Lit Hub Asks: 5 Writers, 7 Questions, No Wrong Answers
Sarah M. Broom, Peter Orner, and More Take the Lit Hub Questionnaire
The Lit Hub Author Questionnaire is a monthly interview featuring seven questions for five authors with new books. This month we talk to:
Sarah M. Broom (The Yellow House)
James Gregor (Going Dutch)
Kimberly King Parsons (Black Light)
Peter Orner (Maggie Brown & Others)
Sarah Elaine Smith (Marilou Is Everywhere)
Without summarizing it in any way, what would you say your book is about?
Sarah M. Broom: Home; mapping; geographies; cut-offness; displacement; family and matriarchy; what it means to be American; sinking and stinking ground; water, water, water; joy!; blackness; sojourneying; returns and departures; movement; the difference between looking and seeing; the power of names.
Kimberly King Parsons: Gross motels, bowling alleys, highways, hot girls with bad teeth, blood, rage, boredom, spiders, psychedelics, and feral suburban children.
James Gregor: Metropolitan life, transactions, lies, desire, the intellectual life, dining culture, residential agony, singledom, domesticity, New York City.
Sarah Elaine Smith: It’s about missing girls, rural isolation, race, accountability, growing up, and being willing to look at the parts of ourselves we’d rather hide.
Peter Orner: The comedy of grief and loss.
Without explaining why and without naming other authors or books, can you discuss the various influences on your book?
Peter Orner: I’m forever fascinated by how any artist—with words or visually—depicts the weirdness of memory, how memory is an untamable and independent life force.
Sarah Elaine Smith: A roaming sense of dread, true crime fandom, the heart, angels with shitty wings, mosquito bites with an X pressed onto them by your fingernails, a dirty Tweety Bird T-shirt that doesn’t fit right, rural alienation, Get Out, sparkling empty places in the woods that seem like portals, Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana and Nina Simone, the song “Tonight You Belong to Me” on repeat, trying to scare myself.
James Gregor: Rapid-fire conversation and long walks in Manhattan in the evening, cocktail hour, the Boiler Room, the Metropolitan, the Bright Young Things, extravagant metaphors, flashy prose, concrete English prose, pessimism, fashion, aestheticism, Italy.
Sarah M. Broom: Paper and jazz and novels; over-talking and loud-talking; visual art and other artist’s studios; typewritten letters and traveling (new sky); getting lost and getting found to get lost again.
Kimberly King Parsons: Texas, nootropics, bad decisions, high school, Cat Power’s “I Found a Reason,” that girl who thrashed my heart, that boy who thrashed my heart, Gummo, ghost stories, Funyuns, my mother’s cheekbones, Smog’s “Rock Bottom Riser,” the creepy things my kids say, The Florida Project, listlessness, inescapable heat, sleep deprivation, young Faye Dunaway beating the bars of a bed, the people I’ve known and been and never want to be.
Without using complete sentences, can you describe what was going on in your life as you wrote this book?
James Gregor: Solitude, glowing screen.
Kimberly King Parsons: Lived in Dallas, Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Portland. Dicked around on the Internet for a bunch of years. Had two adorable, noisy kids in rapid succession and a partner who told me to write hard—we’ll all be dead one day, why not try? He watched those adorable, noisy kids and I ran away to Montana, my childhood bedroom, Iceland, hotels a mile from our house, the Oregon outback, the Olympic Peninsula, Idaho, and twice to a little guest house in Austin. Read Nelson and Machado and Spiotta and Julavits. Read Habash and Lutz and Ondaatje and Lipsyte. Had, quite literally, a thousand phone calls with my oldest friend.
Sarah Elaine Smith: Quit drinking (and stayed quit), insane subcontractor job at a utopian tech company. Learned how to make a really great salad dressing from scratch. Bought a house unchanged since 1958. Beautiful princess Nellie Belle the cat, an angel made of angels. Crushing episodes of suicidal whatever, bipolar II diagnosis, thank fucking god. Became hopelessly obsessed with Vanderpump Rules. Found true love.
Peter Orner: Chaos. Diapers. Laughter. Namibia.
Sarah M. Broom: Heart mending; heart expanding; nomadism; first house; immense solitude; lots of revving up; fear/control/power.
What are some words you despise that have been used to describe your writing by readers and/or reviewers?
Kimberly King Parsons: I can’t bring myself to despise anybody who’s read my book, but a Goodreads woman said my characters are “unlikeable and often disgusting.” The thing is 1) she’s not altogether wrong, it’s just that screwups and weirdos happen to be my favorite people, and 2) I find her phrasing to be charming, actually. If that were a blurb on a book, I’d definitely buy it.
Peter Orner: The idea that short stories are good for a distracted society when the exact opposite is true.
Sarah Elaine Smith: I’m not a big fan of “quirky.” To me, quirky is like ’90s squiggle fonts and lime green sweaters with capri pants. Or describing purple reading glasses as “really fun.” To me, it sounds like a sanitized version of sublime mystery, and I want sublime mystery. I want to scare you. I want to scare myself!
Sarah M. Broom: It’s the words not used when it comes to black women writers that bother me more. But the obvious ones: gritty; raw; urban; sentimental.
James Gregor: “Like a blog,” “snobbish.”
If you could choose a career besides writing (irrespective of schooling requirements and/or talent) what would it be?
Peter Orner: I’m a volunteer fire fighter. In another life I’d like to best the best Jewish professional fire fighter in New England.
Sarah Elaine Smith: I would go for physical therapist. You get to watch people visibly heal: “Look, my dude can raise his arm all the way above his head now!” Sounds excellent to me.
Sarah M. Broom: Interior designer. Painter. Cartographer. Librarian/archivist.
James Gregor: Medicine.
Kimberly King Parsons: Hand surgeon. I don’t know, I just like hands—I want to get in there and mess around.
What craft elements do you think are your strong suit, and what would you like to be better at?
Sarah Elaine Smith: I lean pretty hard on metaphor as a vehicle for characterization. I also think I’m pretty good at naming characters! I love writing interiority, reflection, inner life stuff. But I have to poke myself to put actual scenes in there.
James Gregor: I like to think I’m good at dialogue and descriptive passages. An intricate plot is not my strong suit.
Peter Orner: I try not to think too directly about craft elements as independent things since it is all, for me, about story and how elements interconnect in a way that, with hope, nobody notices the craft.
Kimberly King Parsons: I’m good with voice, dialogue, compression, leaving out the right things. In stories, I love working from sentence to sentence, not knowing what will come next, but that’s tricky to maintain in a long project. I’m incapable of planning, outlining, structuring. I’m also inherently lazy—I have to lie and bribe and force myself to write, every single time. For every hour of productivity there are two spent watching Drag Race or playing music or reading books better than the one I’m struggling to write.
Sarah M. Broom: Great at building feeling through the use of arresting detail. Want to get better at every aspect of writing, which includes taking more risks on the page.
How do you contend with the hubris of thinking anyone has or should have any interest in what you have to say about anything?
Kimberly King Parsons: The stories people tell have saved me over and over again. I carry Amy Hempel’s words around in the folds of my brain. Jack Gilbert, Lydia Davis. But I’m equally compelled by what the Lyft driver or the deli guy said, or something I overheard in an airport. I’m infinitely interested in lives, voices—the odd singularity of experience. Is it so outlandish to think my take might be worth something too?
Sarah Elaine Smith: I try to write with the awareness that a person could be doing anything else but read this book. But, I also think everyone has something worth saying.
Peter Orner: In a world made up, essentially, of jibber jabber, with everybody talking past each other, I like to think every voice—especially the fictional voices we make up—somehow makes the experience of living a little less lonely. Is this too optimistic? Does it even make sense? What I mean is individual voices, small voices, voices murmuring from the corners, are everything. Why only let the dominant voices speak for human beings?
James Gregor: I pretend it’s a Flaubertian exercise in finding the perfect word for a sentence. I don’t think of it as me saying anything about a particular topic, but rather that I’m tinkering with something private, that it’s a Lego-like process and I’m simply fastening pieces—words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters—together to form a structure.
Sarah M. Broom: I remember the women who have come before me, who compose me, how vital and often disappeared their voices are from the American “scene.” Then I write more.