Roxane Gay. (Photo: Reginald Cunningham)
Roxane Gay. (Photo: Reginald Cunningham)

Roxane Gay Balances Her Content Intake Between the Real and the Imagined

The writer and social commentator’s media diet spans The Paris Review, “Law & Order: SVU,” and the CBS show “The Equalizer” with Queen Latifah.
By Emily Jiang
October 12, 2023
9 minute read

When it comes to astute and unvarnished observations about pressing issues of our time, Roxane Gay never fails to deliver. Over the past decade, the writer, professor, editor, social commentator, and New York Times contributing opinion writer has gained international recognition for her sharp, subversive output across genres, including her short story collection Difficult Women (2017); her novel An Untamed State (2014); her memoir, Hunger (2017); and her New York Times best-selling essay collection, Bad Feminist (2014). As is evident across her writing, Gay has a rare knack for both exposing raw truths of the society we live in and—as with her graphic novel The Sacrifice of Darkness (2020) and the comic book series and Marvel spin-off World of Wakanda (2016-2017)—providing imaginative havens to escape to.

Earlier this week, Gay released her latest book, Opinions: A Decade of Arguments, Criticism, and Minding Other People’s Business (Harper), a collection of her nonfiction pieces from the past decade covering a kaleidoscopic range of topics, from state-sponsored violence and mass shootings, to women’s rights post-Dobbs, to online disinformation and the limits of empathy. On the horizon for Gay are How to Be Heard, a book of advice on how to feel empowered to use your voice, and a Y.A. novel called The Year I Learned Everything, both to be published in 2025. “My evolution is fairly bewildering,” Gay said on Ep. 75 of our Time Sensitive podcast. We couldn’t agree more.

Here, she speaks with us about the media landscape that informs her and her work, which includes author interviews in The Paris Review, procedural dramas like Law & Order: SVU, and the CBS show The Equalizer with Queen Latifah.

Cover of “Opinions” by Roxane Gay. (Courtesy Harper Books)
Cover of “Opinions” by Roxane Gay. (Courtesy Harper Books)

How do you start your mornings?

I generally start my morning by looking at my phone. It’s a terrible habit. But I check email first thing. Then I open up the New York Times Games app to see what the new Spelling Bee word is and decide if I want to play it now or later. If I’m in L.A., I’ve already done it at midnight, but in New York, it comes out at 3 a.m.

I do not read the news in the morning.

When you do read the news, where do you get it?

Primarily The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Harper’s Bazaar, and Vanity Fair. I read Wired magazine. I read Engadget. I also read Deadline and The Hollywood Reporter. Each news outlet offers something different. Each has its flaws. But when you look at the combination of them, I feel like I get a pretty good sense of what’s going on in the world.

I’m not particularly interested in cable news. I read my news. For whatever reason, I just prefer it that way. I also recognize that major newspapers and publications aren’t going to cover all of the most interesting stories. So then I will read local news sources, like The Texas Tribune or Knock L.A., things like that. I’m always looking to try and stay informed and educated about the state of the world, and not just what mainstream news outlets want us to know.

You have your own newsletter, The Audacity. What are your favorite newsletters that you subscribe to?

I read the fiction writer Brandon Taylor. He has an amazing Substack called Sweater Weather, where he writes long-form literary criticism, among other things, and it’s outstanding. I read From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy. She’s a food scholar and chef, and I really appreciate the kinds of things she has to say. I read Hot Dish with Sohla. She’s also a chef and cookbook writer. And Samantha Irby, Bitches Gotta Eat!. She’s just very funny.

I also read Julia Turshen’s newsletter, Keep Calm & Cook On. She has amazing recipes. She writes about food beautifully, and she’s also realistic about people’s actual lived lives. So when she gives recipes, she also adds tips—like for people who are not necessarily going to separate the wet ingredients and the dry ingredients for baking. She lets you know what you can get away with, which is great.

Any favorite podcasts?

My wife, [Debbie Millman]’s, podcast, Design Matters. I don’t listen to a lot of podcasts. I’ll be honest. It’s just not my favorite medium.

Well, I’m sure Debbie is happy that you’re a fan of hers. [Laughs]

I am. She does these deep-dive interviews with people, and from the back end, I see the amount of energy and research that she puts in for every single guest. She does it all by herself. To then see how all of that work manifests in a given episode is really lovely.

Do you have any favorite magazines?

We have subscriptions to The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and The Paris Review. Debbie gets the print version of The New Yorker, and I read the digital version on my iPad or on my phone.

My favorite would be The Paris Review. It’s consistently excellent. They have these long-form interviews—truly long-form—in every issue, with writers, and it’s just wonderful to see how their interviewers can bring out the best in a writer. Of course, they’re edited—we know this—but they’re really well done.

I also subscribe to Foreign Policy to try to stay reasonably educated about the world beyond the U.S. border.

Any favorite TV shows? I know from your Time Sensitive episode that you’re a big Law & Order: SVU fan.

Yes. I watch a lot of procedural dramas, and a lot of Shark Tank. Debbie and I recently started watching Murder, She Wrote. It’s about Jessica Fletcher, who is a mystery writer who somehow manages to find herself at the center of all kinds of crimes, murders, and scandals in towns all over the world, and the police departments are always interested in working with her. She solves the mysteries from one week to the next while being chased by men of all ages. It’s an old-old show. We’re on, like, the fourth episode. It’s fucking hilarious. It’s a lot of fun, and it’s relaxing.

I also like The Equalizer with Queen Latifah on CBS. It’s a spin-off or a television remake of the original TV show from many years ago, but also of the film starring Denzel Washington. It’s about Queen Latifah, who is a former government agent, who now is kind of like a vigilante for good, helping people who need help and have nowhere else to turn.

It seems like you gravitate toward shows that have a heroine or female protagonist who’s solving … something.

Yeah, I would not have guessed. But there is definitely that throughline in a lot of what I watch. I find women fascinating, endlessly interesting. I, frankly, find them way more interesting than men. And when they're written well, they show you all different kinds of ways that women can be. So I love seeing their stories on the screen, or reading their voices on the page. I don’t believe women are saints or perfect; like I said, I think women are interesting, in the truest sense of the word. So that's why I tend to gravitate toward those characters.

What book or books are you currently reading?

Right now I’m reading a novel that’s coming out next year called The Great Divide by Cristina Henriques. It’s set during the building of the Panama Canal, so it’s historical fiction, and it’s really, really well done. I just finished Let Us Descend by Jesmyn Ward, and it was extraordinary. Everything she writes is extraordinary. She is a singular talent of our generation. It’s honestly just a gift to be able to read her work.

I also recently finished Ordinary Notes by Christina Sharpe [The Slowdown’s July 2023 Book of the Month]. It’s very provocative. It’s brilliant. It’s this series of notes, and it’s full of really interesting thinking. She’s very invested in asking difficult questions and going into uncomfortable places. I highly recommend it.

Now for a bit of a lofty question: What’s one book or other piece of media that you think everyone should consume?

I think everyone should read Edward P. Jones’s The Known World. It’s a brilliant novel. It’s so thoughtful, the description is exquisite, the storytelling is hypnotic, and it’s an unexpected story. I think it’s a master class in what a novel can be.

Any guilty pleasures?

No, I don’t. I don’t feel guilty. At all. I just watch what I enjoy. Some of it is highbrow—whatever that is—and some of it is not. And that’s okay. You know, entertainment is entertaining.