For June, I posed a series of questions—with, as always, a few verbal restrictions—to five authors with new books: Zinzi Clemmons ("What We Lose"), Rachel Khong ("Goodbye, Vitamin"), Paul Lynch ("Grace"), Brian Platzer ("Bed-Stuy Is Burning") and Daniel Riley ("Fly Me").
Without summarizing it in any way, what would you say your book is about?
Paul Lynch: Life and death.
Zinzi Clemmons: Racism, race, identity, grief, illness, womanhood, motherhood, and the connections between those things.
Daniel Riley: Southern California, the seventies, stewardesses, sisters, skyjacking. Also: how people act when they’re squeezed or pushed over the edge.
Brian Platzer: The individuals who profit and suffer from gentrification. Also: selfishness, family, and God.
Rachel Khong: Remembering and forgetting, the past and the present (not the future), romantic failure, failure generally, being a grown-up child, being a grown-up period, loving an asshole, trying to be okay.
Without explaining why and without naming other authors or books, can you discuss the various influences on your book?
Khong: Laundromats, giant goldfish, Lucinda Williams, YouTube videos on how to prank people, "Only Angels Have Wings," babies and dogs in parks in San Francisco, winter in Southern California, ask.metafilter.com/human-relations, black coffee, not having any money.
Platzer: Neighbors. Wife. Parents. Grad school writing professor. But mostly former NYC police commissioner Bill Bratton. He’s by all accounts an effective commissioner, but he talks about people as though they’re data points. It freaks me out.
Lynch: The profound silence that is the Great Irish famine.
Riley: The planes that take off from LAX over Santa Monica Bay. The music that came out of Laurel Canyon in the early seventies. The films of Paul Thomas Anderson. The group of women who helped raise me at the beach.
Clemmons: Formally and intellectually, the book is thoroughly deconstructionist. I take up many concepts and genres in order to pick them apart and break them down. When it comes to influences, I’m a sponge. I combine many various forms: nonfiction, poetry, auto fiction, visual art, song lyrics, text messages, hypertext even. I borrow from writers in any and all genres.
Without using complete sentences, can you describe what was going on in your life as you wrote this book?
Riley: One city (New York). One job (at a magazine). A bunch of plane flights and train rides and books. Two young women. The death of my dad.
Clemmons: Transition. Many low points. Loss of: parent, job, direction, relationships. Wrote my way out of it.
Platzer: Mostly, the undiagnosable neurological disorder that brought with it dizziness, blurry vision, imbalance, medications, nightmares, chiropractors, acupuncturists, herbalists, physical therapists, vestibular therapists, neurologists, psychologists, psychiatrists, ENT’s, quack diets, and incredible love from family and close friends.
Lynch: Listen you — hey — listen up listen you — leave me be — listen listen listen listen listen — why can’t I hear me — why can’t you hear me — where voice — listen listen listen listen…
Khong: Florida panhandle, alcoholic ex, embarrassing heartbreak, cross-country relocation, new-old city, new-old romance, unemployment, overemployment, too much stone fruit, trying to be okay.
What are some words you despise that have been used to describe your writing by readers and/or reviewers?
Khong: Quick. Maybe quick for you, buddy, but this thing took seven years of my life!
Riley: “Like he just got out of a writing program” (I didn’t go to a writing program)
Lynch: I ask that you do not call my novels “historical fiction.” There is not such thing as historical fiction. All new fiction is contemporary.
Clemmons: “Well-written” is the ultimate lukewarm compliment, which I’ve hated since grad school. Honestly, I can’t disagree with any descriptors on their own, only those used over-simplistically. The book is many things, not any one thing alone.
If you could choose a career besides writing (irrespective of schooling requirements and/or talent) what would it be?
Platzer: Supreme Court justice or counselor at Lake Owego Camp for Boys.
Riley: Commercial airline pilot; general manager of the Dodgers
Khong: Marine biologist.
Lynch: Do librarians/booksellers find time to read books?
Clemmons: President of the United States. I’ve got some good ideas and something tells me there will be an opening soon.
What craft elements do you think are your strong suit, and what would you like to be better at?
Lynch: A novel lives or dies at the level of the sentence. This is a problem that keeps me occupied. (While searching ruthlessly for my own weaknesses).
Clemmons: I’m good at the unexpected take, at saying things that haven’t been said, things people are afraid to say. I’m good at innovation. I could say I’m terrible at plot-building (that’s pretty obvious), pretty allergic to linear narrative, character development somewhat. I don’t know if I need to improve my skill with those elements, or just double down on what I’m already doing well, and do it better. I don’t think that every writer needs to do everything well, but rather carve out a niche and perfect it.
Riley: I like shooting for the right mix of plot and written-ness. May not be for everyone, but I think I’ve figured out how to do the mix I like most. I absolutely could and should write shorter; everyone appreciates a short book.
Platzer: I think I’m decent at building momentum and good at letting readers in on what I see as most people’s instinct to look out for their family and themselves above all else. I struggle with analogies, similes, and metaphors. I like to describe things as they are. But sometimes I need a good comparison, know it exists, and can’t get there.
Khong: I’m pretty good, I hope, at pacing and emotional dosage. I’d like to be better at making stuff happen. Murder, et cetera.
How do you contend with the hubris of thinking anyone has or should have any interest in what you have to say about anything?
Clemmons: I never thought that, and it never occurred to me to. Rather, I think it’s my job to interest them.
Platzer: An interest in what I have to say should be secondary to the desire to be entertained. If readers are enjoying themselves, it’s just icing on the (bad metaphor) cake if they come away influenced by my vision of the world.
Riley: I get to the office of my day job early and answer copy queries on fashion tips until I forget the book exists.
Lynch: I, Paul Lynch the author, wish not to exist. Grace Coyle, however, does exist and in the sum total of her life’s events, she is judging you.
Khong: I’d like more hubris, actually, please. My friend Rupa once showed me a tote bag: Carry yourself with the confidence of a mediocre white man.