Roxane Gay is a literary force. She's been teaching, writing and editing for nearly two decades; has founded her own literary press (Tiny Hardcore Press); has published a novel and a book of essays in the same year (2015) to widespread acclaim and two books of short stories.
Difficult Women, her latest short story collection, was released in January of this year. When it came across my desk, I was both thrilled and timid. If anyone knows how to write, it's Gay, but I'm also a creative writing major who oversaturated herself in literary works and turned up her nose at pop fiction until, well, I realized I kind of like an easy, entertaining read. I've often bought short story collections and found their writing magnificent, but somehow put them to the side in favor of something that better grabbed my attention and offered cheerier outlook for the world. I really wanted to like Difficult Women, but I knew that Gay tackles tough topics like rape, abuse, violence and grief. I wasn't sure, in an already ugly year, I'd be able to handle it.
Much to my surprise, Difficult Women was an absolute pleasure to read. While it tackled hard subjects, it did so with a level of empathy, patience and even hope that gave me more faith in human resiliency.
Gay has also mastered a balance between moving a story forward and making a character real and relatable. They could be a co-worker you never got to know beyond coffee talk or a stranger you always see at the grocery store. The stories feel so alive, you can almost hear their heartbeat.
I asked Gay how she accomplishes such a feat and why she feels compelled to write the stories of these characters' lives as well as the story of her own.
Roxane Gay: It’s gut instinct that helps me determine how to write a story. I love the surreal because I am faced with the challenge of making the unbelievable believable. That challenge is thrilling.
RG: Sex offers incredible narrative opportunities and so many emotions are tied up in sex. Also, I mean, the erotic is always a fun creative space.
RG: I would like to believe that most people, regardless of gender, are good and kind. The good men in my stories are the rule. It’s the bad men that are the exception and because I tend toward the dark in my fiction, you see more of the exception than the rule.
RG: I tried to make the good men places where women could find peace, solace, These were men who were able to see women as equals and therefore they weren’t so much rescuing women as not getting in their way or creating problems for them, which might seem like rescue but is more likely sanctuary. I’m always trying to avoid writing men and women as caricatures. For the most part, I succeed. If I caricature a character, there’s probably a good creative reason for that.
RG: When I’m editing my work, I’m looking for everything to fit, to feel seamless, for every detail or line of dialogue or scene to feel necessary and organic. I approach the writing of others in much the same way while always working to preserve the writer’s voice. To allow myself to be vulnerable on the page, I tell myself no one is going to read my work. There’s no way I could put myself out there otherwise.
RG: Knowing that a story needs to be told is a great motivator, even if telling a given story comes at a price. Writing Hunger has been the most difficult writing of my life, and it’s the rawest and perhaps most necessary. We’ll see how people take it. I always strive to write beyond personal catharsis because though I write first and foremost for myself, I do recognize that I need to look outward as much if not more than I look inward, so the reader has something with which they can engage. The most uncomfortable story in Difficult Women was probably "Strange Gods," but it felt so necessary to write and it hurt to write and that’s how I knew I was onto something.
RG: I tell anyone who is going to write a personal story to establish firm boundaries for themselves. You don’t have to cannibalize your life to write your story. In terms of getting eyes on your writing, you need to submit it, when you feel it is ready, to publications that might be a good fit for your work. Before that, it can be helpful to join a writing group.
Difficult Women is on shelves now. Hunger will be released June 13, 2017.
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