The Lit Hub Author Questionnaire is a monthly interview featuring seven questions for five authors with new books. This month we talk to:
Brady Hammes (The Resolutions)
Tracy O’Neill (Quotients)
Ivy Pochoda (These Women)
Lauren Sandler (This Is All I Got)
Jenny Zhang (My Baby First Birthday)
Without summarizing it in any way, what would you say your book is about?
Lauren Sandler: I thought, when I was writing it, that it was about the unbearable inequality of our Gilded Age. Turns out it’s about shredding the safety net in the best of times, as a prologue to and predictor of the worst of times. That, and how infuriatingly and profoundly unfair it is to be a woman.
Ivy Pochoda: Women. Women who are ignored. Women who are disregarded. Women who are dismissed. Women who are powerful. Women who are strong. Women who are triumphant.
Brady Hammes: Elephant conservation, heroin addiction, ballet, siblings, creative disillusionment, the fear of home, the longing for home.
Tracy O’Neill: The paranoid innocence of crossing Ts and dotting Is in love and systems.
Jenny Zhang: Getting to be a baby for once in your life, never getting to be a baby, the yearning for babyhood, for unconditional love, innocence that can’t be weaponized, devotion to connection, feeling again, not wanting to ever feel again, wishing you were never born, the ecstasy of being alive, babbling, swimming through goo, not having the chance to consent to being born, being grateful to the people who kept you alive, babying yourself, being your own dream, mothering and being mothered, reaching out to touch something, not being afraid even though it’s scary and you have every reason to be paralyzed with fear!
Without explaining why and without naming other authors or books, can you discuss the various influences on your book?
Jenny Zhang: My mother’s Facebook comments and Instagram DMs and Wechat messages, Lana Del Rey singing, “hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have,” texting with my friends, de-eroticizing pain, obsessing over other people’s pain, ravenous desire, resentment, cruel optimism, reoccurring dreams/nightmares, revenge in the form of creating something beautiful, accepting revenge is not the answer, accepting beauty is only a start, visiting the old country, the Nine of Pentacles, the Fool, the woods in Saratoga Springs, hexagrams, the lower Piney Creek valley, the high plains, incurable loneliness, acceptance, blood memory, falling in love, being in denial, acknowledging and wanting to heal, all the times I typed “fear of abandonment” in my podcast app, self-help books, wishing I believed in a prescriptive higher power or was part of a cult-like group where someone could tell me exactly how to live and then feeling guilty for thinking such things, recovery, being humbled, uncontrollable rage over the injustices that have already happened, sorrow for the world that hasn’t happened yet, summer solstice, winter solstice, women’s figure skating in the 1994 Olympics, the medicinal qualities of urine, various excretions, the supreme importance of human touch.
Ivy Pochoda: The desire to rewrite conventional serial killer fiction and examine our misguided obsession with serial killers instead of their victims. The photographs of Larry Sultan and the Instagram feeds of strippers and prostitutes. The voices on the street and on the bus in Los Angeles. Posts on Nextdoor. My neighbors. Several of members of my Skid Row writers workshop and their work.
Tracy O’Neill: The Wire, doomed flirtations, train travel, mean Boston grilling, hyperlinks.
Brady Hammes: The music of Max Richter, the Midwest, Los Angeles, 60 Minutes, ballets on YouTube.
Lauren Sandler: The subway. A nail salon in Corona, Queens. Paperwork. Waiting rooms. Aretha Franklin’s Lady Soul. Takeout containers of Dominican mangu. Steve James and Frederick Wiseman. Construction cranes. Anger.
Without using complete sentences, can you describe what was going on in your life as you wrote this book?
Ivy Pochoda: Bouncing from coast to coast. Kobe Bryant. Chaos. Motherhood. Tennis elbow. Hot sauce. Cold coffee. Wine.
Tracy O’Neill: Agitated sitting.
Brady Hammes: The end of a relationship, the beginning of a new relationship, marriage, the birth of my son (it took way too long to write this book).
Lauren Sandler: LPs on the record player. Anxiety. A roasting pan in the oven. Hypocrisy. Drop-offs. Pick-ups. Insomnia.
Jenny Zhang: Doing everything possible to avoid pain even as I knew I had to feel it eventually. Faced the sun. Faced the moon. Faced the stars. Mothered myself. Was mothered so sweetly. Started dreaming again.
What are some words you despise that have been used to describe your writing by readers and/or reviewers?
Brady Hammes: Dysfunctional family narrative because it tells me nothing about the book. What family isn’t dysfunctional? And what constitutes dysfunction? As Mary Karr once said, “a dysfunctional family is any family with more than one person in it.”
Lauren Sandler: Many years ago, a friend described something I’d written as “news you can use.” I’ve never gotten over it.
Jenny Zhang: “timely” “urgent” “gritty” “shocking” “relevant” “now more than ever.”
Ivy Pochoda: Depressing. Unlikeable (characters)—aren’t we over this by now? Meandering. I’m on the fence about “gritty” these days. It’s overused, a catchall and somewhat dismissive in the wrong hands. I’ve also been accused of being a pseudonym used by Dennis Lehane for his lesser work, so I guess “fraudulent” should go on there.
Tracy O’Neill: Esoteric. My primary intention in writing is not scalability.
If you could choose a career besides writing (irrespective of schooling requirements and/or talent) what would it be?
Ivy Pochoda: Editor of a ‘90s British pop culture magazine. Public defender. Hotdog cart entrepreneur.
Brady Hammes: Wildlife photographer.
Lauren Sandler: I want to front a band. And recently, I think I’d like to be the president.
Tracy O’Neill: Dancer aging into choreographer.
Jenny Zhang: I would want to work in a children’s daycare. I’ve been looking after children ever since I was a child… and I love it.
What craft elements do you think are your strong suit, and what would you like to be better at?
Jenny Zhang: I never properly learned grammar. I still don’t know where commas go. Do I want to be better at it? Only insomuch as I want to stop hearing from annoying people. I probably need to improve in all areas of craft. I don’t imagine I could ever master something completely. Ideally, I will always be curious and open to learning. I like writing that’s hot and alive. Is that a craft element? I don’t enjoy reading things that are cold and lifeless. I think I’m a hot writer. I think my writing is alive. But I could always be hotter, more alive.
Ivy Pochoda: I’m told that I excel at dialogue. I prefer to write place over everything. I’m improving at plot with each book, although it’s been a painful journey and I have a ways to go. I still loathe writing physical descriptions of people. It makes me cringe.
Brady Hammes: I feel like I write pretty sharp dialogue. I have a decent handle on plot. I’m terrible at character descriptions, particularly physical descriptions. My pacing could use some work.
Tracy O’Neill: I do an okay sentence. I would like to plot happiness more compellingly.
Lauren Sandler: I think I’m very good getting people to let me into their lives and open up to me, simply by being around them and opening up myself. That’s how I report. And once there, I think I’m good at simultaneously being in the moment and making meaning of it on a separate track, which carries into the writing.
How do you contend with the hubris of thinking anyone has or should have any interest in what you have to say about anything?
Lauren Sandler: I’m protected a bit from such demons by writing nonfiction about issues I’m infuriated aren’t being adequately discussed. I think I’m plagued more by the notion that my writing won’t compel people to feel the outrage that I do.
Brady Hammes: Given the current state of the world, that’s pretty easy. There are a lot of books out there, and I’m immensely grateful that someone would choose to read mine.
Tracy O’Neill: I’d be more concerned with hubris if I believed myself an expert enough in the Other Mind to predict what others will find compelling.
Jenny Zhang: Wow. This questionnaire is legit! Any way I answer this would make me a fool. And I must be a fool—bloated with delusion and supreme belief in myself—to believe what I have to say is of enough value that people should spend their finite mortal existence reading about it. Do my words and ideas add more beauty or magic to this world? Do they comfort? Do they heal? Do they open up dazzling portals? Do they illuminate? Do they offer nourishment? I don’t know. It feels sleazy to know. Dishonorable even.
Ivy Pochoda: Truthfully? It gets me up in the morning.