For February, I posed a series of questions — with, as always, a few verbal restrictions — to four authors with new books: Danielle Dutton (“Margaret the First”), Kaitlyn Greenidge (“We Love You, Charlie Freeman”), Jon Methven (“Strange Boat”), Karan Mahajan (“The Association of Small Bombs”).
Without summarizing it in any way, what would you say your book is about?
Daniel Dutton: It’s a little like "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" if Stephen were a woman living at a time when women weren't allowed to be artists.
Kaitlyn Greenidge: My book is about language, family and the reverberations of the past.
Jon Methven: The immensity of the end—be it a career, or relationship, or faith, or mortgage, or life, or all of them—and then deciding to survive, no matter the obstacle. It’s a book about survival.
Karan Mahajan: Bombs.
Without explaining why and without naming other authors or books, can you discuss the various influences on your book?
Mahajan: Mahler. Max Richter. Americanos (the coffee, not the people). The Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Bangalore. The Indian railway system.
Dutton: Seventeenth-century garden design. The New Science. Men. Utopias. Wonder. Weather. Gossip. Maps. The Great Fire of London. Cristina, the (cross-dressing) Queen of Sweden. Seventeenth-century cookery and fashion.
Greenidge: My book is influenced by the tragedy of the limits of language.
Methven: A cross-country road trip, the 24-hour news cycle, cults, government surveillance, Armageddon, constant fundraisers, space colonization, marching bands.
Without using complete sentences, can you describe what was going on in your life as you wrote this book?
Methven: The birth of my sons, day job, an illness, Mars One, New York City, happiness.
Dutton: Grad school. Adjuncting. First house. Baby. Full-time job. No sleep. Dorothy, a publishing project. Academic job market. Job. Second house.
Greenidge: Trials, tribulations and my Saturn return.
Mahajan: Turmoil. Revision. Restless switching between India and the U.S., between New York and Bangalore, between Austin and Delhi. Meditation.
What are some words you despise that have been used to describe your writing by readers and/or reviewers?
Greenidge: Readable, entertaining, accessible. I worked very hard to make the book all of those things but I think reviewers use those words sometimes to mean "dumb" or "not very serious" or "fluffy." No one has suggested that my book is dumb, far from it. But I find it disturbing that some critics of literary fiction look suspiciously on the desire to communicate with a reader.
Mahajan: Apparently, the city of Delhi is a “character” in my novels. I’d argue that it’s a … city … in my novels.
Dutton: I like words too much! I don’t blame the words.
Methven: Overdone. Slapstick. Ugh. Painfully bad. The last was from an editor who opened a Yahoo! account, jmethvenwillneverwrite4XXX@yahoo.com, solely to send one email of how much he hated my writing. He promised he would never check the account so not to reply.
If you could choose a career besides writing (irrespective of schooling requirements and/or talent) what would it be?
Methven: I make excellent sandwiches. Yo-Yo Ma is to cellists as I am to processed meats. Just a small, quaint, out-of-the-way deli where people from around the world would come to photograph my sandwich sculptures.
Greenidge: Secretary of education in the United States (provided I had unilateral powers and could work as a benevolent dictator). It is heartbreaking what sometimes happens to education in this country. Our greatest asset is the potential of free, quality, public education for all, regardless of race and class, and I think it should be protected and promoted at all costs. That sounds very authoritarian, but we live in extremist times, I guess.
Mahajan: Urban planner.
Dutton: I’d choose a job that wasn’t as solitary as writing. My entire girlhood I wanted to be an actress, but I think really I wanted to be part of a cast. Or maybe I just wanted to be the characters I loved. I wanted to be Jane Eyre. Or Antigone. Today I’m tired and cold, so I would like to be Lady Mary and live at Downton Abbey and have Anna come and warm my nightgown before the fire.
What craft elements do you think are your strong suit, and what would you like to be better at?
Mahajan: I’m good at description and imparting flow to a story, but I don’t necessarily understand the value of long scenes. Maybe I’d like to be more boring?
Methven: I have a good imagination, so my ideas result in fun hooks for stories. I probably need work on dialogue, plot, setting, character, structure, etc.
Dutton: I don't know if you'd call it craft, but one thing I like about my writing is that everything I write is totally different from everything else I write. One result is that I never get too expert at anything, and the thing I wanted to get better at changes all the time.
Greenidge: I wish I was better at dialogue. Or rather, that it came more naturally to me. It always reads false, even in the fifth or sixth draft. I think I'm pretty good at writing a certain kind of first person.
How do you contend with the hubris of thinking anyone has or should have any interest in what you have to say about anything?
Greenidge: Ha, that is a pretty combative question, isn't it? I don't think anyone should have interest in what anyone has to say, per se. No one is waiting for your next great novel with bated breath. I don't write with that in mind: that someone should have to listen to me. I write mostly about things that interest me, that I find fascinating. I write toward things that I long to see in literature and that I feel are missing. I write in response to books that infuriate or enthrall me. I don't write with the belief that the world is waiting eagerly for me to inflict my opinions on it.
Mahajan: I put my thoughts in a book, which must mean I don’t want anyone to read them.
Dutton: Oh, the world is large. It contains multitudes. If there are people on the planet who care what Donald Trump says, why not people who care what I have to say? But also: I don’t think of a novel as something I’m saying about something. I think a novel is more complicated and magical than that.
Methven: My first novel was about celebrity semen trafficking, so I’m not claiming to be a pundit on anything. There are so many great books and essays and websites, it’s an honor when anyone reads or writes about something I’ve written.