Lit Hub Asks: 5 Authors, 7 Questions, No Wrong Answers
Featuring Justin Torres, Alice Pung, John Lee Clark 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:
K-Ming Chang (Organ Meats)
John Lee Clark (Touch the Future: A Manifesto in Essays)
Ainslie Hogarth (Normal Women)
Justin Torres (Blackouts)
Without summarizing it in any way, what would you say your book is about?
Alice Pung: Eating boiled watermelon and resenting your mum. Hiding your pregnancy from her because she’ll nick off with your baby like Jareth the Goblin King.
Ainslie Hogarth: Normal Women is about the various mechanisms that keep women financially dependent on men.
K-Ming Chang: Daughterhood, a chorus of feral dogs with ancestral memory, histories of dismemberment, devotion and accountability, girlhood friendship and deconstructing temporal constructs of womanhood, matrilineal mythmaking, islands, dreamworlds, queerness as a horizon, and return.
John Lee Clark: Rather than what it’s about, let’s go with what it does: Touch the Future opens realms never before explored. The book itself is part of the opening mechanism, and it’s impossible to separate it from this bunch of DeafBlind people who are the first to choreograph those worlds. We’re excited, beckoning others to follow us.
Justin Torres: Being lost, and haunted. Studying deviance. Studying ghosts. Queer erasure. Socratic dialogue.
Without explaining why and without naming other authors or books, can you discuss the various influences on your book?
K-Ming Chang: I eavesdropped on a conversation in which someone was talking about a recently adopted Formosan Mountain Dog who was terrified of almost every sound. I looked at classifications of dog breeds and other domesticated species. I was haunted by folklore about entrails, fate, and girls who stray.
John Lee Clark: All the DeafBlind people who have gone before, especially those I knew in my youth. Process philosophy. My family, our cats. Food, poetry, the sun smiling in my hair.
Justin Torres: Mental institutions, early sexology, culturally bound syndromes, blackout poetry, mid-century children’s books, reading and being read.
Ainslie Hogarth: Having to quit my job during the pandemic and become a full-time mom. Also, mom forums.
Alice Pung: David Bowie’s lavender tights. “We are Siamese if you please” and Lady and the Tramp. Walt Whitman celebrating himself and his atoms. Punky Brewster. Kahlil Gibran’s arrows flung far from their bow. 1980s sordid suburbia, Melbourne, Australia.
Without using complete sentences, can you describe what was going on in your life as you wrote this book?
Ainslie Hogarth: Wake up. Change diapers. Make breakfast. Garburate the kids’ uneaten scraps like a forlorn goat. Go to the park. Make threats. Make lunch. Garburate the kids’ uneaten scraps like a forlorn goat. Change diapers. Play. Make dinner. Garburate the kids’ uneaten scraps like a forlorn goat. Bath. Bedtime.
Alice Pung: Two pregnancies. Three children within five and a half years. The world’s longest lockdown. Moving back in with my parents at 39.
K-Ming Chang: Long commutes. Uncertainty and doubt. Brief encounters with the void. A recurrent visitor on my windowsill. Coming home.
John Lee Clark: Moving chairs around, pushing tables against walls. Stomping the floor of a jumbo van with CM Hall at the wheel. Friendship bracelets. A stone carved in the shape of a book. A bed in Louisiana and another in Chicago collapsing under the weight of people talking all night. “If your theory relies on embodiment, it’s no good.” Dances in the PT House SwimSpa. Hugs galore.
Justin Torres: Twelve long years of wandering the creative desert. Getting older every day.
What are some words you despise that have been used to describe your writing by readers and/or reviewers?
John Lee Clark: I’m easygoing when it comes to what others say about my writing. They can use the much-hated “inspiring.” What does make me cringe, though… [tapping your chest] is the phrase “and/or.”
Alice Pung: “Diverse.”
K-Ming Chang: I try to avoid reading reviews because I know they aren’t for me, but one thing I’ve always found interesting is that books by authors of color often receive comments about “their culture,” as if every book and every character isn’t deeply embedded within a cultural context. It’s just fascinating which “cultures” are considered default and therefore invisible, and which stories are treated as ethnography, something to objectify, extract, or learn from while ignoring craft and imagination.
Justin Torres: As I answer this question, the book hasn’t come out just yet, so there haven’t been many reviews, but here’s the headline of an early review in the Minneapolis Star Tribune: “A tour de force, Blackouts is the year’s sexiest novel.” I plan to tattoo this across my forehead. I don’t despise any of those words.
Ainslie Hogarth: I don’t really like the term “unhinged woman” and how it’s come to describe any morally complex female character.
If you could choose a career besides writing (irrespective of schooling requirements and/or talent) what would it be?
Justin Torres: Camp gay icon / raspy chanteuse. Or nothing. Or a painter.
Alice Pung: Costume designer for period dramas traversing centuries and cultures.
K-Ming Chang: Ornithologist!
John Lee Clark: [taking your hands in mine as I slowly place them against my hips] That “and/or” has to stop. Immediately. Thank you. Well, writing is already my alternate career. I was supposed to be a professional baseball pitcher, by now retired as the 14th all-time strikeouts leader and awaiting my first year of balloting for the Hall of Fame.
Ainslie Hogarth: I would have loved to become a doctor, but I was definitely too poor and probably too stupid.
What craft elements do you think are your strong suit, and what would you like to be better at?
K-Ming Chang: I think that voice tends to arrive first for me, and because of that, it’s not something I often struggle to find. But I’ve recently been trying to play around more with writing in third person and experimenting with genre tropes. I would also love to become braver and less afraid of my own rage. I want to be unafraid of saying something, of letting my stories argue or fight for something, even if it threatens certain ideas of craft.
Ainslie Hogarth: I know I can write a great character and a beautiful sentence, but I have to work hard to not take my setting for granted.
Alice Pung: I am good at simple, direct and visceral descriptions, and depicting class. I would like to be better at writing bestselling crime page-turners so I can pivot to making a killing (metaphorically speaking of course. Do Americans use this expression?).
Justin Torres: I spend a lot of time thinking about sentences. And paragraphs. I would like to be better at writing humor and joy.
John Lee Clark: I’m really good at breathing on every word for the final polish. My first drafts and final drafts are never much different, but that breathing and polishing makes a difference. My main book in progress is a work of history, so I’m thrilling in the art—the ART!—of weaving primary sources into the narrative.
How do you contend with the hubris of thinking anyone has or should have any interest in what you have to say about anything?
John Lee Clark: That question doesn’t even apply. I don’t write for or to. I write with. The people with whom I wrote, whose lives and thoughts and dreams flood my own, are of course intensely interested in what I write. It belongs to them as much as it belongs to me.
Ainslie Hogarth: I try to at least be entertaining.
K-Ming Chang: I don’t mind speaking to myself in an empty room. Writing helps me hear myself, and I try to take solace and joy in that, and to know that that is always enough. We can’t control anything beyond the page, and I try to value and take pleasure in my relationship to the writing process, to remember that I can always return to it, even and especially in times of futility or times when I wish I could be heard.
Alice Pung: How many books are there about pregnant Asian-Australian girls growing up in the economically depressed suburbs of Melbourne? Also—this is not a humblebrag but a fair dinkum fully blown swagger-brag—how many of these get shortlisted for Australia’s top literary award?!
Justin Torres: Hahaha. THIS IS THE QUESTION. A lot of self-loathing and second-guessing. And then berating myself for the narcissism and hubris of that self-loathing, as if there aren’t more worthy targets.