A Conversation with Rene Steinke

René Steinke’s most recent novel, Friendswood (Riverhead), was named one of National Public Radio’s Best Books of 2014. Her previous novel, Holy Skirts, an imaginative retelling of the life of the artist and provocateur, Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, was a Finalist for the National Book Award. Her first novel is The Fires. Her essays and articles have appeared in The New York Times, Vogue, O Magazine, Salon, Bookforum, and in anthologies. She is the former Editor of The Literary Review, where she remains Editor-at-Large. She has taught at the New School and at Columbia University, and she is currently the Director of the MFA program in Creative Writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University. She lives in Brooklyn.


Editor-in-Chief Daniel Gee Husson sat down with her in a Carroll Gardens café to talk about her new book.

STREET: Will you talk about why you started to write Friendswood ? How did it come to you?

STEINKE: In the beginning my focus was on Willa, the teenaged girl who is sexually assaulted at a party. I wanted to look at the complicated ways that each character came to terms with what had happened—not just Willa, but her family, her classmates, the boy who has a crush on her, the parents of the boys who assaulted her, even those in town who’ve only heard the rumors. It seemed important to write about the rape in the context of the community. So often narratives of sexual assault dehumanize the woman as only “victim,” and, similarly, over-simplify the situations and people involved, so that they’re flattened and made unreal, something “out there.” I think that’s one reason why sexual assault is so common, and I felt it was important to show the tangled nature of it all.

Also, even though I grew up in Texas, I hadn’t yet written anything set there. Texas started coming to the forefront of my mind in those years around 2004, partly because George Bush was still president. Bush’s politics bothered me for a lot of reasons, and for so long, he was representative of the entire state of Texas to people who didn’t really know the place.

I was also fascinated with ideas about the rapture. When I began to write this story, it seemed everyone was reading one of Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind novels (which spin out realistic-seeming, terrifying tales about a contemporary rapture), and I saw a statistic that said something like 60 percent of Americans believe we’re living in the “End Times.” I read a Left Behind novel and thought it was so wrongheaded and scary that it made me want to write a novel in response to it, an anti-Left Behind novel that argues for the world.

I thought about how the rapture for Willa might be terrifying, but also—after what happens to her—a kind of relief. Eventually, I saw the connection between this notion of God destroying the world as we know it and the way so many of us worry about the destruction of the environment. Around this time, I went back to Friendswood for a visit. One night, these old friends of mine started telling stories about a nearby subdivision, just outside of town, which had to be demolished because it had been built adjacent to a field where chemicals had been dumped for decades. In that subdivision, the rates of birth defects and incidents of cancer were alarmingly high. But it took the EPA a few years to recognize the problem. I’d heard vaguely about this crisis in the period after I moved away, but my friends’ stories crystallized the central narrative of the novel for me, and the more I wrote, I saw how this larger story was linked thematically to Willa’s.

STREET: You mention crisis. The book is told from a few different perspectives. Each character is having his or her own crisis, and then there’s the bigger crisis of the town. It’s interesting how you wove all of this together. Can you explain how you came up with this type of narration?

STEINKE: Well, I wanted the story to have a large scope, but at the same time, I’m always most interested in writing about the inner lives of my characters, with all of their limitations and blind spots. So an omniscient point of view doesn’t feel comfortable. The somewhat fragmented story built from different perspectives feels more realistic to me—and also more interesting to write, because it’s a structure that sets up irony. I could show the dueling versions of what happened, the different understandings of truth. In a community, there’s not one central voice, but all of these different, sometimes clashing, voices.

STREET: So when you started, you knew you wanted to write the story from different perspectives and have them intersect. How did that process work? For example, did you write a whole bunch of pages dealing with a single character and then move on to the next?

STEINKE: I just tried to produce a lot of scenes that interested me. It wasn’t as if I would write one Hal section and then move to the Willa section. Rather, I wrote as much as I could imagine for Hal, and then as far ahead as I could imagine for Willa, or Leigh, and so on. I wove the sections together as I went along, and I cut a lot. The book is 350 pages, and I cut at least that many pages. I definitely lost some things I didn’t want to lose, and that was the tricky part. It was a matter of editing to make the story work. And I write really slowly, so it’s hard for me to cut things. The complication of the structure is one reason why it took me so long to finish the book.

STREET: How long did it take you to write the novel? You said you started it when W. was in office.

STEINKE: I got the initial idea for the novel when I was pregnant with my son, who’s now ten, but I wasn’t able to write a lot in the time just after he was born. Basically, I spent about seven years writing the book.

Each of my two previous novels focus on a single female character, and there might have been something about becoming a parent that made me more interested in writing about a community. Becoming the mother of a son definitely changed my ideas about men, and this is the first time I’ve written from a male perspective.

I also knew from the beginning that I wanted to evoke the humanity and the pain within the very rigid ideas that are sometimes preached in conservative Christianity. Hal’s crisis came out of that.

STREET: Hal is such a desperate character, I thought. He’s just struggling with so much.

STEINKE: He tries really hard, you know? And then he fails and fails. I didn’t like Hal as much when I first began to write his character, but as the book went along, I came to love him—as much as I personally disagree with his ideas about women, or his notion that praying might make him rich, and a lot of other things. His worldview is extremely limited, and there’s a tragic sense in that. He was a new kind of character for me to write.

STREET: What are your writing habits like?

STEINKE: On an ideal day, I get up and go straight to my desk. When I’m really working, I try to get up before my son does, around 5:30 or 6:00, and I work for a couple of hours, then take him to school, and come back and write into the early afternoon. I can write in the mornings in an intense, concentrated way. Usually in the afternoons, if I’m not teaching, I can research or revise, and sometimes then, when I’m going for a run, or on the subway, a new idea will come to me, and I’ll rush to write it down.

STREET: When I interviewed Jeff Allen, he said he gets up really early and writes until noon. After that, he figures out what he’s going to do with his day.

STEINKE: See, he’s a parent, too. I like that rhythm. You’re writing before the worries of the day come upon you. I like to wake up thinking about writing.

STREET: A poet once told me that the reason he wrote so early in the day was that he was still closest to what he was dreaming about.

STEINKE: I think for me it’s that I’m the calmest then. I also like to read for about twenty minutes before I start writing—poetry, or a book I’ve already read and know I love. It helps me to focus; it’s almost a kind of meditation.

STREET: There’s this certain kind of “Texas-ness” that you bring out in the book that people who haven’t lived there wouldn’t otherwise understand. Being in Texas isn’t like being in a southern state or in the Southwest.

STEINKE: Texas is really more like a separate country. The landscapes and the cultures are so different between El Paso and Beaumont, for example, or between Houston and San Antonio. In Friendswood, I write about a particular part of southeast Texas, which I haven’t exactly seen depicted in fiction before. That’s one of the attractions to writing about Texas—the literary territory is pretty wide open. And in particular, it’s wide open if you don’t want to write about cowboys or the oil business or quirky ladies with big hair, all of those colorful tropes. It’s less common to see the ordinary, humble parts of Texas.

But Texas really is foreign to a lot of people in the rest of the country. This came up often in the copyediting process. For instance, in the part of the state that I write about, it’s very humid, even swampy, and hot most of the year. I remember the copy editor saying, “Hot? It’s October. He’s sweating outside in October?” That made me laugh. Friendswood is between Houston and Galveston, so basically between the city where a lot of oil business happens and the beach. There are palm trees down there, alongside the oak and pines, and roads made of crushed shells because the chemical composition of the dirt won’t sustain gravel.

I did fictionalize the place, too. The town in the book is somewhere between the town of my youth, which was more rural, and the town that exists now, which is larger and more suburban.

Football is the center of everything, but that’s true in every small town in Texas. That was one of my challenges. I couldn’t write about small-town Texas without writing about football, so I had to think about a way to deal with it that wasn’t the same old way people had seen a million times. One way I addressed that was to put   Dex on the sidelines, as a student trainer—someone who would be skeptical of the players.

STREET: I thought it was an interesting way to handle it, to have Dex not be a player, but still wrapped up in it. There are little towns near where I lived in Texas where the entire town is at the stadium on Friday night.

STEINKE: Even if you don’t particularly like football, you’re usually there because it’s the center of social life. There’s an aspect of this that can feel overwhelming and suffocating, but the coming together of people of all ages is also fantastic, and in other parts of life, getting to be rare. On my book tour, I went to the Homecoming game in Friendswood, and there was all the familiar pageantry: these giant mums on the young women, the homecoming court in sparkles, and the giant Mustang horse head. I realized what I’d taken from growing up there, which is not a love of sports, but a love of sitting outside on a beautiful warm evening in October and watching the ball glide across the green, watching the parade of people. I was sitting in the front, and I heard a voice behind me say, “Hey lady, I heard you wrote a book.”

STREET: I want to talk about the dialogue a bit. A lot of people, when they write dialogue set “in the South,” write it phonetically, but you somehow captured the cadence of the dialogue so that I heard it, without dialect. I think the cadence is much more important to the sound of the dialogue than, for instance, “y’all.”

STEINKE: I enjoyed writing the dialogue a lot. That might be because I love the way people talk in Texas—all this poetry in ordinary speech, the drawls, the cadence, yes. The problem with dialect sometimes is that it can make people sound stupid. It can imply that the people speaking those words would spell them in that incorrect way, or that the characters are not fully literate. This isn’t always the case, of course, but I wanted to stay far away from that possibility. I did allow for slang and idiom, though, of course. I have this friend in Texas, Randy, who gave me some great lines for the book. I just pulled them straight out of our conversation (with his permission). He’s an amazing storyteller, one of the best that I know, and he has a very original way of phrasing things. I love to just listen to him talk. He’d be the first to say that he’s not a “books” person, but, interestingly, his daughter is a writer.

STREET: I want to talk about the political side of this. Clearly, there are the local politics of the town and how they deal with land-use and industrial leaks, among other things. But I also want to talk about the writer’s role in the context of the world.

STEINKE: In the novel, through Lee, I’m really telling the story of a fierce but beleaguered person who tries to point people to what she sees as dangerous and unjust but is worn out by all the rationalizations and red tape. This happens with all kinds of issues: race, poverty, education. I think a lot of us feel the way Lee does; we sign petitions and write editorials and donate money, but often feel as if that gets us nowhere, and that sense of impotence can be enraging. Lee is motivated by the grief she feels at the loss of her daughter, and that sometimes drives her to the brink. She’s imperfect—she’s vain, and her anger makes her desperate—but she’s working very hard in spite of all the resistance. As a mother, I particularly identified with that feeling of wanting to do something, but wondering if it will ever make a difference. I’m not an activist, but I was so deeply involved with Lee that I’ve come to worry even more about the situation like the one she’s fighting. It’s really not just a local Texas story; it’s an American story. And it will only get worse if we can’t find a way to make corporations accountable for the chemicals they produce and disseminate. With Lee, I was really thinking about how, for all her devotion and sense of purpose, it would be incredibly frustrating to try to get people to pay attention, and to be continuously ignored.

STREET: She’s condescended to.

STEINKE: The oil industry is so powerful and ubiquitous that nobody wants to hear what Lee has to say.

STREET: It’s that complicity between the oil industry and the developers.

STEINKE: I read a heartbreaking blog, just as I was finishing my book, by a mother documenting her son’s blood disease. She said she’d just discovered that she lived near the grounds of a former subdivision that had to be demolished because of the nearby industrial leak. She said, “Nobody told me, I had no idea.” When she talked to the doctors, they said, ‘This very well could have caused your son’s blood disease,” and when she talked to a lawyer, he said, “This very well could have caused your son’s blood disease, but we can’t do anything about it because a lawsuit against the corporations involved would bankrupt our law firm.” This is just one woman’s story, but I’ve also been reading more officially reported pieces about situations like hers all over the country—these buried toxic sites that so many people don’t know exist.

STREET: And all the oil fields on the reservations out in the Dakotas.

STEINKE: Right. But let’s face it: It’s boring to look at the statistics, to read all the ugly names of the toxins. That’s one reason people don’t pay attention. They get overwhelmed. On the other hand, the human stories in all this are not boring at all. They’re devastating, and we need to hear more of them.

STREET: And the larger place of the writer in the world?

STEINKE: I don’t think artists are obligated to make political statements, and I dislike fiction or poetry with an obvious “message;” but I do think we all write from a particular perspective, a certain relationship to the rest of the world, and the best literature helps us to imagine what it’s like to be someone else. That’s the political and ethical side of literature for me: that space of empathy or understanding. As much as I’m interested in sentences and style, I tend to write about female characters who are at the margins, women whose energy pushes them to outrageous, sometimes violent actions. Whatever motivates them—anger, grief, artistic ambition, shame—opens up the story for me, and usually it pits them against the community. In the broader sense, that woman’s battle is always political.