Lit Hub Asks: 5 Authors, 7 Questions, No Wrong Answers
Kevin Nguyen, Paul Lisicky, 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:
Paul Lisicky (Later: My Life at the Edge of the World)
Kevin Nguyen (New Waves)
Katy Simpson Smith (The Everlasting)
Jessi Jezewska Stevens (The Exhibition of Persephone Q)
Julian Tepper (Between the Records)
Without summarizing it in any way, what would you say your book is about?
Katy Simpson Smith: The fallibility of true love. The infallibility of Satan.
Paul Lisicky: Community. Illness. The management of feeling—the costs of. Joy and jokes as a way to pull through a crisis. Desire. Anxiety. Anxiety about contagion, sex, attachment. Futurity. The fear of futurity. Learning not to be afraid of rage. Coming of age when one is already a grown up. Saying goodbye to one’s parents.
Jessi Jezewska Stevens: Denial and art, or the art of denial.
Kevin Nguyen: New Waves is about how grief turns people into hilariously selfish people.
Julian Tepper: Following in the footsteps of the father, brothers and the competition for parental-love, self-hatred, self-sabotage, the inheritance of identity. And rock ‘n’ roll.
Without explaining why and without naming other authors or books, can you discuss the various influences on your book?
Paul Lisicky: Living in relationships. Living as a single person. Losing loved ones and acquaintances. Joni Mitchell’s open guitar tunings. Early ‘90s house music. Early ‘90s Provincetown culture. PrEP. Animals, plants, and the ocean.
Kevin Nguyen: Old internet forums, late ‘70s Japanese pop, every kind of shitty bar in New York, Pac Man, science-fiction magazines, The Wonder Years, Benihana, the death of a best friend, Perfect Blue, Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing.
Julian Tepper: Early-aughts Brooklyn/Woodstock, “I Want My MTV,” Sunset Blvd., British Invasion music, American highway culture, Greek plays, Scandinavian literature, fear of failure.
Jessi Jezewska Stevens: Kind people influenced my book. I hope they see their kindness reflected in it. Also the Met, the controlled rage of “domestic” fiction, and a select set of literary ranters in translation.
Katy Simpson Smith: Catholicism. Crustaceans. Botticelli. Keats (not Keats the author, Keats the angst). Vespas. Crypts. Ruins. Sunlight. Heartbreak. Spaghetti.
Without using complete sentences, can you describe what was going on in your life as you wrote this book?
Julian Tepper: Turned forty, partner of fourteen years left me for a woman. About sums it up.
Kevin Nguyen: Stuck-on-subway anxiety.
Katy Simpson Smith: Falling into and out of faith with men.
Paul Lisicky: My father’s death. The end of a sabbatical. A move to Brooklyn. A guest teaching semester in Austin. A wisdom tooth extraction. Lots of travel.
Jessi Jezewska Stevens: A great deal of self-doubt. The 2016 election. Increasingly absurd exercise of demanding evidence-based argument from college students when election cycle rewarded anything but. A tile-top credenza and a string of Christmas lights in a jar, set opposite the oven.
What are some words you despise that have been used to describe your writing by readers and/or reviewers?
Kevin Nguyen: Edgy, tender, satire, Asian, Dave Eggers (disclosure: the last one comes from my dad’s Goodreads review).
Paul Lisicky: Gentle, beautiful, melodramatic, sensitive, poetic.
Julian Tepper: Wes Anderson-like (I’m a Jewish New Yorker for Christ’s sake, and he’s an Anderson from Texas); Arrested-Development-like (no!); dreary (please, I’m a hopeless optimist!).
Jessi Jezewska Stevens: I’m new to all this so I don’t have a lot to draw on, but: Lerner-ish. I like and admire Lerner’s work, but I bristle when the comparison is used merely to signify “literary prose style.” I have also received the feedback that certain readers would like to bash my head in with a rock. This I also resent, though I respect the specificity. (It’s very Parasite.)
Katy Simpson Smith: Several have called it “bleak” and one called it “silly,” and it seems to me there’s a wide gulf between those perspectives; perhaps that’s the very gulf I’m swimming in.
If you could choose a career besides writing (irrespective of schooling requirements and/or talent) what would it be?
Jessi Jezewska Stevens: This would take a total personality overhaul, but I maybe I’d like to be a sailor.
Katy Simpson Smith: Carpentry or baking. I would also like to have a giant farm for all types of broken animals, and I think this would be compatible with making bookshelves and croissants. Oh, and restoring old homes! And bagging groceries! Translating non-English novels. Running a native plant nursery. Is my writing getting in the way of my dreams?
Julian Tepper: Topiarist, sushi chef, maybe centerfield for the New York Yankees.
Paul Lisicky: A singer-songwriter. Say, Joni Mitchell’s lost younger brother.
Kevin Nguyen: When I was a kid, I really wanted to be a fighter pilot. (It got to the point where I had very strong, uninformed opinions about F-15s vs. F-18s.) My mom squashed those dreams early by explaining that my eyesight was far too bad to ever pilot an aircraft. She wasn’t wrong, but I also think she didn’t want any more of our family to be in the military. So that, if my eyes were better.
What craft elements do you think are your strong suit, and what would you like to be better at?
Julian Tepper: Pacing, beginnings and endings, being very concise—believe I’ve got these things down. For now anyway. Come tomorrow, it could all go away. Getting better at trusting my reader (i.e., saying less/allowing space for the reader to exist), I always want to improve there.
Jessi Jezewska Stevens: I think I do okay with voice and ekphrasis. I’d like to be better at everything else. I’d especially like to be cleverer about using the novel (scaled to individual consciousness) to address phenomena that exceed human scales of comprehension (climate change).
Paul Lisicky: I’m pretty good at taking elements from the essay, the poem, and narrative fiction, and spinning them into a form that sounds like me. On the other hand, my work would probably reach more readers if I could find a way to care about writing a structure that’s less associative and more linear.
Katy Simpson Smith: I think I’m good at sound and rhythm on a sentence level. I want to work harder to consider the experience of the reader: unspooling character and detail at the right pace, providing enough hooks and arcs. I can get too wrapped up in my own fun.
Kevin Nguyen: I used to be pretty good at Starcraft, and I would like to be better at Minecraft.
How do you contend with the hubris of thinking anyone has or should have any interest in what you have to say about anything?
Paul Lisicky: I’m trying to write toward the empty space on the shelf, what I haven’t seen written yet, what I’d like to read. In order to feel hubris, I think you’d have to believe that there was already a huge band of readers waiting for you, and is that true for any of us in this culture? It’s a lot like tossing flares out the window and hoping somebody will catch one.
Julian Tepper: Really I’m just trying to entertain myself.
Katy Simpson Smith: Writing feels like being in conversation with someone; let me share my secrets, and then let me hear your burdens. So I write (speak), and then I read (listen). And for every book I write, I try to read two hundred more.
Jessi Jezewska Stevens: I’m glad for this question, because I suspect it never becomes comfortable. I try to tell myself that whatever I’m working on better be really, really good, and that I should aim to bring in as much of the world as I responsibly can. Then, when I fail, try to tell myself that the next thing ought to be really, really good… Americans love second chances.
Kevin Nguyen: Well, white people have been operating with this hubris for centuries, so I think I can too, at least for the length of a book.