Interview with Samantha Steiner
Rappahannock Review Prose Editors: We love the intentionally fragmented form in “Planet Nine.” Can you tell us about your approach to form and how experimentation plays a role in your work?
Samantha Steiner: If I’m bored writing something, then people will be bored reading it. I write the scenes that interest me and trust my readers’ brains to autofill what happens in the blank spaces between them. A lot of my experimentation happens in the form of removing words for the sake of efficiency. I don’t want to waste anyone’s time, so I make my stories as compact as I can.
RR: We’re drawn in by the relationship between a hypothetical planet and a mentally vulnerable protagonist. How did this connection blossom into the story it is now?
SS: I wanted to write a story about outer space that stayed in the world of realism. To do that, I needed a protagonist on Earth. I went through some old works-in-progress and found two stories: one about a person wandering along a misty dock and another about a person hiding in a bathroom. I combined these two stories with my descriptions of life on the International Space Station. From there, I understood this story was about the Big Questions, the who-am-I and how-big-is-this-universe questions. A hypothetical planet and a mentally vulnerable protagonist feel like entry points into that conversation.
RR: “Planet Nine” uses specific details about life in space to juxtapose the more disjointed sections surrounding the narrator’s experiences. How did you research and develop the story to incorporate those details?
SS: In 2019, I was recovering from Bell’s Palsy, a neurological condition that caused half of my face to become paralyzed temporarily. After two months, my face recovered, but I didn’t have the energy to leave my apartment, so I spent most of my time watching video lectures on space exploration by the astronaut Chris Hadfield. I was so inspired by what I learned that I downloaded a stargazing app and began studying the night sky outside my window. One night, I discovered Planet Nine, an object so distant and massive that scientists can only hypothesize its existence based on objects moving in its orbit. I found this discovery bizarre to the point of horrifying. I knew I wanted to write about it.
RR: As a visual artist and writer, you have a unique perspective on the connection between the two disciplines. How does your relationship with art influence your writing?
SS: There’s a symbiotic relationship between my writing and my art. When I paint with oils, I can spend days blending colors to create a realistic image of a face. At the end of all that careful blending, I add two dabs of white to indicate light reflected from the eyes. Those dabs of white give depth to the eyes, the face, and the entire painting. I’ve carried that lesson into my writing: a couple of bold sentences can light up everything around them. In other words: contrast creates drama.
RR: How have your experiences in Argentina as a Fulbright Scholar impacted your career, writing, and life in general?
SS: My relationship with Argentina began long before my Fulbright. Because my parents worked full-time, I was partly raised by a babysitter named Noemí (no-eh-MI). She taught me to speak Spanish, fold empanadas, and crochet just as she had learned as a girl in Argentina. Noemí is the reason I studied both Spanish and English in college and the reason I applied for a Fulbright scholarship. In Argentina, I filled journals with sketches and writings inspired by my travels. Scans of these journals were displayed in an exhibition at La Casa de la Cultura, or the Culture Center, in the city of Paraná. Noemí is still very special to me. A couple of weeks ago we baked empanadas together at her house.
Samantha Steiner’s work appears in Issue 9.2 here.