Lit Hub Asks: 5 Writers, 7 Questions, No Wrong Answers
In Conversation with Javier Fuentes, Derek Owusu, Jenny Xie 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:
Without summarizing it in any way, what would you say your book is about?
Jenny Xie: The taut love between mothers and daughters, immigration and assimilation, tech and its colonization of the Bay Area, professional cuddling. Touch, intimacy, connection, realization.
Helen Schulman: Seduction and betrayal.
Javier Fuentes: Chocolate. The color of your passport. Steamy rooftop nights. Queer love. Unrequited love. Flâneurs. Finding your place in the world. Liminal space. Class conflict. Sandy beaches. Ashes.
Derek Owusu: Undiagnosed mental health disorders, Ghana, displacement, family, language, the limits of language, faith, the working class, borderline personality disorder, repressed sexuality, music, film, TV, love, hope, and overcoming.
Keziah Weir: Creative success and failure, complicated love, telling stories about other people, telling stories about oneself. Long, hot bus rides. The distance of the moon.
Without explaining why and without naming other authors or books, can you discuss the various influences on your book?
Derek Owusu: My mental health collapse. Boredom. The nature of language and all its flexibility and trickery. The desire to control language, beat it into submission. The need to control emotions and render them into language.
Keziah Weir: Being young and delusional in New York City and the Hudson Valley, homesickness for San Francisco, the deaths of loved ones, Great American Novelists, stargazing, and Chopin’s Nocturne, Op. 15 (no. 3 in G minor).
Helen Schulman: Hollywood. Civil War. The Siege of Sarajevo. The Mossad. Florida. The forces of evil that pit one woman against another woman. Jake LaMotta.
Javier Fuentes: 19th- and 20th-century immigrant novels. Sugar. Post-Franco Spain. Jetlag. The INS. 1990s East Village. Perfume Genius. Sandbars.
Jenny Xie: My family and the Chinese diaspora. Oral narratives. Yellow light licking the Oakland hills. Wonderful, lurid Las Vegas. Social media and the way it refracts personhood. Love—all kinds. My student housing co-op. Music, dancing, and the dreamspace of being together.
Without using complete sentences, can you describe what was going on in your life as you wrote this book?
Helen Schulman: A trip to Bosnia, my mother’s death, long-haul Covid, a full but loving household, a Guggenheim fellowship that made writing it possible. Two dastardly kittens.
Javier Fuentes: Melatonin gummies. Early mornings. Art crawls. A-frame living. Euphoria (the TV show).
Keziah Weir: Two magazine jobs. Two elections. One dog. Marriage. Uncomfortable self reflection. A lot of whiskey gingers and then even more seltzers with lime.
Jenny Xie: Crescendos of love, punctuated by heartbreak. Finishing grad school in Baltimore. Training an eye on design and architecture. Political ruptures, protests. Cross-country moves, travel. Learning to be a better daughter. Cuddling. Leaps of faith.
Derek Owusu: Sitting in a mental health facility wondering how I got there, how life had shaken the sanity out of my life, my world, and rendered me a statistic that will now be talked about as if knowing the increasing number will galvanize anyone to change anything, so no, I decided to write to understand the process of a break down and hopefully find the key to avoiding it within the pages I never imagined I’d share but hoped someone would look and see what I saw; see what I felt; being with me but able to avoid being here, in this.
What are some words you despise that have been used to describe your writing by readers and/or reviewers?
Keziah Weir: “Meandering” used as a pejorative. Who doesn’t like to meander! Though, really, I’m still baffled and grateful that anyone might describe the book in any way at all.
Derek Owusu: Honest. Interrogating masculinity. Interrogating identity. Dense. Complex. Authentic.
Jenny Xie: If I’ve encountered any, I don’t remember them.
Javier Fuentes: “Too lyrical.” “Not for me.”
Helen Schulman: I’ve blocked them out.
If you could choose a career besides writing (irrespective of schooling requirements and/or talent) what would it be?
Javier Fuentes: Brutalist architect.
Helen Schulman: A ballerina. (Still and always.)
Jenny Xie: I would love to be a designer of some sort: of graphics, or interiors, or lighting, or chairs. Or I would work outdoors, maybe in forestry or marine biology. Or I’d be a foley artist.
Keziah Weir: So many, too many. I’d like to be a ballet dancer, an astrophysicist, a pianist, a whale researcher, an art monster who drops all commitments in favor of pursuing a project—but because I can’t, I stuck those other lives into The Mythmakers and dwelled in them that way.
Derek Owusu: I would be an operations manager in a gym. A job I once did and loved until the gym closed down.
What craft elements do you think are your strong suit, and what would you like to be better at?
Jenny Xie: I enjoy imagery and engaging the senses, and I pay attention to the way sentences sound and surprise, so I hope I’m good at those elements. I would like to be better at writing altered states, when everything is loud and heightened and surreal.
Helen Schulman: I think I excel on the level of the line. I will always struggle with story.
Derek Owusu: I’m not really sure. I think I’m okay at finding the musicality of a sentence and trying to get every note perfect. And I think I’m pretty decent at putting images onto a page. Though I don’t really care for it, I would like to get better at plotting in case I someday desire to write a plotty book. Plot, not story.
Javier Fuentes: Writing plot, setting, and details. Everything else.
Keziah Weir: I love working on structure, weaving together different threads of time, place, and character; I think we’re often best at what we love the most. Scenes with arguments and confrontations are trickier for me. My therapist and I are working on it!
How do you contend with the hubris of thinking anyone has or should have any interest in what you have to say about anything?
Jenny Xie: If writing is hubris, then so is all art and culture—meaning, then hubris is what makes us human; hubris and its creations and happenings make life worth living. I don’t expect anyone to be interested in my work, but I’m deeply grateful when they are.
Keziah Weir: I think the human experience is interesting and bizarre, and that writing and reading is a wonderful way to engage with and commune within it. What’s the point of being alive if we don’t attempt to connect with each other, using whatever tools we have available?
Derek Owusu: I never expect anyone to read what I write, anyway. And I never think I have anything important to say, either, which is why all of my fiction is based on expressing an emotion or capturing an image and letting them speak in isolation or connected.
Javier Fuentes: This might sound pretentious, but I don’t have anyone in mind when I write, which could be a blessing or a curse. I find it to be a blessing.
Helen Schulman: I don’t think about anyone else when I write. It’s where I put my crazy, so I can function.