Rene Steinke’s first novel, The Fires, was published by William Morrow
in 1999, and the paperback version was published last year by
HarperPerrenial. The novel was selected in 1999 by The Austin
Chronicles as one of the best books of that year, and film rights to
the novel have been optioned by Madonna ‘s production company, in
partnership with Handprint Entertainment.
Steinke, an editor at The Literary Review, teaches literature and
creative writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, New
Jersey, where she is an Associate Professor. She is currently at work
on her second novel, Holy Skirts.
Born in Richmond, Virginia, Steinke grew up in Friendswood, Texas. She
received an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Virginia,
and her PhD in English from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.
She has published poems and stories in TriQuarterly, Southern Poetry
Review, Cumberland Poetry Review, Sundog, and The Carolina Quarterly.
She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets prize and three
PSC-CUNY Research Foundation awards in creative writing.
Derek Alger: Your debut novel The Fires received very good reviews,
how did the book come about, what was its evolution?
Rene Steinke: I knew I wanted to set the novel in Valpariso, Indiana,
a small town I had come to know well, since I’d gone to college
there. When I first arrived from the south, I had an image of the
Midwest as this sort of clean, plain place, where people were
well-behaved and a little boring, the usual cliche. But after I lived
there for awhile, I began to notice strange characters lurking around
the edges of town, and I sometimes sensed a malevolent undertow in
things. I wanted to somehow capture that.
DA: And your feelings were right on target.
RS: They were and they weren’t. But I was interested in the darker
side of things. I discovered that in the 20s, the Ku Klux Klan had
almost bought the university I attended. There was also a famous case
of a black family being basically harassed out of town. And I learned
about a sort of legendary fire on the campus, in the administration
building. It was definitely a case of arson, but the identity of the
arsonist was a mystery. That’s where the character of Ella came from.
Although in the book, she doesn’t set that particular fire, I invented
her because I wondered about the fire in Kinsey Hall.
DA: Ella’s the main character in The Fires. Can you tell us about her?
RS: She’s a pretty, young woman from this small town, Porter, but she
lives in the hotel where she works as a desk clerk. Her family is
claustrophobically secretive, and no one will discuss the childhood
fire that scarred her body. It may sound strange, but she’s
promiscuous and she’s driven to set fires, partially because of the
silence in her family and partially because she needs to uncover the
secrets buried in herself. I should say that no one but her is put
directly in danger by the fires she sets.
DA: And your imagination was gripped by the real fire on campus and
then understanding Ella and what motivates her?
RS: I was fascinated with that particular instance of arson. I studied
cases of pyromania and read as much about fire as I could because I
wanted to tap into the universal fascination with it, the sort of
mesmerizing power of it. I looked for fire in poems, paintings, scenes
in novels, myths; I watched the movie Backdraft about five times. I’m
afraid of fire myself and have trouble lighting a pilot light on a
stove but I became obsessed with the appeal of setting fires
DA: So, research is important to you?
RS: Research is a ladder. One rung leads to another, and the higher
you climb, the more you have to make up, and you find more gaps, but I
like finding out things about what I’m writing. I’ve done a lot of
historical research for the novel I’m writing now, which is based on
the life of a proto-punk rock female artist, who lived in the 1910s
and 1920s in Greenwich Village. And for The Fires, some of the most
inspiring research came from reading a book about women in the Klan in
Indiana. That eventually became an important part of the story.
One of the interesting things that happened after I wrote The Fires
was that I discovered how much things I imagined blurred in facts.
Although Porter is based on Valpariso, I didn’t use the name of the
town, but the name of the county. Nonetheless, some of the places in
Porter are recognizable locations in Valpariso, the Big Wheel
Restaurant, Strongbow’s Restaurant, a paint tester site. Last year I
went back to Valpariso University to give a reading from The Fires. A
former professor of mine, Arlin Meyer, presented his review of the
novel at a regular forum held there. His teaching and friendship had
always been extremely important to me, so this was a nerve-wracking
experience. But I was moved by his generosity and attention to detail.
He had actually gone to each site in Valpariso that he’d found
fictionalized in the novel, comparing the actual sites to the
descriptions in the novel. As it turned out, he discovered two or
three actual places that I’d thought I’d invented and only existed in
the book. It shows that you know more than you think you know when
DA: One review of The Fires stated, “Hope is fragile in this darkly
compelling and beautifully written story.” Is it?
RS: Other writers might have been less dark. But it’s the way the
story came to me. Blunt, happy endings can seem so sinister and
artificial. The ending of The Fires is more open ended, which is the
way hope appears after a long, dark period anyway.
DA: Did you always know you were going to be a writer?
RS: From the time I was a girl, I knew that. My father was a Lutheran
minister, and I would see him write sermons, and see that people
reacted so strongly to what he’d said in them.
I think something about that experience made me want to write too; I
saw how much words mattered.
DA: You’re a versatile writer who uses both poetry and prose.
RS: I consider myself more of a novelist than a poet, but there are
several prose poem-like sections in The Fires. They’re sort of dreamy
meditations on fire and convey the more concealed side of Ella’s
psyche. I use a more private, interior voice in those sections.
I did begin writing as a poet, and some of the novelists I admire most
have a kind of poet sensibility in their playfulness with language.
DA: My logical next question is who?
RS: Michael Ondaatje is a wonderful poet and novelist, and there
aren’t many writers who do both as well. Anne Carson is a great
writer, who is always experimenting with form. Her Autobiography of
Red is a wonderful novel/poem. I also love Dos Passos’s USA, Virginia
Woolf, and Djuna Barnes.
DA: Do you have a special writing schedule?
RS: It’s hard, difficult, but I try to write early in the morning
every day, even if only for a couple hours. If I have to be somewhere
at eight, I get up at five and write. I can’t write well later in the
day. I do teach writing and sometimes that allows me to keep aesthetic
questions on my mind during the day. I also carry a notebook with me
to write down odds and ends and ideas as they come.
DA: You’re also an editor of a literary magazine.
RS: Part of my teaching position was to be senior editor of The
Literary Review. It’s a literary magazine with an international
audience and we publish two issues a year featuring the work of
writers from other countries or regions around the world. Our other
two issues feature writers from this country.
DA: How do you find the experience?
RS: Well, it’s the first time I’ve been in the thick of publishing a
literary magazine, though I’ve worked on other literary magazines
before. I read many, many submissions every month. It’s wonderful to
see that the literary world is so alive, but it can also be
overwhelming to read so many stories and poems. I try to look for a
distinct voice when I read submissions, but I get depressed when the
things I read start to sound the same.