For August, I posed a series of questions — with, as always, a few verbal restrictions — to five authors with new books: Alex Gilvarry ("Eastman Was Here"), Bruce Handy ("Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children's Literature as an Adult"), Carolyn Murnick ("The Hot One"), Tom Perrotta ("Mrs. Fletcher") and Shawn Wen ("A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause").
Without summarizing it in any way, what would you say your book is about?
Tom Perrotta: Identity, sexuality, internet porn, gender fluidity, college hijinks and midlife melancholia.
Alex Gilvarry: Love, ego, sex, breaking up, infidelity, getting back together, more infidelity.
Shawn Wen: Movement, expression, death, the body, evasion, obsessiveness, materialism, pomp and sad clowns.
Bruce Handy: Discovery. Delight in discovery. Finding beauty, wit, insight and occasional shocks where you might not have thought to look. Secondary theme: being amused by some of the horrible things our ancestors liked.
Carolyn Murnick: Female friendship, patriarchy, sex, loss, media narratives, the myth of closure, growing up, definitely not Ashton Kutcher.
Without explaining why and without naming other authors or books, can you discuss the various influences on your book?
Murnick: “The beautiful dead girl” trope, Adderall, my first writing group, Los Angeles, 9/11, my second writing group, bike commuting, Tinder, my third writing group, lattes, 109th street, leggings as pants.
Handy: The fascination of dog parties. The longing for transportive tornadoes and snowy, backless wardrobes. Klickitat Street. A dead spider. My second-grade teacher, Mrs. Anastasia. My fourth-grade teacher, Mr. Brown. My children, Zoë and Isaac. Bedtime.
Wen: VHS tapes, the Bible, radio, old men, egotism, creeps, makeup, distance, walking around Paris.
Perrotta: Amateur porn, Fountains of Wayne, "Freaks and Geeks," Facebook, Prince.
Gilvarry: A lot of movies. American films of the 1970s like "Midnight Cowboy" and "Kramer vs. Kramer." Tu Do Street and the Continental Hotel, back when it was Saigon. All overcrowded Southeast Asian cities, for that matter. Old photos of Times Square back when it was an ashtray. Music of this period too, Country Joe and the Fish, CCR. John Fogerty belting out a wail.
Without using complete sentences, can you describe what was going on in your life as you wrote this book?
Gilvarry: Massive breakup, then crack-up. Career crisis. Started smoking. Five years quitting smoking. Develop Alopecia, visible hair loss on face and head. Healing. Mask in book.
Handy: "The Sopranos," "Mad Men," "Breaking Bad," "Girls," "Stranger Things." A day job. Tuitions. Two presidential elections. A long gestation/writing process, many distractions. Bad cats.
Wen: Traveling alone, a sprained ankle, uncertainty, death of a friend, feeling seen, sex, purchasing my first bottle of perfume, the recession, learning to let go a little, learning to cook, long nights in bars with friends.
Murnick: Turning 30, working at New York magazine, aging out of Williamsburg, Mad Men, Instagram, friends having kids, avocado toast, rompers, friends leaving New York, turning 35, finding love, cohabitation, home ownership, midi-length dresses, Hillary’s campaign.
Perrotta: TV show. Empty nest. Venice Beach. Involuntary AARP membership.
What are some words you despise that have been used to describe your writing by readers and/or reviewers?
Wen: I wouldn’t say “despise,” but I cracked up when a reviewer called my book “whimsical.” It opens with the Holocaust.
Perrotta: Bubbly, frothy, effervescent — anything that sounds like a soft-drink commercial.
Gilvarry: Unsympathetic, preening, flat affect, wan. This is all from one Kirkus review. Who says "wan"? Tell me.
Handy: "Breezy." "Snarky." "Plangent." (Okay, two out of three.)
Murnick: “Honest,” or even worse, “brutally honest.” Because, 1. How would they know? and 2. it feels like a weird memoir catchall term that’s shorthand for someone thinking what you’re revealing about yourself is unflattering, which, ok, but what does that have to do with the work?
If you could choose a career besides writing (irrespective of schooling requirements and/or talent) what would it be?
Handy: Mid-century jazz or jazz-pop singer. I wish I had Nat "King" Cole Jr.'s voice, or Frank Sinatra's. Can you imagine opening your own mouth and having that come out? I'd swap sexes to sound like Sarah Vaughan or Dinah Washington. Doris Day! Also, when you hear a great jazz singer it so often sounds effortless — I know it's not, that there's all kinds of craft and apprenticeship and discipline involved — but I love that sense of ease combined with command that a lot of singers project, that sense of refined spontaneity. Those qualities are on my wish list for my prose, since no one is letting me into Capitol's Studio A anytime soon.
Gilvarry: I want to run an interesting small business. My wife and I talk about opening a broth shop. Or books and broth. Or suds and buds, a beer bar and laundromat. Does that exist? Probably.
Perrotta: Big-city mayor.
What craft elements do you think are your strong suit, and what would you like to be better at?
Perrotta: Strong suit: Chapter Titles. Needs Work: Footnotes.
Murnick: I think I’m good at making compelling cliffhanger sentences at the end of chapters and sections that drive things forward. The hardest for me is structure. Throughout writing "The Hot One," I never ended up developing my own color-coded note card/paper-clip and clothespin/dry-erase board flow-chart plotting system you always hear authors saying was their saving grace. Maybe next time?
Wen: I have an ear for dialog and the rhythm of a text. I’m good at collage, and so I rely on this technique a lot. I’m not great at rich, descriptive prose. I’m jealous of those winding sentences that you can get lost in. And these are only the craft elements within my lane: I have no idea how to start in on a work of fiction. Like, I wouldn’t know where to begin choosing a name for a character.
Gilvarry: I'm good at the ugly sentence. I can find humor there, beauty sometimes. Dialogue and plot — can write pages of that stuff. I would like to become less reliant on plots. It's a novel so it’s not always necessary, yet I can't help myself. Weaning off plot and working on discipline. That's where I'm at.
Handy: I'm good at structure, at finding a narrative, whether it's a literal, temporal one, or a conceptual one. My prose is lively and has rhythm. I can be thoughtful and entertaining at the same time. Bad: My desire/ability to entertain can veer into glibness. Easy jokes are a temptation not always avoided. I'm addicted to "not only . . . but also" constructions and other prose tics and rhetorical fallbacks.
How do you contend with the hubris of thinking anyone has or should have any interest in what you have to say about anything?
Murnick: A woman telling her own story is a feminist act. The rest I don’t think about.
Wen: I don’t have this problem.
Handy: For me, hubris is a double-edged sword. Sometimes, I don't think I have enough of it. I end up over-researching almost everything I write — not only because I'm procrastinating but also because it helps me create an illusion of mastery, which then allows me to proceed. At the same time, I strive to ensure that my writing is informed by the possibility that people might respectfully disagree with me, or worse.
Gilvarry: I begin to think of my writing as an entertainment, first. Like Graham Greene's "entertainments." Those are the books I like of his most. And the ideas and meaning will be there, within the entertainment, and the reader can take or leave them. I think the hubris comes in thinking that my ideas are very important. That's the writer getting in the way of the story. Don't do that. I try not to believe that my ideas and my language are too important. They are at the service of the story.
Perrotta: Salon asked me to fill out this questionnaire.