05/05/2014 01:31 pm ET Updated May 05, 2014

A Brief Interview With Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay

Brief Interviews is a series in which writers discuss language, literature, and a handful of Proustian personality questions.

Roxane Gay's first novel, An Untamed State [Grove Press, $16.00], was published this week. Her essay collection, Bad Feminist, is out this summer. Gay is the essays editor at The Rumpus, and the co-editor of PANK. Her writing has appeared in Best American Short Stories, American Short Fiction, and The New York Times.

What did you want to be when you grew up (besides an author)?
I wanted to be a doctor. I was always obsessed with medical equipment and surgical scrubs and the idea that there were people who knew so much and had such delicate hands that they could open the human body to heal it. During my freshman year of college, I was pre-med, and in the first biology course, the professor said something like, "This class will separate the doctors from those who only wish they could be doctors." Alas, I succumbed.

What are the most important elements of a good story?
A good story needs to move me. I want to feel hard and deep when I read. I want to forget about this world and lose myself in the lives of others.

What books might your readers be surprised that you enjoy?
I really love thrillers--Clive Cussler, Tom Clancy, Vince Flynn, David Baldacci, Taylor A. Stevens, Eric Lustbader, and on and on the list goes. If there is a misunderstood undercover agent or government spy of some kind,l I am sold. This has in large part to do with my secret desire to be a spy for the CIA.

If you could have any 5 dinner guests, dead or alive, fictional or non-, who would they be?
I would enjoy a fine, fine meal with Bill Clinton, Edith Wharton, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Emily Nussbaum. I would very much hope to sit next to Bill. I would try not to shower James and Toni with too much awe. Emily and I would, I hope, talk about smart television and bad television and everything in between. Edith, well, Edith would be the grand dame, gracing us all with her presence.

What word or phrase do you overuse?
I have worn a fine tread in the phrase, "Calm down." I use it (mostly to amuse myself), in so many situations where I want people to just chill out for a moment.

Which books are currently in your to-read pile?
So many, but I will offer a small selection of the ones near the top: Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique, Chasing the Sun by Natalie Sylvester, The Bees by Laline Paull, Dear Daughter by Elizabeth Little, Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, A Different Bed Every Time by Jac Jemc, Love & Treasure by Ayelet Waldman, Thunderstruck & Other Stories by Elizabeth McCracken, Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals by Patricia Lockwood, and The Moor's Account by Laila Lalami.

What is the first book you remember reading?
The first book I remember reading, which is also the first book I truly loved, is Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I loved the rich detail and sense of place and how a kick ass young girl was the heart of the book.

Which classic have you not yet read? Do you intend to read it?
I am woefully unversed in the classics. I have not read Moby Dick and I don't think I will. I'm familiar with the first line and I think I've got the gist.