interview: Roxane Gay
Roxane Gay is one of the most prolific writers of both fiction and nonfiction in the U.S. She teaches at Eastern Illinois University, co-edits the journal PANK, and maintains a popular blog at her website, roxanegay.com. She recently found time to e-mail us some updates about her upcoming work.
Your novel, An Untamed State, is slated to come out next year. It’s based on a piece in your last book, Ayiti. What made you decide to expand that to a novel?
RG: An Untamed State will be out in May 2014. It’s based on my short story “Things I Know About Fairy Tales.” That story always hit me someplace dark and deep and I knew the story demanded more than a few thousand words. Mireille, around whom the novel centers, demanded more than a few thousand words, so I gave that to her, and to myself.
You’ve also got a book of essays coming out next year. Ayiti was a mix of fiction and nonfiction, and it seemed like that was intentional, or at least that you didn’t want to draw a clear distinction between the two. Do you now tend to think of your fiction and nonfiction work differently? Is your writing process different?
RG: I do. Bad Feminist will likely be out in August 2014. In Ayiti, I didn’t draw clear distinctions between nonfiction and fiction because there is truth in every story and there is fiction in every truth, and I wanted to let the readers decide for themselves where those boundaries were. My writing processes for fiction and nonfiction are pretty similar, though nonfiction is increasingly coming more easily because, for better or worse, I tend to write it in the heat of a moment.
On your blog and in interviews, you’ve been pretty vocal about your love of trash TV and movies. What have you been into lately?
RG: Right now, I am deeply invested in Lifetime movies and, in particular, Escape from Polygamy, which premieres this Friday. These are exciting times.
Do you get the same sort of enjoyment out of the equivalent in fiction? Even though I haven’t read it, I’m going to go ahead and assume that something like Lisa Rinna’s novel, Starlit, falls into that category, and you wrote on your blog that you “very much recommend” that book. You also called it “the worst celebrity novel ever written.” How does your enjoyment of a book like that compare to the way you enjoy other books? What kind of books do you not enjoy?
RG: I absolutely do. I love reading. I love reading different kinds of books for different reasons, but whether it is literary fiction or commercial fiction (and how arbitrary these designations are), I love engrossing stories and losing myself and feeling changed by the time I turn the last page of a book. Starlit was terrible, but there is this absolutely bizarre, disturbing plot point involving honey that is worth the price of admission. I don’t enjoy mediocre books, the ones where the prose is listless and it seems like the writer is just phoning it in.
In an interview with Dog Eat Crow a few years ago, you said, “I write the same story over and over.” I found that a little surprising—do you still think that’s true? Is writing the same story something you’re consciously trying to do, or do you just think they come out that way?
RG: I still think that’s true. What I meant by that is that you will see a lot of the same themes in my work, and this seems to be the case for many writers, that we find these things that matter to us and we write our way through them over and over again.
It seems like you’ d be one of those people who have always known they want to be writers. But actually, you cycled through a few different majors in college before settling on English. What made you realize that you wanted to write? What were your experiences in other fields like leading up to that?
RG: I am one of those annoying people. I’ve always loved writing and telling stories. When I tried out other majors, I was definitely trying to please other people and have a “serious” career path. Things worked out in the end.
You live in Illinois. In an interview with the Kenyon Review, you said, “Midwestern writing is not so much a thing yet but it could be,” which I’m really curious about. I couldn’t tell from your response—do you mean that in terms of common characteristics of writing coming out of the Midwest, or in terms of a Midwest literary thing, or both? Do you think that’s true historically as well?
RG: There are all kinds of regional literary traditions, but Midwestern writing is often overlooked and unacknowledged. We’re the people in the so-called “flyover states.” But we’re writing our stories from this place that people overlook and these stories are so rich and so interesting to me.
Interview by Miranda Fisher.