Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Living Up To Expectations

By Leonard Gill

MARCH 1, 1999:  Go through back issues of The New Yorker and you’ll find that the issue that introduced Tina Brown as editor-in-chief of that magazine was the same issue that brought us Darcey Steinke in a black cat-suit. The occasion for the caricature? A none-too-kind review of Steinke’s sexy second novel, Suicide Blonde, but how times do change. Whereas Brown the ex-editor seems to have dropped off the face of the Earth, Suicide Blonde went on to be translated into seven languages, a follow-up novel, Jesus Saves, was voted a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and the University of Mississippi got its wish and got Darcey Steinke as this year’s writer-in-residence.

This month marks the paperback publication of Jesus Saves (Grove Press) and a broad collection of essays by contemporary writers on the subject of religion called Joyful Noise: The New Testament Revisited (Back Bay Books), which Steinke coedited with her friend Rick Moody. When I talked to Steinke from her home in Oxford, she had this to say on the writing life, the teaching life, and the stuff of little-girl dreams.

Flyer: I know nothing about your background, your career as writer. What got you started?

Steinke: Well, I was born in Roanoke, Virginia, and my dad was a minister. So we moved around a lot, a few years here, a few years there. But I grew up with a bad, debilitating stutter. I would get really discombobulated and I’d have to write requests and stuff on little pieces of paper. That was the beginning of everything, because there were times when I really couldn’t talk. I wanted to be fluent and I couldn’t do it orally, so I started to write. Short stories mostly, when I was 7, 8, or 9. I would rewrite them and bind them with yarn, make construction-paper covers for them. I was serious about it. Very serious.

What brought you to the University of Mississippi?

There’d been a really nasty review of Suicide Blonde in The New Yorker, in Tina Brown’s first issue. The tone of the whole magazine was sort of cynical, but [writer and Ole Miss faculty member] Barry Hannah wrote or called, I can’t remember which, and he’d read the book and thought the magazine had been cruel. He liked the book a lot and said “people up there take magazines too seriously, but we down here don’t really care.” And it’s true. In New York, you get sort of obsessed with high-end media junk, and you feel shamed. …

Have you been surprised by the critical reaction to Jesus Saves, a book as lyrical in expression as it is dark in subject matter?

I sort of thought there’d be a certain hesitancy to the subject matter. There’s some resistance, in what’s considered a “literary novel,” to subject matter and a style that’s “florid.” But I tend to like that. You know, I was raised on the Bible, and there’s nothing more florid than the Bible.

From your own essay in Joyful Noise, it’s clear many of the details in Jesus Saves – the safety young girls seek in storybook, mythological characters, the world as dangerous place, the coexistence of good and evil – you lift directly from your own experiences and perceptions growing up. Are you always so autobiographical in your novels?

I really can’t get away from writing novels about ministers’ daughters. But just because a character is a minister’s daughter doesn’t mean it’s me. The position itself is so interesting. For one thing, you have a fairly classical education, a sort of old-style education...

And you grow up knowing you’re being closely watched.

Yes. But that gives you a jump-start on how everybody’s starting to feel now. The whole postmodern idea that you’re always on camera. I’ve always been fascinated with that. And too, you’re supposed to be good. But there’s this tremendous impulse to be naughty.

Have you – been naughty?

I was pretty much a good girl. But I had my periods. When I first got to New York, I had my Ecstasy-taking, club-hopping for a year or two. On the whole, I was pretty well-behaved, actually.

What’s been your father’s reaction to a book as sexually explicit as Jesus Saves?

Well, he reads all my books, but sometimes I think it’s hard for him. When he gets to the sexy parts, he tends to read down the page really quick. He can’t take it. I think he’s a pretty good sport, though.

In that book, a Lutheran minister loses his congregation, his pot-smoking daughter is girlfriend to a boy obsessed with “the devil’s physical manifestation in this world,” and a girl named Sandy Patrick (the only character in the novel graced with both a first and last name) is abducted, held in ropes, and raped over the course of several months by a man more resembling a troll. Can Jesus be said to save any of these characters? Or is “Jesus Saves” one more roadside sign littering a denatured, suburban landscape?

I wanted to think Sandy Patrick was saved in her own way. That was conscientiously done. A person in that situation would be hard to “save” in a clichéd, fundamentalist, born-again way, or even in some more traditional, Christian way. I figured there would be an inner working towards something based on the mythological characters from Sandy’s childhood.

Why then should a mythological creature – the unicorn out of Sandy’s storybooks and daydreams – be the very one to confess to bringing a figure as monstrous as the “troll” into her life? In Sandy’s storybook reality, that reality betrays her, doesn’t save her.

I don’t know if I can address that directly. But all the pink kitty cats and yellow ducklings and that sort of thing – stuff that I was really fascinated with as a kid … Unicorns and talking bears … My stuffed animals all had names. But they always seemed sort of sinister in a way as well. Nobody is very interested in talking about that. The stuff for little girls. If you walk into Wal-Mart, there’s a whole aisle of it. But it has a dark undercurrent to it. And it’s this idea of being set up … I feel that’s very dangerous. To be set up the way girls are set up to be princesses. It’s a built-in failure. The way people build the expectations of little girls. The way you look, the way you’re going to be able to trade off on your manners, your politeness. You’re going to have this wonderful world, this adult happiness, this romantic love.

You also write in Joyful Noise that “Jesus is at his most powerful when he is completely vulnerable.” And in Jesus Saves, the minister-father implicates his congregation in the crime committed against Sandy. His daughter, Ginger, takes his sermon to heart and finds herself attempting the rescue of yet another abducted girl. Vulnerable these characters may be, but they’re at their most powerful during their moments of greatest empathy.

And that’s what I’m most interested in – empathy, and how Christianity is really good for encouraging it. I’m not very interested in anything else as far as traditional Christian things go.

But Jesus Saves. It’s a strange book, isn’t it? It’s got this new cover, and I thought, I’ll read it again. And I did and came away thinking, gosh, what a strange book you’ve written.

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