Monday, October 9, 2023

TBR: Brutalities by Margo Steines

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe. 


Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?


My book is about the roughest things I’ve done to and with my body. It’s also about the nature of pain, and about masculinity and power, all of which is explored through my past experiences with various forms of violence and extremity: weird sex, compulsive athletics, farming for people who are not farmers, fighting in cages, sex work, interpersonal violence, chronic illness, pregnancy. Together, they describe an interface of roughness and tenderness, and a complicated sort of triumph over the desire to suffer.



Which “character” did you most enjoy creating? Why? And which “character” gave you the most trouble, and why?


That’s a hard question, because it’s nonfiction, so I didn’t create any characters per se. But if you’re asking which human person I most enjoyed rendering in two dimensions on the page, it would definitely be my boyfriend, N. The era of our lives that the book covers was such a magical and tender and special time for us, and he really represented a fundamentally new way to connect with a person, for me. And he is such a specific and impressive person, so bringing all of his highly idiosyncratic practices and ways of being to the page was really a delight, a chance to share with the reader this person that I am so delighted by.


In terms of the second question I suppose it would be my ex, who is named Dean in the book. I had to do a lot of grappling with how I wanted to present him—I don’t think he is an evil person, and I wish him no harm, but also he harmed me deeply and irrevocably and, in many cases, intentionally. So there was no way to write him truthfully without including some of the harms he caused, and I felt a strange sort of desire to protect him from those truths. Which probably is a topic for therapy, but you asked. On a craft level, though, working to show nuance—to say, this is not a terrible person, this is a person who treated me terribly—felt like the biggest ask of the book, and arguably one of the most important ones.


Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.


Well I did not get to purchase the vintage lifted Bronco that I had been hoping to squander my advance on, so I guess that’s a low? I don’t know, I’ve had a pretty great experience so far and the team of people working on the book, from my editor to my publicists, have been amazing. Working with my agent has definitely been a high—he has been such a steady source of guidance and good taste from day one and I really trust his sense of care for the book. Writing a book is such a lonely and self-oriented thing, especially a book about yourself, that having an ally like that really feels very good. I think now I’m in a place where I’m kind of bracing for the publicness of it all, and that’s obviously what I wanted—to be read, to be perceived, to reach people—but also it is fundamentally horrifying that I don’t get to choose WHICH people, you know?


What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?


I gotta give this one to “write how you talk.”


My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?


I was really surprised by how little I felt during the actual writing process. I write heavily about trauma, really painful shit that was devastating in the living and which people always imagine is like a tearfest to sit down and write about. And I just felt...nothing. And then later, after I had done most of my editing and the book felt like something that was now separate from me (I’ve birthed an actual child so I don’t really get into the book-birthing metaphors, but you get my drift), something in me just cracked. The idea of everything I have been through, everything I’ve put myself through, just suddenly felt so real and sad. I don’t know if it was the accumulation of it all, or that it felt separate from me for the first time, or maybe that I’m a parent now and I wasn’t when I started writing it, but I just felt so desperately sad over all the lost time, all the suffering, and a real sense of grief, of sadness and tenderness and care for my young self, settled around me. And that didn’t feel good, but it did feel sort of commensurate with the experiences.


How did you find the title of your book?


It’s the title of two of the essays in the book, and I’ve had the title rattling around my head for almost ten years. It came to me while I was sleeping and I can totally still remember waking up and being like, this is the name of a thing I have to make. Which is....not an experience I have a lot. Usually I write something and either pull a title from a line, or just sort of land on one. I’ve never just had it come to me like this. And so I gave it to an essay (which later became two essays in a split series), but it always felt like it was a bigger title than just the essay. And then I forgot about it and I was struggling to title the book—I had a working title that was okay, but I kept feeling embarrassed when I said it out loud, which didn’t feel like a good sign—until I remembered that moment waking up with the title just sitting in my mind.












DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.