This season’s hot debuts include a psychological thriller about a young woman who will stop at nothing to achieve her writerly ambition, a systems novel set in Las Vegas, an exploration of the racial divide after Obama’s election, a chronicle of a new mother’s metamorphosis into a dog, and much more. In these ten profiles, the authors share the stories behind their work and what they hope to accomplish with fiction.
In PW’s starred review of Who Is Maud Dixon? (Little, Brown, Mar.), a psychological thriller about a young woman who loses her publishing job in a desperate act of self-sabotage and ends up working for a reclusive, Elena Ferrante–esque writer, we said readers might be left asking, “Who is Alexandra Andrews?”
Andrews never worked in publishing, though she remembers the awkwardness and insecurity of going to literary parties in her 20s, which she channeled into her frustrated writer protagonist, Florence. “So many of us grow up being told, ‘You can do anything you want, the world is your oyster,’ ” she says. “Then you hit 25, 26, and paths start getting shut off, and you’re shunted in this one direction, and you’re like, how did I get here?’ What I like about Florence is she just refuses to take no for an answer. She’s offered a plan B and doesn’t want it. She’s going to be a famous writer and nothing’s going to stop her. I don’t think I actually ever had that grit, but I like that she just sticks to it.”
But, Andrews notes, the book wasn’t driven by a personal story. “I wanted to write a commercial book, which feels like a dirty word, but I wanted to write what I wanted to read, and, you know, I like reading.” She asked her husband, novelist and Harper’s editor Christopher Beha, for advice on agents and sent the book to Jennifer Joel.
“Jen wrote back a really detailed, thoughtful email, four days after I sent it to her on a Sunday at 11 p.m.,” Andrews says. “And Chris was like, ‘Oh, that’s never happened to me.’ ”
Editor Judith Clain was immediately gripped, as well. “I’ve been at Little, Brown for 20 years, and once every three or four years I find a book that I feel completely obsessed with,” she says. “While I was reading this, I could already start to feel like I knew the pitch, and I could see exactly what the audience is. It’s a very visceral feeling.”
With the European job market in shambles after the 2008 financial crisis, Dario Diofebi completed his MA in comp lit in Rome, his home town, in 2010. “None of my friends had jobs, and Italy was in a rough place,” he says. While he was in school, poker had risen in popularity, and afterward, he found a way to make money by playing online. In 2013, he moved to Las Vegas and went pro.
Describing what he observed at the poker tables, Diofebi says it was an opportunity to soak up stories from people he might not have otherwise encountered, such as gun lobbyists and “Silicon Valley libertarian types,” who struck him with their raw sense of individualism. “People will talk to you at the table, so you become a collector of stories almost passively.”
Diofebi’s Paradise, Nevada (Bloomsbury, Apr.) is a sprawling novel about the people who live and work in Las Vegas, set in 2014 and 2015. He chose those years after realizing a cultural shift had taken place.
“The 2016 election was kind of a wake-up call,” Diofebi says. “You know, when the random poker nerd I knew suddenly started getting interested in the pickup artist movement, and then it was the manosphere and men’s rights movement. And then I looked back and said, ‘Oh, okay, no, he was just a fascist. I get it now.’ ”
Editor Callie Garnett says the book was unlike anything she’d read in a long time. “It ends up being about class struggle and solidarity, but in an environment that you just don’t think of as having anything to do with solidarity.”
Diofebi wanted to revive the systems novel, and Michael Chabon, Don DeLillo, Jonathan Franzen, and Donna Tartt were all touchstones, but he also mentions having been struck by the opportunity to convey contemporary income inequality through Las Vegas as Dickens did with 19th-century London. “Las Vegas has a way of making things that are usually hidden very visible,” he says.
Jamie Figueroa’s Brother, Sister, Mother, Explorer (Catapult, Apr.) follows half siblings Rufina and Rafa Rivera as they revisit their hometown of Ciudad de Tres Hermanas after their mother’s death. The author, who was raised in rural Ohio and is of Puerto Rican descent, calls the city a “fictional twin” of Santa Fe, where she’s lived for the past 16 years.
Figueroa left Ohio for New Mexico, initially drawn to study with Natalie Goldberg in Taos, and spent time backpacking and connecting with the landscape while integrating meditation with her writing practice. She eventually studied at the Institute of American Indian Arts, where she found permission and encouragement to explore her identity through her work. “Coming to know how those who’ve also been othered and historically oppressed rise up empowered and awarded for their voices has been incredibly impactful,” she says.
Despite heavy themes of grief, suicide, rape, and the trauma of racism, the book employs a playful omniscient narration, a delicate sleight of hand that Figueroa considers “the voice of the roots, the rocks, of the soil of this place that has recorded all time, that will scold and comfort, at times simultaneously.” Its effect becomes apparent in an early scene with Rufina and Rafa panhandling the tourists who expect to be enchanted by the alpine setting’s indigenous people. On Rafa: “To look at him, you wouldn’t know all the countries he’s traveled to during the past nine years, the whole of his twenties.”
There’s a subtlety to the work, which achieves great power with a generous reader, whom Figueroa found in editor Jonathan Lee. “I think the book asks one to slow down to read it and to pay attention at the sentence level,” Figueroa says. “It can be a little bit challenging or exciting depending on the reader. It really took the right editor to appreciate that.”
Before Chicagoan Nancy Johnson turned to fiction, she was a writer for television news programs. “It was a great foundation in terms of storytelling and the discipline of meeting deadlines,” she says. “But I was always writing other people’s stories and what the news dictated, and I knew that I wanted to tell the stories that were born of my own imagination.”
After Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, Johnson became occupied with burning questions about the reasons behind the increasing division in the country, despite the widespread belief that it was the beginning of a postracial era. “I realized that was a fallacy, because I could see this bitter divide between Black and white America,” she says.
Johnson’s book, The Kindest Lie (Morrow, Feb.), is about Ruth Tuttle, a Black woman from Ganton, a factory town in Indiana, who gets pregnant in high school and gives the baby up for adoption so she can leave for Yale.
When Ruth returns to Ganton after Obama’s election, she’s surprised to encounter heightened racial tension. The title refers to Ruth’s decision to keep her past secret from her husband, but Johnson says she also thought about what it says about America. “What are the lies that we as Americans tell about who we are?” she asks.
Johnson chose Ganton for the setting to give readers a richer understanding of Black Americans’ various experiences. “The working-class Black community is often forgotten in the news,” she says. “It’s only white America that they’re talking about when they say ‘working-class.’ ”
No matter the class, her Black characters are united by fear of encounters with the police, one of which leads to the book’s devastating denouement. “Ruth is a successful engineer,” Johnson says. “She has a degree from Yale, but she’s still Black. And that still means something when you’re interacting with the police.”
Editor Liz Stein praises Johnson’s literary craft, which the author honed while working with Tayari Jones, and expects the book to reach a wide audience with the subject matter and strong plot. “The icing on the cake is her prose,” Stein says. “It’s just so terrific. When we publish in a couple months, I think it’s going to be the kind of literature that really rises above and brings people together.”
Florida writer Dantiel W. Moniz is interested in getting the most out of the short story form. “You know, people are like, ‘Oh, it’s a snapshot of a life,’ which it is, but it can also give you a hint of what the world is around the characters,” she says. “I hope to accomplish a sense of fullness, where you can just go off the page and think about the lives of the characters and how they connect with your own.”
The title story of Moniz’s collection, Milk Blood Heat (Grove, Feb.), begins with the atmosphere and tone of a coming-of-age story about Ava, who’s Black, and Kiera, who’s white—two tomboyish eighth graders who become “blood sisters” after drinking a mix of milk and Kiera’s blood. The ending, which catches up with Ava years later on her wedding night, pulls the rug out from under the reader, showing how a moment of intimacy returns Ava to a traumatic childhood moment.
Agent Meredith Kaffel Simonoff recounts meeting Moniz at the University of Wisconsin in 2017 and being impressed by her fully formed vision. “The collections that actually stand out are the ones where it’s possible to talk about individual stories in a cohesive way,” Simonoff says, “where there are these different voices all singing the same song.”
Katie Raissian, Moniz’s editor, got an early look at a few of the stories and says she pestered Simonoff for a year, hoping for a chance to publish the collection. “She’s such a Grove writer,” Raissian says. “And she’s an amazing storyteller.”
Moniz, asked about what she hopes to contribute to the literature of Florida, says she didn’t inherit the sense that Florida is a literary state. “Every story I ever read was somewhere else,” she adds. “Even if it was in Florida, it was like, South Florida, Miami, Disney World. But there are so many stories here. We haven’t even scratched the surface of all of the stories that could be. So if I can help anybody that’s from here or not from here be like, ‘Oh, let me consider this as like a real place,’ then that would be cool.”
Rebecca Sacks’s debut novel, City of a Thousand Gates (Harper, Feb.), about the sectarian violence in Jerusalem and the West Bank, grew in part from her time spent in Tel Aviv several years ago, when she was doing graduate work in Jewish studies. But the whole thing clicked, she says, after she began to reflect on the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.
“I became obsessed with how different I was from all the white women who voted for Trump,” Sacks says. “I asked myself, What might we share in terms of how we’ve benefited from the status quo?—which led me to a place that had very little to do with white women.”
At the center of the book is an Israeli Jewish community’s outrage over the fatal stabbing of a 14-year-old girl, and the retaliatory beating of a Palestinian teenager with no connection to the murder. Sacks felt the only way to tell the story was to capture it from multiple points of view. “I wanted to go to the scariest place I could imagine,” she says, “which was my own intimacy and familiarity with power.”
While in Israel, Sacks published a series of dispatches for the Paris Review, written in part to help her understand the cycle of violence and constant rocket flares, and as she did, she became attuned to various Hebrew inflections and what they said about a person’s origins and relation to the region’s boundaries. Her absorption of Israeli and Palestinian people’s negotiation of the boundaries is apparent from the book’s first chapter, which follows Bethlehem University student Hamid on an anxious trip home from a job inside Israel after he boards the wrong bus without a permit. “Anything was better than being beaten half to death in some suburban bus stop. Right? Wrong. Because now he is so spectacularly fucked,” Sacks writes.
At UC Irvine, Michelle Latiolais recommended that Sacks read Hemingway’s In Our Time. She was struck by the “emotional urgency” of the book’s short, interstitial episodes. “They let me access characters in deeply private ways as they’re out in the world facing danger and hostilities,” she says. “I hope that when people read the book, they can relate to anyone and feel them come through.”
Sanjena Sathian should be in New Zealand for a teaching gig, but the pandemic put an end to that. After finishing her MFA at the University of Iowa last year, she planned to return to India, where she’d worked as a journalist in 2015, to improve her Hindi, but COVID put the kibosh on those plans, too. Now she’s in Atlanta, where she grew up, and where her debut novel, Gold Diggers (Penguin Press, Apr.), is set.
The book turns on a magical realist conceit about an Indian American family’s inherited ritual involving stolen gold, which Anita Dayal and her mother plan to use to help get Anita into Harvard.
“The whole thing started with an interest in gold theft, which was a thing that I had heard about happening in Atlanta,” Sathian says. She wrote the book over the two years spent at Iowa—“kind of like five years of outside-Iowa time”—and once she developed the speculative fiction element, it all fell into place.
Sathian also credits her years as a journalist and her time in India. “There are parts of writing about the Indian American experience and the immigrant experience that I never would have had access to if I hadn’t spent time there,” she says.
A major theme of the book is the model minority myth about Asian Americans, which Sathian highlights through the Dayals’ neighbor, Neil, and his reaction to the intensely competitive community he belongs to. Neil is an underachiever, and the plot thickens when Anita schemes to get him some of her mom’s magic gold potion to help him get into UC Berkeley.
“I definitely grew up in an intellectually and academically intense environment,” Sathian says. “But I was lucky to be able to also figure out that I loved reading and had an intellectual connection [to schoolwork]. I think Neil has some aspects of me, in that sometimes I definitely felt disconnected from why I cared so much.”
Sathian’s manuscript was rescued from agent Susan Golomb’s slush pile by an assistant, who made sure it got into Golomb’s hands. “Susan knew to go to with Ginny Smith Younce, who edits Celeste Ng,” Sathian says. “And I think Ginny brought something to it with Asian American stories and the suburbs. And she’s also from Georgia, which I think is kind of rare in New York publishing. So we connected over that.”
Christine Smallwood has already made a name for herself as a literary critic and journalist at Harper’s, the New Yorker, and elsewhere, and along the way she has been publishing short fiction as well. While studying at Swarthmore College, she wrote fiction but couldn’t get into the fiction seminars. “I decided I was going to be a different kind of writer,” she says.
But over the past decade, Smallwood went back to fiction. A story she published in n+1 about a woman who has a miscarriage, titled “The Keeper,” became the basis of A Life of the Mind (Hogarth, Mar.). “I just felt like there was more to do with that character,” she recalls. “And the miscarriage became a way of talking about other things, like the precarity and contingency of academia.”
The book follows a young literature scholar named Dorothy, stuck in “adjuncting hell.” She teaches as many as five classes per semester at a New York City university while reckoning with dwindling prospects for a tenure track job. Throughout, she deals with the aftermath of her miscarriage, an experience Smallwood describes in visceral detail that earned her writing a comparison to Otessa Moshfegh in a starred review from PW.
“It’s really bracing,” Smallwood says of Moshfegh’s work. “Like, she kind of dares you to turn away.”
Editor Alexis Washam says she related to Dorothy’s feelings of being stuck. “I just love how she captured the immediacy and texture of the moments that feel both kind of small when they’re being experienced, but in retrospect are shifting the course of our lives.”
One of Dorothy’s central challenges is dealing with the powerful figure of a former adviser from her grad school years who never treated her well, and whose favorites end up getting published and hired. The character emerged while Smallwood took a break from the novel to work on a TV pilot. “I realized I had kind of accidentally been working on the novel without meaning to be working on it,” she says. “I had totally given up on it, then realized I was still in its world.”
Before writing Nightbitch (Doubleday, July), a novel about a new mother who believes she’s turning into a dog, Rachel Yoder went through two MFA programs, most recently the University of Iowa’s, and published a series of stories and essays in various journals.
“I was really dedicated to the writing life,” Yoder says. “That was my whole identity.”
Then she had a kid, and for a couple years she stopped writing. But the harrowing descriptions of motherhood in Rachel Zucker’s Mother and Jenny Offill’s Department of Speculation planted seeds, and as the Trump years wore on, galvanizing women’s rage across the country, Yoder also felt deeply affected. “A lot of people were more confrontational about how things were and why couldn’t they be different,” she says. “This book is engaging with the energy we’ve had over the last four years. It feels like an artifact from the Trump era.”
After the protagonist spends a restless night yelling and growling at the baby and her husband, her husband says, “You were kind of a bitch last night.” She begins calling herself Nightbitch, and then notices a thick patch of hair on the back of her neck.
Films were also an influence. “I was thinking a lot when I was writing this about portrayals of women who were kind of free or unleashed in a way that felt really visceral,” Yoder says. She mentions Raw and A Woman Under the Influence, along with Serial Mom. “I liked that it wasn’t pure rage—that there was also this absurdist comedic element.”
Margo Shickmanter, who edited the satirical My Sister, the Serial Killer, responded immediately to Yoder’s absurd sense of humor. “It felt like the right way to make sense of what’s happening right now,” she says. “It’s like a release and an escape.”
A Nightbitch film is now in development by Annapurna, with Amy Adams set to star, and Yoder is working on the screenplay. “I’ve taken a really deep dive into researching art and feminist art, which is getting folded into the movie in a way that’s really fun and bonkers,” she says. “I’m hoping to finish it this week and get it out the door, knock on wood. Wish me luck.”
E. Lily Yu was raised on fairy tales. “There’s a kind of spare, primal intensity to the ways their structures work,” she says. “They don’t rely on literary technique or specific words or art. I think the very best are the ones that teach the kind of truths that are almost impossible to see on a daily level. The fairy tale promises us in some ways that there is meaning and worth to what we do, even if there is no immediate payoff.”
When Yu, who grew up in New Jersey, studied physics in Australia in 2010, she became aware of the issues surrounding the country’s refugee crisis. Her novel, On Fragile Waves (Erewhon, Feb.), developed slowly over the next decade. It follows two Afghan children on their perilous journey across borders with their parents on their way to Australia. Along the way, the children exchange folklore, which helps them cope with their uncertain future.
Yu’s investment into the project runs deep. In 2013, she spent 10 days in Afghanistan to research her characters’ homeland. She rented a room in Kabul from the Washington Post’s bureau chief and took as many precautions as possible for her safety. “If I take off my glasses and I dress appropriately,” she says, “I look like I belong.”
When Yu was done, she had a friend get the manuscript to editor Liz Gorinsky, formerly of Tor.
In 2018, Gorinsky founded Erewhon Books, dedicated to speculative fiction that bridges the gaps between literary fiction, science fiction, and fantasy. “We’re publishing few enough books that every one has to have good characters and good plot,” she says. “And this hit all of the marks in terms of just being palpably, beautifully written.”
Yu says she had interest from editors at other houses, but their publishers felt the book was too risky. “With Erewhon, Liz is doing something really beautiful and dangerous and wonderful,” she adds.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.