Q&A: Roxane Gay on Writing and Rejection

by Courtney Kocak

Roxane Gay owned the Internet this summer. I mean, owned. Her best-selling essay collection Bad Feminist and her debut novel An Untamed State was everywhere, and all the attention and adoration was every bit deserved. But it wasn't just the press that flipped over Gay, it was legions of young women, too, who finally felt validated in their imperfect practice of feminism — women unwilling to trade their femininity for equality, women who, like Gay, label themselves a "mess of contradictions."

Gay is beloved for her ability to distill a wide-range of topics – innocuous racism, Robin Thicke, The Help, female friendship — in a way that is both logical and speaks to the beating heart of the matter. She understands that people, even those she doesn't agree with, are complicated and real, which imbues her evenhanded criticism. With her finger firmly on the pulse of all issues race, feminism, and pop culture (Exhibit A: her recent interview with Lena Dunham), so eloquently encapsulating our cultural zeitgeist, Roxane Gay is a voice worth listening to.

Gay is currently at work on her upcoming memoir Hunger, and she contributes to a number of other outlets. She's also a Twitter and Tumblr extraordinaire. (Seriously, read her blog; it’s one of best out there. WARNING: There will be tears.) And soon she'll head up The Toast's new sister site The Butter where she'll "focus on cultural criticism and personal essays that make readers think and feel."

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, $12, Amazon

I interviewed Gay on her book tour for Bad Feminist . And while it was an honor to discuss her powerful and affecting thoughts on rape, catcalls, and relationships with other women, the writer in me was thrilled when it came time to discuss her creative process and journey. Her wisdom was incredibly reassuring. Regardless of what level you’re on in your own writing journey, everyone can use a little advice and inspiration about rejection and how to let luck find you — and I can’t think of anyone better to get it from.

BUSTLE: I laughed out loud when I read the part of Bad Feminist where you say your father preached, “Moderation is the key to everything.” My parents were exactly the same way and I railed against it. How do you feel about that advice as an adult?

ROXANE GAY: I understand where he was coming from, and he’s right, but I don’t mind being immoderate.

Do you think any of that extremism holds the key to your success?

Well, the one place I’m immoderate is my work ethic. I have a workaholism problem, and I get that from him because he’s not moderate about work either. I guess that’s 100 percent attributable to some of what’s going on right now — I’m loath to use the word “success.” I’m a writer!

I’m loath to use the word “success.”

For most writers and other creatives there’s a lot of rejection that predates this level of “success” that you’re having. How much of that did you deal with and how did it shape you a writer?

Oh, tons of rejection. My last blog was called “I Have Become Accustomed to Rejection,” and I blogged about all my rejections. I would just sort of sift through them and think about what’s going on and why did this happen. It’s important to be rejected — and I still get rejected, of course. It’s a good reminder that you have room to grow. Sometimes it’s about fit and not knowing the appropriate thing to send to a venue. What it always did for me is it just made me hungrier and made me want it more. So if I would get rejected from this magazine, it became like my life’s mission to get something in that magazine — and then when I achieve it, it feels so good. So, yeah, it’s shaped me very much.

I’m curious about your relationship with social media. When did you first start blogging and how has that evolved with the newer platforms?

I’ve been blogging for almost 20 years. Back then I had an HTML hard-coded site. I’ve had a LiveJournal, which I deleted. Before that I was on bulletin boards and IRC. I guess because being online as a loner and someone who’s not great at human interaction, the Internet has always made it easy to not be alone, but be alone and feel connected. So it’s been something that’s been in my life for quite some time. Blogging is just like, Oh, I have some thoughts I’m going to share and maybe other people will read them! I mean it’s always nice to know that other people might be experiencing what you are or can relate to your experiences, so it’s something that’s continued to develop.

I guess because being online as a loner and someone who’s not great at human interaction, the Internet has always made it easy to not be alone, but be alone and feel connected.

You have 81,600 tweets as of last night, which is an average of 30 tweets a day. What do you typically tweet about?

Ina Garten, from 4-5 [p.m.] every day. Yogurt. Baby elephants. What I’m reading. What I’m watching. What I’m thinking. What I’m feeling. It’s an ongoing monologue with myself. Often times it’s inside jokes between me and my best friend or something. I don’t even know what the hell I tweet about, it’s just nonsense.

You’re pretty pro-Twitter, but do you find that there are any negative ways it’s changing communication and how reactive our society can be?

Not really. I think the issues we see on Twitter that are negative are things that happen outside of Twitter, as well, so I’m not going to place culpability at the feet of Twitter. I’m going to place culpability just at the feet of people. I love Twitter. It’s a far more powerful tool than people recognize. I think we especially saw that with what went on in Ferguson, in Gaza and Israel, and I think it allows us to be more aware of this world that we live in.

The downside is that it allows people to have uninformed opinions and there is a danger for misinformation, so we have to be literate. This is what new media literacy is about. We have to understand the value of the information we’re receiving and where it’s coming from, and be able to discern like what’s legitimate and what’s not. I think also on Twitter you can see groundswells of emotion and people sort of glomming onto an idea without really thinking about where they actually stand, and that’s dangerous. Again, Twitter isn’t the problem; it’s just mob mentality.

I’m not going to place culpability at the feet of Twitter. I’m going to place culpability just at the feet of people.

We noticed that — I really felt it, and even wrote an essay about it — with Justine Sacco, who’d made that really bad tweet about Africa and AIDS. It was just a dumb remark, but then she was on a plane — and at that time there was no Wi-Fi on international flights — and by the time she landed this whole thing had happened, the Internet had run away with it. And I’m not crying for her ‘cause her daddy’s a billionaire, but she lost her job, her name… because of one stupid thought? Social media has upped the ante for stepping out of line and that frightens me because it seems like there’s less room for error — and I think we have to have room for error.

Who do you love to follow on Twitter?

I love to follow xTx, Anna Holmes, Michelle Dean … Just writers I love. I mean those are like my closest friends.

Sara Benincasa I think is hilarious. Julie Klausner. Ally Sheedy’s a lot of fun. I follow a mix of people I actually know, and people I came up with in indie publishing — who are my favorite writers, and of course people I admire and celebrities. It’s the whole, “Oh, I want to feel closer to them.” There’s a collapsing on Twitter that I think is very seductive. “Oh, Martha Plimpton favorited my tweet! What does this mean?!” (Laughs.)

What are your plans for both writing and feminism moving forward, separately or together?

In terms of writing, I’m going to work on some novels. I’m working on my next book, Hunger — my next nonfiction book. Feminism is just a constant, it’s just part of who I am, so I’m going to continue becoming a better feminist and a more intersectional feminist. Mostly I hope that I can do more to help other women writers and writers of color to have access to the kinds of things that I’m increasingly getting access to. I’m hoping I can share my ladder a little bit.

A lot of these essays made their debut on the Internet. How much did most of these change from their inception to the version we read in the book?

Not much. There was editing, absolutely. My editor Maya Ziv, who’s amazing, and I worked together to make the essays more timely in some cases — there are a couple things I read now, and I’m like, “Oh, we should’ve gotten that, too” — just to update dates and elected officials and to fine-tune some of the thinking. One of the issues with cultural criticism, especially in this day and age online, is that something happens and two hours later an editor is saying, “Do you want to weigh in on this? I need 800 words by 9 p.m. and it’s 6 o’clock.” You’re like what? My brain doesn’t work that fast! That’s a challenge, so with the essays I definitely was trying to make sure that I went through and made sure that they were as rigorous as they could be because I was working under so many constraints when I was actually putting them together. So they’re pretty similar, but fine-tuned.

What are you drawn to in the work of other writers? Who and what are you drawn to?

I’m drawn to stories and essays that make me feel and think. I love doing both. Like Zadie Smith; I’m in love. I just think she’s a beacon of sanity and wit and intelligence. One of my favorite essayists still is Cheryl Strayed. Her essay “The Love Of My Life” has taught me so much about what it means to write an essay and what an essay can look like.

I’m drawn to stories and essays that make me feel and think.

There’s a young writer named Kima Jones who’s here in L.A. and she writes poetry and nonfiction. I read with her last night and I love her work, I love her attitude, I think she’s fierce, and I love seeing what she does. She wrote this moving essay that she read last night and I was so stunned by it.

One of my favorite writers also here in L.A. is Karolina Waclawiak. She wrote a book called How to Get into the Twin Palms and then she has a novel coming out in 2015 from Judith Regan Books. xTx is another great writer; she’s fearless and raw. I’m a little biased on that front, but I think that she’s a great, great writer. Randa Jarrar is a writer who lives in Fresno, and she is honest and again fearless. I love seeing bravery on a page. And knowing what it takes to exact that bravery makes me love the writer all the more.

I have such a hard-on for asking about writing routines. What’s yours?

I have none. I write when I want to write. I try to write every day. I generally watch TV while I’m writing, even if it’s on mute. But I just write when I want to write.

I generally watch TV while I’m writing, even if it’s on mute.

Advice to aspiring writers?

You have to read a lot. You have to write a lot. You have to give a damn. And you have to believe in your work, you can’t be like, “Oh, I wrote this shitty thing. Could you read it?” Because right off the bat I already know I shouldn’t read it because you’ve told me: it’s shitty. I think you have to have some confidence, but also humility, and you have to be ambitious and own your ambition. And you have to be relentless — it’s a really hard thing to get published. I mean, you could get published in small magazines all day long and that’s good because those are going to be the stepping stones, but the steps get higher and higher and longer and longer the higher you go in publishing, so you have to have some resilience and relentlessness about you to get there.

You also have to accept that no matter how good you are, no matter how hard you work, unfortunately, only some of us are lucky.

You also have to accept that no matter how good you are, no matter how hard you work, unfortunately, only some of us are lucky. You have to hope that you’re lucky. But I think when you work hard, you make it possible for luck to find you, so you’ve got to do that.

Images: Jay Grabiec; Harper Perennial