Lit Hub Asks: 5 Authors, 7 Questions, No Wrong Answers
Featuring Emma Cline, Ayad Akhtar, Emily Gray Tedrowe, and More
The Lit Hub Author Questionnaire is a monthly interview featuring seven questions for five authors with new books. This month we talk to:
Ayad Akhtar (Homeland Elegies)
Tobias Carroll (Political Sign)
Emma Cline (Daddy)
Emily Gray Tedrowe (The Talented Miss Farwell)
M.O. Walsh (The Big Door Prize)
Without summarizing it in any way, what would you say your book is about?
Ayad Akhtar: Debt, Sex, Scranton, Chateaux Margaux ’59, It’s a Wonderful Life, the Trinity of War, my father.
M.O. Walsh: Love. Laughter. Trauma. Dreams. Hopes. Reality. A trombone.
Tobias Carroll: The surprising number of things that can be political signs, the importance of media literacy, whether a picture of a political sign is itself a political sign, and how to read a town as though it was an open book.
Emily Gray Tedrowe: The nature of obsession. Hiding in plain sight. “Everyone has to have a code” (The Hound, Game of Thrones). The kind of best friend you make in a small town. Couture. Country music, of the deeply uncool variety. Buried treasure. “…After spending much of your career trying to think the way other folks might think” (David Means, from “The Tree Line, Kansas, 1934”).
Emma Cline: Sad dads, self-delusions, personality disorders, pharmaceuticals, gender dynamics, dysfunction in families and how that echoes in society, the sadness of getting what you think you want, the distance between our self-image and reality, the inability of abusers to fully accept the harm they cause. Shame. Sex and power. Alienation.
Without explaining why and without naming other authors or books, can you discuss the various influences on your book?
M.O. Walsh: My marriage. Your potential. A singing mailman.
Emma Cline: A brief stint working at American Apparel in Santa Monica, growing up in this culture, celebrity scandals, family systems theory, the Enneagram, the Daily Mail, the apology notes from MeToo abusers.
Tobias Carroll: Growing up in Monmouth County, New Jersey, was a big influence. Coming of age in the punk scene was as well. Family and friends helped to shape this one in a big way—both through pointing me in some interesting directions and challenging me in other ways. And living through a politically tumultuous period, both locally and globally, also played a major role in shaping this book.
Ayad Akhtar: Apple and Eve Brazilian Wax, Goldman Sachs, La Croix Sparkling, The Florida Panhandle, Dixon Ticonderoga #2, The Prophet.
Emily Gray Tedrowe: The Talented Miss Farwell came into instant focus for me when I listened to a news report about a small town government employee indicted for embezzling what would turn out to be $50 million over 20 years. But the reason the FBI delayed arresting her for several weeks? They didn’t believe a woman alone could have pulled off such an epic, complex crime.
Without using complete sentences, can you describe what was going on in your life as you wrote this book?
Emily Gray Tedrowe: All data from Strava.com: 1/3/15: “10 fucking miles–insane weather: slush on ground, freezing pouring rain. Legs fine, Achilles tweaky. Avg 10:49 but all over the place b/c of footing.” 6/13/15: “7 at Pheasant Branch Conservatory. Did trail loop twice, tons of ideas for book, awesome.” 11/6/16: “Terrible election anxiety. 2.2 with S. Questions for C. re Chapter 14, getting there!” 5/6/17: “10 from Ragdale, 10:34 avg, revising revising. Still thinking about Kipchoge: amazing.” 10/20/17: “12 total, tempo 10. Had to go to the well on this one. 1 mi WU; 10 @ 9:44-ish; 1 mi drag/walk CD.”
Ayad Akhtar: Introduction to Political Philosophy, a Roman Holiday, Righteous Anger and Troubled Sleep, Cantata #86, an Evening Redness in the West.
M.O. Walsh: Raising kids. Overcoming doubt. Re-sodding lawns. Looking for fish. Fighting, like hell, to stay optimistic.
Emma Cline: Sonoma County, grad school, a tiny house in Gowanus, going to a good Buddhist therapist, half-moving to LA, full-on moving to LA.
Tobias Carroll: Residencies, arguments, research, epiphanies. The past observed; the past dissected. Weird thunderstorms over Nebraska. Northern lights over Iceland. Panicked thoughts: not enough research? Panicked thoughts: too much research? Many bus rides. Terrible sleep cycles.
What are some words you despise that have been used to describe your writing by readers and/or reviewers?
Tobias Carroll: If I was to answer this, I’d have to revisit a particularly devastating GoodReads review, and I don’t think my soul can handle that right now.
M.O. Walsh: I feel so grateful that anyone would spend time reading and discussing my work that I’ve never considered despising a review. Some words I fear, though, are “lazy,” “muddled,” and “self-aware.”
Emily Gray Tedrowe: When my first book came out I sometimes groused about the term “women’s fiction.” Then a wise writer friend told me how she welcomed that designation, how she came to a new understanding about what it meant. That conversation flipped things for me. Instead of—or, in addition to—seeing that publishing term as reductive, I now use it to actively reflect on the multitude of women in my life who read seriously, constantly, and with the greatest of pleasure. I’m proud and delighted to publish books for them.
Emma Cline: I am very happy to believe that, once a book is being described by readers or reviewers, it’s no longer my business.
Ayad Akhtar: Muslim.
If you could choose a career besides writing (irrespective of schooling requirements and/or talent) what would it be?
Emily Gray Tedrowe: That’s easy: backup dancer for Janet Jackson. If you only knew how many hours I spent in front of the TV the summer of 1989, trying to memorize this choreography.
Ayad Akhtar: Landscape Architect, Investment Banker, Bluegrass Banjoist
M.O. Walsh: Musician. Chef. Lawn guy. Astronaut. Pokémon Trainer.
Emma Cline: Directing is so fun, and so social, which is a relief after the forced monkishness of writing. Waldorf teacher. Psychedelic therapist.
Tobias Carroll: The practical answer: librarian. The idealistic answer: falconer.
What craft elements do you think are your strong suit, and what would you like to be better at?
Ayad Akhtar: I’m good with first person; I’d love to feel more comfortable with third.
Emma Cline: I feel like I’m very comfortable with third person. I’d like to try to write a little more in first person. And, as I work on a new novel, I’m realizing that I never really know what I’m doing when I’m trying to navigate the world of a novel, and that I have to kind of learn all of that over again.
M.O. Walsh: I hope clarity is my strong suit. I want people to be able to see and hear and feel what I’m describing. Not just the fact that it is raining, as the saying goes, but the experience of being rained upon. I don’t want anything in the work to be confusing, even if it is complicated. In theory, I’d like to be better at writing villains, but honestly don’t enjoy spending that much of my time on them.
Emily Gray Tedrowe: I think I’m good at making up people who say and do interesting things, and who have interesting inner lives. I’d like to be better at judging the right balance of exposition and scene.
Tobias Carroll: Sometimes, I think my sentences are okay. I’d like to be better at plotting — like, really intricate plotting. Political Sign is my first book of nonfiction, and that in and of itself was a challenge—and something I hope I get a chance to refine in the future.
How do you contend with the hubris of thinking anyone has or should have any interest in what you have to say about anything?
Emma Cline: I just assume they have no interest, and that seems to work okay.
M.O. Walsh: Well, I look at it this way: I’m only good at a few things in life. If, after all these years of practice, writing is finally one of them, I’m not going feel bad about that. Plus, writers aren’t forcing anyone to read their work. It is an offer, not a demand. If I cook a pot of food and invite you to come over to eat it and you do, is it an act of hubris that I hoped you might like it? I don’t think so. I certainly didn’t intend for it to be. All I’m thinking about is how glad I am you came over. I’d been missing you.
Emily Gray Tedrowe: Nah. It’s not hubris to love the world of books so much that you choose to spend your life trying to contribute some small share. Think of me as a priestess of Athena, tending the sacred flame.
Ayad Akhtar: I embrace the necessary delusion. If I didn’t, I would never put pencil to paper!