Bookstore owner’s novel explores shattering nature of love

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David-mitchell
Author Steve Mitchell posing with his first novel at Scuppernong, the bookstore in downtown Greensboro he co-owns. (photo by Deonna Kelli Sayed)

“I had to set it down for about six or eight months,” Steve Mitchell recalled. “I had to wait for something to happen.”

Waiting is something a novelist comes to both love and hate. Unlike short stories, poems or essays, novels can take years to write. The art form that requires unconditional love for the project, love that must carry a writer through the best parts, the difficult parts and all the walls they hit along the way. But for writer Steve Mitchell, these walls were something a little different.

“I set restrictions on myself,” Mitchell said. “I wanted to keep a sharp focus on these two characters. There are other characters but none that play any major role. I didn’t want flashbacks or to dig into childhoods or anything. I wanted to keep it on the two of them, to show every side of their relationship.”

Mitchell’s debut novel Cloud Diary, to be published by C&R Press in April, centers on the relationship between Doug and Sophie and explores the shattering nature of intimacy and love. But like Mitchell’s 2012 story collection The Naming of Ghosts published by Winston-Salem-based Press 53, Cloud Diary delves into the darkness of memory, turning the past over in its hands, showing how our histories are never simply behind us.

Told from Doug’s perspective, Cloud Diary relates the eight-year relationship between a quiet and aimless Doug with the attractive, extravagant artist, Sophie. Mitchell has a true talent for relaying striking detail that is just outside the ordinary. The fluidity in which Mitchell moves between past and present, keeping clear sight on perspective and the overarching vision of the story, each line sings with simplicity, while working with an enigmatic, layered duality, unearthing the buried life of these characters with each sentence. Even in the novel’s opening lines, one can see a slight hint of the deeper folds of these characters.

“In Sophie’s version, I was muttering to myself (which I was) when we met, muttering like some sort of professorial streetcorner vagrant declaiming Milton between gulps of Mad Dog,” Mitchell writes.

While on the one hand Cloud Diary reads like a rom-com movie script, galivanting through the awkward subtleties of a new relationship, but a certain devastation haunts each passing scene.

“We told the beautiful and variegated versions of that story, branching and returning as water strained through smaller tributaries and finally meeting again at a cardinal point, told and re-told it until we didn’t any longer, until we were no longer together, until the once we were had faded, and each version of the story quietly folded itself into memory.”

To learn more about Steve Mitchell and the projects surrounding Cloud Diary, visit clouddiary.org.

Such ideas of memory drive Mitchell’s novel.

“I differentiate memory from story,” Mitchell said. “There are different stories we tell ourselves that are not the same as memory. The stories we tell ourselves tend to be comprised of things we want to believe. But memory is a real, visceral experience. How Faulkner said the past isn’t really the past, that is tied for me to this physicality of memory and this idea that when a memory comes it is actually present. It is not a recollection, it is an actual presence in your body.”

Beyond the stories that we have at the ready, that we tell others and have told time and again, Mitchell feels that memory is more than just a breath in our thoughts, but rather, it is a living thing.

“I am interested in how these stories conflict with memory, and how that physical memory comes about,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell wrote Cloud Diary over a period of four years, stating the idea had been there long before the words hit the page, but the art was in finding the right order the words were supposed to be, while also balancing his days with business as co-owner of Scuppernong Books in Greensboro. When asked if he managed to find ample time for his writing, Mitchell laughed with a lighthearted chuckle.

“The answer to that is yes and no,” he said. “There’s always so much going on. Right now we’re putting together this literary festival, while there are always things going on at the store. Between that and finishing the book and finishing edits, I haven’t had a lot of time to write. But I tend to believe that that will all change at some point. It’s essential for me as a happy human being to find time to write.”

For Mitchell, the scope of his novel dips into fresh, exciting territories of literary fiction. But just as his novel exceeds the boundaries of imagination, his readings are set to do the same. Collaborating with nearly 18 local musicians, Mitchell plans elevate the experience with the launch of Cloud Diary at Scuppernong on April 6.

“I put out a call to anyone who was interested and sent each musician a scene or chapter of the book at random and basically told them, ‘Go,’” Mitchell said. “None of them know what the others are doing or what part they have. The idea is to build a playlist to go along with the book, but to heighten the overall experience.”

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