Author Q+A with IRSHAD ABDAL-HAQQ
If you could cook dinner for any author, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you make?
James Baldwin. As a gag dish, I’d present him with hominy grits, which he hated. Then I’d bust out the steak and fixings.
What scares you the most about the writing process? How do you combat your fears?
I often fear that the data I’m using may be inaccurate or inadequate. To overcome it, I end up obsessively rechecking everything.
Who is your biggest literary crush, author or character?
I so wanted to meet and spend time with Toni Morrison. She would have been a great mentor to me.
What books are on your nightstand?
Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward; Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel; and Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.
Favorite punctuation mark? Why?
I keep asking myself why all of the time. So, yes, it’s the question mark.
What book were you supposed to read in high school, but never did?
Probably “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Catcher in the Rye.”
What inanimate object would you thank in your acknowledgements?
My trusty reclinable office chair.
If you could write an inspirational quote on the mirrors of aspiring writers, what would you write?
I’d quote Lydia Davis: “Do what you want to do, and don’t worry if it’s a little odd or doesn’t fit the market.”
Does writing energize or exhaust you?
Writing memoir content is draining, while sci-fi or speculative writing is thrilling.
What are common traps for aspiring writers?
Believing that the quality of their work and even their self worth are defined by the number of rejections from writing contests.
What is your writing Kryptonite?
I’m not sure what this question means. What weakens or undermines my writing? I guess I tend to go too fast, making lots of little typos that cost me dearly during the proofing process. I must slow down and perhaps follow Hemingway’s advice by writing and rewriting each sentence dozens of times, one at a time, until I’m absolutely sure that it is correct.
Have you ever gotten reader’s block?
Yes. When I become bored with an author’s extensive treatment of the mundane or pornographic violence, I lose the ability to power through and simply put the book aside.
Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?
Absolutely, especially when writing nonfiction instructional or technical material. Whoever wrote the dictionary on my bookshelf was probably braindead by the time it was done. Lol.
What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?
I’m a longtime friend of Marita Golden. Her prose is smooth like Agatha Christie’s. The work of both writers, as different as they are, have validated my own tendency to lean toward an elegant style.
Do you want each book to stand on its own, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book?
Each book must live his or her own life, although all them may have similarities in terms of values and style!
How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
I learned to maintain orderly records and an index as I’m writing. This allows me to easily check the authorities that I’m working on. I also learned to save discarded text, which may find new life somewhere else in the narrative, or in another book or story.
What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
Attending writing conferences that featured published writers on panels that shared their experiences and entertained questions from attendees.
What authors did you dislike at first but grew into?
Charles Bukowski and Junot Diaz. I almost threw away their books. I’m sure I discarded Oscar Wao. I still haven’t finished that book but I eventually came to appreciate Diaz’s other work.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
After a LIFE Magazine photojournalist published the frame-by-frame police killing of Billie Furr (an in-law cousin of mine) in the summer of 1967, I began writing protest essays in high school that distrubed my teachers but inspired my classmates. I was only 17 but discovered the power of my written expression.
What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?
Spoiler alert, imminent shameless promotion ahead: My own first novel, Brotherhood of the Gods, was not accepted by numerous agents and publishers--perhaps a dozen. I then published it myself. I probably should have continued to pitch it but I didn’t know the business. At any rate, the people who read it loved it.
As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal?
A moose, a bull moose with huge antlers. Solitary, quiet, but strong.
What do you owe the real people upon whom you base your characters?
Their gawdawful racism, bigotry, and foul behavior have provided some wonderful storylines that are filled with conflict and drama.
How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
OMG! I must have several partially completed stories and about three books.
What does literary success look like to you?
When a friend genuinely likes an unpublished story I’ve shared. That feels like love.
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