Chatting at the Bottom of the Lake

From a production of the play version of The Bottom of the Lake.
Courtesy Theatrefolk

Steven Stack is an internationally-produced playwright for teens and middle-schoolers, and a full-time acting teacher for kids. He’s also one of my best friends, and he’s just published his first novel, The Bottom of the Lake. Here we discuss the fairly unique project of turning a play into a novel.

Me: You’ve written many plays, so why did you decide to turn this particular play into a novel?

Steven: I’ve always wanted to write a book, but my playwrighting took precedence because, as a theatre teacher who wrote for his students, there was always a new scene or play to create. Then one morning, when I had a break in my writing assignments, I mentioned to a particular writer friend over coffee (is name is Alex Bledsoe, not sure if you know him) that I wanted a new challenge. He suggested writing a book based on one of my plays and I thought about it and decided . . . “Cool.” I picked The Bottom of the Lake because it was my most popular play and I’ve always felt that the story and characters deserved more exploration then the stage allowed. So I got in the creative sandbox with the goal of  expanding and evolving a world that I had enjoyed creating so much the first time. The funny thing is, that even though they share the same title, the novel and the play became vastly different as the writing moved along. The book began book taking a darker and more personal tone than I had imagined it would. I suppose writing a book at a time of immense change and struggle in my life and those around me, including my students, would demand that the story serve not only as a vehicle for the character’s quests but those in the real world that matter to me as well. 

Playwright Steven Stack, where we can keep an eye on him.

You’re an experienced playwright; how different was writing prose?

Really different. When you write a play, you have to know a great amount about the characters and the world around them, but you focus more creating a roadmap instead of specific details about the world they live in, because that is often formed by whoever is directing and performing the play. When I wrote the play, it was geared for a younger audience, but when I wrote the book, I focused on telling a story that was more geared towards older teens and adults. Doing this allowed me to take off the restraints and let the characters and their stories go where they wanted to, instead of having to consider how it would look on stage. Plus, writing dialogue is something that I’ve done for years but creating an in-depth narrative? Not so much. It was a truly fantastic and exhausting experience as I wrote draft after draft and watched the book read less like a play and more like, you know, a book.

My son Jake as “Spatula Hand,” from the play version of The Bottom of the Lake.

The novel has some pretty sharp changes in tone; how concerned were you that readers couldn’t follow that?

I really didn’t give it much thought for two reasons. One is because . . . I didn’t think of that. Perhaps I should have. Who knows. Another reason, a personal one, is because that’s just the way my brain has always worked since I was a wee child. The way I interacted with myself, others, and the world around me tended to feature sharp changes because . . . I really don’t know why. Perhaps I get bored easily and I like to imagine my life as a sitcom? I don’t know. Anyway, this way of being had choice but to show up in my writing.

That being said, that wasn’t the main reason sharp tone changes show up in my plays. See, I’ve always assumed that you had to work hard to make the audience care because they’ve seen most things and a good majority of them are there to watch their kids and then go back to the lives. With that in mind, I thought the best way to come at writing was to give the audience what they didn’t expect and keep them guessing, make them go “What is going on?” thus making them want to pay attention. The tone changes and twists, however, have to be earned, and make sense in the world of the play.

With the book, I didn’t do it for either of those reasons, oddly enough. What a weird answer this turning out to be. I thought about my experiences as a teenager and my years working with teens, and how a teenage life is a constant change of tones daily and observing their struggle and, at times, enjoyment, of the ridiculousness is of their existence. Now that I think about it, it’s just not teenage lives, it’s all our lives. Our day can go from the most epically hilarious happy day to the angriest or most heartbreaking day in moments. So I guess, in a way, the sharp changes in tones reflect the way I view daily life and the world that my characters exist in.

What would you like readers to take away from the book?

I would like the readers, first to connect with the characters and enjoy the journey of the story feeling whatever emotions that they feel at a given time. In terms of what I would like to them to take from it, would be the understanding that, although we often feel alone, misunderstood, and wear masks that we feel are force upon us by a world that wouldn’t embrace us if they knew our truths, the truth is different. But only if we allow others to see our truths, including our scars, which would allow others to see that they were never alone as well. Doing this would provide a connection that we are crave but are often too fearful to admit too.

Thanks to Steven for taking the time to talk with me. You can get The Bottom of the Lake at all the usual suspects (Amazon, Barnes and Noble, etc.), but if you have a local independent bookseller, have them order it. And then when you’re done, leave an honest review somewhere like Goodreads.

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