Lightning Round With the ‘5 Under 35’ National Book Foundation Honorees

Halle Butler, Leopoldine Core, Weike Wang, Lesley Nneka
Arimah, and Zinzi Clemmons. Image via Beowulf Sheehan.

Each year the National Book Foundation asks authors it has
previously recognized as outstanding in their field to select
five debut fiction writers under 35 to be hailed as the
organization’s “5 Under 35.” This year, the selectors picked
five women who were honored at a reading and cocktail hour on
Monday night at Housing Works book store.

How great that it was five women was the night’s
resounding chorus, and Lisa Lucas, executive director of the
National Book Foundation assured the assembled audience that
they were chosen “without any manipulation, without any
architecture on our part” even though everyone was sipping good
naturedly from stemless wine glasses and no one had suggested
anything of the kind.

Four of the writers—Lesley Nneka Arimah, Halle Butler, Zinzi
Clemmons, and Leopoldine Core—were introduced by the people who
selected them, Chris Bachelder, Lydia Millet, Angela Flournoy,
Karan Mahajan, respectively. Weike Wang was selected by Sherman
Alexie, but he couldn’t make it; the novelist Joshua Ferris
introduced her instead. The emcee of the event, author Ben
Greenman, asked each writer to read one page and no more from
from her work and had them perform difficult tasks like admit
to not having read certain classic works of literature, or
recall the last word in each of their books. The answers:
“Dalliances” (wrong), “end” (correct!), “friend” (correct!),
“own” (correct!), and “it” (wrong).

I chatted with each of the authors before they went on stage
and, like Greenman, asked them mostly versions of the same
questions. Here are the highlights from my conversations with
each of the honorees, which have been edited for clarity and

Halle Butler, author of Jillian

JEZEBEL: When you started this, what was going through
your mind?

HALLE BUTLER: I started wanting to kind of vindicate myself.
Like when I started the book I wanted it to be this thing that
would like, prove that my experience was worthy of sympathy.
But then as I got even a few pages into it, it evolved into
something else. I think I usually start from a really selfish
place, like a love-seeking place but then it’s interesting to
write and I get distracted by the characters and I think less
about me.

When did you start writing this book?

Well, I’m 32 now and I wrote Jillian in the last month
of my 24th year, because I thought I needed to have a book done
by the time I was 25, which is completely ridiculous. Then I
edited it for a year, and then it was a slow process to get it

What were you doing in your 24th year?

I was working at a doctor’s office, to be transparently
obvious. I’d just gotten out of art school and I was doing a
part-time day job and just trying to find time to do work. The
real work. Art-making.

Was it easy for you to write this book?

Yeah. It was really easy.

Where did you write it?

Oh, this is a good one. I was living in an apartment in
Ukrainian Village in Chicago. It was from the late 1800s and it
had not had any work done in many, many years. The windows were
literally taped.

Oh god, in Chicago.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. And we had an attic space that was shared
storage that was like filled with old shit from like 1975 on,
and I cleared away a space in the attic by throwing away things
and moving things to the side. I wrote Jillian in this
crappy, soggy, dusty attic in Ukrainian Village. It was

Was there natural light?

Yes, there was natural light. There was window that looked out
on the street facing my desk.

You wrote the whole thing there?

I wrote the whole thing there. It was summer, so it was in the
90s and it would get really hot. I would drink a pot of coffee
in the morning, write for a few hours, go out, and get an RC

Do they still make that?

Yes, they do! Maybe it’s a Chicago thing. I don’t drink soda
except I treat myself to RC under duress.

It’s easy to picture—the light streaming

Yeah but then to deromanticize it, the RC cola. Which is a nice
balance that I like to strike. RC cola, donuts, and a laptop.

Lesley Nneka Arimah, author of What It Means When a
Man Falls From the Sky

JEZEBEL: What was going through your mind when you
started this collection?

LESLEY NNEKA ARIMAH: I wanted to write stories that reflected
the breadth of the things I read, so science fiction, fantasy,
et cetera, et cetera. I wanted to sort of pay homage to all the
different genres that fed me.

I think I was thinking a lot about the role of Nigerian women
in society. I was also—I was turning 30 around the time I
started writing this book and it was just sort of—interesting
age stuff or whatever. At that point, my father also really
wanted grandkids. So sort of thinking about the expectations of
Nigerian women and Nigerian society and how there is sort of
modern-age women who are not fulfilling the expectations of how
they fit in and don’t fit in in Nigerian society, that was on
my mind.

Tell me about writing short stories. I’m sure people
ask you that all the time.

Well, they don’t because everyone knows that writing short
stories is the key to obscurity, right? Everyone is like “Oh,
you’re writing short stories? You’re also working on a novel
right?” That’s the next question, usually. So, I really love,
deeply love the short story form. I think that you can be
experimental with a short story in a way that you might not be
able to sustain over the course of a novel. I have commitment
issues, too. So I can be in this world for twenty pages and
then I’m done. I don’t have to like you know, carry the logic
of this world over a hundred and fifty pages I can just dip in
and dip out and I go somewhere else.

Where do science fiction and identity collide for

Oh gosh, I’m not entirely sure that they do. I do really find
it interesting that a lot of science fiction worlds don’t have
black people. Like, we make it too, you guys! We survive the
apocalypse as well, you know? So it’s interesting: to imagine a
future in Nigeria or Africa. There’s a Nigerian writer, T.J.
Benson, who says something about writing science fiction or
futuristic works where, it’s like, no one imagines a future for
us. Even our institutions don’t imagine having a future for us.
So it’s interesting that the writers are the ones who are
imagining what the future Nigeria or Africa look like. It’s not
the people who should be planning twenty, thirty years ahead of

A big thing that has been talked about with this
particular group of five women is that you’re all

Yes, yay!

Do you feel pressure to like write about being a
woman—about being a “Nigerian-ish” woman?

No. Haha. you caught that on
my Twitter bio
. I don’t feel that it’s pressure, I mean,
I’m very interested in the way people who are like me or aren’t
like me but in my same position move through the world. So it’s
interesting to me to explore that. I don’t really feel
pressured to do that—it’s what intrigues and interests me so it
just happens. It’s what I choose to write about.

What do you wish people noticed about you that they
usually don’t?

God, I really don’t know. I think I’d rather people don’t
notice me at all. That would be actually great.

That can’t be true.

I don’t know! I don’t know. It’s complicated because one of the
things with the path this book has taken is sort of contending
with going from observer to observed and it’s a weird space to
be in now. I don’t know. Notice my jumpsuits I guess.

Zinzi Clemmons, author of What We

JEZEBEL: I’ve read a lot of interviews with you where
people ask you to talk about yourself and writing sort of a
fictional version of yourself. Is that difficult to talk about?
How easy is it to talk about yourself?

ZINZI CLEMMONS: Well, you know, when you write a book and you
do publicity, that is what you have to do. So on one level it’s
expected. I think there’s sort of this unique angle with me
because—I put it directly in the book and acknowledged
that—it’s based directly on my life.

Is there anything you just wish someone would ask you

Probably, yeah. Honestly, I’ll say this: I think this is a
prize for people—and this year women—who are sort of “on the
rise” or whatever, but I think it would be smart to not treat
the five women who are at this awards ceremony like we are
children or young people. I’d say particularly especially
nowadays, we’re exactly the people you should be asking about
bigger questions, but we’re often not. There’s sort of this
[distinction] that’s made between people who are emerging and
people who have already sort of emerged, and I guess what I’m
saying is I think that’s bullshit on a certain level.

And you find it kind of condescending? This attitude of
“Oh, good job, you wrote your novel”?

Yeah, absolutely. And I think especially when it comes to
literature in difficult times, it’s actually the young people
you should be listening to and expressly not the older

And you know, there’s also this thing of like, “everybody this
year is women” and we’re supposed to be really happy about
that. I’m not very happy about the state of women in this
country right now. I guess in general I think celebrations are
all very nice, but we should be clear what we’re

What do you think we should be

Well, I think we can be specific about who picked five women,
right? I do not think that I represent the best of all the
writers who came out this year, so we come out of this very
specific context, right? And I would also not say that because
we have five women nominated this year that all of the problems
of literature have been solved. They obviously have not. And
I’d also say that with all of the conversations that have been
happening about sexual harassment, there’s a conversation that
needs to happen in literature, and it’s not been had yet. And
unless we’re able to acknowledge all of those things, we’re
celebrating something very false. So this is wonderful and it’s
a great thing but it’s a great thing that happens every year,
this is not like, the solution.

The problem is that, well the root of the problem is that we’re
in an industry that requires a lot of time out of you but that
only compensates you for, what—it’s about $30,000 a year? So
we’re in an industry where only very wealthy people can
survive, and that’s the problem. So it ends up being a lot of
daughters of wealthy people, and that’s why
the industry is 80 percent white female
. So, until we’re
giving people like, legitimate wages and probably also, I would
say, reasonable advances because that’s another thing that
happens, where like, we’ll give one debut novel a million
dollars and then everyone else just left to fend for
themselves. Unless those problems are addressed there’s not
gonna be any room left over for the rest of us. And until that
happens, I’m not really in favor of having these false
congratulatory sessions, and I would be very disappointed if
this year it turned into that, like a false congratulatory
session. Because it’s really not, I mean, I went to two Ivy
League schools—I should be on this stage. It doesn’t matter if
I’m a woman or not, and I’d say even more so for a white woman
who has two Ivy League degrees.

Weike Wang, author of Chemistry

JEZEBEL: You studied chemistry in college,

WEIKE WANG: I did, yeah.

When you started writing this novel, what was going

So I was fixated on writing a very lean novel about the
complete breakdown of a character, and I wanted to focus on
grad school. I think I wanted to write about a scientist who
has a mental breakdown. One, because scientists are known to
have their stuff together; they’re very organized, and also,
two, I wanted to come in from the angle, she’s a scientist, she
a minority, she kind of has a lot of things that are working
against her—or maybe working for her, it depends on how you
look at it—and what happens when this person completely
crashes. And then how does she rebuild? So that’s what I was
thinking. And at the time when I was writing it I was in grad
school. And my advisor is the nicest person, just he’s so nice.
When I sent him the book I said, “Please don’t read into this.
This is not you. I just sort of did the opposite of you.” You
know, when you create characters you do opposites. I wanted to
make sure that he knew that this was not my grad school
experience, but there are points in grad school where you think
“Oh, I should quit. This is not going well. I hate it.” And I
kind of just channeled that energy into this novel—a way to do
a creative outlet, essentially.

Were you writing against the possibility of your own

I was a little anxious about grad school, but when I created
this character, all of that anxiety went into her. And it’s
actually really nice when you can fictionalize something that
could be real because it just takes on this whole new world.
You’re not stuck in yourself, you can create something new.

Did you do anything else while you were writing this?
Did you just write all day and go to the wine store with your

No, I was actually doing my PhD at the same time.

Oh my god.

I was doing two programs at the same time. I think, at this
point, I would not advise students to do that. I didn’t flip
through the school handbook to see if that was completely
kosher, but I thought, you know, “Why not? I’m gonna do it. I’m
a girl, I’m gonna do this.” Really just a lot of the time you
feel like you’re the stupidest person on earth trying to do all
of this stuff. You feel like you’re failing all the time and
then to come to an event like this is just marvelous. Nobody
sees the work or how hard it is to do something. And it’s a
really nice to forget all the bad things and think “this is a
great event.” You get to meet great people such as yourself and
you kind of forget all the bad stuff that went into writing
this novel, because it’s a lot of the time it’s you’re writing.
You’re at a desk writing and there are really bad days. And
then there are really good days, like this. It balances really

I tend to have this issue of writing very quickly. The book was
written very quickly, but the editing process took a longer
period of time. I wrote the book in like three months. And that
I think is what’s going to happen with all my stories. I’m
pretty impatient, as an individual. I think you’re not supposed
to say that if you’re a writer. You have to be patient,
methodical. I’m very impatient as a writer.

When did you realize that writing was a profession that
you could do?

I think when the first novel was accepted. You don’t really
know. You have to write first. The whole thing. And hope for
the best, and then send it out there. And I still don’t. I
think I’m always nervous. You write, you write, you write, and
then the well is dry, and you can never do it again. There’s
this visual that I have that every sentence is like a bucket
into the well and the well sort of dries eventually, over

Like you’re running out of insights?

That’s just a theory I have. But I realized I could do it when
I sold the book and I was editing it and then whole idea of,
you know, publishing again, and also working in the field and
being a teacher in the field—that does pay the bills.

Do you feel pressure to write sort of into your
identities as a woman, or as a chemist, or as an Asian-American

I think when I write short stories I don’t feel that. When I
write novels I do feel like I have a responsibility to maybe
write an Asian American character, or someone who is nonwhite.
You know, I’m not going to populate my novels only with certain
people because I don’t want to write about white characters.
There are white characters in my novels. I hope there are white
characters in my novels. They’re growing up in America. I would
never not write about certain things because I’m so focused on
creating the identity. But there is that sense of
responsibility that I want to write a character that maybe
other people cannot. That’s where I dig into my own identity. I
don’t think I would always write about a scientist, but
somebody who thinks like that—very logical, rational—you don’t
really have to be a scientist to be like that.

Leopoldine Core, author of When

What do you wish people noticed about you that you
think they often don’t?

Honestly, I like when people notice things that I don’t see. I
think that’s really exciting. When you’re writing something you
have no idea how it’s going to be consumed and part of that is
horrible and dysphoric and people see things that you really
don’t identify with. But then there’s the other side of it
where people see things that are really special that you
weren’t aware that you were doing. That seems really exciting
to me.

Can you think of a specific time when that’s happened?
When someone’s said something about your work that you hadn’t

I feel like it happens all the time. You’re usually speaking to
people you never meet, as a writer. And I like that, but it’s
like I’m writing for strangers who will experience this alone
in their bedroom, but then sometimes I do meet someone. And
they tell you something about that private experience. I’m sort
of a private person so, I don’t know, that’s exciting for me to
hear about that. And it always is a unique experience because
it’s a collaboration. When you’re writing something you’re
collaborating with the reader—your future reader.

What do you make of the other books being

I was interviewed before I knew who the other people were and I
was asked how I felt about it being all women and I said, well
“I need to know who they are.”

“Women” is not enough to generate a feeling?

Females are generally positioned in competition with one
another—it is something you have to fight against, this need
the culture has for you to basically hate each other. It’s a
certain kind of death drive and one that hurts art—how women
are routinely alienated from one another. It’s also boring, a
kind of tomb. The group of recipients this year are a nice
counter to that tomb.

Do you ever feel like, with the “oh these five women”
refrain, there’s an expectation for your work to be a certain

You’re talking about in the context of the award?

Yeah, or in your public life as a known

That’s a hard question. I’m thinking about it. I mean, I
identify as female, you know? I do feel like gender is maybe
more complicated. Sometimes that’s something I talk about. But
I don’t know that I feel any pressure.

Except when people ask you things like what I just

Yeah, I feel like all the people, all the characters in my book
have sort of weird, complicated genders—like me, you know. And
so there are these categories and I like to watch them sort of
fumble over the course of the book to show that to be female is
complicated. And class and race—there’s all these other things
that go into the female experience, you know? So, I don’t know,
I guess in my own writing I’m interested in watching these
categories broaden a little bit, I guess.

Was that on your mind a lot when you started writing
When Watched?

No, I think it’s just something that happened. Writing is kind
of like that Frankenstein moment, where your character
sort of starts to speak beyond you a little bit, and you’re
feeling surprised by them and—I don’t know—it’s not something
you’re totally in control of anymore. And that’s when I feel
like they’re sort of their own gender—even if they’re female.

Can you think of a Frankenstein moment in the

It mostly happens when people are talking. It’s much easier for
me to write dialogue. I don’t know why. I have a tape recorder
and I just like, talk, you know? And then I build a story
around these conversations. I like dialogue because I feel like
the character can sort of defend themselves or separate from me
a little bit. I mean it’s writing that I’m generating
but it doesn’t feel that way all the time.

How did you know that writing was a profession—a thing
you could do? Did you give yourself permission to “be a writer”
or did you just write?

I think I just wrote. I had a lot of odd jobs. I worked at a
restaurant for years, I was a receptionist. You know, just
endless jobs, and I would always just write at night or a
little bit when I was working, or supposed to be working but
then [stories] accumulated and there were suddenly a lot of
htem. And I published a little bit online, and so, I found my
agent that way. So, yeah, I don’t know. I think the answer is
no, there wasn’t a moment. It happened slowly.

I guess I was really interested in writing dialogue and maybe I
could have written like a screenplay or something. I’m dyslexic
and it was really hard for me to learn to read, even. So I
always feel like I’m in the wrong form or something. And
there’s something exciting about that. Like I’m in the
wrong—like I don’t fit exactly in the form I’m working in.
There’s something like it feels impossible and there’s
something fun about feeling like you’re working in the most
impossible form. I don’t know why. More is possible, weirdly,
perversely. I’m a very visual person, so I never thought I
would be a writer. I’m drawn to that, whatever that is.

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