The writer, novelist, professor, columnist, and podcast host Roxane Gay already has a lengthy and deserved title attached to her name, in addition to a string of awards pinned to her works (her essay collection Bad Feminist is a New York Times bestseller, and she won the Guggenheim Fellowship in 2018). But from the beginning of her career, Gay has always made a point to pay it forward. Through her Emerging Writers program, she offers green writers the opportunity to showcase their work through her platforms (she has over one million followers on Instagram and Twitter). Now, Gay has unveiled her latest move to put the spotlight on young writers: the Joel Gay Fellowship.
Named after her late brother, the fellowship program operates through Substack, and allows three aspiring writers to receive financial and professional support from Substack and Gay herself. Once selected, the young writers will meet with Gay once a month for one year to receive mentorship on both craft and navigating the business of writing; Gay will also promote each fellow on her own Substack newsletter, The Audacity. Emerging Writers will remain in place for 2022, Gay told me over the phone from her home in Los Angeles, and the fellowship will exist alongside it. “I thought it would be a good opportunity to do something more long-term and more focused,” she says. “And [I] figured fellowships for three writers over the course of a year would be a really interesting way of going about this.”
Although Gay is an academic through and through, she’s also a sharp social commentator, usually sharing her searing takes on pop culture via Twitter. In her Culture Diet interview below, Gay divulges details on her obsession with Yellowstone, conquering her daily Wordle puzzle, and navigating the chaos of the Internet with grace.
Did the idea for launching the Joel Gay Fellowship program stem from your Emerging Writers series?
Yes, it did, in part. I am always looking for opportunities to support emerging writers in ways that I can, because I know that, especially where compensation is concerned, those opportunities tend to be few and far between. I published 26 or 27 really great essays this past year, and I was so happy with the quality of those essays. And I just thought, what more can I do?
I loved the essay released through Emerging Writers,“If You Ever Find Yourself” by Erika J. Simpson. How did you find the writer?
I think my assistant editor, Megan Pillow, brought the essay to me. She had been judging a contest at a magazine and she came across this essay. I think this is Erika’s first publication, which is inexplicable. It was actually the only essay that came to me outside of the submission queue. And the moment I read it, I knew: this is incredible. This is a writer who’s absolutely going places.
Who do you feel is the most intriguing figure in pop culture right now?
It’s hard to say, but I think Zendaya is really interesting. And not just in the obvious ways—I would say most of the initial reactions people have to her has to do with her beauty. And she is beautiful. But I think that there’s far more that’s interesting about her than just her appearance. She is really intelligent and really interesting and a very talented actor. I just like the way she moves through the world.
You’ve interviewed so many icons of our generation, from Michelle Obama to Monica Lewinsky. Do you have an all-time favorite interview?
It’s challenging because when you do these sort of interviews with major celebrities, they aren’t ever gonna really break role. They have their script and they stick to it. But the person I’ve had the most fun interviewing, who I thought gave me the most authentic interview, was Sarah Paulson. She certainly had talking points about Ratched, but she was genuine. Or she’s just a really good actor. [Laughs.] But she seemed really genuine and she seemed to give authentic answers. And she’s also just delightful to talk to. Fortunately, I don’t do a lot of celebrity profiles, so I haven’t had any bad experiences.
Do you ever consult your work friends when answering the questions for your New York Times column, Work Friend?
Once in a while, certainly. I consult my wife a lot because she worked in the corporate workplace for almost 30 years. She also ran a company, so she has a lot of interesting insights into the kinds of issues people tend to face in more traditional workplaces. And of course, most of my work friends are professors or writers. I do reach out to them sometimes, but a lot of the advice they’re gonna give is very similar to the advice that I’m going to give. Sometimes I talk to my dad, who gives me feedback after every column on how he thinks my answers were.
Does he really?
Oh, yeah. He gives me feedback on a lot of my work. He’s a fan of mine, and a great supporter of my work, but he also gives me feedback—it’s always very honest.
What’s the latest bit of feedback that he gave you?
I wrote a piece about Dave Chappelle and he told me that I’m making a lot of enemies that might make it harder for me to work in the entertainment industry. [Laughs.] I was like, well, I mean, I can always work at Barnes & Noble. That’s always been my backup plan, to be a bookseller. And of course, before I discovered independent bookstores, which I love, it was Barnes & Noble.
I see you’ve started playing Wordle, as well. I feel like that game has become the next pandemic-era mass activity that everyone is participating in, like House Party or having Zoom birthdays.
I love Wordle. Today, my Wordle took me five guesses—it was hard! And so was yesterday’s, actually, the past three days have been really challenging. But I’ve gotten them all.
Onto the Culture Diet questions. What time do you wake up in the morning and what’s the first thing you do?
It depends on the day. Every day is different, but I wake up generally between 8:30 and 9:00 AM. The first thing I do is read.
What’s the first thing you read?
I read the Internet. I definitely read e-mail first, and then I probably get aggravated because when you’re on the West Coast, everyone’s day has already started and that is challenging. But the best part is that at 2:00 PM, everyone goes away. I’ll peek at Twitter and if it seems too chaotic, I just close that. After I read the Internet, I read a book for as long as I can before my first meeting of the day.
What books are on your bedside table right now?
I tend to read books that are not coming out this year, because I have a lot of galleys. I am reading a book called The Midcoast by Adam White, it’s about this lobster family. And I’m reading this book about environmentalism called All We Can Save; I had read part of it when we were having one of the editors of the anthology, Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, on our podcast Hear to Slay. It’s a collection that Johnson co-edited with Katharine Wilkinson. I’m thinking of teaching it in my writing trauma class this year.
Which TV shows have been keeping you up at night?
Yellowstone. I’m obsessed—it’s incredible. And we’ve been watching, oddly enough, Columbo, which I had never seen before, but my wife is a fan. It’s so soothing because he solves the mystery every time. He’s this bumbling detective with this weird cigar.
What’s the last thing you Googled on your phone?
“Can Anna Kendrick sing?”
And what were the results?
Yeah, she can. She sang her own vocals for Pitch Perfect. We have cable, so we’ll tend to watch whatever comes on. And last night, Pitch Perfect came on after Dreamgirls. My wife, Debbie, had never seen it and we were wondering if Anna Kendrick was doing her own vocals—and yes, indeed.
What is the last song that you had on repeat?
I’m sure it’s probably something very vulgar. Ah, no! I’m obsessed with this band called Lake Street Dive, a jazz band. I don’t know where I was when I first heard their music—very recently, like in the past month. Since then I've been listening to “Good Kisser,” “Clear a Space,” and “Hypotheticals,” basically on a loop.
What is your go-to karaoke song?
I’ve never done karaoke.
Do you want to?
Sure. It’s not a thing I’ve actively avoided—I’ve always wanted to. I’ve just never had the opportunity.
Do you listen to podcasts? And if so, which are your favorites?
I don’t listen to a lot of podcasts, but I do listen to, of course, my wife’s podcast, Design Matter, which is wonderful. I recently listened to, after watching the TV series, Dr. Death, which is a podcast about this Texas surgeon who was an absolute nightmare in the operating room and had no business holding a scalpel. It was incredibly well done and very, very chilling. I like The Daily, like most people—I mean, who doesn’t? There’s a reason why it’s so popular. And anytime Jenna Wortham is doing a podcast, I am generally going to be very interested.
What is your Zodiac sign? Do you believe in astrology?
I’m a Libra. I don’t disbelieve astrology. I don’t fully understand it, but one year for my birthday, my wife had Chani Nicholas read my chart and most of everything she shared felt accurate: the investment in balance, enjoying the caretaking of other people, and caretaking of your space were all very resonant. I’m just not the most faithful adherent in the world simply because it’s not something I know a ton about.
What is the last thing that you do before you go to bed?
I read a range of things at night: books or a long magazine article that I found online at some point during the day that I didn’t have time to focus on. Sometimes I’m reading books for my book club, sometimes I’m reading books to consider for my book club. I do make time to read for fun in addition to things that might be research for a book or whatever. I love reading, so it’s rare that I’m reading something that feels like work rather than pleasure.