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"You Make the Space, You Fight for the Space"
A Conversation with Lynn Steger Strong
I started this newsletter in 2020 because I wanted an excuse to talk to writers who were parents. I would read interviews, knowing that the writer had one or two or three small children at home, and marvel at both the writer’s ability to get a book out into the world and the interviewer’s lack of curiosity about the logistics behind its creation. Of course I wanted to ask that writer questions about their book; about structure and character and setting. But I also wanted to ask: when, actually they wrote the book; how, actually did they find the time? For how many of those hours was there a child on their lap or next to them watching Daniel Tiger? Did they feel guilty about spending time with fake people of their own creation when they could have spent it with real people of their own creation? I needed to know the full story of making art with kids around.
Nobody is as frank – or as funny – as Lynn Steger Strong when it comes to the realities of a writing life, and particularly writing as a parent. She was the first writer I interviewed here because an essay of hers, in part about making and keeping time for writing, was important to me and also because of the number of breastfeeding scenes in her last novel, Want. When I spoke to her in (CW: pandemic parenting) August 2020, I asked if she was getting any writing done. She did have a project, she said, about raising kids and making art as the world burns but the writing didn’t really look like writing.
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“I’m obsessing over it mostly, chewing on moments or scenes as I walk the kids to the park or make them lunch or breakfast. I email sentences to myself while I let them play in the bath and pretend it’s a pool.”
Read on to find out how those emailed sentences became Flight, a stunner of a multi-perspective novel that publishes today (spoiler: the process involved, among other things, early mornings and kids on laps).
Photo credit: Nina Subin
You were the first writer I interviewed back in very first aftertimes of 2020, when Want came out. That book was in many ways about the limits of what art can do in a difficult world. Flight feels less decisive about those limits.
I think that I wrote Want from a place of real sadness and anger about the limits of art and what it can accomplish, and also sadness and anger maybe toward myself in terms of my deluded-ness. But I think writing Flight- in part because of the way that the sort of particular intimacy that books and art give to a person felt really fundamental to how I continued to feel like a person through 2020 and 2021, I think Flight is very much sort of, okay, everything is broken, yes, art has its limits, but knowing both of those things, what still lives inside of this thing that I still value against all odds that I could ask a reader to engage with? I think I thought a lot about words that I feel like I can hardly say them out loud because I'm too cynical to say them out loud. They include, but are not limited to, grace and hope and joy. I was really interested, maybe for obvious reasons in 2020, in finding a way to find some validity and value in those words through the thing that I was making.
Flight does feel like a fundamentally hopeful novel and it’s also a novel with a lot of perspectives. I remember that you had been working on a multiple perspective novel before you Want that just wasn't working. Did the first person of Want function as a kind of palate cleanser that allowed you to come back to a multi-perspective format?
That book was set in New Orleans and it was multiple points of view and it really functioned as sort of something that I'm believing in more and more in my old age, which is the import and essential value of writing as practice and that I spent all of these years trying to get the multi point of view, trying to figure it out. But before I was trying to figure it out I think to prove something about myself and I ultimately just don't think that's a very interesting reason to write a book. So I scrapped that and I think it's probably very lucky that book never saw the light of day. I think at the point that I was writing Want, I didn't care about proving anything. I didn't feel like I would ever have a chance to prove anything. I just wanted to be inside of a book and just make a book. Then, with Flight, I think I had a little bit more confidence in the fact that it would be a book and I felt like I could pull at the tools that I had acquired in writing the New Orleans book but hopefully with a clearer perspective of why I write books. I feel like of course you have to have a kind of weird, creepy hubris to write books, especially first drafts. But I think every draft after the first draft for me is a kind of process of stripping away the stuff that I had to write for myself and happening upon the stuff that I want to offer to other people. I wanted so much to offer a book in which the primary organism was the group, almost just as a direct formal challenge in response to Want because for Want, the primary organism was the “I.” This is very inside baseball maybe…
I love it.
…but when Tess and Martin first arrive at the house, there was a moment where I realized, no, no, because the organism is the group, that section opens with a description of the house instead of with Tess. And that sort of move where I was actually deemphasizing the individual, whereas in Want, I was constantly bringing the “I” to the fore. It was this sort of countermove, and it was formally just very fun and very exciting, and felt like, content-wise, what I wanted to do. It felt like what I wanted to see if this book could do was be an organism bigger than the individuals within. Because my friend kept saying, ‘it's too confusing, readers will never understand it.’ And now I’m nervous and it was a particular cliff to jump off but I was like, if they don't get it, if people don't totally know who Alice is married to in the first scene, it's okay, in the same way that if you walk into a busy house, you don't necessarily know who that lady in the corner is married to in the first scene. But you're in the house to be in the house. You're not in the house to feel allegiance to any individual.
Do you think jumping off that cliff is an easier thing to do in a second or third novel as opposed to a first? Because I think newer, unpublished writers hear those kinds of things all the time: who is this person, everyone's going to be confused, etc. Do you now have more confidence to say no, it's okay, I'm trying to do something here?
Yeah, I think every novel is just a process of jumping off a bunch of cliffs. I was talking to my friend about this, which I think is fundamental to me to writing books, just having people you can talk to about these things. But I was talking to my friend because both of us are trying to enter a new project and the observation that we came to, because we were talking about this cliff jumping thing, is that it's not that you ever get to stop cliff jumping but it is that maybe you feel slightly more well-equipped to jump off of higher cliffs. I think part of it is you acquire more tools. That New Orleans book was acquiring tools. I think also with Want, I worked very hard; whether people thought so or not, the shape of that book was really important to me. I think that the word collisions has always been important and interesting to me. The particular way that scenes collided and tensions were created within the white space was really important for me with Want. I think that's the sort of thing that absolutely carried through with Flight. I'm asking the reader to make a lot of jumps but I'm hoping that there is also a sort of energy or tension that comes even by virtue of moving from place A to place B.
I kept thinking about how similar the feel of the multiple perspectives was to the feel of parenting and how, in a certain limited way, the reader gets to inhabit Helen's point of view. She is the matriarch of this family and she’s dead when the novel opens but also obviously remains a presence. We learn over time the degree to which she was involved in everybody's lives when she was alive. And it felt to me that my perspective as a reader was kind of like hers, toggling back and forth between the children and the in-law children, checking in on everyone and keeping all of their individual needs and challenges in mind. How hard was that to write? How did you balance everybody, making sure that each of them got their time?
Yeah, I think it was a sort of process and I always worry this makes me sound like sort of a jerk, but it was a continued process of trying to prioritize a sense of readerly destabilization. What I mean by that is I think that all of us have a deep human desire to pick a side. It's like when my kids listen to the news in the morning and they're like, ‘do we like that one?’ How do I continually try to fight against that by virtue of giving the reader enough moments of subversion and surprise in terms of who each character is and what they're capable of and in what ways they're likable but also in what ways they're unlikable and also in what ways they have more agency than it seems like but also in what ways do they have less agency than it seems like. So I think that is always a guiding principle for me: how am I keeping the reader from landing in any one sure spot such that they can't let the characters continue to be people but have decided they're a certain type of- the minute the reader is like, ‘oh she's a bad mom,’ they can't just let her be a mom.
I like this one but not that one, yeah.
But that's a really hard thing to do.
It's quite hard.
Takes a lot of careful calibration, I'm sure.
It does. Yeah, this was a very hard book to write. My poor family.
Right, let's get into that.
Let's get into that.
When Want came out, you talked a lot about the economics of writing and the logistics of writing, especially with children. You talked about how so few writers actually support themselves with the writing, the importance of transparency, and how tenuous your writing life truly was. Did Want change those circumstances at all? What are your challenges now? Are they different than they were?
Yeah, I think we were really lucky with Want in a way that continues to be complicated to me, which is to say I felt a complicated way about the fact that it felt like one of the reasons that Want did well is because more people had access to what it feels like to have your world fall apart. That felt sad to me. Also writing is not- publicity doesn't necessarily equal book sales and book sales can be useful, but life is more complicated than that. Which is to say that, not long after Want came out, we ended up having to leave New York for complicated reasons and are not back. I am Zooming to you from Maine right now, which is where we are presently. That is completely fine because there are two things that are non-negotiable to me at the moment, which are that my kids and my husband- that I get to spend time with them and that they're warm and safe and fed, and that I can find some windows to continue to work. Right now, the way for that to be true is for us to be in Maine. Writing has been more helpful in the past couple of years than it ever has but not helpful to the point that we would not still feel scared every day if we were in New York. And being scared takes up so much energy that we've decided to feel a little bit less scared here, at least for now.
I really appreciate your transparency because I think so many people who are trying to write want to know how other people do it and so often it does involve those kinds of choices and tradeoffs of where you're going to live and how you're going to spend your time.
No, I agree. I also think it's really important to talk about and I think it's tricky because it's not just me. But I do think, professionally, 2020 was a good year for me and still, two months after my book came out, I was putting all of my stuff in storage and we didn't know where we were going to live next. We had a place to land because we went and stayed with my in-laws. I'm very lucky and I'm the visiting professor at Bates this year, which is wonderful. I was at my job for about two weeks before I started to realize how quickly the job market was going to start picking back up and how I needed to be on it because this job ends in May. So that sort of constant sense of uncertainty with an undercurrent of desperation – I have been lucky in many ways but that is still very present in my daily life.
Right, so that perpetual precarity is still there.
Yeah, if nobody buys this book- you know what I mean? It's just sort of like you're constantly singing for your supper.
You mentioned packing up and leaving New York. The plot of Flight revolves around a house; it takes place in one house and another house is also very central to the book. But you wrote it in multiple homes, staying in various places with friends and family members. How did that impact the writing of the book?
I think one thing that really impacted the writing was the place that we ended up in in 2020 for about six months was Florida, which is where both my husband and I grew up. It's a place I really love and also really hate and feel really complicated things about. I sort of knew that Helen's house was going to be in Florida and we were living with my in-laws in their house, so that was its own thing. But I think what I realized when we were in Florida was this is a book about these people mourning their mother but it is also a book about mourning a place and our dreams about a place and our relationship to a place and how a place holds a different thing for every person. Even my husband and I, we grew up in the same small town but we had such vastly different childhoods that even though we walked down the same street, our experience of that street is so vastly different because of the childhoods that we had, because of the people that we were 30 years ago.
Place isn't just a location, it's the whole package.
In the same way that the word family is a different thing for everybody. I think that tiny town where I grew up is a different thing for me and my husband and his parents and my parents and blah blah. So I think that especially was really instructive for me. And also, staying with his family was a lovely experience and I really love my in-laws. It was a reminder that people coming together – even in not great circumstances – can be lovely.
Reading the parts of the book where the in-law children think about their relationship with Helen felt so beautiful to me because it's not the kind of relationship that often gets portrayed in all its complexity. Usually the mother-in-law is portrayed as a villain or antagonist so what you did here felt like a breath of fresh air, that this person’s mothering meant something to these people she didn't birth. I just love that. And, speaking of mothers there is just a great section toward the end where we get two mothers in conversation that is just stunning in its specificity and relatability. Each of them is responding to the other’s vulnerability with an unflattering story of motherhood (one of them takes place in a Starbucks line). I felt like it had something to say about the ways in which women and specifically mothers connect with each other and how difficult that can feel sometimes. How there's this push and pull, a desire to be vulnerable while also feeling scared of sharing that vulnerability.
To my mind, at that moment in the book, there are these two pairs of women and, in their own way, they're each kind of in this sort of dance that I think- I've never been a man but to my mind it feels particularly female in terms of the ways that they are talking and sharing and making themselves vulnerable and closing themselves off. A word I asked students to think about and I was thinking about, especially in those later scenes, is this idea of choreography. Maybe another way to say it is sparring too. To me it was this very specific, very intimate, and sort of complicated dance between each of these pairs of women that it was important to me that it feel true. None of them are going to be best friends at the end of this. But I think one of the things I was thinking about the title is, okay, there's birds, but I do also think that I was thinking a lot about this idea of fight or flight reflex and that these are people who are feeling particularly afraid of making themselves vulnerable because the person who has protected them sufficiently to let them be their mushier selves is gone. So this is the moment where the intensity of the circumstances has been heightened sufficiently that they might let some of those mushy parts out. I think they're not going to say to each other, ‘I love you.’ What they are going to do is share these slivers of themselves that hopefully shows that they're willing to acknowledge that they're more like one another and more able to see one another than maybe either could fully say out loud. And the more lowbrow answer is that I have for a long time wanted to set something in a Starbucks line, which I will just say that I have been in many a Starbucks line with small children and it has always felt narratively rich to me.
Why is that lowbrow? The multiple child meltdown can be operatic. I want to see more of it in art.
I will say, I'm very partial. I usually end a book and there's one or two paragraphs where I'm like, okay, that's not bad. I do think I like the Starbucks monologue.
It’s so, so good. What other parts did you not hate? What's your favorite part?
Oh, you know what I like? This is good for you because my daughter helped me during COVID, my younger daughter. I like to get up really early to write but during COVID she started to get up really early with me and she would come sit on my lap, which is not super conducive to writing.
I have a lot of pictures like that, actually. I take them just to remind myself that it happened and I still got stuff done.
Yeah, and you'll miss it. You'll miss it. So we started to talk about the book and she helped me write. We played out that the first scene with Quinn and Maddie. They play a game called Animals. It's a game I played with my kids but also it's a game that Luli and I- we performed each of those beats and then I wrote it down.
Oh, that's great.
It was honestly partially to get her off of my lap. But then it was like-
Actually, this is useful.
Actually, this is useful. Also, the particular way that- I don't know if your kids watch Wild Kratz, but my kids know an insane amount about animals. There's a moment where Quinn asks Maddie, ‘is it octopuses or octopi?’ And I was talking to her and I was like, no, that's totally reasonable that a kid- kids know this shit.
Speaking of the kids, can you talk a little bit about what your writing life is like now? Your kids are getting a little bit older - have things changed at all? How does it work these days?
How does it work? How's a good question. I don't know. I've come to believe that your brain has to hit a lot of different registers to finish a novel. So there is the register that is the cliff jumping, which also involves the hubris. No one will slap your hubris away as efficiently as your children. So I think that the early drafting, the sort of imaginative cliff jumping for me still is done mostly before anybody wakes up, in part because of time constraints. But also, again, just in part because I have to pretend that anybody will ever care about anything that I say and I can't do that after my children have reminded me that's not true. So I think I still tend toward, if and when I'm generating new pages, it usually happens early in the morning. Then, everything else. I'm still teaching at Bates this semester and I was teaching another class. But I think once I'm in a project and once I have pages to dive into, I think that those pages, the engagement with those pages, the tinkering with sentences, the thinking about structure, that always just kind of happens in those weird pockets that you find for yourself when you have other jobs. But none of them are consistent because I graded 17 papers yesterday, so that's all I did. But then three days from now I might find three hours. I'll feel like Superman.
Are you used to it? I feel like I've been working in little pockets of time for so long that I may not even be capable anymore of working in long stretches. Or does that still feel challenging? Are you able to shift easily?
With both Want and Flight, there was a six-to-eight-week period where I was an insane, terrible person, and I wanted every second for my work. Of course, I didn't get it and I was cranky, and I didn't really sleep very much. In both of those periods, I got sort of an insane amount done. I think those were both the periods in which I got to the end of each of those books. I didn't start either of those books in that period but it was like suddenly I could see the whole thing and I needed to get the whole thing down.
That was the sprint of it.
Yeah, and I do think I have found that, first of all, I can't write every day. I don't have the sort of life where I can write every day and that's fine. So I think I'm starting to try to understand how I work, and I work best snatching at the world for about six months to a year and taking notes and thinking and talking on the phone with my friends and living my life. Then those six-to-eight weeks, nobody likes me but we are all fine.
It's necessary and you get through it.
It's necessary, it's not that long. Then maybe another year or two of just, okay, now I have this stuff, now it's not that white hot thing. I'm in control. That year or two is my favorite part because that's the part where it feels like my job, where it's just like, okay, mommy has two hours, I'll do this. That's the sort of thing I can do when my kids are drawing next to me.
That's interesting to me that you say that that's when it feels like your job. Is it because there's something there as opposed to before where you feel like maybe it'll turn into something, maybe it won't?
Yeah. I don't think you can know what a project is until you get to the end. So I think you get to the end and it can be hard for me to get to the end because I'm like, am I seriously still doing this? What is wrong with me? Whatever. But then I get to the end and then it's not about me. Then it's about, okay, so this is what this thing wants to be. Now I'm just going to help it be it. I understand that that's delusional. Flight- once I knew what that last scene was, it was just like, okay, it's my job to get the reader there; that last scene matters to me and I'm going to rewrite this book for two years until the reader and I feel something in that last scene that feels a little bit like grace. But again, then it's just work. Then it's just like, get back in there, get back in there, get back in there. But until I know what there is, it feels more slippery.
What is it if it's not work?
Ooh, self-indulgence, Sara.
Does anyone else feel that way about any other kind of work?
Yeah, I think so. I don't know. I think so. It's tricky because I feel very self-conscious about using the word art just in terms of- I think of art as sort of magic. But yeah, it is not just work. I think if it were just work, we should all be doing something that pays better. It's not just work. So I think that's also the hard thing is that I at least believe in it both more and less than if it were my job, because I believe what art has done for me – not that I've ever had a lot of it – but money never does. It's a type of work but it's not just work. I think some of what you're doing at the beginning is play. And experiment and exploration and flaying yourself open. As a grown up, those things can feel not appropriate. But as someone who wants to make things, I think all of them are necessary.
Yeah, and maybe we need to have a little more grace for ourselves.
I said this to a friend recently and she was like, ‘you should have said that to me sooner’ so I'm going to say it to you. And I'm not always good at this but the sort of guiding principle that I tell students and that I tell friends sometimes is that we have to be merciless and merciful. What I mean is you make the space, you fight for the space. When my daughter who's 10 now was four days old, I gave her to my husband and I walked to the coffee shop and I cried and I leaked and- I told you this story?
No, you wrote it in an essay. Actually, it's one of my emotional support essays. You keep the time, you keep it.
Keep the time, you do not give it back. You do not give it back, even if you-
I've given it back many times and then taken it again but yes, I agree with you.
I've totally given it back, too. But then – and this is actually I think the harder part – is within that space, you have to be merciful. Within that space, all I did that day was cry and eat a pastry but that was who I was as a writer that day. The other day I lay on this floor and looked at my stuffed Virginia Woolf and was like, “Virginia, what the fuck?”
Write that on my tombstone.
What the actual fuck, Virginia? I spent an hour but that's okay because I cordoned off that space. I would never do that- I'm a grownup, I can't lie on the floor. I would never do that in an hour that is not for that. But within that hour- I think that so much of writing is not writing but you have to inhabit that not writing space as a writer and not as a mother or a teacher or the 3,000 other things you are.
Yeah, so hard though.
Really hard. Really, really hard. To be honest, I mostly do it before anyone in my family is awake because that's how I convince myself I'm allowed.
Right, it’s the time that isn't spoken for but should be spoken for by sleep. We like to be tired.
Yeah, so I'm drinking coffee at 4:45 in the afternoon.
Order your copy of Flight here.
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