Low Plaza

Debut Novel Explores Themes of Meaning, Masculinity and Memory

By Jo Kadlecek

Columbia Alumnus Stephen Raleigh Byler

When Stephen Raleigh Byler graduated from college in Virginia, he didn't know he wanted to be a writer. But this month, his debut book, "Searching for Intruders: A Novel in Stories" is being released to critical acclaim and the 31-year-old Columbia School of the Arts alumnus is about to embark on a 20-city book tour. What happened in between is a series of events that, much like the characters in his unique novel, took him on a search for meaning that ultimately helped him define his life long goals.

Byler grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in an Amish and Mennonite family, and had always enjoyed writing poetry, stories and essays. Still, he didn't think he had the courage to try it publicly. After his undergraduate studies in sociology, he entered what he calls a "meaning crisis" and decided to study philosophy and religion at Princeton's graduate school as part of the journey. It was an environment of "engaging questions of meaning," Byler recalls, and soon he came to believe literature was a way for him to engage such questions. That was the "epiphany" he needed to know he would be a writer for the rest of his life.

"Most people [studying philosophy] were interested in getting at truth with a capital T. I felt language could only go so far in describing what some people call transcendent or deeply emotive experiences," Byler said as he described the "creative awakening" he experienced in graduate school. "I felt deeply about things and it was as if those feelings were trapped inside of me. I realized there are certain intense experiences you can't really describe with critical language. You need to evoke, to make the reader or listener feel what you're trying to communicate in the context of a narrative. It's related to the philosophical question of whether there are pre- or extra- linguistic experiences. I went through a period where I was in despair, doubted everything, even the usefulness of language to communicate. But I came back around. Language is all we have. We need stories to order our conscienceness and our world."

So Byler began to write his stories, setting a goal for himself to complete his first novel by the time he turned 30. He dropped out of Princeton and spent six months in a van driving around the U.S. and writing. He began shaping the "character who became my narrator" in the novel, Wilson Hues, a sensitive but well meaning man haunted by traumatic, often violent memories that force themselves into his present, tragic relationships.

Once Wilson found his way onto the page, Byler knew he wanted to keep studying literature and writing, and paid particular attention to the works of Ernest Hemingway, Anton Chekov and Raymond Carver. He transferred his credits to Yale where he studied with Harold Bloom and Robert Stone, and earned a master's degree in religion and literature before coming to Columbia's School of the Arts.

Through the discipline of the writing workshops he took here, Byler began to see his novel evolve into a series of stories and vignettes linked together by a thematic structure. A class with David Plante, professor of writing, helped solidify his philosophic approach to language and aesthetics. Nicholas Christopher, associate professor of writing, forced him to think through just when a collection of short stories becomes a novel and when a novel could be a collection of stories. "I tried to write the book so the stories worked as individual pieces, so the vignettes worked as short shorts, and yet have all of it contribute to a narrative whole," Byler said. "Wilson does undergo a subtle change-as in a novel."

After spending another year off as a fly fishing guide in the Bahamas, he returned to Columbia and to a workshop with Plante where he continued work on the book. Shortly thereafter, he landed an agent and the book sold immediately. Even before he graduated the young writer was awarded a six-figure contract by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. The offer included his next book as well and pre-empted a bidding war in the publishing world.

"I got lucky," Byler says. "Columbia's professors were always supportive and I'm not sure my novel would have been written if not for their encouragement. It [the book] was a natural birth, but one which took almost four years." His professors have been just as quick to affirm Byler's gift and style. "Byler enters into a world he himself has discovered and made his own: that of heterosexual masculine tenderness, compelling and compassionate," says Plante. "His is a voice that will be listened to with amazement for revealing a sensibility that is wonderfully new to literature."

Thesis workshop professor Maureen Howard calls his novel, "stunning and innovative," and his prose, "intense, poised, moving." Christopher believes that Byler's "eye for detail [is] unfaltering," noting that he is "an author worth watching." Others have noticed too. Byler was selected for the Winter 2001 Discover Great New Writers series sponsored by Barnes & Noble, and his debut novel has already received favorable reviews from Publishers Weekly, Booklist, the Kirkus Review, and most recently, the New York Times. Bloom even compared Byler to Hemingway.

Byler is encouraged, and humbled, by the response and looks forward to reading aloud his work on tour. He divides his writing life between New York, Montana and Pennsylvania where he is already at work on his second novel. Regardless of his initial success, Byler admits, "you can always write a better book. I have lots of ideas, so I plan to write novels until I die."

That process for Byler means constructing narratives that challenge readers to slow down when they're reading and reflect on the themes he is exploring. Perhaps that is also why Byler uses a variety of metaphors in "Searching for Intruders"-cockroaches, airplanes, abandoned puppies, misfit characters-to explore issues like masculinity, intimacy and purpose.

"That's why I write short, so people will read slowly. I try to make the characters in my stories respond the way real people would," Byler reflects. "That's what I think stories should do: tell real stories about real people that ask real questions. If you can tell a story that moves someone, it can help liberate them from the tyranny of their own feelings, from the sense that they are alone in their suffering."

Published: Jan 30, 2002
Last modified:Sep 18, 2002

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