by Jane Ledwell
With the new year 2016 looming, the accomplished Island writer J.J. Steinfeld muses, “If someone gave me a million dollars not to write for a year, I couldn’t in good conscience take it.” In 35 years on PEI, J. J. has published two novels, eleven short story collections, and three poetry collections. More than 40 of his one-act plays and full-length plays have seen the stage. His deftly literary catalogue is touched by his self-described “askew sense of humour and sense of the absurd” and is written under the long shadow of the Holocaust.
“This is a wonderful place to write but a hard place to be a writer,” J.J. admits with his quick, dark humour. One story in his newest collection of short stories, Madhouses in Heaven, Castles in Hell, he calls the “ultimate deconstruction of Anne of Green Gables… When you live here and try to make a life as a writer, L.M. Montgomery hovers, almost as a dark ghost,” He says. “I’ve now spent more of my writing life on PEI than either L.M. Montgomery or Milton Acorn and am still begrudgingly called an ‘Island writer’ because I was not born here.”
He says, “When I moved to PEI, in Charlottetown there were two hospitals, one Catholic and one Protestant.” As an arrivant urban Jew, he gazed wonderingly at new neighbours “who would know what hospital to go to.” He is the admiring and loving partner of dyed-in-the-wool Islander and artist Brenda Whiteway, whose work consistently explores local and rural themes, traditions, and materials. Fascination at belonging and existential certainties sits next door to J.J.’s existential angst. He asks, “What better place to write these existential thoughts than in a place that doesn’t think them?”
J.J. admits, “I’ve felt always like a little outsider, which is good for a creative person, I think. I’m attached to the idea of a literary outsider.”
To J.J. Steinfeld, writing is the desperate existential work of the imagination. An ill-prepared morning-show host who had skimmed his collection Forms of Captivity and Escape once asked, “Why write about someone who hanged himself?” and J.J. responded, “So I don’t have to do it.”
In an irony he appreciates, the writer’s imagination becomes subject to an outside imaginary that is unknowable. “Once you’re done writing, the story is reanimated by the reader – when you read it, it becomes your story. The writer needs readers or viewers or listeners.”
Most of J.J.’s readership is elsewhere, but living on such a small Island, there’s a lot of elsewhere. More than 300 of his stories and 700 of his poems have been published across Canada and in 18 countries, and a collection of essays on his writing is in the works from Guernica Press.
“All my writing is storytelling—even my poems,” he says. “I write stories and eventually put something together—something eclectic, to the consternation of publishers, who like a theme or an arc. This new book (Madhouses in Heaven, Castles in Hell) covers the arc from the absurd to the existential.”
He says, “It’s really scary now… More and more early stuff is being anthologized, and I read it and wonder, can I write that well anymore?” Shrugging, he says, “I’ve become what I always believed I was, as a construct—the angst-ridden, absurdist writer.”
In a conversation that digresses often to quotations and reflections on Isaac Bashevis Singer, Beckett, Camus, Kafka, Leonard Cohen, and Milton Acorn, J.J. says, “I get scared if I’m really working on something that if I read, sometimes my subconscious will absorb it. But it’s so important to read. You’re everything that came before you… even if there are different lineages.
“When I was young I hated to be compared to anyone. An early review asked, ‘Are we producing another Kafka on PEI?’, and I hated that.” Now I love it.”
He says, “All I have to offer to younger writers is experience. There’s no correct path.” Later, J.J. adds, “Everything I write is a footprint.” With diminishing local outlets for publishing, he feels some uncertainty of the prints he leaves on Island soil. He senses the Island is uncertain back. Out of uncertainty comes a distinctive and lasting mark.