Real Talk from 5 Writers of Spring's Buzziest Books

The next two months are chockablock with excellent books by award winners like Kazuo Ishiguro, Steven Millhauser, and Amelia Gray. They discuss why they write fiction and which rules to break -- spoiler alert: pretty much all of them -- all excerpted from their past conversations with BOMB.

Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant "A writer, and artists in general, occupy a very particular and crucial role in society. The question isn't, 'should they or should they not?' It's always, 'to what extent?' What is appropriate in any given context? I think this changes with time, depending upon what country you're in, or which sector of society you occupy. It's a question that artists and writers have to ask every day of their lives.

"Obviously, it isn't good enough to just ponder and sit on the fence forever. There has to come a point when you say, 'No matter the imperfections of a particular cause, it has to be supported because the alternatives are disastrous.' The difficulty is judging when. There is something about the act of writing novels in particular, which makes it appropriate to actually defer the moment of commitment to quite a late point. The nature of what a novel is means that it's very unequipped for front line campaigning. If you take issue with certain legislation that's being debated, you're better off writing letters to the press, writing articles in the media. The strength of the novel is that it gets read at a deeper level; it gets read over a long stretch of time by generations with a future. There is something about the form of a novel that makes it appropriate to political debate at a more fundamental, deeper, more universal level. I've been involved in certain campaigns about homelessness but I've never brought any of that into my novel writing."

Paul Beatty, The Sellout Rone Shavers: "Who are you drawing from now?"

Paul Beatty: "The obvious influences are Richard Pryor and Kurt Vonnegut. They've influenced the way I read and look at life. So that also influences the way I write."

Rone Shavers: "How?"

Paul Beatty: "By trying to be vulnerable and not be afraid to parody things that are important to you and to others. Those are two guys that I feel aren't afraid to show the cursed antihero. In real life, the antihero wins and does the right thing just as much as the hero...

"People come into your life and maybe alter the course of how you live, but then they fade out. It's like having some medallion of a saint to keep rubbing. People, or events, or whatever--come into my life all the time and change me, but I don't hold onto them. And that also happens in my writing process: they come in, they're important for a second, then I dump 'em."

Rone Shavers: "Your characters are people you normally wouldn't expect to see in novels. And the language in your books is such a mix of high and low."

Paul Beatty: "A lot of things are a mix of high and low, but people just don't say it. This high and low thing shifts. Maybe Shakespeare was the Spielberg of his day. But this high and low thing is bothering me. I know exactly what you mean by it, but it's one of the things that I always hate, how people don't see commonalities between things that they think are different. I think hip-hop and Greek classics are very similar--they're both grand and religious and heroic. There are so many double entendres in the vernacular--everything means something more than what it is on the surface. The first time I heard a criticism from someone of note, it was this fairly well known poet who said, 'Well, Paul, I like his poetry,'--somebody told me this--'but he doesn't know whether to be street or intellectual.' Something ridiculous like that. In one sense I was flattered, at least she sees that both things are in there. But the idea that you have to be one or the other--what shit."

Steven Millhauser, Voices in the Night: Stories

Jim Shepard: "Does what you're doing -- when it's going well -- feel like aesthetic problem solving, or more exalted than that?"

Steven Millhauser: "Hmmm: aesthetic problem solving. That sounds like the sort of thing a sly critic might wish to say about a book he particularly dislikes. Of course, there's no getting around it--one thing you relentlessly do when you write is solve aesthetic problems. But to leave it at that! No, when things are going well, the feeling I have is much more extravagant. It's the feeling that I'm at the absolute center of things, instead of off to one side--the feeling that the entire universe is streaming in on me. It's a feeling of strength, of terrifying health, of much-more-aliveness. It's the kind of feeling that probably should never be talked about, as if one were confessing to a shameful deed."

Amelia Gray, Gutshot: Stories "The best fiction, to me, does have some looming shadow behind it. A threat can mean anything -- a threat that the stasis will change, that something has been irreparably broken, that an object of desire or love has vanished. THREATS is all about threats, but there's not very much physical harm in the book. That's life, man...

"One thing that fiction allows us is the chance to come to our own conclusions, but a novel does need to offer something by way of plot resolution if it's going to be an enjoyable read. Those two ideas push against each other. I liked playing with that contrast in the book."

Catherine Lacey: "Was this different from your experience with short stories? Do you think plot resolution as essential in a piece of short fiction?"

Amelia Gray: "Nothing is essential in a piece of short fiction. Any rule can be violated if it is violated well."

Aleksandar Hemon, The Making of Zombie Wars "I've always found the insistent distinction between fiction and nonfiction in Anglo-American writing very annoying, indeed troubling. For one thing, it implies that nonfiction is all the stuff outside of fiction, or the other way around, the yin and yang of writing. Another problem: it marks a text in terms of its relation to 'truth,' a category that is presumably self-evident and therefore stable. But narration cannot contain stable truth, because it unfolds, and it does so before the narrator in one way, and before the listener/reader in another way. Narration is creation of truth, which is to say that truth does not precede it."

"In Bosnian, there are no words that are equivalent to 'fiction' and 'nonfiction,' or that convey the distinction between them. This is not to say that there is no truth or falsehood. Rather, the stress is on storytelling..."

"What always interests me -- indeed obsesses me -- is the way we engage in history. Except there is no 'we.' Americans do it differently, and, often, irresponsibly and without particular interest. Abu Ghraib is long forgotten now; no lesson seems to have been learned. Specialist Lynndie England and ten others went to prison and are now out of it--with no officers among them, let alone anyone from Bush's court of sociopaths."

"On the other hand, I (and the people like me, whoever they may be) engage with it perforce. There is no way to leave history. There is no other place to go. As a diasporic person I've learned that it's in fact really easy to leave your country. What is difficult is leaving its history, as it follows (or leads) you like a shadow. That kind of history is in your body (as it was in Lazarus's) and cannot be relegated to a museum or, as in America, to entertainment."