Marissa Bell Toffoli

Interview With Writer Mick Stern

In art, books, fiction, poetry, short stories on July 21, 2012 at 1:07 pm

Mick Stern

Mick Stern. Photo by Lucy Kehati.

An introduction to writer and artist Mick Stern, whose most recent books include The Chicken’s Guide to Crossing the Road, Fifty Thousand, and Get Out of Town. Stern received a PhD in English Renaissance Literature from New York University (NYU). He has taught English at Rutgers (New Brunswick) and other colleges. For more than twenty years, he taught screenwriting at NYU’s film school. 

Quick Facts on Mick Stern

  • Stern online
  • Home: Manhattan, New York
  • Comfort food: Eating comfort food is a sign of despair, like watching TV all day in gym clothes.
  • Top five reads: It would be easier to list 50,000.
  • Current reads: Several things, as usual. L’enigme du retour by Dany Laferrière (poetic novel about Haiti). The Poetry of Survival (anthology of post WWII east European poets) , and Lord of the Flies by William Golding.

What are you working on at the moment?  

Three plays, a short story, and whatever poems may rise to the surface of my waking life.

When you’re having trouble getting started on a story, where do you look for inspiration? 

I always have trouble starting a story, trouble ending it, and trouble in between. And I deal with all my literary dilemmas by sitting down and writing whatever I can think of, in whatever words I can muster. After a while, I start to get involved and time passes behind my back.

Descartes said that when you’re lost in a forest, you don’t just sit there. You pick a direction and start walking.

Besides writing, you also draw cartoons and illustrations. How would you describe the relationship between text and image in your work?

My book Fifty Thousand (TheWriteDeal, 2012) consists of fifty faux Chinese fables that I wrote. To accompany them, I drew a dozen illustrations with a Chinese brush and black ink. But the illustrations were general, and did not refer to any fable in particular. As a rule, I don’t want illustrations next to my writing because an overly specific image tends to replace the reader’s own imagination.

“An overly specific image

tends to replace

the reader’s own imagination.”

When Melville wrote Moby-Dick, there were only five or six published drawings of whales available to the public. So whales were mysterious, unknown creatures for Melville’s first readers.

Graphic novels integrates drawing and writing together to make one whole experience. But a graphic novel is an insane amount of work.

What do you hope readers will take away from your stories?

More questions than answers. More laughter than tears. More awareness than less.

Whom do you picture as the ideal reader of your work?

A young woman who arrives in a strange city and doesn’t speak the language or understand the gestures. She is looking for her biological father, her geological father, her metaphysical father, and her mechanical mother. One night in a cheap hotel, she picks up one of my stories and finds all the fathers and mothers she needs, at least for a while.

Where and when do you prefer to write?

In a café in Amsterdam during the seventeenth century.

It’s been said writers can do their work from any place, where would you most want to live and write?

You imply that living and writing are two different things. Wherever I write becomes, for that time, the place where I live.

“Wherever I write becomes,

for that time, the place where I live.”

Do you listen to anything while you write?

New York city’s emergency vehicles.

Do you have a philosophy for why you write?

I write to express myself. If I can make my self-expression readable and interesting to some other people, then I feel a gratifying sense of approval. But if I only write for approval, then I have ceased to exist as a writer, maybe as an independent person.

What do you find most challenging about writing?

Finding the balance between feeling and thinking. 

Is there a quote about writing that motivates or inspires you?

This quote is not exactly inspiring, but it does help put everything into perspective. It comes from a work of fiction: A poet says, “Sir! I am a poet, and I trust of no small talent. ‘Why then,’ you will ask, ‘are you so poorly clad?’ Just because I am a genius; when did love of art ever make a man wealthy?”

The quote is from the Satyricon by Petronius, written in 62 AD. Every time I’m tempted to complain about the lack of rewards for literature, I remember this has been going on a long time. In fact, literature is always the messenger of bad news—bad news for the status quo, bad news for hypocrites and ideologues—and they don’t want to pay for that kind of message.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Change your attitude toward criticism of your work. Instead of dreading it, rejecting it, or getting hurt by it—benefit from it. A reader might have intelligent suggestions that can help you improve your work. (Nobody’s forcing you to take dumb suggestions.) If you think that becoming a better writer means making fewer and fewer mistakes, you misunderstand the whole creative process. You will always make plenty of mistakes, because writing something new is always a risky business.

 “Writing something new

is always a risky business.”

What’s the best advice you’ve been given as a writer?

A professor once told me, “Write a page a day. By the end of the year, you’ll have a book that’s 365 pages. And you’ll still have time to go to the movies.”

Is there a question you find surprising that people ask you about your work?

I am surprised when anybody is interested enough in my work to ask anything at all about it.

Is there something that you wish people would ask you about more often?

I wish they’d ask me where they can find more of my work.

When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?

Draw, stroll, eat, drink, paint, music, travel, talk, argue, beach, museum, sleep, movies, politics, theater, nature trails, street cafés, Naomi.

About Mick Stern

Mick Stern is the author of The Chicken’s Guide to Crossing the Road, Fifty Thousand and Get Out of Town, all of which are available from TheWriteDeal.

[Toffoli, Marissa B. “Interview With Writer Mick Stern.” Words With Writers (July 21, 2012),]

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