In Which Brief Stories Are Told
By Phillip Sterling
Wayne State University Press
By Glen Young
Phillip Sterling believes that although Northern Michigan is part of the Midwest, there is a sensibility in the Great Lakes state that separates us from our neighbors.
Its somewhere between Hell and Paradise. Not only is it geographically true, but I think it says something about the tendency toward exploring the extreme in celebrating American culture, Sterling says about the competing tendencies of Northern Michigan.
Were called Midwestern but were not Midwestern in the sense of say Indiana or Illinois. Were thought of as North, but were not North in the way of say Minnesota.
Sterling is the author of the newly released In Which Brief Stories Are Told. He says our regions connected separateness is a recurrent theme in the 15 stories that make up his new book, recently published as part of the Made in Michigan Writers Series from the Wayne State University Press.
Sterling, who lives in Cascade near Grand Rapids, grew up in Traverse City, graduating from TC Senior High in 1969. He has been teaching writing and literature at Ferris State University for 24 years.
His stories, several of which are set in the Grand Traverse region, combine Sterlings practiced poetic perspective with keen observations.
Examples abound, such as in the story An Account in Her Name, narrated by a woman whose sister Edie went missing years earlier. The narrator returns to Beulah, where she is to meet with a local banker to settle an account still open in her missing sisters name.
The storys central question, posed rhetorically near the conclusion, begs to know, What does it mean to save a persons life? At what cost? Sterlings narrator grapples with the knowledge she did not save her sibling and thought the sisterly bond is still, if more thinly than before, intact.
Sterling says the settings are reminiscent of his own past. My dad did own a restaurant, and my sister was a lifeguard at Beulah Beach, as is true in the story. My father bought a cottage because my grandmother owned a cottage on Platte Lake, he says.
The storys tension, created out of the narrators belief that she never completely knew her own sister, is however, fictional. There are place details that are accurate, Sterling says, but like any credible fiction writer, he propels his memories into inventions.
THE POET GAME
The recipient of Fulbright Lectureship awards, as well as fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Sterling is better known as a poet, having published several volumes of verse. He admits he had to put poetry aside while working on this collection.
This past summer, when I was working through this book, revising it, I was not writing poetry.
He adds that the process works both ways. When I was working on the books of poetry, I was not writing fiction.
In Which Brief Stories Are Told represents decades of Sterlings fictional efforts. A couple of them date back 20 years, he says.
When he determined to publish a book of fiction, Sterling sought guidance in a variety of ways.
I started to read more contemporary fiction, and that was influential in seeing how the styles have changed, he says. He admits he had some initial concerns. I kept finding that my stories were not along the lines of what a lot of the presses were publishing.
Id published a few here and there over the years, he says of the stories in his collection. It was a winnowing process I essentially collected everything I had and started sending them out.
The editors at Wayne State recognized a thematic connection, and suggested the book be considered for the Made In Michigan Series.
Sterling admits that the long gaps between his work on particular stories were a concern. His work on this collection has made him a better, more efficient, writer, he believes. I notice it more in terms of drafting. I can catch the things I might change in story more quickly than I would have five or six years ago.
Phillip Sterling and Interlochens Michael Delp will be reading and signing books at Horizon Books in Traverse City on April 27 from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. They will participate in a literary discussion at the City Opera House, as part of the National Writers Series, on April 28 at 7 p.m. For more information on tickets call 231-342-0611, or visit www.nationalwritersseries.org