What motivates you to write?
Writing helps me transform what would otherwise be unmanageable sadness about the human condition.
What made you choose the genre you chose?
As a young writer, I wanted to write great literature. For better or worse, the writing gods gave me fictions about family dynamics: status among siblings, how family of origin haunts adult choices, and the compromises people make for approval and at what those compromises cost. Invariably, my fiction includes layers of socio-economic, ethnic and gender complexities. That’s the palette I work with, but at this stage in my career, I wouldn’t call it even literary fiction. The more I try to reach a wide audience, the narrower my focus becomes. It puzzles me. I don’t know what genre to call it.
Where do your characters come from?
My characters come from piecing together people I’ve known, but there are also types I enjoy working with: the dominating mother, the perfect son, and the outcast daughter. I have four wonderful brothers whom I frequently combine into two characters. When I fictionalize them, what remains are cultural characteristics that embody conflicts that interest me. (Obsess me, is more like it.) I also frequently work with characters who operate on the edges of society.
What’s most rewarding about writing?
Being absorbed in doing it. Waking up every day to purposeful work. I like completing projects; having people appreciate my work is a lovely perk, but actually writing and revising is the reward.
Who is an author who inspires you and why?
American writer Jane Smiley encourages me, especially when she uses classical models to write contemporary fiction. The breadth of her work masterfully includes place and the history of place in order to magnify character development. I also like the fiction of Ha Jin, Salman Rushdie, and Toni Morrison for the same reasons. The writer who puts it all together for me is the Egyptian Nobel prizewinner, Naguib Mahfouz.
What do you look for in other people’s books?
An intriguing sensibility-I mean the ability to appreciate, respond to, and manage complex emotional and/or aesthetic influences. That’s what Mahfouz, Rushdie and Morrison do for me. I also learn from how other writers handle the passage of time and the political/historical events of their times.
What are you writing now?
I’m revising the draft of a novel set in Iowa City during the early 1970s. It treats issues of inequalities women face, many of those issues still unresolved.
What kind of book would you like to be known for?
I’d like to be known for a book that crossed over many divides.
If you were to write in another genre, what genre excites your writer’s blood?
Translation of poetry. The intimacy with another writer’s words is magical. I’ve tried it. Unfortunately, I don’t have facility in any language but English.
If you achieved great fame and fortune, would you continue to write?
Yes. Fame and fortune have nothing to do with writing. I’d be bereft without writing.