A Conversation With Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay is an assistant professor of English at Eastern Illinois University, co-editor of PANK, essays editor for The Rumpus, and fiction editor of Bluestem. Read her bio here. 

So I’m a little bit of a Roxane Gay fangirl. I follow her Twitter feed  and blog. And her Tumblr (http://roxanegay.tumblr.com/). I keep up with nearly all of her insightful, funny, and often heartrending essays on The Rumpus, Salon, and The Nation, among others. And I loved her short story (“Open Marriage”) in Issue 80 of the Minnesota Review. When I joined the TMR staff this fall, I was jazzed to have an excuse to interview her. The results follow.

First off, I wanted the interview to be more than the cursory five questions about writing and editing and “art,” so I asked Roxane for a glimpse into her daily life. She sent me these five pictures—captions are all hers:

photo 1

I was representing PANK at the Pygmalion Festival Book Fair in Champaign, IL, when I looked up and saw that bike against the wall and thought, “That is the most hipster bike, ever.”

photo 2

A few days later, I was driving to Grand Rapids. I had to leave at the crack of dawn and was lucky enough to see the beautiful sun rising over the prairie.

photo 3

The next week, I flew to Florida to attend my brother’s wedding. Those dolphins are in the Fort Myers airport and I just laughed and laughed when I saw them because I’m in that airport all the time and I had never noticed the dolphins before. It kind of looks like they’re having sex. Also, it was like midnight, so I wasn’t really making sense to myself.

photo 4

My niece doesn’t like to sit still and she doesn’t like to keep her shoes on. While waiting for the wedding ceremony to begin, she relieved herself of one sandal. She is adorable.

photo 5

After the wedding, I was in O’Hare, and on your way to baggage claim, the moving walkway has this pretty light display overhead. I take random pictures every day.

Nora Salem: How does traveling make you feel, in general? Do you consider it a necessary evil? Does it give you time to contemplate? Does it make you wistful?

Roxane Gay: I’m on the road quite a bit these days, so I’m always coming or going. I love travel (discovering new places, meeting new people) but I also find it unbearably lonely, the coming back to an empty hotel room, the sterility of individually wrapped soaps, the anonymity of it all.

NS: What are you up to these days? Are you working on anything you’re particularly excited about? Is anything keeping you up at night?

RG: These days, I’m teaching and writing and editing. Everything tends to keep me up at night but I’m excited for December, when the semester ends and I can put some quality time in with my fiction, always my first love.

NS: I’ve always loved your essays, in addition to your fiction. Do you approach them differently? If so, how?

RG: I approach fiction and nonfiction differently but it’s hard to articulate how. Generally, my gut tells me which genre to choose as I begin to think through what I need or want to say.

NS: You edit or co-edit not one, not two, but three journals.  First of all, how do you manage? Second of all, which do you like the best? Kidding—but in all honesty, how does being a fiction editor differ from being an essays editor?  How about editing a print journal like Bluestem versus The Rumpus, which maintains all of its content online?

RG: I live in the middle of nowhere, I’m an insomniac, and I am a workaholic. I am not proud of any of these things. I have the strongest affinity for PANK, because that’s the magazine I’ve worked on the longest and over the years, my co-editor, M. Bartley Seigel, and I have developed a really great working relationship and friendship. I don’t really distinguish between genres in editing. That is to say, whether considering fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, or work that defies categorization, I’m looking for writing that makes me give a damn. I love to think and feel when I read. I’d also say that editing doesn’t change much for me between online and print publications. How the work is presented differs, not the quality.

NS: I like when good writers don’t take themselves too seriously.  Your online presence—on Twitter and in the blogosphere—manages to often be both earnest and important as well as simply fun. How do you unite the two? How does humor affect your writing? Also, do you ever catch judgment for your interest in popular culture?

RG: When I’m on social networking, I’m just being myself, for better or worse. In real life, I’m shy and tend to be awkward, but I feel a certain amount of confidence online—a confidence to say what I think and feel, even if it’s silly or earnest or somewhere in between. Humor, well, humor makes life a little more bearable, and sometimes, it’s the only way to talk about complicated subjects.

If I’m judged for my interest in popular culture, I don’t know about it. I’m sure that judgment is out there but I honestly just don’t care. I like all kinds of things both high- and low-brow and won’t apologize for it.

Nora Salem is a poetry reader at the Minnesota Review. She dressed up as Prince for Halloween, and she will never feel sexier again in her life.

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