Michael Arceneaux on Writing about Economic Anxiety
Author: Nahshon Dion
May 12, 2020
Michael Arceneaux is a funny man. He is some sort of literary alchemist, transmuting personal lead into hilarious gold.
With his first book, I Can’t Date Jesus Love, Sex, Family, Race, and Other Reasons I’ve Put My Faith in Beyoncé, Arceneaux mapped the travails of moving through the modern world as a self-assured Black gay man. With a sharp comedic eye, the author tackled dating, coming out, and of course the musical genius Beyoncé. Arceneaux is now working on adapting his New York Times best selling debut into a TV series and is executive producing with filmmaker Lee Daniels for Disney’s 20th Century Fox TV.
With his recently released book I Don’t Want to Die Poor (Atria Books, April), Arceneaux pivots away from broader romantic and familial issues and does a deep dive into finances and debt. With a refreshing candor, Arceneaux chronicles his struggles with private student loans, annoying debt collectors, and economic anxiety.
A few months ago, pre-COVID-19 outbreak, I emailed Arceneaux some questions about his newest book. With over 30 million Americans currently unemployed and the ongoing national dialogue revolving around finances, Arcenaux’s new book debuted at an appropriate time. During the interview, he shared some of his thoughts about writing, money and professionalism.
Your second book I Don’t Want To Die Poor is a lot darker than your first. What made you want to write about poverty and debt in your second book and the emotional cost of chasing dreams?
I won’t say that I’m necessarily writing about poverty, but I did enter this with the intention to overcome my own insecurities about money to write honestly about a particular kind of economic struggle that millions of Americans endure that rarely gets the sort of coverage I think it deserves. And while I know the publisher copy talks about the student loan debt in the context of “chasing your dreams,” it’s more so about how people are told to want better and are punished for it. Social mobility was long a lot harder to attain in this country than let on, but that’s been magnified by the student debt crisis. An entire generation is drowning, and I just wanted to speak to that as best I could.
You won 10K for one of your closest friends by writing her college essay. You also mention that you’ve done every type of writing imaginable. Did you ever consider grant writing or charging to write essays?
When I mention every type of writing, it includes much of what you just mentioned.
Is dying poor a real fear of yours?
I think most not born into wealth should be worried about such fate given the current state of affairs in this country.
Your amazing writing and gift for storytelling has received a great deal of support from other prominent LGBTQ writers and editors. How much of this support do you attribute to your success in being a New York Times bestseller?
Making the list includes a lot of variables that I am ill-equipped to explain, but I am very fortunate for every single person that has supported I Can’t Date Jesus. And why I am most grateful about making the list is that it helps other queer nonwhite authors get book deals, because it helps prove our stories have as broad appeal as everyone else’s.
You’ve made a living off of covering pop culture. As we move forward in this new decade, do you foresee any new trends or just the same things recycled?
I have no idea, but I hope we survive by acting on climate change.
Writing for a living, particularly as a freelancer, is very difficult. Since your last book was published, have your writing opportunities increased?
Books alone do not change your world. [The number of writing opportunities I have] depends on so many things, but majorly effort. I’m always hustling, book or not.
With your latest book you talked about the stressors of student debt. Do you feel a bit more in control over your life now? Did you receive the book advance you felt you deserved?
I think about my loans every day, but I feel better about the direction of my life and peace of mind, debt be damned. And I do believe I am generally beginning to get what I deserve.
If Trump is not removed from office, forgives all student loan debt, and begins issuing reparations for African Americans, would you consider voting for him in November?
In [what] likelihood is Donald Trump to do this?
You struggled during the writing of your first book with getting others to believe what you already knew–that there was an audience for books like yours. Getting an agent and publisher behind you wasn’t an easy feat. There was concern from people you met in publishing about the book—that your identity made you have limited appeal. That book became a bestseller. Have you been surprised by those who make up your audience?
I’m not surprised that all types of people enjoyed my first book and hopefully will enjoy my second. My aim is to make people laugh and make people think. People who think someone who writes with those intentions has limited appeal…have an unimaginative mind.
In I Don’t Want to Die Poor, you mention Instagram as being a much better dating app than Tindr, Grindr, and Jack’d. When you meet guys and they’re not aware of your occupation, do you wait a while to inform them so you can see how they’ll act or do you possible put on an act?
I don’t take myself this seriously. Whenever it gets to the “What do you do?” part, I just answer.
From Houston to Los Angeles to New York now, and having two books published, you have a sustainable career in media and television. Where do you go from here?
Whatever pays off the last of my student loans.