Smile Politely

Five Good Questions with Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay’s fiction, nonfiction and criticism are widely published. She is the author of Ayiti, a collection of fiction and essays about the Haitian diaspora experience. Her novel, An Untamed State, is forthcoming from Grove/Atlantic; she will also release a new essay collection titled Bad Feminist with Harper Perennial. And, as luck would have it, she is coming to Champaign-Urbana to participate in Pygmalion Lit Fest. I spoke with Ms. Gay about her work recently, and here’s what she had to say.


Smile Politely: I want to know about your new novel, An Untamed State. How did you find your way to the heart of the work? Did it begin with Ayiti, or do the two books exist in entirely different creative worlds?

Roxane Gay: An Untamed State is the story of Mirelle Duval Jameson, a Haitian American woman who is visiting her parents in Port au Prince with her American husband and infant son when she is kidnapped and held hostage for thirteen days. It started as a short story included in Ayiti and as time went on, the story simply wouldn’t let go of me, so I kept on writing. I’d say the story found its way into the heart of me more than I found my way into the heart of the story.

SP: You are one of the most productive writers I know. How do you generate so much quality writing? How do you balance your time between writing fiction and nonfiction?

Gay: My go-to response, which is also the truth, is that I am an insomniac who lives in the middle of nowhere and I don’t have children yet. Nonfiction tends to be more deadline-oriented, so deadlines really dictate what I write. When I want to relax and lose myself in a place I know nothing about, I turn to fiction. I wish I had more time for fiction because it has always been and will always be my first love.

SP: I know you’re a big social media person. What do you think of debates concerning technology’s incursion into private, interpersonal, or otherwise meditative spaces?

Gay: I find debates about social media to be sort of strange and such sublime expressions of privilege. If you don’t want social media to intrude on your private, interpersonal, and meditative spaces, don’t open the applications that would make that happen. People like to believe that social media is the problem but it’s more an issue of self-control and how social media makes it harder to resist the digital allure of far-flung strangers.

SP: I loved your nonfiction piece on competitive Scrabble in Ninth Letter. Are you still competing? Have you moved up in the ranks?

Gay: I am always competing in Scrabble. I have not moved up in the ranks too much, but I’m holding steady, holding strong.

SP: Talk to me about which authors you’re excited about right now. Who should I be reading?

Gay: You should be reading Ashley Ford, Gabby Bess, xTx, Mike Meginnis, Matthew Salesses, and really, I could go on all day. There is no shortage of amazing writers.


Roxane Gay reads from her work at Buvon’s Wine Bar on Saturday, September 27. Readings begin at 8:00 p.m.

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