Girls at Library: Why do you read?
Roxanne Fequiere: I read because I was taught to read so early that it was never not an option for me. I actually don’t remember being taught to read. My mom taught me letters really early on and then I was off to the races. I was a shy kid and I would devour books all day long. At least, until a little bit later I didn’t feel the need to hang out with other kids. [laughs] This is just sounding sadder and sadder. [laughs] I wasn’t in a bunch of extracurricular classes or doing sports and stuff. I would just get lost in whatever I was reading. It’s something that comes so naturally to me that I don’t even know why I do it. I have such strong memories of that wonderful feeling of being lost in a book, so I try to recreate that whenever possible.
GAL: What is the power of story?
RF: I think in equal measures the power of story is to let you know you’re not alone in some way but at the same time turn your gaze from yourself outward. Some stories do one or the other and some stories are really good at doing both, but I think that the power of story telling rests in both of those things. Sometimes it’s not even the whole story but a sentence that will stop you cold in your tracks and let you know you’re not the only one who felt a certain way. It's different than hearing it from a friend. Even if a friend confirms to you that they feel the same way, there is something about seeing it printed in a publication sent to thousands of people that really validates your feelings. It lets you know it’s something fit to print. That it’s not something that lurks alone in the back of your head.
GAL: What was the first book you fell in love with that turned you into a life-long reader?
RF: There were a lot of them! The House On East 88th Street is one. Lyle Crocodile is another. I loved that stuff – the illustrations and everything. I remember weeping when it came time for the crocodile's owner to take him back, and the family was so sad about losing him, and then overjoyed when he was returned to the family because the trainer could no longer take care of him. So many emotions! I was also big on the Frog and Toad books. I remember both my mom and my brother reading those to me before bed. We would all be cackling together, completely wrapped up in the story every time.
I also loved The Fire Cat. It's a children's book about a troublemaking cat whose paws are too large to be useful. It turns out he and his big paws were really good at living in a fire house, and he learned to channel his troublemaking energy into helping people.
There was a chapter book level read called The Kid In The Red Jacket. I remember it so vividly. It was the first book that I read silently to myself between fits of loud laughter. It's first book that I remember being like “wow, books can be hilarious!”, that you can actually just read something and just die laughing. Those are the ones that stick out to me most in terms of making me want to read more and return to those stories again and again.
GAL: You worked at the New York Public Library. What was your job? Are there any juicy NYPL secrets you can share?
RF: My official title at the NYPL was Library Page, which meant that I spent my afternoons re-shelving books, straightening up around the branch, and processing donations. As far as high school jobs go, it was quite lovely, especially for someone who loves books. During my three years there, I became pretty fluent in the Dewey Decimal System—sometimes I'll pick up a title at the bookstore and silently classify it in spite of myself. On the subject of library secrets, I'd say perhaps the most important one is that the NYPL staff are some of the most dedicated, talented, and under-appreciated professionals I've ever had the pleasure of working with. Oh, and the NYPL's events are A1. I have fond memories of attending a free screening of Capote one afternoon along with a few other elderly women—free popcorn included!
GAL: Why did you start Golly magazine? What did you feel was missing from women’s interest magazines?
RF: For a long time it had been in the back of my head that I wanted to start a magazine of my own. I remember when I was 12 or 13 and I finally convinced my mom to let me get a subscription to Seventeen. No easy feat! First of all, the title itself is Seventeen. She had never read it in her life but she was like “No way!” Clearly it’s for an older girl! I remember flipping through it, and expecting a lot of the content wouldn't necessarily be too advanced for me but something that I would grow into, so I remember thinking “this doesn’t really apply to me now but it will. When I’m 17 or 18 it’s gonna come together and I’m going to be rocking all these make up looks and doing all these trends." Then you suddenly hit that age and it doesn’t necessarily happen. It’s still kind of out of reach and yet now feels like it’s applicable to you.
By the time I was in my 20’s I realized that the whole point of those magazines are to make you feel like you’re chasing the proverbial carrot. for the most part, you are never going to be the sort of person who Vogue is talking to. It became frustrating. There was a time where I would go wander the magazine sections and I would feel so let down by a lot of the titles and wouldn't want to bring anything home with me. Thus, I wanted to see if perhaps I could create something that felt more approachable. I don’t necessarily see the point in always trying to create something that’s unattainable. I see the value, but I don’t think it’s the only route worth taking. I wanted to create something that was what I always wanted to read. I love fashion and I love pretty pictures so I didn’t want to exclude that but I wanted them to include people that looked like me, and looked like my friends, and also looked like people who aren’t my friends but you know– just a different mix of people on the pages. I also love to read and learn things so I wanted to include articles about culture, the work place, art, books, and also fiction. I just wanted to create this rich mix of things that interested me because I felt up until that point that women’s interest magazines on their best days only spoke to a very narrow subset of my interests.
GAL: Why a print publication rather than an online, digital magazine? I noticed that there isn’t advertising in Golly. How is that sustainable?
RF: When we first started Golly I was adamant that I wanted it to be print, probably because I’m a big fan of print in general. The internet is a much bigger place than the print magazine industry is. It's much easier to find your own corner of the internet than it is to find something that really speaks to you at the news stands. Personally, I have such a history of picking up print magazines and wanting so much to get something from it that I never did, thus I deeply wanted to make my own magazine be print. That said, I had no idea how to start or run a print magazine and I’m definitely still figuring it out. For the first issue we thought let’s just make it and let’s not worry about ads and let’s just create something and see if we get a response. We did receive a response and that was lovely. Since we all have day jobs our publishing schedule is too erratic for us to link up with traditional advertisers and hit the same schedules that they do. We experimented for the 3rd issue with an ad for Squarespace, but we know for the most part that it will be difficult for us going forward unless we figure out a way for us to stick to a specific schedule. It's something that we are all still very new to but it’s part of the fun of it and the stress of it.
GAL: What kind of impact do you think Golly could have on America?
RF: America!? We print 1000 copies. [laughs] We’re very small right now. Anytime anyone has told us that they liked it or that the magazine content is something they couldn’t find is a gratifying reaction. Sometimes I almost get surprised at what somebody says something like, “Oh I love that article on this!” because I’m so in my head about it and we’ve worked on it for so long that I forget that it’s actually out in the world so I’m kind of like “oh, you’ve read that!?" I feel like it was something that I just worked on for myself and I forget that it’s out there for people to consume. Hearing any feedback is so lovely because it has been such a big idea in my head for so long. It’s crazy that it’s out and accessible to people! So because it’s something I’m still learning my way around I’m still figuring out what our long term impact could be.
GAL: What magazines do you buy and love besides your own?
RF: Teen Vogue is popping these days. I remember when I turned 20 years old and thought, “I guess I have to give up teen vogue now, that I’m no longer a teen!” But now I’m sitting here thinking of re-subscribing.
I love The gentlewoman, everything they do is lovely and pretty to look at and I love reading it.
I love buying old LIFE magazines, and old issues of New York Magazine. Current issues of New York Mag are quite nice as well as The New Yorker.
I’ll still pick up Elle andVogue every now and then. I’m not going to say I read it and say “That’s bullshit!” and throw it into the trash, it’s fine. It simply fulfills a narrow substrate of who I am.
GAL: How do you choose the books that you read?
RF: I’m a big believer in choosing a book by it’s cover. Book design is so fascinating and lovely. Recommendations are good. If I'm just wandering around the book store I will always pick up a book if it looks interesting at first glance. I’m a magpie in that way! I’ll pick up what looks pretty or shiny and go from there.
GAL: Can you read on a device? Do you enjoy doing so?
RF: I can read on a device but I don’t like or prefer it. I remember when The Great Gatsby movie came out, I decided I wanted to re-read the book and I had a date to go see the movie so I only had a week or something to re-read it. I had read the book many times in high school and college, owned several copies, I knew I must have one copy, and I refused to pay money to buy the book again. So I went to see if I could find it online and it’s all printed on one random website. I read the whole book off this website, on the phone and on my computer. It was completely miserable. I don’t recommend it. I’m sure the youth will eventually love to hold Kindles more than books but I just grew up reading books and I don’t want to hear of anything else. No Kindles, no Nooks, no nothing.
GAL: Who is your favorite author? Name three if you can't name one.
RF: I really like Truman Capote. I admire his short stories, and In Cold Blood is frisky and delightful in a terrifying way. I have a book called Daily Rituals which talks about the different rituals of creative people. I actually tried to live a week like Truman Capote. It was miserable! He didn’t get out bed when he was working, he just stayed in his pajamas. It sounded great at first glance and I often do that, but when you can’t get up– when you know you can’t even switch positions if you want or go sit on the couch– you feel like an invalid. He smoked constantly which I did not do because I was not about to pick up the habit, and started each day with coffee, mint tea, a sherry, and a martini. He would drink throughout the day while he was writing, and I don’t drink but I did do that! I felt really loose, and it was hard to get it down because of the taste. I had to force myself to. I was mildly afraid to work or write or do anything specific when I felt tipsy. Point is, I really like Truman Capote and I’ve tried to channel him several times with varying degrees of success. I do find when he writes people of color into his work it is a hot mess.
I also like Tom Wolfe. He is a lighting rod, people either love him or they hate him. Elaine Dundy is pretty good. When I read The Dud Avocado I was so blown away. It felt so ahead of its time.
GAL: Are there works of fiction or non-fiction as an African American that you believe are important for “everybody” to read?
RF: I think all books about African American protagonists are necessary because they are so under represented in the classics and everything. you could say this about just anything! I used to have a Tumblr of photos of black people in the past. Because whenever I would go looking online and I would search ‘vintage photos from the 1960’s’ just by default you would only see white people and decades. I got so frustrated about it that I started looking for specific photos of black people from the past and cataloging them. The same way I found Elaine Dundy– I don’t even know how really, I think I just found an old paperback hers and of course the cover was pretty, so I got it– I’d love to find authors like that: ones who existed and have not been remembered the way they should be. It’s not even that I can say "Oh, there is this author you need to read" because I think everybody needs to read as many perspectives and as many authors of different backgrounds as possible.
GAL: We have a friend who has a “Sanity Shelf” dedicated to books she returns to again and again, to reread for pleasure, knowledge, and solace. What books would be on your Sanity Shelf?
GAL: How do you define the job of a copywriter? How does copywriting differ from “writing”? Or does it?
RF: For what I do, it definitely differs. You are given a very finite amount of space and you have to tell a story. There’s no 36 or 37. You have 35 characters and if it doesn’t fit then you have to figure something else out. That’s definitely something I struggled with at first. Also, you’re also trying to sell something. You’re not trying to make it sound as pretty as possible. You have to hit certain points and make sure that certain words are used. Sometimes certain words can’t be used. It’s kind of like playing Jenga. You have to subtract certain things and somehow add them back on, but you can’t build a new tower, you have to use what you have. But when I get to something like golly or I’m writing something for myself it almost feels like diving into an ocean. When I’m not doing copywriting with specific guidelines then I feel like the world is at my disposal and I can write as much or as long as I want. It feels that much nicer after having been constrained for so long. So I appreciate them both and I feel like copywriting, at least in the capacity that I do it, makes writing other things so much more enjoyable.
GAL: How do you feel about the way Donald Trump butchers language and spelling?
RF: It kills me inside. That’s the least of the troubles though, because if he were a halfway decent human being I would let him get away with all the spelling and grammar mistakes in the world. There’s no bright spot with that one to be honest. It’s amusing in a surreal way that this is our president. On a brass tacks level, who taught you how to read and write?
GAL: What was it like growing up on Staten Island? It's pretty blue collar, white, and Republican, right?
RF: I grew up on the north shore which is a lot more diverse, but due to strict zoning for public schools, my mom made the decision early on that she would send us to schools not necessarily in our neighborhood. My brother and I were sent to private parochial schools. They weren’t super far but they weren’t in our neighborhood so I was usually the only black face in a very white place. It was interesting. I saw this thing recently on Twitter where they were asking a bunch of people about when they realized that they were black. I have some memories of kids literally pointing at me and being like “look at the black girl” and me being like “What? Ok, cool I guess that explains that.” But it wasn’t terrible. I can count on both hands those instances of things like that that happened. Because you grow up in that place you don’t necessarily comprehend that it’s that different from the rest of the world. In high school when I started going into Manhattan on my own I started noticing that it was really different. Diverse. That’s when I started making plans to leave Staten Island as soon as I could. The whole situation was a slow dawning; knowing it wasn’t normal and this wasn’t the norm, there are alternatives to this. I belonged somewhere else and not there.
GAL: How did a Catholic education affect your view of yourself as a girl and as a woman?
RF: Another case where I didn’t realize there was another option. I never went to pubic school. I had never really thought of it as this is different than public education as in that here they are teaching us about Jesus, I just thought of it as another class. When I talk to people my parents age, who went to Catholic schools, it’s very much like “the nuns were whacking us on the knuckles with rulers” but I think it got less crazy as time went on. I just feel like I went to school where we wore uniforms and part of our curriculum was that we had to learn about God and when it came to holidays we would go to church. My mom is pretty spiritual, not religious at this point, and my dad never really was religious. So it was always a choice, it’s not like my whole family was super pious and then we went to this school where we weren’t allowed to look at boys or anything.
GAL: How do you feel about the story of Eve?
RF: You can tell the gender of the person who wrote that story. Like in the novel Homegoing which I just finished, they talk about the concept of ‘What is history to you, if you weren’t there?’ and it’s just stories that people tell, so you have to consider who told the story and why and which account was allowed to be passed down. Because if there are two versions of the story and only one survives you have to ask yourself why that version survived, it’s probably because that person had power. And I think that you can apply that to most religious texts and obviously history books. If you think about Adam and Eve, it was so clearly written by a man.
GAL: What would you title your memoir?
RF: Island Girl. It would be about my time on Staten Island and Manhattan and the gulf between the two even though they’re only 30 minutes apart. It would also be a meditation on my Haitian heritage. Jump between the three and discover how I got to where I am!
GAL: Please name 3 books you recommend reading and the reasons for your choices:
RF: Dimanche by Irène Nemirovsky. It’s a collection of short stories with profound melancholy running through each one. The author has an interesting way of speaking about youth. It’s not a bubbly, dynamic picture of youth, it’s a more fascinating wistful version of youth.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, which I just finished, is a vast and sweeping accomplishment.
Because I love a good self-help realize-who-you-are type of book, you should read Quiet by Susan Cain. As an introvert, our time to shine is overdue and she’s doing the work to make sure we get it.