Lit Hub Asks: 5 Authors, 7 Questions, No Wrong Answers
Susannah Cahalan, Jaquira Díaz, and More Take the
Lit Hub Questionnaire
The Lit Hub Author Questionnaire is a monthly interview featuring seven questions for five authors with new books. This month we talk to:
Jaquira Díaz (Ordinary Girls)
JP Gritton (Wyoming)
Shannon Pufahl (On Swift Horses)
Margaret Wilkerson Sexton (The Revisioners)
Without summarizing it in any way, what would you say your book is about?
Jaquira Díaz: Girls navigating a certain kind of girlhood. Growing up. Violence. Colonialism. Love and friendship. Mental illness. Family. Queerness. Poverty. Joy.
Susannah Cahalan: “If sanity and insanity exist, how shall we know them?”
Margaret Wilkerson Sexton: Relationships between Black women and white women and the inheritance of intergenerational power and hope.
JP Gritton: The illicit drug trade, construction work, family, redemption.
Shannon Pufahl: Gambling, risk, horses, history. Queer life at mid-century. Atom bombs. Card cheats, violence, sex, surveillance. The West.
Without explaining why and without naming other authors or books, can you discuss the various influences on your book?
Shannon Pufahl: Landscape. Specifically the desert and the arid plains. The extravagance and isolation of Las Vegas, the changes in that place through many decades. California. The Bread song “Guitar Man.” Aces high and jokers wild. Cigarettes. The view from my father’s kitchen window, of the Kansas fields and a single ancient American elm.
Margaret Wilkerson Sexton: Supernatural thrillers; horror films; slave narratives; speculative fiction; family dramas.
Jaquira Díaz: So much music: Puerto Rican salsa. Miami booty music. ‘90s hip-hop and R&B. Ismael Rivera. Héctor Lavoe. Also, Michael Jordan, roller rinks, roller coasters, and Falkor the Luckdragon. Arroz con gandules. Charms Blow Pops and Ring Pops. Telenovelas.
JP Gritton: The illicit drug trade, construction work, family, redemption.
Susannah Cahalan: First-person memoirs about involuntary hospitalizations; the rise of biological psychiatry; the anti-psychiatry movement; visiting the remains of Willowbrook when I was a teenager; emails from readers raising valid questions about the psychiatric/neurological divide; a woman who was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia but really had the same illness I had and will never recover.
Without using complete sentences, can you describe what was going on in your life as you wrote this book?
JP Gritton: A dead-end job, the latest in a series.
Susannah Cahalan: Marriage, traumatic brain injury, two freaking babies at the same time.
Jaquira Díaz: Insomnia. Grad school. Teaching. Watching a lot of hair and makeup tutorials on YouTube. Buying a lot of sneakers. Falling in love.
Margaret Wilkerson Sexton: My father’s dying; my father’s death; small children’s tantrums; the Trump election; family drama; healing.
Shannon Pufahl: The tech boom in the Bay Area and my falling-down apartment. Traffic. The sun setting over water. Marriage. A puppy. The deaths of my father and my mother-in-law. Teaching. Reading. Anxiety. Sunburns. Playing cards with my mother and my sister and not cheating.
What are some words you despise that have been used to describe your writing by readers and/or reviewers?
Shannon Pufahl: I am happy to have my work described, at all.
Margaret Wilkerson Sexton: Depressing, gender-normative, “too close to home.”
Jaquira Díaz: Unflinching. Brave. Resilient.
Susannah Cahalan: This is certainly not the worst that has been said about my writing, but it was written by a writer I admire: “Her prose isn’t particularly stunning.” Ouch.
JP Gritton: I kind of cringe every time somebody says they found the language “poetic,” or anything along those lines. To me, it suggests that the language called attention to itself, which probably it does in some parts of the book. Don’t get me wrong, I like a well-turned phrase. What I hate is the idea that the artifice is crowding out the story. I hate writing in which the author seems determined to show you the “profound, aching truth” behind each sentence—as a reader, I’m sick of pretending I don’t notice when an author is trying to “surprise” and “astound” me with their “wildly original prose” and their “keen and unexpected insights into the lived moment.” In the last round of copy edits, I sometimes sensed such an eagerness and self-consciousness, and in those moments I’d have to put the manuscript down for a while.
If you could choose a career besides writing (irrespective of schooling requirements and/or talent) what would it be?
Susannah Cahalan: Casting director. There’s something so thrilling about bringing a character to life off the page. Good casting makes a movie. And I like the idea of being an unsung hero. Even better: casting agent for reality TV. That takes a whole other level of insight into the human condition.
Jaquira Díaz: Broadway villain. I’d play villains, strictly. Evil queens, witches. And Ursula. Definitely Ursula.
JP Gritton: It would’ve been great to have been the inventor of cold fusion, or to have developed some cheap, inexhaustible and carbon-neutral source of energy that nobody would have to fight a war over.
Shannon Pufahl: Frontman of a 1970s rock band.
Margaret Wilkerson Sexton: Blues singer; psychologist; medium.
What craft elements do you think are your strong suit, and what would you like to be better at?
Margaret Wilkerson Sexton: I’m naturally good at identifying compelling themes; writing dialogue; and understanding and conveying why characters do the things they do, but I’ve struggled with plot and, once, spent ten years working on a book that didn’t really contain a story!
Shannon Pufahl: I believe I have a good ear for prose and for human speech. I try to look very closely at things and find descriptions that are both concise and evocative, and born of the material world. I could be better at plot chaining. Event is not my primary literary engagement, when I write or when I read. I like settings and style. But propulsion is essential, causality is essential, even if they are done experimentally.
JP Gritton: I think I’ve had to teach myself to be pretty good at plot, but sometimes the plot comes at the expense of the storytelling (if that makes sense). I wish I were better about avoiding flashbacks and big chunks of exposition.
Susannah Cahalan: I think working as a tabloid reporter for years made me pretty good at timing and structure—everything else has wide swaths of room for improvement.
Jaquira Díaz: Time travel and the future conditional. I’d like to be better at writing humor.
How do you contend with the hubris of thinking anyone has or should have any interest in what you have to say about anything?
Jaquira Díaz: I think of all the straight cis white men I was forced to read in school. I think of all the queer AfroLatinxs who never saw themselves in books. I think of all the books I needed growing up.
Susannah Cahalan: It’s continuously unnerving that anyone wants to hear from me at all. A friend sent me a postcard with the words “Let the fraud continue” about something related to my book, but I keep it above my desk as a kind of mantra about my writing.
Margaret Wilkerson Sexton: I come from a long line of wise, empathetic, intuitive, and powerful communicators, and I’m beginning to own that I’m one of them.
Shannon Pufahl: How does anyone contend with this? It’s a hubristic moment, and a very cacophonous one. I believe in the value of risk and daring (forms of hubris, surely), and partly that means acknowledging that people may not care about what I have to say, they may not be able to hear it in the noise, or it simply may not resonate. I believe all of those possible outcomes are not an indication of whether a thing is worth saying or not.
JP Gritton: It’s easy to stay humble as a writer when you think about just how few people really read “literary” fiction anymore. But if my book gets optioned by Netflix or Amazon, I don’t know—probably I’ll get a monogrammed bathrobe.