Dreamtime: A Collection of Short Stories
by Robert Steiner
Published by iUniverse
116 pages, 2005
Dreamtime is a surprise. It's author's tone is careful, sometimes almost cautious, as though approaching the topics of his short fiction with a careful eye and hand. It's an effective approach because, with the exception of a single story, the territory explored in Dreamtime offer up explanations that are other for everyday things. Or, perhaps more accurately, while we are lulled into thinking we are in the company of a narrator who is ordinary, we are startled when we discover we are on a journey that is extraordinary. It's a wonderful feeling and author Robert Steiner seems to gift us with it effortlessly.
One gets the feeling that this is the way Robert Steiner has lived his life: working hard enough so that things look easy. Working hard and endeavoring to never drop the ball while consistently accomplishing more than he set out to do.
Case in point: Steiner is an accomplished writer, but it wasn't his first career. In fact, he started writing fiction just a little over a decade ago. A long time, perhaps, for a writer who is 22. But Robert Steiner is 80 and, to hear him tell it, he began to create fiction out of self-preservation, at least in part. "I have known many men," says Steiner, "some of them of substantial accomplishment, who simply lay back and watched TV, or played golf, upon retirement. But they never lasted long. In a few years they were mentally dead."
Steiner determined that he didn't want this to happen to him. "I had to do something and selected things that I liked. Whether I do them well or badly is not for me to say, but I certainly enjoy them and they have kept me young."
Steiner received a Ph.D. in chemistry from Harvard in 1950 and spent most of his career at the Naval Medical Research Institute in Maryland. The knowledgeable touch of the career researcher guides us through his fiction, as do his experiences as a private pilot and his interest in travel and the arts.
Though almost painfully modest about his painting, Steiner is also an accomplished artist and, in fact, his work graces the cover of Dreamtime. With regard to painting, Steiner says, "I am self-taught (if at all) and, like most such, I have worked out my own peculiar ways of doing things." And, perhaps unsurprisingly, even in Robert Steiner the painter we see glimpses of Robert Steiner, the writer. His visual art is clean and concise, the things he chooses to render are sharp, well-defined; the perspectives flawless, everything is just as it should be; just as we recognize it from our own experience. And yet, the angles are bold, almost otherworldly. The colors are vibrant: there is more than the eye can take in. And there is a whimsy in Steiner's well-ordered world. As well as a recognition of the facts as we know them: up is always up and down is just where it's meant to be. But what's in between? The heart leads us.
In many ways, Steiner's anthology, Dreamtime, seems the perfect fictional extension of this vision. Perhaps not quite science fiction, but there is always more than meets the eye.
Now 80, Steiner has been married to the same woman for 49 years. They have two grown daughters and nine grandchildren, whom Steiner enjoys a great deal. He lives in the Baltimore area where he is working on another anthology.
Linda L. Richards: Describe Dreamtime for our readers in a few sentences.
Robert Steiner: It's a collection of short stories, most of which have a fantasy or science fiction theme. Some of them stem from a personal experience, extended and developed. Although they are, for the most part, written in the first person, they are in no sense autobiographical and the events described are mostly fictitious.
When did you begin to write fiction?
Shortly after I retired, in 1995.
When did you first share it with an audience?
I joined an Internet writing club in 1995 and began posting stories for comments and criticism. At about the same time, I also joined a Barnes and Noble writing club and exchanged manuscripts with other members.
The fact that you didn't begin to write fiction until 1995 surprises me. Partly because your voice is so strong and sure. I was quite certain it was a voice you'd been developing over a longer period of time. Surely it's something you'd been contemplating for a while before you began? Perhaps wrestling, at some level, with the stories in your heart?
During my working day I had little opportunity to think about things other than work, which also intruded upon my time at home. However, there were two solitary activities which disengaged my mind and freed it to dream and speculate. These were hiking and flying my airplane, both of which occupied several hours per week. These periods were free from distractions and I could spin things in my mind as much as I liked. Once the germ of an idea occurred, I could develop it indefinitely and store it loosely in my memory without writing anything down. This went on for years with no particular objective, until retirement raised the possibility of doing something with it.
I know you're the author of several non-fiction books. Did your non-fiction inform your fiction in any way? Or vice-versa?
The two are essentially independent. During my working career, I never dreamed I would ever be writing fiction. However, my technical background was helpful in filling in details in my more science fiction-oriented stories.
Is Dreamtime your first published work of book-length fiction?
I have published four others, all of which are collections of short stories. Their titles are The Pilots Tale, The Decoy, The Student Pilot and The Beauty Contest. These earlier books were not originally meant for general circulation, but rather for distribution to friends and relatives. Dreamtime represents a selection from these, which have also been revised in accordance with editorial suggestions. Dreamtime is the first book of fiction which I have attempted to bring to a larger audience.
It strikes me that, if there is a single recurring theme in the stories that make up Dreamtime, it's one of how things that seem ordinary can be extraordinary when viewed from a different angle. Would you agree?
It had never occurred to me, but now that you draw my attention to it, I tend to agree. For example, in "Phoenix Street" a perfectly ordinary walk becomes transformed into a macabre experience by the morbid imagination of the narrator.
While some of the stories in the collection have a dark, somewhat moody feel, it seems to me that you leave each one with a feeling of optimism; of hope. Was that your intention?
It wasn't my conscious intention, but the evolving stories seemed to take on a life of their own and direct their own conclusions, which are inevitably affected by my outlook.
Was the collection put together over a long period, or were you writing to a particular theme with the idea of putting them together in a single volume?
The stories were written independently over a ten year period. Many of them were first published in small literary magazines. They were then combined into the four informal collections I mentioned earlier. The Dreamtime stories were selected from these and underwent further editorial evaluation and revision under iUniverse's Editor's Choice program.
I noticed that several stories took place in 1980. Yet the stories themselves seem timeless. That is, it didn't seem to me that there was a reason for them to be set in a particular year. What am I missing?
When a specific date is cited, it has the purpose of making certain date-sensitive details plausible. For example, in "The Uninvited Guest," the story is set in 1980, the year of President Reagan's first election, providing a logical origin for both the party and much of the conversation. In "The Seaside Witch" the dates of the two episodes bracket the construction of the Assateague bridge, which eliminated the need for the ferry.
It seems to me that the narrators in the stories in Dreamtime are most often nameless and undescribed. We get a strong feeling of male, perhaps of a certain age and certainly of a certain amount of authority. That is to say they are strong, mature men. Are they you? Or, perhaps more accurately, how much are they you?
While none of these narrators fit me closely, it is fair to say that some of me -- or of one side of me -- went into each of them. They show the response of an individual with these characteristics to various fictitious situations, which have nevertheless some grounding in reality.
Your background is varied. You attended Princeton. You were in the army. You have a Ph.D. from Harvard. You were a scientist with the navy. You are the author of eight books, including seven on scientific topics. You're a pilot. You're an artist. And, as I read Dreamtime, it struck me that your background has informed a great deal of your fiction. That's true for many writers, of course. But it seemed to me that you had dipped almost methodically into every part of your background in order to develop the whole that is Dreamtime. Do you think that's true?
The dipping was not very methodical, but otherwise that's basically true.
For example, "The Decoy" grew out of an unpleasant incident which occurred while I was traveling to attend a scientific symposium. The experience was substantially enlarged and embellished. "The Student Pilot" arose from my own experiences in learning to fly, which led me to speculate on how Leonardo, who foresaw human flight, might fit into the routine of a flying school. I told the story from the point of view of a flight instructor, although I was never one myself. "The Hikers Tale: At Anton's Restaurant" draws on a personal experience I had while hiking in winter along the C&O [the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal] Towpath, a favorite hiking site for me, when I encountered an unexpected snowstorm. In all of these cases, the story arose from asking myself: What if?
In what is your Ph.D.?
All but one of the stories in Dreamtime feature strong elements of the fantastic. People aren't what they appear to be; places appear mysteriously -- I'm being deliberately ambiguous here, as I don't want to give too much away -- but, in your stories, a lot of the time things are not what they seem. Was it your intent to make this the focus of the collection? Or is that generally where your fiction takes you?
I did not start out with this intention. Things just seemed to work out that way.
In many cases the story arises from asking: What if? And developing the answer along fantastical lines. For example, "The Disappearance" stems from an incident which occurred while I was on a boat trip to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. The actual apparent disappearance arose from a passenger's imperfect command of English and was, in itself, quite trivial. However, I asked myself: What if he really had disappeared? I developed it from there, blending the story with a Christian religious theme.
Would you consider yourself to be a writer of fantasy or science fiction? Or are you merely (merely!) questing?
I began with fantasy and science fiction, since this comes easily to me. I don't intend to limit myself to this. I am working on another book of similar format, but quite different in theme. In contrast to the present book, which is fairly innocuous, the next one will contain some rather controversial material.
What writers would you say have influenced your own work the most?
Thomas Mann, Ernest Hemingway, Nicolai Gogol, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Conrad, Isak Dinesen.
What writers do you most admire?
Thomas Mann, Isak Dinesen, Herman Melville, Joseph Conrad
What writers do you most enjoy reading?
Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, Nicolai Gogol , Joseph Conrad.
What do you most hope readers take away from your work?
Curiosity about the world we live in, plus a need to look beneath the surface.
My own favorite story in Dreamtime is "Canine Fantasies." Something in the story just appealed so much to the child in me: the little girl that desperately wanted -- but couldn't have -- a dog. And the dog in that story would have fit my situation perfectly! (No food, no mess.) Do you have a favorite story in the collection?
My favorite is "The Returning Student," which draws on my own experiences in Academia. The title character somewhat resembles a real student I once had, minus the supernatural features. I have used the story to develop a personal theory about Edgar Allan Poe.
Well now you have to tell me the theory!
Well, it is only a theory, but it explains much. Most people think of Poe as a writer and poet, whose tastes tended toward the macabre, but there was much more to him. He had a highly analytical and skeptical mind, and he was, of course, very imaginative. This shows in such stories as "The Purloined Letter" and "The Goldbug," as well as in some of his journalistic writings. I believe that he was meant to be a scientist and that he would have been a good one. His literary talents, while considerable, were really a sideline.
Where are you from?
Manila, P.I. (I was the son of an officer in the Army Medical Corps.)
Philippine Islands, which were an American territory at that time.
Where do you live now?
In Ellicott City, in the Baltimore area.
How old are you?
I will be 80 on my next birthday.
Which means that, at 69, you said: I'm going to tell stories. That's remarkable. There are people who, at 69, are doing anything but beginning a new career. What fueled this in you, do you think? What sets you apart? (And how do I get some!)
I have known many men, some of them of substantial accomplishment, who simply lay back and watched TV, or played golf, upon retirement. But they never lasted long. In a few years they were mentally dead. This preceded biological death. I didn't want this to happen to me. I had to do something and selected things that I liked. Whether I do them well or badly is not for me to say, but I certainly enjoy them and they have kept me young.
Are you married? Single? Tell us about your family.
I have been married only once, for 49 years. My family consists of myself, my wife, two grown daughters and nine grandchildren. One of my daughters is a physician and the other, like my wife, a nurse. At least two of my grandchildren show signs of exceptional talent.
What sort of talent? Writing? The arts? Or...?
One granddaughter is a precocious painter. She is already, at age nine, probably better than I am. One grandson is talented both as a chess player and as a debater. When he was eight years old, he was already beating me at chess. I often argue with him about various things and have usually found that he gets the better of me, even when I know good and well that I am right. | March 2006
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of The Next Ex.
You can visit Robert Steiner on the Web.