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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Writer Spotlight: Roxane Gay

On Roxane Gay's blog I Have Become Accustomed To Rejection she writes in lurid detail about the process of getting published. As both the Co-Editor of PANK Magazine and an extensively published author of short stories, Ms. Gay is a creditable witness to the shilling, on both sides of the "aisle", inherent in the publication process in today's market. Her clear-eyed documentation of the travails (and the desire for respect and appreciation, and the fear of failure, and the constant, nagging self-consciousness) of the average writer is a wonderful tonic for anyone who is facing the massive uphill battle of modern publication.

But what makes Ms. Gay's blog so poignant is that she is herself an incredible author who has been published over 50 times in the last two years. To be so humble and honest about her rejections is a trait rarely found in this fast-paced authorial world.

As a writer, Ms. Gay writes stories that are raw, difficult at times, filled with characters who are flawed and dangerous, careening on courses of interaction that rarely fail to produce sparks, or even sometimes conflagrations. She deals honestly in the pain and joy of sex, and racial tension, and fractured relationships, never pulling a punch when a shot to the gut is exactly what the story needs. In this way, Ms. Gay's stories are exactly like her blog: honest, humble, and dangerous.

I spoke with her via email last month about her writing and blog amongst other things. Check after the interview for links to some of her best work.

The Crow: Roxane, thank you so much for taking the time to chat (I guess that’s the word for it) with me. I normally like to kick these spotlights off with an opportunity for the author to tell my readers a little about themselves. So, explain a bit about how you came to see yourself as a writer? What experiences and artists lead to your transformation? You are Haitian, are you First or Second generation? How do you think that your cultural background informs your work?

Roxane Gay: Thanks for taking the time to ask me such excellent questions! I don't know that I see myself as a "writer" as much as I am a person who writes and loves to write. Being a writer is not something I transformed into but rather, something I've always been. I apologize for the cheesiness of that statement. When I was a kid, I used to write little stories on napkins. I have no idea why I chose napkins as my medium of choice but on the top half of the napkin, I would draw a little village and on the bottom half I would write stories about the people in that village. My parents noticed I was always writing these stories on napkins like a little hobo so they bought me a typewriter so I could step up my game.

I am a first generation American and my cultural background informs my work as the sometimes subject of my writing and it also informs my perspective on what a privilege it is to be able to live in this country and to be able to write anything I want without repercussion. More than anything, being Haitian helps me (most of the time) to not take anything for granted including how lucky I am, all things considered.

TC: You have your hands in a whole lot of literary pots, so let’s take them one at a time. First, you have your blog I Have Become Accustomed to Rejection, which on the surface discusses your experiences in the publishing industry as a simple acceptance-rejection ratio, but which in actuality is a very good discussion of the thoughts, fears, and elations that go into everyday authorial life. What prompted you to start the blog? Has it been successful (in whatever terms you deem success)? And what are the difficulties/benefits of maintaining such a public document of your successes and failures?

RG: All the cool kids had blogs so I wanted one too. I have actually been blogging for years and years only now a few people care and have taken notice. I started this particular blog because I noticed that Duotrope will acknowledge acceptances while rejections are anonymous and I think that's silly. We should be as willing to own our rejections (or our failures) as much as we own our acceptances (or successes). Then I found out you could opt out of having Duotrope announce your business to the world but by then it was too late. I was having too much fun with the blog.

The blog has been successful in that it is a project that brings me joy and a few people read it and seem to enjoy it too. Thus far there haven't been many difficulties though as someone who is pretty shy, it does, occasionally freak me out to see, via the visitor tracking software, how many people are reading the blog and then I stop posting for a few days until I chill out.

In terms of benefits, it's a great way to promote my writing, certainly, but more than that, it has been an awesome means of connecting to other writers who go through the same frustrations as myself. Given that writing is such an isolated endeavor, to know there are other writers out there with similar experiences is a genuine comfort.

TC: Next, you are the Associate Editor of PANK Magazine, a literary journal associated with Michigan Tech University (of which you are a PhD candidate). How did you hook up with PANK, and what nuggets of wisdom can you share with new authors from your time on the editorial side of things?

RG: I want to mention that I am the co-editor of PANK now which is a silly thing to be excited about but I'm pretty easy to please and I feel fancy now. I am obsessed with the word fancy. I use it approx. 11 times a day. I hooked up with PANK because the founding editor and my partner in literary crime, M. Bartley Seigel, is a faculty member in my department. One day I asked him if I could participate and he said yes.

He has been unbelievably generous in allowing me to participate in his passion project. Over the past two years, PANK has become my passion project as well. Some days I truly cannot believe my luck to have been afforded the opportunity to participate so significantly in such an awesome magazine. M. Bartley is a great colleague and friend and also an awesome writer. He's a little quiet so I'm going to make some noise on his behalf. I honestly don't have a coherent way of expressing how grateful I am that he trusted me to work on PANK, that he trusts my judgment, that he believes in my sometimes crazy ideas. Also, I was going INSANE living in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do so PANK has kept me out of the nuthouse. I think that covers how we hooked up.

I don't know that I have wisdom to share but I can tell writers these four things: 1. editors are people too; 2. it's not personal; 3. at the end of the day, the only thing that really matters is good writing; and 4. count to 100 before responding to a rejection with which you vehemently disagree.

TC: How far along are you in your PhD? In reading your discussion of your Dissertation on your MTU site it seems as though you are interested not only in writing but also the conditions upon which individuals come to know that they are writers, or conversely that they are not writers. Has your research informed your writing at all, or are your research and writing lives compartmentalized?

RG: I am almost done with my degree. I will be defending my dissertation in late May or early June. I hear there's a light at the end of the tunnel but I don't quite see it yet. My current research doesn't necessarily inform my creative writing but it absolutely informs my editorial work. There's a lot that interests me in the discourse about writers, good writing and how we evaluate such things.

TC: Now, finally, onto your writing. You have had an enormous amount of success in getting published recently, what do you think has contributed most to your success? Any advice?

RG: Success is relative but I have had a really good run, no doubt. The main thing contributing to my success is that I write a lot so probability works in my favor. Throw enough at the wall and something will stick. Would it be arrogant for me to say that talent might also be part of the equation? Advice? Four P's: Passion. Persistence. Patience. Pragmatism.

TC: In your interview with David Erlewine, you discussed some of the difficulties you’ve faced as a writer who also has to worry about a day job and various other daily duties. This is one of the primary reasons I started Dog Eat Crow, to highlight the inherent difficulties in having a hobby that burns within you and yet having limited time to express it. Why do you write? Is it difficult to find the time? And what is your writing methodology? You seem to produce an enormous amount of writing in a short period of time, do you spend a lot of time writing? What advice could you offer other writers who are trying to find the time to express themselves?

RG: I write because I enjoy it. I am not a tormented writer and I quite like that about myself. I write about dark things so it's a bit weird that writing brings me so much joy. I try not to analyze that too much. I am an insomniac so I find enough time to write. I'm busy but you know, I also think that people are obsessed with this notion of being busy. I think we love talking about our busyness and so by the time we're done with that, of course there's no time left for anything else. When I take a hard look at my life I must confess I spend approx. 80% of my time watching trash television so really, busy is kind of relative. Please note, however, that I do not have children. I have no idea how parents write. When I have a baby, I'm going to love it and all, but I'm going to be pretty sad if that damn baby interrupts my "me time."

I don't have much advice to offer writers about making time for writing for one reason. I am a very fast writer and it's one of those things I was born with so I'm not special. I'm just lucky. That said, if it matters, make the time. For example, I make time for VH-1 Celebreality because it is a priority.

TC: In reading the bulk of your work I noticed two dominant themes: race and sex, both the complications and the politics surrounding them. Is this a conscious effort on your part to exorcise the thematic demons of these two issues, or is it more subconscious than that?

Focusing on the theme of sex, it seems that sexuality in your stories is often fraught with heartache, or confusion, or brutal violence. Is this a reaction to the common literary axiom that sex is a symbolic joining of two (or more) characters? Even when your characters have fulfilling, or satisfying sex, it is often bittersweet or heartbreaking in context (see: “Mark of Cain”). Are your characters’ sexualities symbolic of the disconnection among Gen Xers/Millennials? In the modern age is sexuality too confusing to be portrayed simply?

On a related note, there seem to be very few “good” men in your stories (not that there are all that many good women either). The Stone Thrower in “Requiem for a Glass Heart” cheats on his wife, the kidnappers in “Things I Know About Fairy Tales” are rapists, same with William Livingston III in “La Negra Blanca”. Even men like Alvarez and the husband in “Fairy Tales” are impotent against the violence that is perpetrated against the women they love. Is this a comment on modern masculinity? Or, is it perhaps a comment on modern femininity? Or do these sorts of scenarios simply make more interesting stories than ones in which there are no badly flawed characters?

RG: I have only recently started writing about race. I resisted doing so for a very long time because I did not want to be labeled but then I realized that avoiding the subject was just as lame as worrying about being labeled. I finally decided to just write what I want to write. I don't write about race to exorcise thematic demons (great phrase that). There's a lot of narrative potential when we talk about race. It is important to tell stories about people who look like me. Often modern letters give the impression that the world is comprised solely of white people. Such is not the case. People who look like me live interesting lives too and we deserve to find ourselves in books and literary magazines.

As far as sex, I love writing about sex. If I could only write about one thing for the rest of my life, it would be sex. Sex is a catalyst for everything worth reading about--love, passion, sorrow, pain, anger, hate, danger, indifference, cruelty, tenderness, betrayal, sweetness, and on and on. And yes, I'm probably working through some issues as well. Most writers use writing in some form or fashion. I have few political aspirations but I do believe that writing about sex in the ways I do can make people uncomfortable and I don't mind that either.

The sex in my stories is indeed fraught. Sex is often brutal, even under the best of circumstances. There's so much surrender and submission taking place between two people who are having sex and when people expose themselves in those ways, things can get ugly. I like the ugly. My writing isn't necessarily a take on modern sexuality. It is a take on how sexuality has always been. Finally, the idea that sex is ever simple is largely a fairy tale. We like to tell ourselves that fairy tale so we don't have to face the truth of sex's brutality.

My writing is not so much a comment on modern masculinity or femininity. I get this question a lot and I understand why. I write the same story over and over. This question, and the frequency with which I am asked it, makes me feel like I constantly need to write a disclaimer that I do not hate men because I really don't. I am a fiction writer. Let me repeat that. I am a fiction writer. I make things up. And yet, I love writing about bad men. Some part of it is, yes, me exorcising demons but most of the inspiration for the bad men in my writing is that I am very much into dirty realism. I like reading it. I like writing it. It's kind of that simple.

I will also say that my parents are really supportive of my writing but I am very selective about what I show them because they take all the bad men in my writing really personally; they have since high school when my senior project was this truly dreadful, psychotic play I wrote about a bunch of rapists. I got an A but they sat in the audience pretty stunned after witnessing my emotional vomit. I was 17, okay? I was completely out of my mind. They wanted to like put me in around the clock therapy after that. I always reassure them that they are great parents (which is the truth) and that fiction is fiction is fiction but they see my writing as a reflection of their parenting when really it's a reflection of things I've learned beyond the reach of their love and protection. All that said, if my writing is at all a commentary on modern masculinity and femininity, my "statement" is that there are things no one can control even when they want to.

Finally, I know lots of good men but who wants to read about them? I very much believe that as you note, the dark scenarios in my writing are simply more interesting. I pick apart these deep flaws in my characters but I also think I show that even flawed people are beautiful in their own ways. At least, I am trying to do that. That was a long answer.

TC: In your interview with Erlewine you also stated that the inspiration for William Livingston III in “La Negra Blanca” came from your fascination with the politics of power and how unlimited power can pervert a person’s choices. While the story is clearly about power, it also seems to be about how power interacts with race and history and sex and I personally found it to be enormously powerful and heartbreaking. William Livinsgton III is particularly evocative. He’s up there with George Harvey from The Lovely Bones in the creepiest-sociopaths-of-the-new-millennium category. The story ends on a curious note, though, with Alvarez and Sarah’s relationship solidified in an extraordinarily deep way, while Livingston and his son seem to have a similar (if creepy) connection. Do you envision there being any justice for Livingston, or for Sarah in the end? Was there any portion of this story taken from personal experience, or from people that you know?

RG: Yet another great question. Is there justice for Livingston? Probably not. Men like him (wealthy) do exist and they get away with bad behavior all the time. Women like Sarah get sh*t on all the time--someone from a working class background, a sex worker, a black woman, even though she's in college, she has a lot working against her in this society.

This is a story that was entirely fictional and entirely true, only, the story does not reflect my truth in any way. In this story, I was trying to put a modern, dirty realism (sorry to drop that phrase again) spin on Nella Larsen's passing. I was also interested in talking about the ways in which women are exploited and moreover, the way women of color are often exploited as the objects of the white male gaze. This entire line of thought is a reflection of someone who has spent too much time in college. "La Negra Blanca" is probably the only deliberately political story I've written. It's also the only story I've ever put a lot of intense thought into. Normally my writing process is to just puke some words onto the page and hope I can recognize something in the mess.

TC: Your style is grittily realistic, often employing a bird’s eye view narrative style that flits from scene to scene over long periods of time. It’s all very matter-of-fact and devastating in it’s straight-forwardness. What authors have contributed to your style, and are you even aware that you write like this? Is it possible to be truly self-aware when it comes to your own art?

RG: You've really identified my narrative style quite well. I tell tell tell tell tell. I'm trying to mix things up a little and try some new things but I love giving that bird's eye view, that hidden camera view. I am a Raymond Carver acolyte. I read his short story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love in high school and that book imprinted on me profoundly. I also am inspired by writers like Tim O'Brien, Mary Gaitskill (who is just so damn good), Michael Chabon, and Laura Ingalls Wilder.

I must admit, though, that I am more inspired by other writers in the independent literature community than I am by more well-known writers. I am staggered by the writing I read every day--writers like Ethel Rohan, xTx, Lauren Becker, Angi Becker Stevens, Blake Butler, Dave Erlewine, Tim Jones-Yelvington, Matt Bell, Elizabeth Ellen, Barry Graham (I could go on and on and on), these are the writers I personally respect and admire and try to emulate because not only are they incredible writers who demonstrate a lot of range, they also produce amazing work while working day jobs and editing magazines and raising families and they're not household names but those realities never diminish their words. Writers like me are way more interesting than fancy writers with excellent book contracts. If such an opportunity were to come my way, however, I would welcome it eagerly. It is possible to be self-aware but most of us have no idea what to do with that self-awareness.

TC: What are your plans for the future? I’ve read that you are working on a novel? Do you know when you will be able to finish that? Any publishers lined up? Who are you reading right now that has got you inspired?

RG: My long term goal is to become a fancy famous writer. There, I said it. In the short term, I plan to watch Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains tomorrow. I will finish my dissertation and this summer, I will start to work on my novel. I would like to get a couple chapbooks and a short story collection out there this year and next. I have these books ready right now but I need to find publishers who want to publish them. I haven't done much in the way of making that happen. The manuscripts were rejected at a couple places and I sort of lost enthusiasm for sending them out again because I am big fat baby. Hopefully in 2011, I'll have a book out there in the world, exposing all my crazy in ways that make my parents extremely uncomfortable. I'm a great daughter. As for who I'm reading right now that has me inspired, see above.

Thanks again for these superb questions. I feel, one last time, FANCY.

TC: Thank you, Roxane.

More stories from Roxane Gay:

"This Program Contains Actual Surgical Procedures"
"Bad Priest"
"How To Mourn A Celebrity Death"

For a full list of Roxane Gay's published works click here.


xTx said...

Roxane is a fancy ass writer. I stalk her every chance i get. So fancy.

Ethel Rohan said...


Jessie Carty said...

terrific interview! i do think it is ironic to have a blog about rejection but then to get fed up with submitting manuscripts :) although I've been there too!

The Crow said...

Roxane IS a fancy ass writer! And so are you xTx. Roxane turned me on to you with this interview, in fact, and I have been digging the crap out of your work (digging the crap out of something is a good thing, BTW).

Same goes for you, Ethel. Your story "How to Kill" killed me. I haven't been able to shake it. Both of you keep up the good work. If you're interested, the offer is on the table for a writer spotlight for both of you.

@ Jesse, you're right about the irony of it all. Sometimes, it can be hard to feel too sorry for a writer as talented as Roxane, who has that many publications ot her name. JK, she's earned every darn one of those.