“I Write for Myself”: An Interview with Roxane Gay
Since the release of her latest book, Difficult Women, in January, Roxane Gay has been on the road. Writer of the New York Times bestselling essay collection Bad Feminist and a Purdue professor, she stopped by Madison Tuesday evening to kick off the WUD Publications Lit Fest.
Moda Magazine: If you could give yourself, and what you do, a title, what would that title be?
Roxane Gay: A writer.
MM: And I ask you that because earlier today I saw a tweet, and you were listed as a writer and a culture critic. How does that title sit with you?
RG: It’s fine, but I think that brevity is important.
MM: What are the aspects of culture today that you’re most critical of?
RG: Politics, for sure.
MM: You say that you write “dirty realism.” Was this a genre that came naturally to you or something that you fell into over time?
RG: I think it’s definitely a genre that’s felt natural to me, realistic fiction and gritty or dirty realism. It just seems to be my wheelhouse and what I enjoy writing most. And I also do other genres, you know, I write a lot of magical realism. But dirty realism is just home base. And I don’t know why, but it’s what I’ve always gravitated to as both a reader and a writer.
MM: What are some of the books, as a reader, that have influenced you the most?
RG: Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, Little House on the Prairie, Zadie Smith’s NW, which is new. Well, it’s not new, it’s recent. I mean, I’ve been shaped by all the books I’ve ever read, really, but some books, of course, are more influential than others.
MM: Right. So you listed off a bunch of fiction works. How did nonfiction come about for you?
RG: I’m relatively new to nonfiction. I wrote a couple essays in my early 20s, but nothing serious. And then, in 2009, I think, or 2010, a young girl was raped in Cleveland, Texas. She was gang raped by several men, and she was 10. And I [was] just horrified by the magnitude of the crime and the severity of the crime. And The New York Times wrote an article about the town and how the town was suffering because of this crime. And I thought, “You know who’s suffering? The girl that was assaulted.” So I wrote the first essay that I really was known for, and after that people just kept asking me my opinions on contemporary culture, pop culture, current events and the like.
MM: In some interviews, you talk about how you’re a very private person, but at the same time you’re traveling a ton, you’re writing a ton. How do you balance your personal privacy with the attention you’ve been getting as a writer?
RG: Oh, just boundaries. I just have very firm boundaries about what I will and will not reveal about myself, and that helps. So people think that I’m open, and, I mean, good. That means I’m doing my job as a writer, but I have very significant boundaries around my life.
MM: With writing nonfiction—and you talked a little bit about this earlier with writing about your family—how do you balance the respecting [of] relationships and telling the truth and walking that line?
RG: Well, I’m lucky in that there are no truths that I have to share that will compromise my relationships with the people I love. And I think that for every writer, it’s a personal decision about those relationships versus the truth. I frankly believe that those relationships probably are not worth saving if your truth would compromise those relationships for other people.
MM: You’re a very well-known writer, and a lot of people would attach you to the idea of modern feminism. How would you define modern feminism?
RG: I wouldn’t, honestly. I mean, I think that we have to just move beyond that question, because we know what feminism is at this point. And I find it strange and frustrating that we’re still thinking about the definition instead of the work of feminism. It’s really about equality and equity and thinking about equality in terms of not just gender but the range of identities that people inhabit. We’re not any one thing, and so we have to be intersectional in how we think about equality, and recognize that not all women are created equal and that matters. But we have to move beyond that question of “What is modern feminism?” into thinking about how can we pursue the goals of feminism more effectively in this day and age.
MM: You were talking about how your first encounter with the idea of feminism was through academia, and then you talked about how you’re doing the work to talk about that more from a life perspective. What are your tips as far as bridging the gaps between the feminism we’re taught in schools and the feminism that we need in our daily lives?
RG: I think that they’re two points along a spectrum. So it’s the same feminism presented in different ways. I think a lot about accessibility and how do we write about feminist theory and feminist ideas in ways that are going to be digestible by a broad audience and not just other academics. It’s really thinking about what are you really saying and do you need jargon to get these ideas across? How do you distill these complex ideas in simpler ways without compromising critical rigor? Because accessibility does not mean dumbing it down. It just means presenting information in a way that multiple audiences can appreciate.
MM: Is the fact that you’re writing nonfiction, fiction and comics possibly a response to that?
RG: No, it’s not. I just like writing, and I write across a lot of different genres. But I do think that my work is accessible, my feminist work. And some people see that as an insult. But it’s not an insult. It means that people read my work, and not just people who have access to academic research. And I think that’s really important. Plus, my PhD is in Rhetoric and Technical Communication, and the very heart of rhetoric and technical communication is producing information for multiple audiences and thinking about audience and persuasion, so I hope that my work is accessible at this point.
MM: Between all of the genres that you’re writing across, would you say that you have a favorite?
RG: Yes, fiction.
MM: And why fiction?
RG: It’s my first love. It’s the first genre I started writing. It comes much easier to me. I just have fun when I write fiction.
MM: In Difficult Women, there are so many characters, and so many characters that are incredibly different from each other. Where do you draw inspiration from?
RG: Everywhere. Just living life. I’m always paying attention to the world around me and the people I meet, and filing away personality quirks that I recognize in other people and moments of conversations and snippets of this or that. And when I’m writing fiction, I just sort of pull from that database in my head of all these different things.
MM: I was listening to an interview that you did, and you mentioned very briefly that you are a Catholic. How do you think that your faith or your religious practice intersects with the things that you’re writing?
RG: In most ways, everything about my life is very contradictory to my religion. I’m very lapsed in terms of my Catholicism. I’m a bad, bad Catholic. But I was raised in a religious household, but not in an oppressive household. And that’s what allows me to still claim faith in some way. I think I’m more spiritual than religious. But my parents raised us, and they always told us, “God is a God of love.” I mean, we weren’t raised with this idea of hell and damnation or things like that. Yeah, we went to church every week, but it was fine. And I know that my parents’ faith makes them who they are, and I respect that very much. At the same time, I have major problems with Catholic doctrine. I think the Catholic Church is very misogynistic and anti-woman. And, you know, that has to change. And I’m pro-choice. Period. And a lot of Catholics think that that means that I’m not a part of the faith anymore, and I’m totally fine with that. Like, it’s fine.
MM: So a lot of your writing talks about really heavy topics. I mean, your book is titled Difficult Women. But at the same time, you say you love writing and writing brings you so much joy. How do you go about finding joy when you’re writing about really hard, dark things?
RG: On sentence level, there’s always joy to be found in terms of how I describe something or put something forth. There’s joy to be found in dialogue. Certainly, I don’t take pleasure in darkness, but darkness intrigues me as a writer. So there’s something also very intellectually satisfying just about creating these stories. And wherever there’s dark, there’s light. And so, also trying to create hope for characters that are put into situations where they have very little reason to find hope is very satisfying and fun.
MM: What’s been one of your favorite characters you’ve ever written?
RG: Oh, the protagonist of my novel, Mary.
MM: And what specifically stands out about her to you?
RG: She’s just a tough girl. And she endures the unimaginable, and finds a way to get back to herself. And she allows herself to recognize that she’ll never be the woman she was, and that’s heartbreaking. But she still goes on. She still just chooses to live and live well, or as well as can be expected. And, you know, she fights in her own way. It’s a novel about a woman who’s kidnapped and held for 13 days. And the way she fights during those 13 days and the way she survives, I admire that.
MM: So your original title for Difficult Women was Strange Gods… Do you feel satisfied with the title switch?
RG: I do. A book came out last year called Strange Gods. And so, we weren’t competing. Very different books, different genres even. But my editor thought that it was perhaps too esoteric to work for a mainstream audience, it was just too specific, but also not specific. And so I thought about it, and I had this story that I had written long after I had put this collection together called “Difficult Women.” And I thought, yeah, that’s actually a really great encapsulation of the women in this collection. And not even necessarily that they’re difficult, but often times they’re termed that way, they’re defined that way by others. And it’s just this provocative title.
MM: Structurally, why did it end up falling two stories into the…it just happened?
RG: Yeah. Because of the nontraditional narrative structure, I don’t think it would’ve worked as the first story. Or the second story. I think that readers needed something more traditional before they faced something a little more experimental. And so that’s why it’s third.
MM: So you have Hunger coming out very soon. Could you tell me a little bit about what the writing process for that looked like for you?
RG: I didn’t have a process for that one. I just wrote it on the road, when I could, in spurts. Because I’ve basically been on tour since 2014, May, when an Untamed State first came out, and then three months later, Bad Feminist came out. And both books have just continued to do well, so I never had a specific, uninterrupted amount of time to work on the book. I really started working on it, quite frankly, last June, when it was supposed to come out. And I just wrote when I could.
MM: How long was this something that you felt you needed to get out into the world?
RG: Oh, not long. I came up with the idea shortly after Bad Feminist came out. My dad has always told me, “Do something no one else is doing,” and we see a lot of weight loss memoirs. There’s someone who’s at the end of the journey, and so what is it like for someone in the middle of a weight journey? Or not even a weight journey, a weight life? So I thought, “Yeah, I would like to read that book.” But it doesn’t exist, so I wrote it.
MM: Who would you say that when you write a book you envision the audience being?
RG: I don’t. I write for myself.
MM: When you’re writing fiction, do you ever find yourself being the narrator, or do you always try to remove yourself a little bit?
RG: When I’m writing fiction, I have nothing to do with it. And when I’m writing fiction, I’m not the narrator.
MM: And how do you go about cultivating that, just that distance, from such emotional stories?
RG: I mean, I don’t think it’s distance. It’s not distance. I feel very close to the stories. But they’re fictional. They’re made up, and I know that. It’s my imagination. And I might draw from my life. I have a story, “North Country,” that I was inspired to write because I was living in North Country, and I loved it and hated it. And I wanted to find a way of sort of writing a love letter to the experience of living there and falling in love there. And so I wrote that story, but it was entirely made up. And that’s what allows me to sort of… You know, it’s the making up part, the fiction part that creates the necessary distance. But I still wouldn’t frame it as distance.
MM: Two final, light questions. You love Ina Garten.
RG: I do.
MM: I don’t know much about her, but could you explain your love for her to me?
RG: She’s delightful. She’s just very well put together. And she’s super rich. That’s not why I love her. But she’s unapologetic about it. She just loves the good life and good things. And she’s worked hard. Her recipes are fairly foolproof, which is the title of one of her books, Foolproof. On her shows, she asks a lot of rhetorical questions, like, “Who wouldn’t love a cocktail for breakfast?” or “Who wouldn’t love some olive oil?” I just love that. Her confidence is incredibly inspiring and charming. And I’m just a big fan of hers.
MM: That’s awesome. So, you and your partner are both writers. Do you have any tips for dating a writer?
RG: Never compete with the person you love.
Roxane Gay’s upcoming book Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body can be found in stores June 13.