Lit Hub Asks: 4 Authors, 7 Questions, No Wrong Answers
Featuring Nathaniel Rich, Nimmi Gowrinathan, 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:
Nimmi Gowrinathan (Radicalizing Her: Why Women Choose Violence)
Angela Mi Young Hur (Folklorn)
KT Sparks (Four Dead Horses)
Nathaniel Rich (Second Nature: Scenes from a World Remade)
Without summarizing it in any way, what would you say your book is about?
Nathaniel Rich: The experience of watching a novel species of pigeon, designed in a laboratory to serve as a replica of a bird that went extinct a century ago, take its first flight.
Nimmi Gowrinathan: Relentless discomfort with alternate realities; not manicured nails on an AK-47; political lives stretched to capture growing consciousness; the women who constitute and re-constitute you; love fractured by men and movements; an insecure race obsessed with security studies; incomplete freedoms.
KT Sparks: Coming of age in 1980’s Michiana (or, as it was also known then, “the WGN listening area”). Equine mortuary science. Loving something about which you know nothing and for which you have no affinity and loving it so long and so hard and so without hope or possibility of reciprocation that it knocks the wind out of you, permanently. Boilermakers made with Old Style and Crown Royal. Small towns of the Upper Midwest. Club tennis in the age of Chris Evert and Jimmy Connors. The American West, as understood and mythologized by those who have spent very little time there. Cancer, unlikely heroes, quiet despair, dementia, but, you know, made funny. Cowboy poetry.
Angela Mi Young Hur: Astroparticle physics metaphors gleaned from my husband’s PhD research at an Antarctic neutrino observatory, hunting ghost particles and being hunted by ghosts real and imagined, shapeshifting in identity and genre, a Cali-gothic auto body shop, karaoke spirit possession, Korean folklore and story-retelling, family and mythmaking, runestones and genealogy books, war stories and diaspora, the Swedish archipelago.
Without explaining why and without naming other authors or books, can you discuss the various influences on your book?
Angela Mi Young Hur:Loneliness and exile in Seoul, Stockholm, and various U.S. cities in my 20s and 30s. Korean restaurants/ markets in unlikely places. Partying with international physicists, many of them women. Im Kwon Taek and Guillermo del Toro films. Soundtracks by Gustavo Santaolalla and Danny Elfman. ‘80s New Wave.
Nimmi Gowrinathan: Thinking in the margins, from the margins, to the margins: lines that wrestle free of constraints to follow political imagination. Language re-purposed for a cause. The absurdities of inequality in the archives of resistance and a hyper-politicized present. Complete texts that hold you captive to intensity without reprieve. Raw pain in fresh notebooks. Poetic philosophies and the political will of poets.
KT Sparks: Dude ranches. This guy I saw at a dude ranch my family goes to every year—the antithesis of a cowboy—short-sleeved polyester button-down shirt puckering over a substantial beer belly, stretch Khakis with pleats, slip-on orthopedic shoes. He was visiting for the day from someplace like Wisconsin, and I spied on him as he watched the afternoon riders go out. He glazed over and half smiled, and I was certain he was dreaming about loping along with the group, probably as the lead wrangler. Also: the bars (OK, one), beaches, and Blossomtime Festival in the small town where I grew up, the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, and NPR.
Nathaniel Rich: Immortal jellyfish, suicidal sea stars, E.I. DuPont Nemours and Company, headless chicken, and the retired sea captain J.H. “Cass” Forrington, owner of the International Sea Glass Museum of Fort Bragg, California.
Without using complete sentences, can you describe what was going on in your life as you wrote this book?
Nimmi Gowrinathan: Two backpacks before the bus. One, a transit visa for re-entry into his father’s home: goggles, lunch box, music book. Tightly grasped for kindergarten comfort on a big-kid bus. The other stuffed with notebooks, missing a laptop charger. Dumped with relief in the worn corner of coffee shop bench.
Angela Mi Young Hur: Living in Sweden as expat/immigrant, marriage, return to California while pregnant. Motherhood. Quitting writing for a couple of years. Failure. Reclamation. Revision. Joy. Second baby. Father’s death. During revision process with editor: global pandemic, zoom-school, two kids at home, moving back to Sweden, Stockholm real-estate hustle, new schools, nobody wearing masks, still not enough childcare.
Nathaniel Rich: Marriage, New Orleans, subsidence, fatherhood, stockpiling, the ambient hum of anxiety with an occasional tremor of panic.
KT Sparks: Emptying the nest and moving from DC to a Shenandoah Valley farm. Reeling from (successful but brutal) cancer treatment and watching family die from (unsuccessful and brutal) cancer treatment. Drinking too much then not drinking at all. Traveling too much but also not enough. An MFA. A shattered kneecap.
What are some words you despise that have been used to describe your writing by readers and/or reviewers?
KT Sparks: This one really wounded me: “A certain tone-deaf humor, a tendency to overstate and explain, an eye toward exaggeration that is not revelatory but merely affirms what the reader already intuits.” It made me feel like a drunk guy at the bar reading jokes too loudly off forty-year-old Playboy cartoon cocktail napkins.
Nimmi Gowrinathan: I recoil at anything that tries to capture the text in a singular ideology (edgy feminist) or sensationalized descriptor (fierce), attempts to attach a time-peg to an expansive theory (#metoo moment), or places an over-emphasis on individual-centered form (memoir) over positioning inside a collective political project.
Nathaniel Rich: Optimistic, pessimistic, hopeful, warning.
Angela Mi Young Hur:Nothing consistent—don’t have enough reviews to notice a trend. But I disliked how one reviewer, for a previous book, made incorrect assumptions about me based on a detail in my bio and one line in my novel. Unprofessional, wrong, questionable in tone and intent. I’ve also heard about reviewers using info from acknowledgments. A mentor told me how one reviewer used his author photo against him. Sure, there are parallels between my bio and my novel, but speculations belong in gossip not in reviews.
If you could choose a career besides writing (irrespective of schooling requirements and/or talent) what would it be?
Angela Mi Young Hur:Singer/performer on stage or old school MGM musicals.
KT Sparks: One of the women who rides (or rode, since it’s no longer a thing) the elephants in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Nathaniel Rich: Surveyor.
Nimmi Gowrinathan: Fashion designer. Dresses, I think.
What craft elements do you think are your strong suit, and what would you like to be better at?
KT Sparks: I’m good at the concrete stuff: putting sentences together, making characters that you can see and hear and occasionally smell, that sort of line-by-line writing. I’m not as good at the bigger picture—not plot but theme and greater meaning. Readers often tell me they like this or that character, but they don’t understand what their purpose in the story is. My response is always some version of: “I have no idea! What do you think? What should they be doing? Let’s get ‘em outta there!”
Nimmi Gowrinathan: Out of the urgency to creatively excavate deep-seated beliefs, I have learned to pull testimonies and narratives through fragments of political life—sprinkled with the dark humor of self-deprecation. I will always strive to encapsulate a complex thought inside the power of a simple sentence.
Angela Mi Young Hur: I can create atmosphere through vivid settings and reveal unexpected thematic linkages, but I need to improve self-editing and control so I don’t overdo it or under-explain. I’ve learned a lot from mentors and editors but need to keep practicing.
Nathaniel Rich: I’m a good note taker. I wish I had a greater tolerance for awkward silences, since they’re one of an interviewer’s best tactics. People will say anything to fill a void.
How do you contend with the hubris of thinking anyone has or should have any interest in what you have to say about anything?
Angela Mi Young Hur: For my entire writing life, I’ve had writers and so-called friends speak dismissively about my subject matter because I write about Korean American characters. Sometimes they think they have good intentions, guiding me away from a “limited subject” with “limited readership.” Often, it’s diminishing, insulting. Sometimes, it comes from fellow Asian Americans, and I wonder about internalized racism. I don’t contend with my own hubris so much as the hubris of others who presume to know what a book centering on Korean Americans is all about or who believe it’s a subject worthy of only one book per Korean American author.
KT Sparks: I’m a parent. I KNOW no one has any interest in what I have to say. But I truly and desperately hope enough people buy my novel and like it enough that I can keep writing novels (and reading them, because that’s such an integral part of my writing process and also something I’m always trying to find an excuse to do more of) and call it a real job.
Nimmi Gowrinathan: I am critical and conscious of my role in struggle. As activist-scholar Mariame Kaba reminds us “I don’t think my ideas are these original ideas. They belong to a lineage.”
Nathaniel Rich: I don’t.