The Lit Hub Author Quiz is a monthly interview featuring seven questions for five authors with new books. This month we are talking about:
Ross Gay (Encourage joy)
Erin Kean (Runaway: Notes on the myths that made me)
David Moscow (From Scratch: Adventures in harvesting, hunting, fishing and gathering on a fragile planetco-written with Jon Moscow)
Christine Sneed (Please be advised)
Elizabeth Strout (Lucia by the sea)
Without summarizing it in any way, what would you say your book is about?
Christine Sneed: The desire to be loved madly and inappropriately by people you might or might not love in return. Persecution complexes, office culture, boredom of the pressure to get and spend and being urged to smile while wishing the people who make the rules, as they are, would fall down a manhole – permanently. The desire to be seen and declared brilliant and irreplaceable. Compulsive diffusion of thought. Disappointment and well-being surveys.
Ross Gay: Refusal, ruins, gardens, skateboarding, basketball, dancing, saving and sharing seeds, sharing, needing, studying, Richard Pryor, Luther Vandross, Dionne Warwick, who loved you before they knew you.
David Moscow: Wrap the potatoes in clay and throw them on the fire to extract the poison. Use of 15etools of the last century to harvest Italian wheat. A glimpse of the Mediterranean future of oceans without fish. A glimpse into Finland’s past for a new way of thinking about land ownership. Pulling the threads of food production, revealing danger and hope. More danger than hope.
Erin Kean: The 70s and the 90s; considering the stories, both true and false, I was raised on and how they distorted my view of the world; the troubling differences in how our culture treats messy men and unruly girls.
Elizabeth Strout: This book is about an ex-wife with her ex-husband who go to Maine to avoid the pandemic and get blocked with each other – and all the things that happen to them as a result.
Without explaining why and without naming other authors or books, can you discuss the various influences on your book?
Elizabeth Strout: The various influences on this book were all the books I have ever read in my entire life. And also, life. Life influenced him.
Erin Kean: Grace Slick’s eyeliner, DeadlineEmily Gilmore’s raised eyebrow, Bruce Springsteen’s Sandy, Cait O’Riordan’s “I’m a Man You Don’t Meet Everyday”, Diana Riggs’ caftan in the opening scene of On Her Majesty’s Secret Serviceagain and again drawing the Tower card from the Major Arcana.
David Moscow: My mom’s box of recipe cards, fishing with Grandpa Harry, apple fights in the apple orchard, standing by the barbecue at every party, my dad’s FBI file, the boogie-down. Disgust of the 45th president.
Ross Gay: That half-pipe in the woods, the basketball courts at Seger Park, the teachers, all those loved ones, all that love, all that care.
Christine Sneed: I taught business writing classes at DePaul University and Loyola University. Corporate and academic offices where I was employed, starting in high school in the late 1980s. A minor in international business in college – it included microeconomics, which made me shudder. I liked the macroeconomics course much more. Saturn cars and a course in organizational behavior management (I always think, what has been this class?) Failed businessmen who then reincarnated as very dangerous and very bad politicians.
Without using full sentences, can you describe what was going on in your life when you wrote this book?
David Moscow: Buying gas masks and hazmat suits wholesale, walking up and down the stairs for my pregnant wife, partying and fasting, being the worst shift supervisor I’ve ever hired, QC, my toddler assistant leader, planes, trains and automobiles.
Elizabeth Strout: Anxiety, joy, endurance. Anxiety, anxiety.
Erin Kean: An aging smuggler holding court with tales of glory days, heavily chlorinated mornings, marathon James Bond movies, writing cocktail recipes for heavy hearts.
Ross Gay: The brutality of lying institutions becomes (even) more evident; gardening; basketball; ask a tree in Vermont for help; dreams can be particularly bright; lots of questions, lots of what’s going on.
Christine Sneed: A cross-country move—Evanston, IL, to Pasadena, CA. Stand-up and improvisation lessons. The six seasons of Narcos (amazing! show!). Two maternal uncles and my grandmother dying – not Covid-19, serious heart problems. Which, it seems, most of us are crying out for.
What words do you despise that have been used to describe your writing by readers and/or critics?
Erin Kean: I don’t know for despise, but an agent turned down my proposal for this book (an essay) because the fiction market is so tough these days. Ouch.
Christine Sneed: “Closure” – I’ve been frustrated with some people’s belief that stories should provide endings with answers, definitions, hard facts, or cinematic finales. Character-driven fiction, as I have always experienced it and subsequently written it, generally does not offer closure – rather it offers a reflection of life as most of us live it, which is by nature provisional and open to interpretation. Maybe, if we’re lucky, we think of a great aftershock or aftershock later, after the breakup, layoff, or deathbed – the French “spirit of the staircase”, but even that is rare. If we want closure, I think we better expect it from a bag of cookies or an apple – you eat them and they’re gone. The people important to us, and our experiences with them, however, are not so easily dismissed or summed up. Long after their physical demise, they persist as specters, demons, apparitions – whatever they ultimately become for us – and we must find a way to co-exist.
Ross Gay: I can’t think of any, but a reviewer once said that after reading a picture in one of my poems he wished he had this little tool from the movie men in black it makes your memory disappear, which I thought was great. Also, a reviewer from Minnesota seemed to hate The book of delights because she found it very unpleasant. She felt misled I think. I like this.
David Moscow: “It’s scary.” To that, I said, “Leave me alone, dad.” “That’s not how it happened.” To that, I said, “Mind your own business, mom.”
Elizabeth Strout: I don’t read reviews of my books.
If you could choose any career besides writing (regardless of educational requirements and/or talent), what would it be?
Ross Gay: Kettlebell Trainer; assistant basketball coach; garlic or dried beans or farmhouse peppers; a kind of designer/builder of natural houses (straw bales, cob, etc.). I could also consider having a skateshop or a bookstore. Or be like a letterpress printer or something. I sometimes think having a little take-out restaurant from a window in the house would be fun, maybe three days a week and just a few choices. Seasonal stuff growing in the back, not all, but some – probably dandelions in everything. Batch sweet potatoes.
Elizabeth Strout: Oh, I would like to be a doctor! I would like to help people with these bodies that we inhabit.
David Moscow: After my HOF NFL career was cut short by a freak injury, I became an environmental engineer and design/build geothermal HVAC systems.
Erin Kean: Archivist at a small obscure museum with an inexplicably large endowment.
Christine Sneed: Border Collie trainer. All these beautiful, enthusiastic and intelligent dogs! What happiness!
What crafting items do you think are your strongest and what would you like to be better at?
Elizabeth Strout: I think my strength is to write just enough but not too much, and therefore to allow the reader to enter the book at will. I would rather manage a story.
Christine Sneed: I want to be linguistically more fluent and more expansive. I admire the way Alice Munro and Rachel Cusk’s sentences and thoughts unfold, completely dazzling you, before opening up. As for what I’m good at, maybe it’s the details? I love the so-called picayune, the trivial – to me they are what makes a person or a situation real.
Ross Gay: I really like revising and I would like to take singing lessons.
Erin Kean: I’m too superstitious to even consider answering that question. If I did, anything I might think was decent would certainly be highlighted as an embarrassing flaw in a review, and anything I advertise that I’m trying to improve would stay, forever, just out of my reach. .
David Moscow: I am strong on vivid description. People tell me that my writing is lively and accessible even on complicated subjects. I went to progressive schools, so spell check is helpful.
How do you deal with the hubris of thinking someone cares or should care about what you have to say about anything?
Erin Kean: I try to remember what Jeanie Thompson told me all those years ago in our MFA workshop: Write for your best reader. She probably meant that in a collective sense, but I took it literally. I write for an imaginary reader, whom I have never met, but who absolutely understands where I come from and who loves the way I take us there.
Elizabeth Strout: I always write for an ideal reader; this reader is sexless and patient, but not overly patient, and I still think it’s my job to provide something for this reader to enjoy.
David Moscow: What is “pride?” 🙂 Fortunately, I write about what other people, experts, have to say. So if readers think this is pretentious or bullshit, I can blame them.
Christine Sneed: I don’t think I deal with it very skillfully. I admit I took the license to claim a reader’s attention and from there my feeling is, either they’ll like it or they won’t. I may be fatalistic. For me, a lot of it is about wanting to be part of the conversation. I think most of us want that, one way or another. I’m not very good at social media and I’d much rather write books, even if they’re only read by a handful of people, than write witty tweets fifty times a day (even though I foolishly tries to compose a few from time to time).
Ross Gay: Wait, I thought caring about what the other had to say was just called being a decent person, did I misunderstand that?