Notables at the Nomad with Dessa
Each issue, Dessa will sit down for beers at the Nomad World Pub with one guest of her choosing. For this issue, she chatted with Steve Marsh, a Minneapolis-based writer whose work has appeared in Grantland, GQ, and Mpls.St Paul Magazine, among others.
Steve is in his mid thirties, 6’4”. He’s well dressed in a fashion that’s both writerly and vaguely nautical—lots of stripes, scarves, and hats. It’s a look that could present well behind a vintage typewriter or a captain’s wheel. His Facebook page says he’s Roman Catholic and that he dates singer/waifish beauty Maggie Morrison. He has curly hair; perfect, expensive-looking teeth, and the slightest intimation of a valley girl lilt, which is mysterious because he is from White Bear Lake. He is one of the best writers working in Minneapolis today.
If his name is new to you, you can find Steve’s stuff in Mpls.St Paul Magazine, Delta Sky, Grantland, and GQ online. He’s interviewed everyone from Fergie to Ray Bradbury, Kermit the Frog to Chris Rock.
Even by his own account, Steve is a better interviewer than he is writer. A couple of years ago, he interviewed me for one of his articles. During the course of our conversations, I found myself sharing the personal details of my private life—personal details, including a brief stay in a psych ward. And I’m not the only one to have been so candid. Marla, a beekeeper that Steve profiled, revealed to him that she had been the victim of domestic abuse years before. David Fhima, local chef, told him about an extra marital affair with Kristian Alfonso, better known as Hope from Days of Our Lives. This information was not publicly known before Steve wrote about it. So how does he—a total stranger decked out in horizontal stripes—manage to extract the secrets from everyone he talks to in just in a few hours, sometimes less?
When I ask Steve to explain the term ‘going native,’ he says, “It’s like Dances With Wolves.” Journalists who completely submerse themselves in a story inevitably lose some of the perspective they need to write about it. Bill, one of Steve’s editors, expressly accused Steve of going native while writing an article on Twin Cities bike culture. While it’s difficult to imagine Steve as a fixed-gear hipster clacking into a dive bar in his plastic shoes to order a tallboy, he cops to Bill’s point. He got way too into the bike scene. And it’s not just bikes. When he’s writing about dolphins, the whole world is Lisa Frank. To profile a philosopher, he’ll stay up every night reading dead Germans. When it’s basketball, sports metaphors pepper every conversation. When it’s beekeeping, he’s just a drone with opposable thumbs.
For a moment during his dolphin article, Steve seemed ready to join PETA, so I ask him if he’s still into dolphins.
He says he’s “way more into point guards again.” (Steve’s currently working on a piece for GQ.)
For all their intensity, his enthusiasms are short-lived, lasting just long enough for him to get the answers he needs and then move on. I ask, “Doesn’t that sound like a one-night stand?”
“Every subject I have ever been involved with has been a relationship of some kind.”
“Is that relationship fundamentally, in some way, deceptive?”
“No. No, I hope not.”
“Is it coercive? Your job is to get people to tell you things they didn’t plan on telling you, isn’t it?”
“No. My thing—and this sounds cheesy—but my thing is to get the truth.”
“But aren’t there some truths that people don’t want to tell you?”
Steve brings up Marla. He said they’d been riding in the car together when she told him about her abusive ex. A couple of hours later, she wanted to retract that part of the story from his notes. Steve said he told her, “You have to trust me. You told me those things on the record. And now it’s my responsibility to give them the weight they deserve in print.”
Trust, he says, isn’t always a product of long relationships. It’s not always evidence-based and it’s not always rational. “You can trust some people right off the bat.” Not surprisingly, Steve considers Steve to be a trustworthy guy. Presumably, his interviewees agree with him. To explain their frankness, he uses himself as a case study, “Why’d I even agree to this? What is in it for me?” He says he was curious. And he’d never been asked for an interview before, it was flattering. “The ego, vanity. That’s why most people would agree to be interviewed. Everybody, Everybody becomes the person that wants to become famous in your story.”
It seems to me that people talking to Steve would naturally be inclined to cherrypick—they’d want to read their match.com profiles into the phone to make sure they’d be portrayed in the best light. Steve says, yes, there’s that impulse, but people simply can’t help themselves: “People will tell you the truth. Cause people want to tell something, they wanna tell their story, you know?… Eventually it just comes out.”
Steve is animated, halting in a Woodie Allen kind of way, and his whole bit about the insuppressible nature of human truth bears some similarity to Jeff Goldblum’s insistence, “Life will not be contained, life breaks free… nature finds a way.” And it’s working. I bought it in’93 and I’m buying it now.
“I think a lot of people open up to me because I listen. And I care. I do really care about people.” My memory of my own experience with Steve corroborates his self-assessment. When he interviewed me, I probably wanted the excuse to talk about my freak out, was tired of standing guard on a secret—wanted it out and over with. And Steve listened. Without a judgmental look on his face. (While talking of Fhima’s admission to sleeping with a soap star, Steve says, “I watch Days of Our Lives and I like Bo and Hope.”) When you tell a secret to Steve, he doesn’t make you feel lousy. That’s more than can be said for a lot of intimates in our real lives.
I’d initially imagined writers like Steve might have a small arsenal of Geisha tactics, some set of calculated techniques that could flatter the most guarded secrets out of any mark. But his success has less to do with the singularity of Steve Marsh, Investigative Reporter and more do with his recognition of the commonalities shared by the people he’s interviewing. People want to be listened to. People want to be famous. People, if you let them talk will get around to telling you the fundamental truth of themselves.
What does one have to do to get total strangers to drop their defenses and talk honestly about their childhoods, their break-downs, their marriages and their affairs? As it turns out, not much.
Dessa is a writer, a rapper, and a proud member of the Doomtree crew. In the press, she’s been compared to Erykah Badu, Tom Waits, Mos Def, and Dorothy Parker. In real life, she lives in Uptown, Minneapolis or in the back seat of a moving tour van. You can find music, images, and tour dates at www.doomtree.net/dessa.