Lit Hub Asks: 5 Authors, 7 Questions, No Wrong Answers



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The Lit Hub Author Questionnaire is a monthly interview featuring seven questions for five authors with new books. This month we talk to:

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Victoria Chang (With My Back to the World)

Cally Fiedorek (Atta Boy)

Caoilinn Hughes (The Alternatives)

Joseph E. Stiglitz (The Road to Freedom: Economics and the Good Society)

Elissa Strauss (When You Care: The Unexpected Magic of Caring for Others)

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Without summarizing it in any way, what would you say your book is about?

Cally Fiedorek: Corruption in the taxi business. Graft and glamor in pre-Covid NY. Early manhood. Late girlhood. Losing your innocence. Rediscovering it, kind of.

Victoria Chang: The ineffable.

Caoilinn Hughes: Trying not to trip as the carpet is pulled from beneath our feet. Women at work, expressing themselves through their professions. The unique, maddening intensity of adult sibling relationships. Sisterhood. People and their feelings! The natural world and remembering it. The climate crisis. Forging a path, no matter how viable.

Joseph E. Stiglitz: I wanted to show in this book how, by looking at freedom and liberty through the lens of an economist, we could get a better understanding of how to achieve meaningful freedom for most Americans, and more broadly, how a better understanding of economics might help us construct a better society.

Elissa Strauss: I’m tired of moms, parents, caregivers thinking of themselves as the most boring person at a dinner party—and everyone treating them like they are. Also, if I see one more documentary in which someone, usually a man, silently attempts to climb a large physical structure for two hours, it will be one too many. In other words: Why don’t we value care economically, politically, philosophically, creatively or even spiritually? What would it look like if we did?

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

Joseph E. Stiglitz: My new book was influenced very much by current events and the disturbing trends I see around me in politics and daily life. I was particularly influenced by how the term “freedom” had been captured—and abused—by the Right.

Victoria ChangGrids. Visual art. The ekphrastic. Philosophy.

Caoilinn Hughes: Growing up on the west coast of Ireland among its devastating landscapes. Rocks! Rain! Bicycles! Geography classes, philosophy shelves, a political system with unfulfilled potential, the North, how shared meals taste better, loving someone who works in environmental science.

Elissa Strauss: Raising my sons—two singular beings I gave birth to and attempt to understand, every single day; activist circles I have been in in which people are rude, to one another and the people they claim they are fighting for—what about relational ethics; feeling revulsion towards new moms groups when I had my first kid and wondering what was going on there; realizing that none of the many feminisms I was exposed to at college and afterwards had much of anything nice to say about care.

Cally Fiedorek: Big-city tabloids. Pete Hamill’s New York. The Irish American experience. Preston Sturges and Depression-era class comedies. “Uptown Girl.” My childhood in Manhattan, and my years working in a dive bar (also in Manhattan). The life and times of Michael D. Cohen, esq., former lawyer to President Trump.

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Without using complete sentences, can you describe what was going on in your life as you wrote this book?

Victoria Chang: Despair. Depression. Death. Joy.

Cally Fiedorek: In the very beginning, ego panic. Waking up in my thirties with not a lot to show for myself. Furious throat-clearing, trying to figure out what the hell to do. Then, the world turned upside down—lockdown, Cocomelon, drinking a bunch, those canned premixed cocktails just becoming a thing, the tectonics of urban life shifting irrevocably, and the very notion of a “New York novel” more specious by the second. More panic, doubt, and thrashing around. Then, some sunshine. A pregnancy–my third baby. Constant barfing. After the barfing, a trance-like sense of purpose. A race to the finish line…golden days.

Elissa Strauss: Writing about the injustice of the gender pay gap while realizing that I contributed it, willingly!, by my choice to do more caring for our kids than my husband. Even more, liked it. Stunned that my children—get this—see things differently than I do. Suddenly felt like everyone hated, really hated, motherhood. Caregiving as fairy tale, or caregiving as nightmare—both flattening. Lastly, most fragile, most tender, most sincere, most likely to turn to dust and float away the second I say it out loud but here goes, finding a deeper relationship with the divine post-parenthood.

Caoilinn Hughes: Moved around. Hobbled around. Fucked around. Loved. Cycled across Norway. Covid-ed in Connemara. Missed spontaneity deeply. Missed people viciously—specific ones, strangers, the masses. Worked on my wrinkles. Converted an electric van into a camper. How-to carpentry videos. Measured once, cut plenty. Got hit by a truck on a Spanish motorway. Van totaled. Hurt. Believed in the novel, of all things. Owed my scanty sanity to it. Visited libraries for solace and strength. (Here’s looking at you, Gladstone’s.)

Joseph E. Stiglitz: Teaching and research at Columbia, mentoring graduate students, “activism” related to a number of major national and global issues (such as access to vaccines and corporate tax avoidance), advising governments, reading, traveling, testifying, consulting, and occasionally going to see plays or movies.

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

Caoilinn Hughes: “Extreme in its Irishness.”

Joseph E. Stiglitz: Some media outlets or reviewers are predisposed to see my writing as being partisan or politically slanted. While it’s true that my findings usually align more with one political party’s point of view than the other’s, I would argue that I come to my conclusions through a decades-long understanding of economics and how our economic choices affect people’s lives. I particularly don’t like labels like “left-leaning” or “liberal.” I want my ideas to be evaluated on the substance, on the quality of the analysis, not to be simplistically categorized.

Elissa Strauss: Not sure I am a successful enough writer to have any discernible pattern in terms of reader or reviewer feedback. My fear? That this book–which isn’t sentimental, but sentimental adjacent–will be dismissed as sentimental. Considering how prominent “unlikeable,” cold female characters have been in the past decade, I don’t think this is crazy. I long to be likeable. I long to connect. I long to be good to others. But I don’t think that makes me a Hallmark special, unworthy of your curiosity, or incapable of compelling insights.

Victoria Chang: I consider all words to describe my writing (no matter how unpleasant) to be gifts I can learn from.

Cally Fiedorek: Mostly it’s been friends of my mom’s so far who’ve read the book. At the risk of coping out on this question, I’m just very, very grateful to people for taking the time with it. I will say, though, that when someone says they “really enjoyed it!” with no further details, I worry. Faint praise and all…It brings up that old insecurity every aspiring creative has at Christmas dinner, that your soul’s work is just something the people in your life are sort of politely tolerating.

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

Elissa Strauss: I’d be a pianist. I’d play Bach. And a special thank you to Simone Dinnerstein, a pianist whose Bach I could not have written this book without. Seriously, it was on the entire time and without it my mind goes blank.

Cally Fiedorek:A pitmaster or nurse. I don’t actually want to be a nurse, but I want to want to be a nurse.

Victoria Chang: I don’t think of writing as a “career” and think poetry chooses us. I already do it: teaching young people.

Joseph E. Stiglitz: I actually did choose a career besides writing—from a very young age I wanted to be a professor, and I have been able to live my dream—and it has turned out even better than I had ever hoped. I have loved both the teaching and the research (much of it mathematical, requiring quite different skills than those entailed in writing). Also, from a young age, I wanted to change the world—or at least make a difference. I was outraged by the discrimination and inequality that I saw. After almost three decades as an academic, I immersed myself as a member, and then Chair, of the Council of Economic Advisers, followed by a stint as Chief Economist and senior vice president of the World Bank. It was only after these “careers” that I turned to writing for wider (non-academic) audiences.

Caoilinn Hughes: Painter who works out the back of her bookshop-cocktail bar. On wheels.

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

Victoria Chang: I don’t think of writing this way, as skills to acquire or to “be better at,” but instead I think about what I love—I love a strange image and I love sonic electricity.

Cally Fiedorek: I think, when I get cooking, I’m pretty good at dialogue, atmosphere, and psychological acuity. I wish I were a more deliberate, disciplined, and profuse writer, that for once I could have an idea and just follow through on it, goddammit, without going through the whole drawn-out song-and-dance, a tortured process of internal clearance and permission-seeking. The conditions of trance-like productivity I described before, during my last pregnancy—I wish I could access that more readily. (I can’t just keep having kids.) I’d also like to write characters that are more solid in themselves, less ingratiating and solicitous—I think I can be a little bit voicey and cute sometimes. Pert, to use a word I don’t hear often enough.

Caoilinn Hughes: I love letting characters speak, so I hope dialogue is a strong point! I’d like to be more comfortable writing summary—taking a helicopter view of characters’ lives over spans of time—but I get a bad god complex when I do that. I feel I’m betraying them. Like a family member summarizing how another family member spent their twenties to a stranger. How could the precis ever be right and fair?

Elissa Strauss: I think I’m not bad at taking complicated ideas and explaining them in a way that most readers can understand, even if they have no background in the subject. Also, I can bring to life the emotional truth in a personal story without it feeling predetermined or too convenient. I’d like to be one of those writers who delivers perfectly paced metaphors, ones that surprise and delight, the kind of metaphors you can almost taste, and keep the reader interested.

Joseph E. Stiglitz: As an economist, it’s always been easier for me to write about the nuts and bolts of how economics, and the policy choices that go along with economic principles, succeed or fail. What I have had to work at over the years is presenting more forcefully—and now, more urgently—the ways in which our national or international economic choices affect real people. (I have to say the urgency has become easier as these ideas have become, well, more urgent to communicate.) Readers often respond better to good stories—something that good journalists excel at—than to good analysis.

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How do you contend with the hubris of thinking anyone has or should have any interest in what you have to say about anything?

Joseph E. Stiglitz: I have gotten such pleasure from young people (and now, some not so young) who tell me that reading a book of mine has changed their lives, and what they wanted to do, and how they see the world. Or government officials who have described how one book or another has affected their thinking and the policies they’ve pushed. At this stage of my life, I’m grateful that people are still listening! I do think I have something unique to offer, and as long as my editors keep asking me to write books and universities and organizations ask me to speak publicly about how we can improve the lives of people through economic policy choices, I’m going to keep saying yes.

Elissa Strauss: I think about the fact that the United States still does not have universal paid leave, and if this book plays any role in correcting that glaring injustice, I have done something good for the world.

Cally Fiedorek: I don’t think of it as hubris, but its near-opposite. There’s definitely some vainglory that goes into declaring yourself a writer, but actually becoming one…the rejection, the solitude, the bruising indifference (you know the drill)—you’re bound to get your ass handed to you pretty quick. That takes care of the hubris. Also, it’s worth noting that many writers, like actors, are drawing their work from a wellspring of profound internal discomfort. I write, in large part, to be rid of my own company, and I suspect that a lot of my favorite creators, down the years, have felt this same itchiness—a basic frustration with the limits of personality, and a humble desire to connect with and entertain others in the only way the pathologically introverted know how. I don’t think there’s anything too arrogant or presumptuous about that desire.

Victoria Chang: I never assume anyone has any interest in anything I have to say. I write because I must. I write because it’s the only way I know how to live.

Caoilinn Hughes: I only think about one reader, and that helps! And I don’t think they should have any interest, but I hope they do…in what the novel has to say. Novels are wiser than their authors—not to mention sturdier, more punctual, less judgmental, and better-looking.



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