The Lit Hub Author Questionnaire is a monthly interview featuring seven questions for five authors with new books. This month we talk to:
Eliza Clark (Penance)
Joshua Mohr (Farsickness)
Etaf Rum (Evil Eye)
Julius Taranto (How I Won a Nobel Prize)
Vauhini Vara (This Is Salvaged)
Without summarizing it in any way, what would you say your book is about?
Julius Taranto: It’s a bizarre, and bizarrely realistic, thought experiment about trying to live without politics, win a Nobel Prize, and not get divorced.
Vauhini Vara: Telemarketing, egg rolls, cancer, bison, alcoholism, vomit, food, art, climate change, capitalism, ambition, fire, alligators, the incomprehensible, Donald Rumsfeld, Elon Musk, eczema, perimenopause, friendship, parenthood, childhood, selfhood, communion, loss, desire, death, life.
Joshua Mohr: David Lynch’s imagination. James Baldwin’s bookmark. A love song that’s covered in bruises. Ball lightning. Parenthood. Monsters. Murder. The joy of jumping off a dock into a cold lake with my daughter.
Etaf Rum: A Palestinian-American woman whose ambition conflicts with family responsibility, who struggles with identity and belonging, and who needs to unpack childhood trauma in order to find her own way and break free.
Eliza Clark: Penance is about true crime, UK seaside towns and telling lies. Penance is also about high school as a literal hell-dimension and the nightmare of being a teenaged girl.
Without explaining why and without naming other authors or books, can you discuss the various influences on your book?
Etaf Rum: Listening to Eminem growing up. Rebellion. Mental breakdown. A need to find stories like mine in literature.
Joshua Mohr: A punk rock show. The guitar is out of tune. The singer has a hoarse voice. The bassist is drunk and forgot to plug into the amp. The drummer is on coke and keeps speeding up. But despite all that, the show is perfect. They pollute the world with beautiful, broken songs. That’s what my skinny little novella Farsickness is: a horrible concert that I hope you love.
Vauhini Vara: The telemarketing job my best friend and I had the summer after freshman year of college, the bison paddock at Golden Gate Park, religious texts, religious people, religious experiences, all the places I’ve lived and visited, Starlink, Bugs Bunny, AOL chat rooms, my family, my friends, my teachers, my agent, my editor, growing up, growing older, the time a man cried to me about his wife, the time I vomited sushi somewhere in my apartment and the next morning couldn’t remember where, the time my sister died, time.
Eliza Clark: Penance draws a lot on my own terrible traumatic digital childhood—my experiences with Tumblr and online fandoms specifically. It’s also influenced heavily by digital folklore and by the way true-crime narratives are constructed. In later stages, it was influenced a lot by me getting really annoyed at quite bad true-crime podcasts.
Julius Taranto: Blockbusters, comedies, philosophers, and physicists; old professors and old Jews.
Without using complete sentences, can you describe what was going on in your life as you wrote this book?
Joshua Mohr: A father. The writer of the novella. His 9-year-old daughter. Its illustrator. Months of love and time building Farsickness. Together. The two of us. Magicians. Co-conspirators. Big tales in tall hearts. Teaching her the family business young!
Julius Taranto: Peak lockdown, political chaos that was impossible to ignore, and wanting some delight in a world that, though serious, was maybe taking itself a bit too seriously.
Eliza Clark: Pandemic, pandemic, pandemic!
Etaf Rum: Depression, Covid, homeschooling, loneliness.
Vauhini Vara: Being a full-time working person for the first time; pausing that for two years of graduate school; being a working person again; getting married; turning 30; having a child; starting to freelance; making several big moves (San Francisco, Iowa, back to San Francisco, New York, back to San Francisco, Fort Collins, Madrid); publishing a novel; turning 40—basically, a 15-year period of becoming an adult.
What are some words you despise that have been used to describe your writing by readers and/or reviewers?
Vauhini Vara: I’ve loved reading reviews of The Immortal King Rao, my novel, including the negative ones. There was a negative review in the New York Review of Books—it compared the novel to Jennifer Egan’s The Candy House, and Egan won—and I thought it made great points. People mention this review to me all the time, and I get the sense they believe it was a positive review, because the negative part was hidden behind the paywall. My only regret, whenever I read a critical note in a review, is that the ship has sailed, and I can’t fix the error anymore.
Joshua Mohr: A newspaper once said, “Mohr writes like John Milton living in a garbage dump.” I still don’t know if it’s a compliment or an insult. Do you? Will you please come over to my place and whisper the answer in my ear?
Etaf Rum: Stereotypes words or phrases that reduce my writing as the single story of what it means to Arab or Arab-American.
Eliza Clark: I don’t have any particularly strong opinions on this honestly. People are always going to be a bit reductive about your work (it’s going to be one of hundreds or thousands of novels they read) so I try not to police or otherwise get annoyed about the way people engage with my work. There are modes of engaging with my work I find frustrating and quite worrisome (depiction as endorsement, the presumption of autobiographical content etc.) but I don’t think there are particular words or turns of phrase that really rub me up the wrong way.
Julius Taranto: Nearly no one has read the book yet, aside from people who were contractually obliged to like it. If you come back to me later, I’ll be happy to get defensive and start some literary spats.
If you could choose a career besides writing (irrespective of schooling requirements and/or talent) what would it be?
Eliza Clark: I’d want to be one of those people who cares for/rehabilitates baby orangutans. I don’t cope well with humidity but I would do it for them.
Etaf Rum: Singer-songwriter.
Vauhini Vara: Clown—the Charlie Chaplin kind, not the creepy kind—or This American Life producer.
Julius Taranto: I actually did not hate being a lawyer . . . but, I know, that’s such a practical answer. Accepting the premise that talent would be granted from on high, I would probably be one of those people who’s really good at both math and music. You know, physicist by day, multi-instrumentalist by night? I’m convinced those people have a deeper connection to the truths of existence than I do. I know some people in this category, and I would like not to resent them so much.
Joshua Mohr: My first teaching gigs were at halfway houses in San Francisco. Those were my favorite jobs. One time, I booked a local playhouse so the students could read their writing—and everybody from the halfway house showed up to support them. At the end of the event, the writers all stood on stage and got a standing ovation. The look in their eyes! They couldn’t believe where they were—fresh from prison to this stage—I’ll remember that look for the rest of my life. My point is this: Whatever this other career of mine might be, I’ll still spend it trying to find that look in their eyes again.
What craft elements do you think are your strong suit, and what would you like to be better at?
Julius Taranto: I think I’m pretty good with voice and getting inside other heads. I would like to be better at romantic tension, the will-they-wont-they. One early review said I’d failed to “generate much erotic heat.” Sadly that’s not the first time in my life I’ve heard that. But oh, right, we were talking about writing.
Joshua Mohr: I believe our human imaginations are as unique as our fingerprints—and I make art under that philosophy. Conventional wisdom says we should write the book we want to read, but let’s take it a step further: let’s write the books that can only come from our particular imaginations. So I hope Farsickness is this unctuous, surrealist meal of craft elements. I’m also bad at dialogue, setting, plot, conflict, characterization, POV, imagery, structure, setting, and subtext. And starting sentences with conjunctions.
Eliza Clark: I think my dialogue and character writing is good but my line-level writing is a bit pedestrian? I think I’m good at copying natural voices but not very good at adopting the more unnatural cadence required for that kind of Beautiful Third Person Narration we associate with good line level writing.
Vauhini Vara: It’s a hard question for me to answer in general, because it depends on the project. But in This Is Salvaged, I feel like I wrote about life as it really is from my perspective; I feel it’s authentic. I’d like to be better at describing physical landscapes; I wish I knew the names of plants.
Etaf Rum: As one reader put it, I excel at “pressing my finger against the wound.” I’d like to be better at dialogue and sensory details.
How do you contend with the hubris of thinking anyone has or should have any interest in what you have to say about anything?
Eliza Clark: I think it helps to view your writing as something that is there to amuse people! If you think of yourself as a sort of jester-like figure it’s hard to get too wrapped up in the potential importance of your work. I’m primarily out to entertain rather than being under the illusion that I do have anything special or impactful to say. Maybe I do, as long as people get something out of the writing I’m not experiencing any kind of terrible ego death.
Vauhini Vara: This doesn’t bother me, honestly. For me, writing isn’t so different from, like, talking to a friend. I figure the people who are interested in what I have to say will show up to listen, and the ones who aren’t won’t.
Julius Taranto: I think everyone is interesting, and everyone should try to pay attention to what everyone else says in good faith. That’s what it means to love each other. Communicating is a human entitlement. As for why I’m in the strange and extremely fortunate position of having a large company believe it can make money by publishing my writing—you’ll have take that up with them. Though, you know, I’d prefer that you don’t.
Joshua Mohr: Service! The answer for me is always service. Whenever hubris throws some bratty tantrum in my skull, I get out of that narcissism by showing up for somebody else. Hard to bemoan the status of a book or its reception in the marketplace while bussing tables at a soup kitchen.
Etaf Rum: I remind myself that life is meaningless and we’re all going to die. Then I write what I want.