Gradations of Anxiety and Precarity: Lynn Steger Strong Interviewed by Zan Romanoff

The writer on her new novel, looking at the spectrum of privilege, and subverting female friendship tropes.

Bomb Want Blue

Lynn Steger Strong’s writing is, at times, perilously honest: in her novels and essays, she details the structures and frictions created by money and class, gender and race, speaking clearly and forthrightly about things that many of us spend our lives attempting to politely elide. So, it’s no surprise that her new novel, Want (Holt), centers on Elizabeth, an overwhelmed and overeducated young mother, as she navigates the brutal economics, both literal and spiritual, of life in New York City. She and her husband are attempting to eke out a living for themselves in fields with no clear career paths—in academia and custom carpentry, respectively—while raising two young children.

The book follows Elizabeth as she works several jobs, goes for long runs, cares for her children and her husband, contemplates her relationship with her own parents, and attempts to repair her connection to her long-estranged best friend, Sasha, who’s recently become a mother herself. I am not a mother, but I am an overeducated white woman working in the perpetually imploding fields of fiction writing and freelance journalism, so Want got me exactly where I live. I have been haunted by the book since I read it: the way it captures the experience of making choices that don’t feel like choices, and the fictions we force ourselves to believe in so we can survive life in twenty-first-century America.   

—Zan Romanoff 

Zan Romanoff One of the things I love about Want is that it taxonomizes money and class, separately and together. Because the way this conversation tends to go is that there’s upper class, middle class, lower class. But that stuff is actually often more floating abstractly, and implied, and you feel, in different circumstances, very differently about your own circumstances. 

Lynn Steger Strong Security and competence can look all sorts of ways. I was just teaching a class. I teach at Columbia, which I guess sounds good, and when I’m sitting in a classroom, I can feel really confident and competent. That is valuable to me! That is something that a lot of people don’t have access to.

But the fact that my profession is something that doesn’t compensate me sufficiently so I can pay my rent and have health insurance is a real thing that affects my life. You have to consider both things at the same time.

I’m doing exactly what I want to do. I love talking about books with really smart people; I love writing books, and I have the option to stop doing that if and when I decide it’s not worth it, but I continue to do it. And that’s very, very different than someone who doesn’t have options.

ZR I think that comes through very strongly in Want: this very weird bind that I find myself in where you are just on the right side of the margin, but you can see the other side of it. And so you’re aware that you’re making a choice to stay in this marginal place to keep doing what you love.  

LSS I feel like I don’t know what the margin is anymore. I have a credit card, so we are still eating. But I’m not sure my husband has a job, and I’m not sure I have a job next semester. 

This is a lot of what the book is about. As long as I continue to hang on by a thread, knowing full well that it’s only a thread, I’m implicated in all the ways that the system is letting every other person who doesn’t have that thread fall by the wayside. For people like me, and like Elizabeth, and like you, all of us who for whatever reason, bolstered by outside resources, continue to be part of academia or the arts—we know we are bolstered by outside resources and we are barely surviving. The implication of that is, anyone who is not, is not.

ZRYou write a lot of first-person nonfiction, including a column for The Guardian. Because of that, it’s easy to draw some lines between you and Elizabeth—she’s an adjunct at a prestigious New York university and a distance runner, for instance. Can you talk about the process of when and where you decided to draw on your own life, and why those elements felt important or interesting? 

LSSInitially, I was writing essays, and my agent had vaguely suggested that maybe I should do a collection of essays. So I was trying to do that, and I hated it, not least because I kept knocking up against the fact that I didn’t want to make an argument. I don’t even know if I believe in arguments, and I realized what I wanted to do instead was use scenes, and use the collision of scenes to make people look at things that they didn’t think they were looking at.

I just wanted to show bodies, and I wanted to show scenes of different bodies knocked up against one another.

To some extent, what I wanted to say suited a body that looks like mine. I wanted a mother with young children. She needed to be white. She needed to care deeply about books. She really needed to run, really, as a gift to her. 

I think so much of our job as writers is looking harder and better. It’s less about the material and more about how you look at the material, and how well you look at the material. That’s what I wanted to focus on.

ZRSo you have talked about how, when you first wrote Want, you brought the draft to someone and they didn’t like it. Can you talk about that—writing it quickly and instinctively, and then what happens next? 

LSSWith my first novel, Hold Still, I felt that it was deeply misunderstood, maybe in the way that only a certain type of person at a certain point in their career can feel. I wanted to prove that I was smarter than that book.

I spent two, three years on this very complicated book that had nine point of view characters. It was set around a football season in New Orleans. I had a lot of charts and graphs. It was very intense. 

My agent sent it out twice over the period of a year, and both times it had some interest, but then it all fell apart. 

I think we got our last rejection in March or April, and I started Want in June. I wrote the first draft really fast. I was getting up at three in the morning; my poor family, I was crazy through the whole thing. And then I sent it to my agent at the time, who was and is a person whose taste I respect more than anyone, and she didn’t think that it was the right thing. 

This is complicated, because she had been through a really hard couple of years with me. And Want, it feels non-traditional—it has a rawness to it that was off-putting, and she didn’t think it was what we should do. I was in Maine at the time, staying with a family friend who is ninety and a badass feminist law professor. Her husband is an artist—a filmmaker—and she was like, “Is it what you want to make?”

I said, “Yes, it’s what I want to make.” 

She said, “Okay.”

And it’s actually been weirdly helpful, because who really cares about my little book in the face of what’s going on right now? But I can still sort of vaguely remember that I’m proud of this book and I fought for this book, and that has to be worth something.

Photo of Lynn Steger Strong by Nina Subin

Photo of Lynn Steger Strong by Nina Subin.

ZR This book is, to a certain extent, a thing we’ve started calling “a female friendship novel,” which always strikes me as a weird categorization because friendship between women is one of the most common things on the planet—

LSS And the best! 

ZR Yeah! But to me it’s like, a lot of books have love stories in them, and we don’t necessarily call them romances. Why are books that include women being friends called “female friendship books”? I’d love to hear how you relate to that kind of genre, and what you wanted to bring to that conversation. 

LSS I think—and my friend would say this is one of the reasons I’m kind of an asshole—but part of my project was to subvert almost all of those things. It’s a motherhood novel, but it’s not a motherhood novel, insofar as the way that I think about motherhood is: I am a mother all of the time, so the idea of a motherhood novel feels absurd.

For me, personally, more than Elizabeth, I am a female friend all of the time. One of the ways I think of myself as very different from Elizabeth is I have a community that means a lot to me. I feel like she’s a lot lonelier than I am. Which is all to say that insofar as it’s a female friendship novel I wanted to subvert that, because part of what I was thinking was, when you lose that female friendship, or when you betray that female friendship at a formative moment, the way you feel about that can be as intense as the loss of a lover or a family member. 

One of the things that I was thinking about was betrayal, or loss, or maybe performing our damage before we know that it’s damage. One thing about female friendship is the way we fall into female roles with one another, so you have the more maternal friend, or the less maternal friend, and I think one thing that Elizabeth is doing is performing her mother without realizing it. And then after the fact she understands that she has done something to her friend that she didn’t understand that she had done. 

I’m constantly interested in exploring how we become people before we understand the sorts of people we’ve become. 

I think that the thing about being really young, especially teenage, early twenties—all of a sudden, this practice that feels like practice that doesn’t have consequence suddenly has extraordinary consequence, and it’s too late. They’re not ready to go through what they then have to go through, but it doesn’t matter, because their bodies are. 

ZR A thing that kind of drives me crazy in a lot of these stories is that the girls cast themselves in roles: beautiful and not-beautiful. The girl who considers herself not-beautiful, often never truly accepts that even though maybe men don’t want her in the same way, she still has a lot of power, particularly within her friendship.

But I think in this book, Elizabeth is aware of that power. She comes to understand that she’s not as beautiful as Sasha, but she can still hurt this person who she cares about so much.

LSS I read this Rachel Kushner interview years ago where she said she was ultimately interested in the relationship between being both subject and object at the same time. I think about it all the time.

When beauty is your power, you are always object first. And when you are not seen, that feels like it’s not power. This is true of Elizabeth with regard to beauty, but is also true in other ways—when she’s older, because she’s white—to be invisible is a kind of power, because she has more subjectivity. People aren’t projecting their opinion on her as much. She has been kept safe in all sorts of ways by being able to disappear.

ZR You’ve said a couple of times while we’ve been talking, “Who is gonna care about this book right now?” And I get what you meant—in a certain sense, nothing but a cure or a treatment or a vaccine for the virus capital-M Matters right now. But I do feel like this book has more and more resonance, as more and more people are understanding their own precarity in the world, and the precarity of the people around them. 

LSS I read Katie Bloom’s wonderful review in the Nation critiquing the new Halle Butler book, and she laid out the argument that the book was capturing a feeling of anxiety without any precarity.

That was my frustration with a lot of books that felt similar to mine but not quite in conversation: a lot of people have felt a sense of this shapeless anxiety, regardless of how privileged or not they are. And they’ve had every right to that anxiety, because there’s a lot to be anxious about.

But I wanted to differentiate that there are gradations, both of anxiety and also of precarity. I think we’ve all felt for a long time that the wheels were about to come off the bus, but how close we were to that, and what the consequences of that were going to be for each of us, are very, very different. 

That’s much of this book’s project, and insofar as this moment is illuminating something, I think it’s illuminating that we’re all really scared, but some of us are really scared in country houses, well-fed. Some of us are scared and sick and don’t know where our next meal is coming from. And if we don’t acknowledge those differences, we’re fucked.

ZR That speaks to your idea that the book is not an argument. Instead it’s a way of encountering a bunch of different experiences that can maybe help you contextualize your own.

LSS I’m teaching a class this semester called The Anti-Social Novel, and one of the books we read is mentioned in my book: A Woman at Point Zero, which is about a woman imprisoned for murdering a man. It’s a complicated book, insofar as it’s not the most beautifully crafted book, and it’s overtly political.

We were talking about it in class, and one of my students said, “It’s just bad thing after bad thing after bad thing, and I wasn’t sure what the point was.”

Another student responded and she said, “It’s for you to look, and for you to know.” 

I was like, yes. I think a lot of my book is about invisibility and visibility. What gets looked at, and when, and why. If it is trying to make an argument, I think it’s trying to make an argument to look.  

One of the things I was most interested in portraying is a general sense of dissonance about the way your day-to-day life looks, in contrast and conversation with what’s happening in the world. Right now, our day-to-day life is completely fine. Our kids aren’t going to school, but I love my kids and it’s completely fine.

Also, nothing is completely fine right now. How do you walk around with that inside your body and your brain every day? I have no idea, but I wanted to write a book about trying to.

Want is available for purchase here.

Zan Romanoff is the author of the novels A Song to Take the World Apart, Grace and the Fever, and Look. Her nonfiction has been published in print and online in BuzzFeed, Eater, The Gentlewoman, LitHub, The Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post, among other outlets. She lives and writes in Los Angeles.

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