Salon's author questionnaire: "Sometimes people say the writing is good to subtly suggest that everything else is bad"

Salon talks to Emily Witt, Jade Chang, Derek Palacio, Deni Ellis Béchard and Melissa Yancy about their new books

Published October 4, 2016 8:11PM (EDT)

For the first round of fall books, I posed a series of questions — with, as always, a few verbal restrictions — to five authors with new books: Jade Chang ("The Wangs vs. the World"); Deni Ellis Béchard ("Into the Sun"); Derek Palacio ("The Mortifications"); Melissa Yancy ("Dog Years"); Emily Witt ("Future Sex").

Without summarizing it in any way, what would you say your book is about?

CHANG: Joy, anger, rebellion; art, comedy, commerce; lovers, siblings, parents; sex, whisky, fried chicken.

WITT: What should you do with your sexual freedom?

YANCY: Medical breakthroughs and the absurdities of modern life, illness (but with jokes!), parents and children, inertia. The book cover is of a blown-up alarm clock from a series by the artist Todd McLellan called "Things Come Apart: A Teardown Manual for Modern Living," and I think it’s the perfect image for a book about how time makes suckers of us all.

PALACIO: Loss without an object & the myth of “home.”

BÉCHARD: Kabul during the civilian surge, the boomtown allure of a war-zone foreign aid bubble, the mercenaries and missionary types, the futility of messianic American narratives in places where they don’t belong, the fraught act of saving someone else when our deepest desire is our own redemption.

Without explaining why and without naming other authors or books, can you discuss the various influences on your book?

BÉCHARD: Living in Kabul, talking with expats, long conversations and meals with Afghans, honing my sense of the absurdity of my goals there, leaving Kabul, going back to Kabul, leaving, going back, still not understanding, starting to get a sense of why I don’t understand, learning to listen.

YANCY: Fetal surgery, facial reconstruction of wounded service members, genetics, the strange and terrifying world of a children’s hospital, scenarios that seem too maudlin for the short form. And some wacky relatives, of course.

PALACIO: My father’s memories, Catholic mysticism, broken families, insufferable gauchos, the joy and madness of organization and/or administrative work, longing, Logos, the Incarnation.

CHANG: The idea that the specific is the universal, the enormous Chinese diaspora, the glamorous side of ambition, Los Angeles as a beginning and an end.

WITT: Existentialism, feminism, technological determinism, “the Californian ideology,” 1960s free love, 1990s futurism, caffeine.

Without using complete sentences, can you describe what was going on in your life as you wrote this book?

PALACIO: PBR, therapy, racquetball-crash, love, running, reading, grad school, the desert, marriage, job, job, job, scotch, fatherhood, therapy, love.

WITT: Solitude, yoga, borrowed apartments, financial anxiety, psychoactive substances, the problem of having sexual relationships while writing a book about sexual exploration.

YANCY: Raising money from the .01 percent, being the dumbest person in the room, getting promotions despite my best efforts, mastering “value-add,” “leverage” and all manner of corporate speak, failing to sell novels, getting wrinkles and gray hair, surviving the 405 freeway, loving pugs and Eagle Rock (my neighborhood).

CHANG: Wait, am I still living in this same apartment?

BÉCHARD: Figuring out how to live in a war zone, traveling, going broke overseas, living in cheap places in India and Africa as I wrote to earn enough to buy a ticket to the next place, getting better at living in war zones, attempting to move back to the U.S. and failing, leaving, returning, figuring out how to live in the U.S.

What are some words you despise that have been used to describe your writing by readers and/or reviewers?

CHANG: There really are no words that I despise. I don’t even mind the universally reviled "moist" — it’s so perfectly descriptive!  But I do feel bad when someone says that they read the book thinking it would be "more like other books about China." If that’s what you’re hoping for then this must feel like a very confusing punch in the face.

PALACIO: Humid, but that’s just because I’m often sweaty.

WITT: I don't despise it but I have been surprised by "dark." I thought I could present myself as an optimist and live the lie and it turns out everyone sees Trent Reznor.

BÉCHARD: Considering how much reviewers are paid these days, I don’t blame them too much for their stock lexicons. “Convoluted” I don’t always care for, though on good days I can see it as a sort of compliment.

YANCY: DeLillo-esque. Okay, no one has ever said — nor will say — that. Sometimes people say the writing is good to subtly suggest that everything else is bad.

If you could choose a career besides writing (irrespective of schooling requirements and/or talent) what would it be?

YANCY: Dancer, rapper, sommelier/winemaker, economist, real estate agent, interior designer, theologian, political speechwriter, neurologist (or just Oliver Sacks). I think about this question Every. Single. Day.

CHANG: My ideal job would be a lifelong rotating apprenticeship, where I get paid magnificently well to work at a different thing every six months! But really, if I had the talent (or if I could even just sing on key), I’d be a singer/songwriter.

WITT: Geologist.

BÉCHARD: Mad scientist with a day job in neuroscience and AI.

PALACIO: Tetchy private eye in a small Midwestern city.

What craft elements do you think are your strong suit, and what would you like to be better at?

WITT: Good at observation, bad at structure.

BÉCHARD: I’m apparently good at convoluted plots, characters, and syntax. Simplicity might be nice to try. I’m not sure I’d enjoy creating it, though, but I’d like to be more at ease with it.

CHANG: I’m not sure this is a craft element, but I think I write things that are pretty fun to read on a sentence level. I’d like to be better at concision.

PALACIO: I can sometimes manufacture a weighty Bible-tone, though it won’t save your spirit. I wish I could do humor, but I take myself too seriously.

YANCY: Interiority is a hallmark of my writing, for better or worse. I’d like to be better at everything else. I’d like to zoom and zigzag through space and time like Munro.

How do you contend with the hubris of thinking anyone has or should have any interest in what you have to say about anything?

YANCY: Donald Trump is a nominee for President. “Keeping up with the Kardashians” is in its twelfth season. That might suggest an inverse relationship between the value of what one has to say and anyone’s actual interest in it. One does hope that there is a small audience who wants (or even needs — that may be a more important standard for me) to hear what you’re saying. But I’ve failed long enough that the act of shaping my life through this medium provides meaning that helps me get through the day. 

CHANG: I’m going to be extra modest and quote myself: “[W]hat is any artist, really, but someone who doesn’t mind being an asshole?” (Yes, it's from "The Wangs vs. the World.:)

WITT: I just sink into that hubris, just let it work for me.

BÉCHARD: When not writing, I look the other way.

PALACIO: Someday Alejandro Iñárittu will turn my novel into an Academy Award-winning film starring Javier Bardem, Rosario Dawson, Christoph Waltz and two young, yet-to-be-discovered Cuban actors. People will want to brag that they read the book first.

By Teddy Wayne