Darcey Steinke’s latest memoir Flash Count Diary: Menopause and the Vindication of Natural Life is a fearless look at the female body.
It probes societal’s stigma of menopause, combing through history, literature, and real-life experience. The book shatters the silence of the unspoken subject with brutal honesty while sharing intimate details and unique comparisons between woman and the killer whale. It is well-researched and inventive, challenging the readers to understand the ever-changing body and all its beauty.
Steinke is also the author of the memoir Easter Everywhere and the novels Milk, Jesus Saves, Suicide Blonde, Up Through the Water, and Sister Golden Hair. has taught at the Columbia University School of the Arts, Barnard, the American University of Paris, and Princeton. Carissa Chesanek, a writer based in New York, conducted this interview with Darcey Steinke.
Carissa Chesanek (Cagibi): What was your approach to writing Flash Count Diary? How was it different than your approach to your previous memoir Easter Everywhere and other works?
Darcey Steinke: It was definitely different because I did more research than I did with any of my other books. I always do research but for this I probably read about twenty books for every chapter. I would read the books and take a lot of notes. Once I had two or three notebooks filled with notes, I would get a feeling when it was right to stop reading and to start thinking of ideas. Then I would start writing and see if I could piece the things together. I would use some of the research, some of the quotes, but mostly my own experience. So yeah, it was very different. In the past when I’ve written novels, although I don’t know if I write my novels like this anymore either, I would be like, “Today I will write a new part and figure out what’s going forward.” But that’s not what I did for this book. I figured out what I wanted to say about it and then wrote different parts to see how they would fit together. Then I would draft. I always draft a millions times. For this book, I ended up drafting about twenty times and then it started to accrue. Eventually, I started moving the chapters around because I didn’t like the order I had written them. I thought they could work in a different way. I’ve wanted to write a book for a long time that had a lot of stuff in it and moved around in different locations and wasn’t trapped in that linear thing.
Cagibi: Speaking of moving your chapters around, how did you choose the sections and placements? What was the revision process like?
Steinke: I wrote the sections separately and rearranged them a little bit. The menopause conference in Amsterdam I had written fairly early and then put it in later. The thing I wrote about my mother had come earlier but I realized was part of the darkness in the book and needed to be included in the middle to be close to the end. I rearranged them and I tried to just add stuff. I have a friend who is an amazing editor and she really helped me beef it up, and my editor Sarah Crichton, who is about to become the head of Henry Holt, was amazing. She told me there were some parts that weren’t that interesting and other parts that needed be more personal. That was very helpful. I think the skeleton was there and I had a good draft, but they are the ones that really helped me push it and make it a book that a lot of people would identify with which was what I wanted too.
Cagibi: Was there one specific moment that provoked the idea of this book?
Steinke: I was writing this novel I have been trying to write for a long time about a woman who starts her own religion. I had gotten about a year into and was not very attached to it. I was also starting menopause and feeling weird and my body was feeling strange. I was looking for things about menopause to understand it myself. That’s how I found the whales. And so I thought, “Why should I work on this book that I’m not all that attached to and why don’t I write about the actual things I’m going through?” I had a talk with my agent and my agent said, “I think that sounds great.” She was really supportive so I said “I’m gonna do it” and I wrote a proposal. I spent about about six to eight months working on the proposal. A good non-fiction proposal is sixty pages. You have to do a summary, a sample chapter and you have to do outlines of all the other chapters. You have to show you are really engaged with this and the investment in it. I did that and it was really great because about five or six publishers were interested. That made me feel good and that also made me feel like this is a subject that people are really interested in. There are not many books like mine.
But I wasn’t sure if I could do it. I don’t really write books like this and I had to interview all these women. I didn’t know if that would be boring for me, but I ended up kind of liking it all and I didn’t have any mixed feelings. It was sort of a rush of spirit or air that kind of came in me and pushed me through. Once I committed to it, I was very into it.
Cagibi: You definitely did a lot of interviews for the book and spoke with both men and women. A lot of the feedback surprised me, including how many women felt a “gender shift” during menopause. Were you at all surprised by the reactions from the men or women?
Steinke: Maybe a little bit. I interviewed some people in person, some people on the phone, some people like we’re doing now on Zoom. But the majority of the people I interviewed I had a survey sent out on Facebook. I had to have a diverse group. I live in a West Indian-American neighborhood so I tried to interview a lot of my neighbors to see what their experience was like too.
In the medical world, they tell you this will happen and this will happen but that’s not very true. Some women felt like they didn’t have any hot flashes and other women felt they were destroyed by menopause. That surprised me. The wide range of different ways that women dealt with it. Like anything in life, it’s so individualistic.
The men, I don’t know. They were almost passive aggressive. Most of the men that came to me were pretty liberal, middle class guys. But even with them, it was like they knew they couldn’t say bad things to me, and I felt they were a little passive aggressive and sort of bitter. But then there were others like the one man who says sex with menopause becomes more like play and you don’t have to worry about getting pregnant. Every time I did a radio call-in show there would be mostly women and then there would always be one man. I always thought, “Oh no, they’re going to be terrible, they’re going to say something nasty,” but they were always sweet. They’d say, “My wife is about to go through this, how can I help her?” It made me realize that they’re kind of clueless too. They don’t understand what is happening to their partners. I guess I was mostly fixated on men’s ridicule and misogyny, but those encounters made me think it’s a loss for men too. They have to sort of admit their own aging and that freaks them out. I felt for them.
Cagibi: What were you looking to achieve when writing Flash Count Diary?
Steinke: I don’t know if I was really trying to achieve anything. I was just sort of trying to write about my experience. I always write about the body. That’s always been my subject. As a younger woman, I’d write about the body, sex, about being a woman. As you get older, you’re not, or I’m not, quite as interested in sex as I was. The world at large is less interested in the sex lives of fifty to sixty-year-old women. They’re very interested in the sex lives of younger women. This book was a way for me to write about the body again so that was one thing that was cool. Also, there weren’t really good books on the subject, except for a few medical books and terrible celebrity bios. I just wanted to write a really good book, that’s the main thing. I didn’t necessarily think, “I want to write this book about menopause so I can change the menopausal world.” But as I was writing it, I sort of got angry and I think the book did take on a certain feel, like a manifesto feel or something like that. But I have to say when I started that wasn’t my intent.
Cagibi: Speaking of world views on women’s age and sexuality, do you think the stigma of menopause will ever change? Will our culture ever be able to appreciate the “seed buried inside wrinkled fruit,” as you poetically said in your book, without fearing it or trying to deny it?
Steinke: Well, we have to work really hard for the patriarchy. Maybe we could get some more equality. Right now, the patriarchy generally feels like younger women are more valuable than older women. That’s because men are mostly interested in women’s sexuality and their ability to bear children and be mothers. They’re not that interested in older women. The whales that go through menopause really worked hard and they got their matriarchy going. If we can get our matriarchy going, the world will value older women more. We’ll be at the top of our game as older people in the same way older men are at the top of their game in their fifties and sixties. But it’s going to be very hard with the set up we have now. Things are changing really fast and they’re getting better for women, but there’s still so much that needs to happen. How bad it was seems really clear just by how much better it has gotten. But so many things still have to change.
Cagibi: Switching gears a bit, can you talk about how you balance your writing and teaching? What’s your day-to-day writing life look like?
Steinke: I try to get up in the morning around seven or eight and I try to be at my desk from nine to one or nine to two. After that, I’ll do my school work. I do school work every day because I want it to be fresh. I know people do it the day before they teach but I don’t like that. I don’t want to rush through it, I want to be very precise. In the evening, I read or I will sometimes watch movies. I’m not above watching RuPaul’s Drag Race. I work pretty hard and I like to stay around my desk. When I was a younger writer I’d have a lot of literary lunches and I try not to do that anymore. I feel like a lunch pretty much ruins you from working on those days. I sometimes work on the weekends too. If I have a book up and going I try to work on it at least every day.
Cagibi: Has your writing life changed with the Coronavirus pandemic? Any tips for other writers trying to write through these unsettling times?
Steinke: In a way it’s good because you have to stay home and do your work. It’s a good time to look at your projects and just kind of revel in them. That’s what I’m doing. I have two different ideas for what I’m going to do next. I’ve been taking notes on both of them. Today, for the novel one I put together a couple of paragraphs I liked in my notes with no real urgency. I’m just going to see if I like this idea and if it will go anywhere. And that’s a rare way to feel you know? That’s rare in a writing life. I feel like if we weren’t in this period right now I would probably have already decided on a project. I probably would have picked the non-fiction idea I have and I would be moving toward that. Now, publishing is completely frozen. I don’t want people to suffer and die of course, but as long as you have to be home it’s kind of a good time to be with your projects without a lot of anxiety.
In times like this, it’s also really good to keep your journal going. Maybe you’ll never write about this but maybe you will. You’re going to want to remember how weird it is. You see all these apocalyptic movies and there are all these zombies, but really what’s happening is it’s hard to get Purell. That reality of it is much more mundane, and I think it’s good to keep notes during this time. That’s important for a writer. Usually what writers have to say about something doesn’t come out like a journalist would in the newspaper a few days later. What writers have to say about things come years after when the culture is trying to understand what happened.
Cagibi: You spoke about two projects you’re experimenting with right now. Can you tell us anymore?
Steinke: I have two ideas but I don’t really want to talk about them too much. I’ll just say that one is a non-fiction book and one is a novel. I don’t know yet what I’m going to do. I’m going to go through all my notes and read what I have. I might just work on both for awhile to see what happens. I’ve never really had two projects going on at once, but I think I’ll get more attached to one eventually. That’s my hope.
About the Interviewer, Carissa Chesanek
Carissa Chesanek’s work has appeared in The Rumpus, The Miami Herald, ZAGAT, Forbes Travel Guide and elsewhere. She is a current MFA candidate at The New School and a Writing Mentor for PEN America Prison Writing Mentor Program, along with a member of the Prison Writing Committee. Find her at carissachesanek.net and on Twitter @Chesanek.
Author photo by Niqui Carter.