Lit Hub Asks: 5 Writers, 7 Questions, No Wrong Answers
In Conversation With Victor LaValle, Szilvia Molnar, Cecile Pin, 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:
Roxanna Asgarian (We Were Once a Family: A Story of Love, Death, and Child Removal in America)
Jaroslav Kalfař (A Brief History of Living Forever)
Victor LaValle (Lone Women)
Szilvia Molnar (The Nursery)
Cecile Pin (Wandering Souls)
Without summarizing it in any way, what would you say your book is about?
Victor LaValle: Keeping your family’s secrets will destroy you.
Cecile Pin: The Vietnamese boat people; grief, overcoming trauma, and the importance of family—both by blood and by bond; the UK during its Margaret Thatcher days.
Szilvia Molnar: You are standing in the rain, eating a box of liquor-filled cherry bonbons and also crying, when someone very handsome starts dragging you by your ankles towards some unstable scaffolding.
Roxanna Asgarian: Family, grief, loss. Racism. Intergenerational trauma, compounded by the oppressive systems that dominate people’s lives.
Jaroslav Kalfař: Longevity/immortality as a way to acquire power, normalization of fascism, the threat of technology to humanism (optimization vs. soul), the childish logic of blood-and-soil nationalism, the limits of what we owe to family, what makes a life “well-lived,” the limits of finding meaning in work, the responsibility “disruptors” and inventors have toward society.
Without explaining why and without naming other authors or books, can you discuss the various influences on your book?
Jaroslav Kalfař: My mother’s life story, vintage Eastern European sci-fi, absurdist philosophy, my grandmother’s wisdom, second-wave feminism, immortality myths, tech-bro delusions, the Cold War, the Prague Spring & Winter, the tragedies of US immigration policy, salamander uprisings.
Szilvia Molnar: A protagonist who has the compulsion to detail personal hygiene and another protagonist who explores their inner queerness in a rotting house. A large crow at your door, reminding you of your pain each day. The fact that a mother can bake cakes for over 1,000 pages and I’m still there by her side at page 470-something. A writer who can’t sleep but tries to. A bryologist writing about motherhood.
Roxanna Asgarian: A response to the desire some of us have for intense stories, fully devoid of context. The many children and young people I’ve come across in my work, who don’t have stability, who are pulled out of their own lives and relationships, and whose resulting pain is uncomfortable for many people to look at. Becoming a mother myself.
Victor LaValle: The personal journals of homesteading women at the turn of the century, the development of the Santa Rosa plums by Luther Burbank, and the history of Black farmers in California were deeply important to my book. (Saying any more will topple into explanation so I won’t add more.)
Cecile Pin: It’s partly inspired by my mother’s history, and from my own research on the plight of the Vietnamese boat people (news article, national archive documents, testimonies etc.). Also, from my love of novels that play with forms and that have a fragmented structure and multiple narrators. And lastly, some chapters I wrote thanks to my Philosophy studies.
Without using complete sentences, can you describe what was going on in your life as you wrote this book?
Szilvia Molnar: A not-so-great time meets leaving New York meets repetitive walks while opening many mountain laurel seed pods with my daughter. The world stopped, a beautiful boy was born, I continued my efforts at night.
Victor LaValle: Child-rearing, COVID, isolation.
Roxanna Asgarian: Lockdown. Fulltime child-rearing, incredible feats of cooperation with my husband, and a sense of the world crumbling around us. Freelance hustle.
Cecile Pin: Starting a new job. A global pandemic. A little bit of heartbreak. A lot of self-doubt and sleepless nights.
Jaroslav Kalfař: Reconnecting with family across the Atlantic. Chronic illness, debilitating pain, contemplation of life without body. Dream fulfilled=the odd necessity of needing to get a new dream. Love found and foolishly lost. Way too many proud fascists in the streets and on screens. A bit of a pandemic.
What are some words you despise that have been used to describe your writing by readers and/or reviewers?
Cecile Pin: I’ve been lucky so far—nothing jumps to mind! I will say, it’s always a little hard when people see the work more as non-fiction or memoir than fiction: it is a novel.
Victor LaValle: Urban. It’s okay, just say Black!
Szilvia Molnar: “Uncompelling fiction” stung for five seconds, but I can respect “too dark”—we all have our limits.
Jaroslav Kalfař: I don’t despise these, I am just puzzled by them: “Writes with almost formal eloquence.” (Is that good or bad?) “Writes like a teacher’s pet.” (I’m a high school dropout.) “Writes in unreadable broken English.” (Okie-doke.)
Roxanna Asgarian: I’ve been reading all my Goodreads reviews (I know, I know). Someone named Randall called it “a dry read.”
If you could choose a career besides writing (irrespective of schooling requirements and/or talent) what would it be?
Roxanna Asgarian: I guess a lawyer, because there’s a lot of heft to the subject, although I would likely end up (even more) burned out.
Cecile Pin: In another life, I would have loved to be a biologist, or therapist.
Victor LaValle: I would love to be a drummer in a band.
Jaroslav Kalfař: Acting. I was in a theatre program in high school and felt very connected to it. My acting teacher told me I’d never amount to anything if I didn’t get rid of my Czech accent. I thought that was pretty messed up. Then I dropped out of high school and went to work as a waiter at Friendly’s, where my accent earned me good tips.
Szilvia Molnar: Film director.
What craft elements do you think are your strong suit, and what would you like to be better at?
Szilvia Molnar: Directness? And then, I’d like to have a wider vocabulary.
Cecile Pin: I really enjoy empathizing with my characters and getting into their mindset. I’m terrible at English grammar (it’s my second language!), and I’m trying to get better at writing daily—my writing pace is quite chaotic at the moment.
Victor LaValle: I’m good at dialogue and have a strong narrative voice. I’m still working at making the natural world feel vivid and memorable.
Roxanna Asgarian: I feel the emotional notes of the experiences of the people I’m writing about really strongly, and my main goal is to convey those notes clearly in a matched emotional experience for the reader. As for what I’d like to do better, there’s a certain quality to a lot of writing I admire where it feels like the author is basking in the moment, slowly and deliberately exploring it, actually living inside it, that is something I’ve never yet been able to feel in my own work.
Jaroslav Kalfař: Writing characters is my strong suit. I learned to read people very closely as a child to survive the violence and volatility in my family, and that skill became crucial to my development as a writer. I am not as interested in plot as I should be, but I hope to improve now that I’ve warmed up to outlining in advance.
How do you contend with the hubris of thinking anyone has or should have any interest in what you have to say about anything?
Roxanna Asgarian: I think in journalism there is a related question, which is, “What gives you the right to write about another’s experience?” I think it’s useful to interrogate that why, repeatedly and at length, because it uncovers blind spots and either you give the story up or it strengthens your resolve. In the case of this book, it felt imperative to write a version of this story that felt more true to the experiences of the deeply marginalized people that, in most tellings, were pushed to the very edges of the frame.
Cecile Pin: I still find it incredible every time someone tells me they’ve read my book—especially if it’s someone I know. I guess I still have that mentality that no one really cares about what I write, which is freeing: I just write what I like to write. And I think that’s important in a book: you can always tell when the writer is having fun.
Jaroslav Kalfař: Badly! All day, every day, since I was a child, my impostor syndrome bullies me. “Who the hell do you think you are to say anything, pal?” Luckily, the hubris is universal to our species. We all want to talk to each other, and literature is really a one big conversation.
Szilvia Molnar: I don’t understand this question so I’m going to kindly pass on answering.
Victor LaValle: I lean into it. There’s plenty of people out in the world that talk my ear off about a bunch of bullshit. Why should they get to do it and I don’t?