Salon's author questionnaire: 5 authors break down the secret lives of their new books

Salon gets the story behind the books from Edan Lepucki, JoAnna Novak, Edward McPherson, Hala Alyan & Lauren Marks

By Teddy Wayne

Published May 9, 2017 10:58PM (EDT)

For May, I posed a series of questions — with, as always, a few verbal restrictions — to five authors with new books: Hala Alyan ("Salt Houses"), Edan Lepucki ("Woman No. 17"), Lauren Marks ("A Stitch of Time"), Edward McPherson ("The History of the Future"), and frequent Salon contributor JoAnna Novak ("I Must Have You").

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

​JoAnna Novak: The end of the '90s, adolescent orgasms, the Limited Too, Michael Jordan, girl crushes, the allure of suicide, alternatives to body positivity, role models, Lean Cuisines, digestive deviance.

Hala Alyan: Remembering and forgetting; the way place dictates self; love in the wreckage of immigration; how returning can be harder than leaving; Palestine; fortunetelling; inheritance, both literal and psychological; what we are with and without family.

Lauren Marks: Neurological injury, identity, memory. Language and silence. The ties that bind.

Edan Lepucki: women, mothering and being mothered, female friendships, art, drinking, sex, Los Angeles, silence, the Internet, trauma, damage, jokes, a white bunny, two Scrabble tiles, and dick pics.

Edward McPherson: JFK, J.R. Ewing, Big Tex, pump jacks, gas flares, fracking, man camps stretching into empty prairie, dinosaur bones, the Badlands, asteroid impacts, climate change, nuclear winters, fern spikes, deserts, missiles, fallout patterns, the last astronaut to step on the moon, our plans to nuke the moon, the Gateway Arch, the 1904 World’s Fair, gated neighborhoods, Pruitt-Igoe, urban prairies, ruin porn, segregation, whiteness, the suburbs, Black Lives Matter, old New York, tunnels, nostalgia, 9-11, the Twin Towers, the pneumatic subway, Joan Didion, Walt Whitman, daguerreotypes, the battle of Gettysburg, the battle of L.A., monuments, the weight of history, tombs, the Cold War, atomic tests, the Terminator, RoboCop, bunkers, earthquakes, tornados, tsunamis, floods, mushroom clouds, my family, my friends, all of this and all of us together.

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

McPherson: See above. Also, a line attributed to a here unnamed poet: “You are not writing necessarily about your life, but you are all the time writing from your life."

Lepucki: Where Sunset Plaza Drive meets Hollywood Blvd. in Los Angeles; the artwork of Sophie Calle, Cindy Sherman, Francesca Woodman; Diane Arbus, Elinor Carucci, and Sally Mann; a certain house in Laurel Canyon I stayed in one summer when I was 25; the hideous non-fashion fashion of Berkeley, CA; the film "Mulholland Drive"; French 75s; my mother's walk-in closet; Twitter; the Santa Anas; the sounds of coyotes at night; vintage Volvos; my Maltese Omar Little; my husband's chest hair.

Alyan: Passports; the dilapidated balconies of Beirut; the smell of hashish and saltwater; my grandmother’s voice reading Quran; cardboard moving boxes; learning a new alphabet; my family’s stories.

Novak: Twenty-two years ago, my fourth grade Language Arts teacher, Ms. Monte, put a four-feet long piece of masking tape on the ground in the classroom. It was supposed to represent the distance a character in a story leapt between icebergs. We took turns trying to make the jump. I was a really unathletic kid, but when it was my turn, I got from one end of the tape to the other. My classmates clapped for me, but I looked at them, angry, and said, "You thought I couldn't jump."

Marks: The problems of perception, the benefits of delusion, the trickiness of translation — especially when it addresses autobiographical artifacts. Curiosity in all forms. The sounds and smells of Los Angeles, New York, Edinburgh, London, and Beirut must be swirling beneath the text too — whatever crept through the open window, while I sat at a desk, squinting at a screen.

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

Marks: Early on: Brain surgeries, bone saws, wordlessness. Later: Long-distance love, up-close marriage, childbirth.

Lepucki: The toddler becomes a boy; the writing group christens itself The Hugging Party; writing for the deer outside my window in Wyoming; coffee, chocolate, coffee, chocolate; ants in my office; alarm going off at 5:30 am to write or work-out, never enough time for all I want to do; pregnant; rock-hard milk boobs; baby girl in the bassinet, boy in kindergarten; dogs outside barking, barking; glasses of Prosecco; get off the Internet, Edan; feed the baby; so tired when is it bedtime? 

Alyan: Addiction and sobriety; falling in love; anxiety; falling in love harder; my grandmother losing her memory; writing a dissertation; cutting bangs too many times; Syria; sitting across from countless therapy patients; discovering a love for dancing to no music; being told not to talk about Palestine.

Novak: Wearing my down coat indoors; turning and being thirty; lots of spinning classes; teaching sixteen classes at different colleges, writing test questions, writing listicles; reading Adam Begley Jr.'s "Updike"; almost finishing "Moby-Dick (mostly writing out paragraphs); reading "To the Lighthouse"; listening to Third Eye Blind "Graduate" on Repeat; watching Kurt Cobain's hair sway; going on the academic job market; swearing off online shopping; eating frozen yogurt; half-assing the goop detox; recording my weight daily; no-netting life (no therapist); closing my eyes; walking my dog around a small town where she had people-friends at the bank and the pet store and a secondhand music shop called Replay; pacing the Holyoke Mall; running through the woods; telling myself to work harder; reading inscriptions on the walls in my apartment that reminded men were building four-story grain mills out of bricks in the 1830s; driving all over Massachusetts; cooking from "Jerusalem"; having panic attacks, taking baths.

McPherson: New town, new job, kid-raising, teaching, traveling, worrying, reading, worrying, worrying.

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

Alyan: Anyone willing to read it is entitled to use whatever adjectives they want. 

Marks: Inspiring. Recovered.

McPherson: A reviewer once called something I wrote “a catalog of many unnecessary details” (in a review that itself got many details wrong). Sure, I can get unproductively lost in a subject, but I remain a great believer in the aesthetic beauty of a fact (however you define one). That pleasure — of finding something in the wild that rings a bell in your brain, of happening upon a piece of information that makes the humdrum mouth-breathing baseline of my day-to-day experience spring alive in unexpected ways — that is a feeling I want to go chasing every day.

Lepucki: I really don't like the word "unbelievable."

Novak: "Opaque." It's one of those words that really breaks down the more you speak it out loud.

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

Lepucki: pop star; lifestyle blogger; midwife; psychic; couple's therapist; kindergarten teacher.

Novak: Fashion designer? Someone paid to wear beautiful clothes and read, moodily? Maybe a cursive instructor? A pastry chef who champions sugar and gluten? I like dying arts.

Marks: Providing services for unheard voices. This could be in an artistic environment, like a podcast etc, or in much more direct ways, like working inside of therapeutic centers and/or charities.

McPherson: Astronaut, sandhog, subway driver, pilot, private eye, soccer player, bartender, clockmaker.

Alyan: Probably filmmaking or photography. Ooh, getting to work on "Planet Earth" would be amazing. I also wish I never stopped playing the viola.

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

McPherson: Stuff I might pull off okay: research, reporting, synthesis, juxtaposition, writing from a kind of angsty, self-critical fearlessness — or, wait, is that just called foolhardiness? I also have a ruthless first reader (my wife, a writer). Things I could work on: concision (who wants long bad-news essays?), monomania, a tendency to go down the rabbit hole and never come up.

Lepucki: I think I'm good at writing complicated characters who feel real to the reader, and that I can tell compelling stories — so, plot. I've got some solid descriptions up my sleeve. I can write funny and I can write sad, and I hope I'm good at writing the funny-sad. I would like to write a book that doesn't take place in a 6-week time span; in other words, I would like to be able to capture time on the page in a more sophisticated manner. I'd also like to write something that has a strong story line but which has a less intuitive structure . . . whatever that means . . .

Alyan: I’m told I do all right with the subject of cities and place. I wish I could be better at dialogue. It takes me so long to develop it.

Novak: I'm always working on plotting, developing story- or novel-sized conflicts, and balancing action with description. I write poems, too, so my prose is often image-driven and voicey — sometimes that feels like a strength.

Marks: I fall in love with details and research, and I can lose a sense of pacing — this book could easily have been 100 pages longer if I didn't have such good editors. My sense of momentum could be stronger, in general. On the plus side? I know this might sound strange from someone who lives with a language disorder (aphasia), but I really like dialogue. Working on that never feels laborious. 

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

Novak: By swearing off social media. Also: by reminding myself of the artists and writers who have mattered to me and remembering their humanity, their efforts, their successes, their failures. By repeating this Melville quote: "I am in earnest, and I will try."

Alyan: I don’t think I’m entitled to interest or readership, which makes it all the more thrilling (and surreal) when it happens.

McPherson: I quiet the demons of self-doubt with Tex-Mex food, barbecue, bourbon, Czech pilsners, candy, friends, family, reading the work of others, and the very minor consolation that I’m not committing the obvious sins (polluting, fracking, killing, foreclosing, etc.).

Lepucki: Maybe because I am the very oldest of the Millennial generation, I don't worry about this — why not have interest in my work? People spend hours of their lives sharing their voice . . . describing their latest FroYo experience, perhaps — and other people spend hours of their lives reading these descriptions! The world needs all kinds of novels, and mine are one kind.

Marks: Well, many people who survive a ruptured brain aneurysm tend to have their language hugely compromised. So other people end up telling their story for them, either a doctor or a caregiver. I am under no illusions that my book can speak for everyone, because every case of aphasia is different. But I'm a strong supporter of self-advocacy and very drawn to the ideas behind "narrative medicine." It's important to take in as much relevant scientific research as possible, and people will always have limitations in understanding some aspects of their own medical condition. However, we can't expect an outsider perspective to mirror the soul of someone who is actually living with that condition. All case studies are valuable, but whenever it's available, we should also pay attention to the ones written by the patient herself.

Teddy Wayne

Teddy Wayne is the author of the novels "Loner," "Kapitoil" and "The Love Song of Jonny Valentine."

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