Mississippi native Steve Yarbrough is author of the PEN/Faulkner finalist Prisoners of War.
SLR: You were born and raised in Mississippi. Do you find it easier to write about Mississippi while living elsewhere, or harder?
Yarbrough: I’ve never found it to be all that hard. Mississippi has a storytelling culture. People talk endlessly about things that happened fifty years ago. I’ve lived in California for 17 years, but I find the culture to be shallow and everyone seems to live in the moment, or even more, in the future. I do it too when I’m here. In Mississippi, history is a part of the present. It is common to know stories about your great-great grandparents. Stories are passed down from generation to generation. You don’t find that tradition just anywhere. I think if you grew up in a place like Mississippi, you wouldn’t want to write about any place else.
SLR: When did you first start writing stories?
Yarbrough: I started out writing songs. Played the guitar. Liked country and bluegrass; then as a teenager I liked rock and blues more. Later, I tried poetry but didn’t get anywhere with that. I always loved books. I’m not happy unless I have a book to read. When I was 21 years old, I wrote a football story. When I was 24, I wrote something publishable. My first novel was Oxygen Man.
SLR: Tell me a little about where you went to school and the places you have lived.
Yarbrough: I got a BA and MA at Ole Miss, then a MFA at University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, Arkansas. I taught at Virginia Tech for 4 years, then moved to Chapel Hill. My wife is from Poland. We have a home there and I always look forward to visiting. We have two daughters. They both speak Polish as well as English, but I just know enough to get by. We’ve lived in California for seventeen years.
SLR: What writers influenced you the most when you were young?
Yarbrough: O’Connor and Faulkner, certainly, but also, Larry McMurtry, William Trevor, James Salter, especially Salter—every paragraph he writes could be a poem. Alice Munro, too, definitely Munro. There has to be something happening in the fiction I read. If the language doesn’t interest me, I cannot finish the book. I like to read writers who write well about women too. Male writers who write women well.
SLR: What inspired you to write Prisoners of War? How do you come up with your stories?
Yarbrough: I enjoyed writing the historical aspects of Visible Spirits. I had been interested in the progressive era of America, but knew nothing about it. I did a lot of research, and when it came time to write, it turned out to be the most natural, effortless writing I’d ever experienced. So, I thought I’d write another historical book, Prisoner of War. I had so many false starts trying to write this book that it just about killed me. It turned out to be harder to write than anything I’d ever written.
SLR: But worth it.
Yarbrough: Well sure , now, worth it.
SLR: Your first novel was Oxygen Man. How have you seen your writing change, or develop from that novel to this one?
Yarbrough: There was a huge psychological hurdle when I tried to go from writing a short story to a writing a novel. I mean, you write a short story and if it isn’t on track, well, you’ve wasted maybe three or four weeks of your life, but a novel, you could be two or three years into it and realize, this isn’t working at all and you’ve wasted three years of your life. I’m more comfortable with the idea now. I tell people that in a short story you have to have your foot on the accelerator all the time—you’ve got to get somewhere—fast! But in a novel, you have to learn to pace yourself, keep a foot on the break. That was probably the hardest thing to learn. The short story is about implication and exclusion, something I feel we can all learn about from Hemingway.
SLR: When you write, do you have the story outlined completely or does it unfold as you write? Is there a point when the characters take off on their own and you can’t easily predict what they will do next?
Yarbrough: No, I don’t outline. The only time I ever did an outline was when I worked for Disney and that’s because they insisted on it. I convince myself that I know the ending of my story before I start writing it, but it always changes.
SLR: Who do you like to read now?
Yarbrough: Right now I’m reading an extraordinary book by Donald Hayes called Dying Light, and I’m reading War Trash.
SLR: What’s next in terms of your writing? Are you working on a novel now? Will your stories stay in the South?
Yarbrough: I’m finishing up another novel. The End of California is the title—it’s set in Mississippi. It’s about a doctor from Mississippi who moves to California, then back. All the regional differences, political, cultural. I’m excited about it.
As for my own writing, I’m interested now in seeing ways I can develop the form; that is, I’m interested in different narrations, non-chronological order, getting into history.
SLR: Sounds great! I look forward to reading it. Thanks so much for taking the time today to talk with us, Steve. Southern Literary Review values your work and your time, so thank you.
Yarbrough: Thank you.