Want's Lynn Steger Strong on writing her own privilege
“When my first book came out, I had this crippling sense that I wrote a book about rich white people,” says Lynn Steger Strong. “And I felt a lot of shame about that.”
The author, who published her debut Hold Still in 2016, is explaining the genesis of her forthcoming sophomore work over Zoom from her Brooklyn apartment. The spring and summer of 2020 have been, to say the least, a confusing time to talk about book releases for both author and interviewer alike — but if you're lucky, the author starts.
“I wanted to write a book that engaged more, explicitly, with the complexities that I saw around me all the time," Strong explains.
Her new novel is Want, a brisk first-person saga with a plot that reads both like every millennial Brooklynite’s worst nightmare and a 200-page argument for the necessity of democratic socialism. The mostly-unnamed narrator (it’s revealed to be Elizabeth near the end of the book) was raised by her wealthy Floridian parents, has an Ivy League PhD, and lives in an upscale Brooklyn neighborhood with her attractive woodworker husband and two young daughters. She is also drowning in debt from her Ivy League-sized student loans and an exorbitant post-birth hospital bill. Her low-wage job at a magnet school and adjunct teaching gig barely cover the rent of their overpriced apartment that they insist on living in so that their children can go to a good school (read: better than the magnet school that underpays her).
She’s mostly estranged from her cold, often judgmental parents, and generally dislikes the rich, which leaves her family to file for bankruptcy. She’s kind of a victim, so diminished by the rigors of academia and New York City and capitalism that she is powerless to take actions that seem obvious to the reader. But Strong worked hard to make sure she wasn't actually a victim, but rather an agent of her own life experience — noting that her goal was to remind the reader that, every step of the way, Elizabeth made specific choices.
Want can seem slightly autobiographical on the outset — geographically, in the familial, and in Strong’s own Ivy League advanced degree — but the similarities between the author and her protagonist don’t go much beyond surface level. And, as Strong points out, her protagonist often makes choices that she has considered, but not gone through with.
“I don’t think I would have been able to do the story justice, in the same way, if I had written someone who didn’t come from as much privilege as I come from,” she explains. “When I did research, I realized the space that I felt comfortable inhabiting [in writing] was the ways that whiteness alone can be culpable. And the way that whiteness is often thought of as a default, instead of its own specific experience that is different than others.”
The novel’s narrator displays a shining example of white privilege in every facet of her life. During her slow, prolonged breakdown over the course of the book, she takes to simply walking out of her classroom whenever she feels overwhelmed — she’s quite bad at her job, Strong points out while laughing. Even in the moment of legal bankruptcy, she and her husband are experiencing what is, if you’re white, a logistical failure.
“To some extent her story is about safety,” explains the author. “She’s never going to get fired — she’s an Ivy League-educated white lady. It’s a space of privilege, a physical, bodily, safety kind of privilege that can be hard to wrap your head around. She is beat down, but she’s safe, she’s warm, she’s fed, she’s loved. And a lot of the people around her aren’t.”
It might feel jolting to discuss, at this point, hopefulness within the novel. There isn’t a ton to feel optimistic about, especially if you’re a person who ever harbored fantasies of living well in Brooklyn without selling out. But Strong points out that she was left with a hopefulness at the end of the book, at peace with the knowledge that her main character had come to terms with the fact that there is no magic line to cross and find your life fixed on the other side.
“There is no moment where you’re like okay, now I’m allowed [happiness],” she says. “It’s just that every once in a while you get to sit inside of a moment that’s good. But I think there’s hope in learning to sit inside of those moments.”
Want releases during what EW has already extensively described as the weirdest summer ever — at least as far as pop culture is concerned. Whether it’s COVID-19’s relentless pummeling or the awakening to the longstanding pandemic of racial inequality, it’s as confusing to predict a book’s future as it is to talk about its place in the world. Want is a highly-anticipated tome, with praise from Emma Cline, Leslie Jamison, Rumaan Alam, Jenny Offill — a literary A-list of blurbs.
Strong talks of the work she’s done to, as she calls it “be able to walk around in the world and feel good about something I’ve made, regardless of what happens with it.” She is open about the fact that, in These Times in which everything feels like life or death, it’s impossible to place high stakes onto a novel.
“I hope my book has a chance, but within the context of everything that’s happening I just hope things start getting better,” she says. “The good thing [about releasing a novel right now] is that it’s useful to be reminded that you are something other than a person merely trying to survive. We have wants and needs beyond the bare minimum.”