Interview with the Writer
Profile by Sean McQuaid
J.J. Steinfeld's world-weary eyes and gently friendly voice offset his occasional fidget or stammer as I scribble his words into my notepad. He remains skeptical of this interview business-like a jungle headhunter wary of a camera trapping his soul.
Steinfeld, of course, has nothing to be nervous about. He is one of Prince Edward Island's most prolific and critically acclaimed writers, with dozens of short stories, play scripts and literary awards under his belt, including recent prizes in the Theatre PEI New Voices drama awards.
J.J. agrees that press coverage can be good if it promotes "artists making a living," but he stresses that "the work should be presented before the person."
Steinfeld's work began at age 14, when he had a poem published in a community newspaper. He describes poetry as his most cathartic outlet, but feels he lacks the craftsmanship for it. He later tried his hand at writing novels, and eventually distilled fragments of those works into what became his specialty: short stories-as well as the occasional play.
"I've always felt impulsively that I was a writer," he reveals. "I loved words." It took a long time for him to recognize writing as a viable occupation, since his family didn't consider it a legitimate profession.
"I eventually realized that I had enough skills to make a living," he recalls, deciding "I'd rather be a failure as a writer than a success as anything else. That was always my ideal: to live the writer's life."
Steinfeld did consider an academic career, doing his Master's at Trent, but he realized that "once I finished a Ph.D., they'd have a hold on me." Unwilling to restrict himself to academic writing, Steinfeld abandoned his studies.
The writing life eventually led to P.E.I., where J. J. moved from Ottawa fifteen years ago. He was born to Polish Jewish parents in Germany, and Jewish culture has always permeated his work.
Steinfeld is also fascinated by P.E.I. culture. "This is the longest I've ever lived anywhere in my life," he marvels, though he is sometimes hurt by the notion that true Islanders are only those people born here. After fifteen years, he says, that attitude makes a person feel "invisible."
Paradoxically, J.J. also feels the Island's small-town character can make a writer too visible; for instance, you can't inconspicuously take notes of conversation and events in a local bar since someone is bound to know who you are. "I like anonymity," he admits wistfully.
In the end, Steinfeld believes location is secondary. "Places influence your work, but you inform your work with whatever comes from you. I have my imagination, even if I were stuck in a well."
No matter where he is, Steinfeld continues to produce. "I have goals and schedules," he explains, "but I always allow them to be broken…as long as I get the work done. If the final result is good, then everything in between is justified."
A recent addition to Steinfeld's writing process is a computer, which he resisted using for a long time. "I thought it would tamper with my rhythms," he explains, and he still keeps notebooks to record all his initial ideas.
Those ideas are many and varied, though he does acknowledge recurring themes in his work: Holocaust survivors; how the past affects the present; how individuals function in societies; what it is to be human, "that pursuit of sense, meaning and place, that feeling that you're doing something that is significant-the human spirit.
"You not only have to have something to say," he continues, "you have to be tenacious. You have to persevere. All of art [entails] paying a price. It's up to you what price you want to pay."
In short, Steinfeld warns that literary success demands dedication-or as he puts it, "It's up to me to keep producing and hope."