The Debt We Owe Each Other When We Feel Like the World is Ending
In "Flight," Lynn Steger Strong embraces the messiness of family and the promise of community, even when things are dark
Lynn Steger Strong writes characters that haunt me. The narrator of her novel Want is a woman who feels so acutely the demands of being a person and wife and mother alongside the contingency of adjuncting and teaching and trying to scrape by in New York City. I heard Want’s protagonist, Elizabeth, in my head for weeks after: thinking about books, commuting to my own adjunct classes, worrying about a million things, the echo of some of Elizabeth’s piercing reflection. When I read her newest novel, Flight, in almost one sitting, I found myself similarly haunted by these people, totally unable to look away from these many characters, the ways their desires and shortcomings structure what we think of as family.
Flight follows three adult siblings and their families as they convene for Christmas in upstate New York. It’s their first holiday season without their mother, Helen, and her Florida house. They must decide what to do with the house they’ve been left, but at the same time, they must negotiate the stress of the holidays in the house they’re in. Over the three days that this novel follows, these three families collide with another family, a local mother and daughter who need their help. Flight asks us what we owe to each other, but it does so without looking for a sentimental answer. Strong doesn’t shy away from exposing her characters’ flaws: their snap judgements, their old grudges, their impatience and exasperation and anxiety.
I talked to Strong over zoom about the value of community and family, the precarity of the current historical moment, and the need for novels that destabilize easy categorization.
Bekah Waalkes: Flight is the chaotic family holiday novel that we needed, which is also to say, the family in Flight is so unsentimental and so realistic: they have grudges that go back for years, they have triggers and sidelong glances and all kinds of immediate, emotional responses to each other. What’s the promise of family, even when we get this really raw and honest look at the ways family keeps failing each other?
Lynn Steger Strong: I don’t know if this is relevant to you, but I talked to Yiyun Li a couple of weeks ago about her novels, which I admire so deeply. And in our conversation, she really helped me understand something, which is just to say, when I talk to friends about her novels, they’re like, “they’re so sad.” And I don’t understand what they mean, because I don’t read them as sad. I think that they’re sustaining and filling novels. And the thing that I realized as she and I were talking was that the reason I find her books extraordinarily hopeful is because she is merciless and unrelenting in her ability to see the world as it actually is. But she still wants to write about it.
I do actually think that making books and, even in this case, making art is ultimately like a pretty hopeful act. Because you’re sort of reaching out and you’re giving and offering, and that feels really pretty incredible to me. And so to my mind, like these characters, if loving each other can exist at all on the terms that I’m interested in, I think we have to acknowledge all of the ways that we are deeply flawed first. Living in America and parenting and competition and all of these things. I wanted all of that to be out there in the light. And if people can still, amidst that, have a moment of—and pardon the absurdity of the statement—grace, then maybe that’s something. But I know some readers are going to hate these people, right? Because they’re like, bad or heavy, but I think they’re just people, you know?
BW: We have this one family and they’re all so close and we have all of them together for Christmas. But at the same time, we also have Maddy and Quinn, which seems so interesting that we have like these two outsiders whose lives get intertwined. What do they offer the family or the novel?
LS: I am interested in the ways that fiction can force us to consider the elasticity of language. And one of the words that I was really interested in elasticizing in this book is the word family. And, you know, everybody that enters Alice and Henry’s house has a different relationship to that word, and they’re navigating that word. And their inability to sort of inhabit the word on the same terms is a good amount of where their conflict comes from. What does family mean? What do we owe each other? Is it a bad word? Is it a good word? But I am ultimately interested in being even more elastic than that. Which is to say that I think Quinn and Maddy are also a family. And Alice’s relationship to Quinn and Maddy is a thing that I’ve explored in just about everything I’ve ever written, which is just to say Alice’s relationship to Queen and Maddy doesn’t have a word in the same way that “family” does. And so her trying to navigate that sort of blurry, murky space of wanting to love and care but without the word “family” is as important to me in this book as the other versions of the word family in this book.
I think the word family is super interesting and rich and complicated. But I also think for some people it can function as an impediment. In terms of like most of the people I’m closest with are not my family members. And I want to be allowed to love them exactly as intensely as they love them. And sometimes it feels like I’m not allowed because they don’t have the word family attached to that.
BW: Thinking about the claims on each other that we can’t name is making me think about the collective grief in the novel. Characters like Tess seem to have a hard time grieving because the word “mother-in-law” doesn’t seem to describe the feelings that she has about losing Helen. But she feels like her claim to grieving sometimes is maybe not as strong as Kate or Martin or Henry. So I guess my question is how do you think about grief as both individual and collective?
LS: I love that you see that and said that because I do think it’s connected to that sort of Alice-Quinn-Maddie trio in terms of connection. Some of us have immediate access in language for the intimacy and experiences that we have, and some of us don’t. And especially for me, Tess and Alice’s relationship to Helen is the most sort of knotty and complicated and interesting. When I was at Tufts, my two best friends in college were in their 70s, because you can take two classes a semester for the rest of your life. I started this book not long after one of these friends, Helen, died. And her son emailed me and said Helen died. And I was sitting at my computer. And there was no space to put what I was experiencing. I was not her daughter. I was not her daughter in law. No one I knew knew her. And it felt like an extraordinary loss, you know, and it felt like this other type of loss because I had no language or ritual or space for what that loss was.
BW: Flight is such a loud novel, like a crowded family dinner full of characters, but we spend most of the time in the heads of mothers or women who want to be mothers: Alice, Kate, Tess, and Quinn. Why mothers? What do they offer as a novel?
LS: It’s tricky because I get very bristly at the idea of the “motherhood novel” and I don’t think that I write that kind of book. But that said, the word mother is just endlessly narratively fascinating to me in the very specific way that it enacts pressure on all of the relationships that exist in the life of the person who is given that title and or the person who wants access to that title but can’t have it. I’m very interested in the female body as a space in which the woman is both subject and object at the same time. Which is not a new idea. But I think motherhood is such a fascinating space where that sort of subject and object idea is maybe most ripe for me, at least at my age. So motherhood—even with Alice and her pursuit of motherhood—is also the way that the female body acts upon and is acted upon.
I was talking to a friend about the Japanese writer Yūko Tsushima, recently reissued with a New York Review of Books. And she’s an incredible writer. And all of her books deal with single motherhood. But motherhood is not her subject, it’s her terrain and it’s the terrain that she inhabits in order to explore what it is to be alive. Right. Because I think the problem is like as soon as people say it’s about motherhood, you get slotted into this space. But motherhood is just such a useful terrain to talk about being a person and inhabiting a body and desire. And the impossibility of inhabiting any single role as a human being.
BW: That makes me think about the physicality of motherhood, too, which I think Kate and Tess feel so much. And Alice feels, too. How do you think about the embodied aspects of motherhood?
LS: I mean, the body is kind of endlessly interesting to me. And again, this is not a new idea, but I think historically, women only have so much power. I have this sort of running thing that I say to students, and I also say to myself: how is every novel, a novel about power and control? And so often I feel like when you write about women, this space of power and control is within their individual body. And Tess is a runner, she’s very, very thin. That’s on purpose. Kate is not very, very thin. That’s on purpose. Because their female bodies are maybe one of the few spaces where they can enact whatever sort of aspects of power and control that they cannot enact on the world.
BW: One thread that I found particularly poignant, especially as seasons change, is the concern about parenting in the climate crisis. Henry thinks about it more intensely than others, but with tropical storms hitting Florida, where the house is, and general fear of the future, but every character seems aware and wary of the changing climes. Can you talk about the historical moment this book is centered in? How has the reality of climate change affected families and collectives and communities more broadly?
LS: At one point we had this conversation about, is this a climate change novel? And I got very upset and was like, no, it’s a novel about being alive right now and it’s a novel about being a parent right now. The month before I had my first daughter, we were living in New York and we composted. And we would take our compost to the farmer’s market in Prospect Park. But the farmer’s market was not functioning. And my husband was out of town and we had a ton of compost and it was all in the freezer. So I took it in these big bodega bags onto the subway to take it to Union Square. And so it’s August and it’s like a thousand degrees. I was like this massive pregnant person and I’m walking and walking through New York City with these melting, stinky bags of compost and every garbage can was like this taunt, like, do you care about the world that you are bringing your child into? And I was like, yes, I do. And I went to Union Square and I dropped off my compost. And then, of course, I had this moment of utter, ineffectual pity and absurdity of what I had done because I had not made the world better. It was like this odd, performative, aggressive, sweaty response to the knowledge that I both possess and do not, because I’m not a scientist that the world is burning. I read a good number of the scary articles and the scary books that most people have read. I am a person. I’m from Florida. And I drive around the place that I grew up and I think about what it will look like soon.
So this is the thing: I don’t know how to write a novel in 2020 that isn’t thinking about the way that the climate hangs over every day of being alive and every day of raising a child. And so that is embedded in this book. What’s embedded in this book is that I also walk around with that and then I still think about where my kids will go to college. And that’s fascinating to me. Because that’s the thing that novels can do, right? They can hold such impossibly contradictory truths inside of them at the same time, which is that I am terrified for my children’s future and so it feels very absurd to be vaguely curious and concerned about my children’s future in a way that feels anachronistic and antiquated. So I think insofar as the book is interested in climate, it’s interested in inhabiting the sort of miasma, uncertainty and fear and also the banality and mundanity of being a person and a parent.