Before I get into Yesteryear by Stephen Eoannou, let me get this straight out the gate: I am generally not much a fan of historical fiction. I don’t read much history to begin with and I generally like my “based on a true story” stuff to be more about memory and memoir and things that a lot of people who aren’t related to the author wouldn’t actually know about in the first place.

But I’ll be honest here: it’s mostly projection. I have a hard enough time writing autobiographical fiction; I have no idea how one would tackle a “TRUE HISTORICAL STORY” but also make it fictional but also make it feel personal.

My mom once told me I should write a book about my great great-great-grandmother coming to America in a ship that got broken in half and then towed to safety by a heroic captain.

I almost laughed in her face. Clearly, she’d never read anything I’ve written.

But here’s something else that’s true. I knew Stephen Eoannou’s writing before I went into this. I knew what he could do with a sentence and a character and I knew he had the grittiness in him that I look for in any good book.

So mostly, I was like, Well, if anybody’s gonna get me to read one of these so-called “historical fiction” books, it’d be Steve.

And that was all that it really took.

Because then I read a page and then I read another page and suddenly I forgot all about Steve. I forgot all about “historical fiction.” I forgot about reading all together. I just watched and listened as I turned from page to page.

It became for me, the rarest thing for someone who has ADHD, a consuming reading. An experience. It’s that rarest thing: a page-turner that has the language and grit that lit nerds are looking for and at the end of the day, again, it’s historical fiction–based on a great true story, but never beholden to it.

Here are some things I got to talk to Stephen about based on my own biases and predilections and his great talents and lack of shortcomings.

– drevlow

BKD: All right, so as we’ve already discussed, I am painfully and pitifully late to this parade, with you having already done the rounds with this book a bit, so let’s try to turn that negative into a positive and start here: What are some of the things that people have taken out of the book that have surprised you? Questions you hadn’t really thought about? Allusions you wouldn’t have made yourself? Stories that people told you about these real-life characters and events you didn’t get from your research?

SGE: The biggest surprise, and the question that’s always asked by readers, is what parts of Yesteryear are true historically and which parts are fiction. I usually just smile and say all the magical elements occurred as written. To me, it doesn’t matter if, for example, it really snowed red flakes or not as long as it works in the context of the story and the fictional world I created. Some readers really hate that answer and are anxious and almost obsessed with wanting to know what’s fact and what’s my imagination. My hope is that they’re so curious they’ll do their own research on Fran Striker and find out for themselves. Part of my goal of writing Yesteryear was to reintroduce Striker into the conversation and make his accomplishments known to people who may never have heard of him.


BKD: I imagine with the topic of this being based on a true story and then your mutual connection to Buffalo, a lot of the questions kind of go toward the subject matter and the origins of the story—which are all really interesting and cool and, trust me, with me growing up on Lake Superior and my wife growing up in Buffalo, I could ask you about snow and cold and working class immigrants all day. But what’s the question that nerdy-writer-reader Stephen wants to be asked but never gets to talk about? And of course, what’s your answer to that?

SGE: I’ve published three books and the fourth will be out next May, but no one has ever asked what I’m most proud of. Well, I’m most proud that I’ve published three books and the fourth will be out next May! I was in grad school in the mid-80s. This was about the time the Literary Brat Pack were publishing their debut novels—Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis, Michael Chabon. They were all around thirty at the time, a few years older than me. I was working on a novel and figured I’d be like those guys and have my first book come out in my late twenties. Well, thirty came and went. 40 breezed by. 50 snuck up on me. I didn’t publish my first book, Muscle Cars, until I was 51. I went through thirty years of rejection… but I didn’t quit. I kept writing, kept trying to get better at my craft. It would have been easy to hang it up, but I didn’t. I’m proud of that. Thanks for asking.


BKD: With the stuff I’ve read of yours prior to this book and what I’ve read about your work beyond this book, there seems to be a real romanticism—an idealism that especially shines through with your portrait of the “Lone Ranger” guy—that runs through the heart of your writing ethos. Does that come from the types of things you read as a kid? The things you were escaping from? Just part of your personality? Let’s go deep here and I won’t even charge you for the free therapy.

SGE: I like to think that all my work has an element of hope running through them. Beneath all my pessimism, gallows humor, and sarcasm, I’m a hopeful person. I still believe that it’ll all work out in the end—but first you might have to do a fourteen-year-stretch for bank robbery or sell the rights to The Lone Ranger for ten bucks and miss out on millions. I use a phrase to describe the idealism or romanticism of my main characters. Fran Striker? He’s “A Buffalo Guy”. That means he’s intimately connected to this city, has a big heart, loves his family and friends and will sacrifice for them. A Buffalo Guy has taken some hard knocks but is still out there trying, even if he’s only running on fumes and hope. A Buffalo Guy is a stand-up guy, dependable, and will buy you a cold beer if you stumble into his favorite corner bar late at night and aren’t an asshole. When my son was in high school, I told him he was a Buffalo Guy. It was obvious to me. He was offended. He thought that was a belittling term and I was somehow limiting him. He didn’t realize until he was older that this was meant as high praise. My son’s now a Buffalo Firefighter. That’s about as big a Buffalo Guy as you can get.


BKD: Part of that “romanticism,” obviously stems from your affinity for working with historical fiction and the “good old days” and the “local legends” of oral traditions. Was that something that you always enjoyed? Looking back? Listening to older folk tell stories or reading historical books? Obviously, not everything you’ve written is historical fiction, but is there something about writing in the age of smartphones and social media and all the rest of it, that’s just not for you?

SGE: My father was a great storyteller, especially if he had a few drinks and my mother wasn’t around. His best stories, or at least the stories I loved most, were the ones of him growing up in Buffalo, New York during the 1930’s and ‘40s. I loved hearing about my grandfather’s restaurant and all the characters who’d come in there. I loved them so much I stole my father’s stories and put them in Yesteryear. My dad really had a friend named Lefty who stole dogs; my mom didn’t like him much. An alcoholic boxer really did ask my father to hold his diamond ring while he went on a bender. He said my dad was the only honest man on Genesee Street and the only one he could trust. There really was a brothel down the street from the restaurant. Jimmy Slattery did come in drunk and bother the waitresses. So, I took those family-lore stories and wove them with Striker’s real story and my own imagination. I remember clearly sitting in the breakfast room of my childhood home and my mother telling me that I romanticized that era too much. She was right, but it’s great fun.


BKD: I think I read somewhere that you’d adapted one of your short stories into a movie. This whole book had a cinematic feel to it, a voice in the back of my head that kept imagining it as a movie—the hook of it too good to be true. Do you still do much with screenwriting? Do have part of you that writes from a “director’s eye”? Is there a director/actor combo that you could see bringing the best of it to the screen? Aside from the time set pieces, what would be the biggest challenge of adapting this to movie? Or maybe you see it more as a limited series?

SGE: One of the several failed novels I had in the drawer was titled Slip Kid after the great Who song. When I was sixteen, my parish priest was murdered during a botched robbery at the church. I thought Slip Kid would be my debut, coming-of-age novel. It wasn’t. But the story wouldn’t leave me, and I ended up cutting it down to a short story. I always think of it as the centerpiece of Muscle Cars. But that story still wouldn’t leave me alone. It kept hounding me. I decided to write a screenplay version, mostly to see if I could write one. It ended up being a short, not feature length, but it did win the Best Short Screenplay award at the Denver Film Festival. That’s been the extent of my screenwriting career so far. I don’t write my novels with Hollywood in mind, although I wished they’d call. I do want my readers to feel like they’re in the scene with my characters, though. I want them to “see” The Colored Musicians Club in Yesteryear. I want them to “smell” the food cooking at The New Genesee Restaurant in Rook. I want them to “hear” the engines rumble in Muscle Cars. I think it’s those sensory details that give my work that cinematic feel. Yesteryear is complex and a blending of genres. I think the material is beyond my limited screenwriting skills. But, you know, William Fichtner is a Buffalo Guy. He’s done some directing. And they’re building a movie studio on Niagara Street about five minutes from my house. Maybe Bill and I should meet for a beer and talk. I’ll buy the first round.


BKD: As someone who writes mostly naval-gazing, plotless non-page-turners, I am in awe of the trifecta you’ve managed to land here—with the art of the words here, the grittiness of the story, and the ability to make it come alive like a movie—that’s hard enough to pull off in fiction of any kind but then to do it while still holding true to the true story… That’s a mouthful. Were any of these things harder to maintain than the others? Were you conscious of this balance as you wrote or revised?

SGE: I was very aware of “the art of the words” and what I wanted to do before I started drafting Yesteryear. After writing Muscle Cars and Rook, I felt a little frustrated creatively. I felt like I needed to be more creative, funnier, stretch myself more. I wanted to write a BIG book. After I’d decided to write about Striker, I had to next decide what kind of book I wanted to write. I thought of all the novels I loved and kept coming back to two: Shoeless Joe, by WP Kinsella, and The Natural, by Bernard Malamud. I wanted to write a novel in their spirit. Both use rich language to tell bigger-than-life tales with a dash of magic thrown in like a spice. Both are also baseball books, and my mantra for writing Yesteryear became “Swing For The Fences.”  This meant that nothing was off limits. No brush stroke could be too broad. No joke was taboo. No character could be too fantastical. I gave myself total creative freedom. Just swing away and see what happens. My editor at SFWP, the great Adam Sirgany, had to reel me in in a couple places, but for the most part I just choked up and let it rip.


About the Author

Stephen G. Eoannou is the author of the novels After Pearl (SFWP 2025), Yesteryear (SFWP 2023), Rook (Unsolicited Press 2022), and the short story collection Muscle Cars (SFWP 2015). He has been awarded an Honor Certificate from The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, the Best Short Screenplay Award at the 36th Starz Denver Film Festival, and the 2021 Eyelands International Book Award for Historical Fiction. Eoannou holds an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte and an MA from Miami University. He lives and writes in his hometown of Buffalo, New York, the setting and inspiration for much of his work.