Lit Hub Asks: 5 Authors, 7 Questions, No Wrong Answers
Featuring Rafia Zakaria, Alexandra Kleeman, JoAnna Novak, 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:
Alexandra Kleeman (Something New Under the Sun)
JoAnna Novak (Meaningful Work)
Andrew Palmer (The Bachelor)
Rafia Zakaria (Against White Feminism: Notes on Disruption)
Hannah Zeavin (The Distance Cure: A History of Teletherapy)
Without summarizing it in any way, what would you say your book is about?
Alexandra Kleeman: It’s about what happens at the end of the world, before people realize the world is ending.
Andrew Palmer: Sitting around, reading, watching TV, ambiguously flirtatious emails, chats with exes, living in other people’s houses, Des Moines, views from high places, unsent letters, fame, heartbreak, tragic backstories, new beginnings, “that gnarled fantastic lava-land of love” (John Berryman, whom this book is also about).
JoAnna Novak: Feeling watched. Being watched. Watching the clock. Clocking in and clocking out. Working out. Eating out. Feeling outside of your body, your family, your relationship, your job. Keeping and failing at keeping secrets.
Rafia Zakaria: “Empowerment” was a word and project coined by Brown feminists but few even remember this. Against White Feminism is the story of how white supremacy and “whiteness” as a source of privilege have tainted the feminist movement and turned into a grab-and-go branding exercise.
Hannah Zeavin: What it means to help one another (and fail to do so), over time and space and media.
Without explaining why and without naming other authors or books, can you discuss the various influences on your book?
Hannah Zeavin: A lot of time on America Online as a kid, working on a hotline more recently, doom scrolling, poets (and less so, poetry), my families of origin and my families of affinity, my teachers, and my students.
JoAnna Novak: There was a balcony that no one ever sat on and uniforms that did not look like uniforms. A lot of buying tickets to misbehave. Sentence bingeing and paragraph fasting.
Rafia Zakaria: I was influenced by my mother. I was influenced by the women that I grew up around in Pakistan. I was influenced by the Black women I met while working as a civil rights lawyer at a Black-owned law firm. I was influenced by the women I met at the domestic violence shelter where I stayed.
Andrew Palmer: Looking out windows, conversations with friends, Sherman’s March (a documentary by Ross McElwee), The Bachelor, Bach, New Order, road trips, winter in the Midwest.
Alexandra Kleeman: Walking from Westwood to Koreatown in Los Angeles, on a very hot day. Drinking a glass of water that is actually flat Sprite. Mistaking wildfire smoke for a rainy day. The taste of ash, the taste of nickel. Hills covered in cheatgrass, and chipmunks feasting on m&ms.
Without using complete sentences, can you describe what was going on in your life as you wrote this book?
Andrew Palmer: Falling in love, freelancing, moving across the country, working as a fishway interpretive guide, working as a bicycling trash collector, teaching, getting a dog, moving back across the country, more freelancing, staying in love.
Alexandra Kleeman: Walking, teaching, obsessively reading the news.
Hannah Zeavin: Graduate school, analysis, archives, long-distance relationship and therefore long-haul flights, leaving New York, a dog named Friend, the aforementioned hotline, new job, fire “season,” emergency alerts, baby, lecture prep, toddler, grading, pandemic, zoom, and the vagaries of the New York Knicks.
Rafia Zakaria: Pandemic-induced solitude, chronic-illness-induced anxiety, failures of self-care, holding my loves close, surprises from those lost long ago, stillness outside and growth inside.
JoAnna Novak: Desire is brief.
What are some words you despise that have been used to describe your writing by readers and/or reviewers?
Rafia Zakaria: I only remember the good reviews!!
Hannah Zeavin: This is my first book in this genre; last time I had a book out, and in another genre, I was still a teenager, and my age came up a lot. While that was indeed fair, it made me cringe at the time.
Alexandra Kleeman: Pynchonesque. Just for the sound of it! Sounds like the last name of a Pynchon character.
JoAnna Novak: Beautiful. Honest.
Andrew Palmer: “Quiet” has come up a few times. I don’t despise it but I think reviewers tend to use it as a warning. Aren’t all novels quiet? Then again, I know what they mean. It’s cool. I’ll lean into my novel’s quietness.
If you could choose a career besides writing (irrespective of schooling requirements and/or talent) what would it be?
Andrew Palmer: Backup NBA shooting guard.
Hannah Zeavin: Probably a psychoanalyst. But the best job I ever had was baking pie.
JoAnna Novak: Pediatric oncologist.
Alexandra Kleeman: I’d like to study something soft, specific, and harmless, like a particular species of moss or mushroom.
Rafia Zakaria: Without a doubt, I would be an archaeologist.
What craft elements do you think are your strong suit, and what would you like to be better at?
JoAnna Novak: Imagery, voice, whatever the craft element that encompasses writing about sex––I’m all right at these things, and setting, too, which I forget when I’m writing poems and not prose. I would like to be better at structure and plot; I would like to be more consistent with dialogue.
Alexandra Kleeman: I think descriptions are my strong suit, and my weakness is the stuff in between.
Andrew Palmer: I am very good at compiling notes, less good at transforming those notes into coherent sentences and paragraphs.
Rafia Zakaria: I think my prose is very fearless and bold. I think I am able to take many disparate arguments and information and bring them together into a cohesive whole, which comes from years of reading political philosophy and legal cases. I would love to be better at organizing notes and references.
Hannah Zeavin: If practicing therapy is, in part, about timing (when to say something), dosage (how much to say and how hard to go), and interpretation, in my writing, I am good at timing and interpretation—and still working to improve dosage.
How do you contend with the hubris of thinking anyone has or should have any interest in what you have to say about anything?
Rafia Zakaria: I see my writing as part of the much larger project of critical race theory and decolonization. In particular, I feel a sense of responsibility to all the other women of color who face hardships and discrimination just like I did, but who are not able to have their voices heard. I get strength and humility from the fact that this is not about me as an individual but a collective project of bringing women together.
Andrew Palmer: I don’t think anyone should have any interest in what I have to say about anything. If you pick up my book, I hope you like it, but you can always put it down.
Alexandra Kleeman: I’m always heartened by the fact that it’s so easy to stop reading something–much easier, in fact, than reading it.
JoAnna Novak: By reading compulsively and reminding myself how many stories/novels/poems/essays there are room for in this world, in this life.
Hannah Zeavin: I don’t suffer from this particular delusion.