Roxane Gay is a writer, editor, and professor at Eastern Illinois University. She will join the MFA program at Purdue University this fall. She is co-editor of [PANK], and essays editor for The Rumpus. Her debut novel, An Untamed State, released in May 2014, and her essay collection, Bad Feminist will be released by Harper Perennial later this year.
Tina: Describe your path to becoming a writer.
I’ve been writing since I was four years old. I remember drawing little villages on napkins and writing stories about the people who lived there. It was weird, but it was awesome. My parents noticed what I was doing, so they bought me a typewriter. I’ve been writing ever since.
I began publishing my work in the late ’90s. I have continued to write stories and essays since then, and now I’m writing books as well.
How did you reach the point of becoming published?
Very carefully. (laughing)
In high school, I had a great writing teacher named Rex McGuinn, who saw something in me. He encouraged me to write every day, to think about the stories I wanted to tell and how I wanted to tell them. It’s pretty standard writing advice, but I took it to heart.
Once I graduated from college, I worked on a Master’s degree in creative writing, along with a PhD in a similar writing field, because I loved it so much. Along the way, I realized, “I would like to share these words with someone.” I started reading the Writer’s Market, back when it was a physical book that people carried around religiously—when people sent off stories in envelopes with stamps and hoped to get something back. Oftentimes, that did not happen. Slowly but surely, I started to find my voice. And the more I found my voice, the more easily I was able to publish my work.
I read that you wanted to be in the medical field when you were younger.
I thought I wanted to be a doctor, and I certainly know that my parents wanted me to be a doctor—parents always do. (laughing) Unfortunately, I’m terrible at math. I took a biology class in college, and on the first day the professor said, “We’re going to separate the real doctors from those of you who are just pretending.” That was traumatizing. But he was right—he totally weeded me out. I let that dream go, but there are still days when I think, “Maybe I should go back to medical school?”
So you studied writing instead?
Yes, eventually. First, I was pre-med; then I was an architecture major, but it turns out that I can’t draw; and then I was an English major. After that, I transferred universities and became a liberal arts major, which is just a fancy name for “fake major.” (laughing)
Was there an “Aha!” moment when you decided that you wanted to focus primarily on writing?
That “Aha!” moment has always been in me; I have written constantly, even though there have been times when I didn’t have the courage to share my writing. I knew I wanted to be a writer even when my parents said, “You have to get a real job.” I was going to write one way or another. That realization wasn’t something I came to: it has always been there.
Did you worry about how you would support yourself financially once you decided to pursue writing professionally?
I worked a lot of crazy jobs along the way. I worked in retail, I was a bartender, and I did a year at a student loan company. The last job I had before I went to graduate school for my PhD was working in university communications: I was writing, but I wasn’t doing the kind of writing I wanted. Those jobs allowed me to sustain my writing habit.
I published my first piece in 1996 for a women’s magazine called Moxie. I wrote an essay about inhabiting multiple identities—obviously, I’m still writing that essay. (laughing) Around the same time, I also wrote a piece about being queer and Haitian for an anthology called Does Your Mama Know?.
I continued writing stories, but literary magazines didn’t appear to be terribly interested in them, so I began submitting my work to erotica anthologies. When those publications took my stories, I thought, “Okay, it’s because I have too much sex,” but the truth is that I wasn’t a great writer. While I was getting stories accepted to erotica anthologies—which paid, by the way—I started working on becoming a better writer. I decided that the literary community wasn’t for me and didn’t want me; though, to be fair to myself, I was still pretty young at the time. After a while, I started sending my work to magazines again and experienced a completely different response because I had become a better writer.
You’re also involved with online publications like The Rumpus. How did you connect with that community?
I read an article in the New York Times about the town of Cleveland, Texas, in which a girl had been gang-raped, and the article kept saying, “Oh, this poor town.” It was mourning the town instead of this poor girl who had been raped by nearly 30 men! I was furious and, within two hours, I dashed off an essay about it. I wondered: “Where can I have this published where it will actually be read? Where it might make a difference?” I emailed the founder of The Rumpus, Stephen Elliott, to ask if he was interested, and he said yes. Afterwards, I started sending more and more essays to Isaac Fitzgerald, who was the editor at the time. They eventually brought me on as an editor, and I’ve been there ever since. Being a part of that community has been great because I live in the middle of nowhere, so it’s nice to feel connected to other writers—or just other humans.
Have you had any mentors along the way?
Absolutely. My parents have been influential. I was a lonely child; I was a loner and a loser. I wasn’t good at making friends and dealing with other human beings, so, for a long time, my family—my parents and my brothers—were the whole of my world. That’s not always a good thing, but they have definitely guided me fairly well throughout my life.
Rex McGuinn, my high school writing teacher I mentioned earlier, was amazing. He helped me at a time when I needed it.
Now, as a writer, one of my greatest mentors is Tayari Jones, author of Silver Sparrow and Leaving Atlanta. She is a great friend. She answers questions when I have them, she gives me advice and a gentle nudge. I genuinely appreciate that.
I feel like I have always been in good hands.
Has there been a point when you’ve decided to take a big risk to move forward?
I take a big risk waking up every day. (laughing)
Writing my novel and essays were definitely risks, but the biggest risk was deciding to publish my essays in a collection called Bad Feminist, which comes out this August. It’s one thing to have my writing on the Internet here and there because websites come and go. We like to say that the Internet is forever, but it’s not as forever as we would like to believe. A book is permanent: it is potentially in many more hands, and it’s open to criticism in a way that it isn’t on the Internet because I don’t have to read the comments. I tend to read the reviews because they are done by real critics taking a real engagement with the work. I’m nervous for the essay collection to come out, but I’m proud of it. Seeing that move into the world in book form has been the biggest risk I’ve taken.
So, right now you’re on a tour for your novel, An Untamed State?
Yes. I’m living in Charleston, Illinois, until the end of the summer, but I’ve been doing the East Coast swing for the tour. I’m currently in Philadelphia, but I’ve been on the road for a while, so I’m going to visit my parents tomorrow. They split their time between Naples, Florida, and Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Then I’m going to do a reading in Miami.
What led up to writing An Untamed State?
It started as a short story called Things I Know About Fairy Tales that I published in 2009 for a magazine called Necessary Fiction. The story would not leave me alone. I kept thinking about it and thinking about it. In the summer of 2011, I wrote the novel. It has been through some iterations, but it turned out pretty well.
The story is about a Haitian-American woman who goes to Port-au-Prince with her American husband and son. They are on their way to the beach when she is kidnapped and held hostage for 13 days because her father refuses to pay the ransom. The novel looks at what she experiences while being kidnapped, and how she overcomes not only that trauma, but the betrayal of her father as well. It explores how she comes to terms with realizing that Haiti is not the country she thought it was, and that she had lived a blissful and almost fairytale-like existence before the kidnapping. It’s a story that picks on privilege, class, race, and gender—and I hope it’s compelling.
Did you grow up in Haiti?
My parents are both from Haiti, and they took my brothers and I there during the summers while we were growing up. We moved around a lot, but we settled in Omaha, Nebraska, because my dad worked for a company there. We’re American, but I was raised as a Haitian-American. Our Haitian identity always figured prominently in how we were raised and how we saw the world.
Are your family and friends supportive of what you do?
Yeah, definitely, although I don’t share a lot about my writing with my family—they only recently found out I wrote a book.
In November, I took my parents to an event in Atlanta where I was reading. I knew my book was going to happen, so I wanted to grease the wheels as if to say, “By the way, I write a lot.” They know I write, and they’ve been supportive of me my whole life. I’ll tell them big news, like when my work appeared in a The Best American Short Stories anthology for the first time, and my mom asked, “What’s that?” (laughing) That was humbling, but they are proud.
Do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something bigger than yourself?
Definitely. As a writer and as a human being, I want to contribute to how we think about the world and how we portray the world in both fiction and nonfiction. I won’t be so bold as to say that I’m going to make the world a better place, but I’m going to try and not leave the world a worse place than I found it.
Are you creatively satisfied?
Yeah. Writing is not a tortured act for me. I don’t have any angst about it, and I don’t find it to be a painful misery. Writing is the one endeavor that makes me purely happy, and it comes fairly easily to me. I don’t know why I’m that lucky, but it’s true.
There are definitely times when I have writer’s block, and it’s infuriating, but writers love to dramatize the suffering of the writer. I don’t judge them on that, because it’s their truth, but I’m suffering when I’m not writing: it’s what I do for fun. When people say I’m prolific, I think, “Well, it’s kind of my self-medication, and it doesn’t feel like work.”
I’m a happy writer, and although that hasn’t always been the case, I count my blessings. I’m finally in the place I’ve always dreamed of. Maybe my dreams weren’t that big, but I just wanted to write and have people read what I had to say one way or another. I have that, and I have been lucky to work with editors who let me be myself in my writing. I wrote the novel I wanted to write, I wrote the essay collection I wanted to write, and I haven’t had to compromise. I’m truly creatively satisfied.
Do you think that satisfaction comes from the ability to do the work or share the work? Or is it a little of both?
It comes from being able to do the work, and from having a job that allows me to do it. I can’t live solely off my writing, but my job as a writing teacher, which I also love, makes it possible for me to do all manner of things. I’m able to go on book tours in the summer without losing my day job, and I can spend time writing or researching. I’m not teaching every day, so I can spend time doing the thinking I need to do in order to write. Getting to write is a pure joy. The fact that people read my writing is icing on the cake.
You have a collection of essays coming out soon. What else do you have planned for the next 5 to 10 years?
I have another book coming out in 2016, so I’m working on that, but I’m always working. I have several ongoing book and essay projects.
I would love to be good enough to merit some kind of recognition for my writing, but I would also like to have a family and a life of some kind. In the next three to five years, I want to pull away from work to focus on myself and figure out what I want in order to be happy. I took the idea of achieving a career first very seriously, and I don’t regret that, but I definitely know that the career does not keep you warm at night. (laughing)
More than that, though, it’s just not enough. One of the reasons I’m moving out of Charleston is because I want to live in a place where I can have friends. Basic things like going to the movies or going for a walk in a place that isn’t horrible are important to me. I’m just looking forward to having a better life.
Where are you moving to?
I’m going to start teaching at Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana. I’m actually moving to another small town, but it’s not as small as the one I currently live in. I have only been there once, for my interview, but it seems nice.
“I’m proud to be from the Midwest, and to be a Midwestern writer. It’s funny because I hated it when I was a little kid…Now, I make a point of talking about how you can be a creative person in the Midwest: you can have stories that matter, even if you’re not amidst the hustle and bustle and glamour of New York City.”
I grew up in a small town in the Midwest and moved straight from there to New York City. I still love the Midwest, though.
I do, too. I’m proud to be from the Midwest, and to be a Midwestern writer. It’s funny because I hated it when I was a little kid: I thought, “Oh, there’s nothing to do!” Now my life’s dream is to move back to Nebraska. (laughing)
As a young person, you don’t realize how valuable that experience is or what you can get from growing up in the plains. Now, I make a point of talking about how you can be a creative person in the Midwest: you can have stories that matter, even if you’re not amidst the hustle and bustle and glamour of New York City. A lot of times, people think the writing world begins and ends in Brooklyn or Manhattan. That’s a reasonable impression because there’s an entire book called MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction, as if those are the only two options, but there’s more out there.
There are so many writers who live normal lives and live in places like Lafayette, Indiana. There are writers who live in places like Chicago or Omaha or Iowa City or any town in Michigan, but people pretend they don’t exist. And let’s not even get into the West Coast; there are so many amazing writers in the Pacific Northwest and points south from there. I’m interested in how those people talk about place in their writing, and how place shapes their stories. Sometimes I’m more interested in those experiences than reading yet another story about a young guy from Brooklyn who can’t find a girlfriend, or vice versa. There is nothing wrong with those stories, but there’s little in that that I can relate to. There’s more to life than that.
If you were to give advice to a young person starting out, what would you say?
Read a lot, and read diversely—which is to say, read from a diverse range of styles and points of view.
Another piece of advice is just to give a damn. There are so many times when I hear a writer say, “Oh, I wrote something, but it’s not that great.” Why would you tell me that? What about that would compel me to read what you’re doing? You need to own your talent when you find little successes, because those little successes need to sustain you for a long, long, long time.
Be relentless without being obnoxious. Be ambitious, and own your ambition—that goes especially for women. It’s okay to say, “I want greatness.” I would very much love to write something worthy of a Pulitzer. I don’t know that I have it in me, but I aspire. And I’m okay with admitting that I aspire; not to win the prize, but to become that good of a writer. I encourage younger writers to have goals and try to pursue what they want to see in their writing—or any art, really. Just expose yourself to what is happening in the world and in your community as a writer.
How does where you live impact your work or creativity?
Charleston doesn’t impact my creativity, but living in the middle of nowhere does play a part in why I write so much. There are so few distractions that I don’t have any reason to do anything but write. It gives me time and space.
I do love living in a place where I can see the stars at night. When I moved to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, I finally understood what constellations were because I could actually see the shapes. That’s not to say that Omaha is drowning in pollution, but there is a clarity to the sky in the country that is stunning. I love getting a sense of the vastness of the world and how unimportant I am in that vastness when I look up at something as beautiful as a perfect night sky. That humility of what you can behold from the Midwest does shape some of my writing.
Is it important to you to be a part of a creative community of people?
It is increasingly important. I didn’t ever care about it before because communities of people certainly didn’t want to have anything to do with me growing up. I was so desperately unpopular, so I didn’t think I was a community person. That affected a lot of my 20s, but now that I’m more mature and more comfortable interacting with other people, I realize that I do like community. I like knowing that there are people who I can consider friends, people who I can count on and who can count on me. I look at the writers who I’ve been coming up with over the last several years now and I recognize them as my people.
I was at a reading in Washington, DC, the other night and saw Mark Cugini in the audience. I’ve known him for a long time, and it was such a relief to see him and think, “I know this person.” That means something to me.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I waste a lot of time. (laughing) It depends. On a teaching day, I wake up at a reasonable hour and go to Starbucks. I go to campus and fuck around until it’s time to teach, and then I fuck around a little more and teach again. When I go home, I tell myself, “I’m going to write,” and then I watch TV. I try to do a little bit of writing or reading—oftentimes I read at night.
On non-teaching days, I watch TV. I watch Law & Order or Criminal Minds marathons. Finally, when it’s late and I’ve exhausted myself with television and the Internet, I start to write. It’s sad: it’s not fancy at all. I read a lot throughout the day, though. I always have my Kindle with me, and I generally have a couple books with me too. I go from one activity to another all day long.
Do you pressure yourself to sit down and write every day?
I don’t put that pressure on myself, but I do tend to write every day. It’s not pressure—it’s pressure release.
Is there any music that you’re listening to right now?
I’ve been listening to Beyoncé on repeat—just running that shit into the ground. I have also been listening to the Busta Rhymes and Janet Jackson duet, “What’s It Gonna Be?!” over and over again, as well as some Janelle Monáe. I listen to a bizarre range of music, but my Spotify will always show you the rut I’m in with music.
There’s a great band from Michigan called This Is Deer Country, and I will listen to their music whenever I want to zone out. I love them. I bought their album when I was in the Upper Peninsula, and they’re beautiful.
Do you have any favorite movies or TV shows?
Law & Order: SVU, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Criminal Minds, Alias, One Tree Hill, Grey’s Anatomy—I mean, I could do this all day. (laughing) I like Chicago Hope, but it’s no longer on the air. I like Scandal, too, though it tends to go off the deep end quite a lot—that show is nuts.
Movies are one of my greatest passions. I love Pretty Woman. I recently saw The Wolf of Wall Street and started watching it again because I loved it so much. I like any movie: I will watch a romantic comedy even when I recognize that it is terrible. I enjoy dramas, and I love a good action movie, like Heat—even though it’s a little older, it’s still great. Similar to my music tastes, my movie tastes are also quite eclectic.
Do you have any favorite books?
One of my favorite books is The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. Some of my other favorites are The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, Possessing the Secret of Joy by Alice Walker, NW by Zadie Smith, and Little House on the Prairie.
Do you have a favorite food?
I’m not sure—I’m a desperately picky eater. My favorite drink is diet cherry Pepsi, and I love me some french fries. Can you just bring me some french fries with a magic Skype machine? (laughing)
(laughing) If only! Actually, I read that there is a cupcake vending machine in Manhattan.
Yeah, it’s true. So, now that we have that out of the way, I have one last serious question for you. What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?
I hope that I will have changed people’s minds in ways that make the world a better place. I want my writing to do something more than just satisfy my love of writing. I want it to reach people.
“Writing is not a tortured act for me. I don’t have any angst about it, and I don’t find it to be a painful misery. Writing is the one endeavor that makes me purely happy, and it comes fairly easily to me. I don’t know why I’m that lucky, but it’s true.”