I was introduced to Roxane Gay’s work by Aubrey Hirsch (author of Why We Never Talk About Sugar) several years ago. Since then I have been captivated by the honesty and vulnerability of Gay’s prose. Whether I am reading her short stories or her essays on race and pop culture, her writing devastates me in the best possible way. If you don’t already follow her on Twitter, you need to (@rgay). Last December, I was tasked with interviewing an author for one of my MFA classes. Roxane was nice enough to answer my questions about her own work and process, Twitter, the MFA degree, and being a writer in today’s competitive publishing industry. This is that interview.
Blue Mesa Review: You’ve got two books coming out this year—one in fiction and the other in nonfiction. What’s it like to work on two books at once? What has the publishing process been like?
Roxane Gay: It is, admittedly, overwhelming to work on finalizing and promoting two books at once. I really had no idea how much work happened after the books were written. I’ve been really lucky in that I’m working with two wonderful editors who are warm and thoughtful and like me. They really, really like me! I’m learning a lot about what it takes to go from having a book accepted for publication to getting it out into the world, and I’m grateful for every moment of the process.
BMR: What made you want to publish an essay collection?
RG: I decided to publish Bad Feminist because I realized I had a lot of essays that would work together as a conversation about the complexities of feminism and popular culture.
BMR: I’m very excited for An Untamed State. Many authors decide to turn a previously published short story into a novel. What motivated you to do so? Why this specific story?
RG: The original story, “Things I Know About Fairy Tales,” simply stayed with me, and when I realized that more of the story needed to be told, I indulged.
BMR: How much time do you devote to drafting vs. editing?
RG: I spend most of my time drafting, but that’s because I do a lot of my writing in my head before I ever commit to the page, so I’ve gone through some revision in my head. I’d say it’s about 70-30 in terms of the balance between drafting and revising.
BMR: In an interview with Cobalt Review, Aubrey Hirsch (http://www.cobaltreview.com/interviews/2013/06/03/interview-aubrey-hirsch/) describes how she sometimes builds a story around character, inspired by dialogue or voice, and other times around plot, maybe based on something she’s seen on the news. It’s very clear that setting is important to your work. What else plays in to how you shape a story?
RG: Like Aubrey, nearly anything can inspire me. I’m just always taking in the world around me and then pulling what I see into my stories.
BMR: What do you think is the most challenging part of writing?
RG: Writing is the easy part. The challenge is putting my writing out into the world and dealing with the vagaries of publishing.
BMR: I loved your debut collection, Ayiti. I read on your blog, though, that you haven’t often let your parents read your work. As someone who has never let her parents read anything she’s written, I’m intrigued when other people are also protective of their writing. Have your parents read any parts of Ayiti? How do they feel about you writing about the place they come from, especially with An Untamed State on the horizon?
RG: My parents found out about Ayiti [late last year] when they attended a reading I was giving in Atlanta, so I finally gave them a copy. They’ll read it, but we won’t talk about it. They are proud of my writing and excited that I’ve written a novel. I’m not entirely clear on why I keep my writing so separate from my personal life, but I’m trying to let them in.
BMR: My favorite story from Ayiti was “In the Manner of Water and Light.” Where did the idea for this story come from and how did it develop?
RG: I had learned about what Rafael Trujillo did during the 1930s and the story of Massacre River and I simply wanted to write about that tragedy and how sometimes trauma reaches across generations.
BMR: Twitter is occasionally aflutter over the competition in the publishing industry. Your fans know that you struggle with insomnia and are prolific as a result, but how do you specifically deal with the pressures of competition or writer jealousy over your good publishing luck?
RG: I try to stay humble and focus on what I can do. I can’t control how people react to my writing or how the publishing industry reacts to my writing or, frankly, anyone else’s writing. We’re all human. I understand where jealousy may come from. I certainly feel it from time to time, but at the end of the day there’s only one thing I can control—what I write. I try my best not to lose sight of that.
BMR: There’s also a lot of talk about the MFA vs. the PhD vs. foregoing the school option altogether and just “being” a writer. You’re well published with a teaching position and you do not have an MFA. How did your career path develop?
RG: I did get an MA in creative writing and then a PhD in rhetoric and technical communication because I knew it was important to be able to do more than one thing well to get a tenure-track job (that and a lot of luck and a willingness to live in the middle of nowhere). I got my job in 2010, when I graduated. Before that I worked in university communications, and before that for a student loan company, and before that in all sorts of random jobs that have given me plenty of writerly inspiration. Regardless of what I did for a living, I wrote. I’m persistent, often to a fault.
BMR: Why did you decide to start Tiny Hardcore Press? What was the most challenging part of that process?
RG: I knew there were books that deserved to be out in the world and I wanted to give those books a home. The most challenging part was learning how much I did not know about book publishing. The learning curve was very, very steep. I wrote about it once for HTMLGIANT and that piece is easy enough to hunt down. (http://htmlgiant.com/behind-the-scenes/lessons-ive-learned-starting-a-micropress/)
BMR: You publish fantastic stories and essays, keep a blog, and teach; you’re the co-editor of Pank, the essays editor at The Rumpus, contributing editor at Bluestem, a contributor at HTMLGIANT, and the publisher of Tiny Hardcore Press—not to mention that you’re a person with a life. How do you balance it all?
RG: I don’t think I balance things very well, but I do try. One of the things I need to get better at, though, is having more of a life. I am too much of a workaholic, clearly.
BMR: How do you decide where and when you will do a reading or give a talk? When are you coming to New Mexico?
RG: I go where I am invited! I don’t know when I am coming to New Mexico, but hopefully a university there will invite me soon.
BMR: Who are your writing mentors?
RG: My first writing mentor was Rex McGuinn in high school. Since then, I’ve had many writing mentors. Right now I get a lot of really lovely guidance from Tayari Jones and Jami Attenberg.
BMR: What was your first story about and where did you have it published?
RG: My first publish[ed] piece was an essay in Moxie Magazine about having multiple cultural identities. It was 1996, I think.
BMR: What are your three favorite books you read this year?
BMR: You said earlier that you write a lot about pop culture. What do you think is the most difficult aspect of being a feminist who enjoys pop culture?
RG: The biggest challenge is that so much popular culture is willfully anti-feminist and downright damaging toward women. If you aren’t willing to relax your politics, there’s very little of pop culture you can enjoy in good conscience. I try to maintain my critical awareness and also allow myself to be human, and a woman who enjoys, say, Love & Hip Hop NY on VH1.
BMR: You’ve been very vocal about the inequality in publishing. What advice do you have for young women writers of color like me who are just starting out?
RG: The most important thing to do is write. At the end of the day all you can control is what you put on the page. It’s also useful to find mentors, people who look like you and people who don’t. Develop a thick skin. Be persistent. And remember to share the ladder you build so that the writers who come after you aren’t fighting the same fights.
Roxane Gay is the author of Ayiti (Artistically Declined Press, 2011). In 2014, two of her books will be published: a novel, An Untamed State (Grove Press), and a collection of essays, Bad Feminist (Harper Perennial). Gay is an assistant professor of English at Eastern Illinois University, co-editor of Pank, essays editor at The Rumpus, and a contributing editor at Bluestem, and she also runs Tiny Hardcore Press. Her writing has appeared in The Best American Short Stories 2012, Prairie Schooner, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Wall Street Journal, and many more.