Collisions and Dissonance: Talking with Lynn Steger Strong
Lynn Steger Strong’s second novel, Want, follows our almost-unnamed protagonist, a sometimes-high school teacher and adjunct professor, as her life unravels. She goes to museums, reads books, anxiously orders drinks that she needs someone else to pay for. Want is powered by the engines of a bankruptcy, an explosion, and a complicated friendship resurfacing, but it’s both louder and quieter than the plot that drives it. It’s an exploration of the small ways we as individuals and at a systemic level fail each other, the mundanity of life falling apart, and the seemingly common joys that are the anchors of a life worth fighting for.
I first became familiar with Lynn Steger Strong’s work through her nonfiction on running, first an essay in Guernica, then her newsletter as it made the rounds on Twitter about running in the dark. Distance running and writing novels both favor the workhorse, the type of person who finds, if not joy, relief in putting in the work—even when no one is asking for it, even when no one cares but you.
We spoke over Zoom a few weeks into shelter-in-place orders about Strong’s new novel, the freedom that comes with disillusionment, the complicated gift of running, and writing using every tool you have.
The Rumpus: You asserted in your Guardian essay that you can only be a writer if you can afford it because the creative life requires time and space, both of which are very expensive. Through that lens, can you talk about the journey of writing this novel?
Lynn Steger Strong: This is my second published book, and I think, with my first, I had not as many delusions as one can have when one wants to be a writer but still had plenty. I published my first book, Hold Still, and I thought that would maybe mean more than it did just in terms of my ability to function in the world. The day my first book came out, I was tutoring this girl on the Upper East Side, and she told me that her mom would give me a raise if I put her name in the next book that I wrote. It felt very indicative of the position I was in. What I thought were my dreams had come true, but it hadn’t really helped my family in, again, maybe the deluded way I thought it would. I was adjuncting at three different places and I was tutoring a lot for a while, and that became unsustainable.
I wrote a second book which was very much a reaction to what I thought was the reaction to my first book, which is to say I didn’t think that my book was as smart as I thought that I was, which is a terrible thing to say, but it’s how I felt at the time. So, I wrote this very complicated book with nine point-of-view characters and it was built around a football season, and it took me a very long time. We sent it out once and had some interest but they said it was too complicated. And, all this time, I still had lots of jobs and my kids were really little. I got a job teaching high school because we needed health insurance. I was still adjuncting as well, and still tutoring a little bit. During that time, we sent it out again, and that second book didn’t sell for the second time.
That second book was the only hope I had left with regard to having a career, and it felt like falling off a cliff a little bit. A really great thing about falling off a cliff is you’ve already fallen off the cliff, so you can do whatever you want to do—or that’s what I did. That book’s second round ended in March, my job teaching high school ended in June, and we got my kids into summer camp for about four weeks. Between when my job ended and they were still in school until the point where they stopped going to summer camp, I got up around 3 or 4 a.m. every morning. I worked, took them to camp, worked more, went running, worked more, picked them up, often put them to bed, worked more, so it was this very intensive, nobody cares, but I’m going to write this, and if this doesn’t work, I’m going to call it a day.
Rumpus: What was the origin story for this book? Was it a reaction to the reaction to the shelved nine-perspective book?
Strong: I had an idea that a woman would just slowly start to disappear and no one would notice. I had this idea of what it means to disappear and what it means to be seen, and actually the extraordinary privilege of being able to disappear. That was the idea, that she would just leave one day and realize no one cares, so she would continue to try things and there would be no consequences. What consequence looks like for someone who is able to disappear like that was how it started. The other thing is I wanted to continually collide her moments of no consequence with other peoples’ moments of consequence to show that she makes choices and nothing happens, and other people make choices and lots of things happen.
Rumpus: The thread of the bankruptcy points out a lot of the systemic failures and illuminates how these systems rely on each other and knit together through her experience. Did you have one specific system you wanted to explore, or was the goal always to look at the interconnectedness?
Strong: A lot of it came from this idea of collisions and dissonance. The systems are failing, and they’re failing for this individual specifically, but also, she is a failure within the systems but still safe within the systems. For instance, the bankruptcy was one of the big moving parts where I decided, no, she doesn’t just think about bad things. Bad things are going to happen to her. That was very important to me. There are a lot of books that I love very much that deal with characters similar to Elizabeth, but I think that they focus more explicitly on this feeling of anxiety, which of course this book has, but I also wanted to put her in this space of precarity. She’s not just broke; they declare bankruptcy. At the same time, there is a weird way that the system continues to keep her safe because she’s white, because she’s educated, because she can perform to the level to have a job at this moment. Yes, she declares bankruptcy, but still, weirdly, her day-to-day life is okay. I think if there were any overarching idea it was about when the system fails and you fail but still the systems protect you. At every beat I wanted to play with that idea. Victim and perpetrator was also an idea I wrote over everything, in terms of constantly wanting to flip that. I think Elizabeth is just as much a perpetrator as she is a victim. There are moments where I explicitly try to cast a character as a victim, and then later try to make them a perpetrator because I think the system turns us into enactors of the system as much as it enacts itself on us.
Rumpus: That tension is very visible in the book, and there’s always that sort of boomerang between Elizabeth that she does love in many ways but that wants for so much. There’s a lot about disillusionment but also joy. It seems like you, too, have a true affection for the characters while still not pulling any punches about their complicity.
Strong: A friend of mine said to me, and this haunts me still—we were maybe on our third drink—that, “the problem with you is that you mean it too much.” And it is generally in day-to-day existence a real problem, just because I cry a lot. One of the pleasures in believing that all of us are complicit in all of these systems is also believing that none of us are wholly culpable. Because if all of us are culpable, then none of us are solely culpable. I think, because I believe that, it was really important to me that I not think of the characters who could be read as reprehensible as reprehensible. In whatever way I was giving you an opportunity to land in one place with them, I would later flip that in some way. Craft-wise, that was a specific job that I gave myself. If there was ever a moment that I thought, Oh, I know what you are going to think or say about this character, it was important to me that there be another beat in the novel where that was upended in some way. There were whole drafts where I went through and though, Okay, he feels like an asshole right now. There has to be a moment where he’s something other than an asshole.
Rumpus: In regards to characterization, it’s been really jarring to see the narrator named in reviews when as a reader you don’t get her name until the very last section of the book. There are only a handful of named characters. At what point in writing this novel did you make the choice to hold that back?
Strong: She wasn’t named for a long time, and a lot of the characters weren’t named for a long time. At some point, a friend called me on it and asked why. That was really useful in regard to me going back through and giving reasons so that when Elizabeth is actually named, there’s a payoff. My thing with students is, “Break any rule, but break it perfectly.” If you are going to annoy the reader and bother yourself with the pronouns being tricky when there are multiple “she”s in the room, it felt really important that she’s not named for a very clear reason that in the end hopefully pays off.
More broadly, I’m really interested in language, unsurprisingly, and concepts of language. The word “husband” is a very specific word that we all come to with our own preconceived notions and ideas, and I wanted to play with that. The children aren’t named because they’re ideas of a thing, in the way that children are this constant physical presence in your life. That’s how they function to me. A two-year-old is a two-year-old. It’s elastic and nuanced and complicated depending on the two-year-old that you have, but also I wanted to play with the idea that to some extent a two-year-old, at least with regard to the way that character functions in the book, is just this body that needs and wants and lies on the floor and cries a lot. I was more interested in people’s ideas around those ideas, and that felt like a useful way to engage with that.
Rumpus: I’m a runner, too, and I loved reading about running as part of a life. The narrator’s days are bookended by running in the morning and reading at night, and both come at the personal sacrifice of rest. In your newsletter a few months ago, you talked about how you were running only two-thirds as much as you usually do, which is close enough to rest.
Strong: Someone said to me once while reading my first book, in which a character also runs, “You know that’s not healthy, the amount that she runs,” and my response was, “That’s not the point.” All of it is mixed up and complicated. I do believe that running is sustenance for me in ways that sleeping is not. A lot of what I was interested in doing with Elizabeth is taking my own experiences and pathologizing them slightly more to explore their concrete impacts on an individual who is closer to a certain psychological precarity than, hopefully, I am. My running, personally, I have a complicated relationship with, but at the end of the day, I’m incredibly grateful for it. I think part of the reason I gave it to Elizabeth is because I thought she needed some air. I think it’s a gift, but like any gift, it can go too far. It’s also a compulsion, and I was playing with both ideas because the way that she’s worn down and the way she can’t stop wearing herself down is embodied in the way that she runs and the way that she can’t stop running and the way that she goes running even when she might get hurt, which again, admittedly, I also have done. I was interested in the way running is a psychological rest and a way to give yourself space, but it is a particular psychology that needs to beat the shit out of yourself in order to give yourself rest and space.
Rumpus: I’ve been reading your essays for a long time, and while reading Want, I noticed some overlaps and anecdotes from those nonfiction pieces popping up in different contexts. In the writing of the novel, how did you see where these nonfiction pieces of experience fit into the greater ecosystem of the book?
Strong: I saw Vigdis Hjorth speak with Emily Gould at the Norwegian Consulate, weirdly, and Emily asked Vigdis if her book was autobiographical. She sort of laughed and said, “This book is four hundred pages. I’ve lived an entire life.” I loved her so much right there. I believe that language and fiction are not life, so it’s already one step removed, and I don’t believe that I could fit inside a book.
I also think that I am merciless in that when I decide I want to make things, I will use absolutely everything in a way that actually sometimes scares me. At the point that I knew how the book started, I was going to use whatever I needed to use to get to the end. I think I get very invested in and excited about something once I decide I want to make it. It’s really important to me to use the parts that feel most useful.
Rachel Cusk profiled Yiyun Li and quoted a part of Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life where a friend asked her, “Do you know the people in your life are actually people?” And I got so scared, because I forget that sometimes, too. And it’s not to say that if I make you into a character, I love you less. If anything, I love you more. But, I am pretty greedy and pretty merciless when it comes to the thing I have to write, and whatever I need to use to get there is what I’m going to use. And my editor is like, are you sure? I have the best editor.
Rumpus: I’ll make sure that makes it in.
Strong: I mean it! She made me do this third-round edit that I called my “existential edit” that was that most brilliant edit of my life.
Rumpus: Can you tell me more about it?
Strong: We did two “normal” rounds of edits. I called the first one the “flay me open” edit and added probably about forty pages, and then we stitched it back together and tightened it up. And then this third edit, the edit letter said some version of, “I just want to make sure you take her to the mat every time you can.” And I was like, fuck, I thought I did that. And then we got a drink and she was like, “I just need you to have a gut check on every page.” The level that it raised the book—I can’t speak highly enough for how I think that made the book so much better.
Rumpus: Your book is coming out in July, and it’s not a pandemic book, but it’s prescient in the ways it talks about healthcare, childcare, and money. Is that changing the way you’re thinking or talking about the book?
Strong: I think because of the greater landscape of the world, I’ve stopped thinking about it and talking about it very much, if only because—and this was true before, maybe less about the book specifically but where I’m at in my career—I wrote a book that I’m proud of, and that was really important to me. I wrote a book that said things that it felt really important to me to say. I sent the book to some people whose opinion means a lot to me, and they saw it and read it in the way that I intended for them to see it and read it, and I have decided to try to find a way to have that be enough.
I don’t believe that books are essential. Books don’t keep people alive. Books are deeply, deeply important to me, and if this book could be deeply important to other people, that’s as much as I can hope for. I wrote a really personal book, not personal because it has to do with me, but because I believe that books should feel like secret-sharing. I wanted this book to feel like sitting next to someone, a little bit drunk, a little bit sweaty, at a bar, and just the thrill of that. Whether or not I’m able to give that thrill to people, my job is over. I tried really hard. I hope it works. And I hope that that thrill still has some value to people right now. But I’m also way too cognizant that before you can feel thrill and pleasure you have to be able to feed your family and be safe. I’m so worried about that for so many people that I don’t know how to situate my book in that context.
Photograph of Lynn Steger Strong by Nina Subin.