Various Paradigms is a column by Ann DeWitt about words, art, film, politics and poetics. The title is a tribute to conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner’s typographic texts. Weiner once wrote, “Bits and Pieces Put Together To Present A Semblance of A Whole.” This column hopes to follow in that tradition of engagement, intimacy and experiment.
Douglas A. Martin in Conversation with Darcey Steinke
“She was my teacher,” I say happily of Darcey Steinke. That was 1999, and she had published three novels (Up Through the Water, Suicide Blonde, and Jesus Saves). In the time since then and that we have been a part of each other’s lives, she has produced three more books (Milk, the memoir Easter Everywhere, the forthcoming Sister Golden Hair).
Our first night of class, she said simply, clear-eyed, how you never knew what work of yours was going to take off. Later in the semester, just as frankly to someone’s objection to a story on grounds of “too sad,” she countered how if you couldn’t come to terms with the fact that life sometimes is, you might as well just pack it in. I remember, too, a fortuitous encounter with her in Chelsea, her daughter still in a stroller, and helping Darcey carry her up the steps of an art gallery. This year that same daughter starts Bard College.
Darcey has been connected in some way to almost everything good in my life. She has blurbed me three times, and when asked if I would interview her on the occasion of her new novel out this October from Tin House Books, I rose to the occasion. Sister Golden Hair is her masterpiece.
In the spirit of Various Paradigms, what follows are “bits and pieces put together to create the semblance of a whole.” The topics following were suggested through both an excising and selecting of a many hours conversation (four? plus a stretch of a half-hour or so of recording discussing her desk’s origin, spirituality, and ritual in writing and the raising of a child, ex’s, etc., lost due to my fingers hitting the wrong button a martini or so in) and digressions on the back porch of Matthew’s on Main, Sullivan County, NY.
Thanks to Ann DeWitt for hosting this exchange.
—Douglas A. Martin
I. THE FEMALE NUMINOUS
DOUGLAS MARTIN: Say it again?
DARCEY STEINKE: In a perfect world, it would be incorporated with religion more. The sort of moment filled with grace.
DM: A moment of coming into your power as a woman?
DS: It’s not a full gorgeous feeling but these little tiny feelings. You have to track them down. That would be what my work is basically.
DM: Where have you been at in your life for each of your books?
DS: With my first book (Up Through the Water), I was trying to figure out how my desires for everything—for life, for sex—seemed so oversized. Cooking, you’re getting turned on. Just walking, you’re getting turned on. A woman’s desires versus the concerns of family, that continues throughout my books. It was the year after my MFA. I was twenty-six.
DM: You were still living in Roanoke?
DS: And on the island in North Carolina where the book is set. Then I came to New York, and Suicide Blonde was my experience of how weird and creepy it seemed in ways. I met my first husband. I was reading all the Semiotext(e) books. I started to read more widely. I discovered Kathy Acker. I was reading Foucault. It seems embarrassing to say.
DM: No. The Care of the Self.
DS: Yeah, I went through all that like a maniac. Leslie Dick, Tropic of Cancer, Genet.
DM: Why did you set it in San Francisco?
DS: To me it was more exotic. I love New York quite a lot, but how does it seem to you?
DM: Manhattan and the East Village basically seem like Disneyland to me at this point, but San Francisco, when I was trying to figure out where to live, seemed somehow more European to me.
DS: Exactly. I knew I would never get anything done there. Jesus Saves was before I had my daughter, and I was starting to unpack suburbia. It was the hardest for me to put together and make work, but I think what it does to the reader is really successful.
DM: The narrative momentum propels, but it is propelling you into that horror you don’t want to be consuming.
DS: My brother said to me that when he realized the girl was going to die he just quit reading it.
DM: You do a different kind of situating of anxiety in the reader in the new book, Sister Golden Hair. You’re noticing everything, and you know there is something else outside of the house much bigger, but you see how the character gets locked behind her eyes. You understand feeling she hasn’t caught up to what she needs in time for her own speed.
DS: One of the reasons I wanted to write the book was seeing woman like Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin and recognizing the body language, realizing they were a lot like the grown up versions of these old friends I had. Thought structures were taken on because of the hard life they had had. You recognize that in the South, right?
DM: They have hard lives and they have minds within that and they decide to use it or not. In your book, the reader sees that Jesse can think but the struggle is will she allow herself to live out that thinking, will she find a way.
DS: To me that’s everything. Are you going to go along the railroad tracks that have been ordained for you? Everyone makes it the paradigm of are you going to stay in your hometown or are you going to break out and do what you really want to do, but you can do that and still…
DM: You have to grow out from it. It’s a moving out from, rather than an excising, a blossoming more than an exile.
DS: You want to feel that way. Some of your old girlfriends stay within what the rules were. Religious things, moral questions, I feel like they are upfront more in the South but buried under polite small talk there. That weird tension has been enough fuel for my entire writing life.
II. I HAVE IDEAS TO FOLLOW
DM: Do you think of yourself as a Southern Writer?
DS: I have to say, as I get older I do. Do you?
DM: I don’t think that the South recognizes me as one, but I think it deeply informs who I am.
DS: See, you weren’t there for Barry Hannah. If you’d been friends with him he would have said you are Southern. He could get the people around him that the rest of the South didn’t like. I just reread The Violent Bear it Away, Flannery O’Connor. That book is completely recognizable to me. Anyone who has been even a month in the South has seen people who see things in that way. You can stay in your hometown and become a fantastic person there’s no doubt about that. Or you can move like we did and still be messed up, because you don’t really acknowledge what your desires are.
DM: How big it all is around Jesse becomes poignant. This new book is your biggest, not just in length, but also in the sense of a political consciousness. Every one of the characters is in some crisis around imperatives of money.
DS: It was partly seeing my daughter struggle with things, coming into her own as a person, and that person happened to be a woman. We made it, but it was hard for me as a single mom with my daughter. I was brought back to, My God, those women in the 70s that were divorced? They hadn’t been raised and trained for jobs, a housewife with no college degree. You have two kids now. Things were more desperate than I think sometimes people are willing to say. What are you going to do financially? Society was like: broken home. You’re getting a divorce you’re bad.
DM: For me it was seeing my mom being strong. And I saw you at a similar time in a similar place. You were going to do it some grace. Was that part of what you were figuring out with Milk?
DS: I feel like Milk is the strangest book in a way. I thought: I’ll just write a quick erotic novel, I love writing about sex. But during that time I was having so many spiritual and religious feelings. Maybe adultery is always about God, but it became this weird book about the combination. The question of how spiritual desire and physical desire get confused in relationships is similar in my other books. I always think to myself, being human, having crushes now, what is it about that person that I really want? What do they represent? More freedom? Someone to care for me more? It’s never really about the person.
DM: That is one of the insights you harness in Sister Golden Hair, with the girls crushing on girls. What does Jesse actually want from each of these people who are not her mom?
DS: That’s a thing from my own adolescence I feel like the million of coming-of-age books I read never get at. Chameleon-like, how will she move into the space. I was so attached to these women friends, older women. Really women mostly, until I was like seventeen or eighteen. I was like a sycophant, wanting to figure out who they are and what their desires were but also I didn’t have enough of a will to stand by myself so I needed role models.
DM: The artifices that these other women put up, oddly defensive shells actually, it’s a stabilizing. That’s a tension for the book.
III. TRYING TO FIND YOUR WEIGHT IN THE WORLD
DS: You knew some of the stuff they were doing was self destructive or sleazy, but still to see them trying to figure it out was so profound to me as a girl.
DM: The Julie character is like all the women I was in love with. By in love I mean wanted to be.
DS: Me too. Me too. Two different friends whose dads came out of the closet in the 70s in Roanoke for me was a profound experience. You would hear about the gymnast… and then a pallor of both sadness and glamour would go over this person. You would hear about the dad who had hightailed it for Atlanta. It was both exciting, inspiration and scary. Again, desire. You would hear rumors of it. One of your parents’ desires could lead to the combustion of your family. I wanted that to be the mean girl character Sheila. She doesn’t know what to do.
DM: The desire that moves you onto a journey, this is a big thing for me. Each character in the book has this on a different level. Jesse’s dad leaves the church. It could potentially combust the family, but it could also make the family a richer space. Jesse through him comes to philosophical insights she wouldn’t have otherwise.
DS: Sexuality. Religion, sometimes. I hate to say it. Too much niceness. I was very interested too in the book in all the traps for girls.
DM: The minefield of girlhood, you show that. If one trap doesn’t get you another one will.
DS: With my daughter it was the grace of ordinary life.
IV. A CONFUSION YOU CAN LEAN INTO
DM: Has writing taken the place of religion in your life?
DS: They’re the same.
DM: What is the holiness about?
DS: Less about being a whole person and more about being a conduit. When my memoir came out, there were parts about my father he saw as damning, his kind of emotional absence at key moments. But I didn’t think of this as negative at all. Who I was meant to be: he would give me the space to figure it out myself.
DM: I am thinking this has something to do with being a novelist, the way one works. You have to trust that there is something that will be revealed through you.
DS: You know that when you write you have to reside in the unknown for as long as possible. But some novels close down, now this means this. Vulnerability is what I prize above all in writing.
DM: There’s no vulnerability in formulas.
DS: I spent so much time as a child thinking what if I was a robot, what if my mind were somewhere else? As a kid you’re in the middle of all that.
DM: I am a mind trapped in a body and everyone else is a mind trapped in a different body.
DS: Now when you get to college there’s identity politics, gender politics. I took my daughter who will be a freshman off to college. Then I had a dream I was driving. I was driving really slowly and I hit somebody. It was scary because something flew off of them. At first I woke up feeling I was the worst person, I hit somebody, I wasn’t paying attention. I’m going to be more careful, thank god it’s not true. But then when I got back up I thought, wow, I killed my more conventional self.
DM: Do you think this is a writer thing, knowing you could be anyone else? It is a way into character building.
DS: What you want is this weird collision of worlds, right in the moment, that is surrounded by love. All these different ways you could be a woman that was part of my interest in writing the book. A wider variety of ways to be than those we are typically locked into.
DM: Jesse says of Jill at one point, “It was pretty clear to me she was using words to make a little ledge for her to stand on.” What are words to you?
DS: A way to plan, to make a safe place for yourself. The most beautiful thing to me is the movement of the mind. A way to be free that will also lead to security. The most sustenance and safety I’ve ever felt is in the imagination.
DM: I do have to say one of the most challenging and enriching things, an opening thing, for me from you has been to try to figure out what that word God holds for you and to let it be.
DS: It’s very important for me to still make a space for that.
DM: A blank space of unknowing. An indeterminacy.
DS: I think unknowing is the most important theological idea for me. Unlearning the things you think you know.
V. HOW PRACTICAL IS IT TO BE A NOVELIST?
DS: There was this book when I was really little. I think it was called Come and Play With Me. It was very Zen, a picture book. I probably read it when I was five or six. It’s about this girl who chases after all these animals, but eventually when she sits by the side of the pond they all come to her. It was different than any idea I had of play.
It was a spiritual idea. But I understood it meant they were in community with her. It woke me up. I tried to replicate it and then continued to try to find other books that did that to me. I remember trying to do my version of it.
DM: I know that feeling, that feeling of, I have got to make this thing that gave me all it did. There’s the fear that there’s not going to be anymore if I don’t’ make it. That impulse to recreate the thing you love.
DS: You want to join with it somehow. You wanna do it because you wanna be it.
DM: Where else do you see the novel now?
DS: In the biography. A good biography is the richest experience. When you watch a TV series together with someone is like being in a novel with them.
DM: It feels like a biography to me, this book of yours, but I think how can that be when we are confined to such a short span of time in Jesse’s life? She moves through these stages with these women in different phases, so they become mirrors of her growth or potential growth.
DS: The time signature is different.
DM: This is like a muted Berlin Alexanderplatz. It also seemed very Zola to me. You have this character who is the center, but the culture around them is so much bigger.
DS: Every house is the same in the subdivision setting, but then every story in every apartment is different.
DM: Jesse gets to be in a novel with these other people.
DS: In her house are many rooms.
DOUGLAS A. MARTIN is the author of books of poetry and prose, including Branwell (a novel of the Bronte brother), Your Body Figured, and Once You Go Back. His novel Outline of My Lover was adapted by the Forsythe Company for their live film/ballet, “Kammer/Kammer."
DARCEY STEINKE is the author of the memoir Easter Everywhere (a New York Times notable book) and the novels Milk, Jesus Saves, Suicide Blonde, and Up Through the Water (also a New York Times notable book). With Rick Moody, she edited Joyful Noise: The New Testament Revisited. Her books have been translated into ten languages, and her nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, the Boston Review, Vogue, Spin, The Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, and theGuardian. Her web-story “Blindspot” was a part of the 2000 Whitney Biennial. She has been both a Henry Hoyns and a Stegner Fellow and Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi, and has taught at the Columbia University School of the Arts, Barnard, The American University of Paris, and Princeton. She lives in New York City. Find her on twitter @DarceySteinke