Each year the National Book Foundation asks authors it has previously recognized as outstanding in their field to select five debut fiction writers under 35 to be hailed as the organization’s “5 Under 35.” This year, the selectors picked five women who were honored at a reading and cocktail hour on Monday night at Housing Works book store.
How great that it was five women was the night’s resounding chorus, and Lisa Lucas, executive director of the National Book Foundation assured the assembled audience that they were chosen “without any manipulation, without any architecture on our part” even though everyone was sipping good naturedly from stemless wine glasses and no one had suggested anything of the kind.
Four of the writers—Lesley Nneka Arimah, Halle Butler, Zinzi Clemmons, and Leopoldine Core—were introduced by the people who selected them, Chris Bachelder, Lydia Millet, Angela Flournoy, Karan Mahajan, respectively. Weike Wang was selected by Sherman Alexie, but he couldn’t make it; the novelist Joshua Ferris introduced her instead. The emcee of the event, author Ben Greenman, asked each writer to read one page and no more from from her work and had them perform difficult tasks like admit to not having read certain classic works of literature, or recall the last word in each of their books. The answers: “Dalliances” (wrong), “end” (correct!), “friend” (correct!), “own” (correct!), and “it” (wrong).
I chatted with each of the authors before they went on stage and, like Greenman, asked them mostly versions of the same questions. Here are the highlights from my conversations with each of the honorees, which have been edited for clarity and condensed.
JEZEBEL: When you started this, what was going through your mind?
HALLE BUTLER: I started wanting to kind of vindicate myself. Like when I started the book I wanted it to be this thing that would like, prove that my experience was worthy of sympathy. But then as I got even a few pages into it, it evolved into something else. I think I usually start from a really selfish place, like a love-seeking place but then it’s interesting to write and I get distracted by the characters and I think less about me.
When did you start writing this book?
Well, I’m 32 now and I wrote Jillian in the last month of my 24th year, because I thought I needed to have a book done by the time I was 25, which is completely ridiculous. Then I edited it for a year, and then it was a slow process to get it published.
What were you doing in your 24th year?
I was working at a doctor’s office, to be transparently obvious. I’d just gotten out of art school and I was doing a part-time day job and just trying to find time to do work. The real work. Art-making.
Was it easy for you to write this book?
Yeah. It was really easy.
Where did you write it?
Oh, this is a good one. I was living in an apartment in Ukrainian Village in Chicago. It was from the late 1800s and it had not had any work done in many, many years. The windows were literally taped.
Oh god, in Chicago.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. And we had an attic space that was shared storage that was like filled with old shit from like 1975 on, and I cleared away a space in the attic by throwing away things and moving things to the side. I wrote Jillian in this crappy, soggy, dusty attic in Ukrainian Village. It was amazing.
Was there natural light?
Yes, there was natural light. There was window that looked out on the street facing my desk.
You wrote the whole thing there?
I wrote the whole thing there. It was summer, so it was in the 90s and it would get really hot. I would drink a pot of coffee in the morning, write for a few hours, go out, and get an RC Cola.
Do they still make that?
Yes, they do! Maybe it’s a Chicago thing. I don’t drink soda except I treat myself to RC under duress.
It’s easy to picture—the light streaming in—
Yeah but then to deromanticize it, the RC cola. Which is a nice balance that I like to strike. RC cola, donuts, and a laptop.
JEZEBEL: What was going through your mind when you started this collection?
LESLEY NNEKA ARIMAH: I wanted to write stories that reflected the breadth of the things I read, so science fiction, fantasy, et cetera, et cetera. I wanted to sort of pay homage to all the different genres that fed me.
I think I was thinking a lot about the role of Nigerian women in society. I was also—I was turning 30 around the time I started writing this book and it was just sort of—interesting age stuff or whatever. At that point, my father also really wanted grandkids. So sort of thinking about the expectations of Nigerian women and Nigerian society and how there is sort of modern-age women who are not fulfilling the expectations of how they fit in and don’t fit in in Nigerian society, that was on my mind.
Tell me about writing short stories. I’m sure people ask you that all the time.
Well, they don’t because everyone knows that writing short stories is the key to obscurity, right? Everyone is like “Oh, you’re writing short stories? You’re also working on a novel right?” That’s the next question, usually. So, I really love, deeply love the short story form. I think that you can be experimental with a short story in a way that you might not be able to sustain over the course of a novel. I have commitment issues, too. So I can be in this world for twenty pages and then I’m done. I don’t have to like you know, carry the logic of this world over a hundred and fifty pages I can just dip in and dip out and I go somewhere else.
Where do science fiction and identity collide for you?
Oh gosh, I’m not entirely sure that they do. I do really find it interesting that a lot of science fiction worlds don’t have black people. Like, we make it too, you guys! We survive the apocalypse as well, you know? So it’s interesting: to imagine a future in Nigeria or Africa. There’s a Nigerian writer, T.J. Benson, who says something about writing science fiction or futuristic works where, it’s like, no one imagines a future for us. Even our institutions don’t imagine having a future for us. So it’s interesting that the writers are the ones who are imagining what the future Nigeria or Africa look like. It’s not the people who should be planning twenty, thirty years ahead of time.
A big thing that has been talked about with this particular group of five women is that you’re all women.
Do you feel pressure to like write about being a woman—about being a “Nigerian-ish” woman?
No. Haha. you caught that on my Twitter bio. I don’t feel that it’s pressure, I mean, I’m very interested in the way people who are like me or aren’t like me but in my same position move through the world. So it’s interesting to me to explore that. I don’t really feel pressured to do that—it’s what intrigues and interests me so it just happens. It’s what I choose to write about.
What do you wish people noticed about you that they usually don’t?
God, I really don’t know. I think I’d rather people don’t notice me at all. That would be actually great.
That can’t be true.
I don’t know! I don’t know. It’s complicated because one of the things with the path this book has taken is sort of contending with going from observer to observed and it’s a weird space to be in now. I don’t know. Notice my jumpsuits I guess.
JEZEBEL: I’ve read a lot of interviews with you where people ask you to talk about yourself and writing sort of a fictional version of yourself. Is that difficult to talk about? How easy is it to talk about yourself?
ZINZI CLEMMONS: Well, you know, when you write a book and you do publicity, that is what you have to do. So on one level it’s expected. I think there’s sort of this unique angle with me because—I put it directly in the book and acknowledged that—it’s based directly on my life.
Is there anything you just wish someone would ask you about?
Probably, yeah. Honestly, I’ll say this: I think this is a prize for people—and this year women—who are sort of “on the rise” or whatever, but I think it would be smart to not treat the five women who are at this awards ceremony like we are children or young people. I’d say particularly especially nowadays, we’re exactly the people you should be asking about bigger questions, but we’re often not. There’s sort of this [distinction] that’s made between people who are emerging and people who have already sort of emerged, and I guess what I’m saying is I think that’s bullshit on a certain level.
And you find it kind of condescending? This attitude of “Oh, good job, you wrote your novel”?
Yeah, absolutely. And I think especially when it comes to literature in difficult times, it’s actually the young people you should be listening to and expressly not the older people.
And you know, there’s also this thing of like, “everybody this year is women” and we’re supposed to be really happy about that. I’m not very happy about the state of women in this country right now. I guess in general I think celebrations are all very nice, but we should be clear what we’re celebrating.
What do you think we should be celebrating?
Well, I think we can be specific about who picked five women, right? I do not think that I represent the best of all the writers who came out this year, so we come out of this very specific context, right? And I would also not say that because we have five women nominated this year that all of the problems of literature have been solved. They obviously have not. And I’d also say that with all of the conversations that have been happening about sexual harassment, there’s a conversation that needs to happen in literature, and it’s not been had yet. And unless we’re able to acknowledge all of those things, we’re celebrating something very false. So this is wonderful and it’s a great thing but it’s a great thing that happens every year, this is not like, the solution.
The problem is that, well the root of the problem is that we’re in an industry that requires a lot of time out of you but that only compensates you for, what—it’s about $30,000 a year? So we’re in an industry where only very wealthy people can survive, and that’s the problem. So it ends up being a lot of daughters of wealthy people, and that’s why the industry is 80 percent white female. So, until we’re giving people like, legitimate wages and probably also, I would say, reasonable advances because that’s another thing that happens, where like, we’ll give one debut novel a million dollars and then everyone else just left to fend for themselves. Unless those problems are addressed there’s not gonna be any room left over for the rest of us. And until that happens, I’m not really in favor of having these false congratulatory sessions, and I would be very disappointed if this year it turned into that, like a false congratulatory session. Because it’s really not, I mean, I went to two Ivy League schools—I should be on this stage. It doesn’t matter if I’m a woman or not, and I’d say even more so for a white woman who has two Ivy League degrees.
JEZEBEL: You studied chemistry in college, right?
WEIKE WANG: I did, yeah.
When you started writing this novel, what was going on?
So I was fixated on writing a very lean novel about the complete breakdown of a character, and I wanted to focus on grad school. I think I wanted to write about a scientist who has a mental breakdown. One, because scientists are known to have their stuff together; they’re very organized, and also, two, I wanted to come in from the angle, she’s a scientist, she a minority, she kind of has a lot of things that are working against her—or maybe working for her, it depends on how you look at it—and what happens when this person completely crashes. And then how does she rebuild? So that’s what I was thinking. And at the time when I was writing it I was in grad school. And my advisor is the nicest person, just he’s so nice. When I sent him the book I said, “Please don’t read into this. This is not you. I just sort of did the opposite of you.” You know, when you create characters you do opposites. I wanted to make sure that he knew that this was not my grad school experience, but there are points in grad school where you think “Oh, I should quit. This is not going well. I hate it.” And I kind of just channeled that energy into this novel—a way to do a creative outlet, essentially.
Were you writing against the possibility of your own breakdown?
I was a little anxious about grad school, but when I created this character, all of that anxiety went into her. And it’s actually really nice when you can fictionalize something that could be real because it just takes on this whole new world. You’re not stuck in yourself, you can create something new.
Did you do anything else while you were writing this? Did you just write all day and go to the wine store with your goldendoodle?
No, I was actually doing my PhD at the same time.
Oh my god.
I was doing two programs at the same time. I think, at this point, I would not advise students to do that. I didn’t flip through the school handbook to see if that was completely kosher, but I thought, you know, “Why not? I’m gonna do it. I’m a girl, I’m gonna do this.” Really just a lot of the time you feel like you’re the stupidest person on earth trying to do all of this stuff. You feel like you’re failing all the time and then to come to an event like this is just marvelous. Nobody sees the work or how hard it is to do something. And it’s a really nice to forget all the bad things and think “this is a great event.” You get to meet great people such as yourself and you kind of forget all the bad stuff that went into writing this novel, because it’s a lot of the time it’s you’re writing. You’re at a desk writing and there are really bad days. And then there are really good days, like this. It balances really nicely.
I tend to have this issue of writing very quickly. The book was written very quickly, but the editing process took a longer period of time. I wrote the book in like three months. And that I think is what’s going to happen with all my stories. I’m pretty impatient, as an individual. I think you’re not supposed to say that if you’re a writer. You have to be patient, methodical. I’m very impatient as a writer.
When did you realize that writing was a profession that you could do?
I think when the first novel was accepted. You don’t really know. You have to write first. The whole thing. And hope for the best, and then send it out there. And I still don’t. I think I’m always nervous. You write, you write, you write, and then the well is dry, and you can never do it again. There’s this visual that I have that every sentence is like a bucket into the well and the well sort of dries eventually, over time.
Like you’re running out of insights?
That’s just a theory I have. But I realized I could do it when I sold the book and I was editing it and then whole idea of, you know, publishing again, and also working in the field and being a teacher in the field—that does pay the bills.
Do you feel pressure to write sort of into your identities as a woman, or as a chemist, or as an Asian-American woman?
I think when I write short stories I don’t feel that. When I write novels I do feel like I have a responsibility to maybe write an Asian American character, or someone who is nonwhite. You know, I’m not going to populate my novels only with certain people because I don’t want to write about white characters. There are white characters in my novels. I hope there are white characters in my novels. They’re growing up in America. I would never not write about certain things because I’m so focused on creating the identity. But there is that sense of responsibility that I want to write a character that maybe other people cannot. That’s where I dig into my own identity. I don’t think I would always write about a scientist, but somebody who thinks like that—very logical, rational—you don’t really have to be a scientist to be like that.
What do you wish people noticed about you that you think they often don’t?
Honestly, I like when people notice things that I don’t see. I think that’s really exciting. When you’re writing something you have no idea how it’s going to be consumed and part of that is horrible and dysphoric and people see things that you really don’t identify with. But then there’s the other side of it where people see things that are really special that you weren’t aware that you were doing. That seems really exciting to me.
Can you think of a specific time when that’s happened? When someone’s said something about your work that you hadn’t noticed?
I feel like it happens all the time. You’re usually speaking to people you never meet, as a writer. And I like that, but it’s like I’m writing for strangers who will experience this alone in their bedroom, but then sometimes I do meet someone. And they tell you something about that private experience. I’m sort of a private person so, I don’t know, that’s exciting for me to hear about that. And it always is a unique experience because it’s a collaboration. When you’re writing something you’re collaborating with the reader—your future reader.
What do you make of the other books being honored?
I was interviewed before I knew who the other people were and I was asked how I felt about it being all women and I said, well “I need to know who they are.”
“Women” is not enough to generate a feeling?
Females are generally positioned in competition with one another—it is something you have to fight against, this need the culture has for you to basically hate each other. It’s a certain kind of death drive and one that hurts art—how women are routinely alienated from one another. It’s also boring, a kind of tomb. The group of recipients this year are a nice counter to that tomb.
Do you ever feel like, with the “oh these five women” refrain, there’s an expectation for your work to be a certain way?
You’re talking about in the context of the award?
Yeah, or in your public life as a known writer.
That’s a hard question. I’m thinking about it. I mean, I identify as female, you know? I do feel like gender is maybe more complicated. Sometimes that’s something I talk about. But I don’t know that I feel any pressure.
Except when people ask you things like what I just asked?
Yeah, I feel like all the people, all the characters in my book have sort of weird, complicated genders—like me, you know. And so there are these categories and I like to watch them sort of crumble over the course of the book to show that to be female is complicated. And class and race—there’s all these other things that go into the female experience, you know? So, I don’t know, I guess in my own writing I’m interested in watching these categories broaden a little bit, I guess.
Was that on your mind a lot when you started writing When Watched?
No, I think it’s just something that happened. Writing is kind of like that Frankenstein moment, where your character sort of starts to speak beyond you a little bit, and you’re feeling surprised by them and—I don’t know—it’s not something you’re totally in control of anymore. And that’s when I feel like they’re sort of their own gender—even if they’re female.
Can you think of a Frankenstein moment in the book?
It mostly happens when people are talking. It’s much easier for me to write dialogue. I don’t know why. I have a tape recorder and I just like, talk, you know? And then I build a story around these conversations. I like dialogue because I feel like the character can sort of defend themselves or separate from me a little bit. I mean it’s writing that I’m generating but it doesn’t feel that way all the time.
How did you know that writing was a profession—a thing you could do? Did you give yourself permission to “be a writer” or did you just write?
I think I just wrote. I had a lot of odd jobs. I worked at a restaurant for years, I was a receptionist. You know, just endless jobs, and I would always just write at night or a little bit when I was working, or supposed to be working but then [stories] accumulated and there were suddenly a lot of htem. And I published a little bit online, and so, I found my agent that way. So, yeah, I don’t know. I think the answer is no, there wasn’t a moment. It happened slowly.
I guess I was really interested in writing dialogue and maybe I could have written like a screenplay or something. I’m dyslexic and it was really hard for me to learn to read, even. So I always feel like I’m in the wrong form or something. And there’s something exciting about that. Like I’m in the wrong—like I don’t fit exactly in the form I’m working in. There’s something like it feels impossible and there’s something fun about feeling like you’re working in the most impossible form. I don’t know why. More is possible, weirdly, perversely. I’m a very visual person, so I never thought I would be a writer. I’m drawn to that, whatever that is.