Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle In Person

By Claiborne K.H. Smith

AUGUST 4, 1997:  Steven Culbert at Book People Ask Steven Culbet a theoretical question -- one about his new novel Lovesong for the Giant Contessa -- and you'll get an answer, in time. Culbert has a uniquely roundabout way of getting to the point; for example, when you ask him how the gawky but toughened teenaged protagonists of Contessa can utter their worldly witticisms, Culbert's answer is likely to involve about four cities, three wise mentors, and several schools of thought. And Culbert himself is the first to acknowledge that the "rational" is not his strong suit. His writing style, a wild alloy of poetry and prose, is ample, welcome evidence. His long-windedness, however, did not prevent a small but doggedly interested group at BookPeople on July 12 from querying the author about his influences, methods, and the origin of his characters' names. They had reason, at least, to ask about the names: Contessa, his third novel, has characters named U-U, the Countess Eileen, Gus and Stinky (mules), Happy Hutchin, and Mrs. Stud Mingus. BookPeople's author-reading area on its third floor offers an intriguing set-up for a talented but basically unknown author like Culbert. Since it's in the very center of the third floor's space, the reading area sees much traffic, and occasionally, customers who had no intention of listening to the author are caught by his or her words and persuaded to sit down and listen. This happened to Culbert, who is an attentive listener to an audience's questions. He is also very earnest, so that while he acknowledges he may not be answering precisely the question an audience member sets before him, he is also concerned to let that person know how hard he is trying to give a straightforward answer. This articulated earnestness is at odds with the subtlety with which Culbert practices his craft, resulting in a seemingly inexplicable but harmonious clash of Culbert's personality with what one would expect of his personality having read Contessa.




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