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Thick as Thieves: An Interview with Steve Geng

image From the Philadelphia suburbs of his childhood to adolescence in the jazz haze of 1950s Paris to New York City, Steve Geng gained fame on the streets as "Record Steve." While he was mastering the art of boosting records and living the life of an outlaw, his older sister, Veronica Geng, was making her name as a brilliant editor and satirist at the New Yorker.

Meeting with Steve at the Moonstruck Diner in Chelsea, I am struck by how quickly he laughs at himself and the long silences Veronica brings to our table as Steve remembers losing his sister-first, when they lost touch for a year because of his addiction and again when he found out she had died of a brain tumor he never knew she had.  Thick as Thieves is Steve's memoir, and his tribute to Veronica.  It is his first book.

Ruchi Mital: Describe the experience of writing and publishing your first book.

Steve Geng: It's just great, every day you bring these characters to life on the page: you make them sing and dance, get their hearts broken, put their backs against the wall, change their fortunes and see how they'll react. You feel like God! Of course if you're writing a memoir, especially now in this post-Frey age, you feel like you have to stick to what's exactly true.

RM: Did you worry about that as you were writing this?

SG: No, because my life was so adventurous anyway!  What was difficult was having editors tell me they wanted to see more about Veronica. Her life was a mystery to me-other than the very first brother-sister relationship we had, which was always at risk as she went her way and I went mine.  That's probably the main theme of the book: how much will sibling love endure? [laughs]

RM: The thing that strikes me is that your memoir is the story of two lives-not just about your sister's effect on you but the actual events of her life. Why did it have to be that way? Was it that her story was so important to yours, or was it because editors and publishers were saying they wanted to see more about Veronica?

SG: Well, it was a combination of both and a little more. I had written a novel about Paris and jazz and couldn't get anyone to pick it up. I met this editor at Holt, and he liked the way I wrote. But he also knew of my sister and she had really intrigued him. Here I am trying to hustle my novel, and he says, "Tell me more about your sister.  She was such a fascinating character." When I started telling anecdotes about our childhood, he was moved to laughter and tears and said, "That's the story you should write." First I tried to write a biography with myself as a minor character and do it kind of like Citizen Kane: start with her death, and then go back and interview people.

And I guess deep down I wanted to make it up to her.  She had stopped speaking to me a year before she died [long pause]. And none of her writer friends even told me she was sick.  So I also had this resentment, I wanted to get even.  It was a combination of all these things.  As I started to call some of the people she had known, I realized I couldn't do the Citizen Kane thing because none of them would talk to me! [laughs]. I was the outcast druggie bad guy; they didn't want to have anything to do with me.  Maybe they sensed my resentment that they didn't tell me she was dying ... it was like they'd stolen her from me.

image RM: Given your sister's literary talents, and also the way she guarded her privacy, when you were writing the book did you ever hear her in your head or worry about what she would have thought of the book?

SG: I worried about that a lot. Would she have minded? But I could hear her say, "Steve, go for it." The fact is there were times I would use her as a character in screenplays and she would say, "Don't paint me as so nice because I'm your sister." She liked that people saw her as this noir-ish femme fatale character. She got an enormous bang out of that.  I paint her as being very vulnerable, sort of awkward kid, and you know, and she wouldn't have liked that [laughs].

But it felt good because I knew that no one, even her close literary friends, really knew about her life growing up. I knew that story and I thought they would like it. On the other hand, they were kind of burned by it. They asked me how I could expose my sister in that way. That's nonsense.

RM: Do you see this book as a tribute?

SG: Yes, of course I do. In a way, I think my sister so scared them, they're still terrified of her. God forbid anyone broach her sense of privacy; she's going to come back and haunt them-they're still terrified of her! I never bought into that; she was my sister.

RM: It seems that you both created a character that you wanted to embody-that you saw a way of life or romance that intrigued you and you embodied that ideal.

SG: Yes.  We both had a lot of style.

RM: Why do you think that is?

SG: Maybe because we grew up in the '50s, which was so bereft of style [laughs]. You know it was the days of the man in the grey flannel suit. My dad was an army guy. It was suffocating. My sister couldn't wait to get the hell away from our family.

RM: Do you feel you have lived a romantic life; that you lived up to the ideal you created?

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SG:If I could, would I do anything differently? Not really. I lived the outlaw life that every sixties kid wished he could have lived.  I really did it and I was good at it.  I regret that I broke the hearts of the people that cared about me.  And I was naïve. What I saw as romantic was really self-destructive.  It was a selfish way to approach life.  It erodes your spirit. Sometimes I would feed my junkie friends if I had money.  That had a Robin Hood aspect to it, but it's not the same thing.  Now I feel useful, as a writer, that I am giving a little something back-I didn't really feel that even as an actor.  It was all about me, fame, and what I could get out of it.

RM: Do you ever feel nostalgia for your old way of life?

SG: No! I just don't have the energy to do that anymore.  Now my perspective is so changed, it looks totally idiotic. There are places in the book where I really get into the sixties feeling and how "junk kept me in this warm cloak of coziness." When I first wrote that I added, "but it was actually a tragic waste of time and life." My editor had me take that out.  He said, "Don't do that now; let people have fun with you at this point." I kept telling him, "I don't want to make it sound attractive to people." [laughing] He said, "Believe me Steve-people who read your book are not going to want to live your life!"

RM: Another parallel between you and your sister-it seems like in the book neither of you ever had totally satisfying relationships with anyone else.  It seems that she played the biggest role in your life of anyone, even when you weren't seeing her.  Do you think you played the same sort of role in her life?

SG: No, because she was my big sister. I don't think older sisters look at their younger brothers in that romantic kind of way-more as pests. In fact, as much as we loved each other, I think she felt that she had to let go of me in order to be the person she really wanted to be-she let go of her whole family and just reinvented herself in this milieu of New York literati.

My sister wasn't that comfortable with intimacy. Neither of us really had good role models growing up. My sister guarded her privacy like a castle.  She was tough on people. She was really opinionated and she could dish out parody and goof on people but she couldn't take it. It was hard for me to see that side of her because I idealized her and put her up on a pedestal-she was my successful big sister. 

In fact, part of my own survival was to have her to lean on, even if only in my own mind.  As long as she was around, I was okay. She's my sister and she's making it; I'm not that bad. I could point to that. I would use that in conversation. I even used it with this book. She's part of the reason it was easier for me to publish a memoir. I mean, if I had just written the straight story of just my life, well no one wants to buy another Drugstore Cowboy story or Naked Lunch or Frey-they've had enough of that.

There's another thing about her inability to allow people in. She was obsessed with this acting technique I was studying, Meisner's technique.

imageRM: What is that exactly?

SG: It allows you be there in the moment with another person and let them affect you rather than trying to force your emotion on the scene. You do exercises and inanely repeat what another person says, and you try to allow yourself to react sincerely to what is being said. It was like an antidote for self-consciousness. My sister sensed this as a way to be in an intimate moment with someone without consequences. She was nuts about this thing.  She'd go around the New Yorker trying to get people to do these idiotic repetitions. I hadn't really thought about that in a long while-why she was so thrilled about that little acting technique. And I used to do those exercises with her, although we would suddenly find ourselves so intimate in the moment that we'd have to stop because it was embarrassing for a brother and sister to be that close.

RM: Do you feel like your associates and friends during those days-in the book you seem like you have this humorous stance towards the people you describe-like there was always a little bit of a distance, were they real friends or were they more like characters in your colorful and romantic story?

SG: No, they were more than characters. We loved each other. I loved all of them. Bad guys who traded stories in jail; I loved them. Of course my naiveté put me in danger a lot of times. My sister had this sense of practicality that I totally missed out on. But no, I loved people and the strange street patter and voices. I understood the rules. Loyalty goes so far, you don't snitch, you know which guys you can count on and which you can't. It doesn't mean you love either one less or more than the other, it's just the way they are, and if you don't understand that then it's your fault.

RM: How did you learn how to have compassion for people?

SG: Well I've been doing it for the last nine years that I've been sober, going to 12-step meetings. It's all about trying to change the way you think. And it takes some work.  Making amends to people you've hurt, developing some sort of spiritual life. If it is true that that was what I was looking for in drugs, no wonder this works for me so well. You know, drugs and booze became my solution to living and it's a lot cheaper to just say a prayer and wake up sober and not need bail money!

RM: Did you ever think before you would become a writer or was that your sister's domain?

SG: No. That was her spot.

It evolved gradually. I think the first thing I wrote was for an acting class, and people in class asked where I learned how to write like that. Of course plays are all dialogue and dialogue is the easiest thing for me. Editors ask how I can remember what people said 30 years ago.  I was highly impressionable. I had an ear for music. I developed it early, listening to all those [R & B and blues] guys on the radio. 

There's something else about that: you remember the things you love.  My sister loved literature.  She could mimic Henry James or Cheever or anybody like that, but she couldn't mimic street stuff.  Between us we had it all covered.

Steve Geng will be reading from Thick as Thieves at KGB on Tuesday Oct. 9 @ 7 PM