I had a chance to chat with Rowan back in January via email.
WW - I generally think of writers as being more in tune with the undercurrents of the world. Over the past year, American politics seem to be greatly amplified. I would imagine that regardless of one's political leanings, the level of "noise" has to take its toll. Have you felt overwhelmed such that it has affected your ability to write productively? Has the influx of news over the last year been overwhelming or a motivation?
RHB - The news is overwhelming. But the writers and artists who continue to make empathetic, and interesting work are inspirations.
WW - You serve as non-fiction editor at No Tokens, which has published an extensive list of notable authors. How has your role with the journal affected your own writing?
RHB - I was invited to become editor while I was deep in the manuscript that would become my novel—Harmless Like You. It was a relief to focus on the words of others. There is a joy to discovering voices that excite you. And it has the side benefit of making your own taste sharper. You realize what excites you, and then you look back at your own work and ask—how would I feel about this if it showed up on my slushpile?
WW - There has been a push in recent years to elevate diverse voices and balance the numbers in publishing. Is the industry there yet? As both a writer and a person involved with a publication, do you think more needs to be done? And if so, what?
RHB - More needs to be done. There is a temptation to feel like we’re about to solve the numbers and then go back to brunch. I get that it’s exhausting but I don’t think we can rest just yet. Personally, I am never going to be empathetic enough or knowledgeable enough. But reading is an exercise in empathy. It forces us to see beyond ourselves.
At moment, intersectionality in fiction is breaking through. I remember a time when it felt like a character was only allowed to have one modifier. They could be Asian or Queer or Dyslexic. But the complexity that so many of us live with was shut out.
We can all be part of making diverse voices welcome. We can buy the books that make it to publication. We can ask our librarians to buy these books. Even the tiniest things can give a boost—a tweet, or a photo of your brunch next to a book you love. Together we can change the shelves.
WW - Tell me about your creative process. Your work in this chapbook includes artwork. Do you often approach writing with a visual element? Which comes first for you...the artwork or the words?
RHB - This chapbook is a dictionary of happiness. I was hunting for the syllables we use for joy, in the hope it would make me better at capturing the feeling. I found obscure words and obsolete words.
But often when I think of an emotion, it’s visual. Perhaps I see it in a color or in a certain kind of light. Right now, I’m writing in the low, late-January light of London. The day is clear and everything is slightly blue. My desk is in front of a window and I’m very aware of the sky slanting into the room. It gives me a sense of subdued peace. Later, if I’m trying to imagine that emotion, I’ll probably come first to this light.
So when I was writing about happiness, I carried around a sketchbook to catch the moments I felt it. These eventually made it into the chapbook.
For my first novel, Harmless Like You, and the one I’m working on now, the process is a little different. I don’t draw the characters. But I find that drawing the world around me forces me to observe closely. It is a way of contacting more deeply and genuinely with my surroundings. This, in turn, helps me write.
WW - Can you share with us what you're working on next?
RHB - I’m working on my second novel. At the moment, it’s an ever-shifting beast, so I don’t want to say much more.