Updated: Aug 24
An Interview by Silver Webb
Stephen & Rougette, lest you doubt
They say you can tell a lot about a person by their choice of cocktail, and Stephen is very definite on this topic.
“I only drink scotch.”
He also wears a fedora, smokes American Spirits, and sports a rakish goatee. I imagine he is actually Ernest Hemingway, somehow spit forward in the time stream and now driven to write lyric, dark stories that are “a mashup of science-fiction, fantasy, and horror.”
Sitting down to a pub list of 30+ kinds of scotch, I test the beverage prospects.
“So, will there be mitigating factors?” I ask.
“Such as?” he inquires.
“Water? Bubbles?” Don’t people order scotch and tonic?
“One does not put impurities in the water of life,” he says with the calm of an emperor about to give a thumbs-down in the Colosseum.
I’m pretty sure that means even ice cubes aren’t a thing for a scotch connoisseur. We settle on a Balvenie that is twenty-one years old. Old enough to know what it’s doing, I suppose, old enough to be legal in a bar. It’s a delight to drink something so smooth and deadly; a good combination to start an interview. To counter, or perhaps augment, the beverage, I pull out my tarot deck. To his credit, Stephen’s eyes only bulge a little as I ask him to pick a card.
I suppose by now he must realize I don’t believe in boring interviews. But I do have a reason for the tarot. Stephen’s novel, Door of Tireless Pursuit, is based on a tarot game called Dungeon Solitaire: Labyrinth of Souls, designed by Matthew Lowes. A group of writers that Stephen met in Eugene, Oregon, have banded together, each taking a turn writing a novel based on this tarot, novels like Littlest Death, The End of All Things, and Benediction Denied. Stephen’s first contribution to this series came out in October 2017.
But as Stephen flips a card now, it seems this conversation will be led by the Queen of cups. A regal figure gazing thoughtfully into the waters of the psyche, expressing herself clearly and deeply. The first portent of the evening. The second involves a python, but more on that later.
I actually saw Stephen speaking, not too long ago, at the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference, where he acts as a mentor and manuscript consultant to attendees. It’s his manner to encourage other writers as much as possible, and he told the audience, when asked about the value of conferences, “They have been critical for me. I recommend them strongly. They can be terribly expensive, so you have to moderate how much of that you do. I don’t go looking for the big break, the connection I’m going to make that will solve all my problems. I go as a perpetual student. And all the people there (ThrillerFest or Worldcon) who have succeeded don’t have to tell people why they’re there. By and large, writers who write about horrible things are very decent, kind-hearted, generous, open people. I have found that to be almost universally the case. Everything that has happened to me has happened because of the friendships I’ve made in the writing community. So I encourage you to go out and make those friendships as broadly as you can. You’ll want to get published so that everyone else will feel like they can go out and get published.”
Personally, I find the feedback, if not the encouragement and company of other writers to be crucial to writing. And Stephen agrees, “The breaks for me, as I see them, have been the people I’ve connected with. Squirreling myself away with my work for a long time was the biggest mistake I’ve ever made. Being out in a community of writers, the writers in my life, those were my big breaks. Without that, this book [The Door of Tireless Pursuit] wouldn’t exist. The first big break I got was getting work published in the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Having something like that happen doesn’t mean you’re jumping into wild success immediately. But it’s very important for writers to get published. Not necessarily a Big 5 publisher, but just having a hard copy you can hold onto is the finalization of a very hard, long process.”
The short story he published in Ellery Queen was one of twelve he wrote that were eventually gathered and published in the 2016 anthology The Mountain and the Vortex. He published two books in two years, in fact. My take on the appeal of his prose is that he is playing with symbols and meanings based in myth and the subconscious, but he doesn’t hit you over the head with it. You are somehow left with the subtle feeling that the author designed each story with the intention of guiding you toward a realization or at least leaving you with a meaningful question. I ask him if this is intentional construction or something that flows out without consideration.
“It’s a little hard to talk about this because it’s amorphous for me. I have done a fair amount of reading of Jung, Campbell, the usual suspects. If I’m applying a symbol, rather than trying to call up a specific reference for a reader, it’s more like I’m diving down into the mulch of symbology and semiotics and following my intuition and my ear. Because I’m not allied with a specific delineation of forces and forms. So I’m sort of getting them to dance with each other.”
But I’m not quite certain I believe him, so I go in for a second pass, “In your short stories, a common theme is that a character goes on a physical journey, either down into a subterranean space, or into the woods. These are classic mythological tropes for entering the subconscious. Was that intentional?”
He only cracks half way. “Yeah, I would say yes. Although again, I’m not a respecter of categories or delineations. I do have a sense that we’re connected in ways that we don’t recognize, whether it’s electrically or etherical or due to how our cultures have evolved out of organic and pre-organic circumstances. I ferret around inside myself and I see something like what I want and then I keep looking at it differently until it becomes something unique in a specific way that gets me in my gut.”
Stephen’s gut is not leading him astray. But American Spirits may well be. He steps out for a smoke, and I look at my notes, wondering how to better lure out the raconteur. I ponder that he is a Wood Goat in the Chinese zodiac and a Cancer in the European. These two things together might suggest that he is intensely loyal and likable, with deep emotions. I pick my own tarot card and up pops Virtue. Virtue, indeed. This means, definitively, it is time for another round of scotch. This time a thirteen-year-old Craigellachie. I do wonder where Stephen has gotten to. It seems he might be smoking three or four cigarettes for the time he’s been gone…perhaps an entire cigar. Just as the scotch arrives in a pretty tulip glass, I look up and see Stephen waving from the door of the patio with what looks like an anaconda over his shoulders. I do my level best not to shriek. There is definitely something hissy and deadly wrapped around his neck. Its little black tongue is flicking at me. Apparently “cigarette break” is a euphemism for cavorting with snakes. I slither into the shadows of the booth and get a head start on the second round.
“A very friendly snake,” he says on his return, smiling like he’s met Arthur Miller. I resist the urge to spritz him with antibacterial spray. Possibly the fumes from the scotch will have the same effect anyway.
As portents go, snakes range from terror to temptation, and occasionally divination…think of a priestess holding snakes above her in a temple. Snakes are also escape artists and known to slip the skin. To wit, if you learn anything from this interview about Stephen, let it be that he should not be left alone too long, lest he run off to join the circus.
The Craigellachie is a pleasant little ball of flame in my throat, and I skip straight past all of the interview questions that look rather mundane now. Here’s a good one: “Hungry, wandering ghosts show up in at least two of your stories. Why is that?”
He ponders his glass. “I hadn’t intended to drift off into cosmology, but I do have a sense that there is a non-corporeal aspect to being that extends beyond physical death. That has been supported for me by experiences I’ve had. That doesn’t mean that I have any idea what that reality is like. I have the same reaction to a uniformly blissful or transportive notion of an afterlife as I do to notions that reality isn’t that simple. I like to play with the supernatural. I’ve never been happy or satisfied with depictions of the afterlife that have been given to me by science or religion. I notice holes in reasoning sometimes, and I figure since none of the existing answers seem to gel for me, I may as well make them up myself. I like dealing with the unknown and running smack up against it, because it has this sense of expanding the scope of experience.”
So when I ask him who his literary influences are, I’m expecting an arcane list of philosophy books. I’m betting on the Esperanto Bible, Sergei Bulgakov’s Sorrows, and The Lost Codex of St. Angus. Instead, I hear “Little Women, Nancy Drew, Middlemarch, and Treasure Island.” He amends quickly with a more adult list: Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, and Ursula K. Le Guin, among others. But he circles around with “I think it’s significant to me that I still remember Little Women. Why? I guess the passion. Jo and the professor. And her sister dying, which still gets me. Who gets to say these things aren’t real? They’re real to me.”
I understand this well. The characters I write are very real to me. They keep me company. Sometimes they are better company than the nonfictional people in my life. I mention this to Stephen, and he replies, “Jun’ichirō Tanazaki said that his characters came to life and he had to write their stories so they would leave him the hell alone. And it does feel like that sometimes. I don’t feel like I’m writing about hypothetical characters, and there comes a point where what I think should happen becomes less important to me than what’s true for them.”
You might think from hearing him speak that Stephen has been writing continuously his whole life. But in fact, although he first wanted to write when he was a young boy, it was not until his mid-fifties that he started to have publication success, and he admits, “I fell fallow for periods. I had some misconceptions. Probably the biggest one was that I had to pass through some kind of membrane of learning and experience in order to write, which is utter nonsense. I was waiting for the planets to align. It took me a long time to disabuse myself of the notion that inspiration had some special moment where the words would come to me. If there’s a break in your writing where you lose your facility, it takes a few weeks to get it back. That should be said to every writer: It takes about two weeks to get back in the groove and thirty days to form a habit. Now it’s true for me that I need to be creating something every day.”
That daily work ethic is coming to fruition. He is writing two novels that will be published in the coming year, one of which will be a second installment in the Labyrinth of Souls.
The interview seems to be winding down. While there’s time, shall I tell you all his secrets? Very well. Stephen is passionate about classical music (see Arsentiy Kharitonov’s site masterpiecefinder.com, to which Stephen contributes) and a talented artist (this volume is generously peppered with his drawings). He also writes his manuscripts by hand and texts by slowly booping at the screen with one finger. A Luddite, he says. Stephen may be gregarious with a booming voice that fills the room, but so too is he ruminative, introspective. I suspect the man at home writing is very different than the man holding court in the pub. But most good writers are this way. To slip the veil, journey to the feral, broken places of the psyche, and bring back stories to the page is not always the task of the happy. Although, if you are a happy and prolific writer, brava to you. Perhaps you’ll come buy us a scotch? There’s a really nice snake here, I’m told.
"Scotch and the Queen of Cups: Cartomancy with Stephen T. Vessels" was first published in Volume 2 of the Santa Barbara Literary Journal.