This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Amy Bonnaffons, whose debut story collection, The Wrong Heaven, is out today from Little, Brown. In this collection of funny, strange, and inventive stories, whose “conflicted characters seek to solve their sexual and spiritual dilemmas in all the wrong places,” Bonnaffons writes about women, desire, and transformation through the lens of the fantastic. Bonnaffons received an MFA from New York University and is currently pursuing a PhD in creative writing at the University of Georgia. Her stories have been published in the Kenyon Review, the Sun, the Southampton Review, and elsewhere, and her story “Horse”—which juxtaposes one woman’s journey through IVF with her roommate’s transition from woman to animal—was performed by actresses Grace Gummer and Geraldine Hughes on This American Life.
1. Where, when, and how often do you write?
Ideally every day, for two hours or so in the morning, at home or at a nearby coffee shop. I do my best to stick to that schedule, but interruptions and hiatuses are common—due to the demands of life, work, and school, or the need to replenish myself creatively. I’ve been taking a long break for the past few months, reading and drawing a lot rather than pressuring myself to produce any new writing.
2. How long did it take you to write The Wrong Heaven?
The first story (“Doris and Katie”) was written in 2008; the most recent story is “Horse,” written in 2016. So I’ve been working on these stories for the last decade of my life—while also writing a novel, The Regrets, forthcoming from Little, Brown.
3. What has been the most surprising thing about the publication process?
How capable and nice everyone has been. I’d heard horror stories about publishing that made me anticipate encountering a lot of incompetent jerks—but everyone I’ve worked with has been really good at their jobs, and also just so darn likable. I want to invite them all over for a potluck where we get drunk and dork out about books.
4. Where did you first get published?
Word Riot and Kenyon Review Online.
5. What are you reading right now?
Gioconda Belli’s The Inhabited Woman; Hiromi Kawakami’s Record of a Night Too Brief; Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad; Mallory Ortberg’s The Merry Spinster; Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. I just finished Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, Myriam Gurba’s Mean, and Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage.
6. If you were stuck on a desert island, which book would you want with you?
Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I could read that book forever.
7. Who is the most underrated author, in your opinion?
I don’t really like to rate authors, because everything’s a matter of taste, and taste is political, and hierarchy has no place in the creative life. That said, there are some authors I’ve read recently and wondered, “WHY HAS NO ONE TOLD ME ABOUT THIS PERSON BEFORE? WHY IS THIS BOOK NOT ON EVERY SYLLABUS EVER?” Sometimes I’m just late to the party—but it’s also true that women, people of color, and authors from the Global South have to fight harder to find an audience. This is changing, but we’re not yet anywhere near where we should be.
The books I’m thinking of at the moment are Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls, The Palm-Wine Drinkard by Nigerian author Amos Tutuola, Gentleman Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos, and The Lost Lunar Baedeker by Mina Loy (why did no one make me read her in college?). I’m grateful to my professor Susan Rosenbaum to introducing me to Loy and Loos (check out her Mina Loy project), to Reginald McKnight for turning me on to Tutuola, and to Rivka Galchen’s book Little Labors, which made me run and check out Ingalls.
8. What is the biggest impediment to your writing life?
I’d like to say, “being super busy.” If I’m honest, I’m only medium busy, but I really like to sleep. A friend recently sent me a new-age astrology website that claimed to identify, based on birth date and time, “where in your body you generate energy.” When I entered my data it claimed that I am a rare type that “generates no energy,” should only work two to four hours per day, and needs at least ten hours of sleep per night. I’ve never felt so seen.
Seriously, though, aside from just finding the time, I think my biggest problem is pressuring myself to finish something when there’s just no energy in it. That just makes me beat myself up and get depressed. I’ve learned how to strategically take breaks and how to refresh my angle of approach when needed.
9. What trait do you most value in your editor?
Being able to pinpoint where the energy and heat is in the story, and reflecting that back to me. When you’re writing something long, like a novel, it’s easy to get lost in the weeds and to forget why you started writing in the first place. A good editor—be it friend, teacher, agent, or publishing-house professional—can show you where your work has pulse and where it doesn’t. It’s helpful sometimes if they have specific suggestions for how to get the rest of the manuscript back on track, but this isn’t always necessary. Usually, for me, once I’ve been re-oriented to what really matters, I can fix the problems myself. The two editors I’ve worked with at Little, Brown—Lee Boudreaux and Jean Garnett—have both been amazing in this respect, as has my agent, Henry Dunow, an excellent editor himself.
10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
I’ve gotten many wonderful pieces of writing advice over the years from mentors, friends, and books. Most recently, I’ve been enormously helped by Lynda Barry—in particular by her suggestion to keep the hand moving at all times. Now, when I’m writing, I keep a sketchpad by my desk; when I pause my typing because I’m stumped, or because I need to ponder something further, I pick up a pencil and start doodling rather than staring blankly at my computer screen or looking out the window or checking my phone. I don’t know why this works, other than that it engages the right brain—but it does!
I’m coming to believe more and more that the whole body should be engaged in the writing process, and that drawing is a particularly useful way to connect brain and body and wake up the imagination. My hypothesis—currently being tested in my own pedagogical practice—is that creative writers should be encouraged to draw and diagram as well as to get words down on paper. It also helps to collaborate with folks in other media, as we do at the journal I edit, 7x7. Collaboration can encourage spontaneity and open up fresh perspectives on one’s work.