René Steinke read from her third novel, Friendswood (August 2014), for the Brooklyn launch of the novel. Minna Proctor, the editor of The Literary Review, introduced Steinke. Friendswood pans the perspectives of four primary characters in a small Texas town, Friendswood, as a toxic waste leak sickens local residents.
Steinke originally comes from Texas, and though more than two decades have passed since she lived there, she still returns. She knows people from there, including those who have never left. Then, the community was still rural. She describes a community where people kept horses. Now, the community has grown. Its much more suburban since she lived there. Friendswood retains much of the character it once had. For Steinke, that means a community fond of its football and its parades.
Though she grew up in Texas, Steinke’s father was a originally a New Yorker. Steinke sees the two places as very different. “I always felt caught between the two cultures,” she explains.
Steinke had a unique view of the community she grew up in. Her father was a minister, and many of the community’s leaders attended his church. Though the parishioners tended to be conservative, her father, she says, was more left leaning than might be expected. She knew him as someone more like everyone else — he would drink alcohol, he would curse.
“Texas is an easy place to satirize,” she says, but adds that she wanted to honor the Texas community she came from instead. “I’ve always been fascinated by the beliefs of people who are more conservative than I am.”
She was staying with her friends Randy and Tammy when they got to talking about the neighborhood in town that had been demolished. Many of the houses had been built on a superfund site left behind by an old oil refinery. People began getting sick. and eventually had to be torn down when the residents began manifesting ailments. Steinke loved hearing the stories of how different people had been affected by the toxic waste — from people who used to go around dumping chemicals in the rivers to the granddaughter of the owner of the former refinery.
While the novel focuses on Friendswood, its not just about a single community. “This is really the story of any small town,” Steinke says.
“There’s no real people in the book,” Steinke says. Today, many people in town have even forgotten that there was a toxic waste site, she adds.