Fire: An Interview with Lynn Stegner
By Brenda Webster
Lynn Stegner's stunning new novel, Because a Fire was in my Head, is a daring work. Her heroine, Kate Reily, has been called "a shameless hussy" by The New York Times and a "narcissist of epic-self regard" by the Los Angeles Times reviewer and yet succeeds in fascinating readers. This is in part, I think, due to the richness of its images and language.
The book begins with the compelling image of a blind girl with a crippled arm like a broken wing, trying to clean up after her guidedog, unaware that she may be moving too near oncoming traffic. Man-hungry Kate Reily thinks for a moment of pausing to help but realizes that she no longer has the will to stop--whether to help this unfortunate girl or to remedy the devastation Kate has left in her wake as she careened through men, strewing children behind her like garbage. "It was she in the grip of her own momentum who sped down, down into the broken wings of innocents."
So much of the book seems contained in this image. Kate herself is both the maimed girl--hated by her cold mother, brought up on the dreary plains of Saskatchewan, pretending sickness in order to get the attention she craves--and a maimer in turn, giving up her blind baby, leaving her son in a car with the engine running while she has an afternoon tryst, heedlessly leading a drunken sailor to dive from a rooftop. The book's triumph is that we are both as mesmerized as we are horrified.
I interviewed Lynn Stegner at the Stanford Court (where she was vacationing with her husband Page Stegner and her daughter Ali) about her new novel.
B.W.: "Lynn, you've written such a powerful book. It draws you in viscerally from the opening pages with that startling image of the blind girl. I wondered how you found that image."
L.S.: "That actually happened to me. I was driving up a hill and I witnessed this blind woman who had something wrong with her arm. She had her hand wrapped in plastic, groping forward to clean up after her dog, and the cars were coming. I knew instantly that I would have to use this image one day because it was just so loaded with thematic and dramatic potential. And when I decided to write this book, I thought I would use this as the opening. It was actually a prologue initially. That scene was just one of those found gift that writers and artists come upon and it was such a capacious vignette. After I used it, things just started filling in metaphorically and thematically, looping in and encompassing that entire scene."
B.W.: "That's terrific. Now, I'm curious--you may not want to answer this but you've said Kate's character was so hard to write about. Were you drawing on someone in your family?"
L.S.: "Yes, it's pretty heavily based on my own mother. I tried to write this book twenty years ago. It would have been my first book. I did all the research. I went to Saskatchewan, read books, read journals, read reports from doctors at the end of the century. I knew I wanted to start my book with that train platform scene where Kate is leaving her mother and her home town and young Jan, her boyfriend."
B.W.: "That scene also echoes the wounded-bird image beautifully. The mother, who has her own back story of deprivation, stands with her cape blowing out behind her, like a black raven."
L.S.: "Well, I wrote that little scene and then I couldn't write anymore. I just wasn't technically able to handle the architecture of the book, and I also wasn't psychologically or emotionally prepared to deal with a character who was just so difficult to empathize with. I needed to know myself better in order to face myself and try to write compassionately, and it really took me three books before I was ready to do it."
B.W.: "I can see why it would be technically difficult. For one thing, you have a huge canvas. The book covers seventy years-from 1925 to 1995."
L.S.: "And there was so much that happened in that period-the pre-war depredations of the depression, the deprivations of the war itself and then the enormous consumerism and acquisitiveness of the 50's-that sort of orphaned decade-before we moved into my lifetime. There was also a lot of moving backwards and forward. Then there are five settings: the Canadian Prairies, Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco! I also introduce one of the main characters late. I'm thinking of Kate's last husband Nelson Burke, the bi-sexual gentleman. It's almost always fatal for a novel to do that."
B.W.: "It seemed quite natural, just another in the sequence of Kate's men. I wondered, incidentally, why the reviews in the LA Times and the New York Times didn't mention this final husband, because there Kate is actually hurt more than she hurts."
L.S.: "Yes. It's the ultimate blow to her vanity as a woman to have a man prefer a man, or at least she thinks he does. So how to handle all this technically? I mean, if I wrote the book the way I knew how to write a book 20 years ago, I would have ended up with a thousand page novel. I would have plodded chronologically through all of the places. But what I did was try to organize the narrative along the lines of memory. The things that we remember are the things that define us."
B.W.: "And it seemed so right that Kate's last imaginary illness was a brain tumor. I felt that she was denying her inner self-or what she should have been feeling- and then representing it symbolically in her imagined illnesses. I wonder where you got the fascinating detail of the hypochondriacal journals where she writes down every single trip to the bathroom. It was brilliant because it made you empathize with her suffering. How did you think of that?"
L.S.: "She had to be hyphocondriacal for two reasons. One it is just part of her obsession with her body and her looks, and two, her mother is a nurse, and the only time she can get attention from her mother is by being ill because she and her mother don't really get along."
B.W." The reviewers put you in the stream of great male writers: Updike, Carver, Stegner, to name only a few. Certainly I see that, both in the intensity of the work and in the attention you pay to place and language. But I wonder if there are any women that you thought of as models."
L.S." I was asked that question on my orals, but I tend to write from an androgynist point of view rather than say I am one or the other. I feel very comfortable with androgyny. I wrote a novella that won the Faulkner Award, from the point of view of an eighteen-year old male dairy farmer, and I got a lot of comments from reviewers that they couldn't believe a woman had written this. I feel perfectly comfortable writing from either a man's or a woman's point of view."
B.W.: "Do you think there is something about being a woman that made you able to see into Kate in ways, perhaps, that a man wouldn't-whether any of the male writers could get as compassionately close to Kate's relationship to her body."
L.S.: "I think it would be more difficult for a man to understand the importance of female beauty and the nuances of Kate's physicality, her obsessive-compulsive relationship to everything, or the catastrophic psychic crash that occurs when she puts on too much weight and what it does to her ego. I think that's something that I can understand because I'm a woman and I was raised when it was important to be thin and maintain your attractiveness. Kate's confidence waxes and wanes depending on her sense of her body. She doesn't want to nurse her baby for fear her breasts will be distended. Eventually she disassociates herself from her ugly fat self and creates another entity with a different name, Ramona Moon. I think it would be harder for men to understand how incredibly sick you can become."
B.W.: "And I don't think they do. That is something very original in your vision. Are you finding a difference in how men and women react to Kate?"
L.S.: "Good readers of the text, not deconstructionists, really understand and empathize with Kate. The people who have had trouble with her are men, because she violates all those iconic things-mother, wife, girlfriend. She's independent. There are things I like about Kate Reily: her independence, her resourcefulness, and her stoic sense of sticking it out."
B.W.: "I felt compassion through most of the book but there were places when I lost it, for instance when she leaves her boy asleep in the car with the motor on. I just couldn't stand it. I thought, no, that's really too much, you just can't do that. Or when she left her other child in that horrible school with the nuns, taking him away from a couple who really loved him and wanted to adopt him. That seemed so purely vindictive."
L.S. "She's so narcissistic she can't stand to be made to feel like some sort of shabby creature. And that's what the loving couple make her feel."
B.W. "The astonishing feat was making us want to go on reading, to hear what happens next. And I think what does it is the strength of your prose. There is a wonderful sort of rhythmic enfolding so you're like this mother, this strong powerful woman holding the reader while she hears about these terrible things. Because if you weren't there, if there was a different style, a more transparent style, you couldn't carry the weight of Kate's personality or its complexities. So that's another really original thing about your book".
L.S."Oh. thank you. I'd like to say I do think it's original. I've never read anything like this."
B.W."One of your reviewers said it was refreshing to find a heroine as ruthless as the protagonists of some of the male novels. But I disagree. Kate doesn't go about things that way: it's need and weakness and desperation, and I think you showed that really well."
L.S.: "At one point when Kate is taking her five-year-old boy from the couple, she tells him, ‘You don't understand I'm alone in the world. I have no one,' and of course she is telling this to a child who has no one, but she is so blinded by her own neediness that she can't even see that her own child is being abandoned as she's doing it."
B.W.: "Did your own mother do any of these things?"
L.S.: " Well, my brother and I were illegitimate twins and the doctor begged her to give us up for adoption, but she wouldn't. She kept hoping my father would marry her and make a family. So she first put us in foster care with a couple like the one in the book and then in an orphanage for three years, and then we moved down to the Bay Area and were in public schools and then in boarding schools."
B.W.: "That sounds awful, and look how well you turned out!"
L.S.: "I have a very sunny disposition. My brother didn't fare so well."
B.W.: "One last question. At the end Kate is trying to have some sort of spiritual reclamation after the damage she has done but it seems to me that she can't do it. And I wonder how you arrived at the ending."
L.S."I wanted her children to be like a Greek chorus, her three surviving children partly because they represent the future, including the ‘she-child' Marie, who gets the last word and in some way summarizes her mother's predicament."
B.W."The whole thing is just a stunning achievement. And what is so satisfying, because I've known you since your first novel came out, is that you have absolute integrity, never compromising and publishing with small presses, and now this book, published by the University of Nebraska, has just catapulted you to a new level."
She laughs. "Well, I know I'm not going to make much money, so I may as well do what I want to do."
–Brenda Webster is a freelance writer, critic and translator and the current president of PEN West. Webster has written two controversial and oft-anthologized critical studies, Yeats: A Psychoanalytic Study (Stanford) and Blake's Prophetic Psychology (Macmillan), and translated poetry from the Italian for The Other Voice (Norton) and The Penguin Book of Women Poets. She is co-editor of the journals of the abstract expressionist painter (and Webster's mother) Ethel Schwabacher, Hungry for Light: The Journal of Ethel Schwabacher (Indiana 1993). She is the author of three novels, Sins of the Mothers (Baskerville 1993), Paradise Farm (SUNY, 1999), The Beheading Game (Wings 2006) and a memoir, The Last Good Freudian (Holmes and Meier, 2000). The Modern Language Association recently published Webster's translation of Edith Bruck's Holocaust novel Lettera alla Madre. Her forthcoming novel, Vienna Triangle is about Freud's role in the tragic death of Freud's most brilliant disciple.
Causes Brenda Webster Supports
Doctors Without Borders
The Nature Conservancy
Women Support Women