Welcome to another installment of If My Book, the Monkeybicycle feature in which authors shed light on their recently released books by comparing them to weird things. This week Steven Wingate writes about his new novel, The Leave-Takers, out now from University of Nebraska Press.
If The Leave-Takers were a baggie of heroin I’d leave it for my dead brother the way Jacob, who is half of the novel’s husband/wife protagonist team, leaves one for his own dead brother. I’ve never experienced heroin, never been tempted because it destroyed my brother’s life and I knew it would destroy mine. I’d drop the baggie onto the kitchen table exactly the way Jacob would, with the same casual aplomb, to acknowledge the fact that Jacob is a part of me I’ve dropped into a petri dish so it can grow into its own imaginary being for me to study.
This is how I learn about myself through fiction. But fiction isn’t therapy, and I get mad when people treat it as therapy because it has never once solved a psycho-spiritual problem for me. It helps me toward realizations that reveal who I am in the same way that therapy does, but fiction offers no after to its relentless soul-digging. There’s no rising into a healthier new stasis, just more digging. Deeper into the mine of self, deeper into mine of what it means to be part of a place, a nation, a species.
If The Leave-Takers were my dead brother it would thank me for the free bag of heroin and shoot it up. As he was preparing to fix, we might have a conversation about how he and Daniel, the dead brother in my novel, are alike and un-alike. He’d understand that Daniel wasn’t an attempt to replicate him, but an attempt to explore the relationship he and I never really had because of heroin. Jacob and Daniel got to know each other as men; Michael and I did so only glancingly.
If The Leave-Takers were a bottle of pills I’d do exactly what Jacob does and stash it for future use. For when my metaphorical soul-digging shovel hits a nerve and I can’t handle looking at myself in the mirror. For when I feel like a dog left outside on a chain with no idea when its owner will come back.
If The Leave-Takers were a dog left outside on a chain I’d stop walking and catch its eye from across the street, wondering if it’s safe to approach. Wondering if it needs food, water, comfort. It would make me want to save its life it I had to. This is a different sensation than my first novel gave me—it would have snarled at the end of its chain when I came by, ready to bite me like it didn’t even know me.
I don’t want to write books like that anymore. I’ll never write books that are like cute puppies, because how can something so slight bear the weight of my soul-digging? But I don’t want readers to worry that my books are going to bite them and give them rabies. I want readers to step closer, look into their eyes, and see that they’re the kind of dogs you can take home and save. This is something I learned today. Something I didn’t know before I wrote these words, but can carry with me now.
Steven Wingate is the author of the novels The Leave-Takers (2021) and Of Fathers and Fire (2019), both part of the Flyover Fiction Series from the University of Nebraska Press. His short story collection Wifeshopping (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008), won the Bakeless Prize in Fiction from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. He is associate editor at Fiction Writers Review and associate professor at South Dakota State University. Visit www.stevenwingate.com, @stwingate on Twitter, or @stevenwingateauthor on Facebook.