Q&A: Darcey Steinke Loves Cher 'So Much'... Really

by Claire Luchette

Adolescent girlhood: it's fodder for good fiction. Jesse, the protagonist of Darcey Steinke's Sister Golden Hair (Tin House), is just beginning her foray into adolescence when we meet her; she's 12 in the book's opening pages, an age that Steinke writes as almost the stuff of sci-fi, in that all of a sudden things get very unfamiliar.

Sister is Steinke's beautifully written chronicle of girlhood in the '70s, a time when things were changing, albeit slowly, for women in America. It's a lush depiction of the decade, complete with fully interwoven details about the music, fashion, and politics of the era, but from the earnest and honest eyes of a curious teenaged girl. Steinke paints a lovely, complete picture of Jesse's world, and crafts a totally honest account of what it's like to grow up. The intimacy with which we know Jesse never overshadows the sense Steinke provides of the goings-on of the world. She remarks, "Nixon had resigned and I'd gotten my period, but not much else had changed besides my bra size." As Jesse grows up, so does the nation.

Over drinks in Brooklyn, Steinke discussed this, her fifth novel, as well as girlhood and the positive traps for women.

BUSTLE: This is the first novel of '70s girlhood I've read and can really think of as an encapsulating narrative. Did you feel you were filling a void in writing this?

DARCEY STEINKE: I did not think of this. But I guess you are right; there is not much on '70s girlhood written now. We had Judy Bloom in the '70s, but looking back not so much. I do think the way one became a woman in that time was unique, as the whole idea of what a women was was changing and growing and moving and so there were so many shifting ideas about gender and what was right or possible for a girl. That's what drew me to the time.

What about the '70s did you want to convey?

I've always wanted to write about the '70s because I feel like ... the '70s were really fraught, but usually when you see the '70s it seems like a really happy time, very goofy and silly. But that wasn't my experience. It was an interesting time, very complicated, but very dark, too. I really wanted to replicate the tone of the '70s that I experienced.

Usually when you see the '70s it seems like a really happy time, very goofy and silly. But that wasn't my experience.

I lived in a place kind of like [Jesse's town]. The '70s were a time when a lot of the ideas from the '60s were finally getting to the suburbs, so feminism, personal freedom, open society — when those got to the family unit, it was complicated, because a lot of the times a parent's individual desire went against the family's best interest. So a lot of families broke up.

I saw a lot of women who didn't expect to go out and work have to get their shit together. It really inspired me. Even as a little girl, I remember being 4, 5, and 6 and looking at women who had to go to nursing school and get a job — she would have to be the head of the family. It was like protofeminism, in a way, really grassroots. Really seeing these women have agency and try to move forward in a positive way — that was very exciting to me as a little girl, and really the first pocket of that kind of female excitement. And I saw it in the '70s. So partly the whole book is based around the idea of female relationships and what, as a young girl, you learn from other women.

So the title comes from the America song, but throughout, Jesse is so obsessed with Cher.

Oh, I love Cher so much. It's funny because at the [book launch party] I didn't realize, but they were tweeting stuff, and I don't even remember saying these things, but one of the things they tweeted was, "Bowie to me was like another Apostle," and the other was that "My love for Cher is so deep, I don't think I can talk about it in public." Which really surprised me! I really, really love Cher.

If you worship a crappy idol like maybe the Kardashians, I feel that draws energy off you.

What would you say to her, if you could?

Believe me, I've tried. When the book came out, I totally thought I'd get to meet her and talk to her. I had a few proposals out, and stuff, but people were very uninterested in writing about Cher. I think there's not a lot of general cultural interest in Cher. I think if a magazine wrote about Cher now, it'd be strange in a way. I think ... Cher's been famous for so long, that she drags everyone, and from the '60s until now you could have had a Cher period.

Jesse has a more mutually respectful relationship with Jill; then she worships Sheila, but Sheila ignores her at school. Why do you think girls turn to idolizing other women?

I think the idea of the Goddesses never really goes away, whether its Cher or some writer I love like Elieen Myles. I think she is a goddess actually. It's important to worship; when you worship God or a good life-giving presence, energy comes back to you, so that feels really good. But if you worship a crappy idol like maybe the Kardashians, I feel that draws energy off you.

It struck me how womanhood wasn't something Jesse sought to learn, but she was kind of forced to deal with based on what she saw and observed.

Yes. We're taught certain things, especially in looking at our mothers. The mother in the book, and my own mother to a certain extent, weren't very happy in their marriages, but they put a lot of pressure on you to get married. It's weird stuff like that: You get a lot of information, but you have to learn for yourself, experientially, what you want to get out of life.

You get a lot of information, but you have to learn for yourself, experientially, what you want to get out of life.

You hear about broken families and that sadness, but you don't get to hear about these women who are kind of culturally shamed, who then have boyfriends and have to find jobs. But my experience was sheer admiration for the guts I saw that it took to make their lives happen. I always wanted to write about that.

What do you think was true about girlhood in the '70s that's still true today?

I have an 18-year-old daughter, and she was definitely another part of the book, because she was the same age as Jesse as I was writing it. Definitely some of the basics of bodies changing and the awkwardness of it, and the pure sci-fi-ness of it — you're becoming this other thing, with breasts and hair — that reminded me of my own experience growing up. I wasn't too thrilled to have it happen. Culturaly — it's basically patriarchy's thing — there's this idea that girls love to become women. But that was not my experience. I was very trepidatious and had a strong sense I was going to lose a lot of freedom. My daughter was kind of mixed about it. I think the base body stuff is the same: there's awkwardness and anxiety about it.

I definitely felt pressured to look girly and be girly, which is a lot different now.

But I do think, since we didn't live in the south, my daughter didn't have a tremendous amount of gender pressure. I definitely felt pressured to look girly and be girly, which is a lot different now. My daughter had so many more options. She's a rock drummer in a band, and it was always clear that she was doing girl stuff, but she was always representing herself rather than going for a model of girlhood. That's nice to see. Probably the time and having me as a mom and having her groovy little peer group has helped.

My guess is that there's still a lot of uncertainty and confusion, and I'd like to think it's better everywhere, certainly in urban areas. The problem when you're in a small place is that dating becomes the only real activity. The main thing to do was to try and be on dates. So that sucked, and that's bad. If everything you have to look forward to relies on someone thinking you're attractive — that sucks. My daughter didn't go on a lot of dates, but went on a lot of friend outings, to clubs in Bushwick or meals in Chinatown. She didn't have to wait for anyone to call her. I think that system sucks. People talk a lot about hookup culture, and I don't think there's anything wrong with that. Anything that doesn't involve waiting for someone to call you — people romanticize that, but I don't see anything romantic in that. For one thing, it excludes so many people who aren't going to be called up and chosen, and you always have to do what the boys want to do. Is it so terrible that there's less dating? I would say no.

I agree, and I think my favorite part about Jesse was how she defined herself in relation to other women, not the men who pursued her. There is the small part devoted to Dwayne, the boy at her school...

Yeah, I was going to ignore him altogether, and just break the book up into sections devoted to women, but I had already created him, and he's such a good character.

I think the book is about different traps for girls, and that kind of boy is one of the traps for girls. The glamour of movies, the obsession with the body, but also a guy like that, those are all traps for girls.

Are there positive traps for girls?

In the book, I think friendship is the main thing. Her relationship with Jill is so lovely. I think female friendship is so nourishing.

In ways that romantic relationships can't really be.

Right, and there's so much joy in it, and so much fun. I think that's a good trap.

I think building your interior life is a great thing. Reading, writing. My daughter has built a great interior life — of course, I'm on the outside of it — through journaling, making art, reading, watching movies. Seeing her cultivate her interior life has been very cool. It doesn't just happen, you have to go out and pursue it. It's nourishing, in a way, too ... If you have a fascination, there's a reason that's coming to you, and you should try to figure it out.

And that stuff is cool in the book, too. The less cool stuff is her family, especially her mother, and the gender issues of the day, what's expected of girls' behavior. And then the church stuff, too, and what happens when you leave the church for the secular world. I think that's something the book tries to tackle. It's true in the book and true of people in general. A lot of people start with a solid idea of religion and then go to a place that's more uncertain, and that's great in a way, but there's so much uncertainty.

You were raised by a pastor.

Yeah, he's still working, he's the chaplain at Bellevue Medical Center. He's 80! Every few years he'll decide to retire, and then he changes his mind.

I just learned there are more women in retirement homes than men, because men don't want to give up their homes.

It's interesting because — when I interviewed my parents for my memoir [Easter Everywhere], what came through is that my mother's memories are defined by, like, that was the year you all had chicken pox, or, that was a tough year for your brother. It was all based on domestic things. But with my dad, it was all based on the stages of his career. It wasn't like he was selfish or mean, it's just that's how he defined himself. His various jobs, the places he's worked, when he was happy with his work, when he wasn't — those are the things that move him through time.

What was your relationship like with theology?

I don't think I thought about it as much as I have Jesse think about it. I think more about it now. I was definitely interested in things that were beautiful and interesting, and I definitely had a sense of grace, and beauty. But I don't think I thought much about God. In the church itself, it was just the way it was; you sang, said the prayers. But once my dad left and became a chaplain and we moved out, our whole family became more secular. I probably tried to distance myself from it a little bit.

Image: Jenny Gorman