Interview With RS Deeren by Arnaldur Stefansson

Interview With RS Deeren by Arnaldur Stefansson

Welcome! So good to have you here. Could you please start by stating your name, your occupation, and something else interesting about yourself?

Yeah, well, I’m really excited to be here. My name is R.S Deeren, I’m the author of the story collection Enough to Lose, and I also teach Creative Writing at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee. Something interesting about me? Well, until about two weeks ago I was really about the Detroit Red Wings hockey team, but they’ve lost the last six games in a row, so I’m a little grumpy about that (laughs).

So, starting off kind of light: why did you become a writer? What chiefly inspires you?

To impress a girl– no, that’s the joke I always say: I always loved writing. I grew up in the woods, it was my mom, my dad, my sister and me. I always liked reading, but I’m a slow reader. I didn’t like reading assignments because they took too long, but I always told stories in my head. Growing up in the woods, I would always tell stories about the woods, and I would usually get myself afraid of the woods because they’re dark, and scary. Then– to date myself a little bit more– when MySpace came around I started posting poetry to MySpace and it was really bad, and really angsty, cause I was a teenager. I had just started high school, and, you know, there’s always gonna be a hobby. Then college came around and I didn’t know anything about literary magazines, I didn’t know anything about the publishing world. I was very lucky that my undergrad had a literary magazine, and the joke was that I ended up dating the editor-in-chief, and then kind of got enmeshed in the writing world there. I was still on track to be a teacher, but writing became more of a reality for me. Not to pay the bills– I grew up a working-class kid, I never saw that art could pay the bills– I still wanted to teach, but I had been a substitute teacher for a while and I didn’t really like it, I didn’t like the feel of walking into a high-school anymore, so I continued on and earned my P.hd to teach at the university level.

Great, thank you. So, I do want to talk a little bit about your writing: about your process as a writer and what you’re drawn to as a writer.


So, it’s been mentioned– and you can glean from Enough to Lose– that you grew up in Michigan’s “Thumb”, a very rural area, and, I do want to ask if you ever write stories that take place outside that comfort zone?

Funny, I just told Dr. Hurni about this story, the first story– that I had written back when I was in undergrad– that really dealt with class issues. So I guess the first part of my answer is that I’m very interested in class issues; I’m interested in writing the working class– particularly rural midwestern working class. I think it’s vastly interesting and complex, contradictory, beautiful, and it’s worth writing about. I’ve written a story– I can’t remember what it’s called, It’s dead somewhere, on some lost hard drive. It’s about this guy from Detroit– my family’s all from Detroit, so I felt like I could write about somebody from Detroit– and then I had them move to a rural place in Montana that I’ve never been to. I picked a random town on the map and wrote about this guy becoming the owner of a tree farm, and trying to work.

I remember making that choice because nobody wants to hear about poor people from Michigan’s thumb, they just don’t. I don’t know why I got that idea in my head, but then after that I wrote a story about a boy going hunting with his abusive father. That story was very much set, in my mind, in the woods that I grew up in. It said nothing about the Thumb, it said nothing about Caro, my hometown, it said nothing about Michigan– but that’s where I started finding my voice. I was just thinking: “I just need to write”.

I had come across, in college, the writing of Bonnie Jo Campbell, who is a working class writer from South-West Michigan. She was writing about a lot of the same people that I was writing about, that I wanted to write about. Western Michigan is vastly different from Eastern Michigan, and I thought: “Well, if she’s writing about western Michigan, nobody is really writing about the Thumb, that’s my niche”, which, of course, you have to think about that: where can you get your foot in the door in the industry. There’s so many working-class writers, it’s beautiful, it’s wonderful, they need to get read more, but nobody’s writing about the Thumb, so I was like: “yeah, that’s my ‘in’ for the market” (laughs).

So would you say that you’re more drawn to this niche, in general, out of necessity? I guess a follow-up point to that question would be: your experience in regards to your environment growing up, does that affect all of your writing, even that which doesn’t take place in the Thumb?

I would say yes, but there were also other factors. I had graduated high school into the Great Recession, and I had graduated college into the fallout of the Great Recession. I was mowing the lawns of bank repossessions, which is where the title story of Enough to Lose came from. Whilst I was writing– I was living in attics, in the Thumb, couch-surfing, and then finally living with my sister. I was writing really bad fiction, it was not good, it didn’t have distance. It wasn’t really until I moved away, and lived in Chicago for almost four years, and had people who had never really left the Chicagoland area that really helped me see these rural spaces the way people outside of those same rural spaces see them, which I think allowed me to write them better. So yeah, definitely being from there is a great foundation, but not being there anymore is also good.

So you also need the outside perspective?


I want to talk about Enough to Lose a little bit– the collection as a whole.


So, the recurring cast of characters and names, and this extremely localized version of your hometown– Caro, Michigan– that seems to evolve over time– over a few decades: Why did you decide to focus on these reoccurring elements?

So, the first idea of this book was gonna follow a group of boys. The first story was gonna follow them breaking into what they thought was an abandoned house when they were teenagers, and then it was gonna follow the paths of their lives. The story– the book obviously did not become that, that story doesn’t exist in the collection, so that’s somewhere on the backburner– I’ll go back to that eventually. But that ended up being the first draft of the book. There were hardly any connections. It was all very much: “these are all individual stories that exist in this one space” and it would be up to the reader to make connections that it’s the same space with different people of different opinions, coloring it in different ways.

It just felt like, well, it had folks saying: “it reads more like dispatches than stories”. And it was my agent and editor that helped me look at– and look for– connections. One of the stories is “The Run”, there’s so many background characters in it, and it hit me, I was like: “oh, that character is one of the hunters from “Her, Guts and All””. So, I had named that character somebody else, but then I thought: “it doesn’t need to be somebody else, it can be that same character”. Tim, who’s the narrator in “Enough to Lose”, I needed somebody, a background character, who had a lot of money to buy a car in “Too Close, Too Loud”, and I thought to myself: “oh, that can be Tim”. Which, I don’t need to tell another “Tim” story, I just need to show Tim having made it. He’s got a teenage daughter, and they wanna build a car together, and readers will know: “oh, he made it, he made it work”.

You know, the joy of the short story is what’s left unsaid, so I don’t need to say that he made it, I just need to show he’s got money, and he did right. So I found a lot of joy in that, and while I was working on it, I was telling my partner at the time: “oh, this feels like fan service”, I love when TV shows do callbacks to characters, so it felt like a lot of fun. It was just a joy, and so the final piece was what got published.

What I took from these recurring elements– I might be way off here– but I took away a bit of a, like, cyclical structure out of it. I don’t wanna use the word “sisyphean” but, kind of (laughs)


The surroundings partly change, the people come and go, time flows and all that– years pass, but many of the people remain. And many of them remain stuck in their ways, unable to get out. Tim and Alice, by all accounts, they make it, but that’s not the case for everyone else. And you see a lot of people like the main character of “The Run”, his name escapes me.

Dick Finney

That’s it, you see him, years later [in “Too Close, Too Loud”] and he’s still down on his luck, he’s still just there. He hasn’t made anything of himself– he hasn’t been able to. That’s kind of my takeaway, but I might be entirely wrong.

I don’t think that reading is wrong, I haven’t heard that read yet, but it makes a lot of sense. Working class culture is it’s own culture, and it lives in a world that is dominated by a middle and upper class culture. Middle- and upper class cultures are always predicated on becoming: you will become something else, you will learn to identify and navigate power structures for your own benefit. It’s always the idea of climbing a social ladder– or climbing a corporate ladder in many ways. Working class culture is very much about: “how can I make with what I have where I’m at?”

In working class studies it’s called “The Roomier Sense of Now”. There’s good, and there’s also bad about that; like Dick Finney himself– not a great character, he comes back later, and he is not a great guy. I think class- and economic traumas impact people differently– I mean, traumas impact people differently in real life. Tim is traumatized in many ways; an eighteen year-old, seventeen year-old, has to give up a kid and he can’t let go of that. He’s spinning in his memories a lot, but he makes it work, somehow. Dick is traumatized by the actions of [his friend] Scott; he’s never able to leave, even though he has so many avenues to do so, and so, sometimes folks just can’t overcome that, and I wanted to capture that as well. Rural spaces can make really beautiful, loving people, and these spaces can also make monsters, so I wanted to capture that.

I think that’s realized very well.

Thank you! That’s kind of you.

Reading through it, I felt not happy, but like… it made sense when I saw these older versions of people– how they turned out. Even going back to the first story with the wife of the guy that was swept by in the flood. Her daughter coming back later, those connections, I really enjoy seeing them. It really did breathe life into the collection as a whole.

I appreciate it. Yeah, Delaney is that character. In an early draft of the first story of the short story collection [“The Mirror”], Jackie [the narrator] wasn’t pregnant at all. But when we think about short fiction– and any fiction– great advice that I got from my advisor, author Valerie Laeken, was: “How can you turn the temperature of the water up?” I always apply that to my stuff now. Always thinking about: “How can I make this potentially more tense? How can this go even worse for these characters?” So, natural disaster with a pregnant lady, there’s an extra potential life in there that,  and then, thirty years later, lets see what that fetus became.

So I wouldn’t exactly characterize any of the stories in Enough to Lose as uplifting– but I also wouldn’t call them explicitly pessimistic either. The stories are bleak, at times, that’s what I felt. So, would you say that bleak outlook is inherent in working-class fiction? Is it necessary for it to shine?

Are we conflating uplifting with happy?

Well, happy or optimistic insofar as there is some optimism– [the collection] isn’t devoid of optimism, but it’s not the undertone that you get.

I think it’s a disservice to the class warfare that goes on in western cultures to say that everything is hunky-dory. We always talk, like– you know, politicians don’t even mention the working class, they always talk about the middle class, the shrinking middle class. The end of that thought is… they’re shrinking into what? Poverty, and working class, why don’t they just say that? I have no idea why.

So, the realities are: ninety percent of this country is getting poorer every day. Neoliberal economic policy legally allows the rich to get richer, and we’re not, you know– corporations aren’t investing in research and development, which creates jobs, which creates good paying working-class jobs. That doesn’t happen, because they’re legally allowed to inflate their stock prices for short-term gain, which is just for, shareholders.

I do think that there is a bleakness for sure, but that we as individuals can make our spaces, and our communities as bright and as mutually beneficial as possible. That goes back to the idea of a “Roomier Sense of Now”. I can’t change government policy. Corporations are people. They can spend money and their vote matters more than mine. I can make my neighbors life better, or I can make my neighbors life worse, all depending on my power dynamic there. We get that with “Her, Guts and All”, this guy who has made it good– Rid– a rich farmland owner, he has the power to make people’s lives wonderful.

And he doesn’t

And he also says: “it’s on my terms”. And then McKinnon [the narrator], he has no control over that, but he has control over if he can feed his family or not, and he chooses to pull the trigger.

So, I guess there’s that element of Realism there, that element of not shying away from what the world really is. Working class literature is not meant to be escapism?

So, going back to McKinnon pulling that trigger; he has agency there, he has the ability to pull, or not pull, that trigger. And his mom, Sandra, has the ability to tell off Rid or not. Jamaica [the narrator] in “About the Lies” has so much power. She’s stuck, and she has these ideas of: “I could have been a college athlete, and I could have gotten out, but I’m here, and the choices I’ve made have led me here, and I have power here.” She controls her places, she has control of her apartment, she has control over her friendships, she has control over the bar. Pair that with this idea that she could have done something different had she not had that interaction with her coach, she could have been a golfer, and gotten out.

That notion came from the idea that I was raised in Caro with the assumption that I would leave Caro, that I would not stay. There’s no universities in Caro– there’s no universities for me to go to, or teach at– which is what I wanted to do– so of course I have to leave. But what about the people who stay? And just because you stay, it doesn’t mean you’re a loser, or lost– that you lost out on what I had; I just went to college, I just did a different path. The same thing as with people leaving to go to the military. They’re not better people because they don’t live in their hometown no more, they’re just different. I just wanted to say that, you know, people stay– they might have missed out on X, Y or Z– but they gained A, B and C.

So there is that uplifting element in the agency that’s given to those that accept their situation– though I don’t really want to phrase it like that, that feels pessimistic…

They understand the realities, and understand what they have power over, and understanding what you have power over, and being able to make yours and others’ lives better– with what little power you have– shows that you are extremely powerful.

Moving away from Enough to Lose for a bit. I would say that young people nowadays, we don’t read as much as we possibly should, but, at the same time, [this generation] reads a lot more than has been seen in other times… I don’t know, we have BookTok.

I was just gonna say, are you gonna bring up BookTok? (laughs)

Many people read, but they don’t seem to leave their comfort zone that easily. Many have their comfort zones rooted heavily in specific genre fiction. So, do you have any advice for people that want to read more literary fiction, but don’t know where to start?

I would say– definitely still read what you love reading. I read The Hobbit in third grade because it was thirty accelerated reader points and I wanted a gold medal so that I could have a pizza party at the end of the year. I read it, and I took the test, and I got my thirty points. We had young author days, and I wrote a story called The Dragon Slayer, it’s eighteen sentences long. And then I wrote a story called Dragons and Wizards or something like that, which is about a young boy who’s a wizard because, you know, I wrote that in third grade after I’d read The Hobbit.

Now that I’m teaching I see the joy that young writers have when they realize: “man, I have been reading, and loving high fantasy, speculative fiction, and I am just diving into it myself and it’s so good.” Genre fiction– this is an unfair and broad generalization, but– genre fiction has its traction in novels, and at the college level we only have so much time in the day to get stuff graded, which is kind of why we gravitate towards the short story, which is a completely different art form. So, I do assign a lot of, quote-unquote, Literary Fiction, but it’s usually realism. It’s usually very contemporary and it deals with class and race and gender issues that are pertinent today.

I think my advice is to continue reading what you love to read: genre, literary, speculative– I mean, BookTok is all SmutTok, that’s the joke on BookTok– continue reading that stuff. But also, definitely read short fiction; read how novels and short fiction are different. What are the expectations? What is left unsaid? And, of course, read outside of your body. So if you’re like me, a cis-het white guy, read queer Black women, read hispanic people, read translation, read everything. Also, read the newspaper, read the letters to the editor, which are like, quote-unquote, prehistoric Facebook comments– which, I guess referencing Facebook is kind of prehistoric too– read everything.

I read, you know, I have picked up the Waldorf Literary Review, I’m gonna read that on the airplane home. Read the comments, too, get into the comment sections, and it’s awful, and, you know, don’t drink coffee when you read comment sections online. Read everything, because it’ll exist in your brain somewhere, and then you’ll have those crazy characters that you can draw from.

So read more and read everything?

Read more, read everything!

Do you have any short fiction or other stuff that you really want people to read more? Like specific authors, or even specific stories?

This isn’t fiction at all, but everybody needs to read bell hooks. bell hooks, she died just a couple of years ago, which was too soon. She’s a black feminist theorist and pedagogist. She gives so much space to everyone, across race, gender and class. She’s from a working class, working poor family in rural Kentucky. Being a rural guy from a very isolated space moving to Chicago, to an arts school for my MFA, I’ve had a social puberty, but a lot of people just assumed a version of me, so I never felt like I was fully understood or fully seen until I started reading bell hooks. If our politicians and leaders were all bell hooks we’d live in a utopia.

Read your literary magazines, you’re gonna find unknowns. Read, obviously, you students will read the Waldorf Literary Review but, read every literary magazine because that’s where the unknowns become known. Yeah, I also definitely have to give a shoutout to Bonnie Jo Campbell, she’s got a new novel that came out in January, it’s called The Waters, it’s gonna go places. She’s a National Book Award finalist from her short story collection, American Salvage, so she’s great. I think she deals with bad women in a really unique way, so that’s great.

I feel like you could go on recommending forever

R: Oh yeah, I’m gonna stop now (laughs).

So, perhaps you would like to talk a little bit about your professional experience as a college professor: How do you manage to balance that with your writing endeavors?

This might be naive, because I’m still a junior faculty member, I’m still very new to the professor world. I’m a first-generation college student so it’s not like I have family members who could be like: “this is what academia is all about.” I have had classmates and colleagues who have come from that family background, and they definitely have started this a few steps ahead of me. But I always wanted to be a teacher, I loved the classroom, I loved the space, I love the moment when students buy in. When students who definitely felt like they didn’t belong suddenly feel like they do. I love that, I think it’s amazing.

Also, quite frankly, growing up poor, working-class, I needed a job. I never saw art as something I could make a living off, and also, the vast majority of artists and writers don’t. The idea of the “muse”, and these famous people– I’m looking at a statue right now of Mark Twain– that get to live as writers, they don’t exist, that’s not reality. It wasn’t reality then; for every Mark Twain there were ten thousand unknowns who worked at livery stables, or something like that.

Lot of people that tried to make it but didn’t.

R: Yeah, and I have contemporaries who have come from very comfortable backgrounds, and it affords them time to write. I was talking to Dr. Hurni coming from the airport, and I said to him that I never got into teaching thinking like– “oh man, all this teaching is getting in the way of my writing”. I got into teaching to teach, to pay my bills, to have healthcare, I live in this country. I have my summers to write, so when my students are writing in class, I’m writing along with them, I’m showing them that I’m not this guy lording over them. I’m not the supervisor at the factory, I’m a worker with them, because writing is work. So when they get their writing done I’m getting some writing done on the side. Come summertime, I got no responsibilities, I just have to wake up, make my coffee, get to work.

Do you have any keys for living a balanced and productive life in both of these spheres?

Yeah, you gotta pay your bills.

Pay your bills.

Pay your bills. You gotta feed yourself, and you need to not beat yourself up. If you don’t write for a week and you think about writing, and you’re thinking: “why did that person on the bus say that thing? Cause that would be a good line that a character might say,” that’s writing! Obviously give yourself time to write, you write once a week? You’re a writer! You’re reading, and taking notes in the margins of the book that you really love? You’re writing! Also make sure that you finish something. For me, I haven’t written a short story in a long time, I’ve been working on a novel for a long time, so I’m starting to write some poetry, and I realize that I love poetry too. Forgive yourself for not writing for a week or two, but make sure that after you forgive yourself that you get back to the writing.

Do you have any upcoming projects on the horizon that you’re willing and/or able to share with us?

My agent just gave me back notes on a novel. I haven’t even touched it, I’m teaching right now, I gotta pay my bills– I’ll take care of that during the summertime. I’m also working on a novel about a rural, hyper-religious family that has created a cult, and a church, and my protagonist is trying to get into the cult to get her brother out of the cult before their mother passes.

So we’ll be on the lookout for that.