the human body that doesn’t connect directly to any other bone. Instead, it’s suspended in the neck by only muscles and ligaments. It also has two sets of horns, called the greater and lesser cornua. How’s that for the monster within?