On Writing

Guest Writer Interview Part II w/ Robert Earl Stewart

Robert Earl Stewart, author of The Running-Shaped Hole A Memoir (Dundurn, 2022)

And we’re back on track! (Running joke.)

Please enjoy part two of our ten-question interview! In case you missed the first part, here it is!

VS: I can feel as I read your book, the exposition of your relationship with your body. Obviously that was (is) a driving force in your sustained recovery/sobriety, but also in maintaining your healthy relationship with food (even though the desire for it is always there!), and in your relationships with others, especially your family. The way you describe yourself…begins with vivid self-deprecation, but you are actually in a space, nearly naked, and you go swimming; pg. 43, “I felt extremely self-conscious in the few frantic moments before I lowered myself into the pool after gingerly crossing the deadly wet terrazzo of the pool deck, exposed in my corpulence like a gluttonous fawn crossing an open field.” And then here, in the way you began to understand the manifestations playing out in your body, pg.89, “They were all physical manifestations of my body being out of step with my mind, the very core of my being signallings its desperate discomfort with the physical form I was taking, and how it was ruining my life…” And here, where you come outright and face your shame about your body, pg. 98, “…I was terrified of being seen myself. That same fear that kept me away from  the kids’ school so their friends and peers, their teachers, and other parents wouldn’t see what an enormous anchor on the emotional well-being of my children I had become kept me running under cover of darkness for several months….The shame I felt about my physical appearance and how it was affecting my relationships with my children was enough without the eyes and judgment of the neighbourhood upon me.” Your open sharing about how you feel in your body, literally and metaphorically, how you perceive others perceiving you, and eventually how the whole attention to what others think dissipates as your spiritual interiority strengthens, is an extraordinary discovery. I don’t know the stats, but I bet they exist and show that women write and share these stories about their weight, their body shame, their interior empowerment as they bring their body into a healthier state, like, 90% more than men write and share. Two part question: 1) How important is your relationship with your body on a daily basis (like, how does this importance show up as ‘choices’?)?, and 2) as more people read and respond to your book, are you noticing that the narrative of body image/relationship of a ‘man’ is something they’re responding to? 

RES: I’ve always been very conscious about The Running-Shaped Hole being as body-image positive as possible, because running is a very body-image positive sport.

Despite what anyone says, there is no ideal body type for runners.

Some of the most accomplished runners I know are larger people — people who don’t fit the stereotypical, elite athlete body type that is so toxic and based in very baby boomer-esque waist-size and Body Mass Index norms, which are essentially body shaming techniques couched in Good Housekeeping language. That being said, I am horribly self-conscious and critical of my own body in a very quiet, private way. I am not striving for perfection because I don’t believe in that. I just want to be comfortable. And some days I am there, and some days I am not. I track my food on an app and weigh myself every morning and record the weight in the app and on a pad of paper in our linen cupboard.

If anything, it has made me aware that progress and change are not linear. It is more expansive and chaotic.

It can be very frustrating, and when I am frustrated I want to eat because this is what makes me feel in control. But that control is an illusion. Quite clearly, this is a very insidious loop. I can be acutely aware of it and totally powerless over it in the same moment. 

As far as reader response goes, people have been reaching out from all over the world, really. Some want to talk about the frustrations and meditative aspects of running, some want to talk about faith and spirituality (which is a big component of the book), some want to talk about alcoholism and recovery (another big part of the book), and some want to talk about weight and food. If my story strikes people as remarkable because it is a man being vulnerable and honest about his body, his faith, his flaws… I think that says a lot about how we raise boys and how we treat the emotional lives of men in our culture. But it is also a bellwether of troubling trends in publishing.

My agent, Sam Hiyate, says one of the reasons he wanted to represent me and my work is because he believes very strongly that men’s stories still matter at a time when there are numerous editorials and think pieces declaring the irrelevancy of male voices in publishing.

VS: Full-disclosure: I had to look up the word hubris. I mean, I had a sense of what the word meant, but to be sure, I looked it up. It means: excessive pride or self-confidence and also, (in Greek tragedy) excessive pride toward or defiance of the gods, leading to nemesis. (Thank you, Oxford.) I’m glad I looked up the meaning. I’m glad I read the second sentence too. Two of the major shifts that you experience during this life-changing process (and perhaps continue to experience!), are directly related to your ‘hubris’ – one is on a level with God. Not necessarily the Greek gods, but that spiritual connection is very alive. Can you talk about your relationship with “the God of my [your] understanding” at this point? Post-book release and launch? And, indeed, if there is any ‘nemesis’ action happening? Another level of your hubris is definitely on a level with pride and confidence. Do you think that being a writer (or an artist, if I may?) affects our hubris…or maybe can affect our hubris with more…expansion because of the nature of the system with its foundations on competition and distribution and stats and awards…?

RES: There was a point in my life when faith, spirituality, God, church, and religion were all very much confused in my head. I go into some detail in straightening this all out in the book, but suffice to say they are all different things, and what I can say is that while I believe in God, and have faith, it is free of the dogma and polemics of religion. I can also say I’m not as overtly opposed to religion as I once was, though my professed atheism opposition was a façade; fraudulent social posturing that I engaged in out of fear, intellectual pride, and alcoholic hubris (there’s that word again). I was defying gods I claimed not to believe in. Pretty sick and delusional shit. Anyway, where I am going with this is occasionally, maybe twice a year, I will go to church with my wife and children, who are all Catholic. And what I do is listen intently. I try to be open to the message. And one thing I picked up on, after years of being very closed off to this, is that there is one point in the mass where the priest will literally raise his arms and sing “The mystery of faith!” and once I was sober and heard that, I remember thinking, “That’s fucking it right there!” That’s what I like about faith and that’s why it’s so freeing compared to the prideful posturing and overtures to certainty and empiricism that come from a slavish preoccupation with reason and critical thinking, and this boastful, bigoted atheism that bewitches and plagues so many people

… faith is a mystery! There is no evidence or proof required. To look for those things is to miss the point so disastrously as to all but prove that any claims to reason and critical thinking are themselves sheer hubris — excessively prideful and arrogant.

The classic story of hubris is that of Icarus and Daedalus attempting to escape their prison on Crete on wings made of wax and feathers and flying too close to the sun despite knowing that it would spell certain doom. This is basically what writing is. It’s good that there are some accolades to go around, because there is certainly very little money.

When I was very little I told my parents I wanted to be a clown that made balloon animals. That was my first stated ambition. I don’t think I’ve missed the mark by very much.

I try not to think much beyond the day at hand. I seems to be working, though I could probably be convinced that somehow this is defying the gods, too. 

VS: What creative project are you working on now? 

RES: I started writing a novel in 2001. It is about newspapers, illegal prize fighting, art heists, Indian food, the perch fishery, private detectives, parallel identity crisis, and rock and roll. It’s very much rooted in Windsor and Detroit, but it also visits locales like Montreal, St. Petersburg (Russia), the Mojave desert, and the Gulf Coast of Texas. There are those who have assured me, without reading it, that it’s probably done. I can assure them that as much as I wish it was, it is not. Two books of poetry, a memoir, a lot of running, a 15-year career in newspapers, and a stint as a bookseller have intervened. Being a husband and father does not intervene or distract from writing, but rather bolsters and supports writing. 

VS: Do you believe in true love? If I go by the way you write about your wife, to me, the answer to this is a resounding YES! Love…self-love, love for your wife, your parents, your children – it’s the core of this book, I believe. Can you wax on how these different streams of love helped shape you into the man you are today?

RES: Well, I was raised in a very loving and gentle home. My childhood was magical. I would change nothing. I think if you are raised in a home like that, you cannot help but believe in true love because that’s the default setting. My parents modelled an enduring love and respect for each other that I can only strive to live up to in my own marriage. Jennifer and I have been married for 22 years and have three children who as of this writing are 19, 16 and 15. They are all I have and I like it that way. We are all homebodies. We sing songs to our pets and narrate things in the house with grandiose musical numbers where everyone is singing, sometimes simultaneously. I am very blessed. Particularly because I suspect it must be very challenging to be married to a writer, let alone a writer who is a recovered alcoholic. I know how imperfect I am. I know how polarizing I can be. I lost my job as a bookseller in 2017 and have very little hope of ever working a traditional job again given my age and the current marketplace.

So, yes — I am very lucky to be loved.

Several people have approached me and have been very hesitant and apologetic in their explaining to me that upon reading the book they realized that it is Jennifer who is the true hero of The Running-Shaped Hole, and my response is always, “Yes, I know. No need to apologize.” I’m left wondering if they have somehow misinterpreted, or think I am somehow unaware, of the rest of the book where I am continually getting in my own way and making situations worse by opening my mouth or simply acting on impulse and proceed to whip myself for it. I am well aware that if the book has an antagonist — or even a villain — it is me. 

VS: Finally, you describe the running-shaped hole (with full credit given to Martin Deck for the term, and a fabulous nod to Pascal) as: pg. 109 “….a spiritual experience. Finding, occupying, and filling the running-shaped hole, for me, is just that: a spiritual experience. It makes me more tolerant and accepting of myself. It subdues my self-consciousness and self-loathing. I become more open to the contradictory nature of my character and find some measure of peace in the fact that progress, for me, isn’t always a linear path toward immediate grace, generosity and perfection.”  How is your running-shaped hole these days? And, do you think that your running-shaped hole can shift into a swimming-shaped hole or a cycling-shaped hole if your body needs it to? 

RES: The running-shaped hole is the spiritual void in my life that I can confront and solve only through running. But it’s important to see it not as some kind of finite, one-time fix, but rather as something that has to be tended on a day-to-day or run-to-run basis.

Running for me is a form of meditation, and in order to have success with it I have to approach it with a spirit of curiosity and adventure. For today, I am a runner.

If it ever shifted to anything out of some necessity it would probably revert back to walking, which is where it started. Though, I’ve always been curious about racquetball. 

Hazzaah! Thank you, Bob!

I do hope you’ve enjoyed our conversation. I sure enjoyed asking the questions and reading the answers. I laughed. I cried. And, perhaps most importantly, I was, and continue to be inspired by Bob, his story, his vulnerable sharing and dedicated to his running-shaped-hole. (I’ve also gone on four runs now, and am feeling more and more confident that running will be a healthy habit in my life once again! Thank you, Bob!)

To buy The Running-Shaped Hole by Robert Earl Stewart, click HERE.

To download/listen to Bob’s running playlist on youtube, click HERE.

To download/listen to Bob’s running playlist on spotify, click HERE.

To listen the audio version of The Running-Shaped Hole, click HERE.

Follow Bob Here:

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One thought on “Guest Writer Interview Part II w/ Robert Earl Stewart

  1. Hi Vanessa, I’m so glad you interviewed Robert Earl Stewart. I haven’t heard anything about him in years! He’s really a good writer, and I’ll get his book! Sent from my iPad

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