Interview with Steve Eoannou, 2013 Fiction Finalist

Introducing Steve Eoannou, one of SFWP’s 2013 Fiction Finalists! His collection, Muscle Cars, will be published by SFWP in 2015.

Sheila Lamb: Your short story collection, Muscle Cars, was a finalist for the 2013 Literary Awards Program. What made you decide to enter SFWP’s Literary Awards Program?

Steve Eoannou: The SFWP Literary Awards have been on my radar for over a decade since my friend Kenneth Cook won for his collection Last Call. I remember Kenny telling me what a great experience it was and how winning really started his career. As soon as Muscle Cars was completed, I knew I was going to enter it in the SFWP contest. So I sent in the manuscript and hoped for the best, never imagining that I’d make it to the finals.

SL: Muscle Cars  (the first story in the collection) seems an apt title for the entire collection. How would you characterize your work?

SE: I write very traditional, character-centric stories. I’m attracted to characters and situations that are a little odd, a little off-center: a compulsive body builder in mourning, high school buddies who want to steal Ted Williams’ scientifically frozen head, a voyeur who volunteers for his neighborhood watch patrol. Sometimes these characters or the situations I place them in may seem funny or amusing on the surface, but there’s usually something darker at play.

I also try to have a strong sense of place in my work. I drew heavily from my hometown of Buffalo, New York in this collection, even though I rarely identified it as such in the stories. Story settings such as Forest Lawn Cemetery, Ohio Street, and Voelker’s Bowling Alley are all real places, but I also tried to tap into the city’s undercurrents: the pervading sense of loss, the idea that the best days may have already passed, resiliency. Even the weather, or the threat of weather, is prevalent in many of the stories. The story you’re featuring, Lost Things, is a good example of these ideas and themes converging.

SL: Tell us a little about this collection and how it began. Describe your writing process throughout the project.

SE: About half the stories in the collection were written while I was working on my MFA from Queens University of Charlotte. I didn’t have any plans for putting them into a collection at first. In fact, I wasn’t even going to use them as my thesis. I was just writing. Then I began to see a common thread of loss that was woven in each of these stories and a reappearing character type: a man who was deeply flawed, reticent, and who is often in or recovering from a guardian role or experience—a retired police officer, a war veteran, a family member acting as a caretaker. After I graduated from Queens in 2011, I continued working with that character type and wrote the remaining stories over much of 2012.

As for my writing process, I write very slowly, probably averaging just four or five hundred words a day. I don’t have the mindset of getting the words down on paper and then going back and fixing them later. Instead, I’ll write a sentence or a paragraph and then polish it until I feel that I can leave it. The idea of a first draft is foreign to me; it’s just a work in progress until I have made the story as tight and polished as I can.

SL: You’ve adapted one of your stories, Slip Kid, for the screen and it has won the Starz Denver Film Festival Screenwriting Competition. Congratulations! Tell us why you chose this particular story for adaptation.

SE: Deciding to write a short screenplay was nothing more than an experiment; I wanted to see if I could do it because I had never written one before. After two years of almost continuous short story writing for this collection, I was ready to try something different. Slip Kid seemed like a good choice for an adaptation. It’s the longest story in the collection, around ten thousand words, and is very episodic. Plus, The Who plays an important part in that story and I could see how their music could be threaded throughout the scenes, almost becoming like a character and not just a soundtrack.

SL: What kind of changes went into Slip Kid for screen?

SE: Most of the changes centered on taking the interior life of my main character and externalizing it through scenes and dialog. The short story is written in the first person and my main character is constantly making observations and sharing his thoughts with the reader. His voice in the story is very strong and it was a challenge trying to convey that in a screenplay.

SL: What is your mind set or process as you sit down to write short story versus screenplay?

SE: The mindset is the same: write a good story. It sounds basic but that’s really what guides me. The difference is in the execution. I include a great amount of sensory detail in my short stories. I want to make the reader see and hear and smell what my characters are seeing and hearing and smelling so I tend to be very descriptive. In a short story, I may take a paragraph to describe the lights and ornaments on a Christmas tree. In a screenplay, you have to use as few words as possible. So, that detailed Christmas tree paragraph in my short story gets reduced to two words in a screenplay: Christmas tree. That’s very difficult for me. I have to constantly remind myself to be spare and to continually cut all that extra description from the screenplay.

SL: How do you balance writing with work and family?

SE: Well, that’s the hard part, and I don’t know if I really have it worked out. When I’m home, I do most of my writing in the morning before the kids get up so my writing doesn’t cut into time with them. But I also travel for work and I’m on the road two or three days every week. I spend a great deal of time writing on planes and in airports and hotel rooms. So, like every other writer, I try to carve out writing time whenever and wherever I can, whether it’s at thirty thousand feet or at the end of The Marriott bar.

SL: What projects do you have in the works?

SE: I’m writing three interconnected novellas about a Buffalo, NY bank robber who was at the top of The FBI most wanted list in the early 1960’s. J.Edgar Hoover called him the most cunning fugitive in the country at the time. When I completed the first novella, The Human Element, I realized that it could also be adapted as a screenplay. It has a bank robbery, a car chase, a gun fight – good stuff for the movies. So, instead of starting the second novella right away, I wrote a feature-length screenplay based on The Human Element. I’m polishing that now and hope to start sending queries later this month. Then it’s back to work on the remaining two novellas.

SL: Any words of advice for writers on selecting writing contests?

SE: Be selective. Enter established contests that you’d be proud to win and that are known and respected in the industry. Look to see not only who is judging your contest but also check the list of past judges. David Morrell, Alan Cheuse, Robert Olen Butler, Chris Offutt—SFWP’s list of judges is impressive and it’s that caliber of writer you want evaluating your manuscript. Once you target which contest you want to enter, send them your best work and see what happens.

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