5 Writers, 7 Questions, No Wrong Answers
Tommy Orange, Aja Gabel and More Take the Lit Hub Author Questionnaire
The Lit Hub Author Questionnaire is a monthly interview featuring seven questions for five authors with new books. This month we talk to:
Elisabeth Cohen · The Glitch
Nick Dybek · The Verdun Affair
Aja Gabel · The Ensemble
Carola Lovering · Tell Me Lies
Tommy Orange · There There
Without summarizing it in any way, what would you say your book is about?
Elisabeth Cohen: Having it all. Or if not all, most.
Tommy Orange: It’s about what it’s about: being Native American, being Indian, now, in the city of Oakland, or a city like Oakland. Most people don’t know what being Native means right now. I have all these Native characters move toward the same thing with varying degrees of heat, need, and urgency. That thing is a powwow at the Oakland Coliseum.
Nick Dybek: Bones. Amnesia. World War I. France. Italy. Hollywood. Deception. Self-deception. Fascism. Exploding mountaintops. Dancing bears. Love and grief. Maybe not in that order.
Aja Gabel: Romantic love. Platonic love. Familial love. The love of a brother. The love of a sister. The love of parents. The absence of family. The search for family. The creation of family. The birth of family and love through the communion of art.
Carola Lovering: Being in your twenties, lust, infatuation, depression, New York City, family, friendship, self-destruction, self-discovery, catharsis.
Without explaining why and without naming other authors or books, can you discuss the various influences on your book?
Aja Gabel: Shostakovich’s Eighth Quartet. Loneliness. Provincetown in winter. The moment in 1998, in the middle of a thrift store on New Year’s Eve, a member of my string quartet announced to us he was leaving to pursue a bigger, better option, and how I felt heartbroken in an entirely new and unsettling way.
Carola Lovering: Writing that has lured me with a sharp, distinctive voice. College and its accompanied mix of excitement and angst. The mysterious art of manipulation. The love I feel for my family. Fleetwood Mac.
Nick Dybek: The BBC World Service. The Rose Reading Room at the NYPL. An outstanding memoir by a Hungarian Hussar. The work of a bunch of brilliant historians. Tortellini served in broth. Cheap LPs by French impressionist composers. The Hollywood Studio System.
Tommy Orange: I was influenced by growing up in Oakland, and by working in the Native community in Oakland for almost a decade. I wanted to write what I couldn’t find anywhere written about. Out of a kind of loneliness maybe.
Elisabeth Cohen: Feeling like my life was going nowhere, trips to northern California to see family, working in tech PR, The Times’ Corner Office column, infographics, first overhearing the word “startup” in college and thinking, how odd, why would you describe a company by how recently it started rather than by what it makes?
Without using complete sentences, can you describe what was going on in your life as you wrote this book?
Tommy Orange: Crisis, writing, crisis, revision, family, school, crisis, love, crisis, struggle, deathwish, writing, more revision, crisis, finality, crisis, love, gratitude, crisis.
Elisabeth Cohen: So much stress—job, kids, spouse. The polar vortex. The kids’ obsession with space. The diesel car that turned out to be a fraud. Listening to a kid voluntarily practice piano every morning at 5:30 am. Working in an open office.
Aja Gabel: A breakup. Air conditioning. A studio apartment. Crying in hot yoga. Ice houses in Houston. Desperation to get this novel out of me.
Carola Lovering: Reflection, introspection, lots of passion. New York City and Colorado. Dreaming. Squeezing in writing time. Late nights. Supportive friendships.
Nick Dybek: Moved from Seattle to New York. Got married. Moved to Italy (briefly). Moved to Minnesota (almost as briefly). Had a daughter. Got a job. Moved to Oregon. Bought a house. It took a while to write this novel.
What are some words you despise that have been used to describe your writing by readers and/or reviewers?
Carola Lovering: Romance novel, chick lit, new adult. “Raunchy” and “naughty.” I don’t think writing about sex candidly makes a book “naughty”—a lot of times sex is just part of the story. There is a cheapness associated with words like that that bothers me.
Elisabeth Cohen: I was innocent about how much “unlikable” would bother me.
Nick Dybek: Melancholy. The thing I don’t like about the word, though, is that some people don’t seem to think of it as a compliment!
Aja Gabel: I really don’t know what “compulsively readable” really means. Feels like it’s code for something.
Tommy Orange: Historical Fiction : (
If you could choose a career besides writing (irrespective of schooling requirements and/or talent) what would it be?
Nick Dybek: I’d like to be like Adam Schiff, but not the real one. The DA from Law & Order.
Tommy Orange: Server.
Elisabeth Cohen: Stay-at-home dad.
Carola Lovering: Psychiatrist or therapist.
Aja Gabel: I’d love to be able to sing. Anything. Clear and high.
What craft elements do you think are your strong suit, and what would you like to be better at?
Elisabeth Cohen: I pay attention to setting. It’s not like shooting a movie where some scenes cost too much to produce. At the end of a long day, I don’t want to read a novel that’s set in a cubicle or somebody else’s messy living room. I’m drawn to writing in the first person, but I’d like to try an old-fashioned, omniscient third.
Aja Gabel: I’m good at flashback and interiority, and I do love a long sentence. I wish I was better at heart-pounding plot.
Nick Dybek: Kind of embarrassing to admit, but plotting comes naturally to me. I still don’t totally understand third-person POV. Also, I can’t really spell.
Carola Lovering: I think I have a strong grasp on voice. I want to be better at everything else.
Tommy Orange: Voice. Is that a craft element? Dialogue? People have said that. I’d like to get better at dialogue.
How do you contend with the hubris of thinking anyone has or should have any interest in what you have to say about anything?
Aja Gabel: You should ask everyone on Twitter the same question. I just know one of my best childhood memories is reading The Outsiders and feeling like this S.E. Hinton had maybe once felt the same exact feeling I’d felt, and that she was a magician, and I was less alone.
Carola Lovering: Every day I’m grateful and still slightly shocked that I’ve gotten this far. Reading fiction has always been an immense comfort to me, especially during times when I’ve felt isolated and alone. If my book can provide a similar kind of solace to even just one reader and remind them that they are not alone in their human experience, that will be enough for me.
Tommy Orange: Honestly, it’s really hard to judge anyone, even myself, regarding what to do with our time. Reading seems really unlikely these days—as something people will ever want to do. Interest? I’m grateful for anyone who takes their time to even consider reading anything I’ve put out there.
Elisabeth Cohen: My book’s about a hubristic Silicon Valley CEO—does that help?
Nick Dybek: That’s difficult. And the only solution I know of, unfortunately, is to picture every potential reader as my mother.