“The Morning After the Sixties” — an Interview with Darcey Steinke, Author of Sister Golden Hair

There is a passage in Lawrence Wechsler’s book on contemporary perception artist Robert Irwin which reads: “Throughout the late fifties, Irwin continued to survey the progress of other artists, groping for a way of seeing his own work more clearly. Slowly his emphasis shifted; whereas previously he had phrased the challenge in terms of gesture’s seeming authenticity or the painting’s compositional consistency, now he began to think more in terms of the canvas’s physical presence.” I was reminded of this quote as I interviewed novelists, essayist, and text-based artist, Darcey Steinke about her new novel Sister Golden Hair, out from Tin House this month. Steinke is a writer whose work has always been deeply engaged with perception — the perception of religion, the body, and the text as a kind of spiritual reservoir which must capture that sense of authenticity through struggles with form.

In her new novel, set in the 1970’s in a decade of “devolution,” where one could count “ten Nixon signs on the highway as they passed,” Steinke’s work branches out and begins to deal with the physical presence of a decade and those crises which defined it. Here is a conversation we had one morning over coffee — Darcey in her house in Brooklyn and I trying to catch the internet’s passing flame from my kitchen table in the Catskills.

Part I: The 1970’s, Feminism, and the Crisis of Self-fulfillment

DeWitt: As I was reading Sister Golden Hair I was thinking a lot about the role of time period and place in the novel. I think having been a kid that grew up in the 80’s, I’ve always really romanticized people that lived through the 70’s and came of age during that time. My own parents didn’t necessarily have a strong relationship with the 70’s as a time period, despite having lived through them. So, I have this kind of cultish fascination with narratives of that time. I was looking back on that famous Didion essay “The Morning After the Sixties” from The White Album and there was a line in there that reminded me of your novel where she said, “We were all very personal then. Sometimes relentlessly so. And at one point we either act or do not act. Most of us are still. I supposed I’m talking about just that. The ambiguity of belonging to a generation distrustful of political highs. The historical irrelevancy of growing up convinced that the heart of darkness lay not in some era of social organization but in a man’s own blood.” That made me think a lot about your novel, this description of it on the back says, “It’s all about awaiting new sexual mores, and muddled social customs and confused spirituality.” But more than that it specifically reminded of the father character in your novel and how he becomes a cipher for this change that’s somehow happened between the 60s and the 70’s. And I didn’t know if you could talk about what that “morning after the 60’s” was for you and what made you write about this time period?

Steinke: I’ve always wanted to write about the 70’s because — I mean there’s some good stuff about the 70’s. The Ice Storm would be a great example of a book that’s similar to my feeling of the 70’s. There are also a lot of things culturally about the 70’s that are ridiculed. It’s all about That Seventies Show and smiley faces and tube tops. And I always feel like when you get that, it’s usually because there’s been a lot of pain.

DeWitt: Fascinating.

I always feel like if there’s a lot of romanticizing of a time period it’s because there’s been a fair amount of pain and confusion about a time period.

Steinke: I always feel like if there’s a lot of romanticizing of a time period it’s because there’s been a fair amount of pain and confusion about a time period. And so rather than think about its bleakness, it becomes, “It was GREAT. We all wore love beads. We wore bellbottoms. There was a lot of pot around.” But in my experience I didn’t really know the difference until I’d lived through many different time periods. You know what I mean? Because I do think that the period of time that you come of age in, you’re always accessed in that time period. And I also think you’re often obsessed — I think you’re right, that there can be a nostalgia for earlier periods that came before you — but I think you’re obsessed with the people that you came of age around. You always have a kind of love hate relationship with them. You’re fascinated with them but you always think, “How could they have been better? What is it about them that made them who they are?” I mean, for me I’ve thought so much about — especially some of these women that I tried to write about in my new book and the challenges they had and the struggles of where they were in history and feminism.

DeWitt: Yes. That was something I thought a lot about in relationship to the mother character who was really interesting to me. And so I was going through literature prepping for this interview I was looking at a lot of the Didion essays that I’d always crawled over that were supposedly nonfiction about that time. And there’s that essay in there too about the Women’s Movement where she says, “In 1972, in a ‘special issue’ on women, Time was still musing genially that the movement might well succeed in bringing about ‘fewer diapers and more Dante.’” And she talks about this idea that the new feminism was about some “yearning for fulfillment” or “self-expression” in that way. There is that line where Didion says, “The have-nots, it turned out, aspired mainly to having.” And that reminded me a lot of the mother character that you build across your novel in terms of her obsession with the wealthy families like the Rockefellers and what they’re doing. I was curious about how you built your ideas of what was going on with feminism at that time. Is that something you witnessed and then built in?

Steinke: Yes, definitely. You know when you’re ten years old — which I guess I was. My time period doesn’t exactly fit, I guess it’s a few years off — but I mostly experienced feminism at first in the house. In my house with seeing my mother react to both actual feminists — like seeing feminists protest on TV and seeing my mother and what she felt about it and thinking, “Where do I fit in that. Do I agree with her? Do I not?” And then also having her feel she was trained to be one thing, one kind of woman, one kind of mother, but that the culture all of a sudden seemed to want someone who worked, someone who had gone to college. And my father really did, I think, play into this too. Especially when women could work, then the house could be different. Could be a different place financially. More wealthy. And my father was definitely the type of person that was interested in that. My father was the type of person who wanted self-development for himself as well and so the idea of my mother working, I think he liked that idea a lot. And I think he raised it to her a lot. And it was really very hard for her because she had grown up being trained — and maybe more so than other people too — being trained to think, “You’re going to work in the home. The home is a beautiful place.” I often think of how much my mother has gone through when I think of Brooklyn. You know, how important food is now. To make yourself a cozy home. All these things I think kind of blew apart in the 70’s. Nobody cared anymore. It didn’t matter if your food was just microwaved. It didn’t matter if you had a cozy home. It was as all about, “How can I fulfill myself to be outside the home.” And that was painful for my mother. Of course the mother in my novel isn’t exactly like my mother, but some of that energy I definitely tried to sort of put into that. I think people can be disappointed in relationships. And there’s love disappointment. And there’s confusion in relationships. But time is like the third parent. Right? When you’re messed up by time itself, that’s kind of epic to me. That’s tragic in a way that’s — even as a little girl, I remember experiencing that. Feeling my mother’s sadness — you know, she was sad anyway probably — but my friends’ mothers too. A lot of sadness among my friends’ mothers, among that generation, that the rug had really been pulled out from under them and there wasn’t really much they could do about it. They could try at thirty-five or forty to go back to school and get careers but really there was going to be this lack in a way. There was no way to really control it. And that to me seemed pretty tough. It was hard to feel like there was something that was done to them by history that couldn’t be made right. I also think that the depth of the frustration and the isolation and the real scariness of it — I tried to put that in the book to. I mean, you know, the sixties ideas that families started to break up. The idea of personal development, how you, yourself, your own life was going to develop, your own desires — a father’s or a mother’s separate from the family — became a focus culturally. Not so much the family unit anymore. When families started to break up because of that, as I said, these women, they hadn’t been college educated. I think of them like proto feminists. They hadn’t been educated to work outside. To take care of their families. And there was some serious financial desperation going on. Sometimes I think more than the culture’s really willing to admit.

DeWitt: Yes. I think so too.

Steinke: I mean there were some families — not just women — really left in the lurch. Seriously. And I feel like I haven’t really seen that written about. As far as the thing I saw then. And I had great — I really came to admire these women who had nothing and whose families had broken up who were supposed to work. And to have kids. You know, there was no real childcare. And to see them get their nursing degrees or try to put it back together was kind of the first thing I ever saw of women taking responsibility for their lives. And you could say it’s not like a woman getting a PhD or becoming president but to me at seven, eight, nine, ten, I could really feel that there was a force — that something cool was happening. It was the first time I really saw, “We can. It’s possible to put this back together.” And that was hard because I saw my mother do it — but my mother’s case was much more fraught. She also went back to college. Which is probably the thing that I’m most proud of her for. I think she got her degree when she was forty-three. It was fraught, but she did it too. And I think that that thing is something that hasn’t really been — you know, culturally I feel like we haven’t really celebrated that. We haven’t both admitted how desperate it was and even just the reality of there being no child support and just the reality of having to start to have this home, to be responsible financially for yourself. It was scary. And to see these women put it back together was so moving to me. So that’s something I really wanted to write about in the book. I hadn’t really ever seen that part of the 70’s written about and I wanted to write about some characters, some female characters, that were both confused and disoriented by that time period and those social changes but also those characters that could make some slow steps toward putting it back together.

I wanted to write about some characters, some female characters, that were both confused and disoriented by that time period and those social changes but also those characters that could make some slow steps toward putting it back together.

DeWitt: Yes. That’s what strikes me as making the female characters in your novel so much more dimensional than other books written about that time period. I actually just read Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm. I’ve always really loved Ang Lee’s cinematic take on the book. And it’s really fascinating to hear you talk about this because I was coming of age in the next generation. I was an 80’s kid. I’ve just finished working on a draft of a novel set in the early 90’s about a mom who I think came from that next generation, the generation that abutted the mother in Sister Golden Hair, that came after it. So for me, it was that my mom did go back to get her graduate degree when I was quite young. We were living in rural place and it wasn’t necessarily like the women there were working. But she was smart and had all these aspirations so she went back when my sister must have been two or three or so, and my mom got her MBA and taught while she was doing it. And that was something that was really important to her. But it ended up being this really tragic story where she went and did that and she stated working when I guess we must have been seven and four. And she’s someone of whom I always jokingly say, “She should have run a corporation. Or she could have run for President.” I mean she’s sometimes, in this kind of masochistic way, very organization focused. And she ended up not being able to.

Steinke: My mom was totally like that. She would come and visit you and she would end up reorganizing your kitchen even though you lived in a rental and you were only going to be there a month. I know exactly what you mean. You can see it. It’s energy that should have been put out.

DeWitt: Right. It’s that entrepreneurial spirit that should have gone somewhere. But it ended up being this sad story because she ended up not working until later in her life, not until around fifty, when we were out of the house and she had a career renaissance. But, back then, after she got her MBA, she tried to put us in childcare. We hated it. And I think she had a lot of guilt and anxiety about having done that. And so she gave it up. And I think that was wrapped up in her ideas of whether she had wanted to have children in the first place. There was still that lingering 50’s pressure of needing to be a mother. Despite the fact that I think if she had been born one generation later, she probably would have put that off a lot longer. She still talks about the way college was thought of back then. That idea of, “You’re going to college to meet a man. That’s why you were going.” And, having gone to an all women’s college that didn’t go co-ed until later, my mom hadn’t done that. And so I think her feeling was, “Ok, I’m already late in the ballgame.” And then I think about what my mother must think about me. I mean I’m thirty-three and unmarried and childless. Those kind of cultural norms have really changed. I think that’s’ what really distinguished your book. I was excited to see a female author deal with women in that time period in a way that really differed from say the Moody book. I mean I love his characters too. They’re portrayed as these almost kind of flat screens that the rest of the world can project stuff on to. And with Moody, it’s all about what the men in the novel had wanted in life and where they’d fallen short of their own images of their masculinity. Their social and intellectual and romantic failures. The things they didn’t accrue. And the idea of female sexuality in that book is always troubling. The girl is going to go into the basement with a Nixon mask on and rub up against this guy and something bad is going to happen. She’s always the kind of instigator. But the mother in that book is really passive in the sense that she goes to the pastor and she has this moment with him but then there’s that key change party and she is horrified by the whole thing and she ends up sleeping with the neighbor just because she realizes her own husband is having an affair. And in a way she is kind of raped culturally by this whole thing. And so it was really exciting to see your character in that she has this similar emotional make-up to the Moody character but her reaction to her circumstance and the time period, and her understanding of what that cultural crisis was, comes from such a different view point.

Steinke: Yes. I think that’s right. I think that’s right.

DeWitt: That was really incredible. For me to see it. It was the first time I’ve seen it in a character in fiction and I was thinking it would be so great to see it on the screen at some point.

“Oh well, the 70’s is already over. We’ve had all these 70’s movies and TV shows.” But you realize that no period is ever really over because they all affect the things that come next.

Steinke: I know! Wouldn’t it! Keep your fingers crossed on that! You know it’s interesting when you go through time — which I’m sure you can relate to since you’re writing something about the 90’s — you realize, you think, “Oh well, the 70’s is already over. We’ve had all these 70’s movies and TV shows.” But you realize that no period is ever really over because they all affect the things that come next. Even this new movement, with new feminism on the campus and Emma carrying her mattress.

DeWitt: Right! I’ve been following that.

Steinke: You realize, “That puts my own life into great relief. Why, when that professor did that thing to me, why didn’t I say anything?” My daughter’s eighteen and I feel like I have to meet her on the subway just because — the neighborhood’s not totally unsafe — but I feel like after midnight, she needs it. And I think, “Why do I have to do that?” This has really made me think. Before, I thought, “Well, this is just how the world is. “ But now I think, “Why? No! Why is the world like that?” That’s wrong. Let’s do something about that. So, I’ve been excited because that’s a way I couldn’t have thought myself. I mean I’ve walked, for five years I’ve walked her home from the subway. And it was kind of a dead place in me. You know I’m not happy about it but it’s made me … it’s been exciting for me to follow things like the campus news. Especially because I saw a collective carry the mattress. Which was really moving and exciting for me. But it’s re-enlivened things for me about my own life and my own past. And that’s what I think going back to a different time period is like. For me, with the 70’s. Of course, I couldn’t have written that book in the ‘80’s or the ‘90’s. We needed right now. The cultural moment right now in order for me to look back at some of these women with sympathy but also with a certain amount of political … I mean, a sense of, “This is what was and let’s look at it honestly.” So it was exciting for me to be able to go back — not that the novel is non-fiction, because it’s not — but to sort of deal with all these characters that I knew at the time and I felt like I understood their passion and their challenges. And to look at them through now. Which is what a historical novel always is, right? It’s never really about 1800 or about 1950 or about 1670. It’s really about the person now looking back. I mean good ones, not romances with different kinds of teapots and different kind of furniture — but the good ones — that’s what they really are. They’re from now looking back.

Part 2: On a Period of “Devolution:” Grandness, An Unconstant God, And Inventing Faith

DeWitt: One aspect I really enjoyed of the book was the feeling that the characters had absorbed the conflict. The conflicts of the time had become personal conflicts for them. It’s wasn’t about creating this patina of — this was the music that was playing at the time, or this was what was on the radio — although there’s some of that too which is really well done. There’s a quote in here that I wanted to ask you about where you say of the dad, “I think his grand plan was also failing. He’d given up church stuff. The prayers. The creeds. The vows which he had told me were a waste of time. We were, he had told me with great enthusiasm, in a period of devolution. Unlearning what we knew.” I thought that was really just so brilliant and typified just what you were talking about in terms of a character that had somehow absorbed all of the larger cultural conflicts that America was going through at the time. And I was wondering if you could talk about that phrase “a period of devolution” and what that means.

Steinke: The way I saw the book, especially as I worked on it more, was that they were leaving the sort of more rigid idea of church which has to do with specific prayers and creeds and then they’re thrown out into the secular world where they have to find grace themselves. So they have to figure it out. Especially Jesse. But the father too. His struggle in some ways — even though it’s not the biggest one in the book — is there too. He got thrown out of the church and he needs to figure out — does he need a system of thought like religion? Or is he able to find grace in normal things? And I actually think that that’s the position that almost everyone’s in now. I mean the world itself. We’ve moved from a lot of certainties, a lot of religious certainties, into a place where maybe people are seekers and they’re interested in a lot of different religions. I mean there are a lot of people of course that actually are religious — they have one faith and still go — but even those people, I would really wonder if they have the same kind of faith as people did one hundred years ago. You know what I mean?

DeWitt: Right. Yes.

Steinke: There’s more room for making it up yourself. Trying to figure out your own personal faith and also what you believe. And I think devolution has a lot to do with that because you have to kind of explode what you think about God. It’s that’s whole idea of absence. Knowing God. Knowing God through darkness because you can’t know him until you devolve all the preordained ideas of religion, preordained ideas of what it is to be feminine, what a family is, ALL of these things. Until you sort of try and give yourself a little room within those things, it’s really hard to be truly alive.

DeWitt: Right.

Steinke: You’re more a concept to yourself than you are an actually truly messy, vibrant being.

DeWitt: I think we’re in that moment now of that crisis of needing a system of thought. You know on the one hand I see religion as being this huge issue that’s related not just to politics but things like violence and war. You can look at the crisis in the Middle East as being one that’s about energy and power and oil — and in a lot of ways I think it is — but in other ways I think we’re at this really interesting moment where faith is at a turning point. Even though I wasn’t someone who grew up particularly religious I feel like I’ve seen religion and its place in life, its sphere in occupying the home, change. I mean my mom grew up Russian Orthodox. Her grandfather was a priest in the church. She went to all of her religious ceremonies in Russian. And that was a big part of life. So in one generation it’s gone from her great grandfather was a priest in Russia to her grandfather was priest in Pennsylvania to her mother ran the Russian Star and my mom being really involved in that, to me. I have no religious affiliation whatsoever. I mean I was brought up that at Easter we went to the Congregational Church because it was the closest one. Our priest Tim Handley was having an affair with the usher. And in that way religion meant nothing to me. It didn’t have anything to do with where I’d come from.

For a long time religion built up this idea of grandness. And now I don’t think that’s working anymore.

Steinke: For a long time religion built up this idea of grandness. And now I don’t think that’s working anymore. I think the idea of grandness and, “I’m God. You’re down here.” It’s just not … I mean religion has to be — not even really religion, because that’s kind of debasing it — but the idea of God. I mean, it’s kind of true, about the idea of God, you have to invent it yourself. I mean, I actually think the idea that God is dead is one of the greatest ideas we’ve ever had because you don’t want to have a god who is constant. You want to have a God who makes some sense within the context of your life. So you have to create that god yourself. And that has to do with devolution. It’s not unlike the class I taught at Columbia, “Wetland, Drylands,” on lyricism. It’s very similar. I’m teaching this other class there now called “Among the Believers,” but as I teach it I think, “This is the same class.”

DeWitt: [Laughs.]

Steinke: All my ideas have to do with suspicion of form. How does the soul fit in the body? How do we fit the idea of living tissue, or life, into something that has form, whether it’s writing or a religious idea? And I always come up in the same place. Curious. Both wanting to explode forms, like I said. But also curious of understanding that for me the best place is to have some forms to think about and then have some resistance, but not complete. I think that’s the idea of a seeker. That’s a form we know about. Whether it’s theology. Or even if it’s science. But then you keep yourself a little bit back from it — you’re not a complete true believer — because you let there be some room in there for what things actually mean and how you feel. And even the Clarice Lispector book I’m teaching is the same idea which is that idea of the form breaking down and then where does the self, the soul, the consciousness, exist within it?

I see it in the next generation of kids too that I see in a college classroom where I feel like, “We need a system of thought” — not religious thought, but maybe something closer to kind of a communal morality.

DeWitt: I feel that crisis personally. And I feel like I see it. And I see it in the next generation of kids too that I see in a college classroom where I feel like, “We need a system of thought” — not religious thought, but maybe something closer to kind of a communal morality. And then I think, well what other system of thought are we attaching ourselves to? Does it have something to do with all this talk about the internet and social media and the way people organize images of themselves? Or does it have something to with the sense that I keep reading in all those kind of trite articles about, “Nobody’s getting married anymore. People can’t commit to things”? And it reminds me of one good class I took undergrad at Brown which was about that Christopher Lash book that came out in the 90’s, The Culture of Narcissism. Which was such a conservative book. But I always love reading it because he talks about all these crises which you write about in your novel. He says the 70’s was awful because everyone just went off and tried to better themselves through some sense of fake spirituality that then ended up eroding things like commitment. And then we see all these contemporary articles coming out saying, “Millennials are never going to get married. And they’re never going to have a kid and buy a house.” And I feel like saying, “Well, there’s a lot of financial reasons for that too. The world looks different now. This generation is also saddled with trillions of dollars of student debt. How can you start thinking about the future if you can’t get out from under your past?” Which makes me think about that idea devolution and where it’s ended up today. Is it in this conservative erosion of commitment that Lash predicts? Or, is there something new that we can commit ourselves to. And I think in some ways it makes me think about things like the Occupy Wall street movement and people’s critique of that being that there was no centralized system of thought.

Steinke: So do you think that Occupy Wall Street movement was lacking a faith base? I’ve often thought that. I mean I would never want to push religion off on anybody. But, you know, the Civil Rights movement had a pretty strong Christian base. I sometimes think that for things to keep going and have meaning, they have to have a multi-religious faith base. That’s something I think about a lot. I’ve been very interested in Occupy, but I’ve also been a little bit confused by its ultimate meaning in a way. Maybe it’s because I’m older, and it’s not familiar to me in a way. Because it doesn’t actually have a faith base. It doesn’t seem to have a faith base, anyway.

DeWitt: Hmm. I hadn’t thought of that. Or, the critique has been that it doesn’t have that phrase you used, a core “system of beliefs” behind it. We’re so afraid to outline those things because it seems like doctrine but then at the same time, without some doctrine, it’s hard to create a nexus of energy around which people can organize.

Part 3: Beyond Place and Setting: Motif As Character

DeWitt: Beyond the sense of the time period, which we just talked about, there’s also a really amazing sense of place in your new novel. I’m teaching the opening of it next week for a class on “Beyond Place and Setting: Motif As Character” and there’s something about place, not just this time period, but this actual physical place that feels so omnipresent but not oppressive in the book. Which I thought was really well done. There’s this passage on page sixteen where you say:

In the evening the rain cleared and we drove over to Bent Tree, passing Long John Silvers, Hardy’s, and a 24 hour do-it-yourself car wash. There was a drive in movie theatre playing a film called Dallas Girls and a string of brick ranch houses with Christmas lights up around the porches and a sign by the road that read massage. After a while, the strip malls got further apart, interspersed with black glass, professional buildings and churches on both sides of the highway. Just before we turned off there was a brick church with white columns, a steeple and a sign which read, “Sin knocks a hole in your bucket of joy.” The parking lot was empty and glittering under the overhead light. Off the highway, I counted thirteen Nixon for president signs stuck in front yards. My father hated Nixon but I felt sorry for the president because he always looked so dazed and miserable. Warm air came through the window. Damp and tinged with the sense food and grape juice.

So, there’s a real sense in your novel not only of the time period but of this kind of physical place. The architecture of the place. It made me think of that book that you taught in class, Seeing Is Forgetting the Things One Sees by Lawrence Wechsler, and all of those perception artists and the idea that the actual architecture of the physical space changes the way people think. And it seems like these people in your novel are of the first generation — or one of the first generations — of pre-suburban dwellers. This complex that they live in is all about being in the car and feeling the wind come through and the early reliance on things like cheap oil and people being about to live in these kind of isolated — that weren’t rural communities — but were isolated communities about which someone like Jane Jacobs would say, “It isn’t a city. It doesn’t have a public street where people can all congregate together. Instead there’s all these separate private spaces which creates all of these weird conflicts. And all these kind of closed doors where you can’t go to a park and invite someone in the park to come have dinner at your house — because that’s a private space. Whereas, if you met them on the subway, you might then go have a coffee in a coffee shop and that wouldn’t be that strange.” And I wondered about the physical sense of place and how you considered it. The actual architecture of building this place and how you went about that.

Steinke: Of course the novel’s set in Bent Tree, which is this duplex complex. And I did live in a place like that sort of for a few years when I was young and I’ve been fascinated with them. And too when I was in high school, it wasn’t that unusual that when families broke up one of the parents would move to a place like that. And the places seemed sad in a way but also kind of fascinating.

DeWitt: Yeah. Kind of sexy in a way too.

Steinke: Yes. Kind of like fermenting people. Where they were trying to figure it out. It wasn’t like the people were sitting back. It wasn’t boring like a lot of the other places were. It had a lot of darkness that sort of exited me too. And I always was really fascinated by the fact too that all of the houses were the same but that different people lived in them. Like beehives. Kind of like the beehive idea. My fascination almost always was architectural. Almost an art-like fascination with the idea these same places. And also when I lived there myself, it always fascinated me the idea of, “Here I am in my bedroom. But I’m not in my bedroom. I would be in my friends’ houses and there it would be their bedroom or their parents’ bedroom. And there was something about the overlapping lives that seemed very liminal to me. Almost like the idea of time — I mean you’re taught, “OK you wake up at nine. You have lunch at twelve.” But this structure of living seemed more true to the way time actually worked. There were layers, you know what I mean? You could imagine, “Oh she’s in that room. My friend is in that room. And my friend’s teenage brother is in that room doing the things he does, thinking the thoughts he does. And I’m over here in my room.” And it seemed like there was a stacking of reality which you could almost experience in real time in a weird way. And that really fascinated me. I mean I was little. But almost in an artistic way. That fascination and thinking about it that way was, I think, one of my first experiences in abstract art.

I always was really fascinated by the fact too that all of the houses were the same but that different people lived in them. Like beehives.

DeWitt: Which makes sense because it is the house. It’s that first structure that you know.

Steinke: I mean it was just this crappy duplex complex, but for me there was something deeply fascinating about that. Deeply deeply fascinating. As both an intersection with time itself. And in terms of narrative organization. All these ideas. It started to spur some of these ideas in me. And then it was interesting to construct the 70’s because I was so interested in — the objects, the songs, the way things looked, the oddness of the time. And I was very careful about it. I looked at a lot of pictures. I read books. I went to places. I went back to my home town, of course, to look at things. And I was very interested, as you said, in trying to not just write about the 70’s as a time but to try and link it to the story, to the characters, to the struggles of the characters. I mean all novels are making up a place, whether they act like they’re contemporary or not. But to brick by brick construct this past time. That really fascinated me. Almost again in an arty way. Not just in a “I’m writing in time period details.” It really wasn’t like that. It was about trying to make this space in which the action I was interested in having could happen. Everything’s connected. I don’t know how else to say it. If the Fred Flintstone glasses hadn’t been on the table, your mother wouldn’t have said that to your father.

DeWitt: That resonates so much with me. The house in the novel I’ve been working on is called The Bottomfeeder because the mother is really unhappy there. But I’ve had that very similar experience as a child. For me, it was split-level house. You can’t just say that’s a metaphor. It’s a physical space. To live in a split-level. It was lopsided. One side of the house was three stories. The people lived here. And the middle part of the house — which was the shared part of the house — was only on one side. Whereas on the other side, in the three levels, there was this lower level where the older generation would stay when they visited. In the “flood zone” area. And you can’t say that doesn’t have some defining principle.

Steinke: The basements in those places were so weird.

DeWitt: They’re so weird.

Steinke: The basement is a separate level of the house and it would be decorated more like Elvis’s jungle room.

DeWitt: Right!

Steinke: They were the unconscious of the house. If me and my girlfriends ever found porn or The Happy Hooker it was always in that space. If cruel things were done to you, it seemed like they were done to you in that space.

DeWitt: IN that space! I relate to the idea of going through research too because I think I made the mistake the first time around of thinking — well, the Moody book does that really well. Of just saying outright, “This was before cellphones. The was before beepers.” And he kind of just lists all these things in a way that feels almost like a plastic shield that comes down really forcibly in the beginning. And I think that works really well for that book but I think it really differs from yours in that in yours its more about creating a relationship to characters’ crisis and these things that surround them which feels more meaningful. I ordered all these back issues of Time on eBay. Because the book takes place in the early 90’s. And the mom in the book is really obsessed with the news and wanted to be a newscaster. And when the Gulf War came out it was the first war on television. And I was thinking, “Well, yes. You need to go back and order all these back issues of magazines and see what they had to say about it.” Because my memory of it is one thing. But I grew up in this place where my parents didn’t really watch TV. So I felt like I grew up in kind of a cultural void. So it’s been really fascinating for me to go back — other than watching shows like 3–2–1 Contact or Doctor Who or all these kind of nerdy intellectual shows, I never really knew what was going on with culture. I keep having these moments of, “Oh! That was the song that all the kids were singing from the radio.” I’m almost reclaiming a narrative that I didn’t really have.

Steinke: But you did. You just weren’t conscious of it. You were being affected by it but it wasn’t a thing that was completely conscious. Also, when I was trying to write my novel I was really interested in what the ideas were at the time. And how to figure that out. Of course there were these shifting ideas of women. Part of the ways I did that was I was reading books written between ’72 and ’76. I was reading a lot of the bestsellers. And of course books like Looking for Mr. Goodbar. Books I’d been frightened of and only read a little bit of. Like The Happy Hooker. And also books like Jonathan Livingston’s The Seagull. In the same way that culturally there was a lot of songs about speedy girls — which I think now that feminism back then was making people think, “Oooh, what is a girl? What is a woman?” There was a lot of books like Sybil. There were a lot of books about women having twenty-five personalities. And there’s a lot, a lot, about women being out of control and dangerous.

Part 4: On Female Sexuality and “The Throbbing Amazingness of a Full Round Human Female Body.”

DeWitt: That was the next thing I wanted to talk to you about. I’m glad you brought it up.

Steinke: I wasn’t necessarily aware of that at six or seven or eight or nine or ten, in a way that was conscious. But I was definitely really aware of the fact of the idea of the scary woman. You know, like Carrie. That woman’s desires weren’t going to derail them but they were going to lead to mass murder. And it was fascinating for me to see that even in the bestsellers of that decade that panic and that fear were being manifest. And that was something that was really helpful to me in thinking about the characters and their actions and their desires on a daily basis.

DeWitt: Yes. I love that about Jesse. I mean she’s so good and clean and pure in some ways and yet it’s not just about a coming of age story where she’s at this provocative moment. The passage I was thinking of specifically is this part about becoming a woman, “It didn’t seem fair that I had to change shape. I wish somebody would have asked me and I might have said yes but I would have liked a choice.” And also the great scene of her watching the neighbor outside where she says, “After a while, I just couldn’t stand watching her. I pulled on my bathing suit, grabbed up a towel from the bathroom and left the duplex for the blinding outdoor light. The only sunglasses were a pink pair I had from when I was little but I figured they were better than nothing. As I stood at the foot of her lounger, I saw how pale my skin was in comparison to hers.” And there’s this incredible description of this woman’s body essentially and the erotics of it. This girl’s fascination with watching that body. Not necessarily on a sexual level — although sort of — but also …

Steinke: I would say on a human sensual level. The throbbing amazingness of a full round human female body. That’s something I really identify with. Before I was interested in boys, I was so interested in women. Female bodies just fascinated me. I can remember so many scenes actually which I wrote but I couldn’t put in the book of being in the pool and the sixteen year old girl’s bathing suit falls and you’re basically rocked beyond your wildest dreams. And it’s not really sexual, which is so weird. It doesn’t make you want to have sex or even touch the person. But just the thing that you are going to become that is so scary, mysterious, amazing. Just the power of that. And that’s something I haven’t seen written about that much either, frankly. I mean there’s a lot about girl crushing. And friendship. And there’s something about women that actually do end up being lesbian. And it doesn’t even really matter if you’re lesbian or not at that point because it just this idea of the human body that you’re going to transform into. It’s just such a powerful thing. I wanted to get at that.

I can remember so many scenes actually which I wrote but I couldn’t put in the book of being in the pool and the sixteen year old girl’s bathing suit falls and you’re basically rocked beyond your wildest dreams. And it’s not really sexual, which is so weird.

Part 5: Wetlands verses Drylands and “Coming Up Through The Water”

DeWitt: I’ve read all your books, so it’s interesting to see how sexuality has changed from Suicide Blonde up until now. One of the last things I wanted to ask you was, I was thinking about this novel in relationship to the wetlands drylands class that you taught. And I was thinking that Milk feels very wetlands to me. It’s this very Duras-ish, prismatic kind of novella. It’s very impressionistic and temporal. It almost has a kind of overt religious feeling. Whereas, to me this book felt more like dryland in the sense that you had taken a lot of those similar ideas but brought them up to a kind of conscious level and wanted to deal with them in that way. Whether it was religion or the time period, or sexuality. And I wondered stylistically from a writing, craft based perspective, was that something you were aware of? It reminded me a bit more of your memoir, Easter Everywhere, in that way. And I didn’t know if that shift related in some way to memory and memory becoming more crystalized with age and so you were moving up onto dry land? Or if it had something to with intellectualization of that and wanting to deal with it on a different level?

Steinke: I definitely think the book you write before has a lot to do with the next book. So, coming out of writing the memoir, I got excited about the idea of — not just writing non-fiction — but the idea of the episodic. I learned something about the episodic way things worked through writing my memoir. I was much more interested in as a novelist with image, feeling, tone, setting something up and seeing what happens. But I think in some ways writing my memoir got me interested in a way in story. And I hadn’t really been interested in it before. And so when I came to write this book I was interested in trying to move some of the ideas through the story. Which, at my late age, seems a little bit embarrassing.

DeWitt: [Laughing.] That’s so funny to hear you say that. You look like you’re twenty-two.

People worry about, “Is the novel going to continue?” But I think one of the best ways we have to communicate deep human things is through story.

Steinke: People worry about, “Is the novel going to continue?” But I think one of the best ways we have to communicate deep human things is through story. I also really love biographies. That, in a way, is the thing we have to give each other. The stories of our lives. And maybe being honest about the stories of our lives. Not that I’m not into lyricism and image, because I’m still love that and I’m still really drawn to those moments in texts where the welt of life comes up and the characters can feel it. But I also think the idea of the life — just the life — the character and their actions and the tedious meaning that that has is more real to me now than it used to be. It’s kind of that whole thing of trying to feel that other people are real. Which I think is so hard. You think you think other people are real but it’s really a lifetime process about being able to say, “This person beside me is a living person with desires. I can’t judge them and can’t know how they feel all the time.”

More Like This

Celebrating What We’ve Accomplished in 2023

Contribute to our year-end campaign to start 2024 strong

Dec 8 - Halimah Marcus

Exclusive Cover Reveal: Cally Fiedorek’s “Atta Boy”

A gripping story of how far you’re willing to climb and how much it's possible to lose

Dec 8 - Electric Literature

9 Books About the Aftermath of the Balkan Wars

Christine Evans recommends literature about war’s collision with ordinary life

Dec 8 - Christine Evans
Thank You!