Writing Roundabout: An Interview with Sam Stephenson

Mary Frank and Sam Stephenson in Frank’s studio on West Nineteenth Street, New York, 2010. Photo: Kate Joyce

Sam Stephenson’s biography, Gene Smith’s Sink: A Wide-Angle View, was published late last month. Its subject, the photographer W. Eugene Smith, should be familiar to longtime readers of the Daily: since 2010, we have run Stephenson’s chronicles of Smith’s myriad photographic projects and exploits with the luminaries of the midcentury New York jazz scene (Stephenson is also the author of The Jazz Loft Project, which was excerpted in issue no. 190) as well as—and perhaps most importantly—stories about the somebodies and nobodies who populated the margins of Smith’s life. Over sixteen essays, Stephenson tracked his subject across six decades, from his childhood in Kansas through the American South to rural Japan and Saipan. And through these essays, Stephenson discovered that he could not untangle his work as Smith’s biographer—a job that has consumed him for the past twenty years—from Smith’s narrative. The very process of writing a life became part of the story in which that process unfolded, and versions of the Daily pieces found their way into his very unconventional biography.

Nearly seven years to the day of our first correspondence, Stephenson and I talked on the phone about collaboration, the importance of digression, and, of course, Gene Smith.

INTERVIEWER

You wrote me with ideas for blog posts in September of 2010, the month I started at the Review. One of them was on the artist Mary Frank, another was on the musician Dorrie Woodson, and another was on the musician Joe Henry. All of those ideas turned into pieces on the Daily, and versions of the Frank and Woodson ended up being chapters in your book.

STEPHENSON

We got off to a strong start. If you look at the body of work we’ve done together over seven years, it marks a span of time over which my outlook and my style and the final form of Gene Smith’s Sink evolved and took shape. The book became something much different than what I proposed and what Farrar, Straus and Giroux signed up for. I can now articulate that evolution to some degree, and working with you was critical to that development. 

INTERVIEWER

The approach you’ve been honing wasn’t obvious at first. I looked back at our early correspondence, and when we were working on your two-part Sonny Clark piece, you wrote, “I see the piece as indicative of Smith’s labyrinth and my own.” You don’t connect dots like most biographers do. If you’re writing about the way two lives intersect, the effect they have on each other and on you, that effect can’t necessarily be assessed by measurable events. This ineffability is, in part, what your Smith project ended up being about—the currents and undercurrents that shape a life. I think you’ve gotten better at articulating that. And the process of articulation, of figuring out what you wanted to say and how you wanted to say it, became part of the Daily posts, too.

STEPHENSON

At some point, working with you on these pieces, I began to recognize the method I was using, and I became confident in it. If you look back at the Jazz Loft Project book—which you reviewed beautifully for Aperture in 2010 and is how we met—I was working in a similar manner then. But that book is more about the pictures than it is about the text, although I’m proud of the text. The Jazz Loft Project book isn’t chronological, it’s associative. Some have said it’s chaotic, but others see a certain, if I may, poetry in it, and over time I became more confident writing in that manner. Working with blocks of text and sequences of photographs helped me figure out the way I wanted to write, which was with blocks of text and no photographs, allowing the relationships to emerge indirectly rather than explicating them. It’s unusual in works of fact-mounting history or biography, and you encouraged this alternative method. I remember somebody called one of the early pieces you and I worked on, about Tennessee Williams, “roundabout”—“this roundabout piece about the relationship between Tennessee Williams and Eugene Smith.” A number of editors over the years haven’t allowed me to work this way, and it’s awfully hard to be persuasive about this method in a proposal. Basically, the writer and editor have to trust each other.

INTERVIEWER

When you were writing the pieces that are included in Gene Smith’s Sink on, say, Ronnie Free or Sonny Clark or Tamas Janda, were you aware that you were working through them as a reflection of Smith?

STEPHENSON

At the same time I was writing that series with you, which we called “Notes of a Biographer,” I was also writing a conventional biography of Smith. I came to realize that they were parallel tracks and the alternative one was my book—the “notes” became key parts of my book.

A page of Stephenson’s notes from his first trip, in 1997, to Smith’s archive.

INTERVIEWER

What made you realize that?

STEPHENSON

It happened incrementally. I was influenced by a lot of the music I was listening to at the time, and by interviewing those musicians and learning about their processes. Steve Reich had been a part of my Smith research for a decade or more. He studied with Hall Overton in the Sixth Avenue loft for several years in the 1950s, and Smith recorded an early string quartet rehearsal there. Reich had vivid memories of Smith. Then he was the headliner at the Big Ears Festival the first year we documented it, in 2014. Jonny Greenwood was also part of that festival. In 2011, when I spent a month in Japan and the Pacific following Smith’s footsteps, I came home right after the big earthquake and tsunami and Greenwood’s Norwegian Wood movie soundtrack had recently been released. I had seen the film and had read Murakami and I had actually interviewed Murakami about Sonny Clark’s popularity in Japan. There were so many overlaps.

Greenwood’s score moved me in a big way. At Big Ears that first year, the Wordless Music Orchestra played parts of it, and he was there playing Reich’s “Electric Counterpoint” on solo guitar. I began to study Greenwood’s work with Radiohead and noticed that he hadn’t recorded guitar on one of the band’s records since OK Computer seventeen years earlier. He’d consciously decided not to do what rock music traditionally expected from a musician like him, which is shred on guitar. He just couldn’t do it, didn’t want to do it. Another musician I should mention is the bass player Eric Revis, whose work influenced me a lot. He can play traditional jazz standards or extreme avant-garde improvisations equally well, and he chooses his notes so carefully depending on the situation. Two weeks ago, I went to Chicago to hear Revis’s quartet, and he told me that long ago he was encouraged by John Cage’s writings to seek music he wasn’t initially drawn to. His rhythms are always changing, but his profound, deep tone is unmistakable no matter what he’s playing.

I was still working on these parallel tracks—the conventional biography and the pieces that were more digressive and reflective of Smith, but I was becoming less and less interested in the conventional material. I went through all of my writing, a total of around 150,000 words in polished prose—maybe twice that if you included fragments and partial chapters—and I marked the passages I really loved. I was thinking, I really love this piece about Dorrie Woodson, but it gets far into her story and away from Smith. I should be making connections between Smith’s photo-essays for Life Magazine instead of writing about Woodson. A voice of shame was telling me to hew closer to the facts and chronological narrative. I have all that information in my files and most of it in my writing, but that way of thinking bored me stiff. I just didn’t love it, and so I just got rid of everything I didn’t love, regardless of utility or chronology. It was then that I started loving the book. That’s when Gene Smith’s Sink started emerging.

INTERVIEWER

How does the story of Dorrie Woodson tell you more about Smith than his process of working for Life on “Country Doctor,” “Nurse Midwife,” or “Spanish Village”?

STEPHENSON

That’s a good question. It’s possible that I’m the only one who sees or feels the reflection of Smith in Woodson and her story, and maybe it’s a mistake for me to try to explain it because I’m not sure I can.

Smith did “Nurse Midwife” and “Spanish Village” in the same year—1951. Like so much of his work, those two essays, along with “Country Doctor,” are about a kind of simplicity that Smith valued—rural areas, ways of life that some might call old-fashioned, that Smith maybe romanticized. His grandparents lived in a farming community like that in Kansas. It’s a simplicity Smith wished he could achieve himself amid the complete chaos of his life. Dorrie Woodson came from rural Maryland. She grew up on a farm, but she wanted to live in the city and she wanted to play jazz—she’d grown up listening to jazz on the radio. She couldn’t make a career playing jazz in a rural area. So in one sense, her stories shows that the rural life Smith valued for its uncomplicatedness is as complicated as any other. She wanted to move to the city and … it’s just not so simple.

INTERVIEWER

What’s not so simple?

STEPHENSON

Well, the prioritizing of a certain way of life, a rural way of life in these cases. I found that Woodson is a woman who grew up on a farm but who wanted sophistication in her life. I think her story is the inverse of Smith’s heroic rural figures. So many of the people Smith documented in the loft had moved to New York City from small towns. The truth is things were quite complicated in their small towns, too. That’s why I ended my book with the quote from Dr. Ceriani’s son, Gary, who told me his father may have been “trapped” by Smith’s portrayal in “Country Doctor.” After that portrait, in such a powerful publication, he felt he could never leave his job. Smith made Dr. Ceriani into an icon, and perhaps that wasn’t the best thing for him and his family.

INTERVIEWER

So Woodson’s story better illustrates the problems of perspective?

STEPHENSON

I think so. For me it does. But to put it into words seems to limit what I was trying to do. A critic might say I’m glorifying Woodson in the way Smith did his subjects. Or I’m glorifying Tamas Janda or Mary Frank or Ronnie Free or Sonny Clark or Ruth Fetske.

INTERVIEWER

Many of your ancillary subjects aren’t white men, which also broadens the book’s perspective.

STEPHENSON

I had my nephew, who is my longtime research assistant, go through copies of the London Review of Books, the New York Times Book Review, and The New York Review of Books from the past decade and make notes about every biography covered. To an astonishing degree, it’s white men writing about white men, and even the reviewers are white men, by and large. Anecdotally, I worked in a great independent bookstore in the nineties and my nephew works in one now. We both agreed that people who buy biographies are mostly older white men.

So even before I could articulate it—I could not have made this argument when I originally proposed a piece on Woodson in my first letter to you—I was trying to work against the grain of this pattern. I remember after one of my Daily pieces about a woman, I got a note from a woman on the West Coast who said that I have written more about obscure elderly women than any younger man she knew. This note opened my eyes a bit. In order to tell an original story of what happened in Smith’s world, I was leaning on female perspectives in this alternative track of my work. And so, for example, Robert Frank, who was friends with Smith, was an obvious person to write about, and I spent an afternoon with him at his place on Bleecker Street. But when it came down to finishing the book, I thought, No, I’m going to leave out Robert Frank and include Mary Frank instead. What she told me was more intriguing to me.

Stephenson with photographer Takeshi Ishikawa in 2011 at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona, where Smith’s archives are housed. Ishikawa was an assistant of Smith’s in Minamata, Japan, in the early 1970s.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve left Smith open-ended. You haven’t frozen him in his own story, or in one interpretation of that story. Are you opposed to straight biography?

STEPHENSON

No, I read them all the time. I’m just incapable of writing one myself.

INTERVIEWER

Why?

STEPHENSON

Because the way I think is digressive and tangential and associative. My editor at FSG, Ileene Smith, deserves a lot of credit for allowing the book to take the final shape it did. Also, before I submitted my manuscript, the writer and editor Scott Schomburg helped me cut it down to the essentials of what I wanted to do. My nineteen-thousand-word book proposal to FSG was for a very conventional biography—this was about eleven years ago—and I didn’t know at the time that I was incapable of writing a book like that. The book was six years late, and as the years mounted, there were some well-intentioned people, good friends, who told me, You’ve practically done it already, you have thousands of words of biography, if you just go straight ahead and connect those dots, it’s gonna be a great book. But I didn’t love doing that. In fact, I hated doing it. The final result is what I enjoyed the most. And here again, the work on the Big Ears musicians helped me find peace with this result. I know that it may frustrate some readers, especially those who want to know which camera lens Smith was using when he was photographed Schweitzer in Africa in 1954. I have that information, but I couldn’t find a way to use it that made for good reading. There is some very deep material on Smith’s photographic process in the book, I just didn’t make it my focus.

INTERVIEWER

You don’t think that information says anything about Smith?

STEPHENSON

It might in other people’s hands, but in mine I don’t think it does.

INTERVIEWER

In a post from 2013 you wrote, “I am tired of Gene Smith.” That was four and a half years ago. I figure by now you must be utterly sick of him.

STEPHENSON

INTERVIEWER

That’s a long pause.

STEPHENSON

Well, I forget what year it was, but it was after Jazz Loft, so it must have been around 2012. I was in Wichita, Kansas, researching Smith, and I was at a dinner, and the photographer Larry Schwarm was there, and he said to me, Do you have photographs of Smith all over your house? That really stumped me. I realized I didn’t have pictures of Smith all over my house, or anywhere in my house—they were all in files. I respect what Smith did, and I am still enthralled by his tapes, his bizarre tapes that he made in his Sixth Avenue loft. But I grew tired of feeling like I had to write a chronological narrative of his life. When I freed myself from having to do that, I started having fun again. Working with you was part of that turnaround.

INTERVIEWER

Twenty years is a long time to spend on one person.

Stephenson’s standing desk, repurposed from Smith’s darkroom sink. Photo: Kate Joyce

STEPHENSON

I became more interested in the people around Smith than I was in him. Perhaps Smith’s ultimate genius is that he left behind a trail of so many fascinating and obscure people. I believe that portraits of these folks are reflective of him—portraits of Sonny Clark and Ruth Fetske and Calvin Albert and Hall Overton. They add up to a picture of Smith that you wouldn’t see if you read a chronological account of his life.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think they show?

STEPHENSON

They show what life was like, what it was like to be alive and struggling in New York City in 1960 and in that loft, which is where Smith lived longer than any other place, except his childhood homes in Wichita. It’s difficult to get a picture of someone’s childhood. It’s the hardest thing a biographer has to do. It’s the most important yet most undocumented part of a person’s life. So if you’re writing a biography, what do you do? My decision was to get a clearer picture of what was around Smith. I hope these portraits provide a kind of collage, a mosaic portrait that I think reflects an image of Smith and who he was.

Recently I’ve been reading Brian Eno’s published diaries. He talks often about communal genius being more important than individual genius. Some of my favorite writers render the community beautifully in fiction—Dos Passos, Malamud, Willa Cather, August Wilson. I guess I proposed the wrong book to FSG. Thank goodness they published this one, but the other one might have sold better.

INTERVIEWER

How hard do you think it will be to leave Smith behind and start something new?

STEPHENSON

Part of what I’m feeling now about this book is perfect closure. If I tried to write the definitive eight-hundred-page biography, inevitably there would be mistakes and errors. On the day that it was printed, I’d learn something I should’ve changed. That kind of work is never done. Henry James said a historian can never have enough documents. Gene Smith’s Sink is what I had to do to cut off my accumulation of documents. It’s what I had to do to finish twenty years of work and move on.

INTERVIEWER

There’s the idea—I’ve heard other writers talk about this, and it’s always been true for me when I’m writing—that you look at the subject head-on, you can’t see it clearly, but if you look to the side, or if you think or read about something unrelated to your subject, you start to see your subject more clearly.

STEPHENSON

Absolutely.

INTERVIEWER

Approaching it obliquely. I’ve always found that to be the most productive way of getting started and of seeing where I need to go, if I feel stuck.

STEPHENSON

There’s almost nothing I believe in more than that. If you look at stars in the sky, often you can see them clearer if you look off to the side. Your peripheral vision is clearer. The epigraph to my book has Adam Phillips quoting Marion Milner, a British psychoanalyst and writer, and she said exactly that. She applied it to painting—if you want to paint an object, don’t look directly at the object, look all around it.

INTERVIEWER

It’s a basic exercise in art classes—depict the negative space. Instead of representing the object, you’re painting the space around it.

STEPHENSON

Maybe I should have been an art teacher.

Nicole Rudick is managing editor of The Paris Review.

Join us on October 26 at National Sawdust in Brooklyn to celebrate the publication of Gene Smith’s Sink with readings, music, and film. 

Revisit “Big, Bent Ears: A Documentary in Serial Uncertainty,” a project published by The Paris Review and Stephenson’s Rock Fish Stew Institute of Literature and Materials.  

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