Lit Hub Asks: 5 Authors, 7 Questions, No Wrong Answers
Chelsea Bieker, Maya Shanbhag Lang, 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:
Chelsea Bieker (Godshot)
Maya Shanbhag Lang (What We Carry)
Marie Mutsuki Mockett (American Harvest: God, Country, and Farming in the Heartland)
David Moloney (Barker House)
TaraShea Nesbit (Beheld)
Without summarizing it in any way, what would you say your book is about?
David Moloney: Working in a county jail. Alcoholism, loneliness, power, fathers. Humor. Humanity. Moving on.
TaraShea Nesbit: A man’s head on a stake. Sex as one of God’s earthly blessings. A childhood friend looking down at you, her hair in your face. Hushed up violence. Correspondence bias and settler colonialism. Debt and indebtedness. A living history museum actor saying, about two chickens fornicating, They are just doing what cocks do, Master. Dust motes of history in afternoon sunlight.
Marie Mutsuki Mockett: A journey through the American heartland, peeling back layers of history, in an effort to start to understand why we believe what we do and how we might still be able to talk to each other despite our differences.
Chelsea Bieker: Missing mothers, religious cults, god glitter, geographical devastation, turquoise cowboys, the Central Valley of California, raisins, dreams of glory, lawn painting, taxidermy, magenta hearses, phone sex operators, addiction, doulas and birth, finding salvation in very unlikely places, feminist awakening, field parties, romance novels and soda baptisms. Amen!
Maya Shanbhag Lang: Mothers, daughters, reconciling past and present, emotional labor, Alzheimer’s, and our desperate need for stories, even when those stories are false.
Without explaining why and without naming other authors or books, can you discuss the various influences on your book?
Maya Shanbhag Lang: Radical honesty, being the child of immigrants, weightlifting, forsythia, and an oddly memorable bowl of soup.
David Moloney: American war stories. Novels-in-short stories about small New England towns. Skyrim. Street Fighter. Addicts. ‘90s porn stars.
Chelsea Bieker: My emotional experience as a child, John Prine and Blink-182, the teachings of the midwife Ina May Gaskin, women banding together and solving shit. Flat, smoggy California landscapes, the particular madness of being raised by an alcoholic and the allure of a leader who knows all the answers.
Marie Mutsuki Mockett: Dance, Aaron Copeland, Pat Metheny, the open road, my parents, rain, farmer talk over a CB radio, the smell of coffee at 6 AM, thunderstorms, shades of red, particle physics, birds, oil paintings, various symphonies, Dexter Gordon, Michael Brecker, my son.
TaraShea Nesbit: Loved ones being criminalized, the phrase God’s back parts,radio DJs advertising wicked events in Worcester, sycamores, quaking aspen, death, the ocean, execution sermons, headstones in Burial Hill, a husband’s bejeweled heels, a felted beaver hat, a friend saying, This book sounds like it’s killing you, maybe you should quit?
Without using complete sentences, can you describe what was going on in your life as you wrote this book?
TaraShea Nesbit: Boston marathon bombing on the day of our first daughter’s death. A draft shattered by grief. Slow long runs. PhD. Touring for my first novel. Social anxiety. Hiking. Second daughter’s birth. Milk-swollen. In love. Colorado—>Ohio. Returning to the valley of my youth. Teaching. Hives. Daughter’s first words, first stitches. Close friends moving away. Son’s birth.
Marie Mutsuki Mockett: Diverting all power except life support to the main deflector shield.
Chelsea Bieker: Pregnancy, birth, pregnancy, birth. Breastfeeding and weaning, breastfeeding again. Learning about hormones, researching the pelvic floor, enforcing naptimes, green juice, spiritual searching, being angry that as a woman that I wasn’t taught about my body in school, but instead was made to dissect a baby pig, a skill that so far, has proved to be far less useful than say, an understanding of my menstrual cycle and how birth and pregnancy prevention works.
Maya Shanbhag Lang: Scrambling after an ailing mom and a small child; hiding from said mom and child in my hall closet; learning how to deadlift more than double my body weight; trying to forge my career as a writer while constantly making snacks for said mom and child; doing more than any one person should.
David Moloney: MFA. Delivering chicken wings. Newborn.
What are some words you despise that have been used to describe your writing by readers and/or reviewers?
Chelsea Bieker: I haven’t been reviewed yet much but have seen a few times on Goodreads that readers were frustrated that a book would have so many “bad things” happen in it, and I think that’s a simplification—there are tough scenes in the book, no doubt, but I stand by them and believe my narrator remained empowered in the telling of them. Her body remained her own in those tellings. I would also like to say: I will stop writing about the oppression and heinous violence enacted upon women when oppression and heinous violence ceases happening to women. It’s a deal.
Maya Shanbhag Lang: Hmm. The only thing I despise is when they get facts wrong. One review alluded to my childhood in Manhattan—but I didn’t grow up there! That kind of carelessness is frustrating.
TaraShea Nesbit: Nothing really bothers me as a compliment. Maybe because I don’t often let compliments settle in? I flash through compliments and let the critiques linger, testing them, like putting a tongue through the gap in one’s teeth.
David Moloney: Cold. Difficult. Heavy. Too masculine.
Marie Mutsuki Mockett: Quiet. Specifically: “Oh dear. She’s very quiet.”
If you could choose a career besides writing (irrespective of schooling requirements and/or talent) what would it be?
Marie Mutsuki Mockett: Dancer, globetrotting host of a travel/culture show, astronaut (but I would need more guts).
Chelsea Bieker: Some type of holistic wellness counselor. I have long been on a path of healing my trauma and ending the cycle of generational issues in my family and with that has come a deep, deep dive into learning about what works for my own body. I love learning as much as I can and helping friends (only if they ask specifically) for resources that I’ve come across. I feel really intuitive and I think I see that now as a strength instead of something to ignore. I may be past this phase but at one time I would have been game to join many a cult. Now I listen to wellness podcasts about manifestation.
TaraShea Nesbit: This is the only profession I have ever wanted to have. Second idea: A collector specializing in mourning jewelry—rings and broaches made with the hair of the deceased. More urgently, now: an epidemiologist.
David Moloney: Pro baseball coach. I don’t want to play. Wear the uniform and chew tobacco in the dugout. Bark at umpires and slap player’s asses after home runs and diving catches.
Maya Shanbhag Lang: Palliative care physician. I want to be there for people when no one else wants to be, to step into that dark space and offer solace and connection and ease if I can. I think this is why I write.
What craft elements do you think are your strong suit, and what would you like to be better at?
David Moloney: I am strong at building believable characters. Also—timing. I know when to call back a moment to give the reader a gut punch. I wish I was better at writing nature. I spend way too long researching vegetation for my new stories.
Marie Mutsuki Mockett: I think I’m good with unusual structure, so my writing will carry a very until the bitter end. I would like to learn to write faster.
TaraShea Nesbit: I can generate a sentence that does not clang. As in my social life, I have a difficult time telling the difference among alarming, funny, and poignant. My pacing is more happenstance than control.
Chelsea Bieker: I have a real ear for dialogue and voice, and hitting notes of dark humor. I feel often when I write that I am transcribing something I am truly hearing and at times my typing feels far out in front of my cognizance. It’s a really special feeling and doesn’t happen all the time but when it does I know I’ve tapped into my character’s true voice. This in turn informs me what is going to happen in the story. I think in terms of being better, I hope on my next book I might have a better natural sense of pacing and a keener intuition about what story threads are dead ends so I don’t end up needing to cut hundreds and hundreds of pages. But also that might just be my process and if so, then it is what it is. I don’t like to question it too much or it takes the magic out of it.
Maya Shanbhag Lang: I’m good at introspection and turning over small moments to mine them for meaning. I’m also good with analogies and humor. I’m terrible at plot.
How do you contend with the hubris of thinking anyone has or should have any interest in what you have to say about anything?
Maya Shanbhag Lang: I know this is what I am meant to do.
David Moloney: I pretend like no one will ever read what I am writing. I laugh at the things I allow myself to get away with. “Who cares?” I tell myself. “This will never be more than a word doc.” With writing a debut, or being unpublished, that mindset is simple, because no one has been interested in your work. I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be able to get away with that thinking.
TaraShea Nesbit: I write because I feel terrible when I don’t. If someone reads it that is secondary and lovely. I do sometimes feel lousy, but this just isn’t where my gaze falls when it falls on my insecurities. Maybe because reading is a choice a reader makes, rather than a choice I make for them.
Marie Mutsuki Mockett: Age and parenting have mostly robbed me of this worry. These days I’m just trying to get the job done.
Chelsea Bieker: I figure the people who are meant to find my work will, and it will touch them the way it is meant to. I don’t believe I have control over the art after it leaves me and goes into the world. It is now a deployed child. Good luck! My writing has always felt to me to be a necessary pursuit of exorcism. I can feel the experiences I’ve had and the ways they live in my body. Writing is a way to get them out and work with them in a way that feels productive. I write the things I want to read, and the things I feel I must, and if people connect to that then I think it’s wonderful. If they don’t that’s okay too.
I may have avoided the question here, and that’s probably because simply, I love my own work. I love it dearly. I love it so much I want to parade it around in its special gold suit. And maybe someone else might read it and feel less alone, and that to me has to be some sort of incredible magic that I am very lucky to be a part of. I think it’s easy enough for women to feel our stories aren’t important enough to tell, so I made the decision a long time ago to tell my stories the best and bravest way I can, with a high regard for the craft and those who have come before me.