Andy Steiner has a man’s name. That tells you something she’s open to unlikely perspectives. She also has a heart the size of North Dakota. When she writes, it’s for a purpose: to help people. She’s been doing it for two decades as a journalist in the Twin Cities, often writing about mental health issues, and no one does it better. So when in 2008 she shared with us her idea for a book about everyday people facing everyday struggles, an exploration of the components of universal resiliency, we knew it would be remarkable. And it is. How to Survive: The Extraordinary Resilience of Ordinary People came out in January and boy howdy do we love it. We spoke with her about the book: why she wanted to write it, what it took for her to write it, and how it’s changed her.
TP: Was it hard for you to be close to all these painful stories in reporting the book?
AS: While I was listening to people’s stories, I was also experiencing some hard things in my own life. In chapter one, I write about feeling I was having a heart attack when I was interviewing Jen. I realized that it was all going on at the same time that my dear we father-in-law was diagnosed with ALS. He was very sick and everyone in the family was feeling so sad and scared. We are all going through this hard, hard time, and at the same time I’m talking to people for this book. I’m immersed in their stories. What felt like my heart was really more my body reacting to what was going on in my life. And as I was talking to this fit woman about how she had a heart attack, I’m thinking, all of this can happen to me, too, and I may not even realize it. You take for granted that everything is going to stay the same, and that’s not the case, and that’s hard.
TP: The theme of making peace with change is powerful in the book.
AS: I like to think of the heart on the cover of the book. The idea is that your heart can be broken, and that’s horrible, but it also means that your heart is broken open, and with that you become vulnerable. With that vulnerability, you see all the different things that can happen to everyone, and you become more empathetic. You realize, “I’m not always going to be this perfect, unblemished person.” What I love about the image on the cover of the book is that the heart is stitched back together. So the heart is no longer perfect, but it’s also stronger: That’s the idea. The stitches make it stronger.
TP: When did you get the idea for this book?
AS: It was back in 2008. With all the bad stuff that was happening with the economy, with all the hard times that people were going through, the idea of writing a book like this one just sort of hit me. I’d be listening to NPR, and Marketplace would be on. They say, “Let’s do the numbers.” And they’d always play “Stormy Weather,” and not “We’re in the Money.” It bummed me out. And then I’d hear about how all the magazines were closing, nobody was paying any freelancers, and you just would feel so bad. And then you hear about people getting laid off. And it got me thinking that there might be something in it for a book.
TP: And you started seeing houses in your neighborhood get shuttered.
AS: That’s right. I write about in the book about how I went on a walk in my neighborhood and there was this house that was up for a short sale. You could see how sad it was. This family’s life had been torn out, there’s a cat prowling around the house and up in one of the bedrooms the pillow’s even dented someone’s been sleeping. People were going through the house, marching around with their wet boots. It was so sad. I thought it was a good moment to write a book like this. In 2008 almost everyone was having some difficult issue. I thought that what people needed to read about was how people getting through tough times. At the time everyone was facing hard things. I thought the book could be useful in helping people face them.
TP: The chapter on caregiving is striking such a chord with people as that’s something so many people have in their lives. It’s so hard to both care for someone else and care for yourself at the same time.
AS: I think it’s hard for people to not be resentful when they’re caring for someone who’s requiring so much support. Some might feel tempted to feel things like “suck it up” or “figure it out,” and that’s natural. It was interesting listening to Carol in the book, whose partner had a brain injury. She really struggled with having him in the house after he was seriously injured. She tried it out and it didn’t work out for her, and she had to have him go in nursing care. That was hard on her. He was her love. She really loved him.
TP: People seemed to want to tell their stories to you, even involving some really personal details.
AS: I was really touched and honored by how willing people were to share their stories. People wanted to talk about their lives. I guess I gave them the opportunity to use just their first names, because I wanted them to feel comfortable having an intimate conversation and that I would respect their privacy. Everybody seemed to be motivated by the desires you help other people get through hard times.
TP: Many of your subjects found comfort in writing about their experience on a blog. That seems healthy, and so different than a generation ago, and sometimes unlikely.
AS: The guy who started the National Widowers’ Organization, he’s a great guy. It was really great to talk with him because he’s a guy who most of his life wouldn’t have wanted to talk about something like grief. But when his wife passed, he realized he really needed to communicate with others. He needed to find other people. When he went looking for support meetings, there weren’t a lot of widowers. There were a lot of widows, because women live longer. But when he finally started connecting with other widowers, they discovered that they just wanted to talk and talk, and really wanted to connect. That’s why he wanted to start an organization. Having an opportunity for people to share their stories was really healing for everybody. It turns out that the Internet is a place where people can find support. You’d think it’s a thing that separates people, but it’s a place where people find others who have gone through. These are people they didn’t know were out there.
TP: Because these are universal experiences, and best to not go it alone.
AS: We’re all a little broken. It’s good to realize that.
This interview has been edited and condensed for publication.