Lit Hub Asks: 5 Authors, 7 Questions, No Wrong Answers
Alison Espach, Brad Listi, 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:
Alison Espach (Notes on Your Sudden Disappearance)
Brad Listi (Be Brief and Tell Them Everything)
Cleyvis Natera (Neruda on the Park)
Steve Toltz (Here Goes Nothing)
Pyae Moe Thet War (You’ve Changed: Fake Accents, Feminism, and Other Comedies from Myanmar)
Without summarizing it in any way, what would you say your book is about?
Brad Listi: Creation. The impulse to create. The frustration of this impulse. Death. Absurdity. Absence. Fear. Spiritual quests. Gallows humor. Self-destruction. The emptiness of self. Grief. Fatherhood. Marriage. Persistence in the face of defeat. Psychedelic reckoning. Failure. Guilt. Alienation. Love. Dogs. Fate. Confusion as default mode.
Alison Espach: Sisters, love, and death. Our earliest childhood infatuations. The nineties and what it’s like to fall in love on AIM and use a pillow to smother the loud modem at night.
Pyae Moe Thet War: Home. Family, of all variations. Love. Heartbreak. Anxiety. Resilience. Anger. Laughing in the most inappropriate situations.
Steve Toltz: Fear of the opinions of other people. The persistent con that is subjectivity. The virtues of going through life not understanding anything. The self-aggrandizing gesture of seeing ghosts. The life threatening emergency of child birth. Embarrassing human faults that persist beyond the grave.
Cleyvis Natera: A woman finds she’s unable to contain her rage and may bring an entire neighborhood down with her. Another woman decides to embrace love and pleasure as the path to a meaningful life and succeeds. Gentrification in Manhattan. Arroz, habichuela y carne. Immigrants who don’t long for their birth home. Bachata, Merengue, Salsa, reggaetón. White-collar workers who see through the deceptions of corporate America. Sometimes you gotta break things to find you love them… and by things, I mean people.
Without explaining why and without naming other authors or books, can you discuss the various influences on your book?
Alison Espach: My brother’s death. Being the youngest child. A misguided crush when I was in middle school. Facebook and learning exactly how everybody from high school turned out.
Cleyvis Natera: Biggest harm done to people happens inside their own communities, within their own families. As in, we’re each working full-time for the empire and not getting paid. Beautiful words can change your life. Beautiful words can destroy your life. If you turn the wrong corner, the ground will swallow you whole.
Brad Listi: Confessions. Meditations. Old hippies. Covid. Improvisational art. The funny elderly. My podcast guests. People with high pain tolerances. Buddhism-inflected philosophies. The mysteries of death. Writers willing to be deeply uncool on the page. Horn players. Road comics. Outdoor cats. Decent people who feel alienated by mainstream cultural value systems.
Pyae Moe Thet War: Taylor Swift. My mom and my grandmother. All of my best friends. The Bold Type. My college advisor Dr. Jamie Hutchinson. Love.
Steve Toltz: Dog obsessions. The time I almost became a wedding celebrant. Bad dates and worse relationships. A blanket suspicion of doctors. Memories of seances conducted during adolescence. All my exposure to religion and spirituality from childhood to the aforementioned doomed relationships. Self-loathing regarding the use of social media.
Without using complete sentences, can you describe what was going on in your life as you wrote this book?
Pyae Moe Thet War: The world falling apart. My heart falling apart. Weekly brunches with my best friends. Sitting on the balcony with my dogs. Audiobooks. So many audiobooks. And so much deep cleaning.
Steve Toltz: Single parenting during a plague. Establishing an alternate career as a TV and feature writer. Other crazy drama I just have to keep to myself.
Brad Listi: More than a decade. Lots of defeat. Inability to quit. Tried. Finally crystallized. Childcare help good fortune in quarantine. Enforced austerity useful.
Cleyvis Natera: Didn’t believe in marriage. Got married. Didn’t want kids. Got two kids. A bone marrow transplant failed to engraft. Another bone marrow transplant successfully engrafted. One marrow transplant donor both times. One child almost died. One child cured from fatal illness. Bought an apartment, a house, another house. Learned to drive. Failed a driver’s test. Failed a driver’s test. Passed a driver’s test. Got a license. Earned more money than I imagined humanly possible. Realized immigrants have limited imaginations when it comes to earning potential. Adios corporate gig and stock options.
Alison Espach: The entirety of my thirties. Falling in love! Late night existential horror in the middle of the night. A new job! One too many break-ups. Becoming allergic to cold temperatures. Listening to Philip Glass on repeat. But reconnecting with old friends! And banana bread!
What are some words you despise that have been used to describe your writing by readers and/or reviewers?
Cleyvis Natera: Raw. I’d rather my fiction well done. Melodramatic—hold me back as I swing a telenovela-worthy slap your way, señor.
Alison Espach: “A book for women.” “Precocious.”
Pyae Moe Thet War: Informative. Educational. Eye-opening.
Steve Toltz: Quirky. Zany. Full of Hijinks. Even when meant as a compliment, I find them grating.
Brad Listi: I don’t despise any words used to describe my writing.
If you could choose a career besides writing (irrespective of schooling requirements and/or talent) what would it be?
Steve Toltz: I want to own a cinema and screen old movies. Maybe have a second-hand bookstore attached. Then I’ll need to get a cat. Probably start smoking a pipe. Eventually I’ll expand the space to open a cafe that will be a replica of a Viennese coffee house. In the basement I’ll turn a blind eye to an underground newspaper where I’ll secretly have a anonymous column. Damn, I’m back to writing again.
Pyae Moe Thet War: Baking. I’d run a small one-woman bakery where the menu changed every day depending on what I wanted to eat that day.
Brad Listi: Musician or comedian. Or podcaster.
Cleyvis Natera: Architecture. I was told in junior high school by a teacher that I was terrible at math and so couldn’t be an architect. I was rather good at math then. That hater taught Spanish. Why did I listen? Le sigh.
Alison Espach: Adventure guide. Sometimes while I’m inside writing, I dream about having a job that would pay me to do things like stand on top of a mountain.
What craft elements do you think are your strong suit, and what would you like to be better at?
Cleyvis Natera: Propulsion is my jam. I know how to hook you and get you turning that page. I also can build deep empathy for my characters. Readers often fall in love with my characters and want to know how they’re doing now. Now? I don’t really know how to answer that. I’d like to get better at complicated syntax and daring structure.
Brad Listi: I feel like dialogue comes pretty easily. I rarely have to strain for it. I’m also pretty good at editing myself. I’d like to be better at plot. So much of my creative work tends toward autobiography. I’d like to write something purely entertaining at some point. A desert noir or something. A romantic comedy.
Pyae Moe Thet War: I’ve worked hard to sharpen my voice so that it’s uniquely mine. I’m focusing on being more succinct; I have a tendency to be rambly and my drafts are almost always at least thirty percent longer than they need to be. I also use a lot of italics, so I’m trying to keep an eye on that.
Steve Toltz: I think I can shape a story and flesh out a few characters, but I’d love to be able to write descriptions of nature so beautiful and true it is like the reader is seeing the natural world for the first time. I want to write pages upon pages about trees and the sky and rivers and oceans at all times of the day and night.
Alison Espach: I am obsessed with juxtaposition in life and in writing, so I think I’ve become good at pairing things like joy and tragedy, humor and despair, love and hate, the cosmic and the trivial. But I tend to overwrite and then revise a lot after, and to be that kind of writer and also stay sane, you have to be very good at knowing what to cut. Sometimes, I just don’t know what to cut and spend way too much time thinking about it.
How do you contend with the hubris of thinking anyone has or should have any interest in what you have to say about anything?
Alison Espach: As a kid, I didn’t believe anybody would want to hear what I had to say, which is why I started writing in the first place—a way to say something without speaking. But one of the fun parts of getting older is learning that you do have a place in conversation, and conversation is one of the best parts of life. So I just put the writing out there, hoping someone will say something back.
Steve Toltz: You only need a shockingly small number of readers to respond positively to have validated the effort. Really, two or maybe three is enough to prove to yourself that you’re not merely delusional, that you should keep going. And two or all of those people can be completely insane. Still worth it.
Brad Listi: I think about my experiences as a reader. The solace I find in books that really register. Usually these books are candid and carefully observant and at least a little bit funny. And they have something urgent to say. I suppose I try to emulate that. I don’t expect anyone to care, but if they do care, I don’t want to waste their time.
Pyae Moe Thet War: Honestly, I’ve learned to lean into it. I often say that the act of writing (or making any kind of art), and especially trying to make money off of your art, requires a certain degree of arrogance that you have to make peace with if you want to do this for a living. This “job” will tear you apart if you don’t have that baseline of self-confidence, and if others label that as hubris, then oh well.
Cleyvis Natera: Part of the reason it took over a decade to write this novel is because I don’t contend with this hubris. I’m glad I wrote this book despite that.