An Interview With Novelist Darcey Steinke
in Brooklyn, NYC
Words by Mia-Francesca McAuslan
Images by Loni Jeffs
The inside of Darcey Steinke’s old Victorian house in Brooklyn, New York City, looks a little like how I imagine the inside of her mind might look: – erratic, layered, and at the same time, cleverly and sharply arranged.
The attic-style bedroom she shares with investigative journalist and husband, Michael Hudson, is full of books and pictures of Darcey in her twenties, around the time she began her writing career with Spin magazine. It was working for this publication that she interviewed the likes of Kurt Cobain and 9 Inch Nails, partied with Moby, and ate chilli dogs with Nirvana at the crest of fame. Twenty years later, Darcey wrote an article for Vogue about her experience with Cobain, who she describes to us as a ‘Holden Caulfield’.
Author of nine novels and teacher of creative writing at Princeton University – where she works alongside Joyce Carol Oates – Darcey spends the summer teaching the fiction writing program at The American University of Paris. This is where I first met Darcey in 2014 – learning more from her in the three weeks of her mentorship than I did in two years of my journalism degree. Her commanding voice, wit and intelligence – a deft oscillation between ruthless editing and tenderness when identifying the humanity in writing – is what makes her such a fascinating character, teacher and writer. These kinds of dualities pervade her work – the sacred and the profane; the innocent and the deviant – and are acutely observational in nature.
When Darcey talks, her pale blue eyes wander around the room: partly distracted by her unpredictable cat Woodpile, and partly by the launch party she is hosting the next evening for Jeffrey Greene’s new book, In Pursuit of Wild Edibles: A Forager’s Tour.
We spoke to Darcey about her perspective on literary life in 2k16: on her forthcoming book (featuring killer whales and menopause) and the evolution of publishing in the digital age.
Do you think DIY zine culture translates to the online medium?
It does because you are making it yourself. You’re taking pictures and putting them online – that’s no different to xeroxing. [If] you set something up online, that’s no different than setting them up on a xerox machine. I don’t think it matters if it’s print or online – what’s important is to build community, and I think that’s the one part where the social media thing gets lost on. You should still have a party where you let people read from the zine, or hold a panel.
I remember you speaking at The American University of Paris about ‘living the writer’s life’, and building your own community. Can you elaborate on that?
Yes! Do it on your own – don’t wait for someone else. I think it’s such a mistake when people wait for someone like Random House to publish their novel and say like ‘Yay! You won!’ There’s no reason to. I always try to make a point for students – and for myself too – that there’s a wide range of success, in the same way there’s a wide range of ways to publish now. You don’t have to wait for someone else.
This comes from this wonderful woman I knew in the neighbourhood. I went for a while to this church a few blocks over. This woman, Pat, who died a couple of years ago, we’d meet for lunch and she said, ‘If you didn’t have money to go into this restaurant, would you stand on the street and yell, “Let me in I’m hungry! Let me in, I’m hungry!”? No! You would move on down the thing, and find some street food that you could afford.’ It’s kinda true? Just to say, ‘Big publishing wont let me in, I’m mad’: Go down, have your own events, have your own fanzines, make your own projects, have your own collectives. I just think that’s so important.
Skip the process of waiting for someone else to say your work is valuable or worthwhile?
Yeah. In our case it’s very hard because it often ends up being white men [who determine literary value] and waiting for men to say you’re okay. You can wait ‘til you’re blue in the face, and every now and then they’re going to say it, but they’re not going to open the gates for everyone.
What are your thoughts on online publishing?
Publishing online is in my world too. I recently published a story with Catapult. The main ones in the New York area [are] Guernica, Catapult, Public Space, Electric Literature, The Millions and The Rumpus. When my last book came out – I mean I had print stuff; Vogue was both print and online. I wrote a thing for Granta for both print and online, and the online thing did better – the piece got out further.
Do you think it’s considered as legitimate as other platforms outside of the literary scene?
My publisher said [that] we still need to argue for every platform. We still want print books, we definitely want online books for the readers; we need every platform for a while. The thing is, the novel [is] small: you don’t have to plug it in, you can bring it everywhere. It’s not a terrible technology…it’s kind of like an umbrella. But the only problem is [that] as long as people have to go into the woods, cut down a tree, put it in a paper mill…Well you can’t see that going on forever. The novel is a blue print of an emotional experience. It doesn’t really matter if it’s on paper or not… I prefer books too but that’s because we all grew up that way….Eventually there will be people who won’t care – who won’t have the romance but then again, maybe I’m wrong.
Do you think our generation is missing out on anything, or that it’s too easy for us to publish?
No, that’s positive. Maybe because I have a daughter who I love so much, but I don’t have any of this millennial crap. I have some friends who say stuff like, ‘Oh, they’re so unprofessional, they don’t know what a cover letter is, they will come to work in their flip flops’ – but I think that’s what people have always said about everyone. I was a little bit Gen X, a little bit older than that, [and] everyone was saying we were lazy, but I feel like it’s very hopeful….It seems there’s a lot less conservative young people. The one thing I’d say is [that] it’s good to be bored sometimes. It’s positive because you can read really deeply, you can dream. I worry there’s not enough of that boredom, like: ‘What am I going to do with this whole day?’ I think it’s important to have stretches of not really knowing what you can do to entertain yourself.
What do you think about the immediacy of publishing in 2k16?
I think [it’s] mostly great. It’s true that I had to wait [to have material published] but if I were writing for those magazines now it would be the same process. It’s good to have things where there’s a little more gate-keeping going on… but it’s good to have things that are immediate too. There’s no reason not to have both. I don’t like people – some writers – who are like: Those things aren’t edited, and, They’re publishing quickly. So what? You still have The New Yorker, you still have Granta, you still have The Paris Review, and all of those places have online sites now as well… I know in the States we’re having this beautiful moment where millennials seem to love bookstore culture and literary life, and that’s probably because of the MFA [Master of Fine Arts] programs which make for a very rich community – and it’s also partly because of the internet, because they can share their work more easily.
Technology is important for the preservation of the novel.
Yeah! If communities of people are getting together and having readings because of the Internet then that’s great! I worry about the news – not so much about legitimacy, but the one thing about buying the newspaper is [that] I have to read other articles. It’s the difference between browsing a bookstore and buying a book online.
How does the publishing process differ to when you first started working as a journalist (in the 90s)?
You got an agent, wrote a letter, sent the thing out and there was no other way to do it. It was at the beginning of fanzines but a fanzine wasn’t necessarily a thing for writing or for novels – it was more about writing about your favourite bands. There were big presses and small presses. I guess the equivalent was the various literary journals: ones like The Paris Review, which was really hard to get into, but there wasn’t anything like there is now. The DIY scene has influenced everything – even my little band I had, we were like, Well let’s just do it ourselves. I think there’s something really great about that.
Are we allowed to ask you about your book that you just sold?
I sold a book about two weeks ago. I wrote a piece in New York Magazine over the summer about my menopausal experience and how hard it is – how much darker it is; how I don’t like the way the culture talks about [it]; the jokes made about it, hot flashes. It’s just treated terribly. I read something in The Science Times about how the only creatures who go through menopause are female women and killer whales. They both go through it around the same time – between 40 and 55 [years of age] – and both creatures have long post-reproductive lives. I tried to recontextualise the hot flash in terms of the moment of religious transformation – the superhero, the hulk’s transformation – because it’s seen so negatively. It will be [part] memoir, and right now I’m working on the animal chapter. The premise of this chapter is how menstruation is very connected to sexuality: you can feel your body changing. Birth is also beautiful because you have a baby, but menopause is probably when you most feel like an animal because there’s this kind of nothingness there – a sense of your own body, this creaturely-ness.
Did you have a point in your life where you considered yourself a successful writer?
I don’t know if I think that now. You want to keep doing exciting things. I think [it’s] when you think you’ve been sunk in your literary life, when you’ve been doing it for 3 or 4 or 5 years, when you really engage with it. Maybe there’s some monetary success, maybe there’s some literary success, maybe there’s just some community success… Your engagement is the thing that’s going to make it real – the success isn’t going to seem real. It’s a nice part of it, but it’s your level of engagement with the thing that makes it satisfying and a reality, that makes it a beautiful thing in your life.
The following evening I am sitting on the creaky wooden stairs of Darcey’s split-level home and listening to Jeffrey Greene read from his new book. Darcey has prepared recipes from the book: trout and wild berry salad, sour cherries and bread, and we all drink Prosecco. The room is full of Darcey’s friends, colleagues and students from Princeton and The New School of Writing. The warmth of New York spring fills the room, and I think Darcey is successful – not because of the recent sale of her manuscript and impressive publication history, but because of the tenderness of this moment: watching her, bent-kneed and passing devilled eggs around the room as we all listen to Jeffrey read. In this moment Darcey is someone who is truly living and celebrating the writer’s life, who has created and fostered a rich literary community, and that I am sitting in the heart of it.
Loni Jeffs is a writer and artist. See more work here.
Darcey Steinke is the author of the memoir Easter Everywhere (Bloomsbury 2007, A New York Times Notable book) and the novels Milk (Bloomsbury 2005), Jesus Saves (Grove/Atlantic, 1997), Suicide Blonde (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1992), and Up Through the Water (Doubleday, 1989, A New York Times Notable book.)Her new novel, Sister Golden Hair, will come out in Fall 2014 from Tin House. With Rick Moody, she edited Joyful Noise: The New Testament Revisited (Little, Brown 1997). Her books have been translated into ten languages, and her nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Boston Review, Vogue, Spin Magazine, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and The Guardian. 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.