Q&A: Roxane Gay on Authenticity, Likability and Resistance

In Roxane Gay’s most recent book, Difficult Women, she writes–in the book’s eponymous essay–about loose women, frigid women, crazy women and mothers. Of frigid women, she says: “There are places for people with secrets and she has secrets, so many of them that sometimes they threaten to choke her.”

Her pitch-perfect insights to these female archetypes are so Gay–candid, observant, concise, stirring. And her words are for (who else?) difficult women. The book’s dedication reads: “For difficult women, who should be celebrated for their very nature.”

Ms. spoke with Gay about everything from Twitter to the blessings of a breakup to Emma Watson and Edith Wharton. And more.

Jay Grabiec

Earlier this year, you interviewed Madonna for Harper’s Bazaar; I liked how you asked how she stays motivated. You seem very motivated given your prodigious output across many mediums (Twitter, Tumblr, magazines, newspapers, and books). What habits give you the energy and drive to constantly write?

I don’t really have writing habits beyond procrastination and an ability to write at almost any time of day and in any place I happen to be. I suppose my main writing habit is flexibility. Ambition gives me my drive, and a desire to always be better as a writer and thinker.

You’re great at Twitter. How has Twitter changed your career as a writer?

I don’t think Twitter has changed my career, but over the years I have certainly gained a following and even though I don’t care for the term, a platform from which I can share my writing, my opinions, and the work of other writers I enjoy.

If you could tell your thirty year-old self three things, what would they be?

1. Your early forties will be the best years of your life.

2. Getting dumped by email by that one woman was the best thing that ever happened to you.

3. Keep writing.

Bad Feminist was hugely successful, and a favorite book among me and my friends. What do you think in Bad Feminist spoke to so many readers?

Bad Feminist made feminism accessible and allowed people a space to think about feminism and embrace feminism while also being human and flawed. Humor also goes a long way, and I think readers appreciate how I use humor while still tackling complex issues with nuance.

Many women struggle with wanted to being liked, and crafting their persona to be seen as “likable.” You seem to be very much yourself, and people love you for that. What struggles have you had with behaving in a way so that you’d be seen as “likable,” and how did you move past that?

Like most people, I want to be liked but I was unpopular for most of my life, so I got used to being disliked or treated with indifference and that allowed me the freedom to be myself because there was literally nothing at stake. Now that my career profile has risen, there is a certain amount of pressure but I try to focus on being myself and recognize that I cannot please everyone.

You frequently reference your love of the book The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. What speaks to you most about that book? 

Beyond being exceptionally written, I love the wit and intelligence of The Age of Innocence. The novel is a love story, and there is so much tempered passion between these two people who know they can never be together. And alongside that love story, Wharton offers an incisive critique of the upper class, of which she was a part. It’s such a glorious combination.

When I saw you speak at Cooper Union as part of the 2016 PEN World Voices Festival, I loved what you said about being open about your passions, and how people love other people who are passionate about something – usually regardless of what the thing is. (You were speaking in reference to your pop culture passions, i.e. The Bachelor, Fast and the Furious movies, and Sweet Valley books.) Have you always been open about sharing your passions, or was there some experience or moment that led to you being that way?

I’ve always been open about what I enjoy and now, unexpectedly, other people are interested in those passions. But I love sharing the things I love and seeing what other people get excited about. I love when people give a damn and are invested in things, trivial and not. Ambivalence is boring.

If you could meet one celebrity tomorrow, who would it be?

Beyoncé.

One of the tenets of feminism is choice, as you write in Bad Feminist: “I believe feminism is grounded in supporting the choices of women even if we wouldn’t make certain choices for ourselves.” This spring, there was an uproar at Emma Watson’s choice to do a Vanity Fair photo shoot in which her breasts weren’t fully covered. What would you say to her critics?

I would tell her critics they have too much time on their hand.

Robert de Niro has said he never reads reviews of his movies; I’m wondering if you read reviews of your books, and if so, how do they affect you?

I read reviews in publications. I do not read Amazon or Goodreads reviews of my books. In general, I read reviews to get a sense of what critics are thinking about my books. Positive reviews are gratifying for sure. Negative reviews certainly hurt but once I get past that hurt, I do my best to see what I can constructively take from that review.

Given the current political situation, what gives you hope?

Seeing so many people energized to resist the current administration gives me a lot of hope, as does knowing that a presidential term is four years, a finite amount of time.

Your new book Hunger (out June 13, 2017) is hotly anticipated by many. How would you describe the book in one sentence?

Hunger is a memoir of my body.

Anne McCarthy is a contributing writer to The Telegraph, Second City Network, Bonjour Paris, France Today and more. She has a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Westminster in London and is a graduate of the Writing Program at Second City and the Soho Theatre Writers Lab. She lives in New York City, where she is writing a memoir about life in London.

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