Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Annie Liontas talks about Let Me Explain You, hip-hop, titles, her third eye and writing, and so much more

 I love big, wild, unruly books, which is why I fell for Let Me Explain You, which is an Indies Introduce Debut from ABA for 2015--another reason to snap this novel up! She is a recipient of a grant from the Barbara Deming Memorial fund, and one of her stories, "Two Planes in Love" was a runner-up in Bomb Magazines 2013 Fiction Contest.  I'm thrilled to have author Annie Liontas here.  Thank you, Annie!

I always ask writers what the “spark” moment was for a book. What was haunting you that led to this story?

1.5.  By that, I mean, I’m a member of the 1.5 generation, not quite Greek, not entirely American.  I was born in the U.S. but lived in Greece and assimilated at age five, learned English, figured out that ketchup wasn’t a condiment for spaghetti.  I’ve always been confronted with the feeling of being foreign; I imagine it’s the obsession that will follow me for life.  I’m OK with that.  Someone once told me that writers belong to their own nation, and that feels right.

I loved and deeply admired the multiple perspective of your novel and the big, brawling multigenerational feel. How difficult was that to do? Was there ever a moment when you wondered if you could pull it off--which you did, beautifully, by the way?

You know something—everyone who read the book was like, “Why not just write the whole thing as Stavros Stavros Mavrakis?”  He’s funny, ridiculous, a big noise on the page.  I knew, though, that it couldn’t just be his story, and I kept returning to the daughters.  I kept asking them, “What do you have to say about this?”  It took a long time—and hundreds of trashed pages—to finally pick up their voices.  They just kept getting drowned out by their father, so I had to really tune my ear.

So much of this blindingly beautiful novel is about family--the ties that bind as well as throttle us, but it’s also about the stories we tell. Can you talk about this, please?

I guess this comes from my innate belief that everybody has a story to tell, even the tiny people.  There are these big voices that emerge in literature, and often they’re men, and often they’re patriarchs.  The story they tell is usually only one version of the story needing to be told—and as a result even their own lives become stripped down.  The more stories we tell of ourselves and others, the richer the narrative becomes.  And in family, every voice matters.  Stories are also ways to explain to ourselves what’s happened to us, around us, before us, because of us.

I have to ask about the title (because I have such trouble titling my own work.) Where did it come from?

The title was the last to come:  it told me I was finished writing the novel.  It’s part of Stavros Stavros Mavrakis’ refrain, “Let me explain you something.” (He was mansplaining before it became a thing).  Once I inherited Let Me Explain You as the title, I was able to go back and reframe the entire novel, even at the sentence level.  I was able to interrogate my characters:  who is being explained?  Who is doing the explaining? Who feels entitled to tell someone else what they are?  Is there any truth to what’s been said?  Is there any power in explaining yourself?

I always want to know about process. How do you write? Do you have rituals, use index cards, Scrivener, or do you not plan out at all?

During Let Me Explain You, I wrote pretty feverishly at night, usually listening to a single song on repeat, usually hip-hop (Current track is “Every Day” by A$AP Rocky).  My best writing time—when my third eye opens—is probably from 10 PM-2AM.  This isn’t exactly conducive to having a job, so I’m trying to adjust, these days, to daylight.  I also do a lot of mapping—my living room is covered in giant posters right now.  But sometimes that gets overwhelming, and I convert down to a single sheet of paper.  I guess process is whatever serves you in the moment, whatever tricks you to plow ahead.  The one thing I absolutely need, though, is Microsoft Word 2010.  No other version lets you go full-screen with a completely blacked out background.  Don’t they know writers are particular and easily distracted?!

The other thing I’d like to add is—I’ve always felt guilty about not being someone who writes every day.  But, honestly, I’m not sure women are programmed that way.  We work on an obvious cycle.  I finally got sick of beating myself up and, for the last few years, I’ve been documenting my writing hours, noting when and how I work, and it’s helped me understand my own (changing) rhythms.  I know to be patient if I haven’t purged something, it’ll come soon.  That’s how I discovered Marina’s voice inaugurates Part III of the book.  The waiting still feels miserable, of course, and you convince yourself you’ll never write again.  But at least the track record serves as a reminder.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I think I’m always keeping my ear to the ground for those tiny voices that need to be heard.  At the moment, I’m trying to channel a gay teenager living in Newark who feels foreign in her own body.  I’m also playing with some fabulist fiction, because I get claustrophobic in my writing self and need to shake it up.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

What’s the best question in the book?

“Do you want me to smell my fingers?”

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