Steven Church Probes What Lies Beneath The Surface
“When essays are good, when they go beyond the mere dressing up of one’s life in the garments of literary fiction, they offer their readers an opportunity to engage directly with another human consciousness.” – Bayard Godsave, The Collaspar
Those words were inspired by Steven Church’s essays exploring identity, family, fatherhood, fear and loss in his book “Ultrasonic.” While many essays center on his daughter and fatherhood, he also digs deeply into his grief over his brother’s death. He weaves in diverse thoughts such as trapped miners, racquetball, Elvis and violence, and ties it all together with his thematic metaphor of sound.
“I love all my books, but that may be my favorite book,” he said, “because it has these pieces in it that are kind of unlike a lot of my other stuff. They might be my favorite things that I’ve ever written.”
Which is saying a lot. Church has five published books and a sixth due out this spring. His essays have appeared in dozens of publications.
Growing up in Lawrence, Kan., Church liked to write stories, but after high school, he attended the University of Kansas in Lawrence, where he received his degree in philosophy and thought that he would pursue a PhD.
Instead, with a degree in a subject that rarely leads directly to a job, he spent three years painting houses, working as a maintenance man, and guiding tours at Arizona’s Meteor Crater and a gold mine in Colorado.
While doing these jobs, he harkened back to his undergraduate days when he had enjoyed creative writing classes and decided to pursue his master of fine arts (MFA) in fiction at Colorado State University. He imagined that he would be writing minimalist short stories in the tradition of Hemingway and Carver.
“I wasn’t that great at fiction,” he said. “I was more interested in ideas. Which I think goes back to my background in philosophy.”
He published his first essay while in grad school.
“That one little publication really unlocked a bunch of doors for me,” he said.
While teaching at a small college in Rhode Island in 2005, his first book, “The Guinness Book of Me: A Memoir of Record” was published by Simon & Schuster. Following publication, he was offered a job teaching creative nonfiction in the MFA program at Fresno State, arriving in 2006. This led to his current position as the coordinator of the residential program.
He also teaches classes for Sierra Nevada College, near Lake Tahoe, through the low-residency program, which means that the students do most of their lessons via electronic communication.
Church is the founding editor of Fresno State’s literary magazine, “The Normal School,” which is a national publication accepting submissions from across the country. It is part of the curriculum and students work in all aspects of publication.
About three dozen of the stories, poems and essays published in the magazine since 2010 have been named as some of the best in the country by the “Best American” anthologies. Several former students are employed at well-known publications such as “The Paris Review.”
And, of course, Church continues publishing his own essays in diverse publications. One of his most recent entries was in March Shredness, an annual literary tournament of hair metal songs. He wrote an essay in support of Dokken competing against essays supporting groups like Europe the Band.
“I used to be much more of a Luddite and much more only about print,” he said. “And I’m still very much invested in print publications, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised at what online magazines have been able to do. There’s some really great ones out there.”
“Electric Literature” is one of these he names. His essay, “Stuck in the Middle with You: On Reservoir Dogs and the Soundtrack to Savagery,” appears in the March 13, 2017, issue.
His essays have also appeared in Fourth Genre, The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, Brevity and many others.
The most recent anthologies that include his work are “After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essays,” “Making Essays” and “Oh, Baby.”
Church’s “The Guinness Book of Me” started with a chapter from his thesis about the “Guinness Book of World Records.”
“As a kid, I loved those books,” he said. “I always liked interesting facts, the characters in there. I kind of obsessed over them.”
After getting his MFA, he started writing for fun about the oddities in the Guinness books and imagining lives being devoted to seeking strange records. This morphed into his own life in Kansas as a sickly child who suddenly grew to be quite big and his own feelings of freakishness. Yet at the heart of the book is the loss of his brother, who died in a car accident at age 18, and how this affected him and changed his family.
The book changed his life by opening the doors that allowed him to come to Fresno State, which then led to the success of his subsequent books.
“Theoretical Killings: Essays & Accidents” is his second book. This is a collection of short essays and fiction questioning everything from serial killers to jumbo toys.
“The Day After the Day After: My Atomic Angst” stems from the fact that the 1983 movie, “The Day After,” took place and was filmed in his hometown of Lawrence. He and his friends were extras in the film, so it is no wonder that it made an impression on him. The story revolves around an all-out nuclear war between the U.S. and Soviet Union, as seen by residents of Kansas and Missouri.
“I was terrified of war,” he said. “Quite obsessed with the idea of survival and mutation, and they brought the nuclear war to my hometown. It was pretty weird as a kid to go through that.”
On top of that, a tornado destroyed his father’s hometown in western Kansas.
Church’s book explores these apocalyptic fears and the influence of the Cold War on his generation.
“Ultrasonic” explores how sound can be used to search for deeper meaning beneath everyday life. The first essay, “Ascultation” (listening to the heart), was a 2011 Best American Essay. Even something as mundane as a “No Loitering” sign gets Church considering how we treat marginalized people.
“One With the Tiger: Sublime and Violent Encounters between Humans and Animals” uses these stories to delve into the need of humans to engage with wildness while in search of what it means to be human.
His latest book, due out in early May, is “I’m Just Getting to the Disturbing Part: On Work, Fear and Fatherhood.” In it, he shares stories and interesting experiences that he had at his jobs such as the tour guides. He writes about becoming a father to his son in the early 2000s and his fears small and large. And, once again, his brother’s death is a topic that always surfaces in his writing.
Church continues to embark on new ventures. “The Normal School” is progressing into book publication. Students will select manuscripts, edit, market and promote the series.
“The Normal School” also has a Creative Nonfiction Workshop and Publishing Institute as part of the Summer Arts Program at Fresno State. Registration deadline is May 14.