Lynn Steger Strong, FLIGHT: A Novel

Lynn Steger Strong, FLIGHT: A Novel

Zibby interviews repeat MDHTTRB guest Lynn Steger Strong about Flight, a powerful and propulsive new novel about a family and the resentment, financial tension, heartache, and love they experience on the first Christmas without their matriarch. Lynn discusses the themes she most enjoyed exploring in this project–family, shame, parenthood, middle age, and grief. She also shares the personal losses that inspired her to write this story, the details of her next project (an explosive story set in Florida!), and the writing strategies that help her plan and structure her books.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Lynn. Thank you so much for coming back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Flight: A Novel.

Lynn Steger Strong: Thank you so much for having me. I’m always thrilled to talk to you.

Zibby: Me too. Your novel was so good. So good. The way you write is so beautiful, the characters you developed, even the pacing of it, the sentiment, meaningful and engaging and thought-provoking, all the good things that books have.

Lynn: Thanks. That’s very nice. Thank you.

Zibby: Can you tell listeners what it’s about?

Lynn: What it’s about…

Zibby: Sorry. I know. I don’t know why I even ask everybody this. I should just summarize it myself and be like, here’s what I think your book’s about.

Lynn: No, it’s funny. That about question is tricky. On the one hand, it’s a family. It’s the first Christmas since their matriarch died, three siblings and their spouses and their children. There’s also another family on the outskirts of this family, a mother and her daughter. Maybe it’s worth saying that something that I’m interested in as a writer, always, is just the elasticity of terms and language and our sense of things. One of the words that was top of mind was the word family and how it means different things to different people. Because it means different things to different people, when those different people try to inhabit it together, it can be tricky. In lots of different ways, with each of the characters, they’re grappling with their relationship to that word. A few other words that I was interested in elasticizing were grief and shame. I’m always thinking a lot about shame. All of these characters, especially the women, are dealing with their own specific secret shame. A lot of times, shame is built in with fear, which, again, is something I was really interested in. I was particularly interested in the way that the women’s shame and fear kept them from being able to care for one another. Over the course of the book, some of them got knocked down a little bit. I don’t know if that’s a good .

Zibby: I feel like even some of the men, though, had shame, especially — was it Malcom, the kid’s name?

Lynn: Martin.

Zibby: Yeah, Martin, who, by the way — I don’t know if you’ve read Signal Fires by Dani Shapiro. She has a character in that book who I feel like would be really good friends with this guy, Martin. I feel like you should do an essay where the two of them meet. I can’t remember his name either. Stricker or something. Only a last name. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. He’s so harsh with his special needs son. Then he regrets it. Then it causes all sorts of trouble. He can’t control himself. It’s always really fun to read when you just see someone at their worst.

Lynn: It’s a great point. At one point, there was a draft of this novel that had a — I had all these headers when I was starting because it moves points of view, and that was sort of a new thing that I was doing. It doesn’t get inside of the men as much. Then in the middle-ish of the book, I had this section called “The Men.” It was just like, okay, let’s try this. I’m of the opinion that all of us are much more alike than we are different. Actually, it’s often our likenesses that’s the hardest thing for us. It’s the reason that often, maybe, our mothers drive us crazy, is because we see that thing that lives in us too. It also lives in them. It’s so horrifying when you have to see it embodied in someone else. I was really interested in trying to similarly spend time with the men. Another example is the character Josh, who, in some ways, is difficult. He gets on a lot of people’s nerves but also is self-aware enough and uncomfortable enough with his own version of shame — he has a bit of shame around the idea that he’s never really had to work to support himself. He’s worked, but he’s never really fully understood the concrete fact of money. That sort of gets on other people’s nerves. I was interested also in giving him the space to say, yeah, I know. That has some shame inside of it too.

Zibby: And what happened at the school, too, and the regret about that with the young girl and the venting. I was just here to disprove your point of your whole book.

Lynn: That’s good. I’m glad.

Zibby: You had so many great lines. I just wanted to read this one about marriage. Actually, I’m sorry. This is a passage about mothers. Your book centers on the recent loss of a mother figure who sometimes has contentious relationships. I’ll start up here. “Alice grabs hold of her phone to check again for a text from Maddie, but instead, there’s an email from her mom confirming flights, a final plea to have the privilege of seeing Henry too.” I love her mom, oh, my gosh. She reminded me of somebody I know. “She has what she figures is a much more normal relationship with her mother. She calls her once a month. They text. They send cards on birthdays, ask the same boring questions about their jobs. Mostly, they resent each other from a comfortable enough distance that they might call it love.” I loved that. I feel like you have this relationship as a foil. They were all so close to their mom in this one family. This mom, Helen, seems like the greatest, so warm and loving. Then you have the passive-aggressive other mom as a contrast. Tell me about that and how you assembled all the different in-laws.

Lynn: Something I’m always interested in, and especially in this book, is the gradations of our hauntings. We have Helen. On the one hand, I’ve never before written a book in which I had such a lovely mother. That was very fun. We have Helen. In a lot of ways, Helen being a wonderful model for mother and for family is haunting these characters in a way that feels just as heavy and complicated as if one had a difficult or lacked a mother. The thing that I was interested in is that the places that we come from, the people that we come from haunt us regardless. How and why does that feel different, taste different, look different, but still feel just as heavy, depending on the person? With each character, it was like we have Helen as a starting point. Also within Helen, each child is sort of constellated in terms of the ways that her parenthood haunts them differently. It haunts the oldest son very differently than it haunts the baby daughter, very differently than it haunts the artist middle child, I say as the artist middle child. We have the siblings or the siblings’ spouses, all of whom have different parents of varying levels and perhaps one would say lesser levels of loving or doting or caring.

One other thing I was thinking a lot about — honestly, this also came about during the period of COVID — is how very different I think that loss is from lack. Tess, for instance, doesn’t have much in the way of a relationship with her parents. She feels like she’s really been able to make her peace with that in some ways, and so she thought that she would be prepared for this loss. The thing that she’s grappling with is that, actually, losing someone you love is very different than never having somebody. What was useful to me and interesting to me about thinking about that is that grief is horrible and difficult, but it is also another gift that the person that you love gives you because you still get to carry them with you. All the things that they gave to you, you still hold inside of your body. It still feels like that secret, special thing that they gave you. Letting myself think about these things in gradations also let me see the surprising or less-sad aspects of each of them.

Zibby: Was it these types of relationships that made you even want to do this book? Where did this book come from? What place in you?

Lynn: It actually started — I’m always interested with books in sort of throwing the ball a little further in the book than I’ve been in life. The thing that I knew from the beginning of this book was the ending. I knew that I wanted the characters — I can’t even say this aloud, which speaks to how it was a challenge. I was interested in creating a shared moment of grace. I wasn’t sure if that was something I even could believe in, but it felt important to try. The other place that I think this book started was just the space of the intractability of petty grievances, especially among family members. If I started with the end, and the end being a shared moment of grace, I think I also started at the beginning — at the beginning, I wanted it to be this feeling of everybody just sort of itching for a fight. If you start with everybody itching for a fight, how do you get them through? How do you crack them open and break everything apart and then reorder them in some way by the end so that they can share something that feels real?

Zibby: Wow. I feel like when you talked about Kate really wanting to live in her mom’s house, that was one of the most — yes, she wants to do it for financial reasons, but you could feel the attachment and her desperation to cling onto just a little bit of her mom and that little bit of her as a daughter, and have it just go up in smoke, at least in the first conversation, .

Lynn: This idea of fairness or what we deserve I find endlessly narratively fascinating because both of those words feel totally made up to me. If you start to use the word deserve and then you look around the world, real quickly, that word becomes a real problem. I take a lot of issue with that word in general. Yet I also understand why people latch onto it. Again, so much of what’s exciting to me about writing books comes from inhabiting these words that are so much more complicated and high stakes and dangerous sometimes than we acknowledge. Kate wants to believe that she can convince her brothers that she deserves this, but who deserves a free house? Also, why not? Then it’s narratively interesting.

Zibby: Totally. I love that. There was another passage too. I hope I can find it. This is another one that was great. I was fascinated by Alice, who is the daughter-in-law, Helen’s daughter-in-law. Sorry, I keep trying to explain this, and I’m so bad with names and everything. She ended up not having any kids with Henry. There was just something so great about this. Even the fact that she could take a long, hot shower in this very crowded house, I was jealous of her. I’ll start here. Is that okay? Can I read a little bit?

Lynn: Yeah, of course.

Zibby: “What Alice wanted was someone to prove it to her, prove something irrevocable about her, say it in such a way that she could feel sure they would not take it back. Helen,” the mom, “was the only one she might have trusted. Henry seemed to want her, too unthinkingly, to see how wanting wasn’t loving. With every man who’d ever wanted her and called it love, she’d felt like this. This was true too, in its way, of how her mother loved her, preconditioned. The baby was something both Henry and her mother wanted that she couldn’t give. Henry said he didn’t. It was her choice, but she knew better. She thought maybe her body couldn’t hold a baby because it understood she’d never really learned to love another person. Maybe also, this was why her art failed. She’d not been shown or taught enough about just loving without first appealing or performing. This was her body’s way of keeping all her future children safe. And then when she stopped working and then with her new job and all the ways it shocked her, scared her, made her feel inadequate and helpless too, she’d never picked up the phone and called Helen, not with the art or the babies, not this past year when her job got murky. It’s a particular type of sad, she thinks, to miss the possibility that she might one day call this person who was gone now, that what she lost is a thing she never had the courage to go get.” That was so good. Talk to me about that and the sadness of that lack of relationship and the feeling of feeling like she should’ve had kids. Was it really a huge loss? Did she want it? All that ambivalence that comes around that.

Lynn: Another thing that this book is about is just middle age, the weird, murky space of middle age. Maybe prior to a certain age or a certain time in one’s life, so much is built around the idea that there is still more. There’s still more time. There’s still more possibility. There’s still more opportunities. Okay, so you make this change, but maybe you can take it back. Another thing that this book is really interested in is, we talk in this way about choices as if life lived a lot in choices, but I think often, life lives in the absence of making choices. There’s a moment later in the book where Martin says, why don’t people change their lives more often? He’s sitting there ruminating on it. In the process of him ruminating on it, he realizes his wife had to go because the kids needed her. I sort of chuckled to myself as I wrote that because it’s so much of a certain age where it’s like, yeah, but you don’t have — the kids are calling you. Your life is calling you. Your passive-aggressive mother is calling you instead of the mother you want to call. I both am annoyed by the concept of busyness and also really get it. I think a lot of life happens while you’re busily not making choices. Part of what Alice is realizing is that there was a part of her that was looking forward to the choice, and now that choice is gone. Again, I think that that’s a lot of what middle age is, is realizing that choices end. So much of what you’re taught about your twenties and your thirties is that it’s the excitement of making these big, high-stakes choices. It’s the fear of making these big, high-stakes choices. Maybe the fear, as you get a little bit older, is that the choices start to close off to you.

Zibby: Though, I don’t know. I totally changed my life at forty, but it’s true. It’s harder.

Lynn: Not everything closes off, but I do think some things, especially with the generations above you. I will say one of the impetuses for writing this book, too, is that I did lose some people I loved over the past couple of years. It was both totally expected — they were quite old. One very, very good friend of mine whom I lost was ninety-two, so I should’ve seen it coming. Of course, I didn’t. Actually, because she’d been alive so long, we all just kind of assumed she would outlive us all. I do think that that idea of, not to be too whatever, but, “I’ll call her tomorrow. We’ll go see that art together that we planned to see,” that sort of thing — bodies change. Bodies deteriorate. That’s a true thing. I was interested in thinking about that.

Zibby: I’m sorry for your recent losses.

Lynn: No, it’s okay. It’s a part of being alive.

Zibby: I know, but it still hurts. My grandmother died a year ago, just a year, maybe two. Oh, my gosh, my brain. Anyway, not that long ago. She was ninety-seven. I miss her to the point of tears probably at least once a week, once a month. I think about her all the time. It doesn’t make it better that, obviously, you’re supposed to die. It’s sad that we all have to die to begin with. Yes and no because now we appreciate life. I don’t think you mourn less because someone’s older.

Lynn: You’ve had the gift of them for so long. Again, if you’ve come up and they’ve just been so solid, in some ways, that loss is even that much more intense.

Zibby: It’s true. Are you writing a new book now?

Lynn: I am. I’m from Florida. I have always written about Florida. Actually, one of the things that Flight is about, in part, is grief around place and not just grief around people. We lived in Florida for a good amount of time during COVID. I’ve never written a book wholly in Florida, in part because Florida is so complicated. I think I never really felt up to it. I feel like I feel up to it. That feels really exciting. The one other thing that I’ve been thinking a lot about is I have this idea about, all books have explosions, and it’s the writer’s job to teach the reader the terms of the explosion so they feel its impact. My directive to myself with this book is that there be an explosion at every beat. At one point, I was like, an explosion on every page. There probably will be an explosion on every page, but there’ll be an explosion probably every chapter. It’s Florida, so there kind of has to be.

Zibby: That’s awesome. I loved the way you wrote about Florida in this book, though. It was very complimentary. The fact that you can lose a person from some place and then never go back there, I was actually thinking as I read this — not to keep talking about my grandmother. She lived in Florida, but she also lived in Dayton, Ohio. I’m like, I wonder if I will ever go back to Dayton, Ohio. Even though I’ve gone there a million times my entire life, why would I go back now? It’s so weird.

Lynn: I will say, Florida’s really complicated. We were back. We stayed with my husband’s parents. My husband’s from the same small town in Florida that I’m from. We stayed with his parents during COVID. For reasons that are perhaps obvious to your listeners, I don’t think I could raise my children there, but it is a beautiful place. It is a place that is so in my bones. The idea that we got to take our kids to the Spoil Islands that we used to go to when we were kids and take our kids to the very specific bathtub water that is the Florida ocean at very different in the year and take them surfing and the idea that it’s January and we’re in the pool, that sort of thing, it’s so much inside of my body. The idea that it’s not in my kids’ body, it’s totally fine, but it’s a little bit sad. It was so special to give that to them. I also think it was so great to be reminded of that. I feel like it’s so easy for a certain type of person to disparage Florida. I understand why. First of all, Florida is seventy-five different places. Depending on where you are in Florida, it’s a very different place. It’s also really magical and special. Again, I guess I finally feel up to trying to think about all of the different versions of this place and all my complicated feelings about this place.

Zibby: Explosive Florida, I like it. Which part of Florida do you live in?

Lynn: We’re from Stuart. It’s half an hour north of West Palm Beach, so southeast coast.

Zibby: That’s nice. It’s so pretty. When you wrote this book, and you were talking about the beats of the next book, did you plan it out in the same way? Is that what you do to accomplish this?

Lynn: Yeah, I’m very — what’s the right way to say it? I’m very interested in beats and structure and patterning. To me, that’s a lot of the fun of writing a book. There was a lot of patterning to begin with in terms of the characters. A directive I’d given myself a version of with my last book and that I did a version of with this book is this idea of perpetrator and victim. If there were ever a space where I felt like a character was being too much perpetrator or too much victim, I had to flip it in some way because it was important to me that the reader — a word I think about a lot when I’m working is choreography. I didn’t want the reader to ever feel like they were too much on one character’s side. There was a lot of work in thinking just in terms of, okay, we need another beat where Tess is a little more likeable because she’s been kind of difficult for a while. We need a reminder of her humanity in some way.

I also think movement is important to me. There’s a moment at some point in the book where one of the characters thinks her kid is missing. That’s sort of a portent of something that’ll happen later. I wanted that to come earlier just to set the scene. The first line of the book is, “You left them alone in the apartment?” It’s this accusatory question. Anxiety lives inside of these people. Anxiety lives inside of this house. Anxiety lives inside of the world. Which of these anxieties is real and valid? Which of these anxieties is misplaced or just a certain type of person or pathological? That idea of, where is the live anxiety? was key to the book. I was constantly using that as a thing that the reader can track, not least because you’re not tracking a single character in the way you would in another book. You’re tracking this jittery feeling and this uncertainty of, what if this jitteriness is just being with these people? What if this jitteriness is reasonable because something scary might be happening?

Zibby: I love you thinking of it in terms of choreography. That’s such a great image. It’s so much more visual, like the lines of an ice-skating rink or something.

Lynn: That’s the fun. That’s why fiction is so fun. That’s my go-to. That is my never-ending note on student fiction. Where are we in time and space? If we can get the reader inside of the time and space, there is nothing more useful to you to get them invested. Then to move all the bodies through time and space, it’s like, when is the sister sitting too close to her brother? Whatever. I think it’s an endlessly useful word.

Zibby: I love that. Obviously, this book is fiction because you have a middle-aged couple having sex in the middle of a crowded house for two minutes and having it be totally normal. I’m like, that happened?

Lynn: I don’t even think they locked the door.

Zibby: Kids around. Everybody’s just milling about. I’m like, oh, okay, great. More power to them. Awesome. Thanks, Lynn. I can’t wait for your explosions in Florida to come. I really enjoyed the book. Thanks for chatting about it.

Lynn: Thanks so much for chatting with me. Thanks for all the many, many things that you do for books. It’s always a pleasure to talk to you.

Zibby: You too. Take care.

Lynn: Bye.

Zibby: Bye.

Lynn Steger Strong, FLIGHT: A Novel Jan 5

FLIGHT: A Novel by Lynn Steger Strong

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