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.
SheKnows: Most of the stories in Difficult Women are pretty straight, but there are also some more fantastical ones, like “Requiem for a Glass Heart” where two characters are made of glass or “Water, All Its Weight” where a woman, Bianca, is followed by a cloud of moisture that rots her surroundings. How do you know when to take a story in the direction of the surreal? What does the surreal help you to better explore?
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.
SK: You seem to be a jack-of-all-trades. I’ve read that you’ve got an entire other literary life as an erotica writer, which you can see threads of in this collection. What is it that interests you in writing about sex? Why is it such a crucial part of your stories?
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.
SK: One of the things I noticed in these stories is that there is a lot of exploration of what makes people, men especially, not so good. I’m thinking in particular of William in “La Negra Blanca,” who obsesses over a woman, Sarah, who he believes is white with a “black girl ass” before eventually raping her, only to realize her mother was black. On the flip side, there are also decent men in this book, like Alvarez in the same story, or Darryl from “I Will Follow You” or Magnus from “North Country” or Ben in “Break All The Way Down.” But we don’t get much in the way of background for them because it’s not really their story, and yet they are instrumental in creating space for women to heal. How do you think characters like these come to goodness, kindness, patience?
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.
SK: In the cases of these characters, it is almost that they’re setting out to rescue these women. But it feels so authentic, not like a trope. What did you do to make the rescuing feel like less of an act of masculinity and more of one of humanity? Are there tropes you actively set out to avoid when writing about men and women?
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.
SK: Brooklyn Magazine just published a profile of you where people clamored at the chance to talk about what a wonderful writer and human being you are — as well as what a thoughtful editor. When you’re editing your own work, what are you looking for? Do you have to approach it differently than you approach other people’s writings, or are the encouragements and critiques largely the same? How do you push yourself to allow vulnerability on the page?
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.
SK: About your next book, Hunger, which is a memoir… you’ve said that you’re a very private person, and yet you feel a need for more books like this to be in the world. How much does that motivate you when you’re writing — the feeling that the story needs to be told, even if it’s deeply uncomfortable for you to be the one to tell it? And you say that personal catharsis has little to do with it — how does the motivation for the writing (catharsis vs. a kind of literary activism) end up changing the writing that results? Which story in Difficult Women was the most uncomfortable to write and why did you feel it was necessary to share it?
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.
SK: We’re seeing a growing interest in more diverse personal stories that aren’t told often enough — black women and LGBT writers, for example. For those writers who want to share their experiences with others — so people like them know they aren’t alone — but aren’t sure where to start or how to get eyes on it, what advice would you give them?
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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