Lit Hub Asks: 5 Writers 7 Questions No Wrong Answers
Featuring Gina Chung, Katherine Heiny, Brendan Slocumb 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:
Kevin Chong (The Double Life of Benson Yu)
Gina Chung (Sea Change)
Katherine Heiny (Games and Rituals)
Brendan Slocumb (Symphony of Secrets)
Adam Sternbergh (The Eden Test)
Without summarizing it in any way, what would you say your book is about?
Gina Chung: Love, loss, cephalopods, and learning how to show up for yourself.
Adam Sternbergh: Marriage. What is it, exactly? Basically, a bunch of hopeful promises said in front of a crowd, followed by a lifetime agreement to forge together into the unknown. But how seriously do we take those promises? How seriously could we take them?
Kevin Chong: It’s about the lies we tell ourselves to survive—more specifically, how we can turn villains into heroes as children.
Katherine Heiny: Love. Relationships. Aging. Mortality. Teenagers. Parents. Roommates. People. Sex. Food. People having sex and thinking about food.
Brendan Slocumb: Giving voice to the voiceless.
Without explaining why and without naming other authors or books, can you discuss the various influences on your book?
Katherine Heiny: The Department of Motor Vehicles. Hearing aids. Serial killers. Hotlines. The time I wore a bridesmaid dress to an office job.
Adam Sternbergh: The stories I learned in Sunday school have a way of bubbling up in my crime novels—in this case, fairly obviously, Adam and Eve. I won’t name the author or book where that story first appears but it’s one of the greatest compendiums of lust, betrayal, revenge, murder and wrath ever devised.
Kevin Chong: Some of those influences are the following: my grandmother’s death in 2019, samurai movies like Sword of Desperation, the scathing reaction from a middle-aged man after I suggested that the treatment he described receiving, as a child, from his father had been abusive.
Brendan Slocumb: I like stories that have dual chronologies, and I’ve been intrigued about how unprincipled and unscrupulous music publishers used to be back in the 1920s. I read a lot of comic books, and love unlikely heroes (like musicologist pizza-loving professors and streetwise brilliant techies). A close friend of mine has a neurodivergent child, and I’ve been fascinated at watching him cope with the world, so that’s part of what I wanted to explore here, too.
Gina Chung: Coming-of-age stories, Asian American stories, books about messy girls and women who don’t always make the wisest decisions, animals and how they remind me of the animal parts of ourselves.
Without using complete sentences, can you describe what was going on in your life as you wrote this book?
Kevin Chong: Lockdown in March 2020, in a stuffy attic office, trying to carve out a space with two kids and a working spouse down below.
Gina Chung: Extreme disillusionment and loss of plot in my personal life (I wrote the first draft of this book in my bedroom closet in fall of 2020).
Katherine Heiny: Covid. Migraines. Cookies. My family. (Not in that order.)
Adam Sternbergh: Busy, busy, first draft, busy, PANDEMIC, isolation, fear of death, despair, finished draft, had a baby, here we are.
Brendan Slocumb: Celebrating the release of my first novel, The Violin Conspiracy. Seeing first-hand how my writing impacts readers. Traveling a ton and meeting people who actually had read my novel.
What are some words you despise that have been used to describe your writing by readers and/or reviewers?
Brendan Slocumb: A reader who said that the book overused the word “sluiced,” which appeared three times in a 95,000-word book, so that felt a little off the mark. That said, I still feel so grateful that anybody would read the book and feel passionately enough about it to want to review it that I’m not going to quibble with their word choice!
Kevin Chong: I used to have those words with earlier books but now I appreciate getting any notices. In terms of volume, book coverage is not quite what it was. One not-so-nice review of The Double Life of Benson Yu described the ending as “disturbing.” But, you know, as Pee Wee Herman used to say, “I meant to do that!”
Gina Chung: Unambitious, unrelatable, “sad girl fiction.”
Katherine Heiny: “Hen lit.” “Made up.” “Reads more like a story collection than a novel” – about a story collection.
Adam Sternbergh: Honestly, I don’t despise any words, especially not ones used to talk about my books. I should say that if anyone describes my book as “over the top,” I never, ever consider that a criticism; in fact, it’s my favorite compliment. I’m very aware of where the top is and I always, always strive to be over it.
If you could choose a career besides writing (irrespective of schooling requirements and/or talent) what would it be?
Adam Sternbergh: If I had even a lick of visual talent I would love to work in book cover design. I think a successful and surprising book cover is the most beautiful thing you can gaze at.
Katherine Heiny: Homicide detective.
Kevin Chong: Because I’m so into my step count these days, I’d like to give outdoor walking tours. I’d take people into the woods for a couple of hours and talk knowledgeably about the flora and fauna (we’re in full-tilt fantasy mode now) and then we’d stop by a clearing overlooking the ocean and, from my backpack, I’d share some homemade muffins I’d baked.
Brendan Slocumb: A public school music teacher. I did it for twenty years and I loved it.
Gina Chung: Professional panda-hugger. Or marine biologist. Or lead singer of an inordinately successful eighties cover band.
What craft elements do you think are your strong suit, and what would you like to be better at?
Katherine Heiny: My all-time favorite thing to write about is a dinner party gone wrong. It’s so much fun to write about what people are wearing and eating and what sort of passive-aggressive stuff they’re saying. I struggle more with the logistics—how did everyone get there and will they ever go home? (Much like a real dinner party, I guess.)
Brendan Slocumb: I think I’m good at writing about music and family dynamics, and creating momentum. I do love scenes terribly and couldn’t even imagine trying to write a sex scene with a straight face.
Gina Chung: I think voice comes relatively naturally to me, since that’s where I tend to start first (I’ll get a line of something stuck in my head and won’t be able to get it out until I’ve written it down and started wondering about where it came from). Somewhat ironically, I have a much harder time with dialogue. It’s difficult to make your characters talk to each other in ways that feel convincing and necessary on the page, and I really admire when someone can use dialogue in a way that reveals character, advances plot, and adds texture to the story.
Kevin Chong: I used to think I was strong at dialogue, now I think I’ve overused it. I used to think I wrote nice sentences but then, every time I get back a copy edit, I feel like a high-achieving illiterate.
Adam Sternbergh: I put a very high emphasis on moments; moments that shock, surprise, raise the hairs on your arm. A thriller, above all, should thrill. What would I like to be better at? Writing, always.
How do you contend with the hubris of thinking anyone has or should have any interest in what you have to say about anything?
Kevin Chong: Denial. It’s a running theme in my life—and in The Double Life of Benson Yu.
Adam Sternbergh: I had a moment while working on my very first novel where I thought, Maybe I shouldn’t do this? Then I realized that every author of every book I’ve ever loved could have had the same moment of doubt and abandoned their draft halfway through. I’m really grateful that they didn’t. That was enough to keep me going.
Brendan Slocumb: It’s constantly flattering to me that anyone has any interest in ever hearing what I have to say. I’ve done over 100 book events in the past 14 months since my first novel has come out, and every time I show up I’m amazed that someone else shows up to hear what I have to say. I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to it. Right now, though, I’m just grateful to be able to be doing this. I haven’t hit the “hubris” step yet and hope I never do.
Katherine Heiny: I never really think anyone is going to be interested—when they are, it surprises me in the best way.
Gina Chung: There have been so many times when I’ve felt saved by something I read, or felt recognized in some crucial way that I didn’t even know I needed to feel. The fact that we all turn to stories in times of distress, boredom, or loneliness reminds me that we’re all looking to find and lose ourselves in narrative. Also, at the risk of sounding solipsistic, I don’t really think too much about the reader when I’m in the throes of writing; I write first and foremost for myself, to articulate a feeling or render an image I can’t stop thinking about. It’s only after something is out in the world that I start to worry about what other people might think of it!