J. J. Steinfeld talks about writing and his new book
by Michael Oliver
Sitting at Tim Hortons, as the flow of customers passed in and out around us, J.J. Steinfeld talked with me about his new collection of short stories Will You Hide Me? scheduled to be published May 22nd. This is Steinfeld's ninth collection of short stories, and the third one to be published by Gaspereau Press in Nova Scotia, justly famous for the quality of its designs. Besides his stories, Steinfeld is the author of one novel and of many stage plays.
Personally reticent, yet eager, once we started talking, to discuss his writing, Steinfeld placed his fictional imagination in the world of Kafka and of Becket-of The Metamorphosis and Waiting For Godot. Moreover, although Steinfeld did not mention him as being influential, Woody Allen comes to mind.
"A dialogue with God-but not religious" is the way that Steinfeld talks about his writing. Certainly his stories have what once was known as gravity: a serious consideration of the most important aspects of existence. Writing in the modernist tradition, Steinfeld shows us people who are striving to discover meaning in their lives. There is no doubt that many of his characters are "hunger artists," to use Kafka's famous phrase describing people who are longing for the nourishment their spirits cannot find. As Kafka puts it elsewhere, Heaven does exist, but we cannot get there. A lot of Steinfeld's characters, as he explains, "see damage in the world," and yet they keep on hoping, like the tramps in Waiting For Godot that meaning will appear, if only they are faithful.
Choice is central to the existential attitude, and Steinfeld's characters are often forced to choose what they should do in situations that are morally ambiguous. The title story "Will You Hide Me?" is about a middle-aged professor who remembers, as she drives along the highway, that her father, who once hid out in the forest from the Nazis (just as Steinfeld's father did), has told her that this question is the most important question anyone can ask. She sees a young man hitching rides and picks him up on impulse. He confesses he is running from the law, and in the end he asks her, "Will you hide me?"
Steinfeld came to PEI in 1980 and has lived here ever since, establishing a living as a writer. One thing that emerged from our talk is that he certainly appears, like many writers, to be dedicated to his work, despite whatever difficulties this may cause. "The horror of not writing," he declares, "is worse than the horror of writing." The fact that he calls writing a horror seems to indicate it represents his own attempt to make his life have meaning-in the end, to make, in his own words, "a body of work" that will survive his natural existence.
When we left Tim Hortons, spring had come to Charlottetown. The afternoon was sunny, yet I had the strong impression Steinfeld wanted to get home and keep on writing.