Deborah Steinberg on Embracing the Beautiful and Dark Possibilities for Our Species

Deborah Steinberg on Embracing the Beautiful and Dark Possibilities for Our Species

An interview with Deborah Steinberg, from The Write Stuff series:

Deborah Steinberg writes speculative fiction that often deals with issues of social control, gender, health, and identity in surreal and fantastic ways. She works as a freelance editor and teaches writing workshops with a focus on healing. Deborah is also a founding editor of Red Bridge Press and the fiction editor of the press’s online journal, Rivet: the Journal of Writing That Risks. In her free time, she serves on the board of the literary reading series Bay Area Generations and sings in the vocal ensemble Conspiracy of Venus. Links to her published writing can be found at

When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?

I say, “I’m a writer and editor,” and let them follow up with whatever questions they have—usually regarding what type of things I write, what type of things I edit, and whether I make money from these activities.

What’s your biggest struggle—work or otherwise?

I’ve had rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disorder, since I was a child. The challenge with a chronic condition like RA is that it’s very up and down; I never know how I’ll be feeling from one day to the next. So living with RA means living not only with joint pain, stiffness, and loss of mobility, but also with fluctuating energy levels and the stress of not knowing how I’ll feel tomorrow. I’m excited about life in general; I always want to get involved in cool new projects, and I want to attend more readings, concerts, and cultural events than I possibly can (which is probably a general Bay Area problem!). But I have to be careful not to get too tired, or the RA will flare up. Sometimes, just physically getting through the day and managing my health takes most of my energy and effort, which is discouraging when you need to earn a living and have aspirations to, say, write a book. Living with RA definitely presents my biggest ongoing struggle—though it has taught me, perhaps, how to deal with the ups and downs of being a writer.

If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?

Make it your life’s goal to figure out how to spend as much time as possible doing things you want to be doing.

Do you consider yourself successful? Why?

Well, there are certain quantifiable measures of “success” which I have not yet achieved, such as getting my novel published, winning a prize, or getting a fantastic teaching post. But I get to earn a living helping other people make their books the best they can be. I get to spend some of my time writing, revising, and submitting my own work, and some of it gets published. I get to read my work at readings, and be part of the inspiring Bay Area literary community. And I get to sing and perform with the amazing women of Conspiracy of Venus (our first album came out in February!)… in other words, I get to spend a good part of each day doing things I love. I don’t know if everyone would define that as “success,” but I’ll certainly take it!

When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?

Describe your week in the wilderness. It doesn’t have to be ideal.

Oh, my. Anyone who knows me is probably laughing at the mere suggestion. I arrive unprepared. Promptly step on a hornet’s nest and get bitten a bunch of times. Attempt to ease the swelling from the bites in the river, which causes me to get either hypothermia or leeches. It goes without saying that I twist an ankle and/or injure a knee within the first few minutes. Bears eat all my food at night because, in spite of my best efforts to tie it up in a tree, I don’t do it well enough. My bottle of bourbon, sole source of solace, breaks on a rock when I accidentally drop it. I get badly sunburned. I’m not sure if my water filtration system actually works so I spend the entire time stressed about the fact that I probably have giardia. I get poison oak all over my body. A tick jumps off a cute deer, bites me, and infects me with Lyme Disease. As a pack of coyotes circles my wretched form, intending to devour me, I am saved by the sudden appearance of a spacecraft bearing a highly evolved alien species that has mysteriously chosen me as their first contact on Earth, making it all worthwhile. I’ll laugh about the whole ordeal with the aliens while sipping a galactic manhattan and watching our planet from orbit.

What’s wrong with society today?

We are focused on individual gain rather than collective well being, and we still think violence is a viable way of solving problems. These pervasive attitudes make it difficult to address the gross inequality and injustice in our society—not to mention the fact that we are destroying the environment that sustains human life.

What is your fondest memory?

I spent most of my 20’s living in Bordeaux, France. I taught English, earned a master’s degree, produced a literary ’zine, sang in bands, traveled, and met all sorts of interesting people from all over the world. For part of that time, I lived in a building that was built in the 16th century and had a skeleton buried in the basement floor! Those years felt magical and, at the same time, intensely real; I was there for most of the Bush years, and as the first American many people I interacted with had met, I had conversations about politics, society, religion, and war that felt vital—like I was doing my own tiny part to build bridges in a world intent on blowing them up. Living for that long in a foreign language and culture opened my mind and expanded my perspective in lasting ways. There’s no one particular memory that stands out, but that entire time in France remains very dear to me.

What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?

I want to see humans make contact with alien life!

What is art? Is it necessary? Why?

Art is the best means we have currently for swapping bodies, identities, thoughts, and emotions; for experiencing the world as someone else while also staying yourself.

What are you working on right now?

I’m trying to find an agent for my speculative fiction novel, Splitting the Wind. I’m writing a new series of sci-fi stories about a species whose unique biology and relationship to the land shape their culture and personal relationships in ways very different to ours. I’m also writing other short stories and poetry, experimenting with different styles and forms, letting loose a bit after finishing my novel.

What kind of work would you like to do? Or: what kind of writing do you most admire?

I love prose that is written like poetry, in which every word and punctuation mark is there for a reason, in which there is nothing extraneous. I love writing that dares to imagine realities beyond the scope of our own contemporary experience; writing that explores what our bodies could do/become, what our minds could do/become, what our cultures could do/become… even if the vision is grim. I admire writing that embraces both the beautiful and the dark possibilities for our species, our planet, our universe, our imaginations.

If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?

I would close the enormous gap between salaries in the tech sector and salaries in every other sector.

If you got an all expenses paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?

A trip around the world, staying with host families and learning languages in many different countries.

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Photo by Pobby Heglar