Interviews with two National Book Award nominees

The longlist for the National Book Award in fiction was released today. Of the ten authors, I was lucky to interview two of them earlier in the year. Both Garth Greenwell and Karan Mahajan wrote two of my favorite novels released in 2016 and if I had to vote for a top five to make the shortlist, both would find a spot as finalists. Read the interviews of Greenwell and Mahajan after the complete list of nominated authors.

Congratulations to:

  • Chris Bachelder, The Throwback Special
  • Garth Greenwell, What Belongs to You
  • Adam Haslett, Image Me Gone
  • Paulette Jiles, News of the World
  • Karan Mahajan, The Association of Small Bombs
  • Lydia Millet, Sweet Lamb of Heaven
  • Elizabeth McKenzie, The Portable Veblen
  • Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad
  • Jacqueline Woodson, Another Brooklyn

On Sex, Passion, and the Queer Body

This interview originally appeared in Literary Hub.


I love starting with the genesis of the idea that leads to a novel. This time, however, I want to start by talking about your life, mostly because it’s rather intoxicating. What’s the abridged autobiography of your academic and literary career? How did you become who you are today?

My life has had a lot of fits and starts. I’m from Kentucky, and until I was fourteen felt pretty lost as a queer kid without any distinctions. That year, though, I joined the choir at my high school–mainly because I wanted an easy class. The teacher heard something in my voice and started giving me voice lessons for free after school. He was the first adult to make me feel like my life had value, like I might have a future outside of a place where I felt it was nearly impossible to live.

Music became my first training in art, and it allowed me to escape from Kentucky. I went to the Interlochen Arts Academy and then to the Eastman School of Music. As a junior, I took a course in poetry with James Longenbach, and it led me to leave Eastman and pursue a degree in literature at Purchase College, SUNY. I went from there to Washington University in St. Louis, where I did an MFA in poetry, and after that I spent three years in a PhD program at Harvard.

When I tell the story of my life this way, it seems like I’m really good at quitting things. I guess I am. I left Harvard half way through my degree and started teaching high school English, first in Ann Arbor and then in Sofia, Bulgaria. In 2013 I left high school teaching to do a fiction MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which I finished in May.

Was there a piece of advice or a lesson at Iowa that changed who Garth was as a writer before and after the workshop?

I don’t think there was, or nothing particular I could point to. Iowa was wonderful, an extraordinary privilege, and I met writers there I’ll read for the rest of my life. Being accepted to the program was a stroke of extraordinary luck. I’ll be grateful to Iowa forever.

Who are some of the writers you met at Iowa who inspire you and think more people should read?

The Iowa Writers’ Workshop is just one of the writing programs in Iowa City. Another is the Creative Writing MFA in Spanish. Horacio Castellanos Moya is the fiction professor in that program. He’s one of the most important living writers in Spanish, but not enough people in the US know about him-–despite the fantastic translations of his work done by Katherine Silver and published by New Directions. Many of my fellow students in the workshop didn’t know that he was in Iowa until Bennett Sims taught a course on “Bernhard and his Heirs” and Moya came to speak to the class. The professor of poetry in that program is the Spanish poet Luis Muñoz, another writer whose importance is taken for granted in the Spanish-speaking world, but whose work is not well known in English. I’d say more about his brilliant poems, but I can’t pretend to be objective: he’s my boyfriend.

Among my colleagues in the program, there are at least a dozen writers who will soon be on everyone’s shelves. I’ll pick just three who are finishing their books soon: The brilliant Zimbabwean novelist Novuyo Rosa Tshuma writes with an equal commitment to almost Joycean formal inventiveness and to political conscience, and the result is absolutely thrilling. Jamel Brinkley’s stories, which have already appeared in A Public Space, achieve a psychological penetration that inspires and cows me, as does the grace and emotional impact of his sentences. And D. Wystan Owen, whose work has also been in A Public Space (just as an aside, I’m not sure there’s a better place to go looking for new writers to love), writes exquisite, apparently quiet stories that lodge somewhere in my chest and keep detonating–loudly, devastatingly–again and again. I haven’t been in workshop with any of those writers for over a year now, and their work still accompanies me everywhere. They’ve become permanent parts of my canon.

Your book opens rather erotically. So I just want to say two words and you just say whatever you want with as much detail or brevity as you’d like: sex and passion.

Our culture despises the queer body. I want to write the queer body, the queer sexual body, in a way that cherishes it and is responsive to its real value, which is inexhaustible, like all human value.

Do you consider queer literature a genre? Or do you consider it literature that happens to be about LGBT people?

I do think there is a tradition of queer writing, by which I mean a line of writers in conversation with other writers, which is all tradition is. I think there are aesthetic modes that have been coded as queer and claimed by queers. That conversation and those modes are necessary and rich. All artists have allegiances. These are mine.

Similarly, do you consider yourself a “gay” writer?

Yes. But without quotation marks.

When I was doing a lot of musician interviews, I became fairly aware that critics always feel the need to say “female-fronted” band. Like it’s an anomaly. Do you ever feel that people put too much focus on gay writers’ (or any profession for that matter) sexual orientation?

I think this is always a fraught issue, and there’s no way to ask the question that will please everyone. Some writers don’t want to be thought of as gay writers, for a variety of reasons, and I don’t think anyone should place demands on others’ identifications. I will say, though, that formulations like “This is a book about two men in a relationship, but it says universal things about love, etc,” seem wrong to me, even if they’re necessary. We live in a culture where reviewers who want to encourage readers to approach work by minority writers (and bless them, each and every one) need to extend invitations that can seem to conjure away difference. The word “universal” is that invitation.

The real problem comes when “universal” is preceded by “but.” This is a novel about black lives, but it’s universal; or this is a novel about trans lives, but it’s universal. The problem with this is that it allows the term “universal” to be used in that deeply false way that means straight and white, and very often male. I do believe in the universal impact or resonance of art, of the literary or aesthetic imagination. I believe absolutely in the power of imaginative art to cross difference and the wounds caused by structures of inequity. But it doesn’t do that by erasing difference. I think literature achieves the universal by rooting as deeply as possible into the particular.

I write as a queer man about queer lives for queer readers in a queer aesthetic tradition that I’ve chosen. I’m not writing to explain those lives or make them palatable as part of some political project to sway people whose response to them remains disgust. I don’t mean to dismiss efforts to do that, which have purchased so many freedoms for queer people, though maybe at too great a cost. But it’s not my project.

It’s not despite of, but because I’m writing from that specific position that my book can have whatever resonance it has. I don’t think this is anything special about my book. I think it’s how literature works.

Do you still think there is a stigma about books about gay or lesbian characters?

I think queer books struggle for attention, support, and prestige. I think this is especially true when those books are sexually explicit, when they explore models of life that are not heteronormative, when they tell stories that take place far from the zones of (still very relative) lesbian and gay privilege.

Your ability to structure a sentence is rather intoxicating. The opening page alone has an average sentence length of four lines. And then the entire second (of three) sections is told through one extended paragraph. The writing is very lyrical; how did this style find its way to your pen?

That’s kind of you to say; thank you. I think singing art song and opera for years taught me a certain relationship to language and breath, and especially made me alert to the potential for generating emotion through the suspension of language in time. I do think that the shapes of sentences are as important as their content, and I like writing in which the texture of language is itself emotive.

How do you think writing should be taught? Structured and precise? Loose and creative?

I don’t think there’s a single way to teach writing, and I think that there’s a place for assignments that are structured and assignments that are loose. (As in many things, I think variety is key.) That said, I think creative assignments, imaginative assignments, should have a much greater place in high school curricula. My own students did their best writing in these assignments, and also their best reading–when they could think their way creatively into a text they discovered how to think with and through that text in more interesting ways. Analyzing a text means seeing it as a field of choices; creative assignments give students a chance to discover that for themselves.

I’m always fascinated by the writing process itself. Authors have told me they handwrite then type then edit the typed version then so on and so on. Others focus on minute details like word placement in a sentence. How was What Belongs to You written?

When I was teaching high school, I woke up at 4:30 to write for two hours before classes. Writing the novel took more than three years. I wrote it by hand in little spiral-bound notebooks. When I finished each of the book’s three sections, I typed it up and revised before moving on. A crucial step of the writing process happened with my brilliant editor, Mitzi Angel, who worked extremely hard on the book, and made me work hard, too. I’m more grateful to her than I can say.

What about your reading process? What excites you in the literary world today?

I’m excited by so many things in the literary world today. As a critic I try to champion queer voices and literature in translation, especially from the languages I speak (French, Spanish, and Bulgarian). My favorite thing is to try to make a body of work, or a certain tradition of work, available to readers who might not be aware of it. That feels more meaningful to me than a review. I’m less interested in whether I think something is good or bad than I am in trying to understand what’s at stake in a writer’s project.

I’ve read that you’ve had a tough time gaining traction with your next project, so I won’t ask you about that. But I want to know what sort of ideas spark your interest in a subject?

I’m not so much interested in invention as in observation and exploration. For me, writing depends on finding new ways of looking at what surrounds me.

Finally, what are some of the ways you look at your surroundings differently? Do you do it consciously, or is it a subconscious effort?

I’m not sure I fully understand the process. I guess I’d say that the subconscious element comes in my response to a place, which is unwilled: some places, like Bulgaria, say, or Louisville, my hometown, which I visited for the first time in over a decade last May, have a kind of charge for me that I can’t explain. But I do think one can try to make space that allows for a conscious tuning into experience, a ratcheting up of attention. Poets love that quote from Malebranche about attention being the natural prayer of the soul. That seems pretty right to me. Attending to something, looking at it in a way that is imaginatively and emotionally engaged, is a way of bringing yourself to care for it. Or at least that’s the hope that makes art meaningful.

Literature In and On the Aftermath of Violence

This interview originally appeared in Vol. 1 Brooklyn.


Your new book has been out since March 22 and you’re currently on a small book tour. What has the reader response been like? What topics do they bring up to you?

It’s my second novel, and my second time on a book tour. I’m not as terrified as I was with the first book, Family Planning. What’s been interesting about doing readings days after the Brussels attacks—my book came out the day of those attacks—is that people haven’t dwelled too much on the attacks during the readings. There’s a tendency, when someone has written a novel about terrorism, to turn him into an expert on the subject. But the best thing to do when there is a new attack that’s so horrific, like Brussels was, is to spend time mourning it and to not jump to conclusions and to not over-discuss it. To let the news come in first.

There was also a fair amount of interest in how I got into the mindset of terrorists and my take on what radicalization is. I was happy to talk about those things because they were the key ideas I was looking at in my novel.

You’ve talked about how a lot of people focus on these larger attacks, but it’s these smaller attacks that happen in your book and in reality that don’t get a lot of coverage. I feel Americans seem to only pay attention to these larger attacks like in Paris or Brussels. But what is the reality like for people dealing with these small scale attacks; how often do they happen?

In India, they still happen frequently. They happened a lot more frequently when this novel first popped into my mind in 2008. There was a homegrown terrorist group – supposedly homegrown, we don’t actually know – that set off slightly smaller bombs. Again, the word “small” is being used somewhat ironically to draw attention to the fact that nothing is small when it involves human carnage. So the group set off all of these bombs throughout India and at the end of that year there were the Bombay attacks, which were vastly televised—everyone saw them around the world.

I became interested in these smaller bombs that get less attention in the media, but are obviously inspired by the larger blasts. I wanted to write about them.

And before we go further, let’s get a little more background on you. I think where you came from and where you are now really gives you a keen insight into things. You came to America in 2001. What did you expect on your move over here? Obviously September 11, 2001 changed the course of a lot of things. How has America changed since you’ve been here.

I arrived in the US a week after 9/11 happened. I don’t know what life in America was like for someone like me, for someone who looks like me, before 9/11. I expected things to be much worse for a brown person like myself. But I was in San Francisco and New York City, and those are liberal cities. While I faced small micro-aggressions, I had a pretty normal college life. I was at Stanford and was cut off from what was happening in the larger cities; I was sheltered from it.

9/11 was a part of my consciousness as I was constantly going back to India—you could see the way that air travel had changed. My Muslim friends were hassled a great deal. They couldn’t get visas or were harassed by the government. My own experience wasn’t that dramatic.

Well that’s good that you weren’t hassled. I remember I had a friend growing up that was Muslim. I actually went to a mosque with him for some reason or another, we mostly played outside in the playground, and this was before 9/11. But after 9/11, even someone who was so Americanized as him faced so many difficulties. It’s just hard for me to comprehend because I’m an average white American citizen.

You’re right. It’s awful.

And before we hop back into the book. I’m just curious because you grew up in India, but have spent so long in America. What’s your opinion on the current political landscape right now?

Too much of the landscape has been defined by terrorism. Terrorism, in some ways, is a crime of cowardice that people commit when they are desperate to get attention for a political cause that they think isn’t getting the attention it deserves. It’s sad when the victims of these attacks, countries like America or India, give into what the terrorists want. And if you look into the way people are talking today, it’s really a reaction to that. It’s horrible that we’ve allowed ourselves to get to this point where we demonize a huge segment of the population that’s Muslim. The underlying causes of these events are not being talked about.

In your book, you do talk a lot about the different causes of terrorism. I read that the genesis of the story came from an event in your past. How did all of this unfold and how did the book change during the course of your writing it?

This particular bombing that happened in 1996 was there from the start. It happened in a market near where I grew up. I was drawn to it because I know the market well, I had a connection to it. I remembered the shops and the shopkeepers. I thought it was a space I could enter and use as a way to talk about the larger attacks that were happening all over the world.

The novel really broadened over the years. I first thought I would only write about the parents who lose their kids in the attack. Very quickly I began to look at the terrorists as well as a character who was injured in the attack and carries the injuries with him for years. The real challenge after that, the real evolution of the book, was to find a way all of these different characters were connected.

I wanted the book to have the feel of a single consciousness. I didn’t want it to be one of those books or movies where you have a lot of perspectives and they unwind in parallel and they don’t actually have much interweaving. I wanted a very intimate book where the characters—the victims and the terrorists—are constantly passing in and out of each other’s lives in a way that’s unusual.

How did you decide that these characters were going to weave together the way that they did?

Some of it came from getting really bogged down with the grief of the parents. There are a lot of observations that can be made about a family that is cut in half, where both children die. A lot of those observations are repetitive, though. They involve two characters feeling very, very bad. Two characters in the worst place they can be as parents. I could have written hundreds of pages about them, but I don’t know if they’d be worth reading.

You want to represent people’s grief without giving into it completely. There was also a question about whether, if they lost their children in a terrorist attack, it was any different from a couple who lost their kid in a fire or a car accident. When I asked myself that question—what makes their grief different from the grief of others—these other characters began appearing as well.

I took a slightly zoomed out view of the family’s grief. I saw it as a very human thing. I looked at the other kinds of grief the characters are experiencing—the grief of the terrorist that’s driving him to terrorism, the grief of an injured victim. Once the book was placed in this network of associations of grief and disappointment and failure, it opened up and came into its own.

You wrote from the terrorist perspective with a lot of minutia. There’s a lot of little scenes about his day to day life. How did you get into the mindset for this character?

It was very, very hard. I hadn’t seen it done very well anywhere. I read a lot of non-fiction as well as fiction. Everywhere the terrorist had been turned into this kind of superhuman character. But the terrorist can be as incompetent or as lazy or as bored as any other human being. Once I got that point of view, it became easier to write about the terrorist as a criminal who is committing a crime for an idea, which is also what makes him different from a common criminal. At the same time, he has to perform the mundane tasks any other criminal might.

That insight loosened me up. It allowed me to go to places that other books hadn’t been to. I had the observation that if you’re a person killing a lot of people regularly, perhaps the best way to handle that is to not think about your victims. To go to great lengths to not confront what you’re doing. That denial was part of how I got into the mind of the terrorist who sets off the 1996 bomb in the book.

I’m assuming research for this was also difficult. You know, Googling how bombs work must be a hard thing to do.

I was very afraid of doing that. Interestingly, it wasn’t necessarily that helpful. I wasn’t writing about modern day attacks, but a bomb in 1996. Everything online was modern and current. So, I relied on texts I found in archives. I consulted court documents and other literature about terrorism. There’s a documentary about car bombings in Beirut that I watched.

But you’re right. I didn’t spend that much time going deep into the internet.

I could imagine. Even when I search your book’s title

I’m terrified about what’s going to happen, whether I’m going to be put on some lists because my name appears next to the word “bombs.”

Hopefully nothing too crazy. But moving onto a broader sense. Do you think people from India have been represented well in recent years?

There are a lot of great Indian writers at work right now. A lot of them have done a good job capturing the modern urban reality. What I like about their writing is that they’re willing to write about classes that aren’t representative of India as a whole. There used to be this feeling of shame among Indian writers that they had to write about the common man. It’s good that Indian writing has matured to the point where you can have novels about “untouchables” and very upper class people.

There are certain novels published in India that are very specific to ethnic groups in India and those aren’t accessible in the West. People wouldn’t get them. That doesn’t diminish them. It just means you’re only going to get a very particular kind of Indian novel in the West.

Have you gotten any response from people in India about your book?

It’s not out in India yet. It’s out at the end of April. I showed it to people in Delhi before I published it, though. What’s been exciting for me is that people who’ve read it say it’s a very Delhi book. I’ve written about parts of Delhi that haven’t made it into serious literature in a big way before. Also, there’s a slightly detached, even callous, tone that I take at times towards violence that I think Delhiites take.

That’s been gratifying for me because one of the challenges of writing a book in English about India is that you want it to appeal to people back home as well. It should be as new for them as it is for someone in America.

I used to fret about this when I was younger, but now I trust that whatever I’m interested in will automatically speak to both places.

And when you’re writing, how conscious are you of your tone?

It’s a very interesting thing. I’m very conscious of it when it’s not working. When I was stuck for many years, I was constantly conscious of every sentence. Then I hit upon this tone that was purposefully not very sentimental—that was slightly clinical about very devastating subjects. The moment I hit that tone, which also relies a lot on telling as opposed to showing, I was hardly aware of using language. I just kept seeing images. The narrative provided images to me and I would describe the image.

It was gratifying to come to the end of that process, because I didn’t feel like I wrote something that was artificial.

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