Lynn Steger Strong on Writing Characters Too Nuanced To Be Reduced
I’m holding two things when I walk into a dark cocktail bar in Fort Greene, Brooklyn to meet Lynn Steger Strong for drinks: a finished copy of her debut novel, Hold Still (Liveright, 2016), and my unbound manuscript, still many moons from finished, which I’ve been noodling on during the train ride. Strong has no interest in talking about her own book, which is seventeen days from publication. She has no interest in promoting herself; in fact, she shies a bit when she sees the hardcover, and instead reaches for my work on the table, pushing her book aside. She asks me to tell her everything.
I haven’t been friends with Strong for very long, only since meeting her while co-teaching a conference in December, but this interaction is entirely emblematic of the person I know her to be. She is humble and gracious, and seems to scarcely believe that the good things that happen to her are deserved.
Yet Strong has written a book that is very much worthy of the praise it has received, and will continue to garner. Hold Still is a tender novel with a resonant emotional core that follows one family after an accident that tears at the fibers of their life. It is gripping without ever reaching toward the spectacular; and its lyrical, undulating prose never calls attention to itself, nor screams out wishing for you to applaud after each hard stop. In these moments, Hold Still is at its most accomplished.
Forty-five minutes into our meeting, Strong agreed to allow me to turn on the recorder, placing it atop our pile of writing, and we dove in.
Meredith Turits: There’s quite a contrast here between your finished book and my pile of draft pages — what does seeing an unbound manuscript make you feel again? Does it freak you out that it’s a process you’ll have to begin again at some point?
Lynn Steger Strong: I want to take it from you and be like, “Let’s talk about it!” It makes me so much more excited. I’m a person who likes that control, and right now I have no control, and it’s terrifying, whereas with that … the teacher in me comes out. The worker, too. I can do work. The object? I don’t know how to do object. I only know how to do work.
MT: Do you feel nervous about the promotional end of this?
LSS: Yes. And also, at a certain point, I had to stop thinking that a bound object was what I was interested in, because I wasn’t sure a bound object would happen. I had to keep writing, so it had to be about work all the time. Now whenever writing is not about working, I’m afraid I’m not a writer anymore. Even though this is where I’m supposed to be validated as a writer, I feel like the only way I’m a writer is if I’m working, and because I’m working on my other jobs and being an object in some ways, I miss writing. I miss engaging aggressively with words.
MT: What makes someone a writer?
LSS: I think engaging aggressively with words.
MT: So, in your definition, then, you’ve lapsed as a writer?
LSS: Although last year I would have said I wasn’t a writer, because all I had was a Word document that I cared for. I would have just said, “I’m a teacher.” But now I don’t want to say, “I’m a writer” because I feel like I’m bragging.
MT: So, then it’s an identity you’re afraid to engage with?
LSS: Yes, because writers are everything, and books are everything — well, maybe not anymore — but they were for a really long time, so the idea that I have the hubris to try to make one still feels insane.
MT: At what point did you decide, “I will try to make one,” or was this something that you always just worked toward?
LSS: In college I had this spewing of feelings into a Word document where all I did all day was read, and I didn’t talk to anybody. It was like my talking — I just typed and typed and typed. I was pre-law or something, and I didn’t understand that reading could be something you did with your life. I didn’t know that was allowed. So I just typed and typed and typed and I had all of these pages, and I was not liking the pre-law track, and so I found my way to giving myself permission to write. I was okay with it partially because I was other things, too — you know, “I want to be a writer, but I’m a waitress!” or “I want to be a writer, but I’m [insert difficult thing here].”
MT: If engaging with or manipulating the prose is the thing that’s kind of the most exciting or validating, tell me what the process of editing for you is like. When you have to relinquish the main role of being in charge of the course of the book, or the final draft, what is that like?
LSS: I think by the time it got to edits with Katie [Adams at Liveright], I trusted that we wanted the same thing … I understood that I didn’t necessarily know what had to get cut, because I loved so many parts, and I loved the people. Like, when I finished the last Ferrante novel, I understood that — I loved the people so much and I didn’t want to go away from them. But that’s not the most productive decision you can make. I understood that I needed someone who could step outside of it and tell me. And I trusted the editor who was telling it to me, so when she said “Cut,” I did.
MT: I know a little bit about you, and I know there are definitely elements of you that are in this story. What does it feel like to detach yourself from those elements and work with them as parts of character?
LSS: I think I think of those parts — these things that are really close to me — as great gifts. When I gave Maya, my main character, anxiety, which I can deeply relate to, I also gave her the ability to go for long runs and relieve that anxiety. It felt like the least I could do. I feel connected to these characters the way I feel connected to a dear friend with whom I have similarities. I see things in the friend that I respect and admire, and I want to support them as a friend.
MT: Does it make it harder to edit or see with objective eyes or cut anything when you’re working with a character you deeply understand and respect?
I wanted to write complex characters who sometimes do bad things.
LSS: Yeah. When you write a character who is like yourself or someone you know, you don’t want it to be reduced down to something like, She’s crazy or She’s a bad mom, or She’s a good mom with a bad daughter. I wanted to write complex characters who sometimes do bad things. I wanted to put something on every page that was like, Just remember, they’re a human! There’s a paragraph that’s like, They’re doing the best they can, but sometimes the best you can do fall short. That’s the most terrifying part. But you fall in love with these people and you hope that you made them nuanced enough that people won’t reduce them down.
MT: Is it hard to leave them now in this permanent world and know that their story has ended?
LSS: No. I love them, and I love that this is the book that is introducing me as a writer, and that these are the characters that are saying that. But I’m ready to work. I’m ready to go somewhere new.