Interviewed by Sarah Starr Murphy

Read James Stewart III’s fiction piece, Stronger

Sarah: Poverty is often hidden in the United States, but this powerful story makes it visible while showing the lengths Nathan and Jim go to hide it, even from each other. It’s much too easy for people with means to live lives completely uncomplicated by the facts of poverty. Do you think stories can help bridge the gap? How can writers go about pushing back on this invisibility?

James: Part of the problem is most certainly a culture that views poverty as a personal failure rather than the result of policy decisions meant to perpetuate these outcomes. In most fiction, it’s something that only happens to people due to their horrible decision-making rather than the much more common reason: they just weren’t born to well-off parents. Poverty in the media is regularly portrayed as the result of drug addiction or criminal activity when most people struggling like Jim are just working all the time. Then they come home exhausted and try to find the energy to care for the people they love. I recognize why that’s not“sexy,” but it’s true, and the lengths that people go to provide a better life for their family in the face of crushing odds and the everyday grind is heroic.

 So in the way that the stories we tell move a culture, they can help; but, it’s unlikely that stories will move the wealthy to change the status quo. While the working-class and those struggling to make ends meet are taught their circumstances are a personal failure, the wealthy are taught to believe that their riches are solely the result of hard work and ingenuity. It’d be a hell of a story to make them question that lie.

The action in the story revolves around Jim and Nathan delivering phone books. Not only is it unpleasant work, but phone books are anachronistic. Jim’s just trying to pay the bills, but does the meaninglessness of this task bother him? What does it say about our society that there are so many of these kinds of jobs?

The story is set in the early ’90s, so the phone books themselves aren’t anachronistic but the task still remained largely pointless. Unwanted phone books seemed to be a staple of apartment vestibules in the pre-internet times. When you need to keep the lights on, the meaningless of the task at hand doesn’t matter. The idea of self-actualization through your exploited labor is a relatively new concept and one that’s incredibly convenient for those looking for “happy” workers. 

It’s an indictment on our society that Jim had to do this gig before heading to his full-time job. While the story takes place roughly thirty years ago, we see this in current times. The rise of the gig economy has millions of Americans regularly doing low-paying, thankless, jobs to supplement their primary full-time income to make ends meet. 

Much goes unsaid between Nathan and Jim. Free lunch, bullying, their ambivalence about this early morning work. This is often the case with teens and parents, having relationships like icebergs. How did their complex relationship shape the plot of the story? 

It’s a particularly tough trick to portray a relationship like this because I’m relying a lot on the reader. They have to pay attention to what is on the page but also what’s not. It’s these absences that are absolutely vital to understanding the entire story. Jim and Nathan’s frosty relationship also speaks to how men and boys are socialized to keep so much to themselves, along with the practical matter that it’s 5 AM. Not the most talkative time for anyone.

I feel that too much of the realist fiction we consume plays into an overly dramatic arc, although that’s often not how our lived experiences play out or how memory works. I don’t remember many of that lessons from my parents when they were consciously trying to teach something: those long drawn out speeches where a kid would rather be anywhere else on the entire planet. The moments that ended up sticking with me and the moments that taught me the most about the world were “small.” That’s why the events in this piece are very subdued, and the overall story arc doesn’t have a huge climax. The characters don’t undergo an epiphanic transformation, and their problems aren’t resolved. Like the characters in the story, the reader is left to hope things get better, and that’s life.

There are a few moments when this story could have taken a much darker path. The most obvious is when Jim confronts his boss. Jim deliberately uses his physicality to intimidate, fully aware of the weight his race adds to the situation. It’s a beautiful sort of transgression, to turn the racism back upon its perpetrator. Yet it’s obvious the exhausting toll this takes on Jim. Will he ever get a break? Where does he find hope for the future?

Jim knows that some people never get a break, that at any time things can get worse, that this country forces too many of us to work ourselves to death, that the vast majority of people aren’t rewarded for their hard work or doing things the “right way.” Capitalism encourages exploitation at all costs to increase profits. The system we live in rewards lying, cheating, and stealing. So, where does he find hope for the future? I believe he finds hope in the fact that despite all of this, they haven’t stopped him from trying to make a better life for him and his family. He hasn’t given up.

What are you reading at the moment? Or, what was the last book you read that you really loved?

With a newborn at home, my reading (and writing, for that matter) has essentially come to a screeching halt outside of children’s books. We’re trying to raise our daughter to be bilingual, so we’ve purchased a few Spanish-language books: our favorite is “Alma Y Como Obtuvo Su Nombre,” by Juana Martinez-Neal. 

However, in the months leading up to her birth and during the darkest days of 2020, between protests and pandemic, I found some odd measure of comfort in the writings of contemporary Italian philosopher Franco “Bifo” Berardi, specifically “Heroes,” and “Futurability – The Age of Impotence and the Horizon of Possibility.”