#WritersRead - René Steinke

Article by ben

John Cheever. Rick Moody. Lorrie Moore. Tom Perrotta. John Updike. Richard Yates.

What do these authors all have in common? Why, suburban malaise, of course!

What has made the suburbs such fertile territory for American authors since World War II? Perhaps it has to do with the notion of staid lives governed by good manners—neighbors who cannot retreat into anonymity amongst one another and, as a result, have to suppress all negative feelings—and the oppressive sense that, just a car ride away, there’s a city where people are really living.

Consider, for instance, René Steinke’s Gulf Coast-set third novel, FRIENDSWOOD. In it, an industrial spill has made a section of town unlivable. In the aftermath of this accident, Steinke’s characters—divorced parents, football stars, greedy land developers, and possibly clairvoyant teenagers—cope with grief, fear, gossip, and the threat of hurricanes.

Would these characters be better off if they moved thirty miles up the road to Houston? Perhaps not. But therein lies the subtext of all great suburban novels, FRIENDSWOOD included: the sense that escape from a dreary life of subdivisions lies frustratingly close, but that the path there is an unlit nighttime highway, difficult to see.

I talked to Steinke about life in the suburbs, the power of imagination, and her habits as a writer and reader in this installment of #WritersRead.

Brazos Bookstore: At one point in FRIENDSWOOD, you mention some Houston spots that a character named Dani visits—clubs named Sevens and Coastal Club. How well do you know the city of Houston? What kinds of places do you think your other characters would like to visit if they got out of Friendswood and into the big city?

René Steinke: I know Friendswood much better than I know Houston, although we'd visit Houston when I was a kid (mostly to go to the Galleria), and I've spent some time in Houston more recently, visiting my sister and my brother-in-law (who grew up in the Memorial area). 

Those passages in the book are partly inspired by my high school friend, who'd somehow get into the Houston clubs, even at sixteen, and went backstage with The Judy's (a punk band), and partly by a tour of my brother-in-law's Houston haunts when he was a teenager—we went to a lot of places around Westheimer. I invented those club names (and the names of some other things in the novel) because I think it's important to settle the reader into a world that's fictional, even if the story is set in a real place. To some extent, I want the world of the novel to be a world unto itself.  

If I were to send my characters into the real Houston on field trip: Willa and Dani, in a couple of years, would probably like Poison Girl. Dex would like to get dressed up and go to Hugo's restaurant, and so would Hal, though he also might prefer Otto's Barbecue. I'd like to send Lee to the Rothko Chapel.

BB: You grew up in Friendswood, yet you write about it at a contemporary moment. Did you ever consider setting FRIENDSWOOD in the time of your own childhood? Do you work differently as a writer depending on whether a novel has a contemporary or a period setting?

RS: I need to have a certain distance from my subject matter in order to feel free enough to make up characters and scenes, to not get hung up on a "real" incident or street name. I think setting the novel at a contemporary moment (rather than the 1970s and 1980s when I lived in Friendswood) gave me some of that distance. I don't write fiction about myself, so I have to be able to imagine that I'm inside the mind of someone else in order to write a story, and in the case of FRIENDSWOOD, those characters have experiences very different from my own. Whenever I start a novel, I sort of begin to build the characters' perceptions and insights alongside landmarks or facts—details that fascinate me, like the icon of the Mustang that appears everywhere in Friendswood, or the Quaker church, or the abandoned golf course, or the sign for the hardware store that's the shape of a hammer. It was the same way when I was writing HOLY SKIRTS [set in 1917 New York], though obviously those initial touchstones were different for that book. But then as the story takes over, more things get made up or embellished to make the story work the way it should. If I relied too much on the facts, the story would fail. So the Friendswood in the book has some recognizable landmarks, but it's also a fictional creation, partly old Friendswood, partly new, partly made up. More than anything, I wanted to capture the feeling of the place, the houses, the parties, the landscape, the economy, the weather.

BB: What are some of your most memorable experiences in bookstores?

RS: In Dallas, just after I graduated from college, I worked at a bookstore in a shopping mall. People used to ask me for recommendations, and I remember how awesome that responsibility felt, especially when in the scheme of things, even though I was an English major, I'd still read so little of what I wanted to read. But generally, whatever I recommended, people bought. That was an awesome responsibility for a 21-year-old, and it gave me a real sense of people's hunger for books.

Later, in Charlottesville, Virginia, where I lived in my early 20s, there used to be a great independent bookstore called Williams' Corner, right along the historic mall. It was in an old building, crowded but in a good way, a little dark in the back, and the owner, Michael Williams, was very tall and very kind. All the writers (famous ones and fledgling ones like me) used to linger there. One afternoon, in the poetry section, I stood next to Sam Shepard, who was incredibly handsome, and I tried to see which collection he was reading, but couldn't make it out. Another time, I ran into my teacher, George Garrett, and he pulled a book by William Goyen off the shelf and handed it to me and said, "Here you go, another Texan." Ever since then, Goyen has been one of my favorite writers. Browsing the shelves of that store, I discovered so many books that have been important to me—Denis Johnson's FISKADORO, Jeanette Winterson's ORANGES AREN’T THE ONLY FRUIT, Robert Walser's MASQUERADE, William Gass's ON BEING BLUE, Barry Hannah's AIRSHIPS. I can still see their covers and remember how it felt to buy a book when I had hardly any money for anything. When Williams' Corner closed, two friends and I drove all the way from Brooklyn to Virginia in one day, just to be at the closing party. I'm still sad that it's not there anymore.

BB: Can you recommend three other books that might interest fans of FRIENDSWOOD, or that might better acquaint readers with your personal canon?

RS: HOME by Marilynne Robinson, WISE BLOOD by Flannery O'Connor, and THE EXECUTIONER’S SONG by Norman Mailer.

BB: You have no idea whom I’ll talk to for the next Brazos Q&A, but never mind: What would you like me to ask him or her?

RS: What's the craziest thing you've ever seen in Texas?

BB: Speaking of which, Bret Anthony Johnston (author of REMEMBER ME LIKE THIS) wants to know: Where’s that money you owe me, punk?

RS: Bret, I just saw you last week in New York. Are we even now?

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