From October 2018 through September 2019, I was lucky enough to be taught by Lynn in Catapult’s Novel Generator class. It was a year-long intensive in a workshop format where my classmates and I wrote and rewrote our in-progress novels until we completed a final draft. Lynn’s candor was much-appreciated as she let us know what to expect in the near future, doing more edits, finding agents, and beyond. I reached out to her in the spring to see if she’d be interested in sharing more about herself and her process with the audience at The Book Slut, and she said yes. It was lovely being able to reconnect and share in the success of Want.
Mel Rosenthal: First I want to say thank you again for getting me an advance copy, I was so happy to be an early reader (and interviewer!). When you were my instructor at Catapult we all, even you, were going through such major edits on our novels that it was a thrill to see yours in its nearly finished state. How would you summarize the work you put into your second published novel?
Lynn Steger Strong: I think, in the way that I think we are always working, even when we aren’t, that summary will inevitably not contain all the ways I think the book came to be. Which maybe sounds more spiritual than I mean it, but I do think this book deals with ideas and concerns I’d been chewing on and re-considering for most of my adult life, and, though the actual drafting took a relatively short period of time, I have since found sentences and scenes that I wrote years ago that managed to sneak their way in. I wrote, though, the first full draft over the period of about two months. I then had some long and fruitful talks with a handful of early readers and then chipped away at the book another three months or so.
By the time my editor got her hands on it, we went through three pretty intense edits. The first really opened the book up. I had written almost completely in present tense and had given myself the rule of flashing back as little as possible, and, in that first edit, I had to open the book up a little more, give a few more explanations and a little more meat to it. Inevitably, I think, when you start to open those moments up they get a little bit messy, and the next round was a matter of tightening back up.
The final edit I referred to as my existential edit, which is to say, the project of this book overall was very much to bring this main character to the mat as often and as deliberately as I could. The last letter from my editor was a very short note that basically said, make sure you’re doing that as much as you can. That was the edit that was by far the scariest and, I think, the most effective in making sure the book achieved what it set out to achieve.
MR: That sounds so intense! How are you holding up now?
LSS: I feel like there are two questions inside of this, which is to say, as a writer, I feel okay. I’m proud of the book I made and I have been very lucky in its reception as it’s ventured out into the world. As a person, I am very scared and very sad. I think for many of us this is a horrifying and devastating time and I mostly hope we might all find our way safely to some other side.
MR: Absolutely. Holding onto that hope is so important right now.
How does your experience teaching influence your writing? Did it spark a lot of inspiration for your main character, Elizabeth? There are such biting remarks in the book about the state of teaching and how, too scared to be penalized by their institutions, teachers might be forced into undermining their students with a lack of trust that the information being taught can be understood. Can you speak to how we as a society can do better by both parties, the teachers and the students to build better curricula?
LSS: Of course the two are connected in ways the institutions seem largely unwilling to acknowledge. These Vaunted Institutions claim to offer a certain quality of education that inevitably breaks under the pressure of consistently underpaying and undervaluing their workforce. I am an adjunct and I have between three and four jobs each semester. I love my jobs and I work hard at them, but I am nowhere near as good a teacher as I could be if I had the time and space to only have one job; if I didn’t live in a constant state of anxiety over healthcare and whether or not I’ll still have my job next year. This has been the state of higher education for years now, and, while I don’t claim to know much about policy or administration, it feels to me to in many ways be as simple as institutions acknowledging and respecting the lives and needs of their employees, which would almost certainly lead to a better education for their students.
MR: That makes a lot of sense. It seems like we need more people with experiences like yours at the forefront of these changes that need to be made in higher education and beyond.
I must say, Want was a treat to read. I sunk into it just as the global pandemic was declared and it proved to be the kind of getaway I needed when I had to turn off my news feeds. The quiet, introspective nature of the main character reminded me so much of Ali Smith and Rachel Cusk. The setup in the flashback of the first couple pages also made me think of Julie Buntin’s Marlena. Did you pull any inspiration from their styles?
LSS: I’m very glad the book was able to be that for you! I think, in many ways, I was really pushing against the “quietness” of Cusk especially. I think the fact that those books (which I adore) are almost completely internal was something I really wanted to work against. I wanted my character to have a body, to have a job, to be in the world and feel its complicated messy dailiness. On the same token, because my character, like Cusk’s, is a white woman of a certain level of privilege, the impact of her life’s events are purposefully and pointedly blunted in a way that perhaps feels like a type of “quietness.”
MR: Oh, totally! There was such lovely, condensed storytelling in the flashbacks where Elizabeth recalls her teenage years with her old friend Sasha. When you’re writing how do you decide what to dwell on more deeply and what to summarize in this way? (Looking at page 30 in particular, their senior year.)
LSS: Those moments too I wanted to be incredibly physical and even sensual. So much of the experience, to me, of being a woman, and especially of being a teenage girl, is in the complexity and messiness, the yearning of the body. Those sections especially I wanted them to feel physical and sensual. I wanted the physical interactions to be short and pointed, such that they might do most of the work of showing what that relationship felt like for both characters.
MR: You really pulled that off. I really felt that in the scenes of their youth.
I also, of course, loved how literary Elizabeth is: “There was a time when I thought giving books to other people—showing them their richness, their quiet, secret temporary safety—could be a useful way to spend one’s life.” I kept a running list of the books she read throughout. What were your intentions behind the titles you selected?
LSS: In part those are all just books I love, books I thought Elizabeth would certainly have read, books that I hoped for my book to be in conversation with. I think all books are in conversation with one another. I also think, for a certain type of reader, it’s possible, in moments for their lived experience to feel less present to them than the scenes in books they’d read. One of the main tensions of the novel is the tension between whatever personal individual sustenance and power books and reading might give and the ways that they might fall short as one attempts to live more fully in the world.
MR: I think that’s so true of the books I’ve gotten truly lost in.
Though Elizabeth describes herself and Sasha as so similar, “equally unrelenting, depressive, bookish”, they contrast greatly in their appearances, and so also in how they are perceived by men. How did you make the choice to paint Sasha as a sort of “enhanced” version of Elizabeth, so similar to Elizabeth but more of an extrovert and a flirt? They balance each other so well while they’re together. When was it clear to you while writing that Elizabeth was going to break off and be less dependent on Sasha?
LSS: They’re breaking off and coming back together was always a key component of the book’s engine for me. In some ways, I was leaning into one of the oldest friendship tropes I know: two girls, one more compelling than the other, but I wanted to push it forward in specific ways that had to do with caretaking and also with all the ways, that though Elizabeth thinks of Sasha’s beauty as a kind of power, she also comes to realize that her own ability to disappear and not be objectified as often is also a type of power; that Sasha has lost as much as she has gained from looking the way that she does, that Elizabeth has a power too, and that sometimes she has deployed it in ways she’s come to regret.
MR: Elizabeth thinks: “There are so many streets like this, where I have been so many different people. If anyone were to ask me why I can’t leave even as this city is too hard for not-rich people, I would say it’s because I’m too afraid of what would happen to all these different people somewhere else. This is the place where I was formed, long after forming should have happened; it’s the place where no one was looking and I felt allowed.” I absolutely adored that quote. It really spoke to how influential the city is to so many new New Yorkers. What does NYC mean to you?
LSS: Last night, for the first time in months, I met a friend for a drink and then walked home alone with headphones in. I almost cried from the joy of it. The too hot air, the people outside talking, laughing; the life of it. I can’t afford to live here. I don’t think you need to live in New York to be a writer. We live in New York, like Elizabeth, I guess, because it’s the only place in my whole life that has ever felt like home. We have tried to leave more than once for all the obvious reasons, and yet, each time—and at great expense—we’ve come back. I’m just one person and I make bad choices all the time and this might well be one of them. But I love everything about this city. Our community lives here. All my favorite running routes are here. I might still be pushed out eventually, but it will always be our home.
MR: That’s so relatable. I’ve never lived in the city myself but I worked there for so long and it grew to feel like a home away from home, somewhere I can go whenever I need some comforting culture, or just to meet my closest friends who do live there.
You’ve written about the place money has in the lives of artists—which came first, your idea for this book or your desire to call out the way we, as a society, don’t often enough discuss money’s power? Do think the recent Twitter hashtag #PublishingPaidMe can make a difference?
LSS: I think what we don’t discuss enough is not money’s power, but the shame that people feel when they feel that they don’t have enough. I think people know, or have at least internalized, that money represents a certain kind of value and power to most people, and so, to admit that you don’t have enough, or that what you have is not all you’ve earned yourself, feels scary and shameful. I think any attempt to talk more openly about all the ways that publishing has too often leaned on other people’s money—how often simply as a result of attrition and the fact that good work takes time and space, richer people have a better shot—the better off both the world of publishing and the work that is produced will be.
MR: Are you familiar with that Carrie Fisher quote from a few years back? “Take your broken heart, make it into art.” Would you give similar advice to artists and writers hoping to deal with their emotions in response to COVID and the protests against police brutality targeting Black Americans? Have you been able to work on any new short or long writing pieces in the last few months?
LSS: I think you should always be working to use everything that you have, though I’m not sure that’s always so specific as your particular broken heart. I also think that looking too soon or too explicitly at an experience or trauma before having had the time to digest it or to see it in a way that helps others see it anew often doesn’t do the work much good. My advice to writers right now would be to take in as much of it as you can, even and especially when it feels a little painful. You might be years from writing about it, but I have often found, if an experience is one you have something to say about, the sensations that you felt when you were inside of it, will still be in your body when you feel ready to get them down.
MR: Great advice. It’ll be interesting to see how this shared experience changes the stories that are put out into the world a couple years from now.
Finally, what was your favorite part of working on this book? If you could say just one thing, provide one piece of truth or encouragement to aspiring authors, what would it be?
LSS: I wrote this book on the heels of another book that I thought was my Big Important Book that never saw the light of day. Whereas this book was the book I wrote when I’d mostly given up on any idea of a career. This is my fuck it and write exactly what I want book. I think that impulse can be dangerous in lots of ways, but the idea of bounding into spaces that you don’t fully understand but that feel necessary and a little painful and a little scary, all of those feel like necessary feelings, to me, in an attempt to make good work.
MR: Thank you so much and congratulations on Want!
LSS: Thanks so much for taking the time with it!