The inspiration for her novel Friendswood came when author Rene Steinke was back visiting friends in her hometown of the same name. "They were talking about a neighborhood on the edge of town that had to be demolished," explained Steinke. "It was close to an old oil refinery where chemicals had been dumped in a field for decades." Her friends were referring to the real-life Brio Superfund site, which Steinke thought made for an excellent jumping off point for a new book.
"[My friends] were talking about how this place had become something of a ghost town. I was fascinated by the stories they were telling. My friends knew someone who had lost their home, another person who had cancer, and someone else who was related to [a refinery owner]." The interconnectedness intrigued Steinke, who saw potential in a setting where all of the characters' fates are so intertwined, that there would be repercussions for all in the end.
Steinke will present Friendswood at Brazos Bookstore on Thursday, October 9, at 7 p.m.
Now living in New York City, Steinke makes regular trips back to Texas, and says that part of the reason she wrote the book was to give people a more nuanced view of Texans. "I live in Brooklyn, and people here have rather broad notions of what Texans are like, especially small-town Texans," explained Steinke. "I wanted to write about the complexity and humanity of the people who live in Texas, particularly Friendswood."
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The reception of the book by her hometown has been very positive says Steinke, who created the Friendswood in her novel by combining the town of her childhood memories with the one that exists today. And no one need worry about recognizing themselves on the page, either--all of her characters are made up, and creating truly complex characters was always the goal. "I work hard not to satirize people the way Texans are often satirized in literature, and I hoped people in Friendswood would see that," said Steinke, who added, "I was writing about their resilience." Since the book was published, Rene has received letters from people who used to live on the Brio Superfund site, thanking her for telling the story through her fictionalized account. "For me, the story isn't sad," said Steinke. "I was interested in writing about the resilience of people getting through tough times."
As her characters navigate the toxic landscape of both the disaster site and their own emotional lives, Steinke draws them (and Texas) with a detailed hand. Her affection for the characters she creates drives her to give them a dimension that goes beyond the page. "For me, the pleasure of writing is exploring a character's inner life; all the small details that make them who they are," said Steinke. "Hal [for example] is a former football star. People have broad notions of what that means, but I wanted to explore the textures beneath that. He learns needlepoint from his wife to get over his alcoholism; he is kind of obsessed with sunlight; he tapes Bible verses to his dashboard."
With another book set in Texas in the works ("I've just barely started!"), Steinke is looking forward to her visit home to promote Friendswood. "I really love Texas," she said. "Up here I get teased for wearing my cowboy boots and listening to country music!"
Rene Steinke will appear at Brazos Bookstore on Thursday, October 9, at 7 p.m. You can reserve a copy of her book, Friendswood, online.