My relationship with the written word was anything but love at first sight. Think apathy. Think indifference. Hell, we might have bumped up against mutual distain. It was a slogging sort of relationship, one where I struggled to decipher those strange little hieroglyphics inside of picture books, dreading the moment I’d be called upon to read a passage out loud in front of my elementary school peers. The written word and I hit rock bottom in third grade when I picked up the telephone and overheard my father talking to a Hooked on Phonics sales representative. I heard things like grade level and testing and WAY behind. Jesus. I was going to be one of those cringy kids from the commercials proclaiming Hooked on Phonics worked for me!
Fast forward through a year or two of vowel themed boardgames, forty minutes a day of silent reading (usually spent staring at the page but not actually reading), bedtime stories and morning stories and stories-before-you-do-anything-approaching-pleasurable and we were on the mend, the written word and I, step siblings accepting of one another’s presence around the dining room table. I even cranked out a few masterpieces during this time: a mafia/soccer star mashup, an epic about a boy getting lost in the woods (I’m pretty sure it was titled “The Axe”…obviously no thematic connection to the Gary Paulsen novels we were reading in school), and a medieval hero’s quest with a solid three pages (out of four) dedicated to the brutal slaying of a dragon.
Yes, things were changing.
Dare I say there was interest? Intrigue, for sure, the written word and I eyeing one another across the gymnasium floor during a middle school dance, insecure as we were desirous, praying for acknowledgment and a slow song and that we hadn’t overdone it with the fifth spray of Cool Water cologne.
I don’t remember all that much over the next few years as I spent high school consuming copious amounts of drugs. There are, however, flashes of memory, five second clips fused together to form a disjointed montage (obviously layered over a Radiohead track…is there another choice for a Tragically Misunderstood White Kid from Middle America?): tearing through Burgess and Kesey and Burroughs, composing a poem about a piece of amber in a random motel room after running away to New Orleans, delivering my “senior speech” to the entire school and receiving a standing ovation, scribbling notebook after notebook full of autofiction while locked in whatever thirty-day facility I happened to be frequenting that month. Like any montage worth a shit, these images have the dual mandate of conveying the passage of time and a shifting of character. And it was a shift. A growth. A realization. A passion and burning desire and the only thing that I truly cared about, the written word a goddamn lifesaver, literally, as in my fledging sobriety was predicated upon my ability to express myself on the page. Writing became the proverbial canary in the coal mine; when the words stopped, it was only a matter of weeks before I picked up again.
This has been true over the last twenty years.
That’s why I write every day. Rain or shine or the birth of my children or with hundreds of Comp essays to grade, I sit in my car and type my silly stories. Creating art makes me happy. It gives me purpose. It fosters the connection I so desperately crave, even if these people exist solely on the page, even if we are only able to commune for thirty-minute stretches while waiting for my daughters to finish their ballet classes.
This novel was borne from such half-hour stretches of time. After receiving my MFA from Colorado State University, I worked retail for six years (I can use a folding board like nobody’s business, and if you have any questions about how to care for your waterproof shell, I’m your guy). I wrote in the car before work, in the mouse-infested break room during lunch, and once again once our children were asleep. These were stolen moments, private moments free from the constant demands of needy customers. This tension for one’s time obviously exists within all people, but is, in my opinion, especially pronounced among those who work in any sort of customer service. The your-needs-over-mine mentality is ingrained in the retail sector, which, over enough time, can do a number on one’s psyche. This is the dynamic the characters of this novel, with the working title The Extraordinary Lives of Retail Employees, find themselves battling. Add into the mix infidelity and parenthood and love and you have this novel told in four parts, each character striving to navigate rage, resignation, humor and heartbreak as they make sense of the brief affair that sends their lives spiraling out of control.
This is my third published novel. My debut, FIEND (Crown), was named an Amazon Best Book of the Year, and my sophomore effort, THIRTY-SEVEN (DZANC), was awarded stared reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly. I have essays and stories published where one publishes such things. I teach writing at Colorado State University and am part of the MFA faculty at Southern New Hampshire University. I live in Denver, Colorado with my three wonderful children and amazing wife. And it’s here I’ll once again turn to my sloppy, mixed metaphor illustrating my relationship to the written word: we’re married, have been for two decades, right smack dab in the heart of middle age, kids aplenty, stressed and pulled thin, familiar, yet still capable of standing at our Jack and Jill sinks, mouths foamy with Crest, catching a glance of the other through the mirror, our stomachs gripped by that sudden tornado of surprise and appreciation and awe that we’d felt years before, love, we think, I love you so much.
Regal House Publishing is delighted to bring you Peter Stenson’s novel in 2024.