Salon's author questionnaire: 7 things you didn't know about 5 writers

Salon talks to Christopher Bollen, Gabe Habash, Jennifer Kitses, Catherine Lacey and Pamela Paul

Published June 7, 2017 6:00PM (EDT)

 (Harper Collins Publishers; Coffee House Press;  Grand Central Publishing; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Henry Holt and Co.)
(Harper Collins Publishers; Coffee House Press; Grand Central Publishing; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Henry Holt and Co.)

For June, I posed a series of questions—with, as always, a few verbal restrictions—to five authors with new books: Christopher Bollen ("The Destroyers"), Gabe Habash ("Stephen Florida"), Jennifer Kitses ("Small Hours"), Catherine Lacey ("The Answers") and Pamela Paul ("My Life with Bob").

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

Christopher Bollen: Wealth and the dangers of inherited wealth, the strange ecosystems that pockets of money give rise to, vacations and escape, beauty, seduction, carelessness, the Apocalypse, childhood friendships, the dangers of good intentions.

Catherine Lacey: Love; debt; emotional debts between those who love or have loved each other; certainty and uncertainty; perfection.

Pamela Paul: It's about the space between book and reader — about how what we read infiltrates our lives and how our lives lead us to certain books. And in my case, it's about how a life of reading through college, life abroad in Thailand, London and Paris, marriage, divorce, remarriage, three children and a job immersed in books at The New York Times. It's about why we read.

Gabe Habash: Death and wrestling.

Jennifer Kitses: Self-delusion, repressed anger, sliding down the economic ladder, blind optimism in the face of reality, a longing to be free of all constraints: schedules, deadlines, expectations. 

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

Lacey: Being confronted on a dark Brooklyn street by a woman who was very angry at the man I was with; being “rolfed;” the very idea of Soylent; a growing sense of dread about the our collective addiction to technology.

Kitses: Explosive encounters with strangers, sleep-deprivation, working as a newswire reporter, muscle-building fitness supplements, unintended ways of starting a family, former mill towns in the Hudson Valley and Massachusetts.

Paul: The Hudson River, a faulty memory, the galley room at The New York Times Book Review, a beach in the Dominican Republic, Paris in November 2015, sleeplessness.

Bollen: Vacations and, in particular, summers on the Greek island of Patmos, the Book of Revelation, rich friends in New York, chess, childhood games, Internet infamy, the aesthetics and geopolitics (not always in that order) of the Aegean Sea.

Habash: North Dakota, pervasive yet inexplicable dread, dick and fart jokes, college, LeBron James.

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

Paul: Three medium-sized children, the election.

Bollen: Turned forty, cabin in the Berkshires, day job at Interview, addictive chess app, travel/sit and write, travel/sit and write.

Lacey: A bad break-up then getting back together; being determined to “make it work;" marriage; divorce; love again.

Habash: YouTube, rejections, running, work, silence.

Kitses: Caring for very young children, freelancing, trying out classes at boxing gyms, buying our family’s first apartment and moving to Jackson Heights, Queens.

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

Kitses: “Unintentional humor.” If it’s in there, it’s intentional.

Bollen: Any derivation of “far-fetched” or “implausible” is a thorn in my side. Yes, creating a fictional universe is, in many ways, a confidence trick—if the reader finds your scenario implausible, it might just indicate that you haven’t laid the narrative’s foundations convincingly enough. That said, we contemporary readers seem to expect our fiction to follow more stringent rules of plausibility than reality itself follows. Coincidence, oddity, and accidents do have a heavy presence in our lives, and yet we deplore them when introduced in realist novels. You can travel halfway around the world to find that a neighbor is staying in the same hotel as you are, but put that in a story and the reader groans.  

Lacey: I haven't yet felt so pigeonholed.

Habash: After it becomes a physical object, I feel like the book is not mine anymore, so readers and reviewers are free to describe it however they want. Obviously as a writer you want someone to thoughtfully engage with the work; this is preferred to someone who just flops out a surface assessment. But it's not worth your time to worry about it once it's out of your control.

Paul: I've never been described as a "lyrical" writer and I hope and feel confident that I never will.

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

Habash: Professional basketball player and/or drummer.

Paul: Cabaret singer, political cartoonist.

Lacey: Spy.

Bollen: Someone recently asked me when it was that I felt confident enough in my writing that I could rely on it as a career. The truth is, I never have. I’m always on the hunt for second, third, or fourth careers. Private detective and cinematographer were previous career choices, but now that I’m older I think I’d be a good portrait painter, rug merchant, or florist.

Kitses: Therapist. Though I’m not sure I would be a good one, since I have too many anxieties of my own.

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

Kitses: I think I’m good at building tension. Also, I truly love developing minor characters. I’d like to get more confident with first person, so that it feels as natural as third person.

Paul: Cutting out words is my strong suit. I'm good at killing entire chapters. I'd like to be better at retrieving interesting quotes and facts from the recesses of my brain and inserting them into my text in illuminating ways.

Bollen: No one who considers themselves “literary” would admit this, but I will: I’m pretty damn good at plot. I think in stories, and stories aren’t static creatures. I will never, ever understand our literary world’s ongoing hatred of plot (there’s a body count to "The Great Gatsby" for a reason). What I would like to be better at is concision. I’m amazed by those writers who can do in 200 pages what I need double the room to accomplish (I have eight more sentences on this point, but I’m trying to be concise here).

Habash: I'm better at writing about negative things than positive things, so I'd like to be able to better articulate the good stuff. One can always be funnier and more surprising.

Lacey: I don't think of craft in such terms. If I am motivated and clear, I make work that I think is strong. When I am muddled and confused, so is the work.

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

Paul: Many others before me have done the same.

Bollen: It’s the whole idea of the book being wiser than the person who wrote it. None of the novels I’ve written are direct transcriptions of me blathering over dinner with a glass of wine in my hand. I don’t hold any illusion of those conversations being of particular value. The books, though, are — I hope — bigger than my opinions, investigations that go beyond my own intellect or wit. You know, like Socrates’ daemon who’s really into boats, New York, and people in a pinch.

Habash: I assume everyone won't, so it's very nice when someone does.

Kitses: I guess I’ve managed not to worry about that! I don’t think anyone should.

Lacey: Say as little as possible.

By Teddy Wayne

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Authors Books Catherine Lacey Christopher Bollen Gabe Habash Jennifer Kitses Pamela Paul