5 Writers, 7 Questions, No Wrong Answers
Introducing the Lit Hub Authors Questionnaire
Welcome to the first edition of the Lit Hub Author Questionnaire, a monthly interview featuring seven questions for five authors with new books… This month we talk to:
Francisco Cantú · The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border
Gabrielle Birkner · Modern Loss: Candid Conversation About Grief. Beginners Welcome. (co-edited with Rebecca Soffer)
Tim Kreider · I Wrote This Book Because I Love You
Rachel Lyon · Self-Portrait with Boy
Sigrid Nunez · The Friend
Without summarizing it in any way, what would you say your book is about?
KREIDER: Ostensibly, romantic/sexual relationships. But this is just a way of suckering the reader into a book about the war and tribal politics, determinism vs. free will, religion and death—you know, the Big Questions.
LYON: I’d say it’s a bildungsroman about art and love, guilt and betrayal.
NUNEZ: Love, suicide, bereavement, solitude, Great Danes, mentors, writers and writing, the consolation of art.
BIRKNER: The kind of love that transcends death, the kind of grief that can’t be contained, the kind of community that forms at the intersection of vulnerability and empathy and humor.
CANTÚ: The normalization of violence in the US/Mexico borderlands.
Without explaining why and without naming other authors or books, can you discuss the various influences on your book?
BIRKNER: For my part (since the book is a collection): my dad, my stepmom, adulthood by fiat, the aughts, logotherapy, actual therapy, New York City.
CANTÚ: Desert landscapes. Dream psychology, psychogeography, and maps. Poetry that grapples with immigration, borders, disappearance, violence, and exile. Corridos, norteño, banda, and tejano music.
KREIDER: The specific literary models I consciously looked to were all stylistic models—none were books about love or relationships. In fact I went out of my way to avoid reading any books that sounded similar to the one I was writing out of fear they would be better than mine and obviate it.
NUNEZ: Suicide loss, the animal kingdom, first-person narration, reality fiction, fairy tales, “Time’s wingèd chariot drawing near.”
LYON: I grew up in DUMBO in the late 80s and early 1990s, the time and place where the book is set. My formative years were defined by the sights, smells, textures, and sounds of that space, so the light on the East River, the pepper of the spice factory, the lead paint flaking off the walls, and the sound of the subway trains going over the Manhattan Bridge are all very much a part of my heart. I also grew up around art—my mother is an artist—and I myself majored in art in college. So I was bound, I think, to write a novel about art.
Without using complete sentences, can you describe what was going on in your life as you wrote this book?
NUNEZ: Growing older, tons of teaching, crippling anxiety over the rise of Trump, desolation and apocalyptic fears, shame at the triumph of misogyny over decency.
CANTÚ: Weekly sessions with a Jungian psychoanalyst. Trying to come to terms with my own culpability in the perpetuation of systemic violence and participation in America’s deportation-industrial complex. Trying to understand to what extent individuals should be seen as separate from the structures and systems of which they are a part.
LYON: Living with three roommates and as many cats in a Brooklyn apartment. Working odd jobs and jobs that were odd. Writing a lot of bad short stories and trying to get them published; getting a lot of rejections; rewriting those stories, abandoning them, writing new ones. Bouncing in and out of a relationship. Rekindling old friendships. Staying up past midnight and getting up before dawn.
BIRKNER: Leaving Brooklyn for LA, raising boys, writing stories, editing stories, missing the serendipity of New York, not missing the weather, missing friends, making friends, worrying about the state and character of this country, rallying, reading, listening, tweeting, not cooking.
KREIDER: Massive secret time-wasting projects, e.g.: my illustrated edition of Kubrick’s Napoleon screenplay, the 1960s Fantastic Four TV show fan site, the Ass Tour of the Met, a map of Zembla.
What are some words you despise that have been used to describe your writing by readers and/or reviewers?
BIRKNER: Writing on grief is often described as “brave.” But “brave” has become shorthand for “the writer went through something I hope never have to experience.” It doesn’t really say anything about the storytelling.
KREIDER: One can’t afford to despise compliments, but it always alarms me when anyone calls my writing “brave.” If you don’t think you’re doing anything brave but everyone else thinks you are, you’re probably doing something stupid.
LYON: I’m grateful for my readers. So far (fingers crossed) reviewers have been kind to me.
CANTÚ: I wouldn’t say I despise them, but I have complicated feelings whenever the words “empathetic” or “compassionate” are used to describe my work. I think we often pat ourselves on the back just for feeling empathy or compassion for someone. But especially with regards to migrants—people who risk their lives daily to cross our border, and who live in constant fear of deportation once they get here—I don’t think that “empathy” or “compassion” goes far enough. I’m interested in what comes next: how do we move beyond empathy and compassion, how do we translate that into action?
NUNEZ: “Deceptively” this, “deceptively” that.
If you could choose a career besides writing (irrespective of schooling requirements and/or talent) what would it be?
LYON: I got in a bicycle accident in October and haven’t fully recovered yet. I also happen to be reading a really wonderful memoir called Lands of Lost Borders, about a young woman who bikes the Silk Road. The injury and that memoir are conspiring together right now to make me wish for a life of bicycling. If physiology and finances (and laziness) were no object, I think I’d like to be a competitive long-distance cyclist, the kind of person who travels around the world to do races like the Tour de France.
NUNEZ: Some sort of career having to do with the study, care, or training of animals.
KREIDER: If I’d ever mastered the times tables I’d much rather have been an astronomer. If I’d taken piano lessons I’d rather have been a composer.
BIRKNER: Social worker (like my mom) or podcast mogul (like the Obama bros).
CANTÚ: Lately I’ve been thinking that I’d like to be a small-scale mezcalero—someone who makes artisan mezcal. I’d love to both cultivate agave on a little piece of property and also go into the wilderness to harvest wild plants.
What craft elements do you think are your strong suit, and what would you like to be better at?
KREIDER: My years as a cartoonist made me good at being funny and gave me a knack for metaphor. I’m pretty good at cadence and euphony. I wish structure came more naturally to me instead of being a matter of frustrating trial and error and color-coded outlines. Mostly I wish I’d read more and were a more disciplined thinker.
CANTÚ: Well, anything that I might be good at is also something I’d like to get better at. As a nonfiction writer, I’m preoccupied with research, with bringing in other voices to help tell a story, voices that have a greater proximity to an issue than my own. I also think a lot about capturing observational details that enable a place to become fully formed in a reader’s mind, but with a minimalist approach—what’s the bare minimum I can convey so that the reader builds a place more fully in their own mind? The same goes for depicting human interactions—what are the tiny things a person does while talking or listening that betray who they are and what they’re going through?
NUNEZ: Different strengths and weaknesses are revealed in different books. I might have handled structure reasonably well in one book, in another book not so much. Most dismayingly, improvement in one skill does not necessarily carry over. I always seem to be starting from scratch. There is not a single element I wouldn’t like to be better at.
BIRKNER: Integrating research and reporting into my work is a strength. I’d like to be better at endings—at finding the right time and place and pace to get out of my stories.
LYON: I’m not sure where I’m strongest. That’s for the reader to decide. But I know what I want to be strongest at: dialogue. I talk a good game about dialogue; I taught a master class on it for the Slice Literary Conference this past fall. I have a lot to say about having a lot to say. But I still have more to learn, for sure. A reviewer on Amazon (no, I haven’t yet learned the hard way not to read my own Amazon reviews!) wrote that her one problem with my novel was that, since I don’t use quotation marks, she had trouble following my dialogue. Personally I think quotation marks are overrated, but I’m taking her critique seriously. I am convinced that when my dialogue is as good as I want it to be, a reader will be able to track it easily without quotation marks or even dialogue tags.
How do you contend with the hubris of thinking anyone has or should have any interest in what you have to say about anything?
CANTÚ: Personally, I’d rather listen to a writer or an artist than to a politician, so to the extent that others feel the same way, that’s great—and I’m happy to oblige.
BIRKNER: I’m no grief expert. I am someone who’s has experienced sudden loss, who keeps it real, who has some thoughts about the mess and the long arc of it all, and who can share what has been most/least helpful to me and to those whose stories I’ve encountered.
LYON: I listen to and read what other people have to say. If I’m listening to them, really listening to them and trying to understand them, I don’t think it’s hubris to believe they’ll have some interest in what I have to say, too; I think it’s pretty reasonable. Everyone has something interesting to say, everyone on Earth, if you really listen to them. Some of us just feel the need to try harder than others to express it—hard enough that, eventually, we write a whole book. Thinking you have something interesting to say is not hubris. It’s not a sin. The real sin is disinterest. Disinterest—apathy, if you want a wickeder word for it—is poisonous.
KREIDER: Writing about oneself is so shamefully indulgent that you’d better have an ironclad justification for it. Mine is that I only use my own experiences as a subject because I don’t presume to understand life well enough to write about anything else. I’m banking on the assumption that I am not special and what’s true of me is more or less universally true. What I tell my students is that the reader had better be getting more out of it than you are.
NUNEZ: Won’t go there. That way lies writer’s block.