The Sweetest Debut: Donald Quist on ‘Watch the Throne’ and Elaine Benes/Puddy Fanfiction


Welcome to The Sweetest Debut, a new and regular installment in which we reach out to debut (or near-debut, we’re flexible!) fiction, poetry and nonfiction authors working with presses of all sizes and find out about their pop culture diets, their writing habits, and their fan-fiction fantasies.

“I head to the baggage claim wondering if it was ever possible to belong to a place where I am expected to vanish to avoid being erased,” Donald Quist writes in an essay called “I’ll Fly Away,” an account of his life in Thailand, removed from the American racism that he lived with his whole life. “Leaving America provided me an opportunity to see myself in different social constructs. I am free to invent myself, unburdened by America’s history of aggression towards black bodies. I can build my own narrative,” he adds later. In Harbors, his collection for Awst Press available next week, he addresses these aspects of his identity as well as looking at his family members through the lens of Jerry Springer, teaching, and more.

What is your elevator pitch to folks in the industry describing your book?

Harbors is a collection of personal creative nonfiction charting some of the forceful undercurrents that shape an American identity.

What do you tell your relatives it’s about?

The book features intimate portrayals of many members of my immediate family, particularly my parents. I told them, “Much of this book is about you. I mean no offence, it’s my attempt to know you better.”

How long was this project marinating in a draft or in your head before it became a book deal?

I had considered myself a fiction writer primarily. I had a few essays published but hadn’t intended to compile them into a collection. After being featured in their 2015 essay series curated by Tatiana Ryckman, Awst Press approached me about collaborating with them on a project and Harbors began taking shape. So, as a completed draft, Harbors was only marinating for four months before Awst Press formally decided to publish the book.

Name a canonical book you think is totally overrated.

Just one? This is hard…I got beef with a lot of what is considered the Western Canon. I think everything by Hemingway is overrated, with exception to “Hills Like White Elephants.” Honorary mention: Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I’m not a fan of that book.

What’s a book you’ve read more than two times?

Ender’s Game.

What’s a book or other piece of art that influenced your writing for this particular project?

“To Repel Ghosts” by Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Watch the Throne by Jay-Z & Kanye West.

Your favorite show to binge watch when you’re not writing?

Right now it’s Trailer Park Boys. It might be the funniest show about recidivism ever.

What’s the last movie you saw in theaters?

Suicide Squad…It’s a mess but not unbearable. I think I’m done with DC Comic films.

Do you listen to music while you’re writing? If so, what kind?

Yes, I do. I made a playlist of what I listened to while writing Harbors on Spotify.

Who is your fashion icon?

Ellen DeGeneres.

Do you prefer a buzzing coffee shop or silent library?

I prefer writing (typing) in a busy coffee shop. I like drafting (planning) in a quiet library.

Desk, bed or couch?

I’m like Shakira: Whenever, Wherever.

Morning writing or late-night writing?

Late-night. I rarely write in the morning unless I’ve been awake the entire night. While meeting deadlines for Harbors, I often would go 24 hours without sleep.

Writing it all out in one big messy draft and then editing, or perfecting as you go (or something in between)?

I like to construct one big messy draft and then edit it down.

How do you pay the bills, if not solely by your pen and your wit?

I am a full-time English lecturer at a university in Bangkok, Thailand, which I think still involves my pen and wit.

What is your trick to finding time to write your book while also doing the above?

I’ve got no tricks. I just do it. I wish I could say I’m balancing everything effectively but that would be untrue. When I’ve got thirty written exams to grade and revisions due to an editor, personal relationships often suffer. I disappear into myself to get it done. I don’t rest for hours or days until everything is complete. I’m thankful to have loved ones who are so patient with me. Although, I’m sure they’re annoyed by how difficult it can be to get me to commit to anything I don’t consider “work” related.’

If you could write fan-fiction about any pop culture character, real or imagined, who would it be? Care to give us a few sentences of micro-fiction about that character?

Elaine Benes. Nostalgia has nothing to do with memory, Elaine thought. And getting older does not mean growing up. Glaring across the diner table at Puddy, she stabbed another piece of lettuce from her big salad and shoveled the soggy green into her mouth. She chewed between sighs.