Mississippi boy Steve Yarbrough came to Southern lit in college

Novelist Steve Yarbrough
Joanna Gromek
Novelist Steve Yarbrough

Novelist Steve Yarbrough still has the lilt of his Mississippi upbringing in his voice despite years in California and Boston, where he now teaches at Emerson College. His home state has tended to loom large in his fiction. But his new book, “The Unmade World,” is set in California, New York’s Hudson Valley, and Poland as it follows an American journalist and a Polish businessman and petty criminal in the wake of a deadly collision. Yarbrough and his wife, the Polish writer Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough, will read at Newtonville Books at 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 16.

BOOKS: Did moving to New England change you as a reader?

YARBROUGH: I don’t think it particularly did. I grew up resistant to Southern fiction. I fell under the spell of New England writers when I was very young; Andre Dubus, Richard Yates, and John Cheever. They are very straightforward writers with a style that doesn’t call attention to itself.


BOOKS: When did you come around to Southern fiction?

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YARBROUGH: When I transferred to the University of Mississippi I found myself living just down the road from Faulkner’s house. I started reading him, Flannery O’Connor, and Robert Penn Warren. In grad school, I had a mentor who took me out to dinner and put a lot of alcohol in me and said, “You are trying to imitate O’Connor, and you are going to lose that game. Don’t read another Southern novel until you are 40.” I didn’t take [his advice], but it made an impression.

BOOKS: What are you reading currently?

YARBROUGH: Elizabeth Hardwick’s collected essays, which were brought out by New York Review Books. They never do any junk. The Library of America just reissued all of Mary McCarthy’s fiction. I’m also reading my way through all of those.

BOOKS: What else do you read?


YARBROUGH: In any given year, a third of what I read is biographies. The best recent one I read was Jonathan Eig’s on Muhammad Ali. I’m especially drawn to biographies of musicians. There is a controversial one of Charlie Parker by Ross Russell that I really liked. There’s a wonderful one of Bill Evans, “How My Heart Sings” by Peter Pettinger.

BOOKS: Do you read memoirs?

YARBROUGH: I’ve never been much a consumer of memoirs. Over the last year I’ve read several. The book that I read last year that hit me more forcefully than anything is Richard Ford’s “Between Them,” about his parents. Ford did something that next to no one does. Memoirs are always about me, me, me. This is about them, them, them. I’ve read every word he’s ever written. His stories in particular speak to me, the ones in “Rock Springs” and “A Multitude of Sins.” It has a great story called “Reunion.”

BOOKS: Since you spend summers in Poland, are there Polish writers you could recommend?

YARBROUGH: Wioletta Greg’s “Swallowing Mercury.” That’s a magnificent novel. A writer who is about my age, Pawel Huelle. I’ve read several of his novels and admired them. Olga Tokarczuk. My favorite is “Primeval and Other Times.


BOOKS: How is reading in Poland different than here?

‘I fell under the spell of New England writers when I was very young.’

YARBROUGH: It’s not as different as it was 25 or 30 years ago, but it’s still different. I remember being on a train in Poland in 1987. A bunch of guys got off work from a factory and got on. Two of them had a collection of poetry by Czeslaw Milosz. You aren’t going to see that anymore. There is still infinitely more curiosity in Poland about literature from other countries than you find here.

BOOKS: Do you read on the screen or on the page?

YARBROUGH: Every year when we went to Poland I’d carry a backpack of books. I carried all of Robert Caro’s books on Lyndon B. Johnson in hardback. Those alone are about 60 pounds. For the past two years when I’ve left the country, I’ve restricted myself to Kindle, but I don’t like that kind of reading experience. I leave on book tour on the 25th. I’m back to carrying regular books with me. I want to hold them in my hands.


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