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:


Kevin Barry (The Heart in Winter)

Hayley Krischer (Where Are You, Echo Blue?)

Dinaw Mengestu (Someone Like Us)

Liz Riggs (Lo Fi)

Yasmin Zaher (The Coin)


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

Kevin Barry: Electrification. Lust. Making your own fun in far-out places (as the old Italians used to say, sex is the poor man’s opera.) Also, the special dreaminess of the mountain forest in winter time. Also, the poetical impulse in the death-haunted young. Also, projecting one’s image onto the world and seeing if it will fix.

Dinaw Mengestu: Well, I suppose it has something to do with family, and exile, about stories, and in particular, how and why we tell them and the influence those narratives have in defining our identities. It has something to do with grief, and loss, with the unexpected challenges and joy that come with having a family. It has something to do as well with the politics of immigration, not only in the U.S. but in Europe, and with the consequences of those politics on individual lives.

Yasmin Zaher: Dispossession, failed immigration, nature, materiality, and pleasure.

Hayley Krischer: Generational trauma. Hollywood. Fan obsession. Child stardom. Understanding who you are outside of your parents’ shadow.

Liz Riggs: Crying in the car listening to your favorite song, cheap beer and cigarettes, infatuation, that first year after college where you think that you’re an adult but fuck maybe you aren’t at all, losing your voice singing along to Dashboard Confessional or Death Cab or something corporate or the format, trying to meet the band, men with great lips and no jobs, falling in love with everyone everywhere all the time, lead singers, wanting to be a muse, wanting to be an artist, wanting to be in love, depression, anxiety, songwriting, Nashville before the bachelorettes, Kings of Leon, sex, untangling headphones, writing song titles on Memorex CDs in permanent marker, grabbing someone’s face to kiss them, sweating, boys in bands, finding your best friends, drinking way too much and then doing it all over again, being young and dumb and blissfully naive and exuberant, having your whole life in front of you.


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

Hayley Krischer: Tatum O’Neal and her father Ryan O’Neal. Miley Cyrus and Billy Ray Cyrus. Nepo babies. The ‘90s. Celebrity culture and how the world of tabloid influences our world and gives lonely people a false sense of comfort. Stories about women who have fallen deep into madness.

Yasmin Zaher: The streets of New York City, my grandmother’s garden in Nazareth, clothes, shoes, bags, perfumes, and other objects of desire.

Dinaw Mengestu: I’ve been thinking a lot, in particular over the past five, ten years, about the ethics of narration—in particular how we narrate stories in which lives, real or imagined, are at risk. How do we tell those stories without limiting or defining them, without totalizing in a way that suggests the narrative knows the meaning of those experiences. There’s something to be said about opacity, about characters that remain just beyond our grasp as part of an aesthetic practice that implicates both reader and author.

Liz Riggs: Heartbreak, William Miller in Almost Famous, Something Corporate’s “Konstantine,” Mercy Lounge, The Format’s “If Work Permits,” every guy I’ve ever dated, driving around singing to Dawes at the top of your lungs in your car with your best friend, anxiety, depression, hangovers, the thrill of being 22, the horror of being 22, kissing, peeing in a disgusting bathroom in a perfect venue, people in your life you simply cannot forget no matter how hard you try to, music that makes you want to explode, getting drunk on planes, Nashville.

Kevin Barry: The voice-over delivered by the late Linda Manz in Terrence Malick’s Days Of Heaven, its beautiful blank poetry. The old heartsore ballads of the famous tenor Count John McCormack. The old abandoned copper mines in the Caha mountains in West Cork, Ireland. The many lost and lonesome spirits of the great Irish diaspora.


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

Liz Riggs: Boredom, waiting, COVID, quiet quiet quiet quiet, “Folklore,” long walks in East Nashville, wearing the same windbreaker every day for months, pretending to like a day job, refreshing email, querying, therapy, health anxiety, more walking, “A History of a Feeling,” Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time Countdown, weed, ache, languishing, poetry, yellow velvet couch, Diana Goetsch’s Actually Writing, zoom, whatever, dancing in the living room.

Dinaw Mengestu: An unexpected, difficult, and also transformative decade. With family, and children, and endless bouts of doubt and uncertainty, with stretches of grief. Unexpected, almost surreal amounts of joy, and grace. COVID. Lots and lots of moving.

Yasmin Zaher: My mid-20s, my late 20s, my early 30s, doubt and frustration but also a lot of fun.

Kevin Barry: A great pandemic. A full retreat to a rainy rural idyll in the Irish north west. Insomnia and an occasional sour gut. Paranoia and exultation. A sense of repaying a debt to my younger self, who boyishly attempted this novel a quarter of a century ago.

Hayley Krischer: Identity crisis. Questioning my future as a writer. Obsessively reading the Daily Mail U.S. Show Biz page. You know, the regular stuff.


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

Kevin Barry: ‘DNF.’ ‘Absolutely fucking ABYSMAL.’ ‘A hellish deathpoem.’

Yasmin Zaher: Horny. I like the idea behind it, but I much prefer ‘sexy.’

Hayley Krischer: Uncomfortable. Horrific. Stressful. Left a sour-smelling sticky sort of film that was difficult to get off.

Liz Riggs:Angry, smut, commercial, predictable, hard to follow.

Dinaw Mengestu: Spare. Slow. Depressing. Hard to connect to. Hard to follow.


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

Kevin Barry: A kind of psychic/mystic dude, squatting in a cave in the mountains of Sligo, wearing animal pelts, passing on ambiguous ‘messages’ from the Otherworld to fawning acolytes. Or I would quite like to be a documentarian. Or pro darts.

Hayley Krischer: Probably home decorating. But I wouldn’t want to work for anyone. They’d have to hire me knowing that I was doing this as an artistic expression. I wouldn’t want to be one of those decorators who gives people a lot of choices. I’d need a big budget. Just give me your money and I’ll buy you cool furniture.

Dinaw Mengestu: I’d be an international human rights lawyer in the morning and afternoons, preferably doing advocacy work related to migration, and in the evenings and on selected weekends, I’d run a very small restaurant.

Yasmin Zaher: Archaeologist, or gardener. I would like to have my hands in the earth.

Liz Riggs: Probably screenwriter or already-successful songwriter.


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

Dinaw Mengestu: I don’t know how write a short story, or a novella—or how to start something that I can get out of in under a hundred and fifty pages so I certainly wish I knew how to do that because I love short stories, but at the same time, I don’t want someone to tell me this is what I need to do in order to write one.

Kevin Barry: I can render sketchy dives and dodgy joints until they’re coming out my ears. I can, on a good day, weight my dialogue with a sense of drama, with a sense of something going on beneath the talk.

Liz Riggs: I like to think I’m decent at creating a sense of place, writing chemistry between characters—especially romantic chemistry. I’d like to be better at everything, but especially aphoristic and metaphorical writing, writing in third person/outside of the female perspective.

Hayley Krischer: I think I’m pretty good at writing messed up psychological characters. Though I would like to go even deeper. With this book I pushed myself to make one of my characters go pretty far into madness. I could have done more but my editor asked me to pull back. She didn’t want me to lock someone in the basement. Plot is hard. I’d like to be better at plot.

Yasmin Zaher: I’m good at character voice, but for some reason, and maybe this is contradictory, I struggle with dialogue.


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

Liz Riggs: Watching reality television and assuring myself that nobody is listening anyways, so might as well have some fucking fun talking.

Dinaw Mengestu: I don’t think I’ve ever really thought that. I hope, sometimes too much, that someone might have interest in what I write, but I also think constantly of all the extraordinary things out there that I have yet to read and imagine most readers feel the same way—grateful, blessed, to have many lifetimes of reading that of course can never be finished. So I suppose less hubris, and much more gratitude for those who might read something I wrote, knowing they could have read a thousand other books.

Yasmin Zaher: I do think I have a lot of interesting things to say. Maybe it’s hubris, but out of everything one can do in life, writing a novel is quite harmless.

Kevin Barry: By returning to my cave in the Sligo mountains and just going with the mystic seer vibe.

Hayley Krischer: I take a lot of anxiety medication so I can be numb!

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