5 Writers, 7 Questions, No Wrong Answers
Teddy Wayne Talks Inspiration, Craft, and Dream Jobs
The Lit Hub Author Questionnaire is a monthly interview featuring seven questions for five authors with new books. This month we talk to:
Kate Greathead · Laura & Emma (full disclosure: she’s my wife)
Yascha Mounk · The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is In Danger
& How To Save It
Jon Pineda · Let’s No One Get Hurt
Shobha Rao · Girls Burn Brighter
Luis Alberto Urrea · The House of Broken Angels
Without summarizing it in any way, what would you say your book is about?
Luis Alberto Urrea: Family. Love. Death. The ripples one life leaves within a family. And not all Mexicans are “bad hombres.”
Jon Pineda: Economic inequality and its legacy. Race and identity. Dangers of group mentality. Civil War re-enactors. Fly fishing. Internet pranking videos. Resilience of youth.
Kate Greathead: The sad strangeness of living on the Upper East Side. Eighties and nineties New York. Making an unconventional family. Whether or not it’s better to be self-aware.
Yascha Mounk: What we can do to save something incredibly important that we have long taken for granted: liberal democracy.
Shobha Rao: Bananas.
Without explaining why and without naming other authors or books, can you discuss the various influences on your book?
JP: Being biracial in the American South. Son Volt’s song “Drown” on a loop in my head. Having to digest the endlessly deranged narratives of those in power.
YM: My family has, for three generations, had the terrible habit of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It has given me a keen appreciation of how quickly everything we think we know about politics can turn out to be tragically false.
LAU: My own brother’s death. The current political climate. Is it OK to mention the Corleone family? And the border, always the border.
KG: Michael Apted’s Up series, the Moth, internet discussion boards.
SR: The Badlands of South Dakota, a small newborn piglet wandering the bus station in Rome, the rural landscape of India from the window of a train, a temple that is painted so white that it glows through the night, the scent of new cloth, the ache of new love.
Without using complete sentences, can you describe what was going on in your life as you wrote this book?
YM: Trump, Brexit, Le Pen, Orban.
SR: Silence, storm, the terror and the delight of the open prairie, wolves, cattle, coyotes, snakes and wrens. Rage, because so little changes. Dread, because it all changes so fast. Elation, because change is how we know we’re alive.
JP: Shelved a failed novel. Started fly fishing the shad run in mid-April (when the river in our town fills with these bright fish from the ocean). The run-up to the 2016 election. Those insufferable big game trophy photos of “the sons.” Thinking a lot about how privilege is a pyramid scheme.
KG: Losing my job, meeting my husband, getting pregnant and struggling to become an adult before the baby arrives.
LAU: Death in my family. My daughter got married. Mourning and celebrating in equal part. Laughing and crying at the same time for months.
What are some words you despise that have been used to describe your writing by readers and/or reviewers?
SR: Torture porn, Indian culture is so awful, WTF with that ending. . . Couldn’t it just be happy?
LAU: Not despised: just tired of these easy tropes. Mexican-American literature, magical realism, Garcia Marquez.
YM: Some reviewers seem taken aback that, despite the many things that are wrong in the world right now, I’m actually making a positive argument about the things we should preserve. But to know what to be against, you also need to know what you are for.
JP: Gorgeous. Sexy. Luminous. Unassuming.
If you could choose a career besides writing (irrespective of schooling requirements and/or talent) what would it be?
KG: I love the theater of a courtroom. I’m too riddled with self-doubt to be a judge or lawyer but I would love to be a court stenographer or the bailiff.
JP: Fly fishing guide. Professional surfer (but one who doesn’t have to be on tour). Luthier. Shoemaker.
SR: A pirate. Not the modern-day kind that terrorizes cargo ships, but the kind with a parrot on her shoulder, a map with a big X, and a plumed cap. I’d hunt for treasure, and if not the treasure, I’d at least come away with a good story, a tropical disease, and the ability to navigate by the stars. That, or an actor.
LAU: Probably a guitarist. I’d be Jimmy Page.
What craft elements do you think are your strong suit, and what would you like to be better at?
LAU: I would like to be better at plot. I am good at outbreaks of the sublime and writing funny tragedy.
JP: Imagery and dialogue—they’re the fastest ways I find access to the story. I know I could be better at plot, but characterization is what I tend to remember most about a novel.
KG: I would say dialogue is my strong suit. I don’t consider it a talent so much as a knack for the remembering funny and ridiculous things that other people say. I would like to be better at structure and plot.
SR: I would like to get better at plot. Dialogue too. The movement and song of storytelling. Regardless, everything is a work in progress. Even (maybe especially) the elements I consider my strengths: description and character development.
YM: Growing up in Germany, I was really lazy in high school. So I adopted a simple strategy: Instead of studying, I would try to write the most convoluted sentences I could. Whenever my teachers couldn’t understand me, they’d give me an A. Thanks to some great teachers, I’ve long since outgrown that terrible habit. I now pride myself in the fact that I write serious books that are easy to read. But I think I could do even more to weave vivid characters into my writing.
How do you contend with the hubris of thinking anyone has or should have any interest in what you have to say about anything?
JP: I feel like years of rejection have kept me honest.
SR: When you’ve been writing for 15 years without an iota of encouragement, all the hubris I could’ve ever had was obliterated. So why read anything I’ve written? There is no answer. Or, there is only the ancient one: we are in a cave, there is a fire, shadows flicker on the walls, a voice rises up and begins to tell a story. You don’t have to listen, but why not listen? Why not have a story, spoken into the void, lead you through the dark night?
LAU: Here, I offer my six-word (plus five) memoir: Border boy silenced over and over. Chose to make you listen. And people have been kind.
YM: For the first time in my life, I’m writing about something that I consider to be vitally important to all of us. Obviously, I worry that I may have gotten some important things wrong. But I don’t worry that people will waste their time if they think about what got us into this huge political mess, and how to get out of it.
KG: I don’t think I have anything new or especially intelligent worth saying about anything. This is not false modesty, I’m not trying to sound humble; I actually have very low self-esteem. I compensate for a feeling of intellectual inferiority by trying to mine the bowels of my psyche and summon the courage to reveal feelings that are shameful or taboo. To expose and articulate the things that we are not proud of, but make us human, is what I think I have to offer as a writer.