5 Writers, 7 Questions, No Wrong Answers
Olivia Laing, Esi Edugyan, 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:
Katya Apekina (The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish)
Esi Edugyan (Washington Black)
Ben Fountain (Beautiful Country Burn Again)
Lydia Kiesling (Golden State)
Olivia Laing (Crudo)
Without summarizing it in any way, what would you say your book is about?
OLIVIA LAING: Anxiety, Trump, marriage, intimacy, Twitter, fascism, heat.
LYDIA KIESLING: Restless women on the road to nowhere.
ESI EDUGYAN: The search for a true understanding of freedom, what it is, how it can be achieved, the handicap of holding idealized notions of what it should be.
KATYA APEKINA: Artists as monsters. Angry muses. Vampiric husbands. Collateral damage. Echoes and mirrors. Children of the fallout. Life in the aftershocks. Kaleidoscopic narratives. Bottomless hunger. Not knowing where you end and where another person begins. Consuming others and being consumed. The wobbly construction of self from leftover scraps. Internal apocalypse. New York in the ‘90s. Road trips! A keen desire for things one should not have.
BEN FOUNTAIN: Beautiful Country Burn Again is about the current moment in America: what it is, how we got here, and how we might emerge as an arguably functional constitutional democracy.
Without explaining why and without naming other authors or books, can you discuss the various influences on your book?
BEN FOUNTAIN: My influences came from a wide swath of my life—experiences, people I’ve known, things I’ve read. Anything and anyone that could shed light on why things are the way they are, that’s what I looked to in trying to find my way.
KATYA APEKINA: Oral histories, dreamscapes, artist memoirs, biased biographies, Balthus paintings, case studies. A phoenix rising out of the ashes of a failed nonfiction project.
LYDIA KIESLING: Intelligent women who find themselves in peculiar situations, viz: Why am I crossing this desert with donkeys? (For a man.) Why am I on this plane to Jamaica? (For the hell of it, and also for a man.) Why am in this A-frame cabin in the Sierra? (For a man, and also a dissertation). Why am I transcribing issues of The Poodle Breeder? (For a child.) Why am I nursing this other woman’s baby? (For the cause.)
OLIVIA LAING: The internet, Berlin before the war, ‘80s experiments, time’s horrible, ecstatic passage.
ESI EDUGYAN: Books about the discovery of marine life in the 19th century; books about hot-air ballooning; books about slavery in Barbados and the abolitionist movement in England; books about life at slave forts.
Without using complete sentences, can you describe what was going on in your life as you wrote this book?
LYDIA KIESLING: Mired in toddler shit. Mad about work and parental leave. Mad about politics. Peeing on sticks.
ESI EDUGYAN: Son’s birth, daughter’s toddlerhood, home renovation, intermittent travel.
OLIVIA LAING: Shared beds, smashed crabs, global chaos.
BEN FOUNTAIN: “Ball of Confusion” by the Temptations! “That’s what, the world is, today…” Lots of time in airplanes and cars, too much screen time (computer, cell phone), long runs for sweat therapy. “Indian Summers” on PBS for warm-weather fashion tips.
KATYA APEKINA: Art residency—dead deer bisected by barbed wire fence. Teaching. Engagement. Pig roast in a Victorian walking park. Moving west, moving west. Courthouse wedding. Bolaño. Managing a 27-unit apartment building. SAT tutoring at a cram school. Despair. Another art residency—purple mountains and horses. Throwing everything away and starting over. Turning 30. Despair. Pregnancy. Vomiting. Man outside my window leaning against a palm tree huffing keyboard cleaner and screaming. Moving. Childbirth. Mailman hand-delivers a grant check that pays for a whole year of my life! Finish. Turns out didn’t finish. Move. Finish. Turns out didn’t finish. Finish. Despair. Dog died. Found a publisher! Daughter turned 4.
What are some words you despise that have been used to describe your writing by readers and/or reviewers?
ESI EDUGYAN: Post-colonial, bleak, extremely readable.
LYDIA KIESLING: Huh. I would love to one day have enough reviews to be annoyed by them.
KATYA APEKINA: I guess my novel has been criticized for being “too dark.” But, I don’t know, it is dark and that’s not for everyone! So maybe that doesn’t bother me. The things I write are slippery and not easily categorizable, and maybe I enjoy making people a little bit uncomfortable, with form, with content. I think discomfort is important.
OLIVIA LAING: Memoir, gentle, autofiction.
BEN FOUNTAIN: None come to mind. It’s not something I spend much time thinking about.
If you could choose a career besides writing (irrespective of schooling requirements and/or talent) what would it be?
KATYA APEKINA: A squeamish and lazy surgeon. An inattentive botanist. A paranoid psychic.
LYDIA KIESLING: I would be a doctor and go to the Narrative Medicine program at Columbia.
ESI EDUGYAN: Doctor of Chinese medicine, lighthouse keeper, criminal lawyer—the possibilities are endless.
BEN FOUNTAIN: A really good (and reasonably successful) jazz pianist.
OLIVIA LAING: Rock star. Or gardener.
What craft elements do you think are your strong suit, and what would you like to be better at?
OLIVIA LAING: My penmanship is poor. Other than that, I don’t like to think about writing as a craft.
KATYA APEKINA: Because plot and structure don’t come naturally to me, I focus on them a lot. I think if left completely to my own devices my book would just be a pile of metaphors.
ESI EDUGYAN: Character is what comes to me first; containing these characters in an elegantly unfolding structure is always the pursuit.
LYDIA KIESLING: I am good at describing feelings that I personally have had. I would like to be better at describing feelings that I have never had, and also at using the third-person, simple past tense.
BEN FOUNTAIN: Ehhhhh. . . I’d like to be better at dealing with time. I don’t know how good I am at it, but I like writing dialogue, so maybe that’s a sign that I’m halfway decent at it?
How do you contend with the hubris of thinking anyone has or should have any interest in what you have to say about anything?
ESI EDUGYAN: No one’s books are for everyone; there will always be a part of the reading public that would rather read someone else. I’m okay with that.
BEN FOUNTAIN: By concentrating very hard on the work and trying to get it right.
KATYA APEKINA: The novel feels like it is both mine and not. There’s a lot of setting up and outlining and pushing a boulder up a hill, and during that time I’m filled with doubt and despair—about the work, about myself, about the audience’s reaction. But when I get to the top and let go and start writing, the boulder takes on its own speed, and I become a channel. I go into a trance and I’m always surprised by what comes out. What I mean is that when it’s going, it doesn’t really feel like I am steering the ship and thus I don’t really have to contend with any hubris. Just like my child does not feel like an extension of myself, but like her own person, it’s the same thing with the book.
OLIVIA LAING: I don’t think making art is hubristic.
LYDIA KIESLING: If I don’t figure out how to write the feelings I feel or the places I have seen in just the right way I will explode, irrespective of how people read the results.