How Roxane Gay makes writing about the hard stuff look easy

The literary multi-hyphenate has become a voice people look to for guidance on today’s toughest topics. Now, she’s uplifting the words of others

By Britt Julious    Photography by Djeneba Aduayom    Video by Robbie Corral    Art Direction by Mo Mfinanga    Styling by Courtney May

‘Early on, I knew that I was never going to let anyone pigeonhole me and assume that I could only do one thing – for better or worse,’ says writer, professor, editor and social commentator, Roxane Gay. ‘I like to keep people guessing, and I like to keep myself guessing. I think it keeps me nimble.’

Taking a break from reviewing applications for her new literary fellowship while at home in Los Angeles, Gay says her multifaceted, multidisciplined career may seem daunting to most, but it was always part of her plan.

Storytelling is storytelling and the rules of the genre differ. And I enjoy learning those rules, but the fundamentals of what I do are pretty much the same in all of the kinds of work that I do,’ she says.

A black and white portrait of a woman in a black coat and hat

Whether she’s writing bestselling novels, memoirs and essay collections like An Untamed State and Bad Feminist, or reading literary submissions or teaching writing, Gay finds a way to imbue her creative and social ethos of inclusivity into her work. And this month, she’ll embark on one of her biggest projects yet: the launch of Roxane Gay Books, a new imprint from Grove Atlantic. The venture is just one of many that she’s launched during the pandemic – a time when most quietened down rather than revved up. But Gay has never operated like other people, and especially not like other authors.

A portrait of a woman with a red layer effect
A black and white portrait of a woman in a black coat and hat

When everything shut down, it was the first time I was in one place for more than three weeks in six years. And so that was, in some ways, really welcomed,’ she says.

For example, prior to COVID-19, Gay and her then-fiancé, Debbie Millman, had been in a long-distance relationship. Right before the world shut down, the couple decided to live together full time. The pandemic accelerated their decision, and later they eloped.

But Gay also said the pandemic allowed her to decompress from a ‘very hectic lifestyle’. Trying to find time to write while simultaneously travelling and performing left her exhausted. But a forced period of social and professional isolation gave Gay the room to return to her first true love: the pen. ‘Slowly but surely, I found my way back to creativity and enjoying writing,’ she says.

A portrait of a woman with a red layer effect

Currently, Gay is finishing up How To Be Heard, her next book that’s filled with writing advice and tools for how to use one’s voice. She also went to Iceland to film a MasterClass, worked on the screenplay for Hunger (based on her bestselling memoir), and has nearly completed a young adult novel.

Gay also launched The Audacious Book Club in 2021. Like many of her projects, the book club began as a way to share writing that she loves with curious readers. ‘There are so many great books that are published every day, every week. I think a lot of the time, we’re wondering, “Where do I start? What do I read?’” says Gay. ‘I just thought, “I read a lot and I would love to have some forum where I could discuss these books with others”.’

But her biggest venture of the year is the launch of her new imprint, Roxane Gay Books. It’s rare for a writer, especially one of Gay’s stature, to be involved in both sides of the publishing industry in this manner. But for Gay, this new imprint is not a first-time endeavour. ‘I’ve wanted to have an imprint for quite some time, but I always just wanted to be a writer,’ she says. ‘I never even dared imagine anything beyond that.’

A black and white portrait of a woman in a black coat and hat

The more time Gay spent in publishing through the writer’s perspective, the more she became interested in bringing other books into the world. While teaching at Eastern Illinois University, she launched Tiny Hardcore Press, her own micro imprint. She then went on to publish work by authors such as xTx and Kirsty Logan.
 
‘I’m very proud of the writers I’ve worked with – and we put out really great books,’ she says. ‘But I always wondered what it would be like to do that kind of work with resources.’
 
Universality is not the current goal of Roxane Gay Books. Instead, Gay is interested in featuring writing from underrepresented writers, whether they’re Black, or people of colour, or disabled. She says her efforts are long overdue.
 
‘Something has to be done,’ adds Gay about the book industry’s gatekeeping. ‘And people keep talking about pipelines and this and that, and it’s all a bunch of nonsense. There is no pipeline problem; people just need the opportunity.’ Now that Gay is in a position to do something, she’s taking advantage of her privileges to lift up others. ‘I’m just hoping to remove at least one of the barriers. But realistically, I don’t know how long I’ll be able to do that,’ she says.
 
Submissions for Roxane Gay Books opened on 1 July. In terms of what she’s looking for, Gay says she desires ‘an ineffable quality’.
 
‘I’m just looking for great books – those that are provocative and make me think, that are entertaining and satisfying in some way; a book that I can’t put down,’ she says. She’s especially interested in stories about women and gritty realism, as well as books within the science fiction, fantasy, literary fiction, and nonfiction genres. ‘I’ll just know it when I see it.’ 

A portrait of a woman with a red layer effect
A black and white portrait of a woman holding a flower

One of the reasons I wanted this fellowship – one of the things I told Grove Atlantic – is that you don’t really have any employees of colour. And that’s ridiculous. I was like, “If we do this, you need to hire a person of colour, at least. And you can’t just have one, but let’s start somewhere”,’ adds Gay.
 
Diversity in publishing (across a number of spectrums, from race to ethnicity to disability) is often a question of accessibility. Who has access and who doesn’t? Who can afford to live in the epicentre of publishing (New York City, one of the most expensive cities in the world) and who can’t? Working one’s way up through the publishing ranks on an entry-level salary would be impossible for most without outside support.
 
Gay hopes her fellowship will be a small step in the right direction by providing otherwise absent opportunities to people who are capable of entering the publishing job market, but just don’t have the financial means to do so. ‘We’re going to start with that and see what happens,’ she says.

A portrait of a woman in a black coat and hat

As the world continues to open up, Gay is excited to get back to personal pleasures as well. This includes attending Broadway shows, socialising with friends, hosting a few barbecues, and going back to the movie theatre to see F9. ‘Like, that should be a national holiday, as far as I’m concerned,’ she jokes. Even for the hardest working writer in the world, there’s room to have fun and celebrate love.
 
‘And not just romantic love, but love for other people, love for relaxation, free time and beautiful weather, and just appreciating the world,’ adds Gays. ‘Especially given what we’ve all been through over the past 16 months or so, if not longer, this is going to be quite the summer of love – people have a renewed appreciation for humanity.’

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