Interview by Ben Kowalski
Stephanie Shaw is the author of several full-length monologues, including “Good Eatin’,” “A Proper Dragon,” and “Ductand Materia Prima.” She has also directed several productions around Chicago— many at Columbia College—and worked as a theater critic for the Chicago Reader.
Shaw won the David Friedman Memorial Award in 2008 for her piece “Afterbirth.” The Friedman Memorial Award was established by David Friedman's family in 2002 as a memorial to their son and is given to a story or essay published in the Hair Trigger anthology each year. Hair Trigger spoke to Stephanie Saw about her recent work, influential fiction, and opportunities for Chicago writers.
Ben Kowalski: Tell me about your most recent work.
Stephanie Shaw: About two years ago or so and [I published] a novella [called “Mademoiselle Guinol”] about the Grand Guinol, a theater in Paris just before the turn of the century which specialized in horror, splatter theater, and sensationalism. It was a work of fiction. It was historical. It wasn’t exactly horror. It was published in an anthology called [Tattered Souls 2]—so there’s that. Since then, I’ve done a lot of spoken word work around the city.
BK: How did you come across that anthology?
SS: I’ve always drifted toward the slightly weird. Columbia was very useful to me in that—I first learned there that it was possible to not be one genre or the other, that there was interstitial work that could be done. All of my stories that took place in natural settings always had some sort of weird twist to them that people found interesting, off-putting or confusing. I think I got it from reading a lot of Shirley Jackson when I was a little kid, and from being a big fan of the Brontes, in which supernatural stuff [happened] all the time and no one ever blinked an eye.
BK: What got you into Shirley’s writing, originally?
SS: When I was a little kid, we had a book of hers hanging around the house. It was called Life Among the Savages. It was about a domestic life with four children and an academic husband. I loved it. It was very episodic, it was funny, and it was based in the day-to-day life of this woman and her crazy household. I think now, looking back, there are hints of darkness in it that I didn’t see when I was younger. Shirley Jackson didn’t have the greatest time when she was living in that house that she writes so funnily about. Her husband was an academic and they lived in the countryside. Her family was a target—the townspeople were very antisemitic. She didn’t exactly fit in, eventually became agoraphobic, and died very young. There was a lot of dark tragedy behind what led her to write comedy.
BK: Does that influence your current writing?
SS: I do tend to gravitate that way—toward the long dark night of the soul that takes place at two in the afternoon in a nice house in a suburb.
BK: Are you working on any creative projects right now?
SS: I’m trying to write what’s turning into a sequel to “Mademoiselle Guinol.” “The Rite of Spring”—that ballet that caused so much concern and caused a riot—happened in the spring of 1913. I’m sort of convinced that “The Rite of Spring”—that brutal, brutal music and that brutal, brutal ballet, which everyone hissed and booed and cheered and were so confronted by—was a harbinger of World War I. It was a messenger of death, almost, because up until that time, art had been decorative, pleasing, and there to make you feel good.
BK: How did winning the Friedman Award affect your career as a writer?
SS: It helped with my self-esteem [and] it was encouraging. You can write and write and write and never get recognized. The idea of just getting recognized—especially for [a piece that] was semi-autobiographical, even though there were dragons in it—that something that came out of me that was that honest could be recognized, was a very encouraging moment. It showed me that I could keep on in that fashion and I wasn’t doomed to failure.
BK: Is there anything I haven’t touched on that you’d like to add?
SS: Most of my work lately has been spoken word and [in] the live lit scene around Chicago, which is a thriving, huge scene. I’d like to see more writers, more fiction writers, [and] more essayists, take advantage of things around Chicago like The Paper Machete and the Write Club. There are so many opportunities to stand up in front of a mic and read your work out-loud. It’s a huge community and very supportive.
Ben Kowalski is a BA Nonfiction senior at Columbia College Chicago, creative nonfiction writer, copy editor and contributor at the award-winning Columbia Chronicle (2015), and music critic at Pop'stache.com (2014–2015). Ben is currently working on an essay collection about music, and his album reviews can be found at http://popstache.com/author/bkowalski/.