Steven Wingate is a Colorado guy who just happens to live in South Dakota some of the time. He's coming back for a reading of his new novel, Of Fathers and Fire, at the Boulder Book Store on July 2. But as he'd tell you: Any excuse to come home again is a good one.
And in a sense, coming home again is what Wingate is doing with Of Fathers and Fire, too; the book is a fictionalized account of growing up in the very real environs of 1980s Colorado Springs. But his childhood there is only one of the many things the book touches on.
We recently talked with Wingate as he wound his way down from the Dakotas, coming back to colorful Colorado, eager to talk about his book and all it has to say for him.
Westword: You're scheduled to read your new novel at the Boulder Book Store. Start us off by talking a little bit about what people can expect from the event. What do you have planned?
Steven Wingate: People can expect an author who’s very happy to be home and to have a Colorado novel to share with the world. I love to read aloud, and bring as much presence as I can to it. Way back in the early ’90s I lived in L.A. and did a lot of open-mic poetry, and though I haven’t gone in a spoken-word direction myself, I’ve definitely been shaped by my exposure to that scene. The written word and the human voice are absolutely connected for me. So if people come, they’ll get an author who’s prepared to breathe as much voice and life into his characters as he possibly can.
Tell us a bit about Of Fathers and Fire and its Colorado connections. You're from here; how much of this book is fiction, and how much is just driven directly from your own experiences living in the state in the 1980s?
Of Fathers and Fire centers on Tommy Sandor, a seventeen-year-old man-child living in the (fictional) tiny high plains town of Suborney, which is a fifteen-minute drive from the very southeastern edge of the Colorado Springs metro area. His mother, who’s raising him alone, has been lying to him and saying his father was a wandering saxophonist who never even knew she was pregnant. But his father is actually an ex-con who spent sixteen years in the Nebraska State Penitentiary for arson and involuntary manslaughter. Dad tracks Tommy down in Suborney and all sorts of sparks ensue — both literally and figuratively, because some characters have limited control over the elements of fire, wind and water.
This wasn’t my literal experience, but I share quite a bit with Tommy. When I first came to Colorado in 1977, I lived not far from the imaginary town where he lives, and we both have a lot of father issues. Before I wanted to be a writer, I wanted to be a tenor sax player, which is what Tommy aspires to be. The geography of the plains —where you know the Rockies are there to the west but you can’t quite see them — was very influential on my teenage psyche. Colorado Springs at that time was also a hotbed of the religious right, which forms the backdrop of the novel. The weaponization of Christianity that happened then still shocks me to this day, and I’ve spent most of my life wanting to write about it. This is the book where I get to.
The negative impact of religion in this book — the “weaponization of Christianity,” as you so aptly put it, especially as it relates to cultural xenophobia — is striking as a comparative to our current era of religious politics. Are we reliving a similar time in more modern clothes, do you think? Are things worse now than they were back then in that sense? Have we just gotten better at the intolerance of the 1980s, or is it just that it can be more extreme and direct, because what happened back then numbed us to what we're experiencing now in the Trump era?
This is where I could go on and on. I think we’re completely reliving the beginning of the Reagan era, which, much like the Trump era, is built upon the promise of a “good ol’ days” America. In both cases, a particular strain of Christianity helped sweep the new president into office — only this time, it’s much worse. White supremacy in 1980 was subtle compared to now, and back then we believed that we’d never, ever be the kind of country that put people in concentration camps. America was too pure for that, we thought. Too dignified.
Well, that imagined purity and dignity are gone now, and I think there’s a pretty clear turning point. Almost directly between Reagan’s election and today were the terrorist attacks of 9/11, which completely reshaped America’s sense of self. On a civilian level, we became much more willing to trade privacy for security. On a government level, we became much more willing to torture “the Other” to assert our power. Once you start eliminating your imaginary purity and dignity, then there’s nothing worth pursuing but naked power — which is where we are right now.
I’m sure this strain of American thinking goes back way before the Reagan era, but that’s the only other iteration I’ve experienced personally other than the disaster of today. When I look back on 1980 vs. now, it seems like we’re guided by the same ideas but are now much more willing to execute them efficiently — and we’re utterly without restraint, which is terrifying.
The way religion gets used to justify so much hate today really gets to me on a personal level. I’m a religious guy myself — a Catholic second-generation American born in New Jersey — and I hadn’t encountered anything like the religious extremism I saw in Colorado Springs. People told me I was going to hell for worshipping statues, which didn’t remind me of anything Jesus said. I first got to Colorado when Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority types were beginning to get rolling, and I was fascinated with that phenomenon because I couldn’t square it with how I believed. I used to listen to AM talk radio in Colorado Springs and hear people talking about how the Iran hostage crisis was “finally” our chance for a Holy War against Muslims. We heard that rhetoric after 9/11, too: George W. Bush referencing the Crusades, etc. I’m sure it’s out there in full force again today, but I don’t have the stomach to stick my nose in it. But I had to write about that earlier iteration, because it represents a huge fault line in American culture. I think of it as “punishment Christianity” vs. “mercy Christianity,” and I think we’re very much on the wrong side right now.
Do you think there‘s a way to go back? Or is the "imaginary purity" something that's even worth pursuing — is the real challenge for America achieving that to which we were only pretending in decades past? And how do we even start doing that, when more than a third of the American public seems to be either complacent or complicit in Trumpian politics?
I don’t think there’s a way to go back so much as there are ways — many of them — for America to go forward toward a new kind of goodness and leadership in the world. As a culture and a global force, we are all about punishment rather than mercy. We are an essentially egoistic nation trying to force our will on others, and ultimately that leads in one direction only: totalitarianism, which we’ve become a major supporter (and exporter) of recently. Just look at what Steve Bannon is doing in Europe right now, hobnobbing with the dictators and wannabe dictators of the world. That doesn’t lead toward freedom for anyone except a self-chosen few.
America isn’t going to change by sticking to what made it the most powerful country on Earth. It’s going to change when it decides to use its power to heal and lift others with no strings attached — not asking for oil or diamonds in return. And it’s got to start in our own country, building economic structures that exist for the broader benefit. My Polish grandfather, who couldn’t read or write English, was a laborer with the Works Progress Administration in the Great Depression. That program kept millions out of poverty as it built up America’s infrastructure. What’s wrong with that? If you propose something similar today, you’re branded a Communist. But that’s the kind of thing American needs to do if we’re going to achieve our promise — not dismantling New Deal “entitlements” and funneling money up to the richest among us.
Fatherhood looms large in this narrative; as a dad yourself in the current era, what's easier about being a father in 2019, as opposed to the 1980s? What's more difficult?
My own dad was long dead by 1980, so I don’t have a clear response here. My best frame of reference is actually my college students, who seem like they’re carrying a lot more of the world’s weight on their shoulders than I did when I was their age. When I was a teenager, I struggled to figure out my place in the world but felt like I could find a fulfilling one. The sense of opportunity I had growing up doesn’t seem there anymore, and younger generations feel that strongly.
But there’s also despair in the air now in a way there wasn’t when I was a teenager. We’ve degraded the planet— and our society, which is seriously unraveling — to the point where despair seems like a perfectly reasonable thing. Some days it’s hard to tell my kids “Keep hopeful, life is intrinsically good,” because the silver linings are harder to find. So if I had to vote on which era is more difficult to be a father in, I’d have to say today.
Sorry to hear about your father. How do you see that loss echoing in Of Fathers and Fire? That sort of experience affects not just our own parenting, but our art, too, doesn't it?
Fatherlessness is all over that novel. Tommy is desperate for a father — more desperate than I was, since I at least knew mine until I was ten. The origins of the father/son aspect of the book lie in me wondering how things would have been if my dad was still alive. What if he was out there on the high plains of Colorado looking for me the same way I was looking — metaphorically — for him? Tommy’s relationship with his real father grew out of that line of imagination.
I can’t speak for other writers, but I absolutely agree with you that fatherlessness has shaped my own art. I grew up not knowing who I was — not having the roots in the world that a father gives you — and I attribute becoming a writer to that fact. I wandered a lot, both in real life and in my imagination, looking for those roots in art. Tommy does the same. It’s no coincidence that he’s an artist, too — a very clumsy saxophonist who can’t even read music, but a passionate one who makes sense of his life through art. When your life is a mess, art lets you make sense of it.
The core of most coming-of-age books — including this one — is the discovery and establishment of identity. And while it's central to the form, it's also an incredibly esoteric thing to work to capture and portray to a reader. How did you work toward showing that in this novel, and what were some of the ways that you may have tried in its invention process that didn't work so well?
Many first novels are coming-of-age stories, and they usually take a long time to write. That’s a good thing if you’re writing about identity formation. Writing multiple versions of a novel gives you multiple versions of your characters, and the new selves don’t simply replace the old — they’re successively built on top of the old selves, with all these identities referencing back and forth to each other. So what you get, over time, are fictional characters who are like real people, because they have the same kind of layering as living humans and the same kind of inner conflicts.
The biggest wrong turn I took in writing this novel was trying to write it in first person — not just once, but several times. Because a first-person narration is wrapped up in the time-bound act of a narrator speaking, I didn’t have enough room to do that layering. Tommy always came across as a flat, one-note version of himself without any hint of the iterative process that goes into making an identity. He only got layers when I moved on to third person.
This book is part of the University of Nebraska Press's Flyover Fiction series. Tell us a little bit about that series.
The series was started in 2005 by Ladette Randolph, who’s now the editor of the literary magazine Ploughshares in Boston, as a way to showcase the writing of the Great Plains region. Its series editor is Ron Hansen, the Omaha-born author of Mariette in Ecstasy and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Even though the region has a rich literary history, it’s been underrepresented in contemporary fiction and doesn’t quite have the same cachet as Southern literature does. Part of the issue is that it’s pretty sparse population-wise, so even though we have the same amount of writers per capita as other regions, we don’t make as much noise collectively.
The Flyover Fiction series was my target when I went looking for a publisher, because it puts Of Fathers and Fire in the appropriate geographical context. I also greatly appreciated the opportunity to work directly with an editor, as one does in the small-press world, as opposed to going the agent route and having it denatured. It’s a chimerical novel, with the teeth of one animal and the claws of another, and I’m grateful the UNP let it stay that way.
Do you consider the term "flyover" a pejorative? Is it something that UNP is looking to reclaim in some way? How do you feel about it as a classification, especially in terms of the arts?
The intent of the series is very much to reclaim that word, and I’m all for it. People from the coasts are going to dismiss this region because they think it’s empty and corny, and that’s fine. They’re going to dismiss everything that doesn’t affirm their cultural superiority, anyway. Why try to convince them otherwise? One thing I like about the Flyover Fiction approach is that its books don’t sentimentalize the region. The sentimental approach to “flyover” territory is to say, “Look at how beautiful and empty the land is! Look at how much people love the land and the emptiness!”
But how honest is that art, really? In a way, it’s propaganda, affirming a superficial impression, and that doesn’t help the development of a region’s artistic identity. What helps is for artists of all kinds to tell the most essential emotional truth about human life in the place they live and refuse the temptation to “play to the accepted identity” of that place. One of the reasons Southern literature is so strong, for instance, is that Southern writers don’t pull their punches. I don’t think writers and artists of the Great Plains should, either. When we foreswear art, that sentimentally that represents what people are “supposed” to think of a place and instead portray a place as we live in it — with the most rigorous attention to emotional truth — then we’re enhancing that region’s artistic identity.
You teach in South Dakota now. Talk a little bit about the journey of the contemporary writer/professor. Where did you start, how long were you here in Colorado, and where, and how did you end up in the Dakotas?
I taught a bit at your school, University of Colorado Denver, way back in the day, 1995-’96, but did most of my teaching at CU Boulder. I’d gotten my MFA in screenwriting and taught it in Boulder as an adjunct, developing courses that I’m proud to say are still on the books almost 25 years later. Then I got married and started teaching full-time in the composition program there while teaching screenwriting on the side, but it was still only an instructor position. I had mouths to feed and not much opportunity to advance my career, so I looked around for better ways to make a living.
Once my first book came out — the short story collection Wifeshopping, published in 2008 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt — I decided look for tenure track work so I could rise through the ranks and feed those mouths a little better. South Dakota State offered me a chance to teach what I loved, and it has worked out pretty well. The fact that there aren’t many distractions here means I’ve had tons of time to develop as a writer. The downside is isolation. You can probably fit the serious, actively publishing fiction people within an hour of me into a booth at a diner. It’s nothing like the kind of community I see developing in Denver — with the Lighthouse Writers Workshop, for instance — and I’m jealous. I try to stay in touch with the Colorado scene so people will remember me when I come back.
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What are you looking forward to most in coming home to Colorado? What's first on your to-do list when you come back to Denver?
I used to have an easy answer for this: go the Le Central for moules frites. But sadly, Le Central is gone. My kids are fourteen and twelve and essentially growing up in rural America, so every time we’re back home we find a way to get lost in Denver so they have a sense of what urban environments mean and how to appreciate them. There’s enough going on that we can often simply wander around and bump into things. One time we stumbled onto the Cherry Blossom Festival at Sakura Square, and last winter we hit up Osaka Ramen in Five Points and soaked in the murals in the alleys.
I like to swing by my old neighborhoods on Capitol Hill — 13th and Marion, 7th and Penn — to remember my bachelor days. Call me crazy, but I like to drive down Colfax — it’s the most urban thing for seven or eight hundred miles in any direction. It’s a huge pleasure for me to sink myself in among all kinds of different people on the street. Denver wasn’t that way when I first got to Colorado in the 1970s, but it sure is now. So when we’re back home, we’re always looking for a bit of that vibe to take back with us.
Steven WIngate will read from his new novel, Of Fathers and Fire, at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 2, at the Boulder Book Store,1107 Pearl Street in Boulder. Admission is $5, but includes a $5 voucher you can use toward any purchase at the store that day. Find out more at boulderbookstore.net.