“I love the blank page because for me anything can happen there.” – Roxane Gay
"Authenticity matters." That's what Roxane Gay has learned in her career as a writer, which means she's as comfortable--and eloquent--writing about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing as she is rhapsodizing about her crush on the actor Channing Tatum. Equally skilled as a fiction and nonfiction writer, reviewer, and editor, Gay's work has appeared in Salon, The New York Times Book Review, The Nation, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. She's the essays editor for The Rumpus and co-editor of PANK, a literary collective. Her novel An Untamed State is due out from Grove Atlantic in May, followed in August by Bad Feminist, a collection of essays to be published by Harper Perennial. We spoke with Gay be telephone about what makes a great essay, the obsession that drives her work, and, of course, Channing Tatum.
NEA: What do you remember as your earliest experience of the arts?
ROXANE GAY: I've been writing since I was four years old. I've always been engaged with the arts. My parents, my mother in particular was very much invested in making sure her children were well-rounded so she took us to museums and concerts and musicals and always made sure that we got to experience culture.
NEA: What was your journey to becoming a professional writer?
GAY: I always wanted to become a writer as a professional, and it's only in the past five years that it felt like it could be a viable option. But it's something I always did through high school and college. But I just also thought, okay, I have to get a real job. But I kept working at it and working at it. I got my PhD and started teaching and realized I am living the life of a writer. So it was just an evolution over time.
NEA: What would you say are some of your obsessions, the questions you look at in your writing whether you're writing fiction or non-fiction?
GAY: I find that I'm always trying to answer the same questions. If I look at a lot of my fiction and nonfiction, I'm very concerned with the lives of women and the experiences of women and the injustices and the joys that women face. I love telling complex stories about women as fully fleshed out and nuanced people. My nonfiction tries to address a lot of these issues with a sense of urgency that is different than that in my fiction. But I definitely have obsessions and, if you look at all of my writing, you can see I'm kind of telling the same story over and over, but I don't even feel like apologizing for that. It's a story that remains endlessly interesting to me.
NEA: How does your work as a fiction writer inform you work as a nonfiction writer and vice versa?
GAY: My fiction definitely informs my nonfiction in that I know the importance of telling a story, of having a shape to the story, that there has to be a beginning, a middle, and an end. You have to lead the reader through, and you have to find ways of holding their interest. There has to be a core of truth no matter what you're doing. My nonfiction definitely informs my fiction by encouraging me to want to get it right, so to speak. Authenticity matters.
NEA: What do you think characterizes a successful essay?
GAY: I think a great essay is one that looks both inward and outward. There's a sense of the writer exploring a personal question but it's also invested in making sure that that exploration is relevant to the reader. The word "essay" means "to try" in French. A good essay also, I think, shows the reader how the writer is trying to come to a certain understanding or persuade the reader about something or excavate some kind of emotional topic. So it's really about the attempt and finding ways to reach the reader in addition to exploring... themselves.
NEA: Can you share some nonfiction writers whom you admire, or who have deeply influenced your work?
GAY: I love Cheryl Strayed, in terms of nonfiction. Her essay "The Love of My Life" remains a touchstone for me. I love the nonfiction of Zadie Smith. I think it's lucid and elegant and witty and it always just makes me want to become smarter when I read her work. I think James Baldwin was doing some really interesting things with the essay when he was alive. He's not a writer without his complications, particularly when it comes to writing women, but I still admire what he was trying to do in his work.
NEA: Can you say a little bit more about what you mean by "the interesting things" Baldwin was trying to do?
GAY: He was definitely, I think, creating a space for black expression and for a different kind of black expression than what we had previously seen. He was a black man and he was not going to apologize or write around that in any way. And I really admire that because I think that gave a lot of writers an opportunity to really believe in themselves.
Actually,that reminds me of another nonfiction writer I love who is Kiese Laymon. He had an essay collection out last year called How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, and he, to me, seems to be someone who has demonstrated Baldwin's legacy but also how someone can learn from that legacy and become even greater than the inspiration. So I love his work!
NEA: What does it mean to you to be a woman writer and also to be a writer of color?
GAY: I'm a writer. And I also happen to be a person of color and I happen to be a woman. I no longer try to distance myself from those labels. It's just who I am. It's how I see the world, it's how I move through the world. So, of course, my writing will sometimes reflect that. It's part of my identity but I'm still a writer. These are just facts of life. I have no need or interest in separating myself from these facts. But it's not the sum of what I'm about or what I write about either. And I think all too often women and writers of color are pigeon-holed and they're forced to carry certain labels. I reject that.
NEA: I recently read an interview in which you talked about the sense of surprise you felt with An Untamed State when you realized one of your characters was more central to the story than you’d initially thought. Do the same sorts of surprises happen when you’re writing nonfiction pieces?
GAY: In nonfiction the surprise always come when I come to the realization that I'm not as right as I think, that the other point of view is as valid. I think that we get so defensive and deeply entrenched in our arguments that we forget to respect the opinions of others. So, for me, it's always a valuable surprise to see [where the other person is coming from] even though I disagree, and I can try and acknowledge that respectfully.
NEA: What are your strategies for facing the blank page?
GAY: I love the blank page because for me anything can happen there. So I don't even have to trick myself. For me, the blank page means I get to embark on an exciting adventure. And I just can't wait to see where it takes me. Sometimes it takes me to a really strange place, but, for the most part, my strategy is to look at it as an opportunity rather than a challenge.
NEA: what's your advice for young writers?
GAY: Persistence and dedication and commitment. They all really matter. I definitely think that making it as a writer is a combination of hard work and luck. But the harder you work the easier it is for luck to find you. I definitely think that you want to put in the time and put in the work and not worry so much about what everyone else is doing. Just write and love what you're writing. And if you're not loving what you're writing, take a look at why and fix that.
NEA: Here at the NEA, we use the tagline "Art works." What does that phrase mean to you?
GAY: I think art works in so many different ways. It creates change. It makes change possible. It shows us the better selves that we can become. And the better world that we could be part of. And I love that.
NEA: What would you like to ask yourself--and answer--as the final question of this interview?
GAY: Q. What movie would I love to see Channing Tatum in next? A. Honestly, the list is so so long. I would love to see Channing starring in the movie adaptation of Red Rising [by Pierce Brown].