Roxane Gay lives and writes in the MIdwest. She is the author of Ayiti and, forthcoming, An Untamed State and Bad Feminist.
This interview was conducted via email by Interview Editor Lauren Fosgett. Of the process, she said, “I thoroughly enjoyed reading Roxane Gay’s work in preparation for this interview. She truly has a singular voice and a knack for presenting new perspectives to her audiences. Her responses in this interview demonstrate this same voice and directness.” In this interview, she discusses immersing herself in her characters, her experience as a writer and editor, and the influence of her students.
Superstition Review: In an interview with Paperdarts, you mention that you like to “go there” in your writing, and that you try to make yourself uncomfortable. To what extent do you want your readers to share in this discomfort?
Roxane Gay: I don't necessarily want my readers to be uncomfortable to the point of distress but I do want to challenge readers and make them feel and think in ways that aren't gratuitous or harmful to the reader.
SR: Ayiti depicts a perspective of Haiti and Haitian culture that is very different from American expectations. How do you negotiate revealing a different truth to your readers than what they might be accustomed to?
RG: I wrote the pieces in Ayiti in the ways I felt they needed to be written, and to reveal, I hope, a more nuanced perspective on Haiti. What the reader brings to the book is something I can't control or negotiate.
SR: Your upcoming novel An Untamed State is based on your short story “Things I Know About Fairy Tales.” In an interview with Kimbilio, you state that the main character “just wouldn’t get out of my head so I wrote her story until it was done being written.” Could you describe the process you typically use for developing characters? How did this example differ?
RG: When I'm developing a character I try to immerse myself in that character's mindset. I day dream as that character and try to inhabit them as much as possible until I feel like I know that character well enough to write their story. I used this process for Mireille in An Untamed State and I guess I was so immersed in her that there was a novel there, demanding to be written.
SR: What is your favorite story in Ayiti? Which was your favorite to write?
RG: My favorite story in Ayiti is probably "In the Manner of Water or Light." My favorite to write was "You Never Knew How the Waters Ran So Cruel So Deep," because I was playing with form and narrative and really enjoyed giving into the experiment.
SR: I loved the dynamic between grandmother, mother, and daughter in “In the Manner of Water or Light,” and their return to the river where family ties, culture, memory, and truth collide. What is your relationship to the characters in the story? What was the inspiration behind them?
RG: "In the Manner of Water or Light" is entirely fictional. The inspiration behind this story was the history of the Massacre River and so I began with that event and imagined what it would be like to flee the Dominican Republic and how that might shape the course of a family's life.
SR: What made you want to become a writer?
RG: I've loved writing stories as long as I can remember. I love the power of imagination and how I can step away from the real world and write new worlds as I would like them to be.
SR: How have other writers influenced your process? What is some specific advice another writer has given to you that has changed the way you look at writing?
RG: I'm constantly learning from other writers by reading how they use language and take risks and tell absorbing stories. I love how by reading other writers I get to feel like I'm part of something bigger than myself.
SR: Your fiction and nonfiction are widely published. In a recent interview you mentioned, “Duotrope tells me that 19.67% of my submissions are accepted. Everything I write gets published eventually.” How do you split your time between composing, revising, and submitting? What advice would you give to other writers who would like to achieve such success?
RG: I don't have a specific split. I used to write about 80% of the time and spend the rest of the time revising and trying to get my work out into the world. I write and revise closer to 95% of the time now because I don't have to submit as often. I tell rising writers to be relentless and to have a good sense of where to send your work. So much of what we need to learn as writers, however, can only be learned by putting yourself out there and making mistakes.
SR: How do you alternate between fiction and nonfiction? How does one genre inform the other in your writing process?
RG: Generally when I'm writing nonfiction, there's an urgency that demands to be satisfied. With fiction I can take more time and I love having that space for my ideas. My nonfiction helps me to value truth in my fiction and my fiction helps me to value a strong narrative shape in my nonfiction.
SR: Many of the short stories in Ayiti have been published in journals such as decomP, Guernica, and Necessary Fiction. What approach did you take when deciding which stories to collect for this book? Did you write stories specifically for the collection? What is your decision process like when you are submitting this same work to magazines?
RG: When I collected the stories for Ayiti I simply pulled together all my work around Haiti and the Haitian diaspora experience. When I'm submitting work I'm not thinking about a future collection. I'm just writing in the moment and hoping for the best as that work makes it way into the world.
SR: I’d love to hear more about your editorial roles at PANK, The Rumpus, and Bluestem. How does your editorial involvement differ between publications? Could you describe how your editorial work informs your writing and teaching?
RG: At PANK, I work with my co-editor M. Bartley Seigel to make the magazine happen. We do it all from vetting submissions to checking the email account to shipping books out. We also have an amazing, dedicated volunteer staff that is an integral part of the collaboration. At The Rumpus, I find new essays to publish on the site. At Bluestem I've taken the role of managing editor, mostly responsible for production. Editorial work reminds me to be conscientious about what I submit and how I interact with editors. In my teaching, my editorial work helps me to encourage students to put themselves out there.
SR: How has your relationship with teaching and your students impacted the way that you write? Has it changed what you write about? What would you like your students to take away from your writing?
RG: My students are a constant source of inspiration. They remind me to take chances and to be less afraid of making myself vulnerable in my writing. I don't share my writing with my students because I don't think it would be right to force my work on them. That's not what they are in my classroom for, though I will talk about my writing process and the like if I feel it is useful for them.
SR: What are you currently reading?
RG: I recently read and loved Be Safe, I Love You by Cara Hoffman. Right now I'm reading Taylor Stevens's Vanessa Michael Munroe series—amazing thrillers with a kick ass woman lead.
SR: I’m looking at your list of appearances and my goodness, you’re everywhere! What do you enjoy the most about reading and speaking at all these events? What’s the most challenging question you’ve been asked?
RG: I love meeting new people and seeing different parts of the country. Most questions are challenging in their own way because you don't want to give a canned, trite answer.
SR: Over at HTML Giant you list some lessons you’ve learned from starting your own micropress, but I’m curious to know what has been the most positive, surprising experience in creating Tiny Hardcore Books? How are you enjoying this venture? Would you recommend it to others?
RG: The most positive part of creating Tiny Hardcore Books has been getting these awesome books into the hands of readers and seeing how well readers respond. To have a small hand in that is such a blessing.
SR: You’re a writer, an editor, a publisher, an educator, and then some. You really do do it all. How do you keep up the momentum and continue producing great work without burning out?
RG: I feel burnt at the edges quite often but you know, so little of what I do feels like work. I write and edit and teach because I love doing it. When I start feeling overwhelmed, I try to allow myself that feeling. I try to take a step back and relax for a day or two before diving back in.
SR: What does your writing space look like?
RG: I generally write on my couch in my living room. I rest my feet on a coffee table laden with books. The television is generally on. As I answer these questions, I am watching Casino.