Lit Hub Asks: 5 Authors, 7 Questions, No Wrong Answers
Featuring Mateo Askaripour, Anna North, Kevin Barry, 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:
Mateo Askaripour (Black Buck)
Kevin Barry (That Old Country Music)
Keisha Bush (No Heaven for Good Boys)
Susan Conley (Landslide)
Anna North (Outlawed)
Without summarizing it in any way, what would you say your book is about?
Kevin Barry: Love and lust; the eerie, haunted quality of certain places in the west of Ireland (and in southern Spain); the coping mechanisms of some spectacularily lachrymose Irish boozers and storytellers and Romantics; the persistence of our nervous laughter, despite it all.
Anna North: The history of another world that shares some similarities with our world; some particular shades of green found in the grasses of Eastern Wyoming; friendship and family; the utility and inutility of knowing things.
Mateo Askaripour: It’s about what happens when someone who everyone says has potential is actually given the chance to fulfill it in an extreme way, but without the proper guidance.
Keisha Bush: Food. Bellies. Feet. Mouths. Boundaryless love. Resilience. Joy. Pain. Sweet mangoes and cookies. Sunshine. Sweat. Courage. Freedom.
Susan Conley: Listening to Fleetwood Mac in a beat-up Subaru on the coast of Maine. The light on the ocean. Smoking joints in the McDonald’s parking lot on Saturday night. The slow fade of commercial fishing in Maine. Being local. Belonging and not belonging. What class means. The inner-life of teenage boys. A mother’s attempt to speak teenage-boy, specifically sex and drugs. Humor as survival. What gentrification means. Humor as love. What a family is.
Without explaining why and without naming other authors or books, can you discuss the various influences on your book?
Mateo Askaripour: The different manifestations of opportunity in America. Slave rebellions. Who comes to mind when we think of a salesperson. Unrestrained ambition. Systemic racism. Yerba Mate. Black power. Hip-hop. Startup culture. How-to manuals. Experiences, real and imagined. Breaking the door down for others. My own do-or-die mentality. Dolla dolla bill, y’all.
Keisha Bush: West Africa. Senegal. Taking the local bus to downtown Dakar. Speaking broken Wolof and French. Children in need of love and protection. Caring about someone other than myself. Bananas. September 11. Egg sandwiches. Jelly sandals.
Anna North: Krazy Kat; the Enfield Shaker Museum; Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, and the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang; ferruginous hawks; prairie falcons; coyotes; Halt and Catch Fire; homesickness; childbearing; hats.
Susan Conley:The cop-out I find inherent in the overused phrase “toxic masculinity.” Feminism. The great underestimating of the inner-life of boys. Diaries by women living alone on Maine islands. Memoirs by women deceived. Nostalgia for the rural Maine of the 1970’s that I grew up in. The idea of going slow and paying more attention, and the discordant idea of Instagram and teen devotion to it. Refugees who come to Maine and then encounter snow for the first time. People who choose joy. People who choose forgiveness.
Kevin Barry: Swoony old songs. Certain hillsides, reed fields, street corners. Some houses that I’ve lived in. The slant of light at particular times of the year on the place that I live in now. Old friends, lots of them gone now.
Without using complete sentences, can you describe what was going on in your life as you wrote this book?
Susan Conley:A mysterious illness in a Wuhan wet market. Finding my older son, who was living in Beijing at the time, a flight out of China. The sinking of one of only forty commercial fishing boats left in Maine. Fleetwood Mac’s song “Gypsy” at the top of my lungs. Midlife and the alarming reactivation of my teenage brain. Trying to be more vulnerable to emotion on the page. Connection with my sons.
Anna North: Working, trying not to get pregnant, working, thinking about getting pregnant, working, trying to get pregnant, working, being pregnant, working, having a baby, trying to work, healing, trying to work, having a toddler, trying to work, trying not to work, working.
Keisha Bush: Obama. Recession. Unemployment. Extended Cobra. Dating. Breakups. Central Park. Graduate school. Yoga. Puppies. Friends. Small business ventures. Money. Films. Sunday strolls. Psychotherapy. Raw vegan. Vegan. Meat. Aliases. Farm shares. Apple picking. House parties. Birthday gatherings. Volunteering. Feeling free. Silent meditation retreats. Healing.
Kevin Barry: I was passing. With an air of nervous hilarity. Through my 40s.
Mateo Askaripour: Parents’ couch. Daily meditation. Desperation-turned-freedom. Few friends, but the best ones. Fearlessness. Monk-like discipline. Five-mile runs. Flights to San Francisco and Portland. Nature walks on repeat. High doses of family. Consuming as much art as possible. Reinvention.
What are some words you despise that have been used to describe your writing by readers and/or reviewers?
Anna North: My top coping mechanism is avoidance, so I try really hard not to read reviews.
Kevin Barry: The words that make you recoil in horror from the newsprint or from the screen tend to be the ones that cut closest to the bone—whatever qualities you’re most afraid of showing up in your work, you can rest assured that they’re nearby.
Susan Conley: “Disarming” and “honest” used together in one phrase. Why are readers surprised to the point of being disarmed by honesty? Are we not accustomed to it anymore?
Keisha Bush: Middle-grade. My work is not MG. Not as good as XX author of a similar genre. Cartoonish. Boring. Sad. Too depressing.
Mateo Askaripour: As it relates to my debut novel, “absurd” is the main one that feels off. People who use it seem to underestimate the lengths many will go to to maintain dominance and/or protect their own. “Rollercoaster” is another one—this shit ain’t a theme park, it’s a hostage situation. NOBODY MOVE!
If you could choose a career besides writing (irrespective of schooling requirements and/or talent) what would it be?
Susan Conley: Great Ape conservationist.
Keisha Bush: Quantum physicist. Neuroscientist. Or, owner of a homeopathic natural products line and yoga and meditation studio.
Kevin Barry: I would be a red-haired private detective, of mixed Irish and Uruguayan heritage, with a “Rodrigo O’Sullivan-Suarez” type name, working mainly adultery and blackmail cases in the noirish old streets of Montevideo. (I feel a crime series coming on.)
Mateo Askaripour: Social psychologist.
Anna North: I am already preparing for my retirement into beekeeping, like Sherlock Holmes.
What craft elements do you think are your strong suit, and what would you like to be better at?
Keisha Bush: Dialogue is a strength. Nonlinear storytelling is my calling. I’m an impatient writer, so I have a tendency to forget to add details and descriptions about the world around my characters. I find plot too constricting. My characters rebel against any sort of structured arch. I’m currently writing a book based on a plot and I find the experience excruciating, and painful. The plot of the book is very interesting, though.
Kevin Barry: I’m good at dialogue and description of place, and these can take you a long way. I think it’s important to work hard at the stuff you’re good at, and forget about the other stuff. If you can be very good at something, you can conceivably be great at it.
Susan Conley: I like to think I get the part about injecting language with more voice and heat. I come from the land of poetry, and I’m also fond of the art of compression. I would like to be better at reconciling the gluttony of plot. I still struggle with plot’s excesses, when I know that more words, more story, more language, can be wondrous and mysterious and life-changing.
Anna North: I’m probably best with plot—I used to struggle with it, but now I think I am solid at making things happen. I’d like to get better at dialogue, but one of my writing teachers once told me that writers don’t actually get better at much after their first books. This haunts me.
Mateo Askaripour: I’d say executing engaging, semi-complex plots, crafting original voices, and writing realistic dialogue are my main strengths. I’d like to get better at a lot of things—like editing, and rendering a character’s emotions with more variety. For example, when it comes to pain and sadness, my gut reaction is to make my characters cry all of the time, and I know they hate me for 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?
Mateo Askaripour: As someone obsessed with hip-hop, I love it. This industry needs more bravado—IMHO, many writers come off as too polished and aw-shucks when facing the public. In fact, I wish more of us, especially Black writers, stunted. It’s one reason I mess with Maurice Carlos Ruffin. He’s not afraid to boast a little. What up, Maurice!
Anna North: I worry about this all the time. The only answer I have is to try as hard as I can to say interesting things.
Susan Conley: The defense I use here is that I go for emotion on the page, and I pretend that my emotional curiosity outweighs the audacity it takes for me to think anyone would want to read what I write.
Keisha Bush: I write in search of deeper answers to my questions. Anyone interested in learning new things may find my work interesting. Others will not. As the saying goes, “everything ain’t for everybody,” and that’s okay with me.
Kevin Barry: I contend with it by blushing to my ankles and writhing on the floor in a state of hot-faced shame. Writing anything at all is an expression of extraordinary ego—you’re saying, Shut up and listen, world! I have something to say! Monstrous behaviour.
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