The Untamed State Of Roxane Gay
One of the most prolific writers of our generation talks about not wanting her parents to read her work, insomnia, and having a Scrabble nemesis.
This year, the inimitable Roxane Gay will publish two new books: An Untamed State, her debut novel out earlier this month that has been selected by Library Journal as one of the spring’s best debuts, and Bad Feminist, an essay collection slated to be published in August. Gay is best known in the blogosphere and among the Twitterati for her sharp wit and affecting honesty, and for consistently publishing amazing work.
She teaches writing at Eastern Illinois University much of the time, but she has also been essays editor for The Rumpus, co-editor of PANK, an editor for a Salon series on feminists of color, and much more. Her short stories, published along with a collection that included poetry and nonfiction in 2011 called Ayiti, have been included in the Best American Short Stories series, Necessary Fiction, and other publications. I interviewed her about how she works and her new books.
How do you do everything? You edit PANK, you write and edit for Salon and The Nation, you teach at Eastern Illinois University, you have a fantastic blog, you also are Twittering. How is this humanly possible?
Roxane Gay: I live in the middle of nowhere and I’m an insomniac, I guess. I just make the time and I read and write really fast so that makes a lot possible for me. I wish I had an explanation for it. I’m grateful for it.
Do people ask that a lot?
What is your favorite writing?
RG: Fiction is my happy place. I love writing nonfiction too; It’s just a different muscle. There’s an urgency that has to be satisfied.
Talk about how you came up with the idea to write An Untamed State.
RG: It started as a short story, “Things I Know About Fairy Tales,” a story about a woman who was kidnapped and the main character wouldn’t leave me alone. I wanted to look at how violence is born in a country like Haiti.
The men in the book have as much range as the women. That balance is uncommon in literature — was it intentional?
RG: All too often men are uniform characters and that’s not realistic. The men are human beings.
There was some seamless point of view shifting in the book. Did you decide that before you began writing or did it happen during the writing?
RG: The story becomes claustrophobic and dark. When I wrote the first draft in first person, it was too much. To air the chapters out, I decided to shift the point of view.
There is a lot of harrowing, potentially triggering writing in it. How did you deal with that personally?
RG: Writing some of the darker scenes were hard, but I allowed myself to go there. Plenty of violence in books and film are unreadable and unwatchable. I wanted to convey what would it feel like to be in this situation.
Is it a challenge to write both fiction and nonfiction at the same time?
RG: Not really. I’m a Libra. I’m always interested in balance. I’m writing nonfiction and thinking through some social issue. Fiction allows me to step away from the world as it is and I enjoy that balance.
What is your advice to young writers about writing and blogging?
RG: You have to be consistent. You have to be yourself. You have to be committed to what you’re doing. You have to not be afraid to be ambitious. You don’t want to be so focused on yourself and what you’re doing that you forget to read other writers.
Talk about why you compiled your work in Bad Feminist.
RG: I was thinking about an essay collection and the title essay stood out to me. It spoke to the way I see feminism. I wanted to include the essays that we deal with culturally, understanding that it’s more gray than black and white. I looked for the essays that best fit that aesthetic.
What is a bad feminist?
RG: I don’t think a universal definition of bad feminist exists. I’m a feminist and I have some contradictory ideas that I’m OK with. For so long feminism had demanded perfectionism of women — you can’t wear certain things or say certain things. I’m not going to demand that of women. What can I do to elevate the status of women and make gender equality across all genders more of a possibility than what we currently have?
You said in the acknowledgements you don’t want your parents to read this? Why?
RG: There’s a lot that they don’t know about me. There are conversations at this point in my life that I’m not interested in having with them. They’re very supportive. They know about the novel. I don’t think it will cross their minds that I’d write two books in a year.
Among many things, you write about catharsis. Do you experience that from writing alone or in conjunction with other things?
RG: It comes from writing and growing up. The older I get, the more I’m able to make sense of life and how I move through the world and experiences and how they’ve shaped me. There’s something cathartic in realizing that you do gain wisdom as you get older.
Do you still play competitive Scrabble? Do any civilians want to play Scrabble with you now that they know your skills?
RG: I play a lot of Scrabble online. I’m part of a Scrabble club that meets every month. I haven’t been able to go to tournaments because I’ve been traveling. It’s relaxing. It’s like chess with words.
You’re pretty serious about it. You even have a nemesis.
RG: Yes. I’m going to end him some day.
Joshunda Sanders is a Washington, D.C.-based writer whose work has appeared in Bellevue Literary Review, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, and many other print and online publications. She tweets @jvic and blogs at joshunda.com.