Lit Hub Asks: 5 Authors, 7 Questions, No Wrong Answers
Featuring Caleb Azumah Nelson, Kate Myers, Richard Russo, 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:
Nishanth Injam (The Best Possible Experience)
Kate Myers (Excavations)
Caleb Azumah Nelson (Small Worlds)
Richard Russo (Somebody’s Fool)
Jennifer Vanderbes (Wonder Drug: The Secret History of Thalidomide in America and Its Hidden Victims)
Without summarizing it in any way, what would you say your book is about?
Kate Myers: Archaeological comedy, sweating profusely, being forced to rely on the weak links, repatriation, the Olympics, bad breakups.
Nishanth Injam: Superficially, about India and the Indian diaspora. About immigration and home. But actually, the book is about yearning. Full stop. The goal is yearning. Because the world we live in wants us to live on the surface. Feel the water around our knees and return to the shore. This book is about trying to live inside water.
Richard Russo: Inheritance and all that trails in its wake: money, the lack thereof, property, genetics. And, yes, reckoning.
Caleb Azumah Nelson: Family and community. Falling in love for the first time. The joys and freedom of music and dance. Feeling like everything is possible in the summertime.
Jennifer Vanderbes: Corporate greed, shoddy science, bureaucratic fumbling, heroes and villains, the wild west of early Big Pharma… and a close look at human resilience in the face of stunning adversity.
Without explaining why and without naming other authors or books, can you discuss the various influences on your book?
Richard Russo: My father and his working-class buddies, ball-busters all. My having done hard physical labor as a young man. Robert Benton’s movie of Nobody’s Fool. Turning seventy.
Jennifer Vanderbes: I published three novels before Wonder Drug—so I would say the storytelling craft of long-form fiction shaped how I approached this initially unwieldy material. For example, the book is mostly set in the 1960s, and I wanted to use the voices of characters from present day, characters we have not yet met, in between the early chapters to create a narrative tension that would carry the reader forward.
I wanted to set the stakes and take people on an emotional journey. I also wanted to create a primary source collage that allowed the reader to “discover”—as I had—some of the jaw-dropping incriminating documents at play. I wove in stand-alone excerpts of letters, court depositions, and newspaper articles. The epistolary novel is probably the purest version of that kind of storytelling. I borrowed from that tradition, as many fiction writers have, and let some real-life documents speak for themselves.
Nishanth Injam: Deep travel. Landscape photography. 19th-century Russian literature. Telugu short stories. The films of Terrence Malick, Andrei Tarkovsky, Wes Anderson, Mani Ratnam, Pa Ranjith, and Satyajit Ray. Online criticism by Richard Brody, Hilton Als, Namwali Serpell, and Parul Sehgal. Marxist literature and thought. Long solitary walks.
Caleb Azumah Nelson: Black music (Jazz, soul, R&B and grime). Poetry. The concision of shorter novels. Portrait photography. Painting.
Kate Myers: The Getty Villa, workplace comedies, WASP culture, Serena Williams getting told to control herself on the court, summer camp.
Without using complete sentences, can you describe what was going on in your life as you wrote this book?
Caleb Azumah Nelson: Touring my first book. Directed my first film. A lack of sleep and a lot of fun.
Nishanth Injam: Despair. Suicidal ideation. Corporate deadlines. The particular loneliness of being an immigrant. Job. MFA. Relentless grief. Job. Isolation. Small pockets of joy, large volumes of torment. Suffocation.
Kate Myers: Calling off a big wedding, training for and running the LA marathon, moving across the country back to my hometown, starting over again. Pregnancy and the insane early months of having a newborn.
Richard Russo: Covid. Lockdown. Turning inward. Life pared back to essentials: reading, writing, family and friends.
Jennifer Vanderbes: Single parenting two daughters, caring for my aging parents, the pandemic… It was, to say the least, a challenging time!
What are some words you despise that have been used to describe your writing by readers and/or reviewers?
Jennifer Vanderbes: “Exhaustively researched”—it’s a very kind description, but all I see is the word “exhaust.” The research—which took me to archives around the country—was exhaustive and exhausting.
Caleb Azumah Nelson: This might sound like a cop-out but I don’t know I despise or dislike the way my work is described; the work is an exchange and everyone will bring their own meaning to it and I made peace with that real quick.
Nishanth Injam: So far not a lot! I think someone said my writing offers little risk. Grateful for the read but I chafe against that. I’ve risked everything to write what I’ve written. What they probably mean is that my stories are not situated to provoke, to ask questions and provide critical commentary. But that’s not really my aesthetic. I don’t want to use art to make a point, to provide thought that can be easily banished afterwards. I don’t want my questions to be the end-all. I’m trying to be in communion with you, to co-exist on a deeper level.
Kate Myers: Strong female characters.
Richard Russo: I seldom read reviews because, for me, there’s just so little upside. Praise evaporates in an instant, where criticism burrows and lingers because, having been raised Catholic, I assume it’s all merited, my many defects deeply rooted in character, not artistry. A shame, since artistry can be addressed.
If you could choose a career besides writing (irrespective of schooling requirements and/or talent) what would it be?
Nishanth Injam: Expedition designer. I’ve this intense craving to travel to the most remote places, and soak in the beauty of those places, and share a possible route map to elation.
Jennifer Vanderbes: Hmmm… Archaeologist? I definitely like digging for buried evidence; I’d prefer to do it outdoors!
Kate Myers: Therapist. I love listening to peoples’ problems.
Caleb Azumah Nelson: I’d be a chef or a musician for sure.
Richard Russo: In order to become a writer, I had to put down the 12-string guitar that allowed me to make ends meet throughout grad school. It was a good decision, but when the right song comes on the radio, I still have a powerful urge to pick that guitar up again, plug it into a powerful amp, step up to the mic, and live that other life.
What craft elements do you think are your strong suit, and what would you like to be better at?
Richard Russo: My ear has always been much better than my eye. As a result, my dialogue and scene-writing are much stronger than my descriptions of the physical world. It’s hard to describe well what you haven’t taken the time to really look at. That’s where the real work comes in for me.
Nishanth Injam: I’m fairly decent at a number of craft elements, but my strength is emotion. I can drop you into the pathos of a character in less than a page. Sometimes that’s all I want to do, but it’s hard to breathe in that realm. I wish I had a stronger ear for dialogue, for capturing the specific twangs of utterances. And I’m always chasing syntax, trying to merge beauty and accessibility. I’d like to fail better at that.
Kate Myers: Teasing out the absurd from the everyday, comic voice, a strong sense of place, creating an ensemble. I need to get better at everything. Most urgently, better at dwelling on and digging into darker emotions with my characters—always struggling with my own WASPish avoidance—and improving my pacing.
Caleb Azumah Nelson: A lot of my work is mostly composed of atmosphere and texture of place and space; there are other genres I want to work in which might require more focus on plot.
Jennifer Vanderbes: I think structure is probably my strong suit. I’ve always liked stories with large scope, unfolding in a variety of places, in various times—it’s usually a fun puzzle to assemble those parts into a cohesive narrative. What would I like to be better at? Everything else.
How do you contend with the hubris of thinking anyone has or should have any interest in what you have to say about anything?
Caleb Azumah Nelson: I guess, first and foremost, I know the work has to satisfy something in me first, before it can make its way out into the world. For me, each hand my work touches is a beautiful bonus, and I’m always humbled when anyone takes any interest in my work.
Richard Russo: Writing is how I think, not what. Discovering what you believe and testing your beliefs through the medium of words is what allows you to discover who you are. There’s no hubris in that unless you’ve concluded that you’re pretty great.
Kate Myers: Poorly. Only thing that mitigates it sometimes is reading books that are extremely popular. Some are really bad and some are absolutely incredible and life-affirming—both of those help.
Jennifer Vanderbes: With my novels, I suppose there was ego on the line. With this book—the true story of a massive drug scandal that injured thousands of babies, including a few hundred U.S. victims who were gaslit for their entire lives and denied any justice—I have no compunction about shouting from rooftops that people should take an interest in this subject! I’m just the messenger.
Nishanth Injam: Most people will not care. Invisibility is the default condition of being a brown immigrant. I can say my piece without worrying that I’m taking up space. But it’s important that I say it, because if I don’t speak at all, who am I really? I’m not here to be a truth-teller or a storyteller or a third-world-country explainer. I’m here to offer love. Isn’t that why we read books in the first place?