'To fail but still mostly be safe': Lynn Steger Strong wrestles with precarity and privilege

Lydia Kiesling

In the last few years, Lynn Steger Strong has built a wide audience with her compelling essays – including a series for the Guardian – about the precarity that can coexist with privilege in America, indictments of a country where getting an education or having a child or a long illness can in an instant turn a stable financial situation to an unstable one.

In Want, out this month, Strong homes in on those themes. In this novel, her second, narrator Elizabeth is raising two small children with her husband, a carpenter, in New York City, while going through a bankruptcy and teaching low-income students at a charter school and adjuncting at a prestigious university.

Although not a work of autofiction, Want hums with the ideas that shape Strong’s non-fiction, particularly her descriptions of a writer’s life built on privilege but teetering on privation. Through Elizabeth’s experiences and in her propulsive voice, the novel explores race, class, privilege, coincidence, family, friendship and love. We corresponded via email about parenting and working during a pandemic and how the novel came into the world.

The themes of Want overlap a lot with essays you have written for the Guardian and elsewhere – pieces where you have been frank about money and precarity. Did writing this novel clarify anything for you about your own professional life, where to live, how to live?

I think both the writing of this book, and then the sale of it – the day I got my biggest payment for the book, the brakes on our car broke and they cost more than what the check was for.

A lot of the novels I grew up reading – the books that I was told were important when I was younger, books written largely by white men, by people whose relationship to agency and power is often very different than the rest of us – teach us that you will hit a point, an achievement, maybe a “dream”, where things shift in some irrevocable way, and then you will be something other, maybe better, on the other side. But I think almost none of life is like that. For the most part, something happens, and then you are mostly still yourself. You have to figure out how to pay your bills and love your kids; you have to decide what to have for dinner, and to clean the house.

What made you decide to bring your non-fiction themes to the novel form?

Money, my lack of it and my need for it, the shame I feel around it, the way that it is embedded in so many of our bodies and minds to automatically associate one’s acquisition of it with one’s worth as a human being … all of this has been an obsession of mine for a long time. I wrote this novel in a time of real professional and financial desperation, so that is one of the novel’s main concerns.

Insofar as the character’s life looks like mine, it was important to me, as I wrote and thought more about money, to inhabit the space that I also inhabit when it comes to privilege. Elizabeth and I are both white and educated; we’re both safe in ways that very few people get to be. I hewed close to my own experience in that way because I wanted to show the particular complexities of inhabiting that space, to have had so much, but to still end up feeling mostly like you’ve failed, to fail and fall in real and concrete ways, but still mostly be safe.

You said on Twitter that one editor who saw the book on submission called the protagonist ‘unhinged’. How have early reads of the book surprised or irritated or gratified you?

I wanted lots of things to happen to the main character: she declares bankruptcy, she quits her job, someone gets blown up in their elevator, they lose their apartment, she gets in touch with an old friend. I was interested in the particular way the impact of each of these experiences is blunted not only by my character’s whiteness and her privilege, but also because she has no choice in most of these instances but to just keep going. I’ve been grateful for a lot of very generous, very spot-on reads, but there was one early review, and I think this is similar to the read that she is “unhinged”, that called it “a portrait of millennial unease”, which felt a little like the book review equivalent of saying that I don’t own a house because of avocado toast.

It felt both like it decided early that the book was another of those books about a woman’s feelings and didn’t pay much attention to what actually happens, and also, it felt connected to this idea that books, and also maybe life, are only ever about an individual experience. The book definitely plays in the category of a certain kind of book about a certain kind of woman trying to make sense of life, but I also worked very hard to subvert the expectations of that type of novel, by giving her life much more concrete consequences, by making her not just abstractly anxious about the world but in real financial danger and by forcing her to engage with people whose lives were different from her own.

What does the pandemic look like for you, since I know you are home with two little girls? What is it like to publish a book right now?

My husband has been commuting to his job again for about six weeks now, but most of the city is still shut down, so I get up at 4am and run for an hour and then I write or read student work until six, and then I’m alone with my kids until early evening.

At that point, I hand the children over to my husband so I can prep to teach an evening Zoom class or I get on the phone with students for an hour or two. At some point I eat dinner or clean the kitchen. I hang the laundry on our back balcony because we stopped going to the laundromat in March and it’s become this sort of obsession of mine, being out there most nights, the rhythm and the steadiness of it.

It’s been hard to make sense of the fact of publishing a book right now. I’m proud of it and I want to be able to promote it. This is a ridiculous life choice I’ve made, trying to make a living this way, and, obviously, it feels imperative that I try to make it work. At the same time, there is so much going on right now that feels so dire and so important. If the book disappears, I can’t say I blame anyone.