My first introduction to Margo Steines and her writing was via a panel discussion at AWP 2023 on “Writing the Body.” She read from her essay, “Sick Gainz,” and I was captivated by the precision of her prose and her ability to convey atmosphere, both emotional and external. When I think of that reading now, I intuit a shimmering sense-memory of disorientation in the desert heat, because her descriptions were so viscerally immersive. That essay was excerpted from Margo’s debut, Brutalities: A Love Story, which was one of my favorite books of 2023. We got together over Zoom in April to talk about her book tour, the way stories and people often get reduced to soundbites and caricatures, and the radical work of subverting received narratives.

McKenzie Watson-Fore: Welcome home! You just got back from book tour, right? What’s the launch process been like? How’s it been interacting with all these people who have interacted with it?

Margo Steines: I like that part. I really like talking to people about it, and I really like doing the “In Conversations”—when there’s a person that I admire and want to engage with in some way, and for whatever social awkwardness reasons would never be like, “Would you like to spend an hour talking to me?,” but the event will serve as a context for that. So I‘ve gotten to talk to really amazing people, and it is so wild to me that people are reading my shit. I hope I hold onto this humility forever, because it really does feel like an honor, you know? And also just weird. I asked my marketing person how many books have sold, and when she told me, the thought of that many people—I think any number over fifty would’ve made me feel this way, and I’ve sold more than fifty books—but it really blew my mind to think of that many people reading my stuff. So it’s been good. It’s been great. It’s also been really exhausting.

Do you feel like book tour has changed the way that you relate to the book or the writing itself, seeing people’s reactions to it?

I’ve now read [aloud] from most of the book, at least from the main essays, and there were two that I was like, ooh, I don’t wanna read those out loud any more. And I hadn’t realized that while I was writing, because it all felt equally mortifying in different ways, and then being in a physical space with people and perceiving their reactions and perceiving the energy in the room and my own experience of shame and being seen, I was like, oh, these actually all feel very different and have a different flavor. So that was illuminating in some ways.

Like the essays had this kind of felt color to them, once you were reading them in public.

Yeah. This is not really a surprise, but I have gotten so many people talking to me about the book and referring to my ex as abusive, which is never language that I’ve used—in my writing or anywhere. There’s a lot to unpack there, but when a book meets a reader, it’s not a blank slate, you know what I mean? Everyone is projecting all their own stuff onto what they receive and I had projected all my own stuff and then that creates something else. And that’s been sometimes awesome and sometimes weird and often interesting.

That’s so interesting that this thing that you have described but not labeled would be so often labeled by people external to it, based on what they think they understand about your description.

Yeah. One of the projects of the book was not to reduce anything to a sound bite. I understand why someone might do that, and I don’t correct people, but that’s just not language that I choose to use.

In my experience of reading it, you were so intentional about taking reductive narratives—or these narrative forms that are so often put on people’s stories from outside, and specifically put on women’s stories—and dismantling them very intentionally, but with a lot of subtlety and a lot of care. Was that an intentional practice, and were those narrative forms explicit in your thinking?

They were pretty explicit and it was pretty intentional. The book I ended up writing was in many ways a reaction to all the books I didn’t want to write, or was afraid to write, or afraid that I would be perceived as writing. I didn’t want to write a narrative addiction memoir that was about redemption. I didn’t want to write the same thing about eating disorders and mental health, and I didn’t want to write a fucking body positivity book, and I didn’t want to write, you know, My Journey Through Abuse—that language does not feel like mine anyway. I didn’t want to write a sex worker memoir that was about, “I was a bad girl and now I’m a good girl”; all of these things felt like prepackaged narratives that you could ascribe to my experience, but that feel so unrelated to me. And yes, you could make ten different Lifetime original movies about my life. But none of them to me are very interesting and you could make them all about anyone else.

It’s such a narcissistic thing to write a book about yourself, right? And the fundamental mortifying thing that you’re saying is like, I am interesting enough that many people should pay attention. I hate that I think that, but I will asterisk that by saying, I don’t think it’s me that’s so interesting; I think I’ve had a really weird collection of experiences that make a mosaic that is really interesting. It felt important to say, it’s not any one of these things; it’s all these things together.

Yeah. You’ve had so many disparate (at face value) experiences that seem to suggest this common arc, that is so deeply flawed, and you see this arc across all these different contexts, and yet it is repeatedly a mismatch. The disconnection between how common those narrative structures are and how much they doesn’t actually reflect your lived experience is such an interesting place. The inquiry into that doesn’t seem narcissistic to me.

Thank you. One thing that happens with those prepackaged narratives is then you need to be a prepackaged character, someone that people want to receive in a certain way. Did you see American Fiction?

Not yet! It’s on my list.

Okay, I will not spoiler it for you, but he’s dealing with that in a very high-key and interesting way. One of the things I loved so much about the review you wrote was that you read all of the contradictions and the fundamental incompatibilities in everything I believe and know and feel not as being a problem with the essays or the book but actually the point of the book.

Yes! That very much came through. I’ve seen elsewhere that you wrote a much more traditional memoir before this book and I would love to know about your process of meeting the death conditions for that work, and the shift from, “Let me tell this story in a fairly straightforward narrative sense” to, “Let me dissect this story and the assumptions that go into making it a story.”

Totally. When I wrote the narrative memoir, I was still with my ex, I had not gone back to school, I had a high school education, I did not really believe in myself in any serious way. I didn’t think of myself as someone qualified to do cultural criticism or dissect anything. But I was like, I have this story, I did this weird shit, and I knew that shit was interesting in a kind of salacious way. I wanted to write, and it felt like that was the currency that I had. In some ways that wasn’t inaccurate, because I didn’t really have any skills as a writer. You get inborn with some stuff and I was born with some talent, but I didn’t have any hard skills, and I had never received any teaching and it was all kind of on instinct at that point. And story feels accessible. You know how to do that. However, many years later, I had grown into myself a bit, and I was like, oh, I want to do a much more serious thing. Now the story actually feels like the least of it to me.

There’s got to be so much courage in transitioning into a much more demanding form of investigating your life.

Yeah. And when I say that, I don’t mean at all to denigrate memoir or narrative story. It is as high an art as any when done well. For me, that wasn’t the fullest expression of what I wanted to do, and I was doing something clumsily in a way that wasn’t fully successful.

I’m writing something new now, and I don’t know what form I want it to take. I’m not necessarily that interested in chronology and linearity. Part of that is because I’m not excellent at it. There are people who are so excellent at it, and that just doesn’t feel like the thing that I’m most aligned with.

One of the first things that really struck me in my experience of reading Brutalities is that you wield juxtaposition so precisely. The first essay, in present tense in the contemporary storyline, is so sweet and cozy, and the second essay is such a jarring, sudden shift. Throughout the book you are so good at dropping the reader in, in medias res, with minimal use of transitional language and minimal use of exposition. Was that a conscious choice?

Yes and no. I love that shit, when it’s the closest thing to a jump scare you can have in written form.


I tend to write like what I like to read, but I always have to push myself to write scenes. In a first draft, there’s never any scenes for me. It’s all ideas and summary and exposition. But that shit is not interesting in long form, so then I add scenes, and I think that creates a different rhythm or pattern than if you’re writing more cohesive, paragraph-after-paragraph-after-paragraph stuff. So some of it is just process and style. I also love the form of the braided essay. I love that thing, that got memed and made fun of, when you’re like, “Here’s my story,” and then, “Here’s some facts about hot dogs.” I find it pleasing. I like the cognitive and emotional adjustment and pivot that it demands, so I built a lot of that into the book.

It balances some of the inherent narcissism of personal writing, because you can say, “This is my experience,” but also, “I am emblematic of this broader social phenomenon,” and you highlight the threads between the two. And that’s really gratifying.

When I was reading Brutalities, I talked about it to pretty much everyone I know; I kept telling people, “You have to read this, it’s the most beautiful book about violence,” and they were like, “Why are you reading that?” [Laughs] Like, “What does that have to do with you?”

I think the publishing world has a relatability fetish, but you do a great job of getting these sensationalist hooks on the page and then moving beyond them. Was that something you thought about a lot while you were writing?

It was kind of organic, because my life now is pretty relatable. I’m a middle-aged mom, and I work from home. My life is not exciting. The interest factor has declined over the years, specifically since I had my kid. I chose to write about my pregnancy, and that’s an experience that a lot of people have had, and the pandemic, we were all doing that. At the time I was writing about, the pandemic was a pretty coherent experience, where almost all people were quarantined to some extent and were really affected by what the fuck was going on. So for the book, that was a lucky coincidence. [Laughs] But choosing to write about these pretty singular experiences—not that they were great but that they were rare—I had as a younger person, and then merging that into being a regular-degular person, felt organic to the truth of my experience.

Yeah, and you built that juxtaposition into the structure of the book. You started with, “It’s the pandemic, we’re in lockdown, here I am with my partner in isolation.” And I was like, “Oh, I did that!” And then you move on to the rest of the content. I thought that was so skillful because you immediately have that purchase with the reader: there’s a familiar setting, and then you move to the unfamiliar, and the way you toggled back and forth between those felt very intentional and calibrated.

Thanks. I wanted the interstitial pieces to serve as a throughline, but also to be palate cleansers in some way. The critique I’ve received of them from some people is that they’re dull and nothing happens, and I’m like, yes. That’s the point. They’re much more about a mood and a feeling than any action. Almost nothing happens in them, by design. They’re very interior. It’s only so long that you can read a bunch of very visceral shit, and later in the book, a lot of more demanding thinking, without wanting to fucking break. My experience as a reader is, that’s when I put a book down. But I wondered, what would it feel like if that was built into the experience of the book, that pacing?

I love that. I mean, it feels like coming up for air, you know?

Yeah, thanks. That’s right.

Where did that idea arise for you?

I had a professor in my MFA who was the one who used that expression of the palate cleanser, which I really liked—Chris Cokinos. The braided essay as a form does it. I’ve been reading Leslie Jamison and Melissa Febos forever, and many others who work with that form in a pretty elevated way. I often find that in a book-length form, there are two strands that I’m interested in and I lose steam on the third, you know, just as a reader—which is not really a reflection on the writing but just what I’m personally interested in. I had briefly conceived of it as a book-length essay. But then there was just too much going on. I like that in the book I wrote, if you wanted to skip an essay, most of it would still make sense. You could still receive it, and yet it is definitely a whole thing. I wanted it to be like that.

It feels very amenable to a reader’s needs

Thanks, thanks. I hope so.

—while still very much being cohesive and being a whole thing.

Have you read Tell Me Everything by Erika Krause? It’s narrative nonfiction, and it’s set in Boulder, Colorado, which is where I live, so there’s some level of geographic attachment on my part. It feels very braided in the sense that she’s telling the story of this lawsuit against the university and weaving in her own personal history on some of the same subject matter, but she has these interludes talking about the place of Boulder, and the mountains, and the wildfires that are happening, and the pine beetle that’s ravaging the trees, and I found those sections so lovely and sustaining, as you work your way through this very intense book. But similarly, as I was reading reviews, there are always people who are like, “These parts are boring; why are these here?” [Laughs]

Flap copy isn’t very good at telling you what’s in the book.

It’s so fun hearing you talk about your braided essay influences. I’m really drawn to crot writing and collage writing: Eula Biss, David Shields, Jenny Offill. Was that style in your mental landscape while you were working on this?

For sure. I love all those writers. I really love Lydia Davis and the short form, which I don’t ever work in, but something about reading it has helped me try to tighten certain ideas. The accumulative and the braided form are very much how I think. I can’t ever have a conversation on just one topic.

The associative leap from one thing to the next feels very organic to the way I like to think. So when I encounter a book or essay that’s doing that, I’m on board, I’m here for it. Whereas if I read an entire book about one thing, I can tend to get, not bored exactly, but my brain is going other places, and the book isn’t doing that with me.

For writers who are trying to corral a sense of narrative or corral their ideas, finding a constraint can feel so elusive. Brutalities touches on so many things. How did you decide what made it in and what did not?

I wrote most of the essays first, and I was writing the memoir pieces as a side project that I didn’t have any specific plans for. There was a ton in there that was just like, useless fluff. Every couple pages there would be a thing that I was like, “oh, that!” whether it was an idea or a scene or a feeling or something.

I fucked with the order of the essays to the extent where I was like, I have to not look at these for a few weeks. Once you divorce from chronology, you can do anything, but it’s like, fuck, you can do anything! I don’t like how it feels when the order appears random. But I also don’t like when it’s too cute. So, in between these two things, I wanted to have an order that would feel coherent to the reader, but they wouldn’t necessarily be able to describe how it was ordered, but then when you would explain it to them they would be like, oh yes, I felt that. [Laughs] That proved really fucking difficult. I ended up placing the interstitial pieces to serve as bridges between the essay before and the essay after. Some are more on the nose than others, and yet also I wanted those to move forward in linear chronology. There was a lot going on. It felt like a math problem at a certain point.

This is always my experience with editing. I just keep trying things and eventually something feels right, and I can’t explain why.

Was there an element of the composition process that you were most concerned about?

To have it not just feel like some shit I just threw together. Also I wanted to write about race in America, but I didn’t want the book to be about that, and also, I felt like, the stakes of fucking that up were really high, because they are. It felt impossible to write about that time without writing about everything that was going on: my boyfriend, the fucking masks at the protests, and me pregnant, and all of that, and the ways that it intersected with our lives. My kid is multiracial. She looks white. Race is a complicated thing in this house. I’m white. My partner is—in Hawai’i they call it hapa—but mixed-race, and often is read as white. I think this is true for a lot of white people, considering race through a critical lens is treated like an opt-in, and I don’t want to do that in my work or as a parent or in my life. Yet it felt like a very complicated place to engage with it. I probably reworked that section more than any other.

That makes sense. The summer of 2020 was such a heightened time. It’s 2024, and selectively, it’s weird how removed that time can feel. How do you feel about those sections from your current vantage?

I’m really glad I wrote them. I recently saw the term “cultural amnesia” to describe how we’ve all sort of forgotten. I developed a complicated health situation concurrently with the pandemic, so for me the pandemic is very much not over, but with everyone else, it is, largely. When I was reading at events, I was like, wow, this feels like a time capsule. It feels in many ways so dramatic now: oh, we’re going to die! [Laughs] Sometimes I still feel like that, but I know most people now think that’s absurd and think it’s like a cold. As time goes on I’ll be curious to see how that material lands, but I am, for my own sake, glad that I captured the reality of that lived experience, because I think if I hadn’t, it would’ve slipped away.

Yeah. It was a time with so much specificity. As you were saying a few minutes ago, the lockdowns had a much higher level of shared experience, and then it led to so much fracturing, where it’s like, “That’s the world you live in, this is the world I live in, they do not cross.”

Absolutely. I’m a New Yorker, and I lived in the city during 9/11 and it had a lot of similar feelings: we’re all in this together—for like, five fuckin’ minutes—and then it’s like, everyone’s racist, everyone’s against everyone else, harms are being perpetuated against some groups and not others, and some people are considered histrionic. . . . Obviously it was a very different source of harm, but similarly, we as a national culture did not respond well to it.

So, opposite end of the spectrum from the very social-collectivist view: in terms of the household-intimate-scale view, this book is dedicated to your partner. He has a very explicit role in it and, as someone who writes personal narrative nonfiction, what was your thought process in terms of including people in your writing who you have active relationships with now?

Nic read most of the book while I was writing it. In the parts that are more explicitly about him, like the martial arts sections, he worked with me. I interviewed him a ton, and I was in his workspace as a researcher for a long time and talking to his athletes. So he was really an integral part of writing those. The memoir parts, I didn’t show him until later, and I felt a little tender about showing them. I will always give him the option to read, but he’s like, this is your thing, I support you, do what you do. And I was like, no, you have to read all of it before other people read it, like what if you hate it? He read it the day before my book launch. [Laughs]

You know, it’s hard. I don’t want him or my daughter or anyone in my life to feel overexposed, because they didn’t choose that, and for me baring my life is a complicated choice that I’ve arrived at. My parents, they’re pathologically private. This is a living nightmare for them. And yet, I do feel like this is my story and I get to tell it. I think I’ve become more radical about that. There was a moment where I was like, maybe I’ll just change everyone’s information; maybe I don’t own this story. Then—in thinking about how to write about my ex, and seeing how many people are surprised that I would have the agency to write about my experience like that—it made me feel more and more like, how would I not? He could say his piece, which I’m sure is different than mine. But the idea that I would have to be silent about an experience that I had because it would make other people feel uncomfortable with the truth of their behavior just felt obscene at a certain point.

Which perpetuates the idea that you have to protect someone else’s reputation at the expense of your own self-articulation. That’s such an incredible power imbalance and it’s like, “Why are you bought into this? Where did your investment in this come from, and why is it on the side of someone who already had more power in this dynamic?”

Absolutely. I asked my parents not to read the book, and that felt like a good boundary. They can do with that what they want. I have a child; I understand as a parent how it would not feel good [for my parents] to read this book. I don’t want them to feel bad. But I’m also not going to wait until they’re dead to do what I want to do.

I hear about a surprising number of people for whom that is their strategy, which feels like—people are living a long time these days! Like, my parents are in excellent health. [Laughs]

Same! I can’t imagine!

The part that feels troubling is that I want my parents to live as long as possible. I love them. I don’t want to be in some way trading the currency of my artistic freedom and their aliveness.

That feels like a very perceptive way to phrase that. Because that’s what you’re doing: incentivizing the death of your loved ones—whom you love enough that you don’t want to harm with your work, which is also interesting that we have such territorial relationships to our own perspectives that we would perceive sharing our perspective as a way of enacting harm against someone else.

Of course, there is a way of doing that that is harmful, but I think this book is a really beautiful model. In your author’s note you say, “If you find yourself in the pages of this book and your experience differs from mine—you may be as correct as I am.” I thought that was such a beautiful way to start and very much set the tone for the book. It laid out a really lovely welcome mat.

Thanks. I think that, if you have been harmed by anyone or anything—which, who hasn’t?—there is something radical about saying that publicly. I have been harmed by psychiatry. I’ve been harmed by my family. I’ve been harmed by my ex. But also, I have caused harm in this world too. I don’t position myself as a victim of anything—except maybe psychiatry. Maybe that.

When I see people writing the truth about what happened in their lives, I don’t see that as a force of harm in the world. I see it as the opposite.

It circles back around to the work of dismantling the chokehold of the trauma plot, because I think the structure of the trauma plot says that to connect those things is to enact violence. Whereas we reclaim agency by separating “I was harmed by this” and “Because this harmed me it is bad and whoever perpetuated it is bad.” How can we tease those things apart and find a more interesting relationship to that?

There’s so much causality and blame and responsibility embedded in the trauma plot. Also, this is specific to my story. Some people do experience abuse and harm and are victims in a way that I am not, and that can be true. But, for the average person, with an average collection of traumas, it is often much more complicated than that.

The work that you did to explicitly separate those and say, “This is possible, but it doesn’t have the universality that’s been attributed to it,” was very important, narrative-reclaiming work.

Thank you.

Later in the book you bring up experiences from when you were a teenager of being in a mental health facility. Psychiatry is maybe one of the few spaces in society, particularly for white folks, where there’s a direct correlation between “Here you are a pile of symptoms” in a way the trauma plot would perpetuate. Was that link explicit in your mind as you were writing? For that to come up so late in the book felt very intentional, subverting the causality.

Especially with a woman, as soon as you hear that she’s “crazy,” you don’t ever hear anything else she says the same way. So I wanted to bury the lede that I’m fucking nuts. [Laughs]

I also wanted the reader to know me as a person who’s not nuts, who was having a lived experience that was reflective of the conditions that I lived in, and often created and pursued and whatever. I am now someone who can’t be quite pigeonholed as a crazy chick. That’s how I was always received in my life. I was young, very cute, and very troubled, so just a “crazy chick.” This was a brand of girl. All my friends were the same brand. I assume they were everywhere: the girl with the self-harm scars, the heroin, and the eyeliner. There were so many of us; it was not a unique thing. I didn’t want—as a forty-one-year-old, who has divested myself from all of those things—to be received with the same skepticism, so that’s why I buried it.

I also wanted to talk about it because it was critical to the narrative to talk about the institutional harms that I did receive, and the brutality of psychiatry and of institutionalization and of what we often call “care” in this country, but I didn’t want to be the character in it.

That essay was very moving in the way that you connected it to this generational lineage of relationships to institutions that practice care in such a flawed way. I have so much appreciation for when narrators and characters are able to step back and say, “This didn’t originate with me; let’s look more broadly.

I’m very interested in intergenerational trauma, and that was largely outside the scope of this book, but I wanted to at least reference it.

Is it a terrible segue if we go from intergenerational trauma to what you’re working on next? [Laughs]

[Laughs] No, that’s fine. It’s probably in there too.

I am working on a book about milk. That’s the central organizing feature. It’s about my experience with my young child while body-feeding/breast-feeding, and it’s also about caregiving, the sociopolitical history of how formula has been manipulated, the propaganda in developing countries around formula historically, and it’s about mommy influencers and Chrissy Teigen and the mommy blogosphere, and also about cows.

Oh my gosh. I can’t wait.

I have not gotten very good at talking about it yet. Every time someone asks me that question I’m one half-percent less awkward. I still have a lot of research to do. I want to go spend a lot of time with cows, and surprisingly, every time I say I’m a writer, people tell me no. So now I just say, “I like cows, can I come hang out?” [Laughs] I’m not gonna write a fuckin magazine expose about your shitty dairy practices. Just lemme in! I’m not Michael Pollan! I think that’s who they’re afraid of.

Definitely. [Laughs] Is this something you’ve been dreaming of for a long time?

No. After I had my kid, I had a pretty rough time postpartum. I really didn’t write anything new for quite a long time, except these little things in my iPhone notes—which is funny because Leslie [Jamison] said that’s how she started writing Splinters. You don’t get to sit down with the computer very often and your brain is fried. So I was writing some of those and I didn’t think they were going to be anything and then they felt interesting once they weren’t current. I have spent probably ten thousand hours of my life on the mommy-instagram-blogosphere, and I read Sara Petersen’s book, Momfluenced, and it got me thinking about what the fuck is going on here and what’s happening to our brains on mommy content. And it went from there.

For me, a project is always a lived experience that makes me think about other shit.

What an interesting contrast to your immersive journalism and reportage in these MMA rings and fighting spaces and this projected form of masculinity, and the flip side of that is the mommy-sphere.

Yeah, totally. I’ve heard other people say this too, where their worst nightmare was being pigeonholed as a mommy writer and I thought mine was, and now I don’t really even care, because that’s what I’m really interested in now. And suddenly, I’m like, “Oh, now people are writing about this!” But I realized recently in conversation that no, they have been; it’s just that I’ve suddenly started paying attention because it’s relevant to me personally. I’m so grateful for Leslie’s book, and Lucas Mann’s book. If the intersection of parenthood and literary work were not there, these two parts of my life would not be connected, and I want them to be. I don’t think anyone’s ever going to mistake me for a mommy blogger, you know. Like, I hope not. [Laughs] That’s not my work. But I am really interested in those processes and dynamics.

Fair. I love that for writers, there’s the freedom of being able to put whatever you want into your projects. If you want to write about something, you do, and that’s really wonderful.

Yeah. That’s one of the other things when I realized I actually align with the essay and cultural criticism much more than I do with the form of memoir. There are lots of people who write excellent iterative memoirs, but as a cultural critic, whatever I’m interested in this year can be the thing. You know: “I contain multitudes.”

McKenzie Watson-Fore is a writer, artist, and critic based in her hometown of Boulder, Colorado. She holds an MFA in Writing from Pacific University. Her writing has been published or is forthcoming in Write or Die magazine, Psaltery & Lyre, the Offing, and elsewhere. You can find her at or drinking tea on her back porch.

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