Lit Hub Asks: 5 Authors, 7 Questions, No Wrong Answers
The Lit Hub Author Questionnaire is a monthly interview featuring seven questions for five authors with new books. This month we talk to:
Stephen Buoro (The Five Sorrowful Mysteries of Andy Africa)
Nicole Cuffy (Dances)
Phillip Maciak (Avidly Reads Screen Time)
Hannah Pittard (We Are Too Many)
Bea Setton (Berlin)
Without summarizing it in any way, what would you say your book is about?
Hannah Pittard: Friendship, marriage, betrayal, infidelity, disordered eating, second chances… It’s about the mistakes we make that make us who we are. I’d call it a deeply personal dark comedy.
Phillip Maciak: Watching screens (alone or with people you love), watching your kids watch screens, panicking about watching screens, feeling okay about watching screens, other people panicking about you or your kids watching screens, watching characters on screens who are themselves watching screens, panicking again, ultimately feeling okay.
Stephen Buoro: Coming of age in present-day Nigeria. A boy’s obsession with whiteness and blonde women. Family secrets. Also: the legacy of colonialism, the inundation of Western culture in Nigeria, the desire to migrate to the West.
Nicole Cuffy: Dance and the body. Motherhood and daughterhood. Being black out loud.
Bea Setton: Running from yourself. Running in Berlin. Berlin. Weird sublets and the promiscuity of living in someone else’s things. Germany, Declensions. Addictions, compulsive behavior, the thrill and perils of secrecy. The narcissism of self-hatred. Internal and external monsters. Sean Connery. The desire to have a meaningful life. Philosophy bros, aka Fishy Maniacs.
Without explaining why and without naming other authors or books, can you discuss the various influences on your book?
Nicole Cuffy: The harsh and beautiful world of ballet, New York, an old Italian professor of mine, the Romanovs.
Bea Setton: The loneliness and loveliness of being in a foreign city. German language classes. Berlin. Noir cinema. Feminism.
Stephen Buoro: Post/colonialism, Catholicism, Afrofuturism. Also: Hollywood, pop culture, and mathematics.
Phillip Maciak: Movies on VHS cassettes taped from TV with the titles written in sharpie on the sides, the HBO/Cinemax monthly programming guide circa 1997, Scrooge McDuck’s vault of coins, the r/UFO subreddit, Vine, the time in the 2016 NBA finals when it looked, very briefly, as if LeBron James had broken his hand or something, the app that tells you about the stars when you point it at the sky.
Hannah Pittard: I lost my ability to write fiction during the pandemic. I also lost my ability to appreciate reading fiction. For the first time in my life I read and fell in love with nonfiction narratives, especially ones by women. Being alone in my attic office, in a house I’d moved into a month before the pandemic began, not being able to make up stories with an alacrity I’d clearly been taking for granted, I started having conversations in my head with the women whose writing I’d newly discovered—brilliant, well-established, award-winning women—and those conversations led to other imagined conversations. Eventually, I started writing all of it down.
Without using complete sentences, can you describe what was going on in your life as you wrote this book?
Bea Setton: Fired from my job at a hipster cinema for being too friendly. Worked for a magazine about walking. Walked around a lot for said magazine. Also odd-jobbing in coffee shops. Tried to do the swan shape with latte art. Never succeeded, alas. Can do the heart though <3
Phillip Maciak: Teaching and masking and parenting, ordering takeout, finding out about the wonders of Lake Michigan, reading Sally Forth comics with my daughter.
Stephen Buoro: My MA and PhD studies. Countless deadlines. Being a migrant in the UK. Of course, Covid!
Hannah Pittard: Dead dog, new boyfriend, new house, sabbatical, new stepdaughter, Covid, learning third-grade math, learning to fix a Chromebook, learning to: bake bread, make pasta, cook fish, make pan sauce, teach bracelet weaving, live with two other people…
Nicole Cuffy: Transition period, eating disorder, worst breakup of my life. Solo travels, new, amazing women, yoga and therapy. Dance, dance, dance.
What are some words you despise that have been used to describe your writing by readers and/or reviewers?
Phillip Maciak: Someone once used the word “puke” in responding to something I’d written. I didn’t love that!
Nicole Cuffy: “Real.” I simply do not know what that means.
Bea Setton: Unhinged, Sad Girl, Hot Mess. I think these are misogynistic tropes, as I argue here. Also “curiously chaste.” That was a mysterious objection. Curious critique.
Stephen Buoro: [Shrug.] I don’t have any that I particularly despise. Or maybe I’m not being very honest!
Hannah Pittard: “TMI.”
If you could choose a career besides writing (irrespective of schooling requirements and/or talent) what would it be?
Stephen Buoro: A career in mathematics or computer science, for sure! Or maybe a career in filmmaking. Anyhow, it’s kinda funny how these disciplines all involve some form of creative writing. Perhaps this means that in every possible reincarnation, I’d still end up being a writer in some way. It’s both sad and uplifting to realize this, tbh.
Hannah Pittard: Stand-up comedian followed closely by sous chef followed closely by waitress; if all these failed, famous actress.
Nicole Cuffy: I’d either be a dancer or an architect.
Phillip Maciak: I used to read the morning announcements over the loudspeaker in high school; I think I could be a really good PA announcer at a sports arena. Like, beloved local celebrity, signature catchphrase, name a parking structure after me level good. I also think I’d love being a graphic designer—book covers, concert posters, wedding invitations, whatever.
Bea Setton: Professional soccer player. Central defensive mid.
What craft elements do you think are your strong suit, and what would you like to be better at?
Nicole Cuffy: I’d describe myself as a character-driven writer, so I think very deeply about who my characters are, and why they’re worth writing about. The downside of this is that it occasionally comes at the expense of plot. I often have to go back and shore this up in revision. I am a very lazy editor.
Phillip Maciak: I think I am pretty good at crafting jokes, and I think I’m an above average close reader. I can struggle to figure out the right amount of citation, and, whenever I have structural problems, I tend to overcomplicate the matter by coming up with high-concept, evasive structural gimmicks rather than straight-forward solutions—which is why I’m very grateful to work with a great editor.
Hannah Pittard: I like writing dialogue, and I think I’m good at it. I also have a keen sense of the em-dash, and I love revising because of the time I can spend at the line level. At the same time, I can be impatient—in life and on the page. I suppose I wish I were better at lingering on a subject or in a scene or with a character. But the older I get, the more inclined I am to distill and move on…
Stephen Buoro: I don’t know—I think the reader is the ultimate judge considering how subjective art is. But I think I need to improve on every aspect of my craft. I always feel I can do better, that I have loads to discover.
Bea Setton: I am good at creating suspense and a certain atmosphere. My use of language is precise. I am bad at anything that is not an extremely traditional narrative structure—I get from A to C via point B without exception. And I can’t do split narrative voices! Cannot!
How do you contend with the hubris of thinking anyone has or should have any interest in what you have to say about anything?
Hannah Pittard: My stepdaughter is twelve years old. All she wants is for me to write one bestselling series along the lines of Hunger Games. Her lack of interest in my career is pretty humbling.
Phillip: I went into this assuming that most of my potential readers were already talking and thinking a lot about the subjects of my book—TV shows and parenting, mostly. To me, the hubris of writing this book was the same hubris as trying to join an ongoing conversation at a party. Which is to say: it’s terrifying.
Nicole Cuffy: I don’t think anyone is interested in what I have to say about anything. That’s the fun of impostor syndrome. But I do think that art is important, and I think conversations about art are important. I think good art is important, and I think bad art is important too. I think we lose something profound when we lose the ability to consume art thoughtfully and think critically about our responses to it. So I keep telling stories. Also, I feel weird when I don’t write.
Stephen Buoro: I know that I’m just a novelist. I’m not a politician or a priest. My hope is that many people who read my work relate in some way to what I’ve written. That they think it was worth pursuing, worth their time. So all I have is hope. What else does life offer us, anyway?
Bea Setton: I remember that Karl Ove Knausgård and Michelle Houellebecq are considered great writers and that fact reassures me.