Hey! I was there too. I asked the questions about ambition and writing style. Starting the book now…
Roxane Gay did a reading at Austin’s BookPeople a few weeks ago on her book tour for An Untamed State (on bookshelves now). I found out about the event last minute, via a tweet from @rgay herself, and I’m so glad I made it.
Anyone who’s familiar with Roxane and her work as a badass feminist, writer, and essays editor for The Rumpus needs no explanation of why she’s the cat’s meow and why hearing her read and Q&A with us was such a grand affair.
She began the reading by sharing with us a fictional, romantic vignette about Mister Rogers. Damn, that girl can tell a story. We were giggling and on the edges of our seats weirdly sharing a fantasy about our childhood friend before she even got into the excerpts from An Untamed State.
The excerpts were haunting and evocative. I haven’t read it yet, but I sure plan on it, and I recommend supporting Roxane by purchasing her book too. Let’s get her on the Best Sellers list!
During her Q&A, she shared some valuable insights into her writing process, confessed, “I’m here for everything Beyonce,” and kept our attention rapt all the while. Here are some of my favorite bits of the conversation.
You’re both an editor and an author. What can you say about going back and forth between the two?
Well, being an editor has made me much more conscientious about not being an asshole as a writer. I think only once in my life have I turned down an editorial request. I’ve always said yes, or talked it out and come to a place of compromise. It’s definitely just made me move through the world more kindly. Because writers are horrible! They send you emails when they get mad about rejections, and they call you bad names. So I always told myself, “don’t do that!” Go work those issues out with your friends. It’s just made me better in terms of being professional and it’s also given me the opportunity to experiment more because I see the chances other people are taking in their work, and it makes me feel a little braver.
How do you know when something is an essay vs. a story?
Well, fiction is my happy place, which… I guess is not that happy. There’s an urgency in nonfiction, something that needs a response. I’m thinking through something and trying to find answers for myself as well as whoever might be reading my work. So there’s an immediacy that nonfiction allows me.
Roxane on trigger warnings:
I respect the people who do want trigger warnings, I do. I get that. But trigger warnings are for the people who need trigger warnings, not for those who don’t. But I think that it’s a very dangerous thing to do in the classroom, because it starts to cannibalize the things we can talk about. And I think that education is supposed to be uncomfortable. I don’t want to see anyone suffer, but you can’t even anticipate it. Do I give trigger warnings for a book about racism? For a book about homophobia? About sexual assault? For domestic violence? I think that it would really impede academic freedom. And I really respect the people who want to do it, but for me, I just think it’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. And I don’t say that lightly because so many of my friends say, “This is a great idea,” but I just think it’s insanity. Like, I would never in my life put that on my syllabus. And the day we have to do that, I would just quit.
How do you draw a line or create a boundary in writing about your own life— nonfiction things?
I generally don’t write a whole lot about my personal life, like my dating life. I allude to it or whatever, but I’ll be very vague and poetic. But I generally tend to date people who know nothing about the internet and are like— “What the hell are you doing on the Internet?” Um. Everything.
So I really do respect that, and my family is also really private, so I generally write broadly about that. I think a lot of nonfiction writers think, “It happened to me! So I can write about it.” No. I don’t personally ascribe to that. Because I like the people in my life, and those relationships matter a little bit more than the creative urge. So I do just think about boundaries and what they would want and not want. And I also learned a valuable lesson back in the day with a story about an ex of mine that ended up getting published in Best Lesbian Erotica. She read the story, called me up, and she was like, “Well.. I suppose that’s how it happened. But you didn’t write about you.” And I realized, oh yeah. I forgot to write about the ways in which I was an asshole. And so that’s what really taught me to be more circumspect about how I write about the people in my life, whether in fiction or nonfiction.
You are so prolific and you seem to produce work so quickly, in response to pop culture and current events. And you wrote this book, I believe, in only a few months. Are there are any topics or particular pieces that have taken you a long time to write?
I wrote an essay about unlikeable women, and that took about a year to write. So when I do researched work, I do take my time. And I want to do more of that. I think the grind of online response is exhausting, and I have nothing left to say. But it’s hard because I think to produce truly thoughtful work you do need a lot of time. With a lot of the things I respond to, the underlying issue is something I’ve already been thinking about.
What is your go to place or publication for non-fiction?
I don’t have a go to place, but generally Salon or The Rumpus. The Nation, American Prospect (one of my new favorite go to places). Places that aren’t terrible or run by terrible people. And also, even though they’re terrible, The New York Times. They’re not super terrible, but what they did to Jill Abramson was fucked up.
In your BuzzFeed interview, you said “Don’t be afraid to be ambitious.” Can you talk a little about that? The idea of ambition coming from a very independent publishing world instead of going in this other route that might be easier?
I think that ambition, it’s not about independent publishing or whether you’re publishing with the Big Six or The Big Five. I think it’s— you give a damn about what you do, and you’re open about the fact that you want to be successful. I think all too often writers are like, “Hey, I wrote this thing and it’s kind of crappy…check it out.” Like, no. I wrote this thing and it’s pretty good and I would love for you to read it and consider it no matter what you think. And so I think that it’s important for writers to be open about their ambition without being assholes, of course. But they want something more for themselves, whatever that may be. Some people never want to leave the small press world, and that’s totally fine. That doesn’t mean you’re lacking in ambition. Just be excellent in that world if that’s what you want.
And I think you have to not give up no matter what. It takes a lot of time to make it in the writing world. So part of being ambitious is understanding that it’s not going to happen overnight. And when it doesn’t happen overnight, you have to surround yourself with the kind of people who are gonna say, “Get over yourself, get back up and go,” and just keep moving forward. And just have goals for yourself. Like, I have goals for myself.
I’d like to publish a hardcover book. I’d like to write something worthy of a Pulitzer. I’d like to have my own imprint in a publishing house. I’d like to quit my job. I love my job, but I wouldn’t mind writing full time.
What’s your teaching style and how do you mentor young writers you believe in?
I’m pretty casual, but I’m a really bitchy grader. I’m hard. I expect a lot from my students, I do. And my courses are pretty rigorous. But I grade students on how they improve against themselves and not against some sort of arbitrary literary genius measure, which is…dumb. And I really believe in collaborative learning. We sit around the table and talk about things. We talk about movies— I don’t pretend that popular culture is some sort of taint on literature. It’s all culture, and it all informs. And when they come into class wanting to write about.. (ugh) vampires and ghosts and shit… it’s fine, I get it. So I’m like, you can do that, just do it well. So I’m pretty open minded in the classroom. I want us to have fun. I want students to get their money’s worth, and also their time’s worth.
What’s your experience with writing day to day— is it hard for you? Do you write in surges? How does it work?
I write everyday. Because a teacher in high school saw something in me—he also saw that I was nuts—but he saw some sort of talent, and he told me to write everyday, which is kind of cheesy writing advice, but I take that shit seriously, and so I write everyday. Some days it does come very easily, and some days it doesn’t. It’s like.. ugh, I don’t know what to say. I have no creativity left. But I write everyday, and I write across genres everyday, sort of like Crossfit training, you know, just to keep all the muscles sort of relaxed.
And I do have surges, especially in the summer when I have time off from teaching and I’m not traveling as much. It’s much easier and I’ll just sit and write for hours and hours. Because it’s fun. I think it’s part self-medication for me, because I tend to be depressed, so when I write I tend to not be thinking about myself. When I write, it’s a thing I do for fun. It’s my hobby. I love it.
How do you know when a piece of writing is done?
When it’s done, it’s done. I don’t baby my work. I’m not one of those types who puts it in a drawer. I’m not that writer. When I finish something, I’m like, “Who would like this?” And I submit it. I’m definitely not precious about my work. And then if it gets rejected a lot, then I revisit it.
How would you describe your writing style?
Balls to the wall, full steam ahead, no damns given. That’s my writing style. I love to write expository. I’m gonna tell, tell, tell. Maybe you’ll like it. I love just telling stories in this slow, meandering way. I love this kind of storytelling.