Roxane Gay has had a prolific summer. The well-known writer and editor published two books this summer, including her first novel, An Untamed State, and a collection of essays called Bad Feminist. They are very different works, but both reveal Gay’s thoughtful and original approach to writing. An Untamed State is a traumatic tale of how a woman who is kidnapped in Haiti deals with the violence of the experience and the struggle to readjust to life afterward. Bad Feminist, which is reviewed in the Tough issue of Bitch, collects thought-provoking essays on pop cultures and society that Gay has published over the past few years.
Back when she visited Portland, Oregon on book tour in June, Gay took the time to talk with me about violence, fairy tales, and her voracious reading habit.
SARAH MIRK: You have two books come out this summer, one fiction and one nonfiction. What did you learn about the book industry during this process?
ROXANE GAY: It taught me that persistence pays off. You have to be in it for the long haul. Sometimes it takes a lot longer than you thought, but cream rises to the top. It may not rise in the way you want, but it will get there.
What surprised you during process of publishing these books?
What has surprised me is that I’ve had a great experience. You hear a lot of horror stories about “big publishing” and how their editors don’t edit and how there’s no money for promotion. I don’t think that’s untrue, but that hasn’t been my story, so that’s been a pleasant surprise.
Can you tell me a bit about how you decided to write An Untamed State? Where did the story come from and how did it change when you started writing it?
It rose out of a short story I wrote called “Things I Know About Fairytales.” The character wouldn’t leave me alone and the story wouldn’t leave me alone. I wasn’t sure if I could write a novel. I told myself I would write 100 short stories and squish them all together. But when I got into it, I realized I just needed to write one story really well and tell it as truly as I could. So I started thinking about what it would feel like to be this woman and what the aftermath would look like. I just wrote it, one page at a time.
Why did it seem more feasible to you to write 100 short stories rather than one long one?
It was easier for me to wrap my mind around that, rather than thinking about writing something that was 100,000 words long. It was the scope of the novel that intimidated me.
You look out on the horizon and the horizon is so far away.
Right. But once I got into it, I realized the horizon was not as far away as I thought, so I was able to do what I needed to do.
What was it like actually writing this novel? Did it take over your brain and make you feel like a different person?
I wrote it over the course of a summer. I just wrote every day all day. I would work on other things certainly, there were times when I needed to step away and clear my head and clear my heart a little, because of the intense nature of it, but I became fully immersed in the character and her circumstances.
This book is so intense—as I was reading it, I wondered how it impacted you to write it. Did it feel stressful or like a relief?
All of the above. It was intense but it was also exhilarating to find hope where there is so much darkness. It was intense, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I wanted to really feel the book as I wrote it, just as I want readers to really feel the book when they read it. I think that’s the only way to get there.
What do you hope people will take from the book?
People who have survived this kind of trauma have come up to me and said, “Yes, you got it right.” You can’t ask for anything more than that. A couple people have expressed an appreciation for the book showing how trauma lingers. It’s not a thing that can be neatly handled. It’s a ragged and ugly thing sometimes. That people see that and relate to that is a shame, but it’s gratifying to know that I at least got it right in some ways.
Can you tell me about how you made decisions about what to include in the book and what to leave out? Were there things you intentionally left out here?
For me, there was nothing I was going to leave out. I knew this story was going to be explicit. I wanted to stare the ugliness in the face. I think oftentimes when we write violence, it’s very stylized. I didn’t want it to be stylized; I wanted it to be raw and closer to reality. I wanted people to feel like they had to look away. I think if you can read straight through it or sit through it in a movie, you’ve done something wrong.
Do you react strongly to violence in movies?
I have a pretty high tolerance, I think, so seeing violence on television doesn’t really upset me. I don’t think that’s a good thing, but it rarely surprises me. I think that’s something that impacted this book, actually. The only violence I’ve seen that’s truly unwatchable is this movie called Irreversible, a French movie starring Monica Bellucci. It’s the most brutal thing I’ve ever seen. It’s unwatchable. And I thought it was perfectly done, in that way. It should be unwatchable. So I kept that in mind while writing this.
We see violent books and movies all the time. But when it’s realistic, when it’s actually truly sad, it feels like too much.
I think when violence gets too close to the uncomfortable truth, people don’t want it. I read serial killer novels all the time where men gleefully tear up women’s bodies and then become anti-heroes. We love those kinds of books. When you get this kind of violence delivered by a man, in away where it’s the only plot device, people love it. I think when you bring a more complicated view to violence, where there are no answers as to how it came about, then people don’t want to look at that. And I don’t understand that, but we all have our interests and we all make our choices. For me this was the right choice, the only choice.
What other books or movies deal with violence well?
Room by Emma Donahue dealt with it really subtly and elegantly. I think Possessing the Secret of Joy by Alice Walker deals with cultural violence in a different way, but I think it also deals quite wonderfully with the topic.
We’ve been talking about your novel, so let’s talk a bit about Bad Feminist. How is it different writing fiction versus nonfiction for you?
Fiction is generally where I try to recreate the world how I wish it would be and nonfiction is where I look at the word how it is and try to make sense of it as best I can. I’m a Libra, which doesn’t really mean anything, but I really am a Libra, so I’m always seeking balance. So for me, my fiction and nonfiction interests really balance each other well.
So what’s the counterbalance to An Untamed State in your nonfiction work?
“The Careless Language of Sexual Violence,” one of the essays I wrote while working on the novel. I call for people to be more careful in how we depict violence in fiction and nonfiction. Actually, all of the essays in one way or another, I think, counterbalance it.
Tell me about the process of putting together Bad Feminist. Did you have any trouble pitching and selling a book that’s explicitly feminist?
No. The essays sold really quickly, which was really gratifying. Before I put the essays together, I read In Praise of Messy Lives by Katie Roiphe. I actually disagree with her about pretty much everything, but that collection is really well structured. I felt like I was part of a conversation in that book and I wanted to create a sense of conversation—I begin and end with essays on how I see feminism and in the middle are essays on pop culture. I wanted the writer to feel like they were being led from beginning to end in a way that made sense.
Do you feel like your writing has changed over the years that you wrote the essays in this collection?
Absolutely. I think I’m always growing as a writer. There’s nothing I’ve written that I look back on and am ashamed about, I can laugh and say, ‘Oh, girl, what were you thinking?’ For the most part, I only see growth
Did you get the urge to go back and change any of them?
No. I tweaked a couple—some of had to be made more timely, more evergreen, because they were written in the moment. But, no, I was proud of the essays the way they were, I stood by them.
You mentioned “The Careless Language of Sexual Violence,” but do you feel like other essays in Bad Feminist connect to your novel?
The only other essay I think really connects to the novel is “The Illusion of Safety/The Safety of Illusion,” which is something I wrote about trigger warnings. A lot of people have asked, “Do you think your novel needs a trigger warning?” That essay explains my stance on trigger warnings—I don’t really believe in them, but they’re not for me, they’re for people who need them, so it kind of doesn’t matter what I think.
Let’s talk about that a little more. Did you try to set up your novel so that people would know what they were getting into?
A kidnapping happens in the first chapter, so there’s no secret about what’s going to happen. For whatever reason, a lot of the reviewers have focused on the sexual violence, so I think there’s a lot of information out there. I don’t think it’s my job to warn the reader and protect the reader, because you don’t know what’s going to upset people. That’s not to say I want to traumatize the reader, but it’s a book. We have to be willing to take chances and to trust writers to take us into necessary places.
Besides violence, what other dark places do you think the book explores?
The aftermath. How do you overcome this, physically, emotionally, spiritually? What happens next? That’s the truly difficult thing and I would like to see more people focus on that. There are no happy endings. There are happier endings. I think there’s hope even at the end of this book. There are two kinds of traditional fairy tales: there’s the original Grimm fairy tales that are dark and ugly and maybe there’s something hopeful at the end, but it takes a lot to get there. Then there are the Disneyfied versions where the happy ending is guaranteed and Prince Charming takes you and whisks you away. I definitely wanted to complicate that in this novel, to show the way that fairy tales could be shattered. In this book, Miré is trying to rebuild her life and find her way back to herself and it’s definitely not an easy experience, it’s not something that happens neatly and quickly. It takes years and years and still there are repercussions.
Do you have any fairy tales that resonate with you?
I’m interested in fairy tales! I like what they say about our culture and I’m interested in why we value them so much—why do these stories persist after hundreds and hundreds of years? I like them all. I think Cinderella, Repunzel, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, all of them offer us something interesting. Women rarely fare well in fairy tales. It’s just never a good thing for them. Why don’t we have stories about a man in distress?
What’s interesting to you about Rapunzel and Cinderella specifically?
With Rapunzel, you get the impression that she had the means of her own escape the all along, she just had to let down her hair. I think there are ways she could have devised her own escape, rather than waiting around for someone to come along and ask to climb up so that he could help her out. Then in Cinderella, there’s just so much suffering. You see the lengths that women will go to for the promise of a happy ending. In the original fairy tale, the sisters cut their feet to try to fit them into the slippers. That’s a horrible and self-mutilating thing. Is he really all that great? They don’t even know him.
Do you read a lot of books yourself?
I read a lot. Probably three or four books a week.
Three or four books a week?
That’s voracious! Have you always prioritized reading?
Yes, we weren’t allowed to watch TV as a kid, we were only allowed one hour a week, so I had to find something else to fill that time.
What did you spend your one hour on?
It depends. PBS shows. Mr. Rogers, Sesame Street. Then we were allowed to watch Little House on the Prairie when it came on and The Cosby Show.
How is it different having people respond to a book rather than to the individual essays online?
Generally, I think with the essays online, it’s more likely for people to respond in half-assed, half-baked, and very reactionary ways. But I think a book demands more patience and consideration from readers. I’m looking forward to seeing, good or bad, how people respond to the book. I think it will bring about more measured responses than from people who read the essays online individually. There’s no comment field, so you’ll really have to want to respond in order to respond.
Related Reading: Summer Reads That Are Hot Off the Small Press.