fbpx Roxane Gay | Phillips Exeter Academy

Roxane Gay

Year of Graduation: 
'92
Roxane Gay

​"Writing and compassion are absolutely connected. There’s just no separation there."

Photograph by Jay Grabiec

Author of Bad Feminist and NY Times columnist

This Q&A originally appeared in the fall 2014 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.

Daneet Steffens ’82 interviewed Roxane Gay ’92, a writer and cultural commentator who has been published everywhere from The New York Times, The Guardian and The Nation to Slate, Salon and The Rumpus. Her debut novel, An Untamed State, and a collection of essays, Bad Feminist, were published this year to critical acclaim. Gay currently teaches creative writing at Purdue University. Steffens is a freelance journalist whose author interviews and book reviews have appeared in Time, the Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, the Chicago Tribune, Time Out and the U.K.’s Independent on Sunday.

Q: This is indisputably your year: a critically acclaimed debut novel, and an equally successful essay collection of cultural criticism that honestly, humorously and accessibly captures the multiplicity of your views. We’re seeing it as the year of Roxane Gay, but both of these books must be the culmination of years of writing, observing, thinking. What does it feel like to have them both see published life at the same time?

It’s been absolutely overwhelming because you work and you work and you work, and you wonder if you’re ever going to get your shot, and then it happens all at once at the most unexpected time. So it’s been really overwhelming, but I’m going to figure out how to deal with it because it’s also really awesome.

Q: Your novel, An Untamed State, is about a wealthy woman who is kidnapped and held for ransom in Port-au-Prince. The magic here is the way in which you infuse myriad complexities —family, love, betrayal, home, migration, inequality, privilege, the danger of any kind of blinders—with equal weight. In depicting Mireille Duval’s ordeal and its aftermath, you’ve straddled this incredibly fine line: You write about brutality with an unflinching, exacting clarity, but the narrative has this extraordinary beauty to it, one that allows you to access the core of your characters’ experiences. You allow us to see the moments when the cracks show. How did you keep it so honest?

I kept my eyes on the prize. By that I mean that I never allowed myself to forget what the novel was about and whose story I was trying to tell; that was important to me. I also think we try to pretty-up suffering and violence and I was not interested in doing that, so I decided to treat violence as information—here are the facts of what this woman endured—and that really helped me to stay honest and to avoid unnecessary flourish. Because there’s no flourish in a story like this.

Q: The essays in Bad Feminist cover a rich, entertaining variety of topics including Scrabble tournaments, movies, TV shows, violence, politics, humor, racism and feminism. Part of what makes your writing, both fiction and nonfiction, so accessible is a palpable, consistent strand of compassion running through all of it. What connects compassion and writing for you?

For me, writing is entirely an act of compassion. It’s trying to understand experiences beyond my own and it’s also trying to show people who have endured experiences beyond my own that I am trying to understand what they’ve been through, that I’m trying to empathize with them. Writing and compassion are absolutely connected. There’s just no separation there.

Roxane GayQ: You’re currently teaching creative writing at Purdue. How does teaching inform your writing and vice versa?

Teaching makes me a braver writer because I see the chances and the risks that my students take in their writing. I see how open they are to the process and I think, “If they can do it, if they’re willing to be that brave, then I absolutely need to be that brave.” Teaching encourages me to take more chances with my writing, to get out of my comfort zone and try different things. It keeps me invigorated.

Q: You’ve got a seemingly insatiable appetite when it comes to culture that makes your essays particularly enjoyable, and this includes your reading tastes. Who are the contemporary writers whom you most admire?

I love the writer xTx, who I just think is brilliant and fierce. She is always impressing me with what she puts out. Right now she’s doing a lot of small-press writing but I have no doubt that she’s going to have a breakout year in the next couple of years. Anna Holmes is a really smart and thoughtful thinker. Michelle Dean is one of my favorite critics, Eula Biss is a gorgeous essayist, as is Leslie Jamison. Ashley Ford is an up-and-coming young writer. I love her rawness and her honesty and the way she’s willing to look at herself. Meg Wolitzer chronicles the human condition in such gorgeous, gorgeous witty ways and I can’t get enough of that. Curtis Sittenfeld...her American Wife is such a thorough and complete and humane book. Hey, it’s a long, long list....

Q: What kind of writing feeds you as a reader?

I gravitate towards writing that makes me feel and that makes me think. I try to read diversely and that doesn’t mean just demographics. I try to read across genres, I try to read outside my wheelhouse because I think it makes me a better writer to see what’s out there and what’s possible. I read with my heart first, but I also want to think and be challenged.

Q: You’re very agile and prolific on Twitter, covering everything from live-tweeting Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa to comments on movies (Love Jones), pop culture (Beyonce), from discussing Scrabble with Meg Wolitzer to interacting extremely graciously with your readers. What do you enjoy about this form of writing?

I love the brevity and the flexibility of it. I love just the pithiness, and then at the same time you can still use the medium for more important things. It’s dynamic. It’s my happy place online. And because I’m a loner but also enjoy being around other people, it allows me to be alone and with other people.

Q: You arrived at Exeter holding the secret of a terrible ordeal. How did your experience at Exeter, especially with English Instructor Rex McGuinn, shape your personal and professional approach to writing?

Rex McGuinn was amazing. He saved me. He’ll never know, and that breaks my heart that I didn’t come into my own and realize how important he’d been until after he’d passed away. He saw something in my writing and made sure I went to the counseling center and totally encouraged my talent and told me to write every day and just gave me...my work ethic comes from my parents, but my writing ethic comes from Rex McGuinn. He was just so passionate about writing and teaching—and he was hilarious. He said, “Write every day!” and you could tell by the way he said it that he meant it. He instilled confidence in me: He made me feel like my writing mattered, like I had something worth saying.

Q: What’s next for you?

I’m working on Hunger, my next nonfiction book, which is coming out in May 2016. It’s a sort-of memoir. And then my next novel is called Nice Man and it’s about a woman who has a daughter via surrogacy for her sister-in-law. It’s about the bond she has with her biological daughter and how she tries to get her back. There’s also a YA novel and a magic realist novel about a miner; they will get done, but I’m focusing on the other two right now because, as it turns out, there are only so many hours in the day. Who knew?

by Daneet Steffens ’82