Steppie: a novel-in-progress

Steppie is the story of Simone Culotta, a painter in her forties who chose childlessness for the sake of her art. When Simone falls in love with Malcolm, a father of two, she tries to find a way to bring his big‑peopled world into her curated life. The novel is an expansion of the titular short story that won the 2021 Crazyhorse Fiction Prize. Ruman Alam, the contest judge, selected Mary’s story about a woman who struggles with her role as a stepmother in what I call a blended family with extra swirls, because it’s blended by blood, and also by race. Malcolm is a Black man, and his daughters are mixed, but for Simone who is white, him being a father is the bigger difference between them.

Like AmericanaSteppie is an off-again/on-again love story, because Simone and Malcolm begin accidentally as an affair. When the truth comes out, Simone forces herself to end it, and hides that truth from her closest friend, lies even. Flawed and funny like the smart, mature women I know, Simone’s bold and quirky language drives the novel. Childless by circumstance, as termed in the new research on the subject, she runs the emotional range—the freedom, the isolation, the generational full‑stop, and the stigma. Steppie is also a novel influenced by place. The urban renewal of Cambridge, MA, and the surrounding cities, permeate the narrative. The difference between born‑theres and transplants is still in play. Malcom is forth‑generation Cambridgian. His children live in the shadow of the Ivys. Whereas Simone, who came for art school and stayed, bought a massive Victorian in Somerville before that city got too pricey. After Malcolm and his fifth-generations move in, he’s torn. A lover of old houses, a fixer at his core, he wants to restore her place, but is still hurt by the seizure of his family home. More than anything, Steppie is the story of Simone Culotta, an unforgettable voice, who upends the concepts of family, belonging, and the overall notion of home.

The author is a first-hand witness to these lives. For ten years, she was a devoted partner to a Black father, and a stepmother to two girls, who named me Steppie. Their family land, taken by eminent domain, is now the cafeteria and playground of MLK elementary. It sits in the neighborhood still known as The Coast, next to a marker in carved marble, honoring their great grandfather. As for the author, Simone’s story is her story, though most of what goes on in the novel is invented. Mary Clark is a woman who—like Simone says—loves children, but doesn’t have any. Also like her, when Mary was in her forties, she was a member of a blended family with extra swirls. And while everyone is  still close, and Mary still love everyone dearly, she left that difficult and glorious life for the sake of her art. 

Published short stories pulled from this novel:

  • Crazyhorse 100, 2021 Fiction Prize Winner, “Steppie.” The short story borrows closely from a late chapter.
  • J Journal: New Writing on Justice published fictionalized version of a personal story that references a property seizure in the mid-1960s by the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the neighborhood now known as “The Coast.” While the characters in the “Cambridge Royalty” are not found in the novel, the real-life historical event, is part of Malcom’s family history.