A Conversation with Author Stephen Parrish


Recently, I interviewed author Stephen Parrish about his new novel, THE FEASTS OF LESSER MEN. Although one of us kept trying to make the interview about me, I did manage to get him to answer a few questions about the novel, his new literary journal, and himself.
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Steve, thank you so much for agreeing to let me interview you. I've known "of you" for years--you have quite a reputation among people I respect--and so this is really a thrill. So the book. You have a new book out. THE FEASTS OF LESSER MEN. There is a lot I want to ask about this novel, but let's start with the title. It is such a great title. Why did you choose it?

 (Also, why do I feel like there's a 50-50 chance you're only going to give me your name, rank, and serial number?)

My dog tags recorded my name, SSN (the modern day "serial number"), blood type, and religion. I wanted "Heathen" as my religion, but the closest they would allow was "No Preference." If I fell on the battlefield the chaplain could take his pick: "What did we make the last No Preference?" he'd ask. "A Jew," his aid would reply. "All right, what the hell, this guy's going out as a Catholic. Our Father, who art in Heaven . . ."



The title THE FEASTS OF LESSER MEN is from Plato: "To the feasts of lesser men the good unbidden go." It's the word "unbidden" that grabbed me. My protagonist Jimmy Fisher has a good heart. The question is whether his avarice is bidden or simply his nature. Or human nature.


I understand a certain level of reverence in the military, but it seems to me that if you're willing to die for your country, you should be able to call yourself whatever you want.

I assume you have an opinion on whether Fisher's avarice is bidden or simply his nature or human nature, and I'm not going to ask you for it. What I'm wondering is if you had a sense of the answer when you started, or was writing this novel a way for you to explore the question?
You certainly force the reader to grapple with it. I guess I'm wondering to what extent you, as author, did as well.

I wanted to create a protagonist that did every despicable thing he could get away with, have him tell his story in first person, and make him likeable to readers. Whether I succeeded is of course up to readers, but I love the guy; he's my alter-ego; whenever I had to decide what awful thing he'd do next I asked myself what I wouldn't do.

As for the human nature question, I like a Socratic approach to the answer, which I'll abbreviate for this interview. Question: Should the grass be green? Answer: The question is meaningless, since the grass is green whether or not it "should" be. Question: Should foxes chase rabbits? Answer: The question is meaningless, since foxes are going to chase rabbits whether or not they "should." Finally...Question: Should men steal from other men?

The metaphysical question of whether the universe is by nature benevolent or malevolent is, I think, a no-brainer.

Don't give me flashbacks to law school, Stephen Parrish.

You don't ease the reader into Fisher's capacity to do the despicable. He is grave-robbing on page one. He's scamming a prostitute by page 23. He's insulted a woman's
weight by page 48.
Not to make this interview about me, but I came to this story as an unabashed feminist--the kind who not only doesn't shy away from the term but who may, at some point, tattoo it on her forehead--so I'm reading, and I'm thinking what an ass. An ass with a quick, dry sense of humor, but still.

And then I read Chapter 17. And I emailed you. I don't usually email an author while I am reading, because I assume that he is not, probably, interested in my real-time, play-by-play reaction to his book. But I emailed you because I was gobsmacked. First of all, Chapter 17 is just so well done--the dialogue, the tension, the description. The humor. But the reason I emailed you is because that's when I realized Jimmy Fisher had gotten to me. I was rooting for him. I was on his side.

Did you write that chapter intending for it to have that effect on the reader? Do you see it as a pivotal moment in the reader-Fisher relationship?

I wish I could say I wave my hands like a conductor and dictate when readers feel things. In this case I strove from the first sentence to make Fisher likeable. You'll no doubt argue I failed; in the first sentence he's preparing to rob a grave. But the only reason you don't like him from the beginning is because you don't yet know him.

Not to make this interview about me (ha ha) but I too am a feminist, in large part because I'm a humanist, which would suggest I'm also a secularist, which happens to be true, and which also has nothing to
do with the question, but this interview needs to get a lot more dangerous before we're through.
 
I'm actually not arguing that you failed. I think I'm saying that you succeeded rather hugely. Because it's not like Fisher suddenly became Mother Theresa in Chapter 17--in fact, another rather unseemly offense is revealed therein--it's just that that's where I had my little epiphany.

So let's get dangerous.

When you say you are a secularist, does that mean that you want religion to stay out of the public square, or that you are skeptical of religion in general? Never mind. I know the answer to that. But, not to make this interview not about me, you strike me as a very spiritual person. Maybe more so that the average person. Is that a fair characterization? And what do you make of my perhaps outrageous and possibly inappropriate contention that only a spiritual person could write this particular book?

Depends on what you mean by spiritual. In the eyes of the Catholic church, in whose shadow I was raised, I'm an atheist. I dislike the word because it's like republicans calling members of other parties "arepublicans." My spirituality is very personal and doesn't involve a sentient deity. It's probably fair to characterize me as more spiritual than average because the average person restricts his spirituality to one hour a week, if that.

And I think only a questioning person could write this book, someone who asks, "What is loyalty, anyway?" and "What is a country if not the citizens who comprise it?" The novels I enjoy are those that ask tough questions, even if implicitly.

As a lawyer, I should know to define my terms.

 I think, by spiritual, I mean someone who grapples with Big Issues. For herself. Who tries to get away from whatever dogma has been drilled into her. Things like what is the greater good, or, to use your question, yes, what is loyalty. You seem like a grappler to me. I base this mostly on your blog. This is what I knew of you first.

(Well, first, I knew that many of the writers I admire and respect in the blogosphere held you in such high regard that when you made a two-word comment on a piece of flash fiction of mine, I was hugely flattered. And not flattered like my ego was stroked. Flattered, like it felt significant to me. It actually meant quite a lot.)

And now I'm waiting for you to say, "I commented on something you wrote?"

Because you seem like a grappler to me, and a stand-your-grounder, it is, in some ways, difficult for me to picture you in the Army, where you are not at liberty to question things, or at least not to act on things you question. Jimmy Fisher actually strikes me as someone who would have an easier time with the military. He did what he needed to do to get along. He did whatever else he could get away with.

But I feel like you must have grappled.


I guess I'm just wondering what it was like for Stephen Parrish to serve in the Army and where you see intersections between your experience and Jimmy Fisher's. (Not that. We are not talking about grave robbing. Or whorehouses.) (I mean, right?)


I grappled for years with premises, because I knew if I got those down, every judgement I'd make from then on would be easy. The only thing I grapple with now is whether to speak up about something or keep my mouth shut.

The way my army experience intersected with Jimmy Fisher's formed the basis for the novel: my boss was convicted of espionage and sentenced to life in prison. Others in the office received sentences ranging from eighteen to thirty-six years. I was subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury, and in the process of everything coming to light I had a priceless opportunity to see the underbelly of a spy ring like one's never been seen before. Anyone who saw more than I did is in jail.

It's not James Bond or John le Carre. Or anywhere close. Today's spy, in fact pretty much every spy since the Civil War, is necessarily a traitor to his country. It's much easier to pay an insider for information than train someone to get inside. Spying is thus little more than selling documents to which you have access.


But that in itself poses fascinating questions, at least to a definitive opportunist like Jimmy Fisher: they are, after all, just documents, right? National boundaries are more or less arbitrary, right? Loyalty to a friend or a cause, fine, but loyalty to a piece of cloth or a patch of dirt? And what if what you're doing doesn't hurt anyone? What if---this is a major point made in the novel---the enemy already has the information to begin with? I'm not by any means Jimmy Fisher; whenever I needed to know what he'd do next I asked myself what I wouldn't do. But that is one point I wanted to make about the security of military intelligence: it is so sloppy, not only can a lowly infantry private turn a secret vault into a retail outlet, but the enemy, by merely reading unclassified reports and following units on exercises, can construct accurate facsimiles of everything in that vault, without buying anything.

As I said in the novel, "It's much easier to steal secrets from the United States government, it turns out, than to snatch a high school class ring from Zales." I wasn't exaggerating.


For someone standing outside of the military, it really is a fascinating look inside. This is what I meant with my Amazon review -- the book could be read as one thing (a suspense/thriller) -- it could stand alone as that -- and it would be a success. A page-turner. But it is so much more than that. So there are these competing instincts on the part of the reader -- the desire to read quickly to see what happens and the need to slow way down and think. 

I'd say I'm impressed here, but this interview isn't about me?

So we know a little bit about the book -- enough, I think, that people should know they should go buy it --so let me ask a little about the author. What does writing a book look like for Stephen Parrish? Are you a plotter? I hate the other word, but are you that? Are you disciplined? Do you let yourself write a horrible first draft? Do you look forward to it, or does it feel like a tortured process? Where do you write?

Have you tried writing while jacked up on the better part of a two liter bottle of Mountain Dew?

Diet Coke. My only remaining vice. Sniff. I used to think I couldn't write sober but, unfortunately, I can. I plot meticulously. The outline of my first novel was 90 pages long. I happen to think pantsing (that other word) gets writers into trouble. I am more disciplined than I used to be; I require at least 500 words a day on my WIP before I go to bed. Often that means the scene is weak, but that's okay, because I'm more of a rewriter than a writer, and more of a cutter than anything else. I hate to use the sculpture analogy, but that's what it amounts to: cutting crap away until it feels right. The Feasts of Lesser Men is about 90,000 words long; the first draft was 181,000 words.

I love rewriting. I love working with material when it's already on the page. The hard part for me is filling up all those blank pages. I'd do better at it if they invented a harmless cigarette.

Sorry for the delay. I had to write 501 words before I could pose the next question.

When you say you love working with material once it's on the page, I have to ask about other people's on-the-page material, and The Lascaux Review. You founded this new literary journal with good friend of this blog, Wendy Russ, and you act as Editor. Can you tell us a little bit about the journal (say, how you are in dire need of fiction with self-importantly long word counts), why you started it, and how your role as editor is going?

I've wanted to start a literary review since the early 90s. Back then, of course, such things had to be printed and distributed, and they lived or died by subscriptions. I could never get the numbers to work out (and in fact most print journals belly up if they're not subsidized by a university or grant). The internet era came, and at first the online-only journals were less than prestigious. Eventually that changed; electronic publications lost their stigma and some big name literary journals went online. It was time. I'd mentioned the idea to many people over the years, but Wendy was the first to express enthusiasm. We're looking for a few good stories.

I guess it's the rock hound in me that wanted to do this, the guy who always stares at the ground when he goes for walks, perpetuating a childhood fantasy of finding gemstones in the gravel. I've read stories by friends, including Wendy, that have made me think, and say, "This should be submitted for publication." Yet there aren't enough markets to take all the good stories. One of the problems, obviously, is there aren't enough readers of short fiction and poetry to support the markets. At the same time, though, there aren't enough editors willing to hang a literary shingle without a reader base to start with. Does the world need another literary review? Yes. Indeed, yes. The Lascaux acceptance rate is about one percent and sure to decline in the future.

Thanks to donations, all of which go to writers, we've been able to pay for every written piece we've published. We're proud of this: most literary journals pay nothing but contributor copies, and if they're online like us, pay nothing at all. Don't get me started on books. Given the amount of work that goes into creative writing, and the hourly pay rate, it's generally more profitable to spend your time searching parking lots for dropped change.

We need more donations: to accept more work, better work, and to pay more for it. The arts are the height of civilization, and in my biased opinion literature is the highest of the arts. It's a shame it's compensated so poorly, and most isn't compensated at all.

I actually love short fiction. One of the best things I've ever read is Annie Proulx's "Brokeback Mountain". Also, Jhumpa Lahiri's "A Temporary Matter." So I, for one, am always glad for new journals on the scene. But this isn't about me?

We should probably end with something light, like how your new vegetarian diet is going or why you spell so funny in emails. But that feels like letting you off the hook.

Instead, let's go with this: We started by talking about great titles, specifically your great title. Another title that I am particularly fond of, and maybe because I am intensely fond of the author (who inspired my own vegetarianism) is Alice Walker's POSSESSING THE SECRET OF JOY. This novel, as you may or may not know, has something to say about breaking taboos and telling secrets. It is not without controversy, but this interview, in addition to not being about me, is not about that book.

So, Stephen Parrish, in your opinion, what is the secret of joy?

The underlying theme of my next novel! I'm afraid I must disappoint you, however. I've given up on joy as a goal. Because there is no such thing when defined as a state of emotion consistently higher than some arbitrary norm. The norm exists as a statistical mean between happy and sad, ecstatic and miserable, and a typical person will experience the whole range of emotions, more or less cyclically, throughout her life. If I could be "happy all the time," as used to be my goal, I could only do so by raising the norm---and consequently falling below it on a regular basis.

Happiness is more usefully defined as peace of mind, which is the habit of accepting things the way they are, of taking the good with the bad and knowing that not every experience will be a positive one. It's a habit practiced by people who know their place in the world and occupy it; who pursue their passions despite obstacles and setbacks, pain and frustration---often without even being aware of the negative aspects. The more beautiful the rose, the less noticeable its thorns.

In my next novel, a juvenile delinquent redeems himself and finds peace of mind. By embracing a passion. Next time you interview me, you need to ask me about passion. I'm (sorry! can't resist!) passionate about the subject.

I look forward to reading your next novel. For now, everyone should read this one. Thank you so much for doing this, Steve. I enjoyed it!

Stephen Parrish is the author of The Tavernier Stones and The Feasts of Lesser Men. He edits a start-up online literary journal, The Lascaux Review. He lives in Germany.

THE FEASTS OF LESSER MEN is available in paperback from Amazon here and as a Kindle edition here, and from Barnes & Noble here.

PLEASE NOTE: It is FREE in e-book form on Amazon from April 15th to April 19th.

45 comments:

  1. Got my copy. :) You sure can make everything about you. :D
    Kidding. Kidding.

    With every post I read from or about Steve, I get to know that there's another layer to him. I would've said he's a humanoid onion, but I hate onions. And I quite like him (as a person - before you get any ideas). But you get the point.

    We've exchanged a few mails and there's a lot I can learn from him to be a better writer, and a better person.

    Wishing him best-sellers. Always.

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  2. Hate onions? HATE ONIONS? How are we ever going to have pizza together?

    I know exactly what you are saying about Steve. Obviously, we should have called this inteview "Peeling the Humanoid Onion." But only if it would irritate him.

    I wish him best sellers forever, too.

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  3. Even I learned a few new things about Mr. Parrish here, and I've read quite a few of his interviews and blog posts over the last five years. Cool.

    The Feasts of Lesser Men sounds like a great book and I look forward to reading. It also sounds like the two of you had a lot of fun with the interview.

    Good luck, Steve!

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    1. (Look--I am remembering to use this little reply feature!).

      Richard, your comment further proves Aniket's onion point. Please tell me you like onions on your pizza?

      I hope you enjoy the book. I know Steve had a lot of fun with the interview, but honestly? He was kind of a diva about the whole thing. Only brown M&Ms, clean ice, one demand after another.

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    2. I like onions, but certainly not on pizza. :-)

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    3. This is, of course, the wrong answer.

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    4. Raw onions only. Cooking ruins them.

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  4. Thank you for sharing this peek at the author.

    Good luck with the book.
    ________
    Mary

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  5. Can I comment now? Am I fashionably late enough?

    Onions are my favorite vegetable. Pizza without onions isn't pizza; they should call it something else. "Izza" maybe, missing a letter, because it's missing an ingredient.

    Thanks for this, Jaz. It was a lot of fun. I wish, though, you hadn't cut out the stuff about how you want a piece of the espionage pie. The advice I gave you would benefit others who'd also like to make some money on the side. But hey, it's your blog. Just remember what I said about voice scramblers; don't skimp on that expense, only buy the best.

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    1. I notice that you did not wait for a reply after asking if you could comment now? I think this gives everyone some sense of how this interview went, despite my rigorous editing to make you look good.

      Thanks for doing this, Steve. It was a lot of fun. (But let's pretend I said that through my Icom UT-110 Compatible Rolling Double Inversion Scrambler. Because -- how did you put it -- I wouldn't want anyone to get a fat head.)

      See you at the interview after party. Pizza for us; izza for everyone else!

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    2. Now this is just sad. A Chez Levangie world famous vegetarian pizza would have blown your minds, but the two of you will have to make due with something from a chain.

      You should come join the real after party.

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    3. I am reading your words, Richard, but I can make no sense of them. Vegetarian pizza, with no onions? None?

      It makes me want to weep.

      Aniket, you must start your own izza restaurant. But really, we know you'll only serve pancakes.

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    4. Well, there was that time we made a pizza with roasted butternut squash, red onion marmalade, and chevre, but that probably isn't what you had in mind.

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    5. Goat cheese, possibly (but don't tell Sarah L.--she thinks I do better at the whole vegan thing), but I'm afraid you are going to have to leave that butternut squash at the door.

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    6. Onions and garlic on mine please, slow roasted for flavor

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    7. Yay, Cat! I knew you were one of us!

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  6. I'll have a partnership with Sarah. One of her poems with each slice of Izza. Then we'll see who does more business.

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    1. Ode to pepperoni (in Springtime)

      A Sausage Sonnet

      I-lambic Pent-ham-eter? Don't mind if I ewe!

      You say onions, I say on-yums, Let's Call The Whole Thing Off


      Yes, Aniket. This is a brilliant idea.

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    2. Okay, I am eating at Aniket's restaurant.

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    3. See. See. That's what people pay for. Oh, I've got so many ideas to exploit Sarah's talents. Books like 'Conversations with Sarah', 'What would Sarah do?', 'Sarah doesn't know - Don't tell Sarah'.

      Then there's always that sure shot thing to become her agent and PR handler.

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    4. Hambic Pen-ham-eter?
      It was a pepperoni Steve employed
      To saturate the onion with it's goo
      then placed upon the crust of wheat with Joy
      But Joy knew better, she knew what to do.
      When Steve reached down to place the pizza stone
      Joy jumped upon his arm then to the floor
      She ran and ran and then began to clone
      Soon Joy was more and more and more.
      Well obviously Steve was curious,
      And yet he grappled with his need to chew
      To chase, or chew? This made him furious.
      To eat as normals would, or to chase Joy?
      The pizza thing was really just a ploy...

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    5. Jaz, take the apostrophe out of its. I don't know how it jumped in there. Stupid '.

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    6. Except I forgot a line. D'OH! Why I shouldn't write sonnets before coffee.

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  7. I was going to comment something really profound about the interview, but after reading the other comments I think I'm pretty much off the hook.

    When is dinner?

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    1. Why does this happen here? This is a very substantive interview! We talked about spirituality, for God's sake. (Sorry. Leaving it.)

      And it turns into a protracted debate about onion pizza.

      No wonder Sarah Hina never let me interview her.

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    2. Also--totally serious-my kids have friends over, and they are ordering pizza.

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    3. It's because I'm lazy and self-loathing! I swear!

      I LOVE onion pizza. Red onions, of course.

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    4. I haven't given up yet, Sarah!

      Also--yes! Red onions. You and I will eat the leftovers.

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    5. I think there might be another reason Sarah didn't let you interview her. And it might have to do with funny hats. (Or possibly onion breath.)

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    6. Actually, Wendy, I am an enormous fan of inflicting my onion breath on people while wearing several funny hats simultaneously. I find both options are good for maintaining my writerly air of eccentric mystery.

      Nah, I just couldn't possibly follow you and Steve. You guys were too durn gud.

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    7. Oh no, I must give all the credit for anything good in my interview to Ms. Zobair. Who also, I might add, was responsible for the nice outfit I was wearing during the interview.

      (Was that good Jaz? Now will you send me the money you promised me?)

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  8. LOL

    Yes, the comments are worth the price of admission.

    But still I must make a few more comments about Steve as I am passionate about him (but don't tell my wife) and his writing.

    I love this amazing man and his wonderful gift with words. I love how much he gives to this community of writers.

    And Steve - I, too, wasn't sure I could write sober. Now I think I write better sober.

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    1. Sarah! Don't make me cry!

      I don't know if I'll ever write as well sober; my best work was written blindingly drunk. But I'm getting better every day.

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    2. Thank you, Sarah, for your efforts to salvage the interview.

      For what it's worth, I think you both do amazingly well sober--writing and as wonderful friends.

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  9. This is a great interview. (Sorry for having so much fun in the comments. It must be you, JAZ.)

    Your questions are incredibly thoughtful and get to the heart of the work and the writer and the man. That's not easy to do, while also making me laugh.

    I loved the book, and I hope it's a huge success. No doubt it will be. I've always said that Steve was destined to become insufferably famous. Just HOW insufferable is the question.

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    1. Thank you, Sarah. Really. Right before I posted it, I was thinking it was so LONG. But? It's hard to imagine a short interview with someone like Steve. Or Cat. Or Wendy.

      It's not my fault fascinating people agree to let me ask them anything I want.

      (I hope OTHER fascinating people will do so in the future, Sarah Heena.)

      I'm pretty sure we are all on the same page re: your last point. :)

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    2. We all are too awesome to be on the same page on anything. At the very least, we all need to be on the same book.

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  10. I enjoyed reading this interview and getting a sneak peek into Stephen's psyche - a convoluted place, indeed! I picked up the book and don't know if I'll be able to put it down.

    I'm so happy that Stephen/Wendy put together the literary journal to showcase such amazing writers. Please keep it going. Good writers who are passed over need such outlets.

    M.H.

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    1. Thank you so much for reading! Glad you enjoyed it. I really did expect Steve to be a little difficult, but he was great.

      The journal is awesome. I hope it is a huge success.

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  11. Okay, since we are serious now...

    I think something most people can agree on (and I know this because I've read the reviews at Amazon) is how amazing Steve built the character of Jimmy Fisher.

    I cannot believe, despite my intentions to hate him (which I did at first), I ended up rooting for him by the end. And THAT is a talent.

    It's easy to write a character that everyone hates (ask someone who can do it by accident, not to mention any names), but to write a character that you hate but also like enough to want him to WIN? Honestly, I have no idea how you even do that.

    To me this is one of those books you could use as a study to learn something from. (Besides being entertaining, I mean.)

    So, anyway, good job, Steve. I hope the book does well.

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  12. I agree completely, Wendy. That character is masterful.

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  13. Great interview! Rich with information and opinion. I'm a huge support of Steve and I love his writing and am looking forward to diving into FEASTs.

    Now it's time to read the comment section. It seems there's a party going on here somewhere and I have to go throw water balloons.

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    1. It's not a party, Cat, until you show up.

      So good to see you here!

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  14. And by the way, I totally wish I could plus one the comments here...

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