Interviews / Novelists

Interview with Kashana Cauley: “I have to whip out a whole bag of tricks.”

Kashana Cauley is the author of the novel The Survivalists, which was published in January 2023 by Soft Skull Press. She’s also a TV writer who has written for The Great North and The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, and a former contributing opinion writer for the New York Times. She has also written for The Atlantic, Esquire, The New Yorker, Pitchfork, and Rolling Stone, among other publications.

Hi Kashana, thanks for joining us today! Your impressive background includes writing for TV shows like The Great North and The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, as well as contributing opinion pieces for the New York Times and other esteemed publications. How has your diverse writing experience informed your creative process when it comes to writing a novel like The Survivalists?

Having all those deadlines helped me set deadlines for the novel, even if novel deadlines are more imaginary.

Given your experience writing for TV and various publications, can you share some insights into how your writing routine differs when working on a novel compared to writing for TV or journalistic pieces? Are there any specific habits or rituals that help you stay focused and inspired?

For the most part, I pick shorter journalistic pieces that I know I can bang out in a day or two so I don’t lose the drive that led me to write the piece. TV operates under surprisingly similar constraints due to deadlines, so scripts have to get done well before I’d lose the emotions underlying them.

A novel brings the additional challenge of having to sustain the emotion over a longer period of time, so I have to whip out a whole bag of tricks to keep feeling connected to the work. But the easiest way for me to do it is to get in the heads of the characters, keep a laser focus on what they care about, and write from there.

Your novel delves into relevant and timely questions, such as the politics of gun ownership, the challenges of stable housing, and the pursuit of success. How did you approach exploring these complex issues in a fictional setting while maintaining a sense of humor and wit?

I consider the modern American experiment, which includes all of these issues, to be absurdist. I focused on that state of seeing things, and the tone of the book came naturally from that outlook.

When it comes to developing a compelling narrative, what steps do you take in the early stages of the writing process to outline and structure your story? Do you prefer a detailed outline or do you allow your story to evolve organically as you write?

I had a pretty slim outline, but I also spent a lot of days putting on Aretha’s music, entering her head, and writing from there.

Writing authentic and engaging dialogue is essential to bringing characters to life. Given your background as a TV writer, how has your experience in writing for different mediums influenced your approach to crafting dialogue in your novel?

It’s probably made my dialogue shorter. TV definitely gave me a sense of what was possible in a shorter amount of time. And also the old Twitter 140 character limit.

The Survivalists has received numerous accolades, including being named a Best Book of the Year by Today and People, as well as a Most Anticipated Book by various publications. How does it feel to see your novel resonate with readers and critics alike, and what aspects of your creative process do you attribute to this success?

It took me 11 years, four dead books, four agents, and four other careers to get here, so I will never take a lick of any of the attention the book has received for granted. It’s incredible to hear from so many people who connected with the story, and I’m thrilled any time someone writes to me or tags me into a post on social media about how much they loved the book. 

With your diverse writing background and the success, what advice can you offer to aspiring writers who want to develop their own unique voice and storytelling techniques while staying true to their passions and interests?

So much about writing is either intuitive to the writer, or a product of a particular place, time, and frame of mind that is also specific to the writer. I think aspiring writers, at their core, know what they need to do to get better and keep going, and don’t really want to add any microwaved advice from 2015.

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