Sam Stephenson

A Few Words


Sam Stephenson is a writer who grew up in Washington, North Carolina. He was 2010 and 2015 ASCAP Deems Taylor / Virgil Thomson Prize winner and a 2019-2020 Guggenheim Fellow in General Nonfiction. His books have been published by W.W. Norton, Alfred A. Knopf, and Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Sam Stephenson, a 2019 Guggenheim Fellow and PEN America’s 2019 biography literary prize judge, has dedicated himself to studying photographer W. Eugene Smith since January 1997. His exploration spanned twenty-six states, Japan, and the Pacific, involving over five hundred oral history interviews. His book, “Gene Smith’s Sink,” published in 2017, represents two decades of meticulous work, distilling the essence of his subject.

Stephenson’s latest manuscript, tentatively titled “Which Direction Home: Nonfiction Stories,” continues his unique approach to documentary-style writing. It delves into subjects off-center, exploring a “wide-angle view” akin to Smith’s methodology. This manuscript, akin to Smith’s late editing process, underwent a 40% reduction in 2019 to reach its final form.

In June 2019, Indiana Public Media/WFIU aired 1 hour-long interview with Stephenson, providing insights into his two-decade-long career, including newer topics such as parenting and his project on the band Jane’s Addiction from 1986 to 1991. His past oral history interviews, available through outlets like the Outspoken Podcast, offer unique glimpses into his upbringing in coastal Washington, N.C., and his current projects.

Stephenson’s portfolio extends beyond Smith. Notably, he won the ASCAP Deems Taylor / Virgil Thomson Prize in 2015 for his essay on John Coltrane’s biographer, Dr. Cuthbert Simpkins, for The Paris Review, An Absolute Truth: On Writing a Life of Coltrane. Additionally, he co-authored “Big, Bent Ears,” a mixed media endeavor with The Paris Review and his Rock Fish Stew Institute of Literature and Materials.

His work has been published in various renowned periodicals like The Paris Review, New York Times, Tin House, and Smithsonian. Stephenson has curated exhibitions and produced radio series and films related to his subjects. He’s made appearances on platforms such as NPR, Leonard Lopate Show, NBC’s Today Show, CBS Sunday Morning, CNN, and the BBC.

Beyond his accolades, Stephenson was the 2012-13 Lehman Brady Visiting Joint Professor at Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill. In 2013, he founded the Rock Fish Stew Institte, initiating projects like “Bull City Summer: A Season at the Ball Park,” involving a team of writers, photographers, and mixed-media artists documenting the Durham Bulls Athletic Park.

Stephenson is currently working on “Love and Work,” a manuscript blending autobiography with documentary work, exploring various musicians, poets, writers, artists, and individuals from different walks of life. He’s also involved in ongoing collaborative work detailed on Rock Fish Stew’s website and is developing a TV series pilot set in a 1959 Manhattan loft frequented by struggling jazz musicians.


Current Projects


“Feeling Nowhere.”  Sam Stephenson’s first piece on Jane’s Addiction and the late 80’s / early 90’s, perhaps Chapter 1 of what could be a book, the work for which he won a 2019 Guggenheim Fellowship.  Affidavit.  September 10, 2019.

“Jason Molina’s Love and Work.”  The Believer.  November 23, 2018.

Bing & Ruth and Amy & David.”  Paris Review Daily. October 19, 2017.

Writing Tennessee Williams’ Life.”  Paris Review Daily.  November 5, 2014.

Stalking Sean O’Casey.”  Paris Review Daily.  September 18, 2014.

An Absolute Truth: On Writing a Life of Coltrane.”  Paris Review Daily.  June 3, 2014.

The Big Book: W. Eugene Smith’s Unseen Opus.”  Paris Review Daily.  April 11, 2014.

In the Darkroom with W. Eugene Smith.”  Paris Review Daily.  November 20, 2013.

The Liminal Space.”  Paris Review Daily.  August 7, 2013.

Southern Holiday Pt. 3.”  Paris Review Daily.  March 20, 2013.

Southern Holiday Pt. 2.” Paris Review Daily.  February 28, 2013.

Southern Holiday Pt. 1.”  Paris Review Daily.  January 30, 2013.

Field Notes,” a profile of Durham Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo in Paris Review Daily. August 20, 2012.

A Mark So Fine: Joe Henry and You.” Profile of musician Joe Henry.  On Paris Review Daily. May 18, 2012.

Two Poets,” on Claudia Emerson and Betty Adcock.  On Paris Review Daily. (March 20, 2012).

Branford Marsalis.” On Paris Review Daily.  (December 10, 2011).

“Sonny Clark: Melody and Melancholy” in issue #50 of Tin House, Winter 2011-12, the “Beauty” issue.

Late Night Sports Radio,” a 12-part series I contributed to The Morning News in summer and fall 2011.

W. Eugene Smith’s Wichita” on Paris Review Daily (June 22, 2011).

Mary Frank” on Paris Review Daily (May 26, 2011)

Tamas Janda” on Paris Review Daily (April 20, 2011)

Tennessee Williams” on Paris Review Daily (March 30, 2011)

Letter from Guam” on Paris Review Daily (March 23, 2011)

Letter from Japan” on Paris Review Daily (March 8, 2011).

Sonny Clark” Pt. 2 on Paris Review Daily (January 26, 2011).

Sonny Clark” on Paris Review Daily (January 13, 2011).

Dorrie Glenn Woodson” on Paris Review Daily (12/22/10).

W.Eugene Smith,” Paris Review Daily (12/20/10).

Whitney Balliett’s Studio (jazzloftproject.org.  June 23, 2010)

Eugene Smith: Jazz Loft (Paris Review, Fall 2009)

Safe at Home (New York Times Book Review. June 1, 2008)

The Collector of the Everyday: Visiting the hometown of the great New York writer Joseph Mitchell. (Oxford American, Summer 2008) *

Gene Smith’s Sink (A Public Space, 2007)

Thelonious Monk: Is This Home? (Oxford American, 2007 Music Issue, Cover Story) **

Jazzed About Roy Haynes (Smithsonian, December, 2003)

What Happened to Ronnie Free? (Oxford American, July/August, 2000)


For all 2014 press on Bull City Summer, go HERE.  A good summary of the project can be found in the News & Observer. June 21, 2014.

Interview regarding the Bull City Summer Project in The Morning News. June 3, 2013.

“The Bulls of Summer.”  Story and photo gallery on Bull City Summer. By David Menconi.  Raleigh News & Observer.  June 1, 2013.

“Nina Simone…What More Can I Say?” – WUNC, North Carolina Public Radio’s State of Things program, interviewed during an hour-long tribute to Nina Simone. September 12, 2012.

Needle in the Groove,” the New Yorker’s Richard Brody commenting on my piece in Sonny Clark in the new issue of Tin House.  New Yorker. November 28, 2011.

Managed Mayhem,” Dawn Chan on Chaos Manor. Paris Review Daily.  September 15, 2011.

Conversation b/w Sam Stephenson and Roland Kelts, Following Eugene Smith to Japanin A Public Space. September 13, 2011.

“Sam has, with his work on the Jazz Loft, pioneered a new kind of historical research—His work would make Studs Terkel snap his suspenders with glee and John Dos Passos light up a victory cigar.” – Aaron Greenwald.  Independent Weekly 2011 Indy Arts Award article on Sam.  (July 20, 2011).

“Sam Stephenson…is doing remarkable research on the life of short-lived pianist and composer Sonny clark.” – Richard Brody, New Yorker, July 21, 2011.

Pittsburgh Forges Ahead” – Washington Post.  March 26, 2011.  It’s heartening to know that Dream Street is still noticed.

New Yorker’s Richard Brody: “a terribly sad, powerfully evocative biographical portrait” of jazz pianist Sonny Clark by S.S. (New Yorker. January 13, 2011)

JLP book “a work of social archaeology” – Sean O’Hagan.  (London Guardian. December 10, 2010).

JLP wins 2010 ASCAP Deems Taylor Award.  November 8, 2010.

Radio interview, KRML 94.7 FM.  (KRML. Carmel, CA.  September 6, 2010)

Interview, “A Loft-y’ Vision of Jazz” (All About Jazz, April 7, 2010)

Radio interview, KOWS 107.3 FM. (KOWS. Occidental, CA. April 5, 2010)

Every obsessive deserves his own obsessive Boswell, and W. Eugene Smith has his in Sam Stephenson,” by Fred Kaplan.  (New York magazine.  December 27, 2009)

Powells.com interview with Sam (Powells Books, December 10, 2009)

Sam on the Leonard Lopate Show (WNYC: New York Public Radio, December 8, 2009)

Interview, “A Hidden Jazz Realm” (Independent Weekly, December 2, 2009)

Radio interview, “The Jazz Loft Project,” a joint interview with jazz loft legend Ronnie Free on Frank Stasio’s program, The State of Things, (WUNC: North Carolina Public Radio.  December 2, 2009)

Dwight Garner on JLP book:  ”Chaotic and soulful…The book is an elegiac stew of sight and sound, and a singularly weird, vital and thrumming American document.” (New York Times.  November 15, 2009).

Sam interviewed by Ann Curry on NBC’s Today Show (November 13, 2009).  It’s “Stephen-son” not “Steffen-son.”

Radio interview, “Remembering Joseph Mitchell,” a joint interview with Sam and writer Allan Gurganus on Frank Stasio’s program, The State of Things (WUNC: North Carolina Public Radio.  July 17, 2008).

BBC-TV’s 2007 series, Genius of PhotographySam featured in Episode 3 talking about Smith’s Pittsburgh work, on YouTube here, go to around the 7:15 mark of this clip.  The still photo above, by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette photographer Bill Wade, comes from this BBC shoot.

For up-to-date Jazz Loft Project press, click here.


Notable Publications

Dream Street

The Jazz Loft Project

W. Eugene Smith