You Should Be Paying Attention: An Interview with Lynn Steger Strong

Kate Sullivan, Social Media Manager for the Columbia Journal, sat down with Lynn Steger Strong to discuss her second novel Want, a book that explores the complexities of motherhood, lost friendship, and the ways in which we live in, and in spite of, broken systems. The protagonist grapples with precarity amidst an aggregation of desires, while Steger Strong’s prose reminds us of language’s limits and the many voids it creates.

Lynn Steger Strong’s first novel, Hold Still, was released by Liveright/WW Norton in 2016. Her nonfiction has been published by Guernica, Los Angeles Review of Books, Elle.com, Catapult, Lit Hub, and others. She teaches both fiction and non-fiction writing at Columbia University, Fairfield University, and the Pratt Institute.

I loved your book, and it was doubly special having had you as a professor last term. Having never read a book in recent memory where the protagonist is a runner, was very cool. I was wondering how you started writing this novel, and how the project came about in the first place?

I had a failed book. I wrote a book and it came out and that felt like failing in the ways I think a lot of books, first books, feel like failing to their writers. Then I wrote another book that was supposed to be my big important book that I spent years on and I did research and had charts and graphs on our wall. We sent it out twice over the period of a couple of years and it didn’t sell, and it felt a little like falling off a cliff. But a cool thing about that is then you just do exactly what you want, or that’s what I did, so some of it I think was the energy of that, and sort of being like, okay, I might never have a career, what would I write if I just wrote? I started writing when she sort of leaves work, and I guess this is in some ways connected to not having a career, but like I was thinking a lot about the particular privilege of being able to disappear and nobody knowing, and I think I was always returning to that sort of idea, the way that that is a privilege and that is a power to just sort of, hide in corners or disappear.

Do you feel like the process of writing this book was different as a result of thinking about writing differently, in what you mentioned as “falling off a cliff?”

I wrote it very quickly, I wrote the first draft in probably about seven or eight weeks, but it was a really intense, tortuous process for everyone in my family. I got up at three or four every morning. I worked until my kids got up and then I took them to camp, and then I worked until they got home, and then I sort of acknowledged that they existed and then I worked more. I have had stretches of work like that that are intense but never to that extent. I think to some extent, and you know this as my student, I believe that writing is work, I don’t think that it’s magic, but I feel like I was really inside of the energy of the book maybe even more than life for that period of time, and so I needed it to end because I needed to return to my life. 

I wanted to ask about any potential blurred lines between Elizabeth, the protagonist, and your own life,but some of the overlaps I saw there were just that you’re both mothers, runners, and of course, the occupational overlap, and love for Virginia Woolf. Do you consider “Want” to be autofiction? And was there a deliberate process in separating fictional elements from anything that was autobiographical?

I had a very clear idea in my head both in terms of there were things that I wanted to show, but I would say that what I think it’s my job to do as a writer is to pay as close attention as I can, and then to shape it in ways that help other people pay attention as well. I knew that there were things that I wanted people to pay attention to, in the particular container of a thirty-something white woman who lives in Brooklyn and teaches and has little kids, little girls, was really important to me. I think insofar as I love autofiction but was interested in sort of pushing the idea of autofiction forward. I really love thinking about the shape and structure of novels. Shape and structure was important to me, plot was important to me. I think the container of the character shares attributes with me, but a lot of the concrete action was made up just in service of giving the book movement, and being able to inhabit scene and image instead of just sort of talking about ideas I’d been thinking about for a long time.

Were some of the books that were mentioned within the physical novel (Gayl Jones’ Corregidora, Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, Nawal El Saadawi’s Woman at Point Zero, to name a few), were those particular literary influences in writing this book or were they deliberate choices for other reasons?

They’re all sorts of things. I think often the thing that I’m reading is more present to me than the thing that I’m experiencing, so to some extent those are books that have, some of them are just books that have stuck with me, books that I love, some of them are books that I’ve always felt portrayed a feeling or an experience more effectively than I could. I think a lot when I’m teaching and so then it informs my reading which then informs the writing, which is to say I did think a lot about writers that are less well known, I did think a lot about writers that are in translation, and writers that reconsider the way the novel can be used, not just formally, which interests me and which I think is present in the book. But again, some of the writers in the book are also activists, which I find really exciting and interesting. More than anything I wanted the book to be in conversation with other books because I think all books are in conversation with other books. I wanted the vastness and complexity of that conversation to be present, because that’s the part that I think we as writers don’t do as good a job of, right, I feel like when I started writing, I didn’t realize how vast the conversation is, and I did want to take this as an opportunity to just sort of engage with the breadth of ways of approaching the novel and ways of approaching the concept of being a writer.

Obviously the book wasn’t written during a pandemic, but I think it certainly examines a lot of what has been exposed throughout the year, both pandemic and not, with rising unemployment, lack of access to healthcare, and even in the depiction of Elizebth’s highschool CEO, the line where they say “they like the feel of her,” I think highlights white privilege and I think Elizabeth certainly acknowledges it, and I wanted to ask how if you thought your novel works in conversation with 2020 and with the world right now?

It’s a complicated question obviously because I have felt for a long time that everything is broken but also that there were threads holding things together, and the fact that the threads have now snapped, does not feel good. I think the idea that the book is in conversation with broken systems and that more people are cognizant of those broken systems, that feels exciting, but the tragedy of those broken systems only feels more present, and to be honest, it’s hard for me right now to not be focused on the tragedy. It’s an interesting question and it feels like I want to say more in terms of ‘it’s the thing that I want the book to force people to look at,’ and I think that I played in the spaces of a lot of different tropes that are also engaging to me, not least like the best friend narrative, or the motherhood narrative, which again, I love and I’m glad to be in those camps, but in some ways I played in those because those women in those books are very safe, and, even in my book, she is mostly safe, but it was important to me to show both someone who was less safe than many, but also still safer than almost everyone being in a space of precarity, which is, I think, proof of just how deeply broken everything has become. Like even this highly educated white lady isn’t safe, and if even this highly educated white lady isn’t safe, you should be paying attention. So in that sense, I’m excited to talk about it if only because I do think there are reads that could miss that.

I was reading something else that someone wrote about placing your novel within “contemporary female fiction” but I feel like that label doesn’t do your book justice because, some of the associations with what that label might be, I think your book goes way beyond that. Why would something have to just be “contemporary female fiction,”  because there’s a woman protagonist.

And if you play that really fun game of like, “what’s contemporary male fiction.”

Right, exactly which is the game I started playing. 

The whole canon, you know? Yeah, I think again like, it’s sort of our job to think about the conversation we’re entering into and to think about the one or two ways that we can push it forward. The two things I think I was really interested in, one of which was, and this is totally stolen from Katie Bloom’s review in The Nation, where she was talking about these contemporary female fictions of a certain type, and she said that all of these books engage with anxiety but not with precarity. And I think that was to me the big thing, like no bad shit is going to happen to Elizabeth, she’s not just going to be scared or uncomfortable, that was number one, to actually give her precarity, but then also similarly, I think that there’s this sort of performance of a cognizance of experiences outside of your own, right, like these smart narrators who talk about these broken systems, or these smart narrators who talk about racism, but everyone that they interact with is also rich and white, and you know Elizabeth sort of says this, I think I still grapple with this, like what is the value of your stupid reading and writing and thinking? I’m still not sure, but at least insofar as in my novel, I wanted the character to actually engage with other experiences, not just think and talk about them.

I keep returning to our class, because I can’t help myself, but in thinking about the anti-social novel that you had us read by Megan O’Grady, there was a line in your book, “we cannot live outside ….” and I think it seemed to be in conversation with the idea the Times article presents, in women clinging to the edge of the map, and to return to the theme of your class last term, “the anti-social novel,” do you feel Want plays with anti-socialness ?

Didn’t we figure out there’s no real definition of the term? Obviously I made up the class and I actually made up the class when I was writing the book and then through a confluence of circumstances, I didn’t get to teach it until a couple years after I had submitted it. But I think yeah, absolutely, I think one of the things I discovered in talking to you guys and thinking about the books and trying to figure out what the overlaps were, was this idea of the way humans are so doggedly in need of or committed to systems, and that when they leave one system, they then sort of can’t help but enact or create a new one. And then the inevitable difficulties of that, I don’t know it’s interesting because I don’t know how I put Elizabeth in that category. I mean she’s obviously, she and her husband have obviously, I guess it’s privilege again. Being anti-social is an extraordinary privilege, right, being able to leave the system is an extraordinary privilege, and I think even the people who don’t, like Elizabeth has less than a lot of her friends, but she also still is extraordinarily privileged, and I think maybe in that sense like, that is the space that I was trying to inhabit of the anti-social novel that I haven’t seen inhabited before, and maybe also it comes back to the jumping off the cliff idea, like it is really easy to jump off a cliff, if you know there’s a net. And I think in a lot of the anti-social novels, this is such a great question and I haven’t thought about my book in this context but if we track back, most of the characters were rich, and the ones who weren’t had to sort of turn wholly inward, like the ones who weren’t had to sort of destroy themselves from the inside out, which to some extent I think at certain points of the book Elizabeth is doing as well. If you have no agency within the systems, where and how do you enact agency? She enacts it on her body, and she enacts it in her relationships, even when she doesn’t want to.

In addition to Elizabeth often being unable to express or say things maybe that she wants to be feeling and thinking, or that she is feeling or thinking, the prose mimics that in what we get in naming conventions, and how we never know her husband’s name and she’s not named until page 208. How did you decide to play with language and its omissions, and what you chose to reveal and not reveal?

I think language is slippery and elastic. On the one hand, I don’t think there’s any perfect word for anything. And to some extent that’s why I think I’m a fiction writer, is because I think scenes get us a lot closer than description or explanation. With regard to the elasticity, I think especially with the husband, I’m interested in the assumptions that we bring to language and the ways that we can’t help but fill words with our own expectations. I think especially with her family, her sort of immediate family, which to me in some ways is the least interesting part of the book because they’re the most solid, those are the people that aren’t really questions in the book. Those are the people that yes, it’s complicated in some ways but that’s her unit, I liked the idea of them not being named because their complexity exists but is not really part of the book. I think as people become named, it becomes this sort of different lift for the writer and the reader, with regard to forming the individual and very specific terms. In regard to naming Elizabeth, I know I’ve said this to you, but one of my favorite versions of novels is that they feel like secret sharing. I wanted this to feel like secret sharing, but I also think naming is an incredibly intimate thing, so I wanted that to be one thing she keeps to herself. And then obviously it was important to me that the person who does name her be the person who named her, which I think is connected to how intimacy has different layers. The person who named her is familiar, it’s where she comes from, and that sort of intimacy is specific and it’s irreplaceable, but it also is not at all the same as the intimacy she has with her friends, or her partner, or anyone else in the book. I wanted that moment to feel really intimate, but I wanted it to feel intimate in a way that’s wholly different from the rest of the book.

I know the relationship between Sasha and Elizabeth is not one of a queer nature, but being queer myself, I read in some of the lines that there is certainly a possibility for that. And I think the concept of intense friendships between women maybe blur that line at some points, but I was wondering if you invite a queer reading of their relationship and if that was on your mind at all in writing Elizabeth and Sasha.

Yeah, I just love even talking about language that the term “queer” has come to exist. Just the idea of us exiting normative spaces and reconsidering what experiences can be, just feels so deeply exciting to me, that I hope my work is always engaging with the ways that we are never one thing or another thing. A friend of mine described Sasha and Elizabeth’s relationship as “sex, sort of,” which feels true. Like you say, I absolutely invite that read, absolutely believe that read exists, like the beginning of the book she is looking at her body, and she is not just looking at her body because she wishes it were her body, she admires that body, you know? And I think that the more, and again this is why I think even the concept of queer is so interesting to me, the more that we stretch what can live inside of our relationships and our experiences, the more we acknowledge the complexity of those interactions. I have no doubt that she has moments where she’s attracted to Sasha, I also think that probably both of their relationships, both the language and experience is constricted such that they would never know how to name it or what to do with it, which again, it’s the extraordinary power of naming, because they can’t name it, they will never do it. But, I do think interacting with students, I do think now, so much more often, students are given the opportunity to act on these feelings because language has made space for it. 

There’s a moment early on in the novel when Elizabeth swims out to sea with Sasha and says it’s the time where she feels more sure than any time on land. With right now being a time where some people are seeking that kind of assuredness, the very concept of place, could also be what threatens and disrupts. Is writing and reading a space for you, as an author, when a concrete place like a city, or an ocean, can’t be?

I think it’s interesting because in some ways they’re opposite experiences, at least for me. Reading is, and it’s funny we could play this game completely, to me reading is very much swimming. To me, it’s sort of giving yourself over, I’m also quite a bad swimmer, as opposed to a painfully competitive one. If I see a dude up ahead when I’m running, I need to pass him for reasons that are not clear to me. But I think with swimming and with reading it’s a sort of giving over and immersing yourself, and insofar as I have no time right now, I think when I read I’m trying to get inside of that and let the anxiousness dissipate. I think to some extent, with writing, I was playing with that idea with Elizabeth insofar as she says “surer than I ever feel on land,” and then she doesn’t swim the entire book. She swims when she’s in Florida, but that’s so complicated. The idea that she is a person who only feels that way in the ocean and then lives her life in a place where there is not an easily accessible ocean, that was on purpose. But I think by contrast the running and also the writing has a lot to do with control. It’s a different experience that you’re trying to conjure, that I would actually argue is much harder to get in any other realm of one’s experience, which is to say that you are in charge of everything, even in the moments when you don’t feel in charge of everything. I will just admit because it feels unfair, that I’ve been doing very little reading and very little writing through the process of the pandemic, but that’s not least because I’m doing a lot of solo parenting. Which is weirdly also a little like swimming in terms of swimming in like a very violent ocean. 


About the author

Kate Sullivan is a writer completing her MFA in Fiction at Columbia University, where she serves as the Social Media Manager for the Columbia Journal. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @heykatesullivan

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