Five Writers Answer Four Questions About Their Work

From a feature headlined “5 Writers, 7 Questions, No Wrong Answers”:

The five writers are Rumaan Alam, Leave the World Behind; Karin Cecile Davidson, Sybelia Drive; Max Gross, The Lost Shtetl; Anneliese Mackintosh, Bright and Dangerous Objects; and Corey Sobel, The Redshirt.

If you could choose a career besides writing (irrespective of schooling requirements and/or talent) what would it be?

MAX GROSS: Starting pitcher for the 1986 New York Mets.

ANNELIESE MACKINTOSH: Something helpful. Failing that, something lucrative. Or, if possible, both. Human rights lawyer.

COREY SOBEL: Setting aside the distinction between “career” and “vocation” (the former involving remuneration, which is something I have yet to experience with my fiction), I’ve worked enough jobs that did not involve writing, and have been part of so many cultures and lived in so many settings where writing was seen, at best, as a necessary evil, that I honestly, earnestly cannot imagine wanting to do anything else. *Writing* for the longest time seemed to be the thing that I could only have irrationally dreamed of doing.


KARIN CECILE DAVIDSON: Chef of a small urban restaurant, something like Gabrielle Hamilton’s Prune in NYC, but somewhere on the Gulf Coast. There’s nothing like feeding people really beautiful food.

Without explaining why and without naming other authors or books, can you discuss the various influences on your book?

KARIN CECILE DAVIDSON: Story collections that are published as novels. The Beatles’ “Girl.” The weight of a 1967 Floridaafternoon. Shattered glass. Elton John’s “Where to Now St. Peter?” The way teenagers measure their days by measuring each other. Cream’s “White Room.” Unasked questions. U.S. military maps of Vietnam. The immense silence of soldiers returned home from war.

MAX GROSS: Jews again. If you’re talking literary influences I would say magical realism and Yiddish folklore. As for other influences, I spent a lot of time reading history and a lot of time thinking about the disappointments of the current world, and finding writers who spoke to that.

COREY SOBEL: Puff pieces in sports magazines I read obsessively as a kid. 19th-century French Romantic paintings of crowds watching public executions. The barrel-aged baritones of NFL commentators. Queer poetry. Dreams in which I’ve lost my teenage musculature but am still forced to play against faceless opponents. A half-thousand recruitment letters I can’t bring myself to throw away. Super Bowl Sundays when I walked around my neighborhood and looked through strangers’ windows to see whether they were watching the game.

ANNELIESE MACKINTOSH: David Bowie. Nautical tattoos. The Astronaut Wives Club. Cornish folklore. Jacques Cousteau. The Mars One Project. A BBC documentary series called Real Men.

RUMAAN ALAM: Funny Games. Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Joanna Newsom. Bill Callahan. Mozart. Tchaikovsky.

What are some words you despise that have been used to describe your writing by readers and/or reviewers?

COREY SOBEL: “Literary.” I blame neither readers nor reviewers for what should be a redundancy, but do blame a culture that has made it necessary for people to describe a work of fiction as such.

RUMAAN ALAM: I don’t despise any words, but I do hate a contemporary tendency  to fixate on whether characters are “likeable” or not.

ANNELIESE MACKINTOSH: “My enjoyment of this book was hampered by my knowledge of the author.” Those words still chill me to the core.

KARIN CECILE DAVIDSON: Despise? Well, it’s all water off a duck’s back. The word that’s so far struck me most is SAD, which actually describes how the writing made the reader feel. So I take that as a compliment as well.

MAX GROSS: A descriptor that kind of sticks in my craw is “imaginative”—for two reasons. First, it sounds a little like you’re at the kiddie table. That’s what you tell a hyperactive child who’s regaling you with his story about Superman building a time machine so he can do battle with T-Rexes and see who’s stronger: “Oh, Rüdiger, how imaginative!” But, second (and related), being imaginative should really be a prerequisite for any writer. If you’re not using your imagination in your fiction, what are you doing? That being said, some of the very best reviews I received described The Lost Shtetl as imaginative so I’m not looking to start beefing with reviewers or readers who loved my book.

What craft elements do you think are your strong suit, and what would you like to be better at?

ANNELIESE MACKINTOSH: Good at describing gross things. Bad at describing rooms.

KARIN CECILE DAVIDSON: Sense of place: Flannery O’Connor’s “peculiar crossroads, where time, place, and eternity somehow meet.” I’m also obsessed with structure, narrative distance, and sensory details. Pacing and plot are fascinations; and, oh, that thing called dialogue, still trying there.

RUMAAN ALAM: There is plenty of room for improvement. I do though think that I am OK at writing about food.

MAX GROSS: I think I’m pretty good at moving a story along. I tend not to get bogged down in the extraneous. The dialogue flows pretty easily and I can make the salient points and go to the next scene. Which is, also, a weakness. I sometimes look back at scenes I’ve written and feel that they’ve gone way too fast; they need to be padded a little.

COREY SOBEL: I think I can write physical action passably well, and create a dialogue style that is native to the settings in which my characters speak. I admire endlessly writers who have characters do nothing and make that nothing seem like the most riveting kind of action—it remains to be seen whether I can ever manage to develop the tools and/or patience to pull that off myself.

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