Roxane Gay took me out to dinner five years ago. It was Roxane, Ashley C. Ford and me. We were in Indianapolis and it was the first time I'd met either of them. I remember thinking wow this is one of my favorite things as it was happening because I love being around food and super-smart, kind, funny, beautiful women who smell good. I “met” Roxane online when she accepted one of my short stories at Bluestem Magazine, a literary magazine she edited at the time. Shortly after, I dug in and devoured everything I could find that Roxane had written. I read lines like “My husband is a hunter. I am a knife.” and stories like “North Country” and thought but how can I read everylittlething she has ever written. Grocery receipts, random lists, any old scribbled-on piece of paper she'd decided to throw out. I started emailing Roxane whenever I read something in her books/stories that I loved so much. Once, I emailed her asking if I should wear my brown cowboy boots when I read my story about a woman who does some pretty wild things while she's in her brown cowboy boots...I wondered if the audience would assume I was writing about myself. Once, I emailed her just to tell her she was important to me because she was a black woman like me, a writer like me. Once, I emailed her to tell her how much I loved that she mentioned Counting Crows and Carhartts and bearded men in “North Country” because I love Counting Crows and Carhartts and bearded men. Once, I emailed her because I went on a walk and a song from Magic Mike came on. Roxane always writes me back, even when my emails are just gushy fangirl moments. Roxane Gay, existing, inspires* me.
(*In Roxane's Rolling Stone interview she said she doesn't think of herself as brave or inspiring, although there are surely millions of people at this point who feel like me.)
I read Ayiti on my Kindle while I was in the carpool line, waiting for my kids to get out of school. I read An Untamed State as I sat in my driveway, while my kids rode their bikes in and out of the garage and up the street. In 2014, I read with Roxane, Lindsey Gates-Markel and Ruben Quesada at a bar in Champaign with a beautiful ivy-covered wall, streaked with summer sunlight. I wanted to buy Bad Feminist from her then, but she sold out of them before I could, because so many people came to the reading and wanted a copy. I'd read most of the stories from Difficult Women before it was a book. I pre-ordered Hunger and got it in my hands the day it came out. I read most of it in one sitting. I have been writing Roxane fangirl emails a couple times a year for about the last six years and don't see myself stopping. Roxane's name is in print, inside both of my books and on the back cover of one of them. This is all to say that Roxane is a woman I admire and adore, not only for her immense writing talent but also for her heart and generosity and kindness. I was stoked to be able to ask her some questions about Hunger and her forthcoming YA novel and fame and her celebrity crushes and what Charlie Hunnam smelled like when she interviewed him.
LCS: Hunger is immersive and extraordinarily intimate. And it feels like you are telling us some of your darkest secrets, because you are. I know you are a private person and have read several interviews where you talk about how you don't really think of yourself as a memoirist even though you wrote Hunger and it's wildly successful. It is structured in such a short-chapter, conversational way, it really does feel like staying up late and spilling stories. Was that always the case or did you ever struggle with the structure of it?
RG: The structure of Hunger is one of the few things I did not struggle with. When I first started thinking about the book, I also happened to be reading The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, and I was impressed by how concise and short her chapters were. I was also impressed by her confidence to not overwrite the ideas she was exploring and I knew I wanted to take a similar approach to Hunger. The conversational tone of the book comes from what marks most of my nonfiction, that I am working through big questions as I write my way toward answers, rather than speaking definitively.
LCS: I love hearing your take on things and people crave your opinions on things. Prettymuch anytime anything happens anywhere in the world, be it political or re: writing, women, sexuality, TV, movies, food, music, etc...everyone on Twitter wants to know what you think about it. That's some mighty power you wield. Does it feel that way to you? Does the word powerful feel appropriate to use here? Are there a couple people out there whose opinions you find yourself turning to the same way people turn to you?
RG: It doesn't really feel like power when people, mostly on Twitter, ask me for my opinions on every little thing. It feels like pressure and an awkward burden that I'm expected to be an opinion vending machine. That said, it is also flattering that people respect my viewpoint enough to want to know what I think and in that, certainly, there is power. I'm always interested in what Tressie McMillan Cottom has to say about most topics, and also Mensah Demary, Alexander Chee, Randa Jarrar, Laila Lalami, Celeste Ng, Saeed Jones, and Lidia Yuknavitch. These are incredibly smart people who always make me think.
LCS: You've interviewed big-time fancy celebs like Madonna who asked for you specifically by name (!!!) and Charlie Hunnam. I loved reading your Madonna interview and the rosé summer water quote (which is totally what I call it now.) And Charlie Hunnam has been my #1 celeb crush for about six or seven years. Roxane, my very professional and super-important question is what did he smell like? I really want to know this. Do you remember? Does it help if I tell you that over the summer when I was driving through West Hollywood, I looked around for him...because I wanted to see him (alas, I did not...sad face) and not only did you get to see him, you got to sit across from him and talk to him and he got to talk to you. I love this about your life! I want to know if he smells like pink cotton candy and/or expensive wood. Or maybe just lavender shampoo and sunshine? Oranges and sex? Roses and Ivory soap? Cigarettes and the ocean?
RG: It has been one of the more surreal turns in my career that I've gotten to interview a few very famous people. I can hardly wrap my mind around it. I did not get close enough to Charlie Hunnam to smell him but he was incredibly attractive in person--craggy, lean, piercing blue eyes, a confidence in his body and just enough angst to make him interesting, as he spoke. I suspect he smells like sex and expensive wood with a soupcon of cigarettes.
LCS: You make yourself so available to writers re: blurbs (you blurbed my first book and I'm forever grateful because my publishers and future publishers will use it, always) and writing advice on Twitter, you travel all across the world and sign books for thousands of people and have crazy-long lines snaking out of doors and into the night so people can meet you...how do you handle your quiet time/time out of the spotlight to keep a firm grip on your mental health? Do you feel guilty when you have to do that or have to say no to things?
RG: I am not so good at what people are now calling self-care, or managing my down time. I am too much of a workaholic and when I have down time, I feel like I should be working on one of the many things to which I have overcommitted. I need to get better about this because I want to enjoy myself more. I want to feel relaxed more. I want to be able to turn off the work portion of my brain for more than hour or two here or there. I used to feel very guilty when I said no to things and so I rarely said no to things and given my current workload it is obvious that I need to get over that. I've been working on it. The frustrating thing is that when I do say no, people often take that no as an opportunity to try to change my mind. And then I feel angry because I want my no to be a complete sentence.
LCS: You're a mononymous person! Seriously. I don't even have to use your last name when I talk about you! Madonna, Cher, Britney, Bono, Beyoncé, Roxane. Chelsea Clinton tweeted about your book, a whole host of celebrities have posted your books on Instagram and Twitter, praising your work. A lot of the time when people are superstars they don't feel like it or they don't realize it. One day, my daughter asked if I knew anyone famous and my son immediately said Mommy knows Roxane and she's famous and I emailed that to you because I thought it was adorable and also, true. You are hella famous and my kids love that I “know” you and that they've met you too. But I know fame can be a complicated thing for some people. Do you feel famous?
RG: Well, today I learned the word mononymous. What a great word. I do not feel famous at all. But when I am at a big event and thousands of people have paid money to listen to me talk about my writing and opinions, I do recognize that my life is changing and that I am becoming more well known. But if I am famous, I am writer famous, which is not a bad thing at all. It is nothing compared to actual fame, and thank goodness. When I see the kinds of nonsense that celebrities deal with, however well compensated they are, I do not find it at all appealing.
LCS: You get recognized a lot, people are so obsessed with you! You're in a position where everyone in publishing knows and reads you and your stamp of approval means so much to up-and-coming writers. Do those things feel like fame to you or does it feel like something else?
RG: Those things feel like writer fame, I guess. And that my approval of a given writer or book can move copies feels like power, and so I try to wield it with care.
LCS: I'm reminded of Will Smith saying that when he went back to work after Independence Day blew open the box office, everyone started calling him MISTER Smith...and in that moment, he realized everything had changed for him. Did you have that MOMENT where you were like...Wow now everything is different...people answer my emails quicker...always call me back because I'm ROXANE GAY?
RG: After the success of Bad Feminist, everyone in my professional life began returning my emails so quickly. It was mind blowing! And in the three years since, as my profile has risen, this has continued. I admit that getting fast responses to my emails remains one of my favorite perks.
LCS: I do know your Channing Tatum (and Channing Tatum's neck) feelings. I take my celeb crushes VERY seriously. Charlie Hunnam, Matthias Schoenaerts. When I was a little girl, after I watched Pretty In Pink, I taped a picture of Andrew McCarthy to my headboard. I had a picture of River Phoenix on the wall next to my closet, a picture of Michael Jackson right in front of my bed that I would take down and kiss. Who were some of your huge celeb crushes when you were growing up?
RG: My biggest crush growing up was Almanzo Wilder, a fictional character from Little House on the Prairie. I was also very enamored with Michael Jackson, who was just such a handsome man when he was black, and also Ricky Schroeder and Michael J. Fox.
LCS: I know how much you love Beyoncé...when (not if) you get to interview Beyoncé, what is one of the first things you want to ask her?
RG: I want to ask her how she managed to develop a strong sense of self in an industry that is always trying to commodify young women.
LCS: You have a YA novel The Year I Learned Everything coming out soon and I remember reading the short story of the same name in Rookie the day it was published back in 2013. I vividly remember reading He smiled, wiggled his toes, threw his arms in the air, jumped and did a perfect dive into the water. He barely made any sound. It was like on TV. He swam toward me, and his arms in the water made such a pretty sound. He said I should come in. That boy raised himself out of the water and kissed my knee and held his lips there for a long time. When he pulled away, he said, “The water’s fine, just like you.” He smiled and I felt so hot and heavy and for a second, I didn’t know what to do. It was confusing. Normally with guys, I know what to say and how to move things along but with Jason Miller I drown. I thought about how nice it would feel to swim in the pool naked, to feel clean, to let water touch me everywhere the way I wanted a tall, skinny boy with bad acne to touch me everywhere.
And thinking I hope this story never ends because I love it so much. The way you wrote “that boy pulled himself out of the water”...I sat there with it. You choosing to say “that boy” and not “He” or his name. Floored me, drowned me in the moment. Do you find writing a YA novel to be the same as writing the other fiction you write? Is it more or less difficult for you? Would you want to write more YA fiction in the future?
RG: I still don't think of The Year I Learned Everything as a YA novel because when I wrote the short story I was just writing a short story and the protagonist happened to be a teenage girl. I have the same mindset going into writing the novel itself because I don't want to force myself to write in a way that doesn't feel organic to who I am. I am absolutely open to writing more YA fiction in the future but I'm going to walk before I run and finish this novel first.
LCS: What's one of your favorite songs you never turn off, no matter how many times you hear it? (One of mine is “Try A Little Tenderness” by Otis Redding.)
RG: Nothing Even Matters by Lauryn Hill feat. D'Angelo
LCS: You get invited to read all over the world! Where are some of your favorite places to go, favorite places to be?
RG: I really loved Stockholm, Sweden. I also love reading in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Boston. Really, it is generally a thrill to read anywhere I am invited but I have favorites and those are the cities you'll see me in the most.
LCS: Roxane, is it okay for me to email you the next time I hear that “I'm gon' make you feel it” song from Magic Mike?
RG: Yes. I wholeheartedly encourage this. That song, Feel It, is so damn sexy.