The Rumpus Interview with Lynn Steger Strong
I first met Lynn Steger Strong last fall in the cavernous (by Brooklyn standards) basement of a Park Slope bar. We were there for her pre-publication party—an intimate affair attended by friends, publishing professionals, and media. As soon as I was introduced to Lynn, we immediately bonded over our shared love for running and Virginia Woolf. When I found out that her debut novel Hold Still has to do with both, I moved it up to the top of my gigantic to-be-read pile, and I’m so glad I did. Hold Still is about an English professor who has to reckon with a terrible mistake her daughter made, one that tests their already shaky relationship. But trying to sell the book on the plot alone takes away from the true backbone of this novel. Open it for the story; read it for the sentences that stay with you like a gift. I had the pleasure of interviewing Lynn at Greenlight Bookstore for her book launch. Recently, she answered the questions again over email—and, as with everything she writes, the answers are thoughtful and nuanced.
The Rumpus: A few of your personal obsessions are present in this novel: running and Virginia Woolf. Did you know when you set out to write Hold Still that your main character, Maya, would share these traits? How do you separate the autobiographical from the fictional?
Lynn Steger Strong: I think we always start with ourselves to some extent. Maybe not ourselves in terms of physical appearance or situation or origin, but we start with our obsessions, those abstract ideas that keep us up at night. I gave Maya anxiety and uncertainty and a feeling always that she wasn’t quite up to being in the world, long before I gave her running or Woolf. I gave her my worst traits first, and then I gave her those obsessions that have always comforted and served me, like gifts.
With regard to autobiography, there are very few things that happen in the book that have happened in my life. I think to be an actual human is very different than to make a character in fiction. Characters are made of language, which is not life. And this is something among so many things I think Woolf taught me: Mrs. Dalloway isn’t Mrs. Dalloway, without Septimus; Mrs. Ramsay isn’t Mrs. Ramsay without Lilly Briscoe. So much of what we learn in those books (and I hope in mine) comes from the ways these characters are other versions of a life when circumstances are just slightly different, when a person goes to war instead of marries well, when a person is slightly more attractive, married slightly older, discovered drugs instead of books.
I am all my characters and none of them. We are all such mixed up unsure messes of impulse, ability, misfire, intelligence, and circumstance. I needed every character in this novel to work together to show some version of what I think it is to try to live.
Rumpus: When Maya first discovers Woolf, she is entranced. You write:
She loved the vastness all wrapped up inside the minutiae: a house come to life, wind and dust sweeping through corners, suddenly enough to sustain a whole page. She knew she didn’t completely understand it, but that was part of what was so attractive, the knowledge that she could return later for more.
But then you go on to say about Maya:
What she can’t do, though, is situate her past within the present. She can’t apologize for the ways in which it’s made her less capable than she might have been.
How does Woolf help her navigate the complexities of her own life?
Steger Strong: Books, like I said, are a gift to many of us. They are a way that we might slip deep inside the lives and thoughts and feelings of other people, to feel closeness, understanding, without ever having to leave the sanctity and safety of our rooms or desks or beds. I have spent my whole life so grateful to books, not just because they are forms of escape from the actual world, but because they are an escape into other, less consequential interactions with life. There’s a book by a woman named Blakey Vermeule called Why Do We Care about Literary Characters (and I will, for a minute, acknowledge that I’m talking about a book, to help explain how I feel about books) and she says (and this is obviously reductive) that some of it has to do with the fact that we’re hoping to learn how to interact with one another, how to live.
I think I went to books because I wasn’t sure I had a model for how to be in the world, how to live or love or want in a way that felt acceptable or allowed to me, in a way I thought I might be able to pull off. I gave books to Maya, because I also gave her a life in which she didn’t necessarily feel like she had been given those tools.
And I’m not even sure I thought this was true for a while, but I know it now: there is life outside of books that can only happen there. I think, for Maya, that is one of the real struggles of her life: she feels competent inside of novels, which in so many ways, look so much like life but, when it’s her actual life, when it’s her children, it all feels so much more high stakes by contrast. She’s not always sure she’s up to it.
Rumpus: What are your favorite Woolf books, and how has she influenced your own work?
Steger Strong: To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway will be forever tied.
Woolf’s fiction was the first place in my life where I felt allowed; it was the first place that I felt like it might be acceptable to feel the things that I felt daily, to think the things I thought. More than that, it felt like there might be a way that these things might not be reprehensible, that they might even be beautiful somehow.
Rumpus: What does the idea of stillness mean to you? As a teenager, Maya “stayed completely still” night after night while her father cuddled up against her. As an adult, she runs to deal with her anxieties and her troubled daughter. But there’s always this feeling in your writing that what you’re actually trying to do is capture all of these disparate moments of a life: the good and the bad. It’s almost like you’re saying to the reader “Hold still while I show you what it means to be alive.”
Steger Strong: I think Maya aches for stillness, even as she runs from it. Stillness, as shown through that scene with her father has something to do with loving well or right, with giving to another person in a way that might actually satiate. She wishes she could hold Ellie completely still until she understood everything about her, until she saw clearly and surely all she wanted and needed from the world. She wants knowledge, therefore intimacy, in order that she might love her exactly right. I think Ellie wishes she could do the same.
I think they both know how impossible this is, though. Their intelligence serves in this instance (and in so many others) as hindrance as much as gift; this knowledge is the root of much of what they struggle with in their lives. Because they know they can’t hold life still, because they will always love one another in ways that fall short, they both often (both literally and otherwise) run and run.
Rumpus: How is running like writing, if at all?
Steger Strong: I think running, like writing, is a form of being inside of life without having to engage with it, to be in life on one’s own terms. When I run, I talk to no one, I can go through ten different neighborhoods, over bridges, wherever I want; when I write, it’s just the same: I’m making it up, going as hard and as fast as, wherever, I want. It’s being in the world without being held accountable, without being noticed or accounted for. It’s an incredible opportunity to try to learn and explore.
There’s this sort of compulsive obsessive quality to both writing and running. I’ve fallen flat on my face trying to run home before the cadence of a sentence left me. There is a similar thrill when they’re going well, a similar rhythm, a similar rush. If I’m not able to run or write one day or week, then I feel certain I will disappear. I think when you spend a good amount of your life feeling as if you have no right to assert yourself or your wants or needs or feelings, it feels extraordinary to find spaces where you can.
Rumpus: Was it more difficult to tell Maya or Ellie’s story? One of the things that really struck me was how compassionate you are about complex characters.
Steger Strong: I think it made both of them easier as soon as I decided I got to tell them both. Back to Woolf: In To the Lighthouse, that moment Lily Briscoe sits at Mrs. Ramsay’s knee and knows so clearly that she’ll never know her, that intimacy is knowledge, and intimacy feels like everything, but knowledge is not possible, that moment is one of the great wonders of my life.
We know so little ever of the people that we love and yet we keep on loving, trying, pretending to ourselves all sorts of knowledge that is largely made up so that we might believe we could know how to love them well. I wanted to highlight that in offering both of them up as people other people were trying to love. I wanted to also offer them as people who were trying to love and be loved on their own terms.
Rumpus: How do you feel about unconditional love, especially when it comes to being a parent? Maya certainly has to confront this idea throughout the book.
Steger Strong: I think I spent my whole life believing there was always an exit strategy, whether that was from family members, or friends, places that I lived, or jobs, and then I had kids and realized that there wasn’t one with them. This became the most fascinating, exciting, but also terrifying part of parenting for me. Therefore, it quickly became the thing I most wanted to write about.
There is a real ambivalence (at least for me) inside of parenting. The love that everybody talks about is real, and stronger somehow than even the worst cliché could have prepared you for. And yet, there is also the desire sometimes to just get away. And those impulses are almost always happening simultaneously. They often feel to me to be caused by one another, as in I often feel I love my kids so much, I might need to get away from loving them in order just to breathe. But then, I don’t leave. The love makes the desire to stay just slightly greater, slightly more.
I think that lack of exit strategy was exciting for me, who has lived her whole life looking for certainty. I think also, though, because I’d never known certainty before this, I wasn’t sure I knew how to live inside of it or what the consequences of such certainty might be. I was interested in the fact of unconditional love, held up against how very conditional, random, and precarious the rest of life often is.
Rumpus: How did you come up with the structure for this book? I was fascinated by the flash forwards featuring Maya after the accident, and the scenes with Ellie in Brooklyn, before she moves to Florida.
Steger Strong: The event itself was the least interesting part of the book for me. I’d had this idea for years, that I wanted a book in which a HUGE, devastating thing happened, but that huge thing was the least interesting part of the book. I think that’s how life is. No matter what the event, good or bad, on purpose or accidental, most of our lives occur in the lead up and aftermath.
I had a corkboard of color-coded index cards in which I wrote the main action of every chapter out and put them up in front of me so I could see each of those moments between chapters when you transition from Ellie’s chapter into Maya’s. To me, those transitions were as important as what happened in the chapters before and after them. I wanted that space to be the time in which the reader was trying to fill in the spaces for themselves about who was and was not culpable. I wanted to continually subvert their expectations about fault and right and wrong and bad and good. I also wanted to create the sensation, at the end, as Maya and Ellie got closer and closer to having to be with one another—in terms not just of physical proximity, but setting, temperature, situation, language, cadence—I wanted all of it to collapse in on itself.
Rumpus: The intensity and tension in Hold Still comes from a profound interiority. At one point Maya, talking about a student, says she “wanted to scrape all of the hurt out of her life and tell her just to focus, to show her somehow that the only satisfaction would come from her mind.” But the mind is quite the opposite at times. The mind can cause a lot of emotional suffering. Do you think the central conflict in your book is learning to not run away from emotions? To not always intellectualize it?
Steger Strong: Yes! And it’s astonishing to have you say this back to me, as it is perhaps the one thing that I can see clearly now as the thing I started trying to write when I started this book. I had this idea of a woman who could think and talk her way out of nearly everything, who had always thought her intelligence and knowledge would be what kept her safe. I wanted to see what would happen to her when none of that mattered any longer, when all that was left was to try to feel and be.
Author photograph © Elana Megalos.