Excerpts from the interview:

“I think genre labels are important and useful, especially for critics, readers, and publishers, but they aren’t something I spend much time thinking about when I’m writing something. I didn’t know what genre my first book, Spaceman Blues, was in when I finished it, and I decided to let someone else decide. I sent it around to literary fiction people and to science fiction people, and I figured whatever happened, happened. The consensus among literary fiction people was that the book was really confusing. For science fiction people it was the other way around; they were like, ‘Oh, this is cool, you wrote something that is pretty well written and it has a lot of stuff in it that we like.’ The label fits, and it has fit for all three books that I’ve published, and I’m quite happy with it.”

‘‘I’ve figured out that I can’t actually write about a place well unless I’ve been there. Oh, sometimes I can fudge. I can learn enough about a place by talking to people and reading to be reasonably confident that I can accurately represent it, but only if it’s a small part of the book. Liberation is full of cheats like that – instances in which I realized I only needed a page or so about a certain place, so I couldn’t justify spending the money to visit and walk around. But any place where more than a couple of pages take place, I have to go. Writing Liberation meant I spent a week just bumming around western Kansas and eastern Colorado, taking notes and a lot of pictures and asking the people who lived there a lot of stupid tourist questions, and when I got back I had to revise a lot of what I’d already written, because of so many things I got wrong. It’s the details I get from those trips that I think make parts of the book snap into focus. Some of my favorite parts of all the books I’ve written, I couldn’t have written without those details. Though interestingly, sometimes those are also the details – the descriptions of things that are actually there, or that actually happened – that strike people as the least believable.”

‘‘My day job consists partially of reading a lot about some pretty bad things that are happening all over the world. Most of what I edit is about Africa, though some is about the Middle East and some of it is about South America. The war in Lost Everything draws pretty heavily from what I think I understand about what’s going on in the intractable conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo – the way the war has lasted long enough that it’s like there’s this weird and horrific little engine right inside the conflict that is very hard to stop. I’m no expert on any of it, but what I read for work has influenced my books a ton. Going to grad school in public policy really did a lot for me too. I wrote fiction before that, but I didn’t have very much to write about. There are a lot of people who have written beautiful things that are essentially autobiographical, but I’m not one of them. I realized I was much more interested in other people, particularly people whose lives are very different than mine. Spaceman Blues has a lot of information pulled from stuff I did in grad school, and people I met, and just understanding how the city of New York works. When I first started editing, I did a lot of work in economics – my degree was in economic development – and a lot of material in Liberation is pulled from things I was editing at the time about forecasts for the US economy and the way the economies of other countries work. Probably most important was visiting those kinds of places, where you see how different people’s lives are, and the amazing ingenuity people have when it comes to getting the things they really need and helping each other out. Their lives are unquestionably harder – they’re really, really hard. But they’re not just lying down, they refuse to give up, and the way that they often pull joy right out of the air is just astonishing to me. A lot of that’s in all three books I’ve published, or at least I’ve tried to put it there – how crazy savvy, and how great, people are.”

‘‘I’m not sure I would have tried to be a writer if I’d known how difficult it is to get published, and how difficult it is to publish something weird. My amazing lack of knowledge about how anything worked is what gave me the chutzpah to get going. Of course, the downside of not knowing anything is that it took pretty much until after I was going to be published to realize that there’s this cohort of people who are writing similarly weird things. Discovering them opened up this whole other world of books to me, that I’m still exploring. I would have loved to have known about them sooner, first of all as a reader, because I love so many of their books now and wish I’d started reading them sooner – there’s so much to catch up on – but also as an emerging writer, to understand that there really is a place for the books I write, instead of just fumbling around like I actually did, and to a certain extent still do.”