Chloe Aridjis, Jen Beagin, and More Take the Lit Hub Questionnaire
5 Writers, 7 Questions, No Wrong Answers
The Lit Hub Author Questionnaire is a monthly interview featuring seven questions for five authors with new books. This month we talk to:
Chloe Aridjis (Sea Monsters)
Jen Beagin (Vacuum in the Dark)
Boris Fishman (Savage Feast: Three Generations, Two Continents, and Dinner Table: A Memoir with Recipes)
Lindsay Stern (The Study of Animal Languages)
Lauren Wilkinson (American Spy)
Without summarizing it in any way, what would you say your book is about?
LINDSAY STERN: Being trapped behind your own face; escaping occasionally & imperfectly by making sounds with others.
LAUREN WILKINSON: Betrayals. Ones that are both large-scale (on the level of global politics) and small-scale (between family members).
CHLOE ARIDJIS: Adolescent reverie, exile, disenchantment. But mainly disenchantment.
BORIS FISHMAN: Hunger. Often of the non-literal variety.
JEN BEAGIN: Cleaning houses for a living. Cleaning out your psyche. Bummers. Shitting where you eat, and other mistakes. Making amends.
Without explaining why and without naming other authors or books, can you discuss the various influences on your book?
BORIS FISHMAN: Living with the constant worry that there won’t be enough.
LAUREN WILKINSON: My mother’s the primary influence on my book.
JEN BEAGIN: Taos, New Mexico. Old loves. Redondo Beach. Little Sweden, the motel my parents managed in Bakersfield, California. Terry Gross. My own biography.
CHLOE ARIDJIS: Mexico in the late ‘80s. Émigrés. The Soviet circus. Ancient shipwrecks. 19th-century French poetry. My own adolescence: the constant daydream and the bands that provided the soundtrack.
LINDSAY STERN: A gimmick lie detector on a philosophy professor’s file cabinet flashing red as birdsong wafted through his open window.
Without using complete sentences, can you describe what was going on in your life as you wrote this book?
LAUREN WILKINSON: Social death.
JEN BEAGIN: A breakup. A Whiting award. A life-changing first agent. A move to the Hudson Valley. A room in a 280-year old Dutch farmhouse with fifty-thousand bees living in the kitchen and two miniature, much-loved donkeys in the backyard. The death of one of the donkeys. Wine. Slightly less self-doubt and loathing.
BORIS FISHMAN: Depression. Meeting my wife. The peaks-that-feel-like-valleys of a writing life.
CHLOE ARIDJIS: The same old rhythms, a few trips. Guest curated an exhibition at Tate Liverpool, starred in an art house film called Female Human Animal, did a bit of essay writing. Activities that may have fed into the book in mysterious ways.
LINDSAY STERN: A studio above a grocery store in Cape Town; headlines about the Oscar Pistorius trial at the checkout line downstairs; avocados; frozen peas; no visitors except the concierge of a pink hotel.
What are some words you despise that have been used to describe your writing by readers and/or reviewers?
JEN BEAGIN: Triggering.
CHLOE ARIDJIS: Anything that suggests it’s autofiction or some sort of self-portraiture. It’s unfair to immediately assume an author is writing about herself simply because it’s in first person and there’s some biographical data that matches up. This happens much more to female authors, needless to say, as if we’re less capable of distance and invention.
LAUREN WILKINSON: I love every single little word of every nice review! But an opinion in a lukewarm review that annoyed me was that my book “isn’t as complicated as John Le Carré.” I mean . . . okay? Taken at face value, I’m not sure that means anything. So maybe the reviewer really meant my book “isn’t as good,” which seems like an unreasonable metric—Le Carré’s a master of the genre and this is my first novel.
LINDSAY STERN: Words I can handle, but stars? Why 1-5? Why stars, and not hearts or asteroids? Then again, books are sort of like dead planets . . .
BORIS FISHMAN: Despise is too strong, but: “Jewish.” Or some variation of the description Savage Feast got on Publishers Marketplace: “A memoir of the challenges of navigating between two cultures and trying to find where you belong and who you are.” In the first case, I’m so proud of being Jewish, but I always flinch when the work is referred to as anything other than capable of reaching anyone. It’s a lazy perception, part of our need to classify, identify, columnify, reduce. No, really: I challenge a reader/reviewer to try to see in a “Jewish” book—assuming it’s a good book, of course—something less obvious. In the latter case, that’s a lazy and obvious thing to say about it. It’s not wrong, but it’s, again, superficial (and poorly written).
If you could choose a career besides writing (irrespective of schooling requirements and/or talent) what would it be?
CHLOE ARIDJIS: Astronomer.
LAUREN WILKINSON: I’d be a surgeon.
BORIS FISHMAN: Vegetable farmer. Electronica DJ. Construction.
LINDSAY STERN: A diver, specifically the person who affixes the suction-cup tracking tags to free sperm whales, thereby convincing them to let her do that.
JEN BEAGIN: Helicopter pilot by day, gifted painter by night. Or . . . Isabelle Huppert.
What craft elements do you think are your strong suit, and what would you like to be better at?
CHLOE ARIDJIS: Voice and atmosphere always come first. Structure is what takes longest to figure out. Plot—whatever that means, exactly—happens but I rarely map it out in advance (that said, with Sea Monsters I had a general sense of what would happen since it’s loosely based on an episode from my life).
JEN BEAGIN: I can write dialogue all day long, but I have a crappy vocabulary and I wish I were better with plot.
LAUREN WILKINSON: My strong suit is that I have a great imagination, and I’m not afraid to follow it wherever it wants to go. A weakness is that I could afford to pay more attention to how my writing functions on the sentence level.
BORIS FISHMAN: I do dialogue well, and my sentences can have a distinctive style without trying too hard, something that took a very long time. I’d like to be better at imagination. My biggest weakness as a writer is I imagine like an adult, not a child. Because, in some ways, I’m stuck being a child. The nine-year-old who immigrated. Some of the things that happened around that time kind of froze me in place.
LINDSAY STERN: Getting the FedExed manuscript from my editor after our first round of edits, I paged through to find that she’d suggested tweaking or deleting my favorite sections. “Why did she buy this?” I remember thinking. It was gutting but intriguing, because it meant she’d seen something in the book that I didn’t. So I’d say I’d like to be better at making that distinction independently.
How do you contend with the hubris of thinking anyone has or should have any interest in what you have to say about anything?
JEN BEAGIN: I don’t, which is partly why I waited until I was well into my thirties to start writing. Wasn’t published until I was 43. Also, I forgot to have children. I tend to think of my books as moody and unstable teenage daughters. I don’t expect them to be popular or well-liked, or to take care of me when I’m old. I can only hope they find their people.
LAUREN WILKINSON: Is it hubristic to want to tell another person a story that you hope they’ll enjoy? I think of a reader’s interest as something to be earned, not something that’s owed to me, and I’m sure that’s what keeps me from feeling like writing is an excessively prideful endeavor.
LINDSAY STERN: That’s the beauty of hubris: you don’t have to contend with it. You just ride the updrafts.
CHLOE ARIDJIS: Good question. I don’t. I never embark on anything with the thought that people need to hear what I have to say.
BORIS FISHMAN: I disagree with the premise of the question; I don’t see why it’s hubris; the writing world’s modesty laws feel frustrating, to put it kindly. When you are regularly being passed up, rejected, ignored, etc.—how exactly are you supposed to find the faith to keep going other than hubris, arguably of a very healthy kind? If you’re honest, work hard, spend the time and keep your conscience turned on—why shouldn’t someone else benefit from the three years you spent thinking deeply about something, trying to make art from it, revising endlessly? We don’t wonder about the hubris of conceptual artists, who work alone, too. Of people who want us to listen to their music, wear their jewelry, eat their food.