An Interview with Steve Yarbrough

Steve Yarbrough

Steve Yarbrough

I found Steve Yarbrough’s novel, The Realm of Last Chances, by serendipity.

His was the only book in the Y’s and I loved the title and the first paragraph:

They were both fifty when they moved to Massachusetts, settling in a small town a few miles north of Boston.  Like a lot of people around the country over the last few years, they’d recently experienced a run of bad luck.

Being in my fifties and seldom finding novels with middle-aged protagonists, I bought this book and rushed home and read it in one sitting.  It is powerful and moving, my favorite novel of the year.

And Steve Yarbrough, an award-winning novelist and a Professor of the Department of Writing, Literature and Publishing at Emerson College, generously agreed to be interviewed here.

Mirabile Dictu:  Your stunning new novel, The Realm of Last Chances, addresses the issue of dislocation in middle age.  Did you set out to explore this theme?   Or did it just come together?

Steve Yarbrough:  I consciously wanted to explore dislocation.  My wife and I had moved from one coast to the other twice: from east to west in 1988 and from west to east in 2009.  Both times, we wanted to make the move, and this last move in particular has led to great happiness, because we love New England.  But during the economic downturn a lot of people were uprooted against their will, and I wanted to see what it might be like for a couple like that.  The other themes, though, came to me during the writing process.  It’s always that way for me.  I find my path by groping in the darkness.

Mirabile Dictu:  How long did it take you to write the book?

Steve Yarbrough:  Well, from start to finish, about eighteen months.  But before I figured out what I wanted to write, I floundered for about a year.  That happens to me again and again.

Mirabile Dictu:   Which of your books is your favorite (besides Realm)?

Steve Yarbrough:  I guess I’d have to say my other favorite is probably Safe from the Neighbors–though, truly, I am fond of all my books, to varying degrees. They represented the best I had in me when I wrote them.

Mirabile Dictu:  Do you write on paper or a computer?

Steve Yarbrough:  I wrote my first book on paper and then typed it.  All the others have been written on the computer.

Mirabile: Who are your favorite authors?

Steve Yarbrough:  The list is long.  Here are a few names: James Salter, William Trevor, Alice Munro, Richard Yates, Elizabeth Spencer, Milan Kundera, Sandor Marai, Tolstoy, Faulkner, Chekhov, Austen, Graham Greene.

Mirabile Dictu:  Thank you for the fabulous interview!

And here are a few facts about Steve Yarbrough.

He is the son of Mississippi Delta farmers.

He is a Professor of Department of Writing, Literature and Publishing at Emerson College.

His novel Prisoners of War was a finalist for the 2005 PEN/Faulkner Award,  his 1999 novel The Oxygen Man  won the California Book Award, the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Fiction, and the Mississippi Authors Award.  In 2010, he won the Richard Wright Award for Literary Excellence.

His website is

And you can read my review of The Realm of Last Chances here.

Steve Yarbrough’s The Realm of Last Chances

All over the country people were being dislocated, heading off to places they didn’t belong, hoping to somehow find themselves another home.”–Steve Yarbrough’s The Realm of Last Chances

realm of last chancesSteve Yarbrough’s The Realm of Last Chances, a spare, brilliant novel about being set adrift in midlife, unflinchingly examines the lives of Kristin Stevens and her husband Cal, both fifty when Kristin is laid off from her job as vice president of academic personnel at a university in California.   Moving to Massachusetts, where Kristin finds a job at a third-rate college, is traumatic:  even the change of seasons is disturbing.  Neither Kristin (named after Kristin Lavransdatter, her parents’ favorite book) nor Cal (a lifelong Californian)  are sure they will survive the move.

Yarbrough writes of Cal, who works construction and is a musician:

He was the man you engaged if you needed to have something small and delicate done and could pay for fine work.  You had to accept certain things about him, though.  He’d come and go on his own terms, and he would bring a small Bose along and listen throughout the day….The fact that he was working for you didn’t necessarily mean he’d return every phone call.

Cal has a violent past.  He has secrets.  In fact, Kristin didn’t know when they got married that he’d legally changed his name from Stegall to Stevens.  His father, a developer of cheap housing estates, did time in prison for bribery, mail fraud, and witness tampering.   On the other hand, Cal, more or less in the same line of work, is utterly ethical and  chooses only the best materials for his carpentry and construction.

Every character is believable, lonely, and depressed.

Their neighbor, Matt, is displaced.  He used to be the fiction buyer at the Harvard Emporium.  He dreamed of buying a bookstore in Andover, a gorgeous, wealthy town where he and Kristin (and her coworkers) shop at Whole Foods before returning to their duller suburb.  Matt now works at a friend’s deli.

He lost his job at Harvard Emporium after he volunteered to work the cash registers for an hour a day. He explains to Kristin,

The staff loved it.  You’ve got a very leftist workforce there, and for me to do something as lowly as ringing up sales…well, that created a kind of egalitarian atmosphere.”

But he used that time to embezzle $35,000.  He bought cocaine.

He and Kristin begin to have an affair, but at one point Matt thinks,

He’d let his own nose ruin his own life, and now it looked like his prick would ruin somebody else’s.

Kirstin, who is very snobbish about her new job at first,  is unhappy that she has ended up at North Shore State.  After earning her Ph.D., she was an English professor, though not a very good teacher, she says, and then went into a job in administration.  In California, she  had enjoyed her work.  But North Shore State College, originally a teachers’ college which expanded the curriculum after World War II, has much lower standards, Kristin thinks.

In a purely academic sense–and almost every other sense as well–NSSC was undistinguished, its deficiencies rendered all the more glaring by its close proximity to Harvard, MIT, Tufts, Brandeis, even UMass Lowell.  It was just a third-rate state school, where the students often worked full-time and took seven or eight years to graduate, but this was where she’d ended up.

Then a plagiarism case turns up.  The head of the history department has discovered that two  assistant professors have published articles they’d plagiarized, and that one had  plagiarized a book.  Kristin must document the evidence before she informs the president and the provost.  The two are well-liked and under review for tenure, and Kristin is afraid she might lose her job.  But Kristin, like Kristin Lavransdatter, does the right thing.  She takes risks.

Throughout the entire novel, the characters are under extreme stress and must contemplate morality and justice.  Kristin has never had an affair before, and  the plagiarism case is convoluted. Cal, who is lonely and violent, finds out about the affair, as he must.  And Matt realizes that he must get his life under control.  Does he want to break up a marriage?

The writing in this book is breathtaking.  There is no showing off, no overwriting.  Every sentence is deftly balanced and pitch-perfect.  I have seldom read such a perfect novel.

I highly recommend it.   Perhaps a classic?  Time will tell.