Kathryn Davis, T Kira Madden, 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:
Kathryn Davis (The Silk Road)
John Lanchester (The Wall)
T Kira Madden (Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls)
Namwali Serpell (The Old Drift)
Bryan Washington (Lot)
Without summarizing it in any way, what would you say your book is about?
Bryan Washington: Houston and sex and ghosts and gentrification and being the first one to leave and being the last one to stay and falling in love all the time and being okay with that.
Kathryn Davis: Walking. Also the space/time continuum.
T Kira Madden: That weird gay Wiccan horse girl you made fun of in middle school.
Namwali Serpell: Error—as foil, as origin. Zambia. And, if I may quote myself: “Every family is a war but some are more civil than others.”
John Lanchester: Climate change.
Without explaining why and without naming other authors or books, can you discuss the various influences on your book?
John Lanchester: Also climate change—a mixture of a recurring dream I had and research I’ve done over the years.
Namwali Serpell: Bugs, the Zambian space program, hair, the cosmopolis, syncretism, etymology, microbiology, eyes, fairy tales, sci-fi, chitenge.
T Kira Madden: Grief. Drew Barrymore’s friendship with E.T. Lip gloss.
Kathryn Davis: Tibetan Buddhism, my old boyfriend (Stephen) the Arctic archaeologist, Le Chemin de Saint-Jacques, Tarot cards, my sixth-grade teacher Robespierre L. Fine, my students.
Bryan Washington: Montrose in the summer; East End in the fall; Blonde; Déjenme Llorar; The Sun’s Tirade; Sound and Color; Con Todo El Mundo; Byron Kim’s paintings; sweating in Houston’s endless traffic; Yi Yi; Moonlight; Spa Night; smoking on the roof of a Corolla; laughing over bowls of menudo, hungover, the mornings after.
Without using complete sentences, can you describe what was going on in your life as you wrote this book?
Bryan Washington: Ate a lot, laughed a lot, cried a lot, drank water.
Namwali Serpell: Grad school, tenure, gentrification (external and internal), dual citizenship, a return to young Mwali, many grand and steadying friendships, five cities, four operations, three loves, two heartbreaks, one published book, one unpublished book, the deepest loss I’ve ever undergone.
John Lanchester: No! Don’t remember. Short strange answer but always the case for my novels. Different part of the brain.
Kathryn Davis: My husband getting sicker and sicker, lots of walking, sitting around the table with my students, more walking, talking with my shrink (Polly) and my friend (Louise), more walking, more talking, talking and walking. Also a lot of reading.
T Kira Madden: Dad died; Mom sick; House burned down; Ancestry.com; Identity crisis; Great sex; Broke up with friends; Got threatened & stalked; Horses; Made up with friends; FBI; Cystic acne; Road trips; Federal indictment of stalker; Unexpected sweetness; Summer job in a sex shop; Collected rocks; Engaged in Wyoming; Sichuan food.
What are some words you despise that have been used to describe your writing by readers and/or reviewers?
Namwali Serpell: “Difficult,” “able,” “like a British policeman.”
Kathryn Davis: Difficult. Like the writer was on LSD.
Bryan Washington: All consideration is bittersweet.
John Lanchester: Like most writers, I don’t like being described. I’m suspicious of it. I haven’t read a review of one of my books since the turn of the century.
T Kira Madden: Brave.
If you could choose a career besides writing (irrespective of schooling requirements and/or talent) what would it be?
T Kira Madden: Designing magic tricks and stage illusions, hands down.
John Lanchester: Constitutional monarch of a rich, stable democracy with strong privacy laws.
Kathryn Davis: I’d like to be a concert pianist. But only if I could be a really great concert pianist.
Bryan Washington: A baker.
Namwali Serpell: Zoologist.
What craft elements do you think are your strong suit, and what would you like to be better at?
Kathryn Davis: My ear is good. It helps me bridge the gaps between parts. But because it’s good at doing this it makes me less adept at explaining things.
Bryan Washington: I’m pretty good with dialogue. Everything else is disastrous.
Namwali Serpell: My answers to both of your questions are metaphors.
John Lanchester: I like every book to set a different set of problems, and the problems are what’s interesting when you’re writing—they’re what keep the process fresh. I find there’s always a dialectic between strengths and weaknesses in writing a book. As Henry James put it, “Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task.”
T Kira Madden: I’ve worked really, really hard to develop a fine-tuned ear. I’m not perfect, but I can hear when a sentence is a dud. I know when I’ve found its music. That micro-level care is what I enjoy—and succeed at—most. Desires? I wish plotting came more naturally to me. I wish I could find the deeper tragedies of my characters lives before killing them off. Death is usually lazy.
How do you contend with the hubris of thinking anyone has or should have any interest in what you have to say about anything?
T Kira Madden: We all know the famous Tolstoy opening: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” and I think there’s a reason for that. Misery is familiar and often hilarious, and my book is no Anna Karenina, but you can finish it much more quickly.
Namwali Serpell: I’m sorry, did you say something? I was too busy dreaming.
Bryan Washington: I’m grateful to anyone choosing to hear me out, you know? Loads of other shit they could be doing.
Kathryn Davis: I’m old enough now that if I really thought no one was interested in what I’ve been writing I’d have stopped doing it. So, stubbornness, I guess.
John Lanchester: I know it’s more polite to play along, but I have to say that I don’t accept the premise of this question. Plenty of aspiring writers read Lit Hub and they shouldn’t be made to feel they are hubristic in wanting to write. It’s OK to want to tell stories; it’s OK to want to be heard.