Pixelated is the digital, double-blind, lit-inclined conversation series.
In each episode we put two writers on a sort of blind-date, and have them interview each other. The result? Who the hell knows. All conversations are 'manuscript-first', meaning they were typed as you see them.
Episode XX: "i spent all these years thinking i was a fraud for thinking i might one day be a writer."
In this installment, I set up Julie Buntin (above) with Lynn Steger Strong (below). They discuss husbands being or not being writers, kids, the teenage years, bookending sleep with writing, Brooklyn, Woolf & more.
Andrew: Today, for the first time on the series, I’m here with two writers who’ve yet to put a book out into the world—though both have one slated with major publishing houses.
Lynn Steger Strong’s HOLD STILL is coming out in late March with Liveright (W.W. Norton). Richard Ford says she “has a great eye for the visible world, a near perfect sensor for those of us living in it, and a deep compassion and curiosity for how we go astray and find ourselves again.”
Julie Buntin’s MARLENA won’t hit the shelves for a year or two, and will come out under Henry Holt (Macmillan). It’s about the dynamics of female friendship, and is inspired by an essay Buntin wrote in the Atlantic. Holt says the book follows “a year in an electric friendship between two girls whose dangerous behaviors will cost one her life” and is a “shimmering exploration of the sharpest edges of adolescence”.
I’m hoping to get some sense of what’s it like to be a writer on the eve of the eve of the eve of publication, but who the hell cares what I want?
Where are you two? What do you see?
Julie: ah! hi lynn
are you scared?
Lynn: Hi Julie!
Andrew: about this interview or publication?
Lynn: well, both.
but publication mostly.
Julie: yeah me too a little, re: both
ALL THE FEAR re: publication
and a little re this conversation
Lynn: also, this space is just so strange. like writing without writing is new to me. i don't know what to DO. i need to DO or i freak out.
i know that feeling
Lynn: i clearly also overshare right from the start.
Julie: wait something fun about this conversation and a weird coincidence
is that i just met your agent yesterday
molly from icm
Lynn: ha! molly is the best, no?
i mean, i'm sure you love your agent, but molly is special, i think.
Julie: i work for a publisher and i had coffee with her--partly because i read about YOUR deal and was like ohhh i love self-destructive teenagers
Lynn: and your editor is sarah bowlin?
Julie: i think my agent is the most special human but molly rocks i had the best time with her
Lynn: i have a serious crush on sarah bowlin.
Julie: god me too im a little scared of her
Lynn: everything she puts out is GREAT.
Julie: because she's so smart and so cool and so, like, i don't know
she's what i want to be when i grow up
Lynn: the beautiful bureaucrat knocked me out.
Julie: yeah i love helen phillips did you read her first book
Lynn: i didn't. actually just ordered it.
Julie: something so weird and completely her about all her writing
like she couldn't copy someone else if she tried
i really admire that
Lynn: YES. so completely her, but then also so completely everybody else.
i just. right in the gut, you know?
Julie: yeah totally
how many people have read your book so far
is that a weird question
Lynn: it is weird now that i don't know the answer.
i guess that's a good point
because we don't know who read it when it's out on sub not really
Lynn: the other day someone on goodreads reviewed it and i emailed molly a little frantic, like, wait, how did this happen?
Julie: and once it was just like me and my husband
and my agent
HOW DID THAT HAPPEN?
that's a special kind of writer horror movie
Lynn: i know for sure my husband has NOT read it.
Julie: just really early goodreads reviews before book is out
he's waiting for the hardcover (he says)
Julie: haha what does he do
not a writer, i presume?
Lynn: i used to make him read early versions and he would just say, i don't know, good?
no not a writer.
Julie: that's kind of nice though
Lynn: is yours?
Julie: just unconditional support
yeah he is
and he's tough
Lynn: oh wow. what's THAT like?
Julie: i showed him a bit of a new book
and he was like
this is bad what are you doing
and i was like
Lynn: i would take so much advantage of that situation.
i love tough.
so, you excited?
Julie: i think i do
but then the reality of it sometimes makes me turtle
i am excited but it doesn't feel real
you want something really bad your whole life
or i did
and then it happens and it's like
Lynn: yes. exactly turtle. sometimes. when you just need it to be good for just a second.
Julie: yeah precisely
how long did you work on hold still?
Lynn: yes, exactly.
and people keep asking if i'm excited and i feel like i'm not performing excited well enough?
Julie: ME TOO
i had to keep apologizing to people
Lynn: 3 years? but then it took a while to sell.
Julie: because they're like are you happy
and im like im so happy
but it's complicated and scary and like
Lynn: YES, but..
Julie: not an emotional dance party
but that feels ungrateful
Julie: or it is an emotional dance party but like, a kind of intense one where you're a little too fucked up for your own good
Lynn: and it is this amazing thing. A BOOK I A STORE.
Julie: I KNOW
Lynn: that is really more than i could have ever hoped for.
Julie: i remember when my agent asked me what i wanted
and i was like
a book in a store?
Lynn: my daughter held the galley the other day and told my friend it was the book i'd written for her and her sister.
Julie: for my book to be a BOOK
Julie: like i couldnt think in terms of publishers or whatever
Lynn: i spent all these years thinking i was a fraud for thinking i might one day be a writer.
Julie: i want to go back to what you said before about how it took you three years to write hold still
because that's probably about how long it took me
and that's actually not THAT long
Lynn: no, not that long. but, i wrote some other bad novels before that that were obsessed with the same things.
did you write consistently over those years?
Julie: i still feel like a fraud.
i did that too!
well .75% of one bad novel
no i didnt
i think that's why i stll feel like a fraud sometimes
i rarely write every single day
unless im really firing
Lynn: ha. yes, so the trick now is, now i might just be a fraud that gets found out
Lynn: i have a 1 1/2 yr old and a 3 yr old and my husband travels a lot, so, no
oh that emoj is scary.
Lynn: i didn't do that on purpose.
it is like the rock after it takes zoloft
Lynn: haha. yes.
Julie: do you have daughters
Lynn: yes, both.
Julie: oh shit
Lynn: whom i did not have when i started this book.
Julie: having written about a self-destructive teenager
are you afraid for their teenage yeras
Lynn: i mean, of course, but also not.
parenting is so day to day. i'm afraid tonight the 1 yr old won't sleep, or the three year old will forget she's wearing underwear.
Lynn: i'm afraid i'm working too much.
Julie: like writing too much?
like not being there enough?
Lynn: there's so much to worry about today. it's hard to also worry about ten years from now
Julie: i am so curious about this
i recently got married
like a month ago
Lynn: well, right now i have like six jobs.
Julie: and i totally want to have kids
Lynn: plus them. plus writing.
Julie: yeah damn
Lynn: it is the best thing.
i know that's been said.
Julie: well not exactly
Lynn: but i have learned more about being a human from my kids than any other thing
Julie: i think there's this trend to not want kids
Lynn: it is an extraordinary thing
Julie: at least in my peer group in nyc
and i really want to support it.
because i totally support choice
Julie: but i've always wanted them, i just dont know how i will do it all
Lynn: but i never wanted kids until i met my husband.
Lynn: and i am so much better for having done it.
Julie: are you worried you wont write as much having had them? like that you only have a limited amount of self to parcel out
Lynn: and other better people could probably experience that growth without kids, but, i just...
Julie: ^that's what i am worried about
Lynn: no. i write more i think. i mean less time, but more efficient.
i have heard that
Lynn: and it feels more urgently imperative to make the work matter.
Lynn: because if this time could be spent with my babies, i better write the shit out of this shit.
Julie: yes that makes sense to me
Lynn: what're you doing right now besides writing?
Julie: i have a job that i love
and feel so lucky and grateful to have
Lynn: wow! that's so rare and wonderful
Julie: but it is in publishing, for a new publishing startup
Lynn: what is it?
Julie: and i am not from the kind of background where people have jobs that they love
so it feels SO SPECIAL
it's called catapult
we just launched a month or so ago
Lynn: yes! my husband asked me the other day if i have something against jobs.
Julie: but i have to say it's definitely a challenge
Lynn: i've heard of this.
Julie: trying to find space to write my own work
and edit other people's books
Lynn: you guys are doing the workshops?
Julie: and do our programming and events
i feel spread too thin
Lynn: yes. always the conversation about this.
Julie: but it sounds like you know that feeling very well
Lynn: i do. and i guess there is no answer. but to find the urgency when you can. i feel like when i'm excited about something, i figure it out.
which isn't helpful when i'm trying to get into something new.
because it takes time for that click to happen
or it can...
Lynn: but when i'm in something--for a while i wrote between 11pm and 2, bc our older daughter would get up at 11 and come into bed with us. so i'd write on my phone as she lay on top of me.
it really can.
Julie: that's commitment
Lynn: haha. probably none of it was very good.
Julie: but the routine, or the doing of it
Lynn: but i needed to feel like i was working.
Julie: can like pave the way for the good stuff
Julie: in the year before i sold my book
Lynn: i think that helps in those times when the urgency isn't there.
Julie: i was getting up at about 6am and working in the morning
and then working after dinner until i went to sleep
so like bookending my sleep with writing
that was the best its ever been
Lynn: that's impressive.
Julie: but it's SO HARD to get back into the mode of getting up early
once you've stepped out of that routine.
Lynn: i have a really hard time with the night writing.
Julie: i feel embarrassed saying that to you
since you probably are up at dawn like every day
Lynn: haha. don't.
my friends (none of whom have kids) went through this weird phase when they wouldn't complain to me about fatigue or time bc they didn't want to seem whiney or something.
but other people's tired isn't less tired bc of the extremity of our tired.
that reminds me of this beautiful thing that emily rapp said
the scale is WAY different
Lynn: and my tired is all wrapped up in squishy joy.
Julie: but about how pain can't be compared on an even scale
Lynn: part of the reason i couldn't sleep was bc our daughter used to hold my face when she slept.
Julie: haha well no wonder
if you could sleep while your face was being held that would be a superpower
Lynn: which, you know, hindered sleep, but was nice.
Julie: that is also so sweet and touches my heart
where do you live
like where are you in the world right
Lynn: yes. that's parenting: exhausting and physically intrusive, but touches your heart.
Julie: oh no kidding!
Julie: derp derp derp
Lynn: we should hang out!
Julie: we should!
Andrew: i feel like in the book world that's the opposite side of the country
Julie: also if you ever need a babysitter
Lynn: you guys can take our babies for a test drive.
i was just going to say
Lynn: ha. yes.
Julie: we are baby-curious
Andrew: park slope is the east coast, boerum hill is the midwest, carroll gardens is the southwest
Julie: it's true i never go to park slope
Lynn: haha. but i run a lot, so they all feel close to me.
Julie: i bought a table from a couple in park slope
Lynn: i was in carroll gardens this morning.
Julie: and my husband and i were like what is this strange land
it is a strange land.
but the park.
Julie: have you always lived here?
do you feel energized as a writer by the city
Lynn: no and yes
we actually tried to leave last year
we did leave.
we'd just had our second kid and felt so overwhelmed by the city, but we came back. we decided the energy is worth the expense and all the rest.
are you from here?
Julie: no im from northern michigan
Lynn: oh wow!
Julie: i always feel i have to make the distinction
Lynn: how long have you been here?
Julie: because northern michigan is different from the rest of the state
almost ten years now
i am not sure about this place
Lynn: yes, very rural, yes?
Lynn: yeah. it's a tricky place.
how'd you end up here?
Julie: kind of like a weird beach town that's only a beach town three months of the year
and the rest of the time is sunk in winter
Lynn: oh michigan!
Julie: i wanted to leave SO BAD when i was a teenager
but now im physically homesick constantly
like it's a pain
Lynn: i've been to one of those towns.
twenty minutes away from charlevoix
is where i grew up
Lynn: my friend was one of the summer people growing up.
Julie: oh the summer people
Lynn: amazingly beautiful
Julie: yes definitely
Julie: i wanted to BE a summer person
Lynn: i'm from florida. we have winter people.
Julie: i think if we were all MI summer people we'd be happier
oh florida is such a weirdo place
Lynn: of course. but then also, feel superior.
SUCH a weirdo place.
Julie: haha yes
Lynn: insane. but i feel that physical yearning for water all year long.
Julie: yes! that is what i feel too
you grew up on the ocean then
Lynn: and not water you have to ride a train for or drive na hour for.
Julie: yes exactly
like just daily water
like part of your life water
is your book set in florida
Lynn: yeah. salt always in your hair, sand always in the bed.
half of it.
it goes back and forth.
where's yours set?
ive never written anything set anywhere else
Lynn: wow. that's really amazing and exciting.
Julie: it's weird how that is
like how your imagination lives in a different place than the rest of you
Lynn: yeah. those places we hate that are a part of us. and then later we are old enough also to love them.
Julie: yeah exactly
i wonder if i would still write about michigan if i didnt miss it so much
and by miss it i think i mean like
Lynn: i also have a hard time writing about whatever place i'm living.
Julie: miss being a kid, etc
right! i do too!
the details are too close
Lynn: yeah. i don't miss being a kid, actually.
i was awful at being a kid.
Lynn: and then the details change.
i think i came out best suited to being thirty-ish.
Julie: im definitely happier now
but i miss being able to completely fuck up
i had no sense of the future
Lynn: yes. have you read "mermaids" by deborah eisenberg.
Julie: no but i will do it immediately
Lynn: yes. but i just got too good at completely fucking up.
oh you MUST!
and on the second full paragraph of the fifth page call me
Julie: haha okay i will
Lynn: or chat me or whatever
Julie: i love that you know
exactly where in the story
Lynn: i have weird places in my brain for some of this stuff. but yes, i can see it. it's placed beautifully in the middle of the page
it's declaring itself in all these perfect subtle ways.
who is your favorite writer?
Lynn: i'm sorry. i know that's so hard.
Julie: i love that impossible question though
i dont know! i truly cannot say
it's such a cliche, which annoys me because i genuinely feel, like most people who love something, that it was mine first
but the ferrante quartet
Lynn: wow. that's amazing.
Julie: destroyed me
i love lorrie moore
Lynn: haha. YES. ME TOO
Julie: i love big novels you can disappear into
Lynn: i love old lorrie moore
who will run the frog hospital.
i have to tell you
Lynn: and, yes, to the disappearing.
Julie: i think i accidentally rewrote who will run the frog hospital
Lynn: hahaha. PERFECT.
Julie: i just copied it so hard
Lynn: i'm dying to reread it.
Julie: it's such a beautiful perfect book
oh it so is.
Julie: it was weirdly taught in my grad program
(by a man)
as like a flawed book
Lynn: oh, cool man
Julie: like, if only it had just been a short story about paris!
Julie: and i was like WTF ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT
Lynn: yes. i hope you said that?
Julie: not really i didnt have any confidence
but inside i was seething
Lynn: i would probably have said that.
Julie: do you have a favorite writer
Lynn: i was pregnant for most of grad school and it gave me a weird confidence.
like noone's going to mess with the knocked up girl, so i'm just going to say what i think.
and then a thousand million others
but woolf was first.
Julie: i love virginia woolf
i remember when i first read to the lighthouse
Lynn: where were you?
Julie: and you knwo when you have one of those primal, defining reading experiences
Lynn: how old?
i was just going to say
my freshman year of college
in my very cold dorm room
and when the book falls asleep
Julie: i remember feeling this intense urge to make everyone around me, like the entire world
stop what they were doing
so we could all just like feel awe together
about what woolf had done
Lynn: i love everything about this.
Julie: what's your favorite woolf?
Lynn: oh tell me another one
Lynn: what else did that to you?
Lynn: to the lighthouse and mrs dalloway are tied.
Julie: quick and the dead by joy williams
yeah mrs dalloway fuck
Julie: what a good ass book
Julie: hahah YES
Lynn: Septimus making the hat with rezia
having an eye for colors, but not being able to make his brilliance manifest to communicate with the world
Julie: also i love ghosts in fiction
Lynn: like that's all any of us wants, right? to be heard.
do you have ghosts in your book?
Julie: in my next book i want to have a ghost as like real character
Lynn: did you read that adam johnson story in harper's?
Julie: did you read a lot when you were younger?
like growing up
haha oh no! our internet connections
are like flickering
so your chat is on delay
Andrew: well—i hate to do this, but we're nearly out of time, so i'm going to have to ask for final thoughts
Lynn: yeah. but sort of bad stuff. my parents weren't super intellectual but i wanted to be bookish, so i was the 7 year old reading james patterson and mary higgins clark.
not that james patterson is bad.
Julie: oh i read PLENTY of JP
Lynn: oh, final thoughts!
Julie: i dont know do you have final thoughts lynn?
Lynn: i LOVED IT.
Julie: let's get an IRL coffee/drink????
Lynn: umm, books in stores are cool. and let's hang out?
congrats to you too
Lynn: i cannot wait to read your book
Julie: i cannot wait to read yours!
Lynn: and i'm going to review it so well on goodreads
Julie: as soon as i heard the description i was like gimme that please
Lynn: and compare you to lorrie moore
female friendship is sort of everything to me.
and thank you
i'm so scared
Andrew: thanks guys!
Lynn: thanks andrew!
Julie: THANK YOU ANDREW
and HOORAY LYNN