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Darcey Steinke – author of novels Suicide Blonde, Jesus Saves, and the spiritual memoir Easter Everywhere – talks about faith, Kurt Cobain, freedom, the 70s and her fifth novel, Sister Golden Hair (Tin House). Her non-fiction has appeared in The New York Times, and The Guardian. She teaches at Columbia and other universities. Her books have been translated into ten languages.
You can listen to the full interview via the LitroLab podcast using the player below, or search “Litro Lab” on iTunes.
Litro: In your fiction you use an every day situation like commuting home from JFK airport to touch on spirituality in America.
Steinke: I feel like anybody can make a church or a garden spiritual, but for me the more interesting thing is to see if you can make holy or spiritual things that are just very ordinary. I also think that’s kind of the truth. I think if God exists it’s everywhere, not just in a church. But in an ugly spot. In a spot where atrocities happen. There’s all sorts of places that are holy, not just the ones that are defined that way by the culture. That’s always been a part of my work. From the very beginning.
Litro: The sense from abroad is that America is kind of like a teenager, someone who has grown up very quickly, too fast, maybe developed in all sorts of awkward ways––and in Sister Golden Hair you really captured that time in the 70s: the awkwardness and the grace.
Steinke: Well, thanks so much. I worked really hard to make the 70s real. Listened to endless records that came out then. Sister Golden Hair is a song by America. I looked up the bestseller lists and I read those books cause I just didn’t want to do the way it looked. I also wanted to do: What were people thinking? What was life really like? I wanted to do my version of the 70s not the general version of the 70s that you see replicated. Cause I was a little girl in the 70s.
Litro: So you’re Jesse? (the main character)
Steinke: A little bit. Not completely.
Litro: Are you Sheila?
Steinke: No, no. I’m a little bit like all the girls, OK. I feel like when you were a little girl in the 70s there’s a lot of wonder about it. There’s the tacky clothes and all that, but there’s something kind of sad about it. There was something really amazing about it, too. So I wanted to capture that, those contradictions in the book.
Litro: Looking back – although it was in the middle of the sexual revolution – in a way the 70s was quite innocent.
Steinke: That’s the thing after I wrote the book. I had a strong feeling of how much freedom and free time we had as children. Nobody was checking their phone all the time. It was wild in a way. I think you’re really, really right. The idea of unstructured time. I actually felt when I was working on it a certain nostalgia for that. Even though this was a time I was unhappy. My family was unhappy. But writing it, I was like Oh, wow, this was the time I really became who I am as a person. When I had a lot of freedom, a lot of privacy. I wasn’t on a computer all the time. That was an interesting thing to discover about the 70s.
Litro: In a way you’ve hit the jackpot in terms of material from your early life. You’re a minister’s daughter. So you had that religious education and you grew up in the 70s, and have this rock ‘n’ roll background. You’ve a lot to draw from that’s really interesting.
Steinke: I’ve gotten a lot out of being a pastor’s daughter. In a way it’s done me really well. Very formative.
Litro: Your books show us a different angle, it’s not straightforward.
Steinke: Just the idea of the religious training that I had in the context with all the other things that I am. My interest in a more open spirituality, my interest in music and rock ‘n’ roll, the avant-garde movements. Everything. It’s kind of a weird. I think it’s rare for people to have the kind of religious training I had nowadays. Grew up in a church. At the time I didn’t like it, but I think it served me very well knowing a lot about the Bible. The King James Bible is so beautiful. The holiness of the book, that more than any of the other trappings. The idea of the book being the most important thing.
Litro: How do you approach teaching creative writing?
Steinke: Mostly I am looking for the hotspots in the text, so I can say this is really good. It might only be a paragraph, but ‘this is what you should be dilating’. In my own work I try for a sense of immediacy and I want to help my students get connected to what they are the most passionate about.
Litro: You’re in a band, Ruffian. You also interviewed Kurt Cobain. He became a friend of yours.
Steinke: My first husband was a rock musician. We knew a lot of bands and people in that world. We also knew a lot of rock critics. So when SPIN asked me to do a cover story it was very exciting. He wouldn’t talk to a regular journalist. He wanted to talk to a novelist because he was kind of burned by the Vanity Fair story. So I was very happy to be chosen. It was really kind of amazing. I didn’t really know him, although I had seen him around the scene years before. He was a very lovely person. The record is incredible. It just sounded different than everything else. Was super-exciting to hear that cause I remember at the time there being just a lot of bad, big hair, guitar rock and then Nirvana was a whole new sound. I found him very, like you would imagine, vulnerable. Very sweet. Extremely paranoid. Very smart. Great vocabulary. Different than you would think. Kind of freaky, I would say. A little freaky guy, you know what I mean? But like a very deep lovely person. That was an amazing experience. Spent two days interviewing him and then I think within three or four months he was dead.
Litro: You’ve covered a lot of extreme or iconic people. The Waco siege. Monica Lewinsky.
Steinke: I really enjoyed writing the Waco story. It was so terrible because people actually died, but it was a perfect story for me in that I know a lot about religion. I’m very interested in cults and religious extremism. I’m hoping to write a novel about a woman who starts her own religion. I think that in the States, and maybe everywhere, community is so fragmented I can understand why people would want to – I don’t want to join a cult – but I kind of understand why somebody would. Someone who was lonely and didn’t have a social network. Why wouldn’t you want to be in a community. So I have a lot of sympathy for people who do that. I don’t think they’re crazy. So I was able to write a story that had more the idea of people searching for community. And look what happens. Look what happens because we’re so disconnected.