The George Eliot of Friendswood

Celebrated author René Steinke discusses her novel, set in the small town where she grew up.

By Michael Hardy October 7, 2014

René Steinke: Friendswood
Oct 9 at 7
Brazos Bookstore
2421 Bissonnet St.

Author René Steinke grew up in Friendswood, the small town of 40,000 people about 30 minutes southeast of Houston, before leaving Texas to earn a BA at Valparaiso University and an MFA at the University of Virginia. Now living in Brooklyn, Steinke has written three novels—The Fires (1999), about a female pyromaniac in a small Indiana town; National Book Award finalist Holy Skirts (2005), based on the life of early-20th-century avant-garde artist Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven; and Friendswood, which was published in August and from which Steinke will read on Thursday night at Brazos Bookstore.

In Friendswood, Steinke portray her hometown as a closely interconnected community, bound by football and religion, whose placid surface hides many (sometimes literally) buried secrets—like the Brio Superfund site, created to clean up the environment devastation caused by the Brio Refining corporation, and whose contaminants are still not fully controlled. One of Steinke’s characters is a mother spurred by the death of her teenager daughter to fight for a more comprehensive cleanup of the site. Other characters include a 15-year-old girl trying to recover from a brutal sexual assault; a football player who was wrongly implicated in the assault; and a real estate agent suffering a mid-life crisis.

The novel has been reviewed by The New York Times, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times, which praised the book’s depiction of "a community divided between people who want to ignore unpleasant facts and the mavericks who insist on facing reality."

Houstonia: Other than your reading Thursday night, what are you planning to do while you’re in the Houston area?

Steinke: Well, I’m going to the homecoming game at my old high school [in Friendswood], and I’m sort of ridiculously excited. My friends in town are like, this is old hat, but I haven’t been to a high school football game in 25 years or something, so I’m really looking forward to it. Just sitting in the warm air and watching the ball go across the green. I really like the aesthetics of it. I was a huge football fan when I was a teenager. And it’ll be fun to see the homecoming queen crowned, and all of that. All of that sentimental stuff. And I’ll see a lot of old friends there as well.

Have you always wanted to write a novel about your hometown?

No, not really. My other two novels are very different from this one. And I think the reason I wanted to write about Friendswood was that I felt I finally had enough distance from the place to feel like I could write about it in a fictional way. My parents live in Texas and I go back two or three times a year, but I need to have a certain distance in order to imagine things in a fictional way. I live in Brooklyn now, and I’ve noticed that many people think of Texas in very general, broad terms. And I kept thinking that I know it in this different, more complicated way.

Your two previous novels were about a pyromaniac and an early 20th century avant-garde performance artist. Did you make a conscious decision that you wanted to make this novel more conventional, to set it in more traditional, Middlemarch-like novelistic territory?

It’s hard to tell where the ideas for novels come from. I think I was ready for a change after Holy Skirts, and its avant-garde settings, and I was ready for a new challenge. In some ways this book was more difficult because I was dealing with four main characters, and I had to figure out how to weave all the perspectives into a story that made sense. And I loved moving from the avant-garde world to the Texas idiom—that was a lot of fun. There’s such a great music to the way people talk in Texas. And although it seems very different from my other books, the one thread that’s very similar is that I always seem to have female characters who are sort of on the edge. Willa has visions that, although they’re very different, are related to Elsa’s artistic visions. Lee’s fearlessness is related to Elsa, and also her activism is related to both Elsa and Ella—the woman who sets fires in The Fires. So I think there are certain characters that I’m drawn to even though the surface details are different.

What do you think draws you to those edgy female characters?

There’s always an inherent drama, because the way they see the world is usually so different, so there’s always a conflict there. For me, a big part of the pleasure of writing fiction is trying to figure out the inner life of a person, trying to see how they perceive things in a very particular way. Those types of characters always have a very rich and vibrant way of seeing the world, even if it might seem crazy to others.

I read that one of the inspirations for the novel came when you visited Friendswood and learned about the Brio Superfund site, and how whole neighborhoods had been condemned.

I’d actually already started the novel when I went down there, and when I started it I was very interested in people’s ideas about the Rapture, and so many Americans feeling like we were in the end times. I would be on the airplane and see everyone reading those Left Behind novels. I really was trying to figure that out. And then I go to Friendswood and hear about this environmental disaster—in a way it’s like a mini-apocalypse. This entire neighborhood was bulldozed because people started getting sick. And I started to see a relationship between those two things. And also, when I was growing up in Friendswood, I loved it but I was very aware that we were right next to the oil industry. We rode our bikes into town through the oil fields. And quite a few of my classmates have died of brain tumors—six of them. Some of them died when they were in their 20s. There’s no way to prove it comes from the environment, there’s no way to say for sure, but I think there’s this anxiety. And by the way, I don’t just think it’s Friendswood that has this anxiety. I live near the Gowanus Canal [in Brooklyn], and who knows what’s happening to people’s health here? I think it’s a very contemporary fear—where can you feel safe? What’s really going on with your water? What’s really going on around us?

I’ve heard that people in Friendswood are responding very positively to the novel. I suppose there’s always a danger of alienating the people you grew up with when you write a book about your hometown.

I’ve been getting incredible notes from people. First of all, all of the characters are made up, so it’s not at all a roman à clef. I think people are responding to the fact that I tried to really portray these characters with empathy and complexity, and really tried to focus on their resilience as they try to get through hard times. There’s a certain amount of hometown pride. I also think a lot of people are really glad I’m telling the story about the Brio site. It’s funny, the first interview I did about the book down there, the local reporter said, “How did you get the idea for the industrial leak?” And I said, “That happened.” He had no idea. So I think there’s a certain segment of the population that’s totally forgotten about it, and the people who remember it are very happy that I’m telling the story and trying to start the conversation again. 

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