Steve Geng is the author of the memoir, Thick As Thieves: A Brother, A Sister – A True Story of Two Turbulent Lives. It’s amazing that Steve Geng is still alive. Geng and his older sister, the acclaimed writer and editor Veronica Geng, forged a tight bond as they grew up in a working class section of Philadelphia. As adults, Geng and his sister both ended up in New York City – though they were living two very different lives. While Veronica built a successful career as fiction editor at The New Yorker, Steve fell into a life of hard drugs and crime. He began shoplifting record albums to support his heroin habit, earning the nickname “Record Steve.” Geng found himself caught in a spiral of addiction, crime, jail and attempted recovery. Eventually, Geng stumbled into acting. He performed in theatre productions and episodes of Miami Vice.
Geng’s memoir covers his life as a hipster and hophead, but he also poignantly recalls relationships with his parents and Veronica, who died in 1997 from brain cancer. He openly discusses the tempestuous dynamics of his family, the love he feels for his sister, and how he found redemption in caring for his father who was in decline with dementia. Geng writes candidly about his addictions, his failings and how he came to help others in the recovery community.
Interviewer: Your memoir in some ways is reminiscent of the beat writers. Kerouac and Burroughs come to mind. Were they an influence on you? Had you read them as a teen?
Geng: It’s true I was highly influenced by the beat writers, particularly Kerouac and Burroughs. Read through “On The Road” at fifteen and next day I hitchhiked across Europe. After reading “Naked Lunch” and “Junky” I soon became a full-blown heroin addict and professional shoplifter–‘hope-to-die’ dope fiend. Unfortunately, the influence those writers had on me was more about life-style than writing. As a kid who grew up in lower-middle class row houses during the ‘I Like Ike’ fifties, the beat life-style seemed a romantic alternative. I wish I’d paid more attention to their poetic prose than their bad habits.
Interviewer: You describe one scene where your ex-girlfriend’s brother cracked your skull with a claw hammer, and you woke up to find yourself rolled up in a rug. And then, amazingly, you talked them out of killing you and instead they walked you to the hospital. How did you talk your way out of that situation?
Geng: I’m glad you asked me about that scene, because the editors at Henry Holt tried to get it cut—they said that nobody will believe that I remembered that much detail after thirty years or more, and after being stoned, and then hit on the head with a claw hammer. I couldn’t believe it—they were accusing me of James Frey-type crap at a time before Frey had even appeared on Oprah and been uncovered as a fraud. So In response I re-wrote the scene with EVEN MORE detail, and added into the text that being on the verge of death floods the senses with adrenaline and imbeds the memory with indelible details that endure for years and years.
But to answer your question, the sudden approach of death can also galvanize the imagination and lend wings to one’s powers of manipulation in strange and wondrous ways. I gambled that the guys who attacked me were not really killers and that, if I offered them a better alternative than having a dead body on their hands, they might go for it. I sensed a spark of pity and identification in the guy who was not the woman’s brother, and my heartfelt plea was mostly directed at him, even though I watched the brother like a chick watching a hawk. The experience was, in itself, a terrible memory—it took years to let go of the desire to track the woman and her brother down and do them bodily harm, waking night after night from a dream where I sniped them from rooftops with high-powered rifles or showed up at their doorsteps with my hands full of weapons. And yet finally it was a blessing, in that remembering it now imbues my writing with gravitas and the ring of truth.
Interviewer: I imagine writing a memoir like this must have been painful and yet cathartic. How did you come to write it and what was the process like for you?
Geng: You imagine correctly. I was trying to pitch a novel to an editor friend who knew of and had admired my sister, Veronica. He kept asking me what it was like growing up with her, and the stories I told were so compelling to this editor that he said, “That’s the story you should write–not a bio of Veronica, but the story of your relationship. You could sell that in a heartbeat.” So wanting to get published I followed his lead and it worked. But it was the last thing I ever wanted to write – the stories about my sister were too painful, and I considered memoir-writing the height of self-indulgence. I wanted to write to escape from my life, not get dragged down into the middle of it for several years of revisions.
Interviewer: You captured that bond between a brother and sister very well. It appears as though Veronica tried to keep her writing life separate from her family life. Did your parents understand how acclaimed The New Yorker was?
Geng: Our mother, Rosina, would have definitely appreciated how prestigious it was to write and work in the New Yorker’s fiction department, but she died of cancer before Veronica made her mark there. Our father was immensely proud of my sister and used to brag about her to all the neighbors in Florida, but Ronnie continued to think him an idiot and swore he had no idea what her career was about. They were both stubborn as mules, Sis and Dad, so who the hell knew what either of them really thought about the other?
Interviewer: What are you working on now?
Geng: I’m working now on a novel “Bop City” set in Paris in 1961 during the Algerian crisis when terrorists were blowing up cafés. American GIs are black marketing US Army goods to an Algerian fence in order to finance a jazz club in Pigalle. The hero, an army brat who dreams of playing in a jazz band, gets in over his head with Pigalle criminals and terrorists – a coming-of-age fictional/historical thriller.
Interviewer: You’ve battled so much – heroin addiction, alcoholism, violence. You wrote in the memoir about learning you had HIV. How’s your health now?
Geng: I’ve never been healthier. When I was young and stoned I felt bulletproof, invulnerable, so I did a lot of damage and was careless about my health, took it for granted, burned the candle at both ends so to speak. But now that I have no immune system other than a handful of anti-viral meds I take every day, I watch what I eat, work out regularly, pray and meditate and practice tai-chi and other stress-reducing activities, and as a result I’m in tip top shape. I have to be careful with the writing, though, or I’ll sit at the computer for eight hours and not get up to exercise or eat or rest. All in all, life is good.
Interviewer: If you could recommend one Veronica Geng story to readers, which would it be?
Geng: Most of Veronica’s stories are so short, some of them only a page in length, that it seems unfair to recommend one. My favorite, and one that’s a bit longer than others and untypical of her style in its sincerety, is “A Lot In Common” from the collection “Love Trouble is My Business.” At the time she wrote it she had a terrible crush on Donald Fagen, the old lead singer for Steely Dan, and the fictional life she gives him in the story is only surpassed by the poignant anecdotes from her own life which were all true. In that collection she also added a few pages after each story about how she came to write it, and those are as good as the stories themselves.