Lit Hub Asks: 5 Authors, 7 Questions, No Wrong Answers
Featuring Te-Ping Chen, Brandon Hobson, Tod Goldberg, 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:
Te-Ping Chen (Land of Big Numbers)
Catie Disabato (U Up?)
Tod Goldberg (The Low Desert)
Brandon Hobson (The Removed)
Russell Shorto (Smalltime: A Story of My Family and the Mob)
Without summarizing it in any way, what would you say your book is about?
Te-Ping Chen: People in love, funeral strippers, China. Noodle-chopping robots, cityscapes, family and propaganda. Nectarines, buried history and amusement parks. Big numbers and bigger dreams.
Russell Shorto: It’s about the American immigrant experience. It’s about how discrimination squeezes people into strange shapes. It’s about how generations try but fail to communicate with one another. It’s about a family.
Tod Goldberg: Long nights, bad choices, desert roads, and the periodic murder clown.
Catie Disabato: My book is about the way that the things happening on our phones (our text messages, our friends’ social media accounts)—our immaterial worlds—have a profound effect on our emotional lives.
Brandon Hobson: Memory, police brutality and its effects, the mistreatment of Cherokees, visions, loss, healing.
Without explaining why and without naming other authors or books, can you discuss the various influences on your book?
Brandon Hobson: Stolen land, Trail of Tears, visions, musicians dead by suicide, video games.
Russell Shorto: Well, I suppose one source of influence is my previous output. I write nonfiction narrative history, and this one is in that vein. But there’s the obvious difference: it’s personal, it’s my family. So in that sense I looked to a variety of memoirs as influences. The trick of this one, for me, was to balance history, which tries to get at truth, with memoir, which often relies of memory (which, as we all know can be variable). I always tried to corroborate memories with documentary evidence.
Catie Disabato: Influences include: The dread and anxiety you feel when someone doesn’t text you back; the bar you always go to with your friends; the two-hour drive from Los Angeles to Palm Springs; the sunsets in LA; unrequited crushes; ghost stories where the ghosts have “unfinished business”; bougie crystal stores; looking at Instagram while you’re on the toilet; getting into a fight with your best friend and not being able to stand how that makes you feel; when you’re the perfect level of tipsy and you should stop drinking but you can’t.
Tod Goldberg: 1. Movies where George Clooney or Sam Rockwell plays a guy you like, but you shouldn’t. 2. Driving with your windows down on a summer night, not sure where you’re headed, not really sure who that guy in the backseat is, but whatever, it’s summer and you’re young, what could go wrong? 3. That one mix-tape you never gave her, opting instead to keep it for yourself, until that day it melted on the front seat of your car. 4. Staring at the Salton Sea, wondering who thought that was a good idea. 5. All the kids who disappeared when I was growing up.
Te-Ping Chen: Magical realism and news headlines, years of eavesdropping on conversations in another language. Travel and wishing that I was better at taking pictures. Bicycle rides, retirees dancing in the street.
Without using complete sentences, can you describe what was going on in your life as you wrote this book?
Russell Shorto: Dealing with the madness of Trump and the Republicans. Trying to maintain my sanity.
Tod Goldberg: Being furious, immediately upon waking; being fearful, immediately upon waking; the foreseeable future being something I could actually foresee, immediately upon waking; asking my wife, “What’s the status of our democracy?” immediately upon waking.
Catie Disabato: Freelancing (exhausting); lots of therapy; being in love; everything you love is going to change.
Brandon Hobson: Parenting, teaching, sleeping, visions, gum.
Te-Ping Chen: Lots of smog and press conferences, my father getting sick. Thinking about mortality, traveling back and forth between China and the U.S. Trying all through a Beijing winter (unsuccessfully!) to tame a feral cat.
What are some words you despise that have been used to describe your writing by readers and/or reviewers?
Tod Goldberg: “Formerly known as Marky Mark…”
Catie Disabato: “Millennial,” “modern,” “complicated.”
Te-Ping Chen: Dark, no happy endings. There are! But happiness is more complicated than you might think.
Brandon Hobson: Bizarre, sad, interesting.
Russell Shorto: I emphasize narrative—i.e., storytelling—but my books are nonfiction, footnoted with sources. It drives me nuts when someone asks how much of what I wrote is “invented.” I guess I could take it as a compliment: they’re saying it reads like fiction. But mostly it bugs me.
If you could choose a career besides writing (irrespective of schooling requirements and/or talent) what would it be?
Catie Disabato: Independently wealthy person who doesn’t have to work
Te-Ping Chen: Writing and directing musicals! Or, more pragmatically, working in policy on issues of democracy and healthcare.
Russell Shorto: Acting.
Tod Goldberg: Playing first base for the Oakland A’s would be pretty great.
Brandon Hobson: Guitarist for the Rolling Stones.
What craft elements do you think are your strong suit, and what would you like to be better at?
Te-Ping Chen: An eye for detail, also for satire and metaphor (when encountering another author’s good simile, I get reliably weak in the knees). Still trying to get better at dialogue.
Tod Goldberg: I’ve always thought I wrote dialog pretty well. Or at least well enough that Elmore Leonard would like it, since every review I get says, “Elmore Leonard would appreciate his dialog!” I’d like to be better at writing action scenes and sex. I’m terrible with both. I always feel like, in both cases, that I’m doing things that defy physics and would require one to ice themselves for long periods afterward.
Brandon Hobson: I would like to be better at everything.
Catie Disabato: Strong suits: character development, plot, and pacing. Would like to get better at: dialogue, plotting a mystery.
Russell Shorto: Storytelling. Finding small details and weaving them together into a scene. Better at: Thinking deeply. Nuance.
How do you contend with the hubris of thinking anyone has or should have any interest in what you have to say about anything?
Tod Goldberg: As the youngest of four children, I learned early on that someone’s interest in your opinions is irrelevant. If you’re screaming, they have to listen. Or if you’re funny. So. I try to be loud and funny and hope that hides my insecurities.
Te-Ping Chen: By trying to write something that I would want to read, and staying focused on those stories that keep tugging on your sleeve and demanding to be told, and finally throwing up my arms and saying, “Okay, okay! I’d like to see you written down, too.”
Russell Shorto: I have a notion that the smaller a story is, the bigger it is. That is, the more you zoom in on something, the more universal it is. So if I focus on one historical figure very closely, I believe (hope) what results will be of interest because, at heart, we’re all about the same things. Love, betrayal, striving.
Catie Disabato: I’m never concerned with this. I never think about it. I think that’s because my main goal with my books is for my reader to have fun while reading my book. If anyone is reading either of my books and they aren’t enjoying themselves, they should feel free to put it down and read something else.
Brandon Hobson: Am I seriously qualified to answer that question?
Previous ArticleA Brief History of Metaphor in