Writing, Literature and Publishing Professor Steve Yarbrough’s most recent book is among the works of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry that were nominated for Massachusetts Book Awards. As a nominee, Safe from the Neighbors (Knopf, 2010) has been designated a Must-Read Book of the Massachusetts Center for the Book, which will determine the winners of the literary honor at the 11th Annual Massachusetts Book Awards, scheduled to take place this summer. In the following Q&A, Yarbrough speaks about his work and the writing life.
Safe from the Neighbors takes place in small-town Mississippi, where you grew up. How much of your material is inspired by your time there?
In the sense that the novel covers some of the events of the Civil Rights Movement, which I witnessed firsthand, it was inspired by my childhood in the Mississippi Delta. Also, I had a couple of childhood friends whose mother was shot and killed by her husband, and something similar happens in the book. On the other hand, my narrator is a guy who has lived in the Mississippi Delta his entire life; I haven’t lived there since I was 21, and I’m 54 now. He’s very different from me.
Most of your novels take place in the South. Why does this setting appeal to you?
I know the place inside out. And a lot of what I saw there when I was young has stayed with me, and I think about it every day, particularly the horrific treatment of African Americans in the ’50s and ’60s. When you see some of the things I saw, you don’t forget them. And you shouldn’t.
What was it like to find out you were nominated for a Massachusetts Book Award?
I was thrilled. I love where I live, I love where I work, and having the book chosen made me feel like Massachusetts readers had welcomed me and made me one of theirs.
You’ve published five novels and three books of stories. Do you prefer to compose short stories or full-length novels?
Overall, I’d have to say I love the story more than the novel. But I think I’m probably a better novelist than a short story writer, so that’s what I spend most of my time on. I like the rhythm of writing a novel, staying with the same project for two or three years. But finishing a story is a wonderful feeling, and you don’t have to wait years for it to happen.
How do you apply your skills in fiction writing to teaching at Emerson?
Students face the same problems I do. So when I solve a problem in my own work, it makes me more aware of ways I could help someone else solve it. I don’t see how you can teach writing without continuing it to do it yourself. I’d feel like a fake, and the students would know it.
In what ways have the students taught you since you’ve begun working in the WLP Department?
Well, some of them have written some fabulous work, and it’s just inspiring to see a young person do something great. Last fall, I had a graduate student named Katie Lynn Murphy who wrote a story that gave me goosebumps. I gave her some suggestions for revisions, and she did a great job on her rewrite. So I sent it to a friend who edits a major journal. And about five minutes after he read it, he called me and said that the story had moved him all the way down to his toes, and he accepted it for publication on the spot. What that reminded me of was that every time I step into the classroom at Emerson, somebody may give me something great and it’s my job to know it. In a few months, her story will be in bookstores all over America. But I got to see it first.
Would you define yourself as a Mississippi writer or a Massachusetts writer now?
I’m a writer from Mississippi who lives in Massachusetts and now calls it home. The thing I love most about this state (I know it’s a commonwealth!) is that people are attached to place. That’s true of Southerners, too. And that may be why I feel so much at home here—that and the fact that I love my WLP colleagues and my Emerson students.
If you could give the aspiring writers at Emerson one piece of advice, what might it be?
Read. And then read some more.
Are you working on any new writing projects right now?
Yes, I’m writing a novel set in a place like Stoneham, where I live now. I may write about the South again one day, but right now I’m working on something a bit different.