Interview: Roxane Gay

roxaneDavid Erlewine talks with Roxane Gay  about writing, being the editor of PANK (and other editing projects), and being lazy, which should never, ever be used in the same sentence as Roxane Gay (in our opinion):

 

David Erlewine: Like me, you took off around five years from writing.  During that time I believe you wrote a bit but certainly since “re-emerging” you have been getting published in lots of journals.  What happened during those five years?  I recall you saying you now edit and take your time with stories more than you used to.  What else happened during the time away from writing that has contributed to your success?

Roxane Gay: During those five years, I published a lot of genre fiction and I read a great deal and I largely thought I would never participate in the literary fiction community. At the same time, I also looked at a lot of the writing I had been sending out before the break and forced myself to be merciless in assessing the merit or lack thereof of those stories. It was a really useful exercise because I realized that most of that writing just sucked. I was the problem. When I snapped out of my funk, I decided to do better.  I don’t have a really involved writing process but I do now take more time with my work before sending it out. When I started sending work out again I also decided to not give the endeavor more importance than it deserves. Writing is fun and I will keep doing it as long as its fun.

DE: How and when did you start editing for PANK?  Have you been surprised by how much PANK has gained prominence this year?

RG: I consulted on PANK 2 in 2007 because I have served three journals in my department in some editorial capacity. For PANK 2, I just offered advice, as needed to the students who designed that issue. The next year, Matt Seigel, the editor, invited me on as a full time associate editor and I jumped at the opportunity because I wanted to get back into literary magazine editing in a more instrumental manner. I have and I haven’t been surprised by the attention PANK seems to be getting. I’m surprised because we’re a small independent journal whose editors happen to work or study at a technological university. We’re far removed from literary circles. We’re not really plugged in to any scene so it has been amazing to see that people like what we do and are even awareo f our existence. At the same time, it isn’t surprising because while we have a lot of fun and don’t take ourselves too seriously, we also work pretty hard to put out a good product, both online and in print. I’m old-fashioned in that I believe hard work and a genuine love for great writing pay off.

DE: Your story currently in the Collagist deals with a rich, racist white guy living in baltimore.  On fictionaut, when you posted it a few months ago, you made the comment that men liked the narrator existed and you felt it was important to write about them (I’m paraphrasing of course).  I was struck by that comment b/c obviously the world is full of all sorts of awful losers like the narrator.  What about that narrator (and that kind of person) made you want to write the story.

RG: William Livingston III, the antagonist in La Negra Blanca, is that repulsive man who is able to act without consequence and that sort of impunity intrigues me. I always wonder what it must be like to be so wealthy and/or powerful that the rules simply don’t apply. In this story I tried to think through how a man like Livingston gets to a place where he can act unspeakably and shrug it off.

DE: How does editing for PANK affect your writing/submitting approach?  I know you have said that some folks use LOL and other such terms in their PANK submissions.  As an editor, are you able to take their stories seriously?

RG: Editing has certainly made me (I hope) a more considerate and conscientious writer and submitter. I simply try not to do all of the very annoying things writers tend to do. I am not often successful with this but I do try. I absolutely cannot take a submission seriously if text message/internet chat speak is used in a cover letter or submission but I do read it nonetheless just in case there might be a flash of brilliance. That has yet to happen.

DE: You have also been vocal about cover letters, commenting on writers who list 10-20 of the journals they’ve appeared in.  What should someone submitting to PANK want to put in their cover letter?

RG: I actually love cover letters–I talk about them a lot because they are so interesting to me and we receive a fascinating range of letters and approaches. As such, I’m not looking for anything specific. Having said that, I don’t mind seeing a list of publications but listing 3-5 is enough. I don’t care that you’ve been published in 20 places–that’s not impressive. Show me where I can find your best work. I am really starting to hate people who say things like, “I’ve been published in a few places” or “I’ve been published here and there.” What is the purpose of that? If you want me to know where you’ve been published, then tell me where you’ve been published, otherwise you’re just babbling pointlessly.

DE: Folks like you and Jac Jmec blog about your rejections.  Some writers love that, saying that if folks like you two are so open about their rejections…it’s good for other writers too, helps them deal with their own rejections.  When did you decide to start talking about which particular journals rejected you?

RG: When I decided to start blogging I thought I would share my rejections because I think Duotrope should share writer’s names for rejections the way they do for acceptances. It’s important to take credit for both possible outcomes in the writing process. I also think it’s a way of saying, we are not alone here. We all get rejections, lots and lots of rejections. And just like rejections aren’t personal, neither is my dissection thereof. I clearly have a bit of extra time on my hands if I can sit around blogging about rejections.

DE: You’ve gotten into places like Diagram, Wigleaf, Storyglossia, Necessary Fiction, and the Collagist this year (and about 75 other places).  What is on your list of places to get in?  I believe you’ve talked about SmokeLong and FRiGG…anywhere else?

RG: I don’t have a specific list of places where I’d like my work to appear but I am now primarily submitting to big print journals because I want to challenge myself to write the kinds of stories that belong in markets like Ninth Letter, The Missouri Review, Tin House, The New Yorker, etc. I have a story forthcoming in FRiGG. I fear I shall never click with Smokelong but I keep trying.

DE: What do you like/dislike about Fictionaut?  You appear to be in the “minority” of editors who have accepted work appearing on Fictionaut, even after Fictionaut went “public.”  You took P.H. Madore’s piece after it appeared on the Fictionaut main boards, etc.

RG: I love Fictionaut as a workshop and a place to showcase work. The only things I don’t like about Fictionaut are issues I’m quite sure will be addressed by the amazing team of people who run the show. I wish it was easier to track recent activity, particularly with regard to group conversations. If they ever institute notifications, I will be a very happy writer but even if the site never changed from where it is now, I would still think it is a valuable resource and a fun place to converse with other writers. I don’t consider a story appearing on Fictionaut as a publication because the work there isn’t reviewed or curated (a word I generally hate with regard to editorial work). There are many different opinions on what constitutes a publication but I’m all for any venue where a writer’s work can receive more exposure.

DE: Now that you are a contributing editor to htmlgiant, is there anything else you can do to get your name out there?  I don’t know how you keep track of everything between editing for PANK, guest-editing for anthologies and Emprise Review, writing, getting your PhD, writing articles, etc.  And yet you claim on your blog that you are lazy.  Do you really consider yourself lazy as that word is “objectively” used?

RG: I am not trying to get my name out there. I like to promote my work by sharing new publications with friends but I would do what I do whether I was read by one person or 100 people. I participate in projects I enjoy and the html giant thing was a real surprise but it has also been (thus far) very interesting and amusing. Some of the commenters there are… special. I absolutely believe (and know) I am lazy. I am not ashamed. Right now, I’m watching Cold Case when I should be doing approx. 7 other things, not the least of which is grading an ridiculous stack of technical reports and planning Wednesday’s and Friday’s classes.

DE: You’ve talked about possibly writing a novel based on your story that appeared in Necessary Fiction.  What are your plans with the novel, time-wise?  Do you have any time-line for the novel writing/submitting to agents/etc.?

RG: I cannot realistically work on my novel until I graduate in May. I need to focus on my dissertation and getting a job. This makes me sad, but it is a necessity and I have to prioritize my day job right now. I poke at the manuscript every now and then but I will get serious about it this coming summer. At that time I’ll also try to get an agent. I should have done that a while ago, but agents aren’t terribly interested in short story collections so I figured i’d wait until I had something to show them.

DE: Talk about Aaron Burch’s winning chapbook.  Obviously Aaron is a talented guy writer and his title sounds quite interesting.  What set his submission apart from the others?

RG: Aaron Burch’s chapbook is visual, visceral, vivid, and imaginative. We received many amazing manuscripts. I am not exaggerating when I say that all but one or two received serious consideration and those manuscripts on our shortlist were all collections we wanted to publish right now. The main thing that set Aaron’s submission apart was that it had a real structure and coherence. It was a project with a thoughtful, thematic approach, not just a collection of stories (not that there’s anything wrong with that). The writing was powerful, deliberate, at times challenging and despite some of the… darker elements of some of the writing, I felt that the chapbook had a real emotional core. I’m really excited for people to read Aaron’s book which is, incidentally, available for pre-order on the PANK website.

DE: Look at our synergy!  I was going to ask about how to order it.  Check out this page, peoples:  http://www.pankmagazine.com/?page_id=83

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17 responses to “Interview: Roxane Gay

  1. Love this! I didn’t know Roxane had a blog about her rejections, but I am going there ASAP. Who is Jac Jmec? Also, Roxane, what kind of job will you be looking for after you graduate? What is your career field?

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    • Ellen I’m getting my PhD in rhetoric and technical communication. I am looking for tenure track faculty positions right now. My research focuses on how teachers construct students as writers and how, if at all, those constructions influence student writing. I’m looking closely at engineering students because so often we hear the statement that “engineers can’t write,” or that “students can’t write,” and we don’t qualify those statements. What do we mean when we say students can’t write and aren’t there more productive conversations we should be having? Finally, I believe that frankly, no one is adequately prepared to communicate effectively after four years of college education because the time frame within which students receive explicit writing instruction is so narrow. As we move beyond Writing Across the Curriculum, how can we realign expectations for how well students will write and otherwise communicate upon graduation and how can we better prepare students for writing within their disciplines?

      So that’s a mouthful.

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  2. I’m always interested in tapping into Roxane’s brilliance so big thank yous for this interview.
    I shake my head at the laziness issue. Roxane, everyone needs to shut off the cerebral occasionally. You do it with television and movies. No shame.

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  3. i wish DE would’ve asked RG when she actually writes. It has to be either during commercial breaks or when she is recuperating from her excessive workout episodes or perhaps the fact that she is a super robot that needs no sleep.

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    • I write while I’m watching TV in the middle of the night and also sometimes during the day. I don’t sleep much because I suffer from insomnia. That makes it easier to do lots of things.

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  4. xtx, I actually wonder far more frequently when Rox has time to teach, write her thesis and do her other academic work (which as I understand has nothing to do with lit), but maybe that’s b/c every time I “see” her, it’s in a writing-related context.

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  5. This was great! I also love that Roxanne blogs about her rejections, and will be checking out her blog. Roxanne — good luck with the dissertation.

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  6. David and Roxane have me wondering, yet again: What *is* it about quitting writing for prolonged periods? There’s some kind of alchemy that takes place…

    Not surprised that this is a great interview. Thanks for the read!

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  7. Pingback: I Have Become Accustomed To Rejection / It’s Not You, It’s Us·

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