Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Mike Steeves

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Mike Steeves (photo credit Nikki Tummon)

Mike Steeves's Giving Up (BookThug) is a novel in three parts that takes place over the course of a single night. Mary and James are a couple struggling with the intersection of ambition, expectation and disappointment. As the hours slip by in their unnamed city, two small but ultimately significant events happen that will have a ripple effect on Mary and James' relationship and individual identities.

To celebrate the publication of Giving Up, Mike's first novel, we are thrilled to speak to him today on Open Book.

We talked to Mike about the effect of expectations on relationships, the experience of writing in a tight narrative timeline and writing as a night owl.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, Giving Up.

Mike Steeves:

It’s a story about one night in the lives of a middle class married couple told in three parts. The first part is from a man’s perspective. The second from a woman’s. The third is a combination of the two. Essentially it’s a he-said-she-said-they-said.

Initially I wasn’t planning on the three part structure. The whole story was going to be from the perspective of the man from the first part. But once I finished that section I felt as though it needed to be opened up and for the reader to see the man from a different angle, so I came up with the idea for the second part. The third part seemed like a natural progression.

The book is ultimately about failure. To put it bluntly, you will often hear people say that a couple has had a successful marriage because they are still married. This sets a pretty low bar for what we consider to be a successful marriage. Put another way, you could boil the novel down to a central question – If you spend your life trying to achieve something, and you never achieve it, does that make you a failure?

OB:

Giving Up deals a lot with expectations (of ourselves and others) and how they impact our happiness and relationships. What impact do you think the characters' expectations have on their relationship?

MS:

Our expectations have enormous effects on how we live our lives and how we see ourselves and others. A simple thought experiment — You get a job offer with a salary that is much better than what you are currently making. You are thrilled. But after working for a few months you discover that someone who has been hired for a similar role and who you consider to be your equal is making considerably more than you. You were happy with your salary before you found out that you could potentially be making more. Now all you can think about is how you are being taken advantage of, how you are being disrespected, and how fundamentally unfair the situation is.

What we expect from life — family, professional success, erotic satisfaction — has everything to do with what we’ve been set up to think is reasonable.

OB:

What were some of the challenges and pleasures of writing a novel set in such a contained timeline?

MS:

It was a pleasure to finally play to my strengths. In the past, I have tried to write novels and stories that had a more conventional structure and it never really worked out. Books like that are not easy to write, and they require a skill set that I don’t appear to possess. By confining the story to a limited time and space I was able to let loose and write in a way that was more amenable to the way I think and see things. I was able to analyze a gesture or bit of speech from a variety of different angles without being concerned with whether this was too digressional, because the book is made up entirely of digressions. In short, I was able to follow my nose, without worrying about whether I had introduced a certain plot point by page 30.

OB:

Tell us a little bit about your writing space. What would an ideal writing day look like for you?

MS:

I write at night. I have a hard time concentrating on writing during the day because there are always interruptions, or potential interruptions, which amounts to the same thing. Also, I feel like I should be doing something else more productive, like cleaning my apartment.

But I try not to be too precious about writing. Which is to say that I don’t shut myself away or demand total silence. I write long-hand for the first draft so I can work pretty much anywhere, although typically I am on my couch or on my back patio if the weather is nice. I have a desk but I don’t use it all that much, except for when I am getting into the drafting process.

I work a day job, so I should probably say that my ideal writing day would be to have my whole day to write with no interruptions. But I’ve become so accustomed to working at night that if I had a whole day to write without interruptions I would probably lose my mind.

OB:

What are some other novels that you've enjoyed as a reader, which you feel approach relationships in an interesting way?

MS:

Alberto Moravia is one of the best for this sort of thing. His novel Contempt is the gold standard. But his other books — Boredom or Conjugal Love — are nearly as good. The Austrian playwright and novelist Thomas Bernhard has a novel called The Lime Works about an elderly couple that will make your blood run cold.

And, like many people, I have been avidly reading Elena Ferrante over the last couple of years. Her novel Days of Abandonment is a masterpiece. A truly horrific book about a woman’s breakdown after her husband leaves her.

And the Americans are good for this sort of thing. Paula Fox, Saul Bellow, John Updike, Jonathan Franzen, Raymond Carver – and reaching further back, Edith Wharton, Henry James, and even William Faulkner. All of these writers have fantastic work on marriage and the troubled history of the institution.

Of course, there’s always Marcel Proust. If you ignored all the above and only read Proust you’d be covered.

OB:

What are you working on now?

MS:

A book about work. It takes place in an office during a conflict management seminar. Riveting stuff.


Mike Steeves attended University of King's College in Halifax, where he received a BA in Political Science and English Literature. He completed an MA in English Literature at Concordia University. Steeves lives with his wife and child in Montreal, and works at Concordia University. Giving Up is his first full-length book of fiction. Connect with Steeves on Twitter @SteevesMike.

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