Lit Hub Asks: 5 Writers, 7 Questions, No Wrong Answers
Featuring Blair Braverman, Franny Choi, Lynn Steger Strong, 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:
Blair Braverman (Small Game)
Franny Choi (The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On)
Ted Conover (Cheap Land Colorado: Off-Gridders at America’s Edge)
Evan Mandery (Poison Ivy: How Elite Colleges Divide Us)
Lynn Steger Strong (Flight)
Without summarizing it in any way, what would you say your book is about?
Franny Choi: Apocalypses past and present.
Blair Braverman: The line you have to cross to turn something into a real survival situation, and how long it takes people to realize they’ve crossed it.
Lynn Steger Strong: Family, grief, shame, art, fear, ambition, money, bodies, love.
Evan Mandery: How elite colleges, particularly in their interaction with affluent suburbs, exacerbate social inequality.
Ted Conover: Getting away from already being pretty much away from it all.
Without explaining why and without naming other authors or books, can you discuss the various influences on your book?
Lynn Steger Strong: Three friends dying, museum trips, Joan Mitchell, Agnes Martin, Alice Neel, Florida, fear and shame, some unknown unnamed deep internal ache, my physical discomfort at family holidays, long talks with people that I love.
Ted Conover: Westerns—both novels and movies. A service group called La Puente, which embraces elements of socially activist Catholicism. And all the wind and all that space.
Blair Braverman: The survival stories I was obsessed with as a child. Reality TV.
Franny Choi: Democracy Now headlines; modern Korean history; speculative poetry; having a nice day at the end of the world.
Evan Mandery: My book is informed by a lifetime spent in the classroom as a student and teacher in almost every imaginable type of classroom, and my overwhelming sense that the standard narrative of why poor students of color struggle so intensely is the near opposite of the truth.
Without using complete sentences, can you describe what was going on in your life as you wrote this book?
Ted Conover: Trying to keep warm, trying not to get my truck stuck in snow or mud, wondering whether to buy a gun.
Franny Choi: Before and after 2016. Before and after 2020. Jigsaw puzzles, Korean fried chicken, doom. Some of the most beautiful, brilliant, QT/POC writers I know, gathered around a table in Greece. Headlines so terrible you have to laugh. White people screaming “we did it.” Everyone I love, afraid.
Lynn Steger Strong: Fear, anger, shame, Covid, seven different houses and apartments, New York, Maine, and Florida, Zoom school, Zoom work, Zoom friends, new and different types of desperation, trying to be grateful, to find ways to feel hopeful, running, lots of water, daily phone calls with R, falling even more in love with my partner and our kids.
Evan Mandery: COVID, teaching online, watching students struggle to learn online.
Blair Braverman: Pandemic quarantine deep in the frozen woods.
What are some words you despise that have been used to describe your writing by readers and/or reviewers?
Evan Mandery: I’ll share my favorite. I published a collection of ostensibly funny short stories, titled The Revised Protocols of the Elders of Zion: Tales of Neurotic Obsessions. One of the stories is about a middle-aged vampire, Nosferatu Rabinowitz, who’s struggling to manage his enlarged prostate while sleeping in a coffin. You get the gist. An Amazon reader wrote this one-star review: “Not protocols of Zion or even about them.”
Ted Conover: “Detailed” is not my favorite.
Blair Braverman: There are no words I despise. If someone’s engaging with my work in a thoughtful way, I’m honored, even if their take or perspective is very different from my own.
Lynn Steger Strong: Domestic, quiet, narcissistic, bleak.
Franny Choi: “Brave.” “A tribute to Donna Haraway.”
If you could choose a career besides writing (irrespective of schooling requirements and/or talent) what would it be?
Blair Braverman: Singer/songwriter, though I have absolutely no musical talent. It seems like such an efficient way to share the subtlety of emotion. I know a songwriter is technically still a writer, but shh, don’t tell.
Lynn Steger Strong: Midwife/doula/wet nurse.
Evan Mandery: I’m a professor at a public college, and I love my job. Otherwise, I’d enjoy being an evolutionary biologist.
Franny Choi: I have too many! But today, it’s voice actor, specializing in audiobooks.
Ted Conover: Master electrician. Plumber. Cliff diver.
What craft elements do you think are your strong suit, and what would you like to be better at?
Ted Conover: I’m good at challenging in-person research, like working in a prison or spending winter weeks in a little trailer on the prairie. I’m good at listening. I want to get better at growing a cult following.
Blair Braverman: I think I’m strong at pacing scenes and dialogue and giving a sense of place. I’m in awe of writers who can imagine or create worlds completely beyond their experiences; I’d love to do the same.
Evan Mandery: I think I’m good at interweaving stories and disparate intellectual disciples into a coherent narrative and drawing connections that might not seem obvious at first. I imagine every writer struggles to some extent with writing dialogue.
Lynn Steger Strong: Strengths are attention to bodies and an obsession with structure; no matter how much I think I’m amping things up, I tend to get distracted by the more granular aspects of the story, often to the detriment of a more compelling plot.
Franny Choi: I feel pretty comfortable working with sound, rhythm, and tone, and I’d love to get better at being more trusting with my endings.
How do you contend with the hubris of thinking anyone has or should have any interest in what you have to say about anything?
Blair Braverman: We all need other peoples’ stories; it’s how we make sense of our own. I don’t think my stories are right for everyone, but if they’re right for someone, it means the world.
Ted Conover: I ask other people, like blurbers, to help me explain why it matters. Then I embrace it—that hubris is mine. (If you don’t feel you have something to say, why are you a writer?)
Lynn Steger Strong: I mostly don’t think anyone should have any interest in what I have to say. I love writing, can’t seem to stop it, but I struggle constantly with the utility and value of my writing in the wider world. There is a lot of tricking myself by writing early in the morning or late at night, but every draft after the first feels like a process of stripping my ego from the project, taking something that matters only to me and trying to make it more and more about something other people might get pleasure and sustenance from.
Evan Mandery: I have no misconception that anyone has any interest in what I’m saying because I’m saying it. Ultimately, it’s a question of whether I’m telling an interesting story or helping the reader think through an existential or philosophical question that they’ve been dealing with in their own life.
Franny Choi: Oh god, I don’t know. With gratitude, I guess. And I try to write with specific loved ones in mind.