5 Writers, 7 Questions, No Wrong Answers
David Chariandy, Lexi Freiman, and More Take the Lit Hub Questionnaire
The Lit Hub Author Questionnaire is a monthly interview featuring seven questions for five authors with new books. This month we talk to:
David Chariandy (Brother)
Claudia Dey (Heartbreaker)
Lexi Freiman (Inappropriation)
Ling Ma (Severance)
Jon McGregor (The Reservoir Tapes)
Without summarizing it in any way, what would you say your book is about?
DAVID CHARIANDY: Kinship. Music. Tenderness among vulnerable men. The heterogenously “ethnic” suburb. Orange juice concentrate. State violence. Black life.
LEXI FREIMAN: Identity politics, social media, the illusion of the self, empathy, offensive jokes and who gets to make them.
JON MCGREGOR: What people talk about when you give them fifteen minutes to talk without interruption. Also: yearning. And llamas, woods, rivers, foxes, barns, and gossip.
CLAUDIA DEY: The isolated north. Fear of water. Asteroidal events. The growing and feathering of hair. The disfigurement of fire. Teenagers. Duct tape. Animals. Ghosts. Camouflage. And possibly Air Supply.
LING MA: The manufacture of Bibles in China. The nostalgia for a country that’s not really yours. Immigration. Living in New York during your twenties, at a time when it is owned by shell companies and Sex and the City tours. Working in an office. The twin cities of Hong Kong and Shenzhen. Shopping as leisure activity. The excitement of being in certain Chinese cities at night.
Without explaining why and without naming other authors or books, can you discuss the various influences on your book?
JON MCGREGOR: Being lost in the woods; wondering what lies beneath the reservoir; the smell of animal scat and the sideways flight of birds; the things people give away when they forget they’re still talking.
LING MA: Vivian Maier’s photographs, the idea of Terrence Malick directing a zombie B movie and the accompanying voiceover, Maurizio Cattelan’s Guggenheim retrospective All, Richard Pryor’s Live on the Sunset Strip, Edward Yang’s Yi Yi, office TV shows like The Sopranos, Mad Men, and The X-Files, the filial duty to one’s Chinese parents while being a couch potato. Getting laid off and the high of letting go.
CLAUDIA DEY: God’s dark psychodrama, Long Hair Contests, that singer with the rhinestones around her eyes, that prize fighter, and every wolf-versus-the-wolf-pack book that cannot be described or shelved with any consistency, but upon reading, enters your blood stream and rearranges you.
LEXI FREIMAN: Call-out culture, the alt-right, Australia, America, fearless satirists of yore.
DAVID CHARIANDY: The childhood threat of “seeing myself” in newspaper headlines. The faith of immigrants and the doubts of their children. The formal and philosophical implications of turntablism. Wildflowers.
Without using complete sentences, can you describe what was going on in your life as you wrote this book?
CLAUDIA DEY: Sons knock on door. Open door. Taller sons. Still married. Phew. Appendix ruptures. Surgeon’s initials on abdomen look like Van Halen logo. Cabin in woods, fast car, windows rolled down. “Billie Jean” on radio. Step out of moving vehicle. Whoa. Emergency brake. Here. Not here. What do you call that? That state? Where the writing happens? Heaven, hell, heaven.
LEXI FREIMAN: Penniless in a midtown skyscraper, soba noodles with peanut butter and soy sauce aka “sesame noodles,” the end of Obama’s presidency, Trump’s election, self-doubt.
DAVID CHARIANDY: Teaching. Child-rearing. A whole lot of doubt. Late nights of Chunky Monkey. The long, unfinished work of freedom.
LING MA: Small upstate town, circumscribed simple life, state of suspension from my “real” life, suffocating sense of captivity, avoidant behaviors, long uphill walks to campus, taking small, incremental pleasures where you can find them, falling in love very slowly and clunkily, occasional escapes to New York and monstrous shopping sprees while there.
JON MCGREGOR: Unrelenting time pressure—grief—relocation—tremendously joyful acts of love—parenthood—coffee
What are some words you despise that have been used to describe your writing by readers and/or reviewers?
LING MA: All consideration is good consideration. But I never quite understand what “complex” means. It’s the tofu of descriptors, bland and spongy.
JON MCGREGOR: Experimental. Ordinary lives. Quiet. Drily humorous.
DAVID CHARIANDY: “Timely” (because the violence against brown and especially Black people is apparently a new thing). Of course, I’m lucky I’m reviewed at all. Guess I’m wary, though, at how my writing is described as “immigrant.” Isn’t it about the children of immigrants? What do we call them?
LEXI FREIMAN: Heady, morally suspect (paraphrasing), ironic, caustic (a woman is caustic, a man is sharp).
CLAUDIA DEY: “Quirky.” “Feminine.” (To these words, I put on my D.I.Y. balaclava, and with my flexed hands, make a triangle shape around my hottest parts.)
If you could choose a career besides writing (irrespective of schooling requirements and/or talent) what would it be?
JON MCGREGOR: Plain-clothes traffic cop with zero tolerance for your irresponsible BS.
CLAUDIA DEY: Lead singer of a punk band. Also: recluse.
DAVID CHARIANDY: I’m lucky to teach, too, although my heart is definitely with writing. Hard question for a lot of reasons. Maybe I finish books because I’m bad at imagining other options.
LEXI FREIMAN: My previous career, acting. But this time I wouldn’t care as much and might therefore be extraordinary. Failing that, a Klonopin addict on reality TV. Failing that, full-time at an elephant orphanage.
LING MA: A shopkeeper.
What craft elements do you think are your strong suit, and what would you like to be better at?
CLAUDIA DEY: Voice, I guess. And a monk’s discipline to work without photo-shopping it, drafting the novel to death. I like this idea that a healthy heartbeat is irregular; I want everything I read, make and touch to feel irregular. If I was a person who went to the gym and there was a “plot machine,” I would avoid that machine but know I should probably get on it.
DAVID CHARIANDY: I’m economical, and I want each sentence to shine and matter. So far, I’ve been a sucker for non-linearity—the hard work of the cut and break. I’d maybe like to try writing something longer and more linear. Maybe not.
LING MA: I can easily see the logistics of my characters’ daily lives, which transit routes they take, what they’re inclined to eat for dinner. The rest of it is a mystery to me.
JON MCGREGOR: I am good at writing quietly experimental fiction about ordinary lives with a drily humorous twist but really I just wanna dance.
LEXI FREIMAN: I can fly a joke into the side of a building. Would like to be more oceanic.
How do you contend with the hubris of thinking anyone has or should have any interest in what you have to say about anything?
LEXI FREIMAN: I flip through a book on the bestsellers table/do a dance-meditation class to access a deep sense of shared cosmic consciousness.
DAVID CHARIANDY: I have doubts like this all the time. All the time. But I guess I also don’t feel important enough to write about stuff that doesn’t matter.
JON MCGREGOR: This is the hubris that gets books written; recognizing it as hubris gets books edited. Writing and editing is my jam.
CLAUDIA DEY: I smother that question to death every night with an assassin’s swift grace. Where would we be without fiction?
LING MA: I pretend I’m a man. Just kidding, sort of. The more accurate answer is that I wrote it for myself.