I met Margo Steines in an online writing course she was teaching on the braided essay. She was smart and gentle and extremely professional. I knew nothing about her when I signed up. Over the course of the class, I learned she had struggled with a chronic, hard to diagnosis illness, infertility, and exercise addiction. At one point she mentioned sex work, drug use, and MMA fighting. She told us New York City was her hometown, Hawaii was a former home, and the desert was her current landing spot. Just like a book with a great hook—I wanted to know how, where, who, and whaaattttt? I dove into her debut essay collection, Brutalities: A Love Story, and didn’t put it down.
We’re the same age, and we were both teens in the late 90s. I was a party kid, and I could really relate to some of Steines stories. I carried around a whole lot of shame, and a whole lot of questioning—why didn’t I do jazz band instead of hard drugs? Like Steines, those problems followed me well into my twenties, and regardless of your vices, it was so easy to relate to her search for peace and respect as a young woman. She seeks out violence, and violence finds her, and we learn a lot from her exploration. But her writing is never heavy-handed. Instead, she displays the complexity of violence through carefully crafted essays using juxtaposition, immersive reporting, cultural criticism, and self-exploration.
She describes the difficulty of being an ironworker in New York, and then in Hawaii, in an almost exclusively male industry. She literally tries to remove any trace of femininity to earn respect. I felt seen. When I was a young attorney, I walked around in baggy, shapeless suits so that people would see me as a boring lawyer, not a young woman. Along with being labeled incompetent by my age and sex, I was also carrying around the ‘secret’ of being a screw-up. (Is everyone?!) I honestly didn’t know exactly when I would be able to shed that screw-up part of me, reckon with it, or most importantly write it with true vulnerability—but reading Steines collection has me a hell of a lot closer.
It’s a love story, but not the kind we’re used to. Steines is giving her whole self, and finding love, in a life where there was a lot of pain, a lot of hustles, and a lot of violence. T She is radiating peace and calm, or at least a continuing quest for them, and diving into some of the most difficult topics. The essays pull on various threads of violence, control, destruction, carelessness, and move so easily between topics.
I felt safe in the control of Steines narration. Just as important, I felt as though Steines younger-self was safe in the caring, loving, incredibly talented hands of her older, bad-ass writer self. Through this whole journey of a collection, I was reminded how hard it is to love yourself, how much time I’ve spent trying to figure it out, and how truly enlightening, wild, and hopeful it can be to watch someone else do it.
I spoke to Steines over the phone in the middle of September while she was waiting for copies of her book to arrive.
M.D. McIntyre: The seed of an essay or collection is something that really interests me. Sometimes memoirs or essays come from a prolonged experience, sometimes they come from something more acute. When did you start this project and when did you realize it was going to be this collection?
Margo Steines: Two answers really: I have been working on some of this material for close to ten years, but not all of it is that old. Some of it started in a very different form. I wrote the bulk of the book in the three years before I sold it. It was about a long-drawn-out period of very messy ways of living. Meeting my partner was a catalyst for putting a lid on that part of my past and seeing the past differently. I think it was the first time I had enough perspective on it to really write it in the way that I wanted to.
MDM: That is so interesting that you used the word messy because it felt like that was a contrast that was really highlighted in the book. Your writing is so precise, it feels clean and focused. Really trimmed down, so that each word feels very exact. There’s a scene in the opening of the book where you have white décor in the small apartment you are renting, and you keep it really clean. I think that sets a tone for the book. This story includes substance abuse, eating disorders, all kinds of violence, sex work, motherhood, love, and so many other messy topics. It feels important, like you had to get to a place where you could organize and contain things because the story you were telling, or maybe some of the years of your life, some of the scenes in the book were literally messy. How did you trim and focus the narrative for such messy subjects?
MS: That’s why I wanted to write essays and not a narrative memoir, because to write everything together felt messy on a craft level. The lived experience of all those things was messy, and everything was layered together, those experiences didn’t happen to me separately, it was all like bad soup. I wanted to pull them apart and understand them as separate phenomena and give them some light on their own.
I’ve gotten feedback like “your sentences are too long and complicated”, or alternatively, that they are too short. But I didn’t want to adjust my voice for every reader. The more complicated the material, either emotionally or cognitively, the more the writing needs to be direct. And this material was emotionally complicated.
MDM: I really loved the style of writing. I thought about my own youth when I read the book, all the things I would rather not write about—those vulnerable moments, a lot of bad choices. It feels like your book could have been five hundred pages or twice that long. Did you write a lot more than what we see in this collection?
MS: Yes, so the actual answer to that question is that I had a manuscript I had written five or eight years prior. I worked on it for a long time, and I had it out on submission, but it didn’t sell. I think that’s the stuff I needed to write to arrive at this book. I had to write all of that to be able to understand certain things about the experiences of my younger life. But I needed time to be able to reflect as a narrator on some of the experiences.
Even with this book as it is now, there was a ton of stuff that got cut from the essays. Some of the people, some of my experiences. I asked of the work, “What is this doing?” Sometimes the answer was “It’s just a cool story.” In the end, that stuff had to go.
MDM: As a teacher, do you have advice for writers who are having trouble setting boundaries for their narrative? Some memoirists wonder if there’s enough, but then some have too much—it feels like your partner and starting a family with him really helped you focus this narrative.
MS: I see it less as a boundary and more as a frame. I learned a lot about how to frame the essay during my MFA. I could write memoir on instinct before that, but it wasn’t until I got a formal education and read a lot more widely that I understood the responsibility of the essay to create a frame for the reader. I learned it isn’t just: these things happened; this is what I think about them. In an essay it is about intentionally creating the scope of what I want to consider.
MDM: It definitely felt like your present-day story, and your love story with your partner, was framing the view you took looking back to your past. The love you have for your partner also gave the book a feeling of hopefulness even when the essays got very dark and difficult for the narrator. Where in the process did you see a structure emerge for what you were writing?
MS: Fairly late in the process. I already had three quarters of the essays written before I decided to write that throughline. I had been writing a straight essay collection, but I wanted the essays to speak to each other and have some connective tissue. I hadn’t seen a model doing exactly what I wanted to do. At the same time, I was in quarantine during the beginning of the COVID lockdown, and losing my mind a little bit and trying to understand what was happening to me mentally and physically during my pregnancy. Writing during that time was a daily practice, and then it dawned on me that this was connecting the subject and the narrator to each essay, that present tense voice brings up embodiment and claustrophobia in the body and sweeps together so many threads in the book.
MDM: You subtitle tells us it’s a love story before we even get started. When did you know it was a love story?
MS: The subtitle refers to a few different things. The love with my partner is the most obvious interpretation, but it is first really about love for myself, and for my body, and in some embedded way, my love for my child.
MDM: Definitely, reading the book I really felt the love in the story was the narrator seeing her whole self and loving all of herself.
MS: Yes, for sure. I don’t want to be coming out like “I was healed by a man,” because that’s not what happened. I found a gentle, equitable, respectful love, but I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I hadn’t changed my relationship with myself. Then, being able to get pregnant after so many years of not being able to, it really grew all those loves.
MDM: This book feels very fresh, very contemporary. The essays that read together like a memoir with writing that is both incredibly vulnerable but also feels like an examination of the culture and world we are living in. Do you have some books or authors that you think exemplify the style of essay, either ones you return to for your own writing or maybe a favorite one to teach?
MS: I’ve been reading Melissa Febos forever, and she’s a dear friend of mine, and also the person on the page I respect and look up to the most, so there’s always an echo of her mentorship in my work. There are a lot of writers who are doing what I do in this book—they are the subject, but also the lens, which is to me the most interesting way to approach the essay. Emily Maloney is an essayist I really admire. Kristin Dombek, I always teach one of her essays and think she’s amazing. Reading my cohort’s work in my MFA program was also really impactful on my writing.
MDM: The University of Arizona is where you went for your MFA?
MS: Yes. It makes me laugh because I always sound like a spokesperson for their program. I just had a really great experience there and it helped me grow so much as a writer. Another person who helped my writing grow is Ted Conover. When I started reading his work, I was like, oh, you can just go somewhere and do some shit with people and then write about it. It was so freeing, especially as a researcher, and that freedom has really impacted my writing.
MDM: Did you always know you were going to include cultural criticism and immersive reporting in this collection?
MS: I started writing some of the essays before I knew they were going to be a book. I was interested in the scope of the essay and what various forms there were. I didn’t yet know how to write a book-length work yet when I started writing all these essays.
MDM: Right, and you said you couldn’t find a model for what you wanted to do.
MS: Exactly, things were close, but I wanted to do something slightly different than what I was reading. I read so much through my MFA and after, I couldn’t list everything. But one person I must mention is Leslie Jamison. I have been an obsessive fan of her work. Her reporting and her memoir writing in her essays, and the way she has different modes of writing in her collections really gave me permission to feel like I could include all those different forms of essay writing. I also got from her the idea that you can be obsessed with something and that’s a good enough reason to write about it
MDM: I’m interested in the process you had for getting this book written and edited. I have a 3-month-old right now, and I am curious how you got this book done with a baby. I feel like some of my favorite books were written by writers who had a little one at home, but it feels sort of impossible to me right now. How did that newborn phase influence the book?
MS: The baby’s due date was my deadline for the book. I wanted to have the whole book drafted and I did get it done. Then I sold it a year later, which was easier. The edits were hard, but my baby was a little older and my partner split the work of caring for our child with me. I felt like my brain changed after I had a baby, and I don’t know if everyone’s does, but mine sure did. There was some thinking I couldn’t access in the same way, and that was distressing. Then it felt like there was some new thinking that I hadn’t done before, and that was exciting.
MDM: That totally checks out for me, I feel like I had the same experience, it’s totally wild.
MS: Basically, I had the biggest change that could happen to a person happen at the time when I was writing and editing the book. I had a real sense of urgency because I didn’t know what it would look like. I didn’t know if I would be able to write afterwards, both in terms of time, but also what the landscape of parenthood would look like. I needed to get this out of me before all this change happened.
MDM: I have two female friends who have gotten into sparing and MMA fighting as part of exercise and sports journeys to really push their bodies physically. I felt like your examination of violence between men provides a rich contrast to the physical violence between men and women in the book. You really highlight the messiness of consent and the psychological impact of violence depending on the context it occurs in. It feels like that thread was a major driving force for you in writing the book, do you feel like you still have more to explore there?
MS: It’s still fascinating to me, it’s definitely not a closed chapter. The part that was exciting about the time I was researching was that I got to access a level of expertise and talk to these men—my partner N and the fighter Josh, who is in the book—and they are both incredibly articulate and have thought a lot about the meaning of what they do. I had a lot of access to the MMA world. There is a lot as a spectator you get wrong, a lot of assumptions, and I was able to learn so much from that access.
MDM: I loved the way you handled setting throughout the collection. It felt like an economic use of words, often just a pithy sentence or two. But you were always building place in each of the different settings. I especially loved that each essay in Tucson starts with the temperature outside.
MS: I wanted to specifically ground the memoir in a highly sensory way, and highlight the present space for the reader, so those are written in present tense, versus the past tense in the other writing in the book. But also, my pregnancy was happening with lockdown and COVID, triple degree temperatures, monsoons, and this isn’t even in the book, but on top of all that the mountains around us were on fire. All of that was contributing to this acute sense of the walls closing in, sort of literally and metaphorically. Meanwhile I’m giant and my skin is stretching and so it was an expression of how hyperbolic everything had become.
MDM: There were all these extremes in the world you were living in.
MS: Yeah, and I chose to live there so it felt like another choice I made to be in a space of intensity.
MDM: Any other great books you have been reading lately?
MS: Yes, I got anxious about my book launch coming up next month and I’ve been reading to deal with my anxiety. Since I had my kid, reading time has been scarce, but in the last two weeks I’ve read a ton. I read Ted Conover’s book, Cheap Land Colorado: Off-Gridders at America’s Edge, which was great. I read Heather Radke’s Butts, which I loved. Also, Emily Ratajkowski’s My Body, which was so good. I’ve been teaching one of the essays from it for a long time but hadn’t been able to sit down and read the whole thing. I feel like it was in conversation with my essay collection in cool way too.
Right now I’m reading Catherine Cho’s memoir Inferno: A Memoir of Motherhood and Madness about postpartum psychosis. So you know, just some light reading! Next up after that I have Claire Dederer’s book Monsters: A Fans Dilemma sitting on my desk.
MDM: That’s great. I love having a new reading list.
MS: I don’t want to make it sound like I normally read five books a week, because I feel like I have read five books a year since my kid was born.
Margo Steines holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Arizona, where she teaches writing. Her work has appeared in the New York Times (Modern Love), the Sun, and elsewhere. A native New Yorker, she lives in Tucson, Arizona.