Lynn Steger Strong, WANT

Lynn Steger Strong, WANT

Zibby Owens: This is day five, the last day of this week for my July Book Blast. Today is Fiction Friday. I’ll be releasing a few episodes of novels that I think are pretty awesome and can’t wait to introduce you to these authors. I’m doing the July Book Blast because I interviewed a lot of people during quarantine. The books came out during quarantine. I would love them to get the airtime they need now to get the word out. Also, a lot of these books are great beach reads. If you have any time this summer, I would love for you to hear more from these authors directly. Please enjoy Fiction Friday. Stay tuned. This whole week was Memoir Monday, Debut Tuesday, Beach Reads Wednesday, Thrilling Thursday, and now today, Fiction Friday. I hope you’ve had a chance to listen to a few this week. Enjoy this one. Bye.

Lynn Steger Strong is the author of Want: A Novel and also Hold Still. She was born and raised in South Florida and has an MFA from Columbia University and teaches writing.

Welcome, Lynn. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Lynn Steger Strong: Thanks so much for having me. Moms definitely don’t have time to read books right now.

Zibby: Isn’t it even harder now? Do you think it’s even harder with everything going on? It must be.

Lynn: Oh, yeah. My husband is commuting to work. I’m by myself with my kids all day. I get up very early, but I haven’t been reading very much. It’s hard.

Zibby: Your book, I made time to read.

Lynn: Thank you. That’s good.

Zibby: Your novel is called Want, coming out in July. Tell listeners what Want is about and what inspired you to write this book.

Lynn: It’s about a woman, a mom. The short answer is she declares bankruptcy and she gets in touch with an old friend, but I think, I hope, it’s about being a woman and motherhood and privilege and the particular fact of trying to want when you’ve been told you can have anything you want and then realizing that that’s not true. I started at the start, which is to say I started with the opening scene, I started with this idea of a woman — I was really interested in someone who’s going through a lot and who, on paper, seems like she’s struggling but also has an obscene amount of privilege. I started with a woman who walks out of her job and literally disappears and realizes no one notices. That idea of who has the power and privilege to disappear was a lot of what started the book for me.

Zibby: I feel like the book throws you right into this woman’s, nonchalance is the wrong word, her ambivalence about everything, her lack of being able to feel it all. She’s going through the motions. The way you described the scenes in the shower with her husband, everything is just so matter of fact. She gets it done. Then she moves on. She’s catatonic, which I feel like is a state so many people can get to when they’re not fully happy in their lives. You didn’t even have to say it. You just illustrated it with your words. That was great.

Lynn: Thank you. That idea of ambivalence was one of the grinding factors. I was constantly like, if something seems one way, in the next scene I want it to almost seem the exact opposite. If a character seems sort of good or nice, in the next scene I want the reader to see how they’re another thing. The idea of everything being not only but also was running through my head a lot.

Zibby: You had your main character obsessed with her childhood friend, Sasha. Am I getting that right?

Lynn: Yep.

Zibby: Why? What was that about? Did you have a friend that you would stalk on Facebook or something? How did you come up with that as a device? Was it from life or what?

Lynn: I think that we’re all sort of obsessed. I at least have very intense female friendships. In a lot of ways, they’ve been formative to me in ways that both feel familiar in terms of a lot of my — again, they’re my friends, so whatever. A lot of women have those experiences. With regard to this idea of motherhood and womanhood, I think that our mothers are our models. I also think that the other women in our lives become our models in ways that we don’t always realize. For me, Sasha especially was this way. I think when we’re teenagers, we play at being grown-up. We don’t realize that sometimes our actions have grown-up consequences before we’re ready to know what our actions are. Sasha’s there to sort of show how when the main character tries to love people, she doesn’t have any other model besides her own mother. Her own mother is not a great model. Then when she tries to love Sasha, she accidentally does things that as a grown-up and as a mother to her own children she would never do and she regrets. The obsession was with another female character, but it was also this obsession with wanting to be good at taking care of people and not knowing how to do that well.

Zibby: Interesting. I love how you took it all the way back to when Sasha — what is the narrator’s name? I’m blanking on this.

Lynn: Elizabeth.

Zibby: Elizabeth. That’s my name, actually. How could I forget this? When they contrast even how they grew up and how Elizabeth was saying her house was much bigger and it would seem like maybe that would make for a happier home when in fact, not at all. The exact opposite was home. Her parents would just stroll in and barely acknowledge her. Then in Sasha’s house, which was much smaller and they didn’t maybe have as much privilege, it was all about the love and what was missing. I feel like so much in female friendships, you look for what you’re missing in yourself a little bit, try to fill that gap. Anyway, thought that was neat.

Lynn: Totally. Again, I think that privilege, it’s such an elastic, slippery word. On paper, Elizabeth’s family has more, but in reality, it feels like Sasha’s family has more. Also, the other things are true too. Sasha has more student debt than Elizabeth.

Zibby: I read one of your articles on Catapult about writing about how you had dinner with your family and you wanted to write a story about them, but then you’d have to make them characters and maybe they wouldn’t be perfect characters. I was just wondering how you ended up with fiction, if you ever did attempt to fictionalize your own family, if that has crept its way into your novels, and just how you ended up becoming a novelist, really.

Lynn: I think it all creeps in. I think people who say it doesn’t are lying. I have tried to write nonfiction. I’ve actually written a bit of nonfiction. Ultimately, I always return to fiction because I think that scenes are the most, at least for me, they’re the thing that I’m best at. I think they’re the best sometimes at communicating ideas, not least because I don’t really want to make any arguments. Like you said, I’m really interested in ambivalence. The best way, I think, to make readers sit inside of spaces of not knowing or this sort of everything is often more than one thing at the same time is to just depict scenes as carefully and precisely as I can. That’s how I continually return to fiction. I’m trying to think of all of your questions.

Zibby: I know. Sorry. I loaded them all up at once.

Lynn: No, it’s okay. The particular way that I was loved and the particular way that I think that love is always flawed and that we always hurl that word at one another but fall short in different ways, obviously that came from personal experiences, which I think is also how I became a novelist. I became a writer in some ways because I felt like I was saying things and I was given language, but that language never matched up with the experience. It was just this long process of trying to find language that was effective enough that people heard what I was saying. I had this New Yorker cartoon when I was in college, maybe, or twenties that was this girl sitting in a window saying, “Dear Mom and Dad, you gave me a good childhood. As a result, I can never be a writer,” which is silly and funny. My parents loved me very much. I feel like everybody who becomes a writer in some ways has experienced some, I feel like trauma’s too strong a word, but I think specifically trauma around language. Words have been used against them in ways that makes them want to reappropriate that power in some way by saying, I know how powerful language can be. I want control of that. I’m going to enact that on other people.

Zibby: That’s an interesting theory. I’m going to test that out. I like it. I fully agree that — I have a girlfriend who came to this one book event I had. All these authors were talking about different books. She was like, “You know, I think I’ve just had too happy a life. Nothing really bad has happened to me. I feel kind of badly saying that. My parents are happily married. I’m very lucky. I have a nice marriage.” I do think there’s something to having had some sort of pain that can infuse your writing in some way. I think it generally helps. Something has to inspire you. Maybe not. Now I feel like writers are going to be like, nothing bad happened to me.

Lynn: I have plenty of friends with — again, I put myself in this category in a lot of ways — who had very idyllic childhoods. It’s also just more a relationship to recognizing the ruptures in your life and other people’s lives and then thinking about how those shift your experience. If you’re paying a lot of attention, which I would argue is the one rule of being a writer, is to just pay a lot of attention, if you’re paying a lot of attention, you see all the fissures and ruptures even if they’re not necessarily happening to you.

Zibby: Love that. This is great. You teach writing too.

Lynn: I do.

Zibby: Tell me about some of the things that you tell your students. Sneak me some information that you share with them.

Lynn: I try to do a lot of generative writing in almost all of the classes that I teach, which is to say that I think that language is as much generative as communicative, which is another way of saying, so you have an idea and it’s in your head and you think that you can just pop it in a word, but I don’t believe that that’s true. Language is a limited object. I might think I feel love, but my idea of that word love is very different from your idea of that word love. Already, there’s a disconnect. Because language is separate, we can take language and we can see what language can teach us. That’s a long-winded way of saying I think it’s really important that sometimes you write and not think about what you’re writing, but just keep going. I make my students do a lot of that, especially in the beginning of our different — depending on the class I’m teaching. In that vein, the first assignment I always give them, which is stolen wholly from Amy Hempel, to write the thing that destabilizes your sense of yourself. That can be both you as a human but also you as a writer. I teach grad students and whatever. Also just depending on the mood you’re in, some of us don’t necessarily want to be sitting in a room with a bunch of strangers crying. You can always write the thing that destabilizes your sense of yourself as a writer. You can also write the thing that destabilizes your sense of yourself as a human. I would argue they’re connected.

I’ll also say just for whatever it’s worth, I don’t ever make people share any of this. I think that’s an important part of being a writer and writing and finding a way to saying something worthwhile. You have to inhabit spaces where you’re like, I will never share this with anyone ever. What would I write if I gave myself that space? Then maybe seventeen drafts later, you might find yourself in a space where you would share it, but to make sure that you sometimes sit down and say, this is just a secret and I’m seeing what that secret feels like in language. That’s the one other thing. Then I’ll stop. That’s the one other thing I tell students and the thing I hope my books feel like. We have so many forms of storytelling at this point. One of the thrills of reading that I want to give readers is the thrill of secret sharing. You can’t get that energy of secret sharing if you’re never sharing secrets or what feels like secrets.

Zibby: I feel like secrets are another motivating factor in writing. I feel like anyone who has held a secret, which is basically everybody in some form or another, but depending on the level of destruction that that secret has wrought in their lives, I feel like that informs so many stories and entire novels. There should really just be a whole thing on, write your secrets on the way to your novel or something like that.

Lynn: That’s another writing exercise I give students. Share a secret, but also share a secret with someone for who the secret is high stakes. Write that letter to the mom character in the book that if she got that letter, she would cry. That’s also it. How do secrets function as sources of tension? They almost always do if you look at the right people.

Zibby: Then that’s the trick of turning those into fiction. When you said that first prompt, something popped into my head that happened in college which I haven’t thought of in forever. Then I was like, no, I couldn’t write that because I could never share that. Then I was thinking, well, maybe that would be interesting in a novel. Then I would get on a call with somebody and they’d say, did that really happen to you? Then what would I say? Yes or no?

Lynn: This is why fiction’s so fun. You would turn it into something concrete that’s separate from the secret. For example, and this is giving away a part of the book, but no one has ever offered my family money for my husband’s sperm. That’s a detail in the novel. What has happened in my life is that I’ve had a complicated relationship with my femininity and my husband’s masculinity and my ability to make babies in my relationship. I’ve thought a lot about that. Again, no one’s ever offered me money for her husband’s sperm, but that idea, sitting at a dinner and having someone say, we think that your husband’s ability to procreate, we think your husband’s ability to make a home is more powerful than yours, is absolutely a thing that I have felt. Then in fiction, it becomes this very specific scene with a very specific action that has consequence that has other people to interact around it. But in my life, it’s just a thought.

Zibby: Wow, that’s really neat. This is great. I feel like I’ve just taken a little mini writing tutorial here. I’m so inspired. This is great.

Lynn: I’ll send you some writing prompts when we’re done. I love writing prompts.

Zibby: I actually subscribed, there was a — I can’t even remember what it was called. Somebody did, pay fifty cents a day for a writing prompt or something like that. Every day, she would send a writing prompt. I ended up deleting it. I’m like, I don’t have time to write right now, so I’m not writing, but the whole idea of everything sparks all these stories and they’re all tucked away. I don’t know about you, as I get older, I feel like I’m probably much older than you, but if someone says, tell me a story from college, I’m like, I don’t know. But if somebody reminds me of specific thing like somebody I went to college with, of course it comes back. You might not think of it until you have the red carpet that rolls out right to that moment.

Lynn: I had a grad school professor, Victor LaValle, who’s a genius. You think about how you remember an experience as a feeling, but actually, feelings have logistics. He was talking about, he was writing about a depressed college kid. Depression inevitably feels really one-note. I think I’m playing with that in my book too. In my book, a ton happens. Also, his description was, but then I remembered I was a depressed kid who smoked a lot of weed which meant I had to interact with my dealer which meant that was sometimes funny. Actually, I ate a lot of food, which, A, food is super — I’m sort of obsessed with food as a really useful space to think about families and relationships and etc. You think about the thing that you felt. As writers, we often want to talk about our feelings. Then you think about, there are usually logistics and rituals around those feelings, and those can provide scenes.

Zibby: It’s so great.

Lynn: I hope. I don’t know.

Zibby: Tell me about the process of writing Want and how it differed from your first book.

Lynn: Hold Still was my first book. It came out. I wrote it, and I was not very happy with the reception. I think most writers are sort of like, my dream came true and I’m still myself. It can be a jarring experience to still have to be yourself. I had this big, complicated novel that I spent a few years on that was nine point-of-view characters. Anyway, long story short, after a few rounds of submissions it did not sell. I was pretty devasted but also pretty much like, well, I tried. It didn’t work, so now I’m just going to do whatever I want. I tend to get up pretty early. I started to get up around three or four instead of four or five and wrote a bunch. My kids were in camp for — there was this very short period of time — I usually have three or four jobs at a time. For that period of time, I had one or two jobs on and off, but many fewer jobs than usual and needed to do much less childcare than usual. I just was a little bit of a crazy person. I was probably very hard to live with. I was getting up at three or four. I would write until my kids woke up. I would take them to camp. I would write until it was time to pick them up. I would watch them/let them watch television. I would put them to bed. I would write more. It came out very, very quickly. It was sort of intense and unsustainable. Then I had a draft. Once I have a draft, and this is always true, once I have a draft, I can sort of calm down because I know what it is. I feel like it has the energy and the rhythm I want it to have. Now I can do the stuff that feels more like the actual work of figuring out how to put the pieces together. The process was very intense and, again, probably not super fun for my husband.

Zibby: What time would you go to sleep on the days you were waking up at three?

Lynn: Ten or eleven. I’d work again once my kids went to bed. I don’t know if you feel this as a parent. I also just need some time when no one needs anything from me. Even if I don’t sleep and to go real low and highbrow, like I’m watching Real Housewives, I just need some time when no one wants to talk to me. I also have to fit that in somewhere.

Zibby: Every so often when a kid wakes me up in the middle of the night — I don’t usually get out of bed ever before three. I try not to be in the threes, but sometimes they wake me up and my brain just starts going. I’m like, ooh, how nice. I could go into the kitchen and no one will walk over to the table and bother me. I can do anything. I could read. I could write. I could prepare for all these podcasts. It doesn’t matter. No one’s going to talk to me. That alone is enough to get me out of bed in the middle of the night just to enjoy the silence.

Lynn: I feel like people look at me like I’m crazy, but it is a magic time. There’s also this weird pressure to be productive and efficient which I feel very much just also as a person who has to survive in the world. I feel weirdly at four AM, I can give myself a break. This morning I looked at the pigeons. I was up at four. I went for a run. Then I came back and I watched the pigeons out our window. At five thirty, that feels unproductive and like I need to start doing something. At four, it’s like, nah, it’s fine.

Zibby: The other day, it was literally three thirty. I was like, look at these cool shadows on the books in my office. I start taking all these pictures. Then of course, I put my little card in my computer the other day. I was like, oh, my god, what was I doing that night? Yes, it’s very nice to escape the chaos, the nonstop, especially these days. Our little kids are similar ages. It’s a lot. It’s a lot of needs to meet. It’s intense.

Lynn: It’s a lot.

Zibby: Are you writing another novel now? What are you up to?

Lynn: I am, yeah. Like I said, I’m mostly looking at the pigeons these days. Like you say, I’m trying to do our very hobbling version of remote learning because my kids are still doing that for a couple more weeks. I have a book that is about — it’s interesting because I started it before everything that’s happened. I was thinking a lot about the climate, as I think a lot of people are. It was about a kid who goes missing. It was about making art. It’s very specific. It’s over the period of a holiday weekend. A child goes missing. The families go out in search of her. It’s also about trying to raise people well and make art when both of those things in different circumstances could feel like sort of absurd endeavors in our current context. I have had 167 pages of that book for a couple months now. It’s a distracting, tricky time.

Zibby: That is true. Do you have advice to aspiring authors?

Lynn: Keep going. Keep going. You’re going to write bad things. Also, the things you write that are good, people are going to tell you are bad, so keep going. Create language for and ideas around what you want to make because you might be the only one who knows when you’ve made it. You want to be able to stand up and say, no, you don’t like it, or no, you don’t want to publish it, but this is what I want to make. If this is not what you want, then I will find someone else. Just keep going. It’s such a weird, slippery, hard path. The only people I know who have published books are the people who kept trying to write books.

Zibby: Very true. Thank you. Thanks for all your insights. Thank you for coming on the show. I will be thinking of you in the middle of the night.

Lynn: Enjoy your shadows. To me, it’s so exciting. Thank you so much for having me. Good luck with your children and all the things.

Zibby: Thanks, you too.

Thanks so much for listening to Fiction Friday, part of the July Book Blast of “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” I hope that you found some really great reads this week. All five days I’ve launched tons of episodes so that I can entertain you and you can connect with stories and just feel a little better in the world knowing that these stories exist and that these authors are out there. I hope you enjoyed all of these Fiction Friday episodes and that you had a great day. I hope you have a really great weekend. Come back next week because I’m doing one more week, one more five days I should say, of another July Book Blast week. I’ll have five new fun days then, and then back to normal. You can have a binge podcast fest or something. Anyway, have a great weekend.

Lynn Steger Strong, WANT