‘The sounds of silence’: professor and writer explores quiet as reflection and as erasure

College Writing event draws hundreds of students


steinke1Above: Hundreds of students filled the Ferguson Recreation Center at the Florham Campus to hear author and FDU professor René Steinke talk about her book "Friendswood." (Photos by Joshua Siniscal) 

By Kenna Caprio

René Steinke wants students to listen to the silence. As she spoke about her novel “Friendswood,” even in front of a crowd of hundreds of students, there was a stillness in the air at the event, and she encouraged students to lean into it.

“We can really only know the script going on in our own heads. And you have to be quiet to really hear it,” said Steinke, a professor of English/Creative Writing and director of the master of fine arts in creative writing program, but Steinke went on to explain that we can also try to imagine the inner life of another person . “That desire to know what’s going on inside of another person, that makes me want to write. For me, that’s where fiction comes from.”

One kind of silence lends itself to reflection and thinking about life’s big questions. It’s a positive quiet. The other, she cautioned, can be harmful — and repress important issues.

“As I talked about the sources that inspired ‘Friendswood,’ I was trying to encourage students to listen to one another, to take the time to really reflect on the difficult questions that come along, and to not just assume the easy answer is the best one,” Steinke said.

steink2The event was sponsored by the College Writing Program at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Florham Campus, and held in the Ferguson Recreation Center.

During her talk, Steinke revealed that her novel was partly inspired by an environmental disaster that occurred just outside of her hometown of Friendswood, Texas, and various incidents of sexual assault in small-town Texas and elsewhere. “Friendswood,” which explores the lives of several interconnected characters in the aftermath of an environmental disaster and the sexual assault of a teenaged girl, took seven years to write, Steinke said.

Margarita Reyes Acosta, a freshman biology major, said after the event that she was impressed by how Steinke could “tell so many different stories and connect them. It’s illuminating.”

Students asked questions at the end of the event including “What’s the last book you read?” and “How do you write difficult characters?” and drew connections between characters and small details.

Freshmen Gianni Failla, studying sports administration, and John Pellegrini, majoring in communication studies, appreciated finding out more about what inspired and influenced the novel. They both feel more aware of environmental disasters now, and Pellegrini adds that all students should be hearing about sexual assault prevention during their first year of college: “Rape affects someone in the worst way possible, so if we can prevent it — that’s a good thing.”

steink3The College Writing Program “adopts” authors for a two-year period. All Florham Campus freshmen participate in the program and are required to read selected works by the adopted author. “Friendswood” is a featured text this year.

“The talk was framed by a discussion of empathy, why it’s so important to be able to imagine the experience of a person different from yourself,” said Steinke. “At this moment, empathy is more important than ever, and it can be nurtured by reading, especially by reading fiction.”

After the talk, Steinke signed copies of the book and chatted with students.

“The book feels super-personal and relatable, and like any of these situations could really happen to people,” said freshman Nicole d’Amico, a theater studies major.

Steinke is a 2016 Guggenheim Fellow. “Friendswood,” Steinke’s most recent novel, was one of National Public Radio’s Best Books of 2014. She is also the author of “The Fires” and “Holy Skirts,” which was a 2005 finalist for the National Book Award, and listed as one of the Best Books of the year by “The Chicago Tribune” and “The Washington Post.” Her writing has appeared in “The New York Times,” “Vogue,” “Salon,” “Redbook,” and in various anthologies. She is the former editor-in-chief of “The Literary Review,” and now serves as editor-at-large.