Lit Hub Asks: 5 Writers, 7 Questions, No Wrong Answers
In Conversation with Meghan Gilliss, Lawrence Jackson, Adam Langer, Murray Lee, and Mecca Jamilah Sullivan
The Lit Hub Author Questionnaire is a monthly interview featuring seven questions for five authors with new books. This month we talk to some authors with books out just now, and some we missed the first time around in 2022:
Meghan Gilliss (Lungfish)
Lawrence Jackson (Shelter: A Black Tale of Homeland, Baltimore)
Adam Langer (Cyclorama)
Murray Lee (Compass)
Mecca Jamilah Sullivan (Big Girl)
Without summarizing it in any way, what would you say your book is about?
Adam Langer: One day, it’s the summer between high school and college and you’re on a beach somewhere in Chicago and you’re hanging out with a dude who wants to scalp you tickets to the Police concert. Then, another day—much, much later—you’re at home with your kids watching the news and the same guy is on Fox News, explaining how he’s going to change U.S. immigration policy. And, you may ask yourself how did you get here and how did he get there? But you don’t know the answer the question, so you write a book to try to find out.
Meghan Gilliss: Not seeing. Or seeing the wrong things only, intently. But maybe they’re the right things? Or okay things, anyway—useful, in their own ways. Re-seeing, too (as in, seeing anew). Then seeing what’s not really there, which may be the most helpful way of seeing at all.
Mecca Jamilah Sullivan: The hungers we’re not supposed to notice and the desires we’re not supposed to indulge. Black women, queer people, people of color, women in general. The shame we inherit, the will to fight back. The beauty we create when we choose our pleasure fiercely and make space for ourselves in the world.
Lawrence Jackson: Admitting that this contradicts my response to the seventh question, I have come to realize that the country I live in is too ignorant to understand my book any other way but this: it is about a poor black person who wants to “Get Smart” and make a series of difficult choices to become middle class and buy a house, and not the artifice world of the “black middle class,” just “middle class.” It is the sort of book that is about racial belonging on every page and yet sees discussions about race as a thin veneer that only marks the surface of a much deeper existence.
Murray Lee: Impostor syndrome. Hubris. The meaning of place. Getting so lost you might not ever come back.
Without explaining why and without naming other authors or books, can you discuss the various influences on your book?
Mecca Jamilah Sullivan: Hip-hop. Harlem, NY. The Hot 97 morning show. Intersectionality theory. ‘90s fashion. Modernism. Queerness. The African diaspora. Box braids. Every delicious food on the planet. Dollar store lipstick. Color wheels. People who see through fatphobia.
Lawrence Jackson: From the time I was a very young poor black child, I had always been marked by a strong sense of nostalgia for martyrdom and pending immolation. It was connected to my family’s history in the military and the losses we suffered during the Vietnam War era, (also mindful of my relatives in WWII and WWI and my father’s service at Ft. Hood). These feelings were hugely exacerbated by The War on Drugs and The Drugs, Guns, and Violence themselves.
After I got to college and began reading in Black Studies, I substituted the arc of U.S. Black history for this shorn military valor narrative tragedy and reclaimed narcotics as The Hustle and my musings became more fully absurd to me. I was punished in there for having this sense of the surreal and the satiric overtaking the tragic and romantic representations of poor black people (typically conveyed in plastic by those who were not so poor), and also because it was impossible for me to escape the deep absurdity of my own pathetically insistent mimetic representations.
Murray Lee: Inuit elders who weave stories of adventure without a whiff of self-promotion, and the contrast between them and the brand-aware narcissists who surround us.
Meghan Gilliss: The particular bacteria carried by a particular tick and mixed in particular blood; the particular DNA combined within a particular uterus, to make the particular child who did not abide “independent sleeping”; the particular mindfucks of loving a particular human with substance use disorder; the particular books returned by others, taken from the returns bin and scanned for a line or two of good, if seemingly arcane, knowledge; the need for a way to move forward in a situation that felt particularly specific, but was terribly common; the stubbornness I was born with.
Adam Langer: When I was in high school, I went with my mom and brother to London and saw a play called “Quartermaine’s Terms,” by Simon Gray. It took place in a school office, and nothing much seemed to happen. Colleagues talked about their pupils, their weekend plans, their partners. But two hours later, you realized you’d watched the trajectories of half a dozen lifetimes. It was one of the coolest experiences I ever had in the theater. I was also influenced by the leaps of time in Stephen Sondheim musicals. An extensive Spotify playlist helps too.
Without using complete sentences, can you describe what was going on in your life as you wrote this book?
Murray Lee: Endless hours on tiny little planes. My little boys becoming men. Way too many distractions.
Adam Langer: Buying cloth masks, disinfecting groceries, mastering the art of Zoom backgrounds, feeding tufted titmice in the North Woods of Central Park, scrolling Twitter, deleting Twitter, mourning, celebrating, mourning, celebrating.
Mecca Jamilah Sullivan: Growing up.
Lawrence Jackson: Full-on sense of apocalypse, financial collapse, perish from pathogens, political doom, loved ones secreted at a distance, a spectacle transposed as organic civil rights protests, and baseball lessons.
Meghan Gilliss: Postpartum financial duress. Housing through sheer generational luck. The child, using her own legs: blue sneakers on loose gravel, sudden. Nerve pain in the shoulder, ten out of ten—an urge to chew off my arm. The confusion of descending a parking garage staircase, having the urge, thinking I should really do it, then seeing right there through the glass wall a person with one arm. The acupuncturist who stopped the pain matter-of-factly, by knowing the body in a different way, who then also filled my propane tank. Dandelions and worms as very good things; fingers colder than the soil, the puddles, the rain. Hair loss (not complete, just constant).
New dogs, the first one whose traumas made her risky in a room with the child (though without the child, she allowed herself to form a perfect gray-black coil of ease). Battle and rest, battle and rest, all of us. Removal of a mass that had moved up and down as I swallowed. (Advice heeded: Dress well for the doctors.) Summers, beaches; winters, wastelands (and sledding and icicle crunching—so much icicle crunching). A boundary drawn. A house haunted by one question, instead of dozens. The white felt rabbit costume at the dog beach in the fog, on Easter. Waiting for the question to come out of her.
What are some words you despise that have been used to describe your writing by readers and/or reviewers?
Meghan Gilliss: Despise is a strong word. I cringe a bit at “like poetry,” and similar. (I cringe for poetry. I’m not a poet. I had to google caesura the other day.)
Mecca Jamilah Sullivan: Slow. But I’m not mad at the word. I’m like, what’s wrong with slow? Come on, y’all. Let’s savor.
Lawrence Jackson: Inscrutable or dense or unfunny or academic or jaundiced.
Adam Langer: I just feel happy when anyone chooses to describe it at all, though I imagine that I don’t enjoy insults any more than anyone else does.
Murray Lee: Different. Apparently it’s a bad thing.
If you could choose a career besides writing (irrespective of schooling requirements and/or talent) what would it be?
Lawrence Jackson: Small yard landscaper, finish carpenter, tobacco farmer, blacksmith, the tasks of my forebears.
Adam Langer: I’d like to be able to paint like Rene Magritte, play the bass like Charles Mingus, and draw cartoons like Nick Park. I’d like to play baseball like Richie Allen and tennis like Martina Navratilova. I’d like to have the insatiable curiosity of Ira Glass and commune with the natural world like Jane Goodall and Sy Montgomery.
Meghan Gilliss: I still wish I had applied for a customer service job in the returns department of L.L. Bean in the day when they promised to take anything back, forever. A person could bring in a very dirty dog bed he bought 16 years earlier and say his dog didn’t like it, and you would just get to smile at him in that way that encourages further talk, the grievance a window into a life, learn something about the way that now-dead dog tethered that man to something outside of himself—and then say, Okay, let’s do it. Let’s get you your money back. I know you would love some of those people and despise some of those people and that ultimately letting those reactions Plinko through you would more finely tune you as a human. But maybe I’m not ambitious enough.
Mecca Jamilah Sullivan: Irrespective of talent? I would be a singer songwriter. Also possibly a rapper. I would be a tall, thick, high femme Missy Elliott.
Murray Lee: 1970s stuntman.
What craft elements do you think are your strong suit, and what would you like to be better at?
Meghan Gilliss: I’m always impressed by quick, sly, adept characterization—character knowledge as a starting point. I wonder what that must be like, to be able to set a story up like that. I don’t know about my strong suits. I think I may have some instinct for where to stop (that I’m sure only certain readers appreciate). I like to think I can generate something like reverberation, by stopping well, and through arrangement.
Murray Lee: A strong sense of place. Dialogue (shockingly). Precise word choice, even when I have to make one up. Those are strengths. Emotion less so. It might be a while before I write a sex scene.
Mecca Jamilah Sullivan: Voice usually comes to me pretty clearly. I hear my characters first, and I really enjoy spending time with them, following them around to learn about their worlds. Structuring the plot takes more work for me. I admire writers who can map out elaborate, detailed story lines before they start writing. For me, that doesn’t happen until I hang out with the characters for a while. It’s like a trust thing. I need to know them well before they show me what they want.
Adam Langer: I feel like I’m best with pace, rhythm, and dialogue, and that original ways of expressing myself don’t come as naturally to me as they do to others. I’m jealous of writers for whom every sentence reads like a “holy shit” revelation. Kevin Barry, Paul Beatty, Michael Chabon, Maxine Hong Kingston and Virginia Woolf come immediately to mind.
Lawrence Jackson: I would like to work on the lyrical side a bit more. I like me on the political comedy side.
How do you contend with the hubris of thinking anyone has or should have any interest in what you have to say about anything?
Adam Langer: I think it takes hubris to litter or dump chemicals in the ocean or run billion-dollar apps that propagate misinformation or take bribes from lobbyists from the munitions industry. I’m just trying to write some books that will hopefully entertain and inspire a few people. As hubris goes, that seems pretty mild. But I guess it does take hubris to think anyone would read to the end of this sentence.
Lawrence Jackson: I am reminded so regularly of the meaninglessness of my own views that I write about those dramatic moments of deep nihilistic despair in Shelter, for example. It is hard for me to get to the highpoint of hubris. I hate to admit this but I always imagine that in some utopia I will wake up in the imaginative world conceived by a speculative fiction writer as a genuinely white American and have that everlasting hubris that I note so consistently in my interactions across the color line and a strong, confident sense of entitlement will be a perdurable node of my cognition.
Meghan Gilliss: When you’re engaged with the process of writing, you’re just doing it for yourself. You’re not thinking of anyone else, for better or for worse. If you know something is going to be published, you just sustain a little cognitive dissonance; it’s not that hard, if you have your own reasons for writing what you’re writing.
Murray Lee: I don’t truly believe anyone should. See impostor syndrome, above.
Mecca Jamilah Sullivan: People need literature. This is true for me, at least, and I know I’m not the only one. If writers like Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, Ntozake Shange, and Gayl Jones let a fear of hubris stop them from writing, we would have a less rich, less free world. What they have to say about race, gender, sexuality, and the body makes our present possible and gives us an idea of what the future could be. When I feel hubristic or shy, I think of them, and it becomes harder to let myself off the hook.