It’s Deeply Lonely to Pretend: A Conversation with Lynn Steger Strong
Svetlana Satchkova interviews Lynn Steger Strong about her new novel, WANT, and what it means to write and parent in the world today
Want—it’s where I’m most comfortable and where I think I’m able to accomplish the most.
So, I honestly don’t think about the book as very autobiographical, although I don’t begrudge anyone taking note of the obvious overlaps between my narrator and I.
—although maybe this isn’t true—has a complicated relationship with their parents. I find it worth talking about, if only to talk about how we carry with us those complexities and the narratives of the relationships with the people who formed us, how we feel stuck inside them or how we break outside of them. That’s interesting to me as a human, as a thinker, and as a writer. But again, I think that the specificity of my relationship with my parents is only as interesting to me in my work as it is able to say something bigger than just that. Because otherwise I should just go to therapy. (Well, I should do that.)
—more extraordinary than the fear.
—because if I don’t have money, I don’t have time and space to make more work. We come from societies and we can’t help but learn their values. That’s why most people presume that money is a sign of achievement and therefore value of an individual, which I can tell you I find patently absurd. And yet I can also tell you that there have been plenty of moments in my life when I felt extraordinary shame for not having any money. It’s about systems and structures, but it’s also about me feeling shame that I can’t provide for my children in the way that I wish I could provide for them. I feel shame that I have to work a third job and I can’t be present for my children in the same way I want to be present for them. So it is capitalism, and it is an abstraction, but it’s also very much a concrete reality.
SS: Your novel speaks about our capitalist society that’s not prepared to adequately compensate people who pursue learning and teaching. What are your thoughts on that?
LSS: I think this system has been corrupted and upended over years. I’m not a policy-maker, and I feel that my job is to show it’s deeply broken. There’s a great essay right now by Marilyn Robinson in the New York Review of Books, where she talks about how we somehow decided what is worth money, and the way that the words “public” and “private” carry a certain meaning. There’s an assumption among certain groups of individuals that a public hospital or a public school is less than a private one, and often the people who work at those places are compensated likewise. We all say that teachers are very valuable, but we don’t give them any money—as if there were anything more important than educating our society. People who trade stocks are not essential, but we give them a lot of money. I don’t know what to do about that, but I do wish that people would think about it more.
SS: Want is full of anger, and you’ve written about anger in your nonfiction. What are you angry about?
LSS: I’m angry about the extraordinary inequities of our society, about the broken education system, about the fact that there are hungry children and people don’t care. I’ve read somewhere, and it’s so stupid and pithy, but the thing keeps coming back to me: “How do I make you care about other people?”
For a long time, it felt like anger belonged to men, and, as an individual and as a writer, I’m interested in inhabiting spaces that previously belonged to men. What used to belong to women—and does, to a certain extent, still belong to women—is pain and victimhood, and I think that agency is inevitably accompanied by anger. It feels like a move forward, and it can be a useful feeling to model, just that it’s okay to be angry, it’s okay to have anger in your body, and it’s okay to perform syntax that is angry. But also, for myself, I don’t want to be angry all the time.
SS: Do you think that writing is therapeutic?
LSS: I have this theory that when you’re writing, you should pick a bruise, and, the whole time you’re writing, it should feel like you’re pushing as hard and firmly on that bruise as you can. Writing shouldn’t necessarily feel good. I’m not writing from the space where I try to work out my feelings or to make myself feel better. I think that a lot of writers write to feel more in control. Insofar as I can situate my fear and my thoughts inside of language, which is an exciting and fascinating space to me, there is a power that comes from that. And sometimes that power can feel like a relief, as opposed to just walking around in the world and feeling generally quite bad. So I guess that part of it feels good, but calling it therapeutic is probably pushing it.
SS: Your writing is incredibly precise. Do you spend a lot of time polishing your sentences?
LSS: Everything for me comes back to the sentence and especially to rhythm. I read everything out loud. I do often start with a messy rush of ideas, and then it’s a lot of cutting back and tightening. I think about sentences constantly. If I don’t have the rhythm of the piece, I can’t finish it, and once I do have the rhythm of the piece, I can mostly find my way to the end, even if I’m not fully sure what I’m saying or what I’m looking at.
SS: Do you revise a lot?
LSS: I often give my students the assignment, “take something that you’ve written and cut the word count in half,” and I often give myself a version of that assignment. Because we all have lots of things that we think are important, but inevitably aren’t. I ask myself: “This sentence accomplishes one thing, but could it accomplish three things?” I’m endlessly interested in tightness and sharpness, which inevitably means a lot of cutting. Which is fine.
SS: Do you have a writing routine? What’s your space and time to write?
LSS: I get up at four, and I run for an hour, and I write for an hour. Then my younger daughter usually gets up around six-thirty. Sometimes she’s up at five-thirty, and other times she’s up at seven. When life starts, and you have to think about the coffee, the laundry, what’s for dinner, and all of these other things, I feel it muddles up my brain. When none of that has happened yet, my brain feels totally fresh, and I can enter this other world before I have to enter ours.
Writing shouldn’t necessarily feel good.
As I’m further along on a project and things get looser, I can often do it in smaller spaces of time; editing is a lot easier to pop in and pop out of. As an adjunct professor, I’m quite busy, but I also have these weird windows of time. Of course, this isn’t true now, but in normal life I have a three-hour window on a Tuesday, and I can sit and chop away at something. But my general rule is early mornings no matter what, and then anywhere else I can find the time and space.
SS: Are you working on anything new right now?
LSS: It’s been hard for me to write too much lately, but I have a novel that I’ve been working on for a while. It’s about raising children and making art as the world burns, basically.
LSS: Julie Buntin and I are friends, and we have had a lot of conversations over the years about the things we found frustrating about our MFAs, not least the simple fact that there was more of a focus on short fiction. We became interested in giving people a more intimate and committed space for working on a big project. I took a novel-writing workshop in graduate school with Victor LaValle, which was by far the best class I took in grad school. One of the reasons was that Victor is extraordinary, but the second was that we had a lot of time to get to know one another and get to know one another’s projects. In my class, I hope to recreate this level of intimacy and cohesion for the group. The understanding that you’re going to leave here with a novel creates a very intense and, I hope, very exciting camaraderie, but also people feel obligated to get the work done, if only because they’ve signed up. It’s a great thing to teach, and I love the idea of helping writers to get to places they’ve never gotten to before.
SS: In an ideal world, would you only write or would you teach too?
LSS: I love teaching: it pleases a similar part of my brain to writing. Like writing, teaching is also about communication, engagement with humans, fluidity, and empathy, but it’s a cheaper thrill. Not to undermine teaching, but satisfactions come more quickly and more often than they do in writing. I’m really grateful that my students pull me out of my own head and show me new ways of reading. In my ideal world, I would always teach, but I would maybe have one fewer teaching gigs than I have right now.
Svetlana Satchkova is a NYC-based writer. For most of her life, she lived in Moscow, Russia, where she worked as a journalist and magazine editor. Most recently, she was deputy editor-in-chief at Allure Russia and feature director at Glamour Russia. She has also published two novels in Russian. After moving to the United States three years ago, Svetlana started writing in English. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus and Meduza.io. She's been admitted to the MFA in Fiction program at Brooklyn College on a scholarship from the Truman Capote Fund, and she'll start her MFA in the fall.