With the aura of a manufacturing city in decline and an underlying musical score like a 1970s hard-rock soundtrack, STEPHEN G. EOANNOU’s short story collection, Muscle Cars, drops you in the middle of a time and place filled with loss, leaving, and sacrifice in the midst of economic turmoil.
Eoannou (Eee-Oh-Wan-New), a native of Buffalo, NY, writes exceptionally lean and polished prose, yet somehow manages to open the hood to reveal the messy interior of his characters. The cars throughout the collection are beat up, rebuilt, and just might have orange shag carpeting on the rear dash. Picture fuzzy dice and Playboy air fresheners.
Don’t be fooled that these stories are all about cars. With author Tim O’Brien as a major influence, Eoannou’s goal was to create characters so real that readers become emotionally invested. He recalls being so absorbed in O’Brien’s characters in The Things They Carried that he felt almost duped when he remembered they weren’t real people.
Muscle Cars features stories about everyday situations on the verge of dangerous: a grieving man pays a visit to the neighbor kid playing music too loud, a grammar school teacher begins his first year with the search for a boy missing too long to be alive, a young couple bounce their white lies off each other at a Sunday open house in a home they could never afford. The result is a collection where friends misguide one another, men are reluctant to express emotion, and quiet tension hangs between people. Muscle Cars and its stories are far more powerful and steely than the reconstructed clunkers its characters can afford to drive.
Beth Uznis Johnson: Tell us a little about your background and writing career.
Stephen G. Eoannou: I had a typical first-generation American upbringing, straddling that line from the old country to the new. My father came over from Greece when he was four-years old in 1925. I also had a typical Buffalo upbringing: public schools, blue-collar surroundings among people struggling to find jobs.
My father instilled in us the immigrant’s work ethic and the idea that you show up every day for work and don’t complain about it. Many of my older characters are made from this same mold. I’m the youngest of four children and one-by-one my siblings all left because there were no jobs here in the ’70s and ’80s. Then I watched my friends leave for jobs down south. The idea of loss, of people leaving, is prevalent throughout Muscle Cars and very evident in such stories as “Lost Things” and “Culling.”
BJ: How about writing?
SE: As for my writing career, I’d get one story placed and then I’d go 10 years without another. I tried switching to novels, but would never get past the slush pile.
I was ready to give up, too. For my last shot, I applied for an MFA program and was accepted at Queens University.
Queens was my biggest breakthrough. My instructor David Payne drove home the idea of what story is. It was my most difficult semester; he gave my harshest critique. But at the end, I had a good understanding of what my job was as a writer.
I can remember bringing a chapter of what I hoped would be a novel. He did a line-by-line edit of the entire 25 pages. Word by word. Showing where the language could be tightened up. How it could have been done better, more eloquently. The paper was literally covered in red!
I typed up everything he said and compared the two. It was amazing how much better it was after his editing. Something clicked.
After that, the publications came in bunches. Of the 17 stories in the collection, all have been published or will appear in 2015. I have a quote by Richard Bach taped to my printer that says, “A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.”
BJ: What writers do you like to read who have influenced your work?
SE: John Irving has always been one of my favorites. I remember when The Hotel New Hampshire came out it was serialized in Rolling Stone. I was in high school then and subscribed to it. My sister and I couldn’t wait for the new issue to be delivered with the next excerpt; we’d fight over who would read it first and if the other person was taking too long with it.
I loved how Irving could make me laugh until I realized how sad it was. I think that was the book that made me want to be a writer.
Later, I discovered William Kennedy’s Albany novels, Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game and Legs. I loved how he was telling the tales of his city, his incredible sense of place that he conveyed, the flawed male characters that he wove in and out of the stories. And he made it all seem so easy. I try to convey that same sense of place as he does except my turf is Buffalo, NY. I want to mine my city’s stories.
Then there’s Tim O’Brien. The Things They Carried blew me away and remains my favorite collection.
If you look at what attracted me to those writers—dark humor, sense of place, flawed male characters—I think you’ll find all those running through the stories in Muscle Cars.
BJ: Most of the cars described in your collection are old beaters, haphazard restorations or on the verge of breaking down. Do you have a particular interest in cars?
SE: When I set out writing, “Muscle Cars” was the first story that made it into the collection. It was the beginning of an explosion of creativity. Cars weren’t really in my mind, just that here’s a guy who wanted to build himself up to protect those he loved.
Cars started popping up in various forms in my work. I started to see the pattern and played with it that way.
BJ: And your personal car experience?
SE: My first car was a 1973 Malibu, a muscle car wannabe. All my buddies drove junkers like me—a Cutlass with no heat, rusty Skylarks, a Nova named The General Grant for some forgotten reason. We held our breath every time we turned the ignition, hoping they would start. We didn’t have the money or the know-how to fix them or restore them, so we pushed them home a lot.
I’m sure the girls from Mount St. Mary’s were not impressed when we drove by. We loved those cars, though. They represented what cars always represent to teenagers: freedom, escape, adulthood, and, in some cases, tragedy—the same ideas that run through the book. It’s not an accident that the car on the cover is a rusting Chevelle and not some restored, pristine show car.
BJ: I have to know. What kind of car do you have now?
SE: I used to have a big gold Cadillac that my children were very embarrassed about, a DeVille. Now I have another Cadillac. It’s nice, but not as obnoxious and fun to drive as that big, old gas-guzzler.
When I was growing up, the wealthy Greeks in Buffalo all drove Cadillacs. When I was old enough to work at my dad’s liquor store, the successful liquor salesman in the nice suits drove Cadillacs. It was engrained early on that the Cadillac was the representation of making it.
In “Lost Things,” I was definitely thinking about that. The father, the older character, bought a Cadillac, the last car he was ever going to own. I was very conscious that would be success for him, the symbol he’s made it.
BJ: Much of Muscle Cars centers on the theme of loss or people leaving. Ricky in “Culling” plans to head south, leaving his aging uncle behind to shoot the neighborhood geese. The narrator in “Lost Things” faces the possible loss of his father, as they take a detour to the old neighborhood on the morning of his father’s surgery. How does loss play into the human experience of your characters?
SE: I think it had to do with the incredible population loss that Buffalo experienced, something like half the population since 1950. All because there were no jobs. One by one, my siblings left. Then my friends left. I was one of the last guys to finally leave.
As you get older, the aunts and uncles, my dad and the old Greeks you’d see at church, they’re leaving us. I’m sensing that loss the second time as their generation passes away.
BJ: Yes, many of your characters have fallen on hard times or are in a state of transition. I’m thinking “The Luckiest Man in The World” and his plan to auction off his grandfather’s baseball, a family heirloom. How do your blue-collar surroundings and the economic hardships prevalent in your childhood color your view of the world?
SE: My dad had a restaurant he took over from his father. It was in the family from the mid ’20s until my dad sold it in the ’50s. I grew up hearing stories about the restaurant even though it was sold before I was born. The people who would hang out there, the old neighborhood, the characters who were there pop up in various places throughout the stories.
An example is Lefty in “Mementos.” He’s a dishwasher who wears bowling shoes. And Jimmy Slattery, the boxer. My dad was going to throw him out of the restaurant for bothering the waitresses, but everyone told him, no, he was a champion. These were all characters based on stories my dad told.
Even now, Buffalo is still the third poorest big city in the country after Detroit and Cleveland. A lot stories were set in the ’70s when I was growing up. Money problems were a reality.
BJ: A quiet and unspoken distance between men and women seems to be at play in a lot of your stories. There’s that moment in the title story, “Muscle Cars” where Tom watches his wife leave the bathroom to call her mother and complain about his strange weightlifting obsession. Can you talk about the power of this tension in fiction?
SE: A lot of times, what goes unsaid is more powerful than what is actually spoken or written. If you look at all the male characters in the stories, they’re these guys who aren’t able to be comfortable revealing their inner feelings. It doesn’t help them. A lot of characters carry weight quietly and they don’t share it for many reasons. This gives weight to the book. The readers pick up on it even though the characters may not. That’s where the punch is felt.
I was surprised at the number of female editors who accepted the stories from my collection. I never thought that would be the case. That just goes to show how little I know about women.
BJ: Music plays an important role in the collection, from the Doors to Sinatra. Did you intend to write a collection of stories with a built-in soundtrack?
SE: Music has always been around in my life. My brother is 12 years older than I am. He moved out when I was 10 and left behind his Beatles and Beach Boys 45s. That’s what I listened to and grew up on.
Growing up in the ’70s, I was attracted to Springsteen. Themes and motifs from his songs influenced me, like escape, freedom and cars. It’s easy to see all those things in Muscle Cars.
I had always listened to the current music. That stopped in 1982 or 83. Now, I mostly listen to that old stuff.
BJ: Do you have a favorite story in the collection?
SE: It has changed to be honest. The title story “Muscle Cars” was the first story that made me feel like I could actually write. It has a lot of importance to me and set in motion some of those themes I wanted to explore, such as the dark humor that carries through the collection.
I’m really proud of “Mementos” and “Culling,” and feel they’re the most well-crafted stories in the collection.
“Stealing Ted Williams Head” was the only one that, while I was writing, I felt good about it. I knew it would go to a good place.
BJ: What are you writing now?
I’m polishing the final draft of three linked novellas based on the true story of Al Nussbaum, a bank robber from Buffalo who was described by J. Edgar Hoover as the most cunning fugitive alive at the time.
He was the mastermind behind a string of robberies that landed him at the top of the FBI Most Wanted List and even Readers’ Digest offered a $10,000 reward for his capture.
Al intrigued me—he was so smart, so flawed, and viewed robbing banks as a chess game with cash prizes. I love that.
After I finish that, I’d like to take a short screenplay that I wrote and develop that into a feature-length film. It’s based on the short story “Slip Kid” that’s really the centerpiece of Muscle Cars.
And after that, it’s probably time to take another swing at writing a novel. I have three very bad ones in the drawer. Maybe the fourth time is the charm.
Muscle Cars is now available everywhere from Amazon, Barnes&Noble, or your local bookstore.
Visit Stephen Eoannou’s web site.