Describe your latest book.
The Island Dwellers
is a collection of interlinked stories, set half in the US and half in Japan. It’s a book about nomads, travelers, people caught between the known and the deeply unfamiliar — in their relationships, their geographies, and their identities.
I wrote some of the stories while I was living in Japan, and some after I’d returned to the US and was in a limbo state, sleeping on friends’ couches and reassembling a life here. When you live in a different country, you meet a lot of people who radiate the palpable fact of running from something. You, yourself, begin to radiate that fact.
For me, these stories are about intimacy first and foremost — how we navigate it, how we resist it, how desperately we require it, and how we reach for it across languages, across all boundaries.
What was your favorite book as a child?
I loved the Moomin series by Tove Jansson. If I had to pick just one, maybe Moominland Midwinter
, but I would never pick just one. Even though kids love them, they’re actually weirdly adult books about loneliness, family, curiosity, adventure, and surrender to the universe.
When did you know you were a writer?
I never thought of being anything else. I’ve also worked as a playwright for the past decade, so my relationship to story shifts and changes as I move between media, but I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing something or other.
What does your writing workspace look like?
I’ve been traveling a lot lately, so I’ve gotten to be very adaptable. I write in airports, subways, bars, and cafés. But when I’m in one place for a while, or even at home, I like to have a very wide writing table and a lot of light. I was fortunate to receive the Playwrights of New York (PoNY) Fellowship last year. Fellows get a yearlong apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, among other things. By the end of that year, all of the walls were covered in pages — some stories, some plays. I’d just wander around the room, rewriting things with a sharpie. My partner finally told me that our home had become a weird facsimile of living inside my brain. It doesn’t usually get that bad though.
What do you care about more than most people around you?
I want people to feel like they’ve been heard and their feelings matter. It’s not that the people around me don’t care about these things — I tend to surround myself with people who do. It’s just that sometimes I get pulled in by the “how you feel” part, and sort of overlook the “what are you doing” part. The other day I was in a Lyft, and, in the middle of the ride, the driver pulled the car over to do something that highly resembled a drug deal. I didn’t get out because he’d just been telling me about his complicated relationship with his mom. I felt bad being like, “Oh, your mom doesn’t love you as much as your brother? Cool, so, bye.” Then I told a friend about the whole thing, and she was horrified. She was like, “I don’t care what you guys were talking about, get out of the car!” So. My new life philosophy is: Fuck your feelings! (Just kidding.)
Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
Part of being a playwright is that you interact with your audience a lot. You are not in the dark, to any degree, about what an audience responds to or doesn’t respond to. And every audience is different. You have to know what you want to make and then just make it, regardless of anybody else’s tastes, because there’s just too much feedback otherwise. If you’re trying to rewrite to make people happy, you’re already doomed.
I had this amazing interaction after a show one time. An older audience member walked right up to me and said, “I don’t like your play.” I asked her what she didn’t like, and we ended up having a fascinating conversation which boiled down to the fact that one of the character's choices made her deeply uncomfortable. This character's values had thrown hers into question in a way that she was a little bit angry about. The more we talked, the less angry she was: “I mean, I liked some of it.” I didn’t know how to articulate to her that she didn’t have to backtrack; the conversation we were having was the value of the experience. In this country, it’s such a big deal whether or not we like something — characters have to be likable, we always have to be having fun. Sometimes I just find all of that completely beside the point. We can get to more fascinating and complex places when we aren’t being held at likability-gunpoint.
Introduce one other author you think people should read and suggest a good book with which to start.
I’m obsessed with the poet Kaveh Akbar right now. Calling a Wolf a Wolf
is his most recent book. I can’t stop reading it. In terms of fiction though, I couldn’t be more excited about Jess Arndt’s story collection Large Animals
. Sometimes you read things that feel as close and personal to you as if you’d written them, and yet alien and astonishing, like gifts from the universe. This is how I feel about Large Animals
Besides your personal library, do you have any beloved collections?
I will draw on any surface, with any material. Everything from story drafts to scripts to doctor bills get covered in doodles — mostly of sad pandas. I’ve started keeping a small collection on Instagram (@this_panda_is_sad
). If we’re in a meeting and you’re giving me particularly uninformed and ludicrous notes about what you think I should change, and it looks like I am vigorously writing down all of your suggestions, be warned: I am drawing a depressed panda.
Describe a recurring dream.
I’m writing on a TV show right now, and it’s the first time I’ve been staffed in a writers’ room. I’ve started to have recurring dreams every night that we are in the room breaking the season — you know, whiteboards, post-it notes, character arcs, the whole nine yards. Then I wake up and first I have this feeling of incredible triumph that we’ve broken the whole season. Then I realize that I was dreaming, so none of the problems or solutions are relevant to what we’re actually doing. (In one of these dreams, Dame Judi Dench was a character, and I had to figure out how her arc meshed with everybody else’s.) Then I get up and go to work, where we continue to break the actual season, in the actual room, sans Dame Judi Dench, only now it feels like I haven’t slept in days. I would say that this particular sleep cycle is the most fun I’ve ever had, except I had my wisdom teeth out once, and that was more fun.
Tell us something you're embarrassed to admit.
All of the writers in my writers’ room recently went to paint pottery one night after work. (Look, it’s a queer show, I don’t know what to tell you.) I discovered, for the first time, that pottery painting is my happy place. I am 80 years old.
(YES I KNOW, the hat. Like I said, it’s a queer show.)
What's the strangest job you've ever had?
Let’s just say, the story “Maureen” had to come from somewhere…
What scares you the most as a writer?
Repeating myself. I don’t want to do the same thing twice. It feels lazy. Caryl Churchill is a playwright I look up to because she’s always reinventing what a play is — experimenting, going deeper. She never goes, “That one was great, let me do it again.” I think you have to constantly risk failure in order to remain relevant.
If someone were to write your biography, what would be the title and subtitle?
Jen Silverman: No One Else Has So Vehemently Defended the Naked Mole-Rat
Offer a favorite sentence from another writer.
I have this on a scrap of paper that I’ve carried around forever: “There are 3 kinds of people — those dead, those alive, and those at sea.” It’s attributed to Anacharsis
, but I don’t know if this is falsely attributed, or what the original context is. It’s a piece of language that I’ve loved for a long time. Maybe because it feels like a blessing of a nomadic existence. Like: I’m not a disaster, I’m just Door #3.
Name a guilty pleasure you partake in regularly.
There’s a Japanese reality TV show on Netflix called Terrace House
. It’s a deep comfort to me. You follow this group of strangers living together in a house. Everybody is kind to each other and tries to do their best to get along. It is an incredible subversion of the entire American concept of reality TV. Oh and also RuPaul’s Drag Race
. OF COURSE. I feel no guilt about this. Katya and Trixie Mattel, I love you profoundly.
What's the best advice you’ve ever received?
“Don’t be a dick.”
What is an “average” day like for you, as a (mostly) freelance writer?
I wake up, flawless, post up, flawless, ride round in it, flawless. The rest of the time, I’m just doing rewrites and being told the subway is broken.
How is The Island Dwellers similar or different from your previous work?
Most obviously, it’s a book. My previous published works are for the theatre. Thematically, though, it’s in conversation with my body of work in other genres. I’m drawn to characters who are living between different worlds, who have fluid identities, who are always just a little on the outside, but looking around themselves with a certain amount of longing. I often write women, or queer characters. I am fascinated by questions of transformation: Can you change who you are by changing your behavior? Your language? Your country? Your relationships? Is it possible to become new, or are we always ourselves, no matter where we go? I’m interested in exploring intimacy from different angles — how do others see us in ways that we can’t see ourselves? How would we like to be seen? How do characters — especially female ones — achieve a certain kind of visibility in their lives or their relationships? And I often think the hardest questions are best asked with a certain amount of dark humor.
These are my Top 5 Books To Travel With:
Cities I’ve Never Lived In
by Sara Majka
by Richard Siken
Play It as It Lays
by Joan Didion
by Maggie Nelson
Calling a Wolf a Wolf
by Kaveh Akbar
I remember reading Sara Majka’s book over and over again in Riga, Latvia, where I was teaching a playwriting workshop. I’d come home from teaching each evening and sit on the windowsill of my hotel room and read. I felt like that book was talking directly to me, and a little bit about me. I spent a whole year in Okayama (southern Japan), reading Crush
over and over again because I didn’t bring many English books with me. I could have recited the poem “Straw House Straw Dog” out loud for you by the time I flew out of Kansai airport. Joan Didion is Sydney, Australia — in the few weeks before I moved to Los Angeles, I was in Sydney, contemplating the big life change that was coming. Sydney has a climate not unlike LA, and I found myself staring at similar palm trees on an entirely different continent, and reading this quintessential LA book. Maggie Nelson is New York winter, my home city, after months and months of being on the road. And right now I’m traveling next to Kaveh Akbar’s book, reading it as I move between a TV job on the West coast and pre-production for two plays on the East coast, letting this book bleed into my dreams.
This book goes on the list: “Books to Read on Vacation While Wondering if All of Humanity Is Doomed; Vacation Turns to Nihilism; Colonialism Is Death; The Ice Caps Are Melting; This Is Still a Good Book Though.”
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is a New York–based writer and playwright, a two-time MacDowell Fellow, and the recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts grant and the Yale Drama Series prize. She was awarded the 2016–17 Playwrights of New York fellowship at The Lark and is a member of New Dramatists. She completed a BA in comparative literature at Brown University and an MFA in playwriting at the Iowa Playwrights Workshop, and was a fellow at the Playwrights Program at Juilliard. The Island Dwellers
is her first book.