The Lit Hub Questionnaire for 2018’s Under-the-Radar Writers
Lisa Locascio, Sabrina Orah Mark, Katia D. Ulysse, and More Talk to Teddy Wayne
The Lit Hub Author Questionnaire is a monthly interview featuring seven questions for five authors with new books. This month we are highlighting these authors with books we think deserved more attention in 2018:
Malcolm Hansen (They Come in All Colors)
Lisa Locascio (Open Me)
Sabrina Orah Mark (Wild Milk)
Malinda McCollum (The Surprising Place)
Katia D. Ulysse (Mouths Don’t Speak)
Without summarizing it in any way, what would you say your book is about?
KATIA D. ULYSSE: Betrayal. Abandonment. Generational secrets. The elusive super-rich living comfortably in the supposedly poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Loss. Failed marriages. Combat veteran. PTSD. Haiti. A deadly earthquake. Survival.
SABRINA ORAH MARK: Punchlines that never end, the dreams of mothers, housekeeping, names, Jewishness, laughing/crying (same thing), and marriage. Also, how Poems saved me.
MALCOLM HANSEN: How bad would things have to be for you to lie about who you are? What if doing so was the only way to save a life? In a world where we’re so often told that our principles and differences should be bound up in binary categories, I wanted to really dig into the racial experience of someone outside of that.
LISA LOCASCIO: The beauty and glory of the desiring female body. That body rejected and living in unhappy celibacy. The American hunger for forms of whiteness more innocent and more efficient than our own. Passing dazed through airports and cities, jetlagged and dirty. My happiest memories. Breasts hanging loose under a shirt. Purity and danger, thank you Mary Douglas. “I wanted to live like music”—Mary Gaitskill, Veronica.
MALINDA MCCOLLUM: People whose heads are on fire.
Without explaining why and without naming other authors or books, can you discuss the various influences on your book?
MALCOLM HANSEN: As a kid, I once told someone I was white. I knew better, but in that moment I just didn’t give a shit. I didn’t want to associate with all of the baggage that came with being black. To many, I look white. So I knew I could get away with it. Many of the stories out there are one dimensional, with “perfect” victims. Me? I wanted to create a multiracial antihero.
LISA LOCASCIO: The flâneuse; Norse women adventurers; not showering first from boredom, then from depression, and finally from fascinated interest in the unbathed body; Blanes, Spain, and Jutland, Denmark, and River Forest and Oak Park, Illinois; movement, movement, movement; the only way out is through.
SABRINA ORAH MARK: My sons, a resin paperweight with a real (dried) seahorse inside (owned by my grandfather), jokes, the Holocaust, dust, fairytales, milk, love.
KATIA D. ULYSSE: I enjoy reading world literature from every period in history. Poets and writers of The Harlem Renaissance fuel my imagination. Russian, Middle-Eastern, and those kindred spirits of the Caribbean speak to me in a special way. Also, I love poetry. There’s something magical about discovering a new poem. The poet’s choice of words on a page can be like a masterpiece in an art gallery. Every book I read broadens my perspective of the writing craft itself. When a writer takes time which he/she doesn’t have to craft a story, the sacrifice is almost palpable; and the result is phenomenal. I find inspiration in just about anything—a blade of grass, a too-loud conversation on a train; everything I hear and read and feel influences my work.
MALINDA MCCOLLUM: The Greyhound bus between Iowa City and Des Moines. The sound of bagpipes after dark. The conversations of strangers. Jagged Little Pill. Clement Street, in San Francisco. Jealousy. Kit Kats. Chlorine.
Without using complete sentences, can you describe what was going on in your life as you wrote this book?
LISA LOCASCIO: Falling in love with California; matriculation in a PhD program; falling in love with a man; engagement; marriage; beautiful sweaters; happiness; Roberto Bolaño; teaching; longing; desire; despair so pervasive I crawled naked across wood floors; teaching; Garden of the Gods; loss of appetite; a plane ticket to Paris I never used; arriving at campus before dawn and calling every doctor I could think of; ecstatic visions compelled by the meditation-image of my strong, gleaming body rowing upriver in a canoe with a seal and a coin and a book and a friend. Graduation. Divorce. Release. Exodus. Everything timed to music. Then I moved to Connecticut. Postscript: editing the book in a cabin on a cliff without electricity or plumbing. A walk through trees like great hearts and lungs, beating with me.
KATIA D. ULYSSE: My grandmother’s illness and subsequent passing. Not enough time to write. Family members in Haiti losing their homes to charlatans and squatters. The dissolution of a marriage and the irreparable collapse of a beautiful family due to PTSD.
MALINDA MCCOLLUM: Lots of sweating, nervous smiling, ruminating, running, circling the block to find parking, pining.
MALCOLM HANSEN: Obama to Trump presidencies. The rise of white nationalism. Raising two multiracial kids in the midst of rampant black-white identity politics. And several transcontinental moves of questionable necessity.
SABRINA ORAH MARK: Little boys, a blue house, a very kind husband, little pieces of illness, bigger pieces of healing, broken things, sometimes the electricity went out, one thousand challahs, teaching writing in The Crying Room.
What are some words you despise that have been used to describe your writing by readers and/or reviewers?
MALINDA MCCOLLUM: I despise a ton of things, but at this point I’m grateful if anyone says anything about my writing. Probably the most-used words are variants of gritty or dark, which I don’t hate, though I worry they make my book sound exhausting. My goal, always, is to write tight, springy sentences, so the language has a little uplift, as a counterpoint to whatever darkness may be there.
SABRINA ORAH MARK: It’s impossible for me to despise a word because I imagine words as animals. Some are cruel, yes, but I cannot despise even the cruel ones because something / someone once hurt them too much. If you stand very close to a word you can smell its breath, see its flickering eyes. A reader I once loved cursed Wild Milk, and so I dragged the curse home. It was a dry, mean curse and hard of hearing. It had no fur where fur should be. But I combed it, and as I combed the curse it taught me a lesson about language and pain and forgiveness and unmothers. Which is to say, even the terrible words are gifts.
LISA LOCASCIO: Erotic, sexy, gross, crazy, romantic, sideways-tilted laughing-til-he-cries emoji, disgusting, stupid, “overtly and creative” [sic], no eroticism, not sexy, inexplicable, unrealistic, routine, artificial, interminable, slow, DNF, trainwreck, new low, crazy girl, sex quest, raunchy, whiny. “She hates herself and only feels worthwhile when someone is doing the nasty to her. Hence the vaguely metaphorical title to the book. Please don’t buy this. I’m begging you. If my review sounds gross, I cut a lot of comments because it is even more revolting than what I have described. For real! #book #badbook #bad #stupidity #awful #bad #stillbad #lame #bad didISayBad? #booksbooksbooks #openme #justawful” [all sic].
MALCOLM HANSEN: Satire. Humor is a vein that I pierce only accidentally.
KATIA D. ULYSSE: It is an honor to have my work read, so I am beyond grateful for that. I get very interesting feedback from various sources. So many people assume my stories are autobiographical. They are not. I wrote a piece about a woman who killed a former best friend; readers wanted to know when it happened. In another story, I wrote about a heroin addict; people literally told me how sorry they were for what I’d gone through. It is flattering that readers connect with my characters in such a way that they believe them to be real. Ultimately, I remember that I strive for audiences to find my stories relatable and authentic. I want readers to enjoy the story. If they find it too real to be fiction, that is not so bad.
If you could choose a career besides writing (irrespective of schooling requirements and/or talent), what would it be?
KATIA D. ULYSSE: I don’t picture myself doing anything other than writing good stories and sharing them with readers. If I had to do something else, I would compose music and write lyrics for singers. In addition, I would have acres and acres of land to plant everything I love, so that members of my family, friends, and neighbors would never have to enter a grocery store.
MALCOLM HANSEN: Violinist. I would accompany my sons.
LISA LOCASCIO: Therapist is the one I am still side-eyeing. Detective, in my dream life.
MALINDA MCCOLLUM: My sister’s a librarian in Los Angeles, and I covet her job. She’s surrounded by books, beloved by her community, and she can eat tacos and look at the ocean during lunch.
SABRINA ORAH MARK: Laundress.
What craft elements do you think are your strong suit, and what would you like to be better at?
SABRINA ORAH MARK: I can write the living daylights out of a metaphor, whereas plot (sometimes) will write the living daylights out of me.
LISA LOCASCIO: I’m confident in my ability as a vivid imagist with the ability to thrust the reader into new realms of feeling; I know this is a big part of so many readers’ negative reaction. Many people can’t handle that intensity is the true verisimilitude because life is overwhelmingly intense at all times. That is sad for them. Plot is always a struggle for me, but I’m getting better all the time. I will always worship at the altar of the great polyphonists and seek to world-build as completely and confidently as Ursula K. LeGuin and Rachel Kushner.
MALINDA MCCOLLUM: I enjoy writing dialogue, especially when the speakers are trying to deflect or derail a conversation by throwing the other person off their game. I want to be better at writing extended passages that detail the intricacies of a character’s psyche, like Toni Morrison or Mary Gaitskill, closing the distance between the reader and the person on the page.
MALCOLM HANSEN: I’m not a very gifted plotter. If my story has a good plot, it’s only because I went down every conceivable rabbit hole in search of the perfect route to take from beginning to middle to end. I wish I had the ability to carve out that path without needing to take every imaginable wrong turn to do it. On the other hand, I’m a patient person.
KATIA D. ULYSSE: I suppose my strong suit is breathing life into fictional characters. Wish I could write faster and more often, but there are not enough hours in the day. I would like to be better at letting stories go once they are done. I can spend weeks rethinking a single sentence. Imagine how much time that requires. I would like to be better at following the advice I give to others: Do your absolute best. And move on.
How do you contend with the hubris of thinking anyone has or should have any interest in what you have to say about anything?
KATIA D. ULYSSE: I try not to. If anyone takes interest in what I have to say, I feel honored. Everyone has something to teach. I want to learn all that I can from them. I am privileged to meet so many people all the time. I tend to find them more interesting that whatever it is I think I must say. I have as much interest in what others have to say as they might be interested in my own voice. Ultimately, giving and receiving is what writing is about.
LISA LOCASCIO: The confidence with which I create my work and release it into the world doesn’t strike me as hubristic at all. I have devoted my life to the exquisite pain of learning, over and over, deeper and deeper, how to give the reader the honest experience emotion through language. In pursuit of my craft I have lived like a loose vein of feeling, glowing in the wind. It often hurts. That’s the point. I will tell you about it. When you read my writing, you’re in my world. I direct your attention. That’s why we’re both here. Why would any person not be interested in what I have to say?
MALINDA MCCOLLUM: When I write, it doesn’t really feel like I’m climbing onto a box and yelling, Listen up, bitches, here comes the TRUTH! My aim is not to stake out a position or prove a point. Mostly, I want to make something that entertains someone. Why not? What else am I going to do?
MALCOLM HANSEN: I don’t think that people have or should have an automatic interest in reading anything that I have to say. I do, however, feel that people are naturally curious and owe it to themselves to have an open mind. In the most basic sense, a book has to prove itself one sentence at a time.
SABRINA ORAH MARK: Writing a poem/story is the closest I’ve ever gotten to holding a ghost by the hand.