For the past fourteen years, Hank Stuever, a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, has published his unique brand of creative nonfiction in the form of newspaper articles in the Albuquerque Tribune, Austin American-Statesman, and the Washington Post. The subjects of his articles—haunted waterbed stores, plastic lawn chairs, beauty pageants, and discount funeral homes among them—hardly seem fodder for probing essays on the American psyche. But what might fall into the realm of light comedy for many writers takes on a lyrical profundity in Stuever’s work.
In July, a collection of his essays, Off Ramp: Adventures and Heartache in the American Elsewhere, was published by Henry Holt.
Poets & Writers Magazine asked Stuever about his focus on the American Elsewhere—a landscape of strip malls, corporate suite motels, container stores—as the subject of his essays, places that other American writers might readily dismiss as signposts of the banality of our culture, and how he sees this landscape differently.
Hank Stuever: I see it cynically as some writers might. Often I see it as a sad comment, but I really don’t know where to go with it by merely commenting on it. Part of that is because I grew up in it, so I understand very clearly that lives are being led here, that life is playing out here. Happy is no less happy here, and sad is no less sad here than in places that we commonly regard as beautiful or meaningful.
There’s a lot of literature that derides these places as meaningless, and that’s not true for the people who live there. So, as a journalist, I had to look around me and say this place has value as a setting for a story. I had to learn not to judge it. I think a lot of writers take the track of growing up in the American Elsewhere and then heading to New York. I never headed for New York. I finally decided to deal with what I had “there,” whether the “there” was Albuquerque, New Mexico, or Austin, Texas, or Oklahoma City.
P&W: In the introduction to Off Ramp, you talk about your narrative intrusion on the writing and reporting of your essays—the superimposing force of your narrative context. Is this something with which you wrestle? Do you worry that you’re sometimes in danger of transforming a situation into a Hank Stuever story rather than rendering what you find?
HS: Absolutely. I could point to some magazine writing—either contemporary or from the '60s —where that kind of narrative persona was palpable, but in the newsroom you’re on thin ice, or so it would seem, because you don’t have a lot of colleagues who are doing that or editors who are supporting that. That was one reason why I wrestled with it.
Now I do worry about story ideas. Am I drawn to them only because I can perform some sort of shtick that I’ve developed? And I usually reject that idea if I think that’s where it’s going.
I don’t really struggle anymore with the idea that the narrator is in charge of the nonfiction story. I actually prefer it. I don’t mind stories that sort of show the scaffolding around the building or the exposed beams; when I can see a writer thinking it through and how the story was built while I’m reading it, I’m much more at ease than reading a story where I don’t know why it came together the way it came together.
P&W: At any point, did it ever occur to you to scrap the newspaper business altogether and approach your subjects strictly as a literary essayist? Would you have changed your methodology if you had?
HS: I think what kept me in newspapers was really specific problems like college loans and car payments. Not that I was able to pay off my college loans by working at a newspaper, but I just needed a full-time job. I didn’t have the freelance muscle. I didn’t have that ability to hustle work while I was working and to hustle getting paid. So I was happy to live the newspaper life. I was really happy to have a job. I could at least entertain literary notions even when I was standing at a crime scene knowing full well that I’m just going to come back and file a few hundred words in the most straightforward possible manner. At least it felt slightly literary. And there was a regular meager paycheck and a health plan.
P&W: You mention in the book’s introduction that the best advice you ever got from another journalist was to ask to use a subject’s bathroom, if you can, ostensibly to glean something of what Tom Wolfe called the “status life” of the subject. Do you think more journalism could stand for such texture today?
HS: Absolutely. When I heard that, in a flash I looked back to so many stories that I had done where I sort of hurried the things along so I could leave and find a bathroom at Taco Bell. It reminded me that as much as I thought that I was staying and sitting still, being a good observer and not imposing myself on to the narrative as it was unfolding, I still wasn’t in there close enough. The bathroom became that metaphor.
Asking to use the bathroom is never a request that’s denied. And it really is a further way in—down the hall or to your left. Whether you’re in an office, home, or school setting, you just get to see that little bit more.
Breaking bread together is really important, too. When you go to someone’s house, they almost always offer you food. At some point in a journalism class, I had been told to always decline. Luckily, on my own, and pretty early on, I realized that breaking bread together is an essential human act, and if someone offers you something, you take it. Even if you’re tasting for ingredient, for detail, go ahead and do it.
P&W: How would you like to see mainstream newspaper journalism improve upon its current state today?
HS: It’s so hard to put out a daily newspaper, and it’s so easy to rely on formatted ways of writing a story. From the palette, they keep choosing the same two or three colors to do a story. In my time, I think there’s been a preeminent fixation on first and foremost how the story will be presented—where it will run, what the pictures will be and how long it will be—before any other concern. And so, from the gate, the writer is weighed down with a length and a display; it’s already being shoehorned. And so a lot of stories are bland. I think bland is the worst problem now.
That’s really going to be the end of us: In a desperate effort to offend the fewest number of people, we always take the safe path with a story. You just don’t get knocked off your breakfast chair very much by what’s in there, and I think you should be surprised. There should be stuff in the newspaper that makes you mad and cracks you up, and it’s just not happening enough.
Too many writers are not encouraged to surprise readers. A lot of newspapers have halfway solved that problem, but they’ve only annointed about three writers in the entire place to be the people who do that, furthering the idea in the other 90 writers that they aren’t the person who gets to do it, and it sort of relieves them of ever having to be interesting.
P&W: The notion of identity, and identity crisis, seems to underscore many of your pieces in the book. Do you feel Americans are at a particularly anxious point in defining themselves? Might that have anything to do with our consumerism or the omnipresence of the American retail landscape?
HS: Yes to everything. Americans, in my estimation, are feeling less unique, to the point where fairly recently we are now being cautioned by our readers about how to refer to people who live in the South. Words like “redneck, ”white trash,” and “trailer trash” have taken on an n-word explosiveness, even as a woman sings about how she’s a proud redneck and comedians mine the redneck ethos.
People hate to be labeled now, and I think it’s so curious because people love labels in their lives. You go on vacation and you still wind up at a Red Lobster and a Cheesecake Factory just like the one at home.
My editor said when I was going on tour for this book that it’s not like there’s no place like home, like in The Wizard of Oz. There’s every place like home. And it’s true. At the time that we’re losing the unique, curious things about roadside Americana, people are reacting not to that, but to being labeled themselves. So a soccer mom doesn’t ever want to be called a soccer mom. A NASCAR fan doesn’t want to be defined only by that. When I write about something generally, I will often hear from somebody that “You’ve described me, but don’t label me.”
You do bump into a lot of identity crises in pop culture reporting—fans of things who don’t want to be described as die hard or rabid fans, even though they’re spending three or four days in line for tickets to something; Harry Potter fans taking great umbrage at the idea that they’re obsessed with what is marketed as a children’s book. There are all sorts of labels that people just don’t want, and yet in their consumer lives, they want labels. They want comfort. And I would define that as an identity crisis.
To read selected stories by Hank Stuever, visit his Web site at www.hankstuever.com/stories.html.