For those of us soon to be shunted into the jobs market, reading Susie Steiner’s resume is like looking into a magic mirror. After graduating from our very own University of York with a degree in English Literature she moved back down to London where, after a brief work experience stint, she landed a succession of full time job as a news reporter on publications such as The Daily Telegraph and The Times. Steiner then made the move from news to features, and spent eleven years as a commissioning editor for The Gaurdian; you may remember her article ‘the Top Five Regrets of the Dying’, which went viral. Her recently published debut novel Homecoming has been received with high critical acclaim, and she’s already working on her second.
When I talked to Steiner over the phone last week, however, it became apparent that her soaring career trajectory wasn’t always that clear. She began to write for Nouse in her third year at York to “make it look like I always wanted to do journalism”. A high point was scoring a feature interview with the ever-controversial local Archbishop. She admits she “never felt comfortable in news” with its “very macho environment”. “I never have the ‘hunger’”, she told me “the motivation to be the last one in the office at night, or to drive down to Dover at 5am”.
The move to features suited her better; she enjoyed the more “thoughtful, measured approach” and found it “a relief to spend a lot more time thinking about what I was writing”. She wouldn’t, however, describe her transfer as her big break; it was “a break and a regression at the same time”. On the one hand lifestyle was “lovely, great fun”, but she wishes now she had tried for something more “intellectual” than lifestyle writing, but always felt that “I wasn’t good enough about something like arts”. In the end though, it was good to be doing something “not too stressful when you have babies”.
Ah, the much debated feminist conundrum of the mythical work/life balance. On this, Steiner vehemently disagrees with Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, and her infamous manifesto ‘Lean In’. “I can’t stand her”, she said of Sandberg “she’s just telling other woman how to be her – that’s egotism, not feminism”. Steiner says, “I would definitely view myself as a feminist, that we should have choices and freedom”, but warns “women are not made free by trying to do what men do.” Steiner knows, “I’ve got it as good as any woman could – I can work and still see my children a lot”. Writing freelance, it seems, is a good way to combine a serious career and motherhood and avoid the pitfalls of the working world that still discriminates against women; she admits that her life is “not something every woman is lucky enough to have.”
For Steiner, being a writer and an author was always the dream: journalism was just a means to an end in that sense. She began writing Homecoming when she was thirty years old, but has spent the past ten years “playing with how to do it, learning how to write fiction”, the story growing in her subconscious whilst she juggled her career and a young family. Her passion for literature was ignited when she took a year out travelling before university. “I was having a particularly miserable time in India,” and found solace in reading George Eliot’s novels; “The Victorians rocked my world”. Now, Steiner finds inspiration in reading contemporary fiction by authors such as Kate Atkinson and other “women who write about relationships.”
Relationships are a key theme in Homecoming, and Steiner skilfully weaves her narrative around the age-old concern of how we relate to other humans. Families and their complex webs of love and loyalty are always a ripe topic for writers, but Steiner has breathed new life in to any clichés by setting her story with a family of Yorkshire sheep farmers. As anyone who has come into close contact with farming families will understand, the bonds of kin and the tensions placed upon them are magnified tenfold by a family business at the mercy of the weather. If you don’t know about the emotional intensity that farming brings, then you will after reading Homecoming. Steiner’s writing is lyrical in its attention to detail, but don’t let that fool you; her story will hook you in emotionally from the first page and won’t let you go.
Behind the gripping family drama is a landscape that may be familiar to many of you; the beautiful Yorkshire moors. Up until now, their most famous literary outing has been in the works of the Brontë sisters, but this wasn’t just a case of Steiner paying homage to some more world-rocking Victorians. She “fell in love” with the countryside around York when she was at university here, and even when she returned to her native London she couldn’t break the connection.
Steiner “carried on visiting the moors” whenever she could, and when she met her husband (Tom Happold, also of The Guardian) who hailed from Leeds they started “visiting together, so it became a place that meant a lot to me.” This emotional connection was why she chose the moors as her setting for Homecoming; it was a place she “felt confident writing about” but could maintain her need for “distance and perspective, being set far from where I lived.”
Steiner firmly believes “all that talk of writing about what you know is rubbish!” She maintains, “The act of writing fiction is an imaginative leap. Once you have made that decision about where your writing is set, it’s all part and parcel of imagining yourself into the lives of your characters.” Her next book, which she is already working on, is another such imaginative leap for her. It’s a thriller set in Cambridgeshire, and her central character is a detective. Despite the “very different pace” of this next novel, Steiner assures me that it will still be “very much about relationships”.
I wanted to know what tips Steiner had for those who wanted to break into the world of journalism. Her answer was typically down to earth: “I’d really warn against a career in journalism. It’s much harder for people now than it was for me.” With the rise of the digital age, she counselled that it would be hard to find a well-paid career in traditional print journalism. She is saddened by how work experience has morphed into a culture of lengthy unpaid internships without hope of employment at the end. “Of course I did unpaid work I remember doing work experience on The Independent, transcribing an interview with Jimmy Saville… it was probably one of the most boring weeks of my life! But anything more than two weeks is ridiculous – people shouldn’t be used as free labour.”
But she doesn’t think anyone should have to give up on his or her dream of becoming a writer just yet. Steiner urges anyone who wants to write to “read, and read voraciously. Notice how it’s done.” It’s always refreshing to hear sound advice from someone who clearly takes her own counsel to heart. Homecoming is a wonderful culmination of Steiner’s love affair with the literary greats and her passion for the Yorkshire countryside.
If you want to hear more of Steiner’s tips for aspiring novelists, then make sure you attend her talk for the upcoming York Festival of Ideas. On June 15th she will be reading from her debut novel and answering your questions on how to get published, at the Ron Cooke Hub. Visit yorkfestivalofideas.com to book your free ticket now.