Lit Hub Asks: 5 Authors, 7 Questions, No Wrong Answers
Featuring Sloane Crosley, Daniel Lefferts, Phillip B. Williams 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:
Sloane Crosley (Grief Is For People)
Madeleine Gray (Green Dot)
Daniel Lefferts (Ways and Means)
Phillip B. Williams (Ours)
Without summarizing it in any way, what would you say your book is about?
Sloane Crosley: Life and death but not in that order.
Madeleine Gray: Destroying mistress stereotypes, laughing at horror, existential malaise, rosé, mummy issues, the pulsating light of desire.
Daniel Lefferts: High finance, class resentment, the political chaos of 2016, the early emergence of the right-wing avant-garde, the terrors and ecstasies of gay sex, and the stubborn joy of being alive in a cursed century.
Phillip B. Williams: Freedom and the complexity of imagining said freedom as protected.
Ross Perlin: Languages. Cities. Endangered languages in New York City, the most linguistically diverse place in history (and how it got that way). Six speakers and their languages: Seke, Wakhi, Yiddish, N’ko, Nahuatl, Lenape. How Babel works and how it doesn’t. Linguistics, especially mapping and documenting linguistic diversity. Diaspora, immigration, and the current threats to both. Language contact and mixing and multilingualism and cosmopolitanism from the bottom up. Forgotten names, places, peoples, and histories. New writing systems, language revitalization. Deep cuts from the outer boroughs. The lived, daily struggles of people trying to keep their mother tongues alive. Peak diversity?
Without explaining why and without naming other authors or books, can you discuss the various influences on your book?
Ross Perlin: The borough of Queens right now. Psychogeographers, interdisciplinary wanderers, grand synthesizers, and other nomadic and hunter-gatherer thinkers. Circumambulation. The little traditions. Language archives, Zomia, classic hip-hop, the Introspectivists, the Narodniks, zhiguai xiaoshuo, dhrupad, Wakhi storytelling, yoiking, shoegaze, Lunfardo, the MTA.
Phillip B. Williams: Mythology, sea salt, watermelon, and revenge. My grandfather’s life as a pastor who also had hoodoo ways is a long and powerful vein throughout the novel. Music. Anansi. Pennies in vinegar. Disembodied voices and the creaking floorboard in the hallway. What shadows sound like. The flesh top of drums.
Sloane Crosley: Stories about loss where the tone and topic don’t quite go together, where the drama is heightened by a clean style or the reverse. Moments within these stories that are so good, they feel like they exist outside the book. And books written by people who, quite transparently, have no desire to write a memoir.
Daniel Lefferts: Once a week during the summer of 2017 I’d spend the morning and afternoon reading the Economist and then, at night, go to the gay bars of Hell’s Kitchen. I’d get off at Fiftieth Street and look up at Paramount Plaza, that great black obelisk with the Allianz logo shining at the top, and think of all the articles on index funds and quantitative easing I’d just trudged through. Then I’d make my way to Ninth Avenue and give myself over to vodka and sweat. Those days seemed to encapsulate the entirety of the novel I’d begun working on. They were some of the happiest days of my life.
Madeleine Gray: Bruce Springsteen, Maggie Rogers, comment moderation, Twitter, vapes, Sydney, commitment to the bit, my Dad.
Without using complete sentences, can you describe what was going on in your life as you wrote this book?
Phillip B. Williams: Loneliness. Great friendships. An encouraging mother. Anxiety attacks. Friendships ending. Betrayals. Why is my body in pain? Why is my mind on fire?
Sloane Crosley: White walls, cigarettes, rivers and sirens. FreshDirect yet neither. Testing my sanity, my relationships, my nostrils. A stretcher thudding down the stairwell on a Tuesday. A pink heart, Sharpie and smelly, drawn on a friend’s mask before a Valentine’s Day stroll.
Ross Perlin: Co-directing a tiny non-profit (the Endangered Language Alliance) and meeting every conceivable kind of New Yorker. Teaching linguistics to college kids, including a course I designed around exactly all of this. Crisscrossing the city endlessly on foot with open ears and mapping its languages, fueled by momos, facturas, and rice balls. Coming to grips with middle age. Making a lot of lists and sending a lot of emails. Trump, Covid, AI, language loss.
Daniel Lefferts: EDM, desperation, treadmill epiphanies, debt, Juul addiction, deli salads, Grindr, church.
Madeleine Gray: Heartbreak in a pandemic; doing a literary theory PhD; lots of red wine; learning to be alone.
What are some words you despise that have been used to describe your writing by readers and/or reviewers?
Daniel Lefferts: “Beautiful.” I know people who say it mean well, and I certainly strive for beauty in my writing, but it’s a pastel word, and I’d like to think my work offers more vibrant things. I also bristle at the word “psychological.” What work of fiction isn’t?
Sloane Crosley: Clever. Heartfelt. Likable. Unlikable.
Ross Perlin: Quixotic, spirited, clearly organized, “for language buffs.”
Madeleine Gray: I get “sad girl novel,” “sassy” (lol), and “women’s fiction.” I’m so serious—an Australian newspaper titled a feature article about Green Dot “Women’s fiction novel a hit.” Like, what is a “women’s fiction novel”?? Anything written by or about a woman? Kill me.
Phillip B. Williams: I don’t despise any words, but I am wanting to retire the question “How has your background as a poet inspired your fiction?” That is not how writing works for me. That is not the chronology of my life as a writer.
If you could choose a career besides writing (irrespective of schooling requirements and/or talent) what would it be?
Madeleine Gray: I always assumed I’d be an actor and then I did absolutely nothing to achieve that. But also I saw footage of myself as Lady in Waiting #2 in a school play and I think I was right not to try.
Sloane Crosley: Archaeologist. Or gameshow host.
Phillip B. Williams: I would likely be a choreographer. I love music and the ways the body can push past its limits into embodying sound and manipulating space.
Ross Perlin: Horologer.
Daniel Lefferts: Home architect. I think I’d be very happy designing the spaces that people will spend years of their lives in and that will, to some extent, shape their identities. Another outlet for my God complex.
What craft elements do you think are your strong suit, and what would you like to be better at?
Daniel Lefferts: I think I’m good at sticking the landing at the end of a paragraph. I learned from Henry James that the more complex your paragraph is the simpler its last few words should be. I wish I were better at descriptions of nature. When I read writers like Helen Macdonald and Peter Heller I’m amazed by what they can do with the movement of a bird, or the face of a mountain, or something as simple as a pine tree. The most you’ll get out of me about a pine tree is “It was green.”
Sloane Crosley: I can clink the glass. I can stick the landing. But I could use some work on getting to the point in nonfiction and on my pacing in fiction.
Ross Perlin: I break down and illustrate complex, counterintuitive, and earth-shattering ideas in ways that people can understand. I want to get better at writing people, who are somehow more complex, counterintuitive, and earth-shattering than any idea.
Phillip B. Williams: Strong suit—I can write a precise image. Could be better at—expository writing.
Madeleine Gray: I enjoy writing dialogue and I think that I’m good at it. I need to improve at plotting timeframes—like, I know I said three months has passed since June but now I’m saying it’s February? Oh well.
How do you contend with the hubris of thinking anyone has or should have any interest in what you have to say about anything?
Phillip B. Williams: For me, it is not hubristic to create something and think anyone may have any interest in it. It is an inevitability. Such has been the empirical quality of my life. I create. People pay attention. It would be hubris to apply a number to said interest. I don’t know how many people will want to indulge in what I have created, but I do know someone will.
Sloane Crosley: You do it the same way you look in the bathroom mirror. You divide the part of you that thinks “I should not expose this monstrosity to the public” by the part that thinks “I get to be alive and have this face” and then you walk out the door.
Daniel Lefferts: Writing a book is an inherently hubristic act, and to my mind the best writers lean into that. I spend much of my time doubting myself and feeling inadequate, but I keep that off the page. Ultimately readers, if they’re anything like me, want a writer who’s in command, confident, convinced. They’re interested in what he has to say to the extent that he’s interested in what he has to say. A certain degree of presumptuousness is part of the job, and the obligation.
Ross Perlin: I tell myself I’m just a conduit for the extraordinary things that people are saying, thinking, and doing in the world’s 7,000-plus languages—languages most people have never heard of, let alone heard a word or an idea from. (Then I take another swig of Manhattan Special and go back to the staring contest with my laptop screen.)
Madeleine Gray: Margaritas and a huge amount of cognitive dissonance.