Sitting down with Robert Stewart

U-News Staff

This summer Robert Stewart, editor of “New Letters” magazine, “New Letters on the Air,” and BkMk Press, as well as professor of writing and magazine editing at UMKC, published his third novel, “The Narrow Gate: Writing, Art & Values.” The book, a slim 79-page collection of editorial introductions for “New Letters,” takes a philosophical look at the goals and value of art. During an October 21 interview at University House, Stewart’s advice was as valuable and striking as the content in his recent publication. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Stewart to ask him a few questions about his novel.

In terms of the reception of this collection, how have you perceived it?

For a book like this, the reception is slow. I have gotten some astounding emails from people I don’t really know personally. One woman, a poet, said she had been so despondent about the state of the world until she’d read my book. It managed to turn things around for her morale and life in general. I just thought, Wow. I couldn’t ask for more.

How did you choose to order the editorial introductions that make up the body of the book?

I usually find putting material together for a book difficult, but this book fell into place with ease. I went on instinct, starting with “Heroes,” and then I found these obvious connections in thought between the first essay and on. By the end, I knew I wanted to place the most recent pieces toward the end.

What is like to have a spouse who also writes?

Well, she writes better than I do, and I don’t like it one bit! Fortunately, I say that facetiously, but when she is reading in public, the experience is quite humbling. If anything, it makes me reach a little further to keep up with her, though right now she has a commercial job, which makes it hard to get material fulfilled as much as she would like.

In your book you write: “Art provides us with integrity.” Could you elaborate on that?

Integrity is another reference to being complete and whole. That sense of wholeness is a substantial quality of character, for me.

One of the other elements to that word, besides being complete and whole, is being authentic. A lot of writers are being coy and evasive in their writing in order to say what the culture wants them to say. We don’t get to see their inner nature.

So then integrity forces me to ask, Am I really being honest? This aesthetic, in my line of work, means we need to name names, say who we are, and talk about what we are really talking about.

What do you believe is literature’s role in this world of Twitter and Facebook? Could the literary arts reach a wider audience?

Literary arts don’t have a wider readership because culture fears it. One of the things I’ve tried to do is present literary writing to people who normally aren’t exposed to it. I do not edit “New Letters” for English majors and writers, as much as I do for farmers, factory workers and truck drivers—people who have a craving for good writing, but are either afraid of it or don’t know where to find it.

In fact, every time I go through the grocery store aisle and I see these tabloids, I think what a shame that there is a failure of the imagination here in this world. “New Letters” could just as well be on those racks alongside “Men’s Health.” I don’t see a reason for the barrier there. The fact that a novel like “New Letters” isn’t much more widely consumed is a failure of the imagination of the culture.

Any final words for students looking to publish, read or write?

Read things different from what you like to read and write. Those have been important steps in my own development as a writer. The only thing that will teach you to write is to read deeply and widely, not just as a consumer, but also as a writer looking at what other writers are doing in terms of their techniques and style.