Lit Hub Asks: 5 Authors, 7 Questions, No Wrong Answers
Featuring Maya Binyam, Rachel Cantor, Daniel Magariel, 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:
Maya Binyam (Hangman)
Rachel Cantor (Half-Life of a Stolen Sister)
Peter Heller (The Last Ranger)
Daniel Magariel (Walk the Darkness Down)
Ben Purkert (The Men Can’t Be Saved)
Without summarizing it in any way, what would you say your book is about?
Peter Heller: The Last Ranger is about an enforcement ranger in Yellowstone who likes wolves better than people. Ren has suffered terrible losses and learns every day how to cope from the wolf packs and bison, the raptors and the mountain creeks he lives among every day. There is a crime and a depredation at the heart of the story, but I think it’s mostly about how to love again after loss, and how to reconnect with what’s important. Hm, that sounds too self-serious and heavy, because it’s also a rollicking story full of fun.
Maya Binyam: Bureaucracy, abstinence, and indigestion.
Daniel Magariel: The possibility of intrapersonal and interpersonal evolution. Mourning. Isolation. Forgiveness. Destiny. Drugs. Friendship. Commercial fishing. Weathered coastal towns. The sea. Ecological disruptions. The persistence of love.
Rachel Cantor: Missing the mother, missing the father (in a different way), brothers/sisters, being spies and Angels of Light, seeing the world as Glass Town, guilt, games, loss (so much loss), the joy of writing together, no choice but to write alone, loneliness unto death, perseverance, love despite it all, loss.
Ben Purkert: A guy thinks he is hot shit, but is not actually hot shit, and you get to sit back and eat popcorn and watch as he (maybe?) comes to realize this sad fact.
Without explaining why and without naming other authors or books, can you discuss the various influences on your book?
Daniel Magariel: Two weeks without sight of land on an 80-foot dragger during which I was utterly dysregulated by a Panthalassic planet, alien and boundless. Also, what’s the point of Manchester by the Sea? Marriages that endure the loss of a child most often do not survive, thanks for that. I’d rather watch people travel the hard, deliberate, and unlikely path toward forgiveness and healing.
Ben Purkert: I was in a client meeting one time, presenting a tagline I’d written. And the client was unhappy with the work. Like, fuming mad. And I remember, as I was getting totally tongue-lashed (I was 23 years old at the time), that part of me left my body and went off to start writing the novel, while the physical part of me stayed glued in my conference room chair and tried to muster a very solemn expression.
Rachel Cantor: The books I loved as a child, especially those with orphan girls and dashing lords, house fires, urgent voices on the wind, redemptive love, maybe a madwoman in the attic. Also, loneliness, being an oldest child, growing older, fear of loss.
Maya Binyam: Funerals, baptisms, religion. The feeling of being outside of religion. My father, his disappeared brother. People I love, people I hate. Ethiopia. America, how we manage to survive in spite of it.
Peter Heller: I was stricken once by an image of a thrice-widowed wolf crossing a creek, the heartbreak and determination readable there. And I have been cracked open by a pack of wolves singing on a cold October night. Feeling on the skin the wildness that has existed for millions of years before we strutted onto the scene. I know those things changed me. And somehow being close to those things has assuaged my own heartbreak. I couldn’t think of anything more important to write about. Also, I have learned that somehow the novels that have meant the most to me are also the most fun to read, and so I wanted to bring that, too, to my readers.
Without using complete sentences, can you describe what was going on in your life as you wrote this book?
Rachel Cantor: One-sixth of my life’s journey, bookless to “mid-career” (do not pass go), rent-stabilized apartment, never moving again, Laos, Belgium, France, Spain, Namibia, France again, hello goodbye to two boyfriends, fucking menopause, fucking pandemic, three four five six seven times an aunt.
Daniel Magariel: Moved to a coastal town and became a father while in the middle of writing a book about a couple in a coastal town that lost a child. Shoot me.
Peter Heller: Loss of a father. The Loss of a kitten rescued from Mexico. Loss of a lifelong best friend. Camping in the Lamar Valley, Yellowstone, and fly fishing up the mountain streams with wolves and bears.
Ben Purkert: Coffee. So much coffee. But also: the ever-present drumbeat of news articles documenting in horrifying detail the ways in which this planet is imperiled. I think we all hear it, we all feel it.
Maya Binyam: Giving up my apartment, giving up my phone, giving up my therapist. Resenting my attachment to stuff, accumulating more stuff, packing everything into my convertible, living out of my convertible. Moving to California. Crying about the past, crying about the future, crying about time in general. Seeking ways to escape time: tarot, ancestors, spirituality, psychedelics (Moving to California).
What are some words you despise that have been used to describe your writing by readers and/or reviewers?
Ben Purkert: “Satire.” I guess my novel *is* a satire, so it’s not technically wrong? But it feels like a dismissal of the realism of the story. It renders the characters as props. I hate that. I want the characters to be people. That’s how I wrote them, anyway.
Maya Binyam: I haven’t encountered any words I despise yet! “Bad” would be bad. “Human” (when used as an adjective) is the worst, no matter the context.
Peter Heller: Wilderness thriller. I can’t stand the brand. One reader wrote, ”I think Heller’s books are more ‘thrilling’ than ‘thriller.’” Thank you. Sure, there’s often a strong plot, but who cares, really? I care mostly about the music of the language, the power of it, and embracing the wonder and dismay of what it means to be a human being.
Rachel Cantor: Confusing. Jarring. Unravels in different styles. Off-puttingly unique. A bit too avant-garde. Historical fiction. Fictitious memoir.
Daniel Magariel: Harrowing. Dark. Grim. I’m like, please put on your big kid pants if you want a seat at the grownups’ table.
If you could choose a career besides writing (irrespective of schooling requirements and/or talent) what would it be?
Maya Binyam: I wish I could work to produce the things I like in life, and then work also to provide them for my friends. Things like fruits, vegetables, and all of the other foods that can be made from them. Is that a career? I don’t know––it’s how I’d like to spend my days if writing weren’t a part of them. Or I’d like to be a psychic––a good psychic.
Daniel Magariel: Travel/culinary documentarian. Whatever you call what Anthony Bourdain did. I want that job.
Ben Purkert: I would be a pastry chef and inside each chocolate croissant I would inscribe a little line of poetry using raspberry ganache. See, I tricked you! I’d still be a writer!
Peter Heller: The best non-writing job I ever had was on an offshore lobster boat. I loved it, wildly. I was nineteen and three of us went out a hundred miles off the New England coast for four days at a stretch and pulled deep strings of traps in often rough seas. I loved the elements, the camaraderie, the hard work; I loved taking watch alone in the middle of the night with nothing but a sky swimming with stars and a luminescent wake trailing behind. I sang to myself the whole time and it drove the skipper crazy.
Rachel Cantor: No more romantic ideas about being a singer or trapeze artist. I would be an inventor who, when young, invented a thingie that does good in the world, a necessary thingie that earns me lots of cash. So I can write, and not worry. I’m so tired of worrying. That’s it.
What craft elements do you think are your strong suit, and what would you like to be better at?
Rachel Cantor: I hear things—voice, primarily. I trust myself and my weirdo thoughts. I wish I could be wise. I wish I could see things, and tell a ripping (gripping?) yarn.
Ben Purkert: I come from a poetry background, so I’d like to think I’m decent at imagery and metaphors. I suck at writing scenes in which more than two characters show up. I can’t handle all those people at once. My social anxiety remains undefeated.
Daniel Magariel: Pacing and narrative, I think, come naturally. Interiority and language are what I admire most in writing, and I continue to strive to be better on both fronts.
Maya Binyam: I think I’m good at describing things as they appear to someone with a very limited psychological understanding of the world; I wish I were better at describing them for how they are, or how they appear from various points of view. Which is maybe just to say that I would like to be better at writing descriptively, and also in the third person.
Peter Heller: I think I’m pretty good at taking a reader to a place that is as real, maybe, as the one they’re actually in. So: sense of place. And introducing them to characters who live independently of me, the author, or anyone else. Is that character development? I’m good at pacing and keeping it fun, and at paying attention to the sound of the language. But I could get much better at all of it. Truthfully, there is not an element of craft in writing that I wouldn’t love to be better at. Every day for the rest of my life. But there’s one thing I really suck at; it’s an absolute bane: titles. I finish a book, I sort of love it, and then I think, What am I going to call it? After The Dog Stars, I never could come up with anything stellar. So I always typed in a working title—it’s about a painter, so I wrote “THE PAINTER”—and my brilliant editor, Jenny Jackson, always decided it had a certain simplicity and classic heft. I adore a good collaboration!
How do you contend with the hubris of thinking anyone has or should have any interest in what you have to say about anything?
Peter Heller: Ha! Often they don’t. My wife, Kim, is my first reader. She has an impeccable sense of what works and, especially, what doesn’t. I read chunks of a novel in progress out lout to her. She sits on the end of the couch and often she’ll start nodding off. She’ll murmur, “Too…much…fishing…” and fall asleep. Then I cut the fishing in half because she’s always right.
Ben Purkert: When I’m writing the first draft, I tell myself that I have something extraordinarily important to say to the whole world, and then when I’m revising, I tell myself that I am utterly worthless and could never have anything of value to express, and somehow, in ping-ponging between those extremes, I end up somewhere.
Maya Binyam: Is there hubris involved? I guess there is, but I can’t imagine any way to live other than to remain open to the impulses that compel me to speak. I don’t always follow them, but I at least try to understand where they come from, which anyway feels like a function of careful listening.
Daniel Magariel: Next year, I’ll be forty, and I find myself more and more interested in the making of the thing, rather than the reception. It’s liberating to discover that the real pleasure of writing comes in the act itself, in the obsessive and hesitant labor, in the sustained years-long meditation, in the slow and methodical tinkering toward beauty and meaning, and not in what anyone has to say, least of all me.
Rachel Cantor: I write for myself, is the truth, but after three books I’ve learned that people do have interest in what I have to say. Not millions of people, but some people, enough people. It’ll do.