Interview with Roxane Gay

Posted by Goodreads on December 27, 2016
An office worker followed by water. A lonely professor in northern Michigan. A twin seeking a way out of her marriage. A distraught mother coping with accident and loss. These are some of the subjects of Roxane Gay's new short story collection, Difficult Women.

Gay has developed a following for her essays, particularly the ones collected in 2014's Bad Feminist, but she's also earned glowing reviews for her fiction, including the 2014 novel An Untamed State. The versatile writer is a regular contributor to The New York Times and also writes for a Marvel Comics series, Black Panther: World of Wakanda.

Gay, who splits her time between Los Angeles and teaching at Purdue University in Indiana, talked to interviewer Todd Leopold about the collection, the future of feminism, and who would play her in a movie.

Goodreads: I'm wondering about the title, "Difficult Women," which is also the name of one of the stories. What makes these women difficult?

Roxane Gay: [It's about] this idea that women who don't necessarily behave in the ways our culture would prefer that they behave are often considered difficult. When we want things for ourselves, when we have unruly bodies, when we are promiscuous, when we make screamingly bad choices—all of a sudden we're difficult. I wanted to play with that idea of what a difficult woman really is.

GR: The stories are so raw, I feel like they're being ripped out of your skin. Is that the way you feel when you write them? Or is it more casual?

RG: I wouldn't say it's casual. I definitely get into a kind of trance—I just lose myself, and I become immersed in the story and the setting and the characters. When I'm done, I sort of wake up to the world around me.

I write quickly. Most of these stories are written in one sitting. [But] I might work on a story for weeks in my head. That's why it becomes easy when I sit down to write.

GR: The last story in the book, "Strange Gods," recalls your own experience of rape when you were 12. Did you find any catharsis writing that story or other stories where there were painful sexual abuse incidents?

RG: Not really. I [do] think there's certainly something freeing to giving voice to a certain kind of experience, and sexual violence is just a part of our culture—a big part of our culture—so it does show up in some of my fiction.

[But it is] cathartic about saying, this is one kind of truth of what women deal with, and it's nice to be able to bring these experiences to the light, even though it's a painful thing to write about or to read.

This happens everywhere. There are more good men than bad in this world, but the bad ones have a lot of power and do a lot of damage. I have brothers and they're wonderful, and I have a wonderful father. They're guys, and I have no doubt they engaged in locker room banter, but I know there are things they would never say. I know that they, too, were surprised when this outpouring of women saying, "Yes, this happened to me and this happened to me and this happened to me" came out. That's why we have to continue to write these kinds of stories and women have to continue to tell these kinds of stories, because people need to realize how bad sexual violence really is in this country—and quite frankly throughout the world.

GR: Perhaps the most unusual story in the book is "Noble Things," about the United States after a second Civil War. It was published in 2014. What are your thoughts about that particular story now, given the election and our divided country?

RG: That story now feels kind of prescient. I don't think that the country is actually going to split, but it feels more possible than it did before November 8. Things are pretty grim right now. Each day we see Donald Trump continuing to be exactly who we thought he was, which is a petulant man-child and a bully, and he's appointing just a horror show of people into his cabinet. Things are grim. I think that's why we're going to need fiction and nonfiction more than ever. And art, we'll need art, to sort of respond and to engage in this shift in our political culture.

GR: Some of these stories date back a decade, sometimes more. Is it like looking through a photo album and seeing a different person, or could you still feel the through-line?

RG: I could still feel the through-line. This is actually the first book I ever tried to publish. It's the book I got my first agent with, and it took that long to sell. Short stories are just a really hard sell, especially when you're not a known writer. And that's fine, I get it.

When I read the stories, it's interesting to see the writer I was when I wrote these stories and how I've grown. I'm still writing short fiction, and I'm writing different kinds of stories now, so I like seeing the evolution.

GR: Who are your influences?

RG: I love Zadie Smith, Edith Wharton, Marguerite Duras, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison. So I have a range of influences.

GR: Edith Wharton is an intriguing one. Her books are so upper-class New York—she gets below the surface, but she's very aware of what the surface is. Is that what you find attractive about her?

RG: Absolutely. I think she does class critique in this really elegant, incisive way that I've long admired. She writes about the upper class, but she's skewering them, and she does it because she was part of that social group.

GR: Here's a question from a Goodreads user, Patsy Lynn: "Men and some women have a knee-jerk reaction that associates feminism with hatred of men. How do you work around these stereotypes and prejudices to make a difference and to educate people?"

RG: I think the most important thing is that people understand what feminism is. It's silly in this day and age for anyone to labor under the impression that feminism is about hating men. It's not. Feminism is about equity and equality and just making sure that women have equal opportunities, making sure that our bodies are not legislated and we're treated like human beings who can make decisions about their own bodies. That we're being paid equally for equal work. It's not about taking anything from anyone.

The people who think that feminism is about hating men—they've already made up their minds. They're not interested in any sort of engagement or conversation or trying to make progress. So put your energy elsewhere. We don't need to convert these people because they're just not reachable. We need to work around them.

GR: From Scarlett: "How do you deal personally and professionally with all the negative tweets?"

RG: It's hard, definitely. There are some days where I just turn off the internet for a while because it's too much. I also try, sometimes, to retweet them, not to give them attention but [because] I think people need to see this kind of harassment. We have to stop hiding it like a dirty secret.

It's not just tweets. I teach at a state university, so my work address is available in the public sphere, so I get a lot of hate mail at work, and people call my job and things like that. It's not normal. It's just not normal. So I think it's important to bring it to light.

GR: Here's one from Christina: "How is it working in comics, and what do you enjoy more—essays or comics?"

RG: My first love is actually fiction. But working in comics is a lot of fun. It's very collaborative, and it's very fast paced, which I love. The time between writing the script and seeing the issue out is so short. It's just awesome if you love instant gratification, which I do.

GR: How short is it?

RG: Let's see...about six weeks. It's really short. It's also beautiful to see art and the way the art interacts with my script, and to read an issue to see words and art working together to tell a story—it's really a lot of fun. It's just my happy place right now because it's so different from anything I do.

GR: Here's one from Cindy, who teaches at an urban Kansas City high school and sent one from a student, Marley: "What are your thoughts on the future of our country and what feminism will look like in the coming months?"

RG: I think we're going to see more and more of a necessity for feminism as we see a retrenchment of reproductive freedom across the country. We're already seeing it in Ohio, with the ridiculous six-week ban [on abortion]. And we're going to see the need for standing up and pushing back. We can't just take these kinds of things quietly.

What I hope we see is a lot more intersectionality in feminism and working with racial justice organizations and LGBTQ organizations because we're all going to have to work together, and women are not just women—we also have multiple identities. We're going to have to continue to recognize that.

GR: Another from a Goodreads user, Alexandra: "If you were to have a film made about you, what would it look like and who would star as you?"

RG: [laughs] I have no idea. You know, I think a film about me would look like the nerdy girl who makes good. It would be a coming-of-age story, I think. And I actually have no idea who would play me. I think the adult me would be played by Queen Latifah.

GR: What are you reading now, and what is in your to-be-read pile?

RG: Right now I'm reading this book called I'm Judging You by Luvvie Ajayi. Next up is Alissa Nutting's Made for Love, which comes out next year.

GR: Do you read more than one book at a time?

RG: Yes. I do. I'm also reading Black Water Rising by Attica Locke.

GR: Goodreads has a reading challenge. Is this the kind of thing that you take part in, and whether or not, do you have a goal for 2017?

RG: I love reading challenges. I don't have the time to do them anymore, but my goal is always to read at least 100 books a year.

GR: Wow. You're a better person than I am.

RG: Well, it's a goal.

Read more of our exclusive author interviews on our Voice page.

Comments Showing 1-5 of 5 (5 new)

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message 1: by Gabrielle (new)

Gabrielle Carolina Very inspired by the fact that DIFFICULT WOMEN was the collection that garnered Gay an agent and now finally has a place on the shelves.

message 2: by Talib (new)

Talib Ugg... please don't add this drivel to my update feed. I don't approve of burning books but this is one I wouldn't prevent, if it happened. Entitled femnisim garbage.

message 3: by Andy (new)

Andy Heister I listened to her interview on NPR. She says that she credits the "few good men" in her life with being able to write about the bad ones, which are "most". When the interviewer pressed her on this, she replied, almost flippantly, that since she is a fiction writer, she is allowed to take some "liberties".

Yeah, not a fan.

message 4: by ODUTOLA (new)

ODUTOLA Feminism is an art worth studying . Thumbs up to Roxane Gay for explicit personal experiences Such as rape at 12 years

message 5: by Tanya (new)

Tanya S I'm a woman and I loathed the book. My definition of difficult and Ms Gay's are parallel but our vision however is entirely different. Few, if any, of the stories resonated with me a long time feminist and advocate of women. Her women are sad, desperate, angry, confused. These are not traits of women whom I define as feminists or difficult these are stories of exploited women whose life's ARE difficult. Truly depressing read

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