Five Questions with Roxane Gay and Brian Oliu

NANO Fiction’s Sophie Rosenblum asks Roxane Gay and Brian Oliu about Tiny Hardcore Press, musical theater, and the best video game characters to spend the weekend with.

Sophie Rosenblum: On your blog, you write openly about your feelings on Lifetime movies, but also about meetings with angry students and reactions to your work, including rejections you’ve received from journals. Is your blogging a form of catharsis, or is it meant to encourage other writers to persevere through their own struggles?

Roxane Gay: My blogging is a lot of things. It allows me to get most of my crazy out in a manner that is not self-destructive. Blogging a great way for me to write without thinking and I’m actually starting to cull essays from blog entries because the writing just seems to come to me when I open that WordPress window. I also like talking about rejection because I think more writers should talk about the small failures, the things we go through, the frustration of trying to be great and often being told, “No, try harder.” Writing can be lonely and blogging is mostly a way of making things less lonely.

SR: How do you divide your time between writer, editor, publisher, and professor? Do you have any advice about making transitions between these aspects of your life?

RG: I don’t sleep much and I compartmentalize very well and I happen to have a job and lifestyle that are very conducive to being able to do all these different things. It’s not as difficult as it might seem. Also, I don’t have children.

SR: Tell us a bit about what got you interested in starting your own press and what drew you to Brian Oliu’s work.

RG: I started a press because I wanted to put out books I felt passionate about. Brian Oliu’s work is so moving and charming and at times witty but always, always lovely. I started reading his Craigslist posts when they were actually on Craigslist and there was this really romantic, almost mournful quality to the writing I loved. When he sent me to the manuscript I immediately knew I wanted to publish it. The book is gorgeous and I am proud to play a small part in bringing So You Know It’s Me into the world.

SR: As someone who is “crazy for musical theater,” which songstress would you most like to play you in the Broadway version of your memoir?

RG: That’s a good question. I’d say Audra McDonald because she’s fierce and she works across so many genres and is always excellent. I admire that in a person.

SR: What else can we look forward to from Roxane Gay and Tiny Hardcore Press?

RG: I just finished a novel and I have a short story collection that’s making the editorial rounds so hopefully you will see some books from me in the next couple years. Tiny Hardcore Press in 2011 and 2012 will be publishing books by James Tadd Adcox, Frank Hinton, Brandi Wells, Robb Todd, Sean Doyle, Alana Noel Voth, Scott McClanahan, Tim Jones-Yelvington, Casey Hannan, and an anthology featuring fiction from Lauren Becker, Erin Fitzgerald, Kirsty Logan, Michelle Reale, and Amber Sparks.

Sophie Rosenblum: Brian, tell us a bit about your collection with Tiny Hardcore Press. What got you interested in the Craigslist Missed Connections?

Brian Oliu: I’m really big on writing projects–I like to feel as if everything I write is a part of something larger. It was the end of summer in Tuscaloosa and I was working on my other project (Leave Luck To Heaven) and needed a writing break from that. My undergraduate professor back in Baltimore was Lia Purpura and she was a big believer in having multiple projects–and so the Craigslist collection was a side project that turned into something really surprising and wonderful. I had always loved Missed Connections–there’s something incredibly honest and sad about it; they all seemed desperate in their language ‘this is a long shot’, ‘I didn’t know what else to do’, etc. Furthermore, the idea of a missed ‘Missed Connection’ seemed even worse–I think we all have those people from our past that we haven’t seen in years and can’t get in touch with, yet every once in a while we google their names in hopes of finding something. To me, that’s what Craigslists are–these earnest shots in the dark in hopes of finding someone who can change a life.

SR: As a born and raised Jersey boy, how did you come to have so much love for the South, specifically your current town of Tuscaloosa, AL?

BO: I can’t even begin to tell you how grateful I am to the city of Tuscaloosa as well as my time at the University of Alabama. I came to Tuscaloosa to receive my MFA in 2005 when I was 22 years-old. This is where I grew up as a person and as a writer and I firmly believe I wouldn’t be where I am now nor as happy as I am currently if it weren’t for this town. To me, it’s the people: a group of wonderful writers and even kinder souls that make this place a place to love. Could I have found something like this elsewhere? Probably–however, we joke that there’s an ‘ego check at the border’–it takes a little swallowing of pride to leave where we’re coming from to move to West Alabama; a football carnival in the middle of nowhere, and so there’s some lovely people. Furthermore, the fact that it is a small town means that you can do just about anything and everything: we start presses, we have flag-football leagues, reading series, DJ sets, and so-on. The Do-It-Yourself mentality really drives this place, and it is beautiful.

SR: Since you write poetry and fiction, what would you say is the difference between flash fiction and prose poetry?

BO: I’ve never been one for categorization–I consider myself primarily a nonfiction writer, but others might see me as a poet or that some of my work that relies heavily on extended metaphor is fictional. I mean, my thesis advisor was Michael Martone–king of non-fiction misdirection. I can’t write characters or plot, I write exclusively from my own experiences, and I don’t understand linebreaks, so I always use the term ‘lyric essay’ or ‘piece’. To me, the difference between prose poetry/flash fiction is in the eye of the writer: what the writer set out to write is what it is in the end. Of course the reader will attach their own ideas. For example, the Missed Connections pieces have been published as fiction, nonfiction, and poetry in different journals–sometimes I wonder how one would read the same piece differently if it were, in say, Brevity or NANO Fiction. I think of Carolyn Forche’s ‘The Colonel’, which I’ve taught in a lyric essay course, a prose course, and a lyric essay course, and there are wonderful things to say about it coming from multiple facets.

SR: Your book of lyric essays, Leave Luck to Heaven, concentrates on 8-bit Nintendo games. Which video game character (hero or villain) would you most like to spend a weekend with, and what would you do?

BO: Oh man, this is the greatest question ever. I’ve already been partial to Mega Man, simply because he seems like such a tragic figure–he’s a cyborg that tries to help humanity by becoming a robot–he has a dog, he has a kid sister (a housecleaning robot–let’s just say the Japanese videogame programmers were not hip to fem theory) he is always having to destroy other robots. What fascinates me about the world of Mega Man is that everything is a robot except for Dr. Light (Mega Man’s creator) and Dr. Wiley (the other evil scientist)–so what world exactly is being saved here? Also, I’d add that my favorite videogame of all time is probably Earthbound (it will change by tomorrow), and by the end of that game I wished I was hanging out with those kids on their adventures. That game as well as its ‘sequel’ Mother 3 made me cry, so that’s another story–but as I played that game I was incredibly moved by it all.

SR: What else can we look forward to from Brian Oliu?

BO: I’m putting the finishing touches on Leave Luck To Heaven and I’ll be sending that out to publishers sometime soon. Considering I live in Tuscaloosa, we’ve all been in different ‘modes’ since the tornado–volunteering our services, hosting dinners, etc. I edited an eBook of Tuscaloosa writers ( in an attempt to showcase the amazing talent here in Tuscaloosa as well as obtain some donations, so that has been my main focus as of late, and there is talks of removing the ‘e’ and making it into a limited edition print book, which will be exciting. I’m working on a series of lyric essays based off of the counties of New Jersey, but that has been difficult considering Tuscaloosa has been on my mind. Finally, I’ve begun translating a book that my grandfather wrote about running–it was published in the 70s in Catalan and I’m trying to work through it–it’s not exactly a direct translation; I’m calling it a book collaboration considering I don’t know much Catalan and I’ve found myself wandering within the language–thinking about concepts of running and the body, my grandfather’s life, and the idea of mistranslation, as he suffered from Alzheimer’s for a long period of time. Other than that, I’m setting up a few readings in light of the book release and I’m really looking forward to that, and there are a slew of good videogames coming out lately that I am psyched for. It’ll be a good summer.

So You Know It’s Me will be released in June 2011. The book is now available for pre-order at Tiny Hardcore Press.

Brian Oliu is originally from New Jersey and currently lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Work appears in Hotel Amerika, New Ohio Review, Ninth Letter, Brevity, DIAGRAM, Sonora Review, and elsewhere. His book of Tuscaloosa Craigslist Missed Connections, So You Know It's Me is being released by Tiny Hardcore Press in June 2011.

Roxane Gay lives and writes in the Midwest.