Lit Hub Asks: 5 Writers, 7 Questions, No Wrong Answers
In Conversation with Martin Riker, Patrick Bringley, Sonora Jha, Priya Guns, and Melinda Moustakis
The Lit Hub Author Questionnaire is a monthly interview featuring seven questions for five authors with new books. This month we talk to:
Patrick Bringley (All the Beauty in the World: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Me)
Priya Guns (Your Driver Is Waiting)
Sonora Jha (The Laughter)
Melinda Moustakis (Homestead)
Martin Riker (The Guest Lecture)
Without summarizing it in any way, what would you say your book is about?
Sonora Jha: Men. Lust. Love and loneliness. Academia. A boy and his aunt. France, Pakistan, and America. The white imagination. A flute and a sweater and a man who knits. Erasure. Passionate women.
Martin Riker: A battle of good and evil between a person’s imagination and that same person’s other imagination.
Melinda Moustakis: 1950s Alaska. Marriage of practical strangers. Lies. Moose. Alaska’s bid for statehood. Complexities of what statehood and land ownership means. Clearing land. Living on an old school bus. Building a cabin. More moose. Betrayal. Snow.
Priya Guns: You know when you watch the news and you think ‘what the fuck did they just say? How is that even possible?!’ Then you go to the grocery store and realize you don’t have enough money to buy what you want, and your bank balance keeps dropping while someone rich is doing something outlandish, and koalas are turning to humans for a sip of water. Now imagine a rideshare driver driving through all of that, hoping her whole world will change with the new love of her life. My book is about rage, love, and the world today.
Patrick Bringley: My book is about a vast art museum and its overlooked workers. But more broadly it’s about what any of us—any solitary individual—can make of a great big world and all its beauty.
Without explaining why and without naming other authors or books, can you discuss the various influences on your book?
Patrick Bringley: It sounds obvious, but I was influenced by the things I write about—by paintings and statues, by fellow guards and museumgoers. Also: my mother, a Chicago theater actor. Also: earnest writers who may be right or wrong but who take big swings.
Sonora Jha: An erudite European intellectual. A South African professor. French laws. Work meetings. Marriage. Feminism. A president. A flutist.
Martin Riker: The desire to bring a lot of different ways of thinking into conversation with one another. The desire to make my insomnia feel useful.
Melinda Moustakis: My grandparents, who homesteaded in Point MacKenzie, Alaska in the late 50s, especially my grandmother who I interviewed for this novel, my uncle, Sonny Traxinger, who also shared his early memories of the homestead with me, the poetry of a place, women writing the wilderness.
Priya Guns: Race and class. Politics. Unpacking Taxi Driver. The gig economy. Love in all its many forms. So many conversations I’ve had with people about radical change and what that means to them. Reality is incredibly inspiring.
Without using complete sentences, can you describe what was going on in your life as you wrote this book?
Martin Riker: Parenting, teaching, masking, Zooming.
Patrick Bringley: Small children and Zoom school.
Sonora Jha: French medieval village. Work meetings. Camembert cheese and croissants and chicken curry. Marriage. Divorce. Walks with dog. Unreliable narrators coming and going. Reading horoscopes. Manicures. Revolution.
Priya Guns: Lockdown. Being back in Toronto writing my first novel. Starting an allotment. Finding ways to work out from home. Learning to drive stick. A lot of growth as a person, taking time to reflect. Meeting one of my nephews for the first time. Reading the news—switching off from the news. Dancing, lots of dancing in between writing chapters.
Melinda Moustakis: Moved to a different state every one or two years for jobs and fellowships and other reasons, questioned all my life choices, was finishing the book as I turned forty and book is forty chapters about being in the wilderness.
What are some words you despise that have been used to describe your writing by readers and/or reviewers?
Priya Guns: So far when readers have said they don’t understand how my protagonist has fallen so quick for someone, that their relationship seems “silly”—I take this personally. I fall in love fast. I’m all for love that is borderline obsessive, scream “I love you” mid-conversation to a stranger. Who hasn’t felt like they’re walking on clouds after some seriously sexy eye contact or are you not living life? I mean, as long as there’s consent, and everyone is on the same page, let love be fucking silly. I’m only slightly joking.
Martin Riker: I’ll go with “clever,” because even when it’s used as a compliment it sounds a little like a criticism.
Sonora Jha: Brave.
Melinda Moustakis: Run-on sentences, too slow, choppy.
Patrick Bringley: It’s my first book so none come to mind. I imagine it’s coming.
If you could choose a career besides writing (irrespective of schooling requirements and/or talent) what would it be?
Melinda Moustakis: I love teaching at the college and MFA level but don’t know if that will pan out so I’ll say professional baker or theater critic (I wish I could meet Ben Brantley).
Patrick Bringley: Center fielder, jazz trumpeter/frontman, museum guard.
Sonora Jha: Bollywood song lyricist/Bollywood movie star. Both?
Martin Riker: Writing’s not exactly my career, but it’s one of my favorite things to do. I really like all the things I do. I can’t think of anything I would like to do more.
Priya Guns: I majored in geography as an arts student and I wish I knew more about the subject from the sciences. I’d be a geologist. I know a grain about rocks but mainly bull my way through all the strata. If I knew more though, I’d have my own show: Hard Planet. Something goofy. I’d go around the world and talk about formations, conservation, and make rock jokes, because it ain’t about how hard you feel, but about how much heat and pressure you’ve been through.
Get it? (It’s a Rocky and metamorphic rock joke, two birds one stone, oh my god, I can’t stop.) At the very least, I’d like to be a statue made of a banded formation in an attempt to be one with the earth in a physical way. That could be a career, being a massive rock, doing nothing all day—billionaires do it.
What craft elements do you think are your strong suit, and what would you like to be better at?
Priya Guns: I’ve spent my life talking to myself with all of my imaginary friends, so I think my strong suit is dialogue and inner monologues/first person narration. I would like to be better at my use of language; I think that’s something I’ll always push for. English is my first language but it’s the second I grew up hearing. I’ve spent much of my adult life in countries where English is not even a second language, so in my head there’s a lot to play with, but also so much I want to learn about the language I know best—that is English. I sometimes am sucky and not bestest using it.
Melinda Moustakis: Immersing a reader in a setting, then imagery, lyrical style, and dialogue. I used to be terrible at dialogue but a number of years ago I got to spend some summers fishing on a river in Alaska with Sonny and I know listening to him tell stories taught me a lot about dialogue. I would like to be better at interiority. In this novel I had to really work on adding interiority and found it quite difficult but that could also be because the novel is in present tense.
Martin Riker: I’m good at organizing things in unusual ways. I’m good at paragraphs and characters. My narrative interests are a little old-fashioned in that I love tale-telling, storytelling that has a very strong sense of “and now I shall tell you a story.” I like the feeling, in a book, that we are all hanging out together, and being a little messier than we should. Fran Ross’s Oreo is my favorite novel. I’m not good at the kind of everything-in-scenes storytelling that contemporary fiction favors. It doesn’t bother me that I’m not good at that, but I guess there’s no reason not to improve at things?
Sonora Jha: I’m good at dialogue and at pacing/plot. I want to be better at describing settings.
Patrick Bringley: I can form ideas and turn them into sentences. But weaving sentence after sentence into a naturally flowing narrative, good lord it’s hard.
How do you contend with the hubris of thinking anyone has or should have any interest in what you have to say about anything?
Sonora Jha: I try really hard to say it differently. And then I say something to my dog. He always looks at me like I have something new to say. I conjure up the image of readers with that same facial expression.
Melinda Moustakis: First, I would say I’m trying to be very conscientious about writing against the mythology of Alaska being “The Last Frontier” and the novel includes the perspectives of the two main characters who are newlyweds, Lawrence and Marie, which is definitely not the trope of the lone man in the wilderness. Second, I don’t know anyone who does not like to read about moose. But it’s totally fine if they don’t.
Martin Riker: I like when people are interested in my writing, but I don’t ever think that they should be.
Priya Guns: I struggled with this years ago. People often say that writing as a career is indulgent/narcissistic, and it can be, but it depends on what you’re writing about and how you do it. When I was contending with who would want to read my work or who would care about what I’ve written, I realized how much trash is shoved in our faces everyday; through advertising, politics, white supremacy, colonialism, the entire capitalist system—have you ever watched or seen something and been tempted to gouge your eyes out? I will be unapologetically loud or expressive in my own way. Move over! We have a lot to say in this corner.
Patrick Bringley: I wrote each and every paragraph assuming my reader would be bored if I didn’t get a move on. But I don’t think it’s hubris to want to share your ideas and story. Writing can be generous.