Stephen Eoannou: On Rust Belt Influences

Stephen Eoannou. Photo courtesy of author

Stephen Eoannou won the fiction award in the 2013 Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Award Program for his short story collection Muscle Cars, which has central themes of “loss, leaving, and of economic realities hitting home.” Growing up in Buffalo, NY, in the 1970s when factories started shutting down and people began moving away, Eoannou has experienced these Rust Belt themes firsthand.

Eoannou himself moved away from Buffalo in 1986 to attend Miami University, where he received a MA in English. He went on to teach at Ball State University until 1989 and the College of Charleston until 1992. While teaching at Charleston, Eoannou began writing the stories that would eventually be included in Muscle Cars. He also met author K.L. Cook, who would go on to win the SFWP Literary Awards Program in 2002. They struck up a friendship, and later he would hear from Cook about what a great experience it was to work with SFWP, so Eoannou knew he wanted to enter Muscle Cars in the same literary awards program. 

“My writing became more interesting when I started focusing on where I’m from and who came before me.”

Eoannou started working in software sales between teaching and moving back to Buffalo in 2001. He received his MFA from Queens University of Charlotte, NC, in 2011. SFWP published Muscle Cars in 2015, releasing the title globally with distribution via the Independent Publishers Group. Since the release, Eoannou has been working in the longer form, including a recently-completed novel called Rook, based on the life of Al Nussbaum, a bank robber from Buffalo with a middle-class upbringing and a loving wife. An avid chess player who loved to plan bank robberies and outsmart the police, Nussbaum was described by J. Edgar Hoover as the most cunning fugitive alive in the 1960s. Nussbaum even made the FBI Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list.

“How could I not write about a guy like that?” Eoannou says.

Eoannou is inspired by authors such as William Kennedy for the way he explores the meaning of place, and John Irving because of the way he makes you laugh before you realize how sad a situation is. Buffalo and the surrounding area also inspire him.  The city was once wealthy, but is now one of the poorest US cities. It is also becoming a diverse city, with a recent influx of Middle Eastern and North African immigrants. The changing face of Buffalo, and its rich history as part of the Underground Railroad, as well as Prohibition-era bootlegging, makes for a dynamic environment for a literary mind. “Add all this to two hundred years’ worth of lives lived and lost and you have fertile ground for a writer to till.” Eoannou says. “My writing became more interesting when I started focusing on where I’m from and who came before me.”

“[Writers should] choose an established contest that has been around for a while, one that will carry some weight if you win.”

But Eoannou is not a regional author. His stories resonate with many readers around the world giving us a portrait of Buffalo in the same way James Joyce gave us Dublin. Eoannou advises aspiring writers to be careful with contests. “[Writers should] choose an established contest that has been around for a while, one that will carry some weight if you win.” A contest is only as good as its judges, he says. Readers, editors, and agents will take notice if an author has won a contest that is well-judged.  He advises authors to look at a contest’s judges, past and present.

“Even if I hadn’t heard of K.L Cook’s experience with the SFWP Awards, I would have submitted anyway based on the judge. Not only has the contest been around since 2000, but past judges have included Richard Currey, Chris Offutt, Jayne Anne Phillips, David Morrell, Robert Olen Butler, Emily St. John Mandel, and Benjamin Percy. Who wouldn’t want to be selected by them?”

As for general writing advice, Eoannou says to “Treat it like a job. Go to work every day. Show up on time. Do the best you can while you’re there. You don’t need to light candles or burn incense or have writing rituals. Just set your alarm, get up, and go to work. That’s how the muses know where to find you.”

—By Emily Teitsworth

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