Steve Yarbrough: Can’t stop telling

Novelist and teacher Steve Yarbrough brings a compulsion for words to the page and the classroom.
By Hillary Casavant | Published: November 1, 2013


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Photography by Jacob Belcher

In his quiet Emerson College office overlooking the Boston Common, novelist Steve Yarbrough does not hesitate. He tilts his head toward the window, his smile thoughtful.

“I think most of the people walking around out there, they know they couldn’t be concert pianists,” he says, his Mississippi accent warm and lilting. “They probably know they can’t paint a great picture. But almost every one of them can write a sentence. I think it’s an inherent part of being an American that we all believe we have our own story. And truly, we do all have our own stories. But I’m not convinced that everybody can write it, or that everybody should die trying.” He leans back in his chair, resting his elbows on the armrests. “I think you should die trying to write it if you know you can’t live without it.”

From the young dreamer who grew up in the rural South to an esteemed novelist and professor, Yarbrough built his life around words, never faltering in his ambition. He has published six novels and dozens of short stories, received numerous honors and been a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award in 2005. Working as a professor for nearly 30 years, he now serves as the director of the MFA program in creative writing at Emerson. His most recent book The Realm of Last Chances earned high acclaim from both readers and critics.

Yarbrough’s journey to novelist has been riddled with its share of disappointments. It took four years and 43 rejections before his first novel, Oxygen Man, was published. The idea of giving up never crossed his mind.

“There’s something about failure that brings me greater focus,” he says.

With quiet determination and an equal measure of talent, Yarbrough has dedicated his life to the realm of writing.

The character of place

Yarbrough is perhaps best known for his mastery of setting and the vibrant Southern culture he captures in his work. Through observation and absorption, Yarbrough texturizes plot with precise cultural atmospheres. Jill McCorkle, a novelist and professor who taught with Yarbrough at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, praises Yarbrough’s “uncanny ability to go to a new place and grasp the land and the language and the people in a remarkable way.”

In a notable departure from his previous work, Yarbrough set The Realm of Last Chances in Massachusetts. The story follows a middle-aged couple, Kristin and Cal, who move across the country and experience the isolation of displacement. Along with their younger neighbor Matt, the characters explore the failed relationships of their pasts in one last attempt for redemption.

Yarbrough’s own cross-country move with his wife, literary translator Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough, sparked the inspiration for the novel. When he arrived in Massachusetts, Yarbrough was struck by the “deep rootedness” of his new community, a sharp contrast to the “transient culture” he had experienced in Fresno, Calif.

“I became fascinated by the place. I wanted to spend time with it. I think I was kind of a blank tablet that the place wrote itself on,” he says.

Yarbrough first saw the state when he visited the home of renowned short story writer Andre Dubus in 1983. During a conversation about outlining, Dubus gave Yarbrough advice that would transform his writing future.

“[Dubus] said, ‘If you chain yourself to an outline, how do you think your characters will surprise you?’” Yarbrough recalls. “I said, ‘But my characters don’t surprise me.’ And Andre looked at me and said, ‘Well, you better hope to figure out how to.’”

Yarbrough has eschewed outlines ever since, and unique, compelling character development remains a staple of his novels. Margot Livesey, a novelist and colleague at Emerson College, says Yarbrough’s gift for close observation allows him to render the lives of his characters fully on the page. “He makes you pay attention to the characters and feel that their lives really matter,” she says.

Yarbrough characters provide the emotional core for his stories.

“Plot and character, I see them as inextricably bound up,” he explains. “I sit down to start a novel without knowing very much. I need to know the place, and I need to know what sort of mood I want to create and I need an entry point into the characters.”

He began writing The Realm of Last Chances by exploring the psyches of Cal, Kristin and Matt. For Cal, an amateur musician, the connection was easy to establish.

“He’s in love with those instruments and he even feels like the instruments will tell him what to do once they’re in his hands,” Yarbrough says. “Whereas in the rest of his life, there’s nobody to tell him what to do or help him make decisions. I didn’t have to research that. I feel like that every day of my life.”

Yarbrough_0820-31Music is a driving force behind Yarbrough’s creativity. His vast guitar collection is rivaled only by his library. Two or three instruments often stand by his side while he writes, and he fuels his writing process by playing a song or two during breaks.

His musicality translates to the page as well. Livesey taught with Yarbrough at Sewanee, where she heard him play impromptu bluegrass with fellow writers. His sentences, she says, are reminiscent of his songs and “flow like his music.”

Entering the dream

While his writing style suggests an ease with words, Yarbrough often struggles to begin a new novel. It can take him up to a year to find the entry point into a book. The inspiration sparks with a needling thought, an idea “intruding” on his day.

“It’s like a dream,” he says. “You usually dream about things that are bothering you. You have to dig into the dream a little bit to figure out why you’re having it.”

Before beginning The Realm of Last Chances, Yarbrough was 80 pages deep into another novel. His wife, who has been his first reader since they met in 1984, peeked at the work in progress while he was out of the house.

“When I came back, she was standing in the living room,” Yarbrough explains. “And she said, ‘I read the novel. And listen, can we sit down?’ I said sure. And she said, ‘It’s really bad. It’s not gonna work. And I think you need to quit.’ And I said OK. She said, ‘Do you want to know why?’ And I said, ‘No. I know why.’ And I walked upstairs and wrote about the first page and a half of The Realm of Last Chances.”

His college experiences as a football player strengthened his ability to bounce back from failed writing projects.

“I was never a better player than when I had my back to the goal line,” he says. “That sense of desperation is something that I probably thrive on.”

Once he begins a new novel, Yarbrough maintains a methodical daily routine. Each morning after reading The Boston Globe, he sits in his study and spends the next 30 to 40 minutes working on new material, usually writing a page a day. He prints the page, then edits and reprints until every last word and punctuation mark is in place. By the end of the morning, he’s surrounded by wadded up balls of paper.

It typically takes two years to complete a novel with this meticulous process, but by the end of the book, only minimal fine-tuning remains to be done.

The one exception to this process was when he served as a writer-in-residence at the University of Mississippi, living across the street from William Faulkner’s home. The proximity to history no doubt bolstered Yarbrough’s work: He nearly completed a novel in three months.

“That’s never happened to me another time, and I don’t want it to,” he says. “I don’t have the sense that I’m in a race anymore. I’ve written a fair number of books, and I’m a lot more interested in making sure that I have everything down exactly as I want it.”

As a young undergrad “racing” toward publication, Yarbrough attended the University of Mississippi determined to become a writer.

“When I was young, almost everybody I respected would tell me, ‘Don’t try to be a writer. Writers are not people like you from a farm in Mississippi,’” Yarbrough says. “But I didn’t want to be 56 and wake up in the morning and have to look in the mirror and think there’s something I was dying to get and I never tried to find out if I had it or not.”

Yarbrough_0820-7The realm of MFAs

Having realized his own literary aspirations, Yarbrough now brings his experience to the classroom. The professor has seen countless MFA students fail and flourish in the competitive writing world. Despite the growing number of MFA students in recent years, each class presents him with “at least one absolute gem,” he says.

Yarbrough remembers a student named David Borofka in his Fresno class several years ago. The student wrote a story called “Tabloid News,” which the class subsequently “tore to pieces.” When it was Yarbrough’s turn to comment, he suggested that Borofka correct a typo and send it out to a journal the next morning. The story was accepted two weeks later and became part of Borofka’s award-winning collection of short stories, Hints of His Mortality.

“From that moment on, I’ve gone to every class thinking, ‘I may be about to see something extraordinary,’” Yarbrough says. “And I’m probably going to be the first person to recognize that it was extraordinary. That’s a pretty heavy charge. I try to stay on my toes because I know it’s out there.”

McCorkle, who taught with Yarbrough in the past, praises his ability “to go right to the heart of the student’s work” with generous, respectful and honest criticism.

“Everything he says [is] something you want to hold on and pay attention to,” she adds.

Yarbrough believes MFA programs are valuable opportunities for students to dedicate time to their writing and connect with other talented, committed individuals. In his own classes, Yarbrough teaches students to recognize good fiction through personal standards and judgments rather than popular opinion. He also encourages students to push beyond the cliché of “write what you know” and “tap into the core of the character,” regardless of culture or background differences.

He is a teacher who takes his own advice. In 2001, Yarbrough published Visible Spirits, a novel in which one of the main characters is an African American postmistress living in the early 1900s. Despite discouragement from some of his peers, he tackled the perspective challenge head-on. Throughout his career, Yarbrough has never shied from pushing boundaries and breaking conventions.

“When somebody says you can’t do something in writing, you’re almost morally obligated to see if you can,” he says.

Perhaps the most important lesson Yarbrough teaches his students is a love of reading. In The Realm of Last Chances, Kristin experiences an emotional shift in her life after reading a novel recommended by Matt. Similarly, books and stories have had a profound impact on Yarbrough. When Livesey first met her colleague, she was struck by how he was “so much in love with reading in every way.”

Yarbrough shares his encyclopedic knowledge of books with his students, encouraging them to read widely. He believes a large bookshelf helps writers develop their unique voices.

“We all learn through imitation,” he says. “And the more sources you’re drawing from, I think the more likely you are to come up with something that’s not quite like anything else. I think ultimately, there are only so many stories to tell, but there are any number of different voices.”

Stories drive Yarbrough’s life, and his experiences become fodder for future writing. For the Southern storyteller, words are a compulsion.

“I write because I need to tell stories,” he says. “The ones that I can’t stop myself from telling.”

Hillary Casavant is a writer in the Boston area and editorial assistant for The Writer and other publications.

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On the shelf

As much a reader as a writer, Steve Yarbrough has collected and cherished more than 4,000 books in his Massachusetts home. Students – and visitors – rarely leave his Emerson office without a new reading recommendation. “I really think books are the best teachers,” he says. Yarbrough dug through his expansive library for 10 novels and short story collections that have had an impact on his life and work.

  • All the Days and Nights by William Maxwell
  • At Weddings and Wakes by Alice McDermott
  • The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenman by Andrzej Szczypiorski
  • Berlin Alexanderplatz: The Story of Franz Biberkopf by Alfred Doblin
  • Embers by Sándor Márai
  • Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
  • Light Years by James Salter
  • Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
  • Separate Flights by Andre Dubus
  • Serena by Ron Rash

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978-0-385-34950-5An excerpt from The Realm of Last Chances

They were both fifty when they moved to Massachusetts, settling in a small town a few miles north of Boston. Like a lot of people around the country over the last few years, they’d recently experienced a run of bad luck.

Due to the state budget crisis, she’d lost her job as vice president for academic personnel at a large University of California campus in the Sacramento Valley. The year before her layoff, everyone, even the football coaches, had been subjected to mandatory furloughs, and things had turned ugly as the union blamed the shortfall on “managerial bloat.” She’d had a hand in denying tenure to a number of professors, and many faculty members rejoiced when the administration was reorganized and she received her pink slip.

His business was construction. He was the man you engaged if you needed to have something small and delicate done and could pay for fine work. You had to accept certain things about him, though. He’d come and go on his own terms, and he would bring a small Bose along and listen to music throughout the day. He wouldn’t have much to say. The fact that he was working for you didn’t necessarily mean he’d return every phone call. People who’d put up with such idiosyncrasies when the economy was healthy proved a lot less understanding after the downturn. By the time they left the valley, he hadn’t had a job for close to six months.

Her friends had always considered them an odd pair. He was from someplace down around Bakersfield, a tall, angular man who’d attended college only a semester before dropping out. His great passion was stringed instruments, and he could play the guitar, mandolin, banjo and Dobro well enough to earn money doing it if he’d chosen to, but the only audience he ever performed for was the other amateur musicians and assorted hangers-on who gathered at a crossroads grocery outside Sacramento on Friday nights. That was where they’d met, when she went there with a friend a year or so after the demise of her first marriage.
Of medium height, trim and fit, she’d earned a Ph.D. in comp lit and published a handful of articles on writers like Kafka, Broch and Svevo before moving into administration. With a laugh, she sometimes referred to her days in the class- room as “my previous life.” She didn’t think she’d been a very good teacher, perhaps because she had trouble reaching out to those she taught, who were often first-generation college students from migrant families. She loved cooking and sometimes wondered if she’d missed her calling and should’ve owned a restaurant.

Excerpted by permission of Knopf from The Realm of Last Chances. Copyright © 2013 by Steve Yarbrough.