A Novel from a Story: An Interview with Roxane Gay About “An Untamed State”

UntamedStateYes, it’s happening again. Someone whose work I’ve come to know and admire through the power of the Internet has agreed to answer a few questions about a new book.

This time, the author is Roxane Gay, and the book we’ll focus on is her novel, An Untamed State, which Grove Atlantic is publishing this month. (But, wait–that isn’t Roxane’s only book that’s being published this year. You’ll find out more in a few moments.)

Roxane Gay’s writing has appeared in Best American Short Stories 2012, Best Sex Writing 2012, Oxford American, American Short Fiction, West Branch, Virginia Quarterly Review, NOON, The New York Times Book Review, Bookforum, Time, The Los Angeles Times, The Nation, The Rumpus, Salon, The Wall Street Journal’s Speakeasy culture blog, and many others. She is the co-editor of PANK and essays editor for The Rumpus. Currently, she teaches writing at Eastern Illinois University. She recently announced that she has accepted a position as associate professor at Purdue University and that she has been named Visiting Writer for spring 2015 at Florida Atlantic University.

Please welcome Roxane Gay!

ERIKA DREIFUS (ED): As soon as I read a description of An Untamed State, I was reminded of one of the haunting stories in your collection Ayiti (Artistically Declined Press, 2011). That story, “Things I Know About Fairy Tales,” was also published in Necessary Fiction. Like the novel, the story, too, features a Haitian-American woman who survives a brutal kidnapping episode while visiting her parents back in Haiti. (We don’t discover the woman’s name in the short story, but it seems clear that she is in fact the same character as Mireille, the novel’s protagonist.) Did the short story precede the novel, or was it to some extent excerpted from a longer work then in-progress? Please tell us how Mireille’s story took shape for you as a writer, and how you see the relationship between the short story and novel.

ROXANE GAY (RG): An Untamed State is the same story as “Things I Know About Fairy Tales,” only with the novel, I’ve expanded, and I hope, enriched the story. When I finished the short story, Mireille and her experiences stayed with me. I could not get her, or Michael, or Lorraine, or Mireille’s parents out of my mind. I wanted to know more about these characters and their lives so I began to flesh out the story and it turned into this sprawling novel. The short story was definitely the inspiration for the novel and I hope that they echo each other well.

ED: What was the greatest challenge you encountered in writing An Untamed State?

RG: The greatest challenge was writing about the darker parts of the story, particularly what Mireille experienced during her kidnapping and the aftermath. It was difficult to allow myself to “go there” as a writer. I also spent a great deal of time considering how to approach writing sexual violence and trauma in ways that served the story without being exploitative or gratuitous.

ED: Well, you succeeded there. For me, one of the most powerful “descriptions” of what Mireille endures occurs in a late scene with a doctor. With few words, you convey that this seasoned doctor is horrified by the extent of Mireille’s injuries. Moving on…what is your greatest hope for An Untamed State as it reaches readers?

RG: I hope people love Mireille at her best and worst. I hope readers hold her as tenderly as I do. I hope they see Haiti as the beautiful, complex, intense place it is.

ED: You also have an essay collection, Bad Feminist, forthcoming in August from HarperCollins. Please tell us how An Untamed State‘s Mireille might describe or respond to that book.

Roxane Gay
Roxane Gay

RG: Mireille would say that Bad Feminist is her kind of book–like me, she has a good heart and is a mass of contradictions.

ED: Anything else you’d like us to know?

RG: Thanks for such thoughtful questions, Erika. My favorite piece of writing advice is to read your drafts aloud. Hearing a story or essay really helps me find places where the writing needs work.

ED: Truly, that’s one of my favorite pieces of writing advice, too. Thanks so much, Roxane. It’s exciting to watch everything that you do in the writing world!

To learn more about Roxane Gay and her work, please visit www.roxanegay.com.

A version of this interview appeared in the May 2014 issue of The Practicing Writer.