Interview with Steven Barber
Earlier this month, The Fiction Circus caught wind of the black smell of burning paper, and followed it to find that a student had been kicked out of college after writing a controversial and "dark" short story for his creative writing class.

The guy's name is Steven Barber, and the college from which he was booted is the University of Virginia at Wise. We looked at the case and made up our minds about it, and asked him to send us his short story so that we could take a look at it and see what was so wrong.

He was nice enough to do that, and here's what we discovered: it was a lot better than some of the things you guys send to us. The story is about a writer who can't think of anything good to write and so he decides to kill himself and do some drugs, but not in that order.

The story has problems, of course, but it is certainly fiction, and it is certainly nothing to worry about. Some of the drug lore is a bit much, but what college student doesn't have Erowid bookmarked on their internet browser?

Additionally, regardless of content, we firmly believe that judging who is crazy by looking at their works of art is an impossible task (and unconstitutional).

John Wayne Gacy used to paint clowns. He was a precinct captain for the Democratic Party. He had high-level security clearance from the Secret Service, and was once photographed with Rosalynn Carter. They found 27 boys and young men buried in the crawlspace of his house.

In the case of Steven Barber, his creative writing instructor -- uh, Christopher Scalia, son of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, son of Eugene Scalia -- decided that his piece of writing was dangerous enough that Barber had to be FLAGGED AND DEALT WITH, before he went on a killing spree, or a "suicidal rampage."

(Note: It is a good thing Scalia wasn't my college creative writing professor. I once wrote a story about foreskin bacteria deciding that war is an absolute value and riding off to kill, murder, and rape at the penis's ragged corona. My kindly professor at the time said that it had interesting punctuation.)

Anyway, Barber had guns; Barber just got out of the military; Barber was a controversial figure on campus for his politics. The cops gave him the stiff finger, and then they took him to a mental institution. He is STILL not allowed to go back to school, and he has STILL not received any money from the government to pay for the college he is not allowed to attend.

We wanted to know more, so we offered Mr. Barber the deal we offer famous writers: we will pay for half of your bus ticket to come out to New York if you agree to let us interview you.

When Barber showed up at our offices, he seemed a little bit out of place. He was nicely-dressed in a suit and tie, and he was carrying a briefcase in one hand and a ham sandwich in the other. He looked at our wall-sized picture of naked Karl Marx getting a two-sided blowjob from some nice British girls and he raised an eyebrow.

"Yeah, uh, about that," I said.

He picked up one of the big black dildoes to which we have attached wheels and which we use as race-cars to send messages to each other. He looked at it, reading the post-it on the side.

"CARTER: MORE DRUGS!!! WE ARE ARTISTS!!! -- Love, Verdammt" it said.

"Um," I said.

He looked into the break room, where a group of dirty street urchins were receiving a lecture from Dr. Future on the best way to pick a pocket, and he bit his tongue diplomatically. I could see that politically we were perhaps in different worlds. But I saw a faded copy of John Stuart Mill's "On Liberty" that someone had used to smash roaches in the hallway and I picked it up when he wasn't looking.

I wiped off the leg segments and goo and held it up, grinning.

"John Stuart Mill!" I said.

He seemed to relax.

"John Stuart Mill," he said, graciously consenting to the interview.


FC: What does it feel like to be arrested for your writing? There is a grand tradition of writers who have done time for words.

Barber: If they insist on giving me so much material, who am I to object?

In addition to being arrested, lots of writers have also been expelled from college. John Locke was expelled from Christ's Church, Oxford. Robert Frost from Dartmouth. Tom DeLay from Baylor.

FC: So, who are your influences?

Barber: Bombay Sapphire and Sailor Jerry. [he grins] Seriously, I love Dostoevsky, Hunter S. Thompson, and Tom Robbins.

FC: Dostoevsky did a year in solitary for his revolutionary activity, and then they took him out to a firing squad and pretended to shoot him, but pardoned him instead in order to FREAK HIM OUT FOR LIFE. Hunter S. Thompson had countless run-ins with the law, the feds, and the DEA. You aren't rattled, are you?

Barber: A historical anecdote. When Henry Kissinger asked the Chinese envoy Zhou Enlai what he thought of the French Revolution, he replied "It's too soon to tell."

FC: Alright then, so what was the last good book you read?

Barber: 90% of the stuff I read is non-fiction. I loved William F. Buckley's "Cancel Your Own Goddamn Subscription." As for the last fictional book, it was George Orwell's "1984." I picked it up the day they released me from the psych ward. I only managed to get through about a third of it that day because I kept re-reading paragraphs that were eerily describing my situation.

FC: I can imagine. At least it has a happy ending. So when you sit down to write, how do you get into the space where the words start to flow on their own?

Barber: I can't get into the groove for fiction. Every line is pounded out one word at a time. How that results in such bad judgment sometimes, well--I have no idea.

FC: So are you done writing fiction, then?

Barber: Does politics count?

FC: Is that what you are studying in school?

Barber: At UVA Wise, I was double majoring in Political Science and Administration of Justice. At the local community college, I'm enrolled in a paralegal program. I would like to go to law school to become "one of them" so I never have to depend on another "one of them."

FC: How often do you write?

Barber: At the time of the incident, I would guess over two hours a day. Most of that was for my underground newspaper though.

FC: Underground newspaper? What's that all about? Or can you talk about it without compromising yourself?

Barber: The official newspaper for UVA Wise, "The Highland Cavalier," refused to publish a letter to the editor I wrote because it was too controversial. For instance, regarding Ahmadinejad's trip to Columbia, I wrote that "at least he managed the flight over without hijacking his own airplane."

They lied about why they wouldn't publish it, not knowing that I had infiltrated their propaganda machine with spies. So I started my own underground newspaper espousing some pretty radical libertarian/conservative ideas.

However, we are also the only ones that would publish the president of the Young Democratic Socialists. The Cavalier's excuse to ban him was that he used "big words."

Anyway, we did a few controversial stories, for instance on how the school is in violation of the federal code for not flying an American flag on campus. We were loved by some and hated by others.

FC: Was this your first creative writing class?

Barber: I had a creative writing class in high school. It was really boring and I don't remember much of it.

FC: What were the "rules" for submitting work in this class, and how much work were you expected to submit?

Barber: There really weren't rules per se. Only suggestions. After some idiot basically wrote the plot out for the game Counterstrike, a "body count" rule was issued on how many people could die in a given short story.

Ironically, no one dies in mine. He "preferred" that we not write in first person because it's so hard to separate the narrator from the character consistently, blah blah blah.

FC: Describe the classroom dynamic, and what problems you had with the structure, if any.

Barber: Every day, we circled up and shared criticism about what we were assigned to read. Sometimes it was another student's stories. Sometimes it was something professional. The structure was fine, and for the most part, I got along with class. Though at this point I assume some didn't get along with me.

FC: Was work supposed to be work-shopped publicly, or only graded by the professor?

Barber: Work-shopped publicly. What I submitted was the first draft to face the scrutiny of my peers.

FC: Did you expect anything bad to happen from your story?

Barber: An intense workshop. That's about it.

FC: Was it threatening to have your work judged by Mr. Scalia, a man who perhaps has "judge issues" in his life?

Barber: Full disclosure: I'm one of those radical Republicans who really, really likes his dad. Having said that, his son is an absolute nutjob. He freaks out every time his dad is mentioned. My girlfriend (who was particularly close to Professor Scalia) wore a shirt that said "Matter of Interpretation" -- the name of Scalia's book -- as part of a protest in support of me. He made her cover it up in class.

FC: Any particular favorites from among your classmates' work? Any stuff you didn't like?

Barber: Yes, this story about a girl murdering her boyfriend was great. A guy wrote about a futuristic dystopia that was amazing. There was a ghost-story that had me hooked the whole way through. Professor Scalia's criticism was "It's really good except for the ghost thing." His favorite TV show is "Flava of Love," with Flava Flav, by the way.

FC: How did your fellow students react to your expulsion?

Barber: There was a protest at my hearing where I got expelled. They all had teeshirts with "Steve spoke free and so will we" on them.

Other students would be glad to see me go for any reason, so they were happy. Most of my professors really miss me. I keep in touch. I imagine that there a few professors and administrators that had a few celebratory drinks when I lost my appeal.

FC: Are you, in fact, using gubbmint Navy money to go to school?

Barber: In theory. In practice I still haven't seen the first check. I hate bureaucracy with a hot, hot hate.

FC: What was naval service like compared to college?

Barber: More fun. Everyone knows the rules. Everyone knows the traditions that bend the rules. Everyone has a fair shot to play the game. In college they make up shit as they go along.

FC: So what's the story with the mental hospital? Jesus! What was that all about?

Barber: Looking at the campus police reports, it appears that the administration decided that I was to be "committed." They took me to a crisis counselor telling me that it was for "evaluation."

I didn't know it then, but the crisis counselor is actually a board member of one of the college affiliated organizations.

Anyway, I thought the interview was going pretty good--I asked to go the bathroom and I told her I had a pocketknife and that she could keep it as a sign of good-faith. She said that wouldn't be necessary. Next thing I know, they have a "temporary detention order" -- a TDO -- from the civil magistrate.

The paperwork for the TDO has contradictions all over it. One paper says I have only suicidal ideation. The other says I have both suicidal and homicidal ideation. She passed the opportunity to mark my mood as depressed ("circle all the following that apply: Mood: Depressed, Anxious, Nervous, Paranoid" etc.) but then wrote in my diagnosis that I suffered from a depressed mood.

To fulfill the TDO, I was locked up in a mental institution for three days for intense evaluation. There was a trial-type thing on the third day with a special justice, defense counsel, my case manager representing the nut-house, and an independent psychologist. They adjudicated me to be not mentally ill or a threat to myself or others. No. Shit. Sherlock.

FC: How did you prove your sanity?

Barber: I'm a really good actor. [he grins again]

Seriously, I actually did my best to keep my emotions under control. I apparently did that too well: they categorized my "range of affect" as being "constricted."

FC: Are you going to turn this whole thing into a story? You should.

Barber: Probably not. I wouldn't be able to resist having the character do the horrible things he was accused of thinking about that led to all of the drama with the administration. It would be really funny -- but in poor taste.

FC: Really funny but in poor taste is the hallmark of good fiction, though. Consider Faulkner, Stephen King, basically everything ever written worth reading. What limits do you think should be put on college fiction, as far as theme and substance?

Barber: I think a professor is free to set whatever standard he or she wishes. If the goal of the class in the academic sense is to explore beauty, truth, and justice then there should be no limits.

If a professor is just teaching how to write instead of facilitating some literary spirit quest, then they should have the license to restrict a lot, if they wish. However, these restrictions or lack of restrictions should be explicitly stated on day one.

I really doubt that academia makes for good writing. Tools, squares, "the man"--all of these people make for a hostile writing environment. Why must they insist on immanentizing the eschaton?

I'll use an analogy. If a chess teacher wants to teach his pupils the technical aspects behind hypermodern openings, you can't go off playing the center counter game. In that sense, there should be some limits. You aren't trying to win, you're trying to learn "how to." Not everything done in a classroom should automatically have artistic value.

FC: Any good mental hospital stories?

Barber: Yes, actually. I'm not sharing them though -- I don't want to get sent back. I will say this, however: the place I was at allowed smoking, and even had complimentary cigs for anyone who was taken in without them.

Between lithium and a cigarette, I'll side with a cigarette every time.

The first night and the next day were scary. By the time Sunday rolled around, I was having a good time in a "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" kinda way.

FC: Are you considering legal action for the forcible incarceration?

Barber: I'm more concerned with the expulsion. And making false statements to the commonwealth attorney saying I had been involuntarily committed when I had only been temporarily detained. These are very, very different things -- legally -- when it comes to firearms.

FC: Yeah, what's the story on all the guns?

I got my concealed carry permit as soon as I was 21 and back in the States. I've been carrying ever sense. I lived in a dorm room, so I was uncomfortable having them in my room. So I kept them in my car. Only one of them was easily accessible from the driver's seat. The third one wasn't loaded nor was there ammunition for it in the car.

As for the legality of the guns and the illegality of the gun-ban, Virginia has a pre-emption law which doesn't let certain forms of the government restrict firearms. Specifically it says that state "agencies" can't do this. UVA Wise and UVA proper are State Agency No. 85 according to the Virginia Administrative Code. It's not just that I didn't break the law, the school administration DID break the law.

For the "guns are scary and therefore have no place on campus" crowd, consider this: after 9/11, Muslims are scary and therefore have no place on campus. Both those statements are illogical to me.

FC: What steps are you taking to get yourself reinstated?

Barber: I talked to the NRA-recommended lawyer and he said a suit was winnable but would cost about 70 grand. And because I got in trouble in September, there was no way the NRA would risk paying for it.

So right now I'm waiting for the Supreme Court to rule on the Heller Case establishing the 2nd Amendment as an individual right.

Our Student Handbook says: ""The College is a community of scholars in which the ideals of freedom of inquiry, freedom of thought, freedom of expression, and freedom of the individual are sustained. It is committed to preserving the exercise of any right guaranteed to individuals by the Constitution."

The next step then is to start pushing for indictments to be filed against administrators of the college. According to the FBI website, it is "a crime for any person acting under color of law, statute, ordinance, regulation, or custom to willfully deprive or cause to be deprived from any person those rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution and laws of the U.S."

So hopefully the legal eagles at Charlottesville will see that they face potential jail time, see that VA has a pre-emption law for firearms that the school violated, and see that they perjured themselves to a commonwealth attorney about me being 'involuntarily committed.' Hopefully they'll shit the bed, and offer me free tuition.

FC: Anything else you want to say? Anything the press has gotten wrong, or distorted?

Barber: As for what people have gotten wrong:

I wasn't involuntarily committed.

I never slept with a gun under my pillow. At least not in college.

I don't think it's logically possible to have a "suicidal rampage" and I sure as hell didn't write about one.

The guns were a loaded .45, a loaded .22 derringer, and an unloaded 9mm.

I cooperated with police the whole time. They didn't "discover" the guns--I told them about them, about my permit, and I also gave them a rather long lesson on Virginia's pre-emption law.

The press ALWAYS leaves out that Daphne Blanton, the counselor who issued my TDO, is a board member on a UVA Wise-affiliated organization known as the "Wesley Foundation." It's a case of blatant conflict of interest. And the other thing the press ignores is that UVA's gun ban is illegal.

I could talk about it all day, but for a detailed analysis, check out my website.

FC: I will put up a link. Has there been any fallout with friends, family, or love interests?

Barber: A lot of unnecessary tension. But everyone that's a friend, family, or love interest supports me. In fact, I officially proposed to my girl last night.

FC: Congratulations! Did she say yes? Has she seen the story, incidentally, and what does she think?

Barber: She's seen me in the nut house, get expelled, castigated in her home-town paper, and she said yes. I'm hoping my Jedi mind tricks keep working until she's bound by contractual agreement.

She's seen the story and said: "Other than being too colloquial for my tastes, it was interesting and engaging."

FC: Do you still want to be a writer, if you ever did?

Barber: I would like to write a weekly politics column. Maybe publish a book later.

FC: Any advice for other students in creative writing programs today?

Barber: My advice is don't take a creative writing class. Read the classics instead.


Posted by miracle on Mon, 02 Jun 2008 05:49:55 -0400 -- permanent link

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