Writers to Watch: Fall 2021


Explorations of class, race, and sexuality play out in many of this fall’s notable fiction debuts, including a novel about a young Black woman working in financial services, a South Korean gay romance, and more.
Nawaaz Ahmed: Supersized and Fully Formed
In 1994, Nawaaz Ahmed left India for a graduate program in computer science at Cornell. “I don’t think in India you go around saying, ‘I want to be a writer,’” he says from his home in Brooklyn. Like his debut, Radiant Fugitives (Counterpoint, Aug.), which Publishers Weekly called “dazzling” in a starred review, the path to writing a novel was long and windy, and informed by his political consciousness as a gay Muslim immigrant.
Ahmed took a job in the Bay Area with Inktomi in 2000, touted at the time as the next Microsoft, he says. Two years later its stock plummeted from a peak of $241 to a quarter a share, and the company was sold to Yahoo. By 2007 he’d become involved with book clubs and writing groups mainly comprising other South Asians and went part-time at Yahoo to focus on his writing. In 2009 he left for the University of Michigan, expecting to finish a book by the time his MFA scholarship support ran out. “But it took 10 years,” he adds, laughing.
The first drafts of Radiant Fugitives, about an Indian woman condemned by her father for being queer, were shorter and more focused on a family drama. But as Ahmed became galvanized by the uncertainty around the marriage equality fight during the early Obama years and the rise in anti-Muslim sentiment, after having already taken part in actions with Asian LGBTQ groups in the Bay Area, those issues began entering the book.
He says it was both exciting and scary to write explicitly about homosexuality, because of the small number of gay Muslim writers who were published. “But I was like, how can you not? I have to take part in the struggle for visibility,” he adds.
The draft Ahmed worked on with agent Anjali Singh sprawled to 800 pages, almost twice the length it’d ultimately publish as. Dan Smetanka at Counterpoint read all of it. “It’s that moment when the lightning comes down and your hair is on fire and all of those terrible metaphors that editors use,” he says. “It was such an ambitious draft, supersized and fully formed.”
Xavier Navarro Aquino: A Wicked Dew
Four days after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, Xavier Navarro Aquino returned there from Lincoln, Nebr., where he was completing a PhD in English, to help his family. His mother lives in Vega Baja, where he was raised, and much of his family lives in various parts of the island’s northern coast.
“It wasn’t easy for me to process and want to write about it,” Aquino says from his home in Lincoln, where he is preparing to move to South Bend, Ind., to teach at Notre Dame. But from that experience came the idea for a story of a girl named Camila who finds her sister encased in a mudslide. It became the germ for Velorio (HarperVia, Jan. 2022), a polyphonic novel of Maria’s aftermath.
“I used the framework of Lord of the Flies to imagine a society after the natural disaster because it wasn’t far from reality,” Aquino says. “I saw how the rules and laws had degraded, and how degradation mixed with fears of abandonment, which had exacerbated a very fragile electric grid, economic system, and diaspora.”
By then, Aquino already had an agent, Jin Auh, whom he’d met at the Sewanee Writers Conference. During a residency at MacDowell in 2019, he wrote a full draft of Velorio in a fever pitch. “I was very surprised with how it just fell into my imagination and the words would just flow, but it was a strange time,” he says. “I think I felt a little crazy, and told I friend I felt like I was hearing voices.”
When Aquino met with Tara Parsons, editor and associate publisher at HarperVia, he was excited to hear that she understood what he was doing with the multitude of voices, and that she didn’t want him to change it—something Jin had warned him might happen with other editors. One of the most important voices was that of the complex character Urayoán, whom Aquino hesitatingly calls an “antagonist,” because Urayoán speaks to the effects of U.S. colonization, sometimes in ways that are not immediately coherent. “I was sort of trying to draw from Derek Walcott’s commentary on Caliban,” Aquino says. “In The Tempest, Caliban carries the most beautiful language but is often overlooked.”
Natasha Brown: Everybody Hurts
I think STEM careers are really good options for a lot of people,” says Natasha Brown, a writer from London who studied math at Cambridge and spent a decade working in financial services. “They can really be good opportunities to buy yourself some time to produce creative work.”
In 2019, after writing on the side and taking workshops, Brown received support from the London Writers Award and finished her first novel, Assembly (Little, Brown, Sept.), which PW’s starred review called “a stunning achievement of compressed narrative and fearless articulation.”
Assembly follows a young Black woman working at an investment bank, whose visit to her white fiancé’s family estate is dampened by her recent breast cancer diagnosis, and whose career success is met with blatant racism and sexism from bitter associates at her workplace. Clocking in at 112 pages with a small trim size, and punctuated by fragments of prose and verse along with references to theories from bell hooks and Claudia Rankine, it’s not a conventional novel, but it tells an age-old story.
“It’s like a ‘to be or not to be’ story, but about race,” says Jean Garnett, an editor at Little, Brown, who acquired the book during Frankfurt last year. “You have a character who’s thinking, is this worth enduring? Except Natasha’s character is way less whiny and indulgent than Hamlet.”
It’s a story that’s more commonly told in white literary fiction. “The stories I’ve really enjoyed have been about middle-class lack of satisfaction,” Brown says. “But for people of color, for Black women specifically, if we do get a story about someone being successful, it’s always a story of being grateful. It’s kind of limiting and a little bit dehumanizing to not recognize that everybody feels dissatisfied with their lives sometimes.”
Reading Rankine’s Citizen and Don’t Let Me Be Lonely helped show Brown new possibilities for writing about Black experiences, she says, and Lydia Davis’s and Maggie Nelson’s work opened up a sense of playfulness in mixing genres and weaving tangential threads.
As a result, Assembly sometimes has the feeling of an essay. “The narrator looks out at the reader to say, ‘I see you,’” Garnett says. “I’m not encased in a fictional universe, I’m here in the same world and we’re having a conversation about that world.”
Ash Davidson: Paradise Lost
Ash Davidson was too young to remember her early few years in Klamath, Calif., but her parents’ stories formed a powerful mythology of a seaside idyll destroyed by logging. “My parents were very clear that this was the most beautiful place they’d ever lived,” she says. But the herbicides used by loggers poisoned their drinking water, prompting the family to develop a habit of never drinking from a tap, no matter where they are.
Davidson’s novel, Damnation Spring (Scribner, Aug.), is set in a place similar to Klamath in the 1970s, where a logger buys a grove of redwoods to invest in his family’s future. It explores the tension between a working-class community’s economic livelihood, the health risks posed by logging, and the environmentalists who spotlight its devastation. PW called it a “heart-wrenching modern American tragedy.”
To write the book, Davidson took a trip back to Klamath for research, hoping to talk to people who were affected by the pollution. “I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, and couldn’t get people to speak with me,” she says. Then, with her mother, she went to a community dinner. “We walked in and you could just hear the heads turn.”
After a woman recognized her mother, she introduced Davidson to a former logger. “He told me he’d actually been sprayed while he was working, and shared how it affected his eyes, his breathing, and his skin,” she says. “That was the moment that I realized: this person’s family was drinking the water.”
At that point, Davidson says, she was able to approach the characters with empathy.
The book took a decade to write, and her agent, Chris Parris-Lamb, helped her across the finish line. They’d met when Davidson was working on short stories at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and he suggested she write a novel. “I sent him an email five years later saying, ‘Hi, I don’t know if you remember me, but you were right, and here’s this novel, would you look at it?’ ” she recalls.
He did, and when Parris-Lamb sent it to Kathy Belden, executive editor at Scribner, it didn’t take long for her to respond. “I like fiction that does societal work being done in service of the story,” Belden says. “It feels like an old-fashioned big American novel.”
Jo Hamya: Do They Owe Us a Living?
When did it become ridiculous to think that a stable economy and a fair housing market were reasonable expectations?” asks the unnamed narrator of Jo Hamya’s Three Rooms (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Aug.). It’s a spiky riff on Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, dialing into the dwindling prospects for university graduates in the U.K. and the conservative politics behind Brexit.
After taking an MA at Oxford, Hamya faced her share of precarity while working an unstable magazine job, which she ended up quitting because it didn’t line up with her long-range goal to be a university lecturer. “My protagonist is the sort of person I would hate to end up becoming,” Hamya says. “She’s very indecisive and ineffectual, and confined by circumstance.”
The book developed after the Brexit referendum as Hamya and her friends began to feel that they would never be able to buy their own homes. Hamya is half Polish and grew up watching her parents achieve progressively better lives. “They had kind of gotten the better deal out of Blairism and social mobility,” she says, “and I had maybe slightly naive expectations of how life should turn out.”
Hamya finished the book in March 2020, a week or two before England went into lockdown. “I’d sent it to a handful of agents who hadn’t responded, and so I’d sort of given up,” she says. But a few friends asked to read the manuscript, one of whom worked at Penguin, and though the friend said she wouldn’t be able to do anything, the book got passed around. Two weeks later Hamya received a call from Ana Fletcher, senior editor at Jonathan Cape.
“Sort of halfway through the conversation I began to clock that she was interested in acquiring it,” Hamya says. Fletcher helped her connect with agent Harriet Moore to negotiate the deal, and by August, the North American rights were sold to HMH at auction.
Hamya says she wasn’t sure how the book would be received in the U.S., given its focus on British politics, and was heartened to receive an enthusiastic letter from a bookseller in Alabama. “Maybe it’s because there was this overlap of news feeds in 2016 and 2020, where we had Boris Johnson and you guys had Trump,” she notes. “Both sides of the Atlantic were melting.”
Tracey Lange: Breaking the Bonds
In the opening scene of Tracey Lange’s We Are the Brennans (Celadon, Aug.), a young woman named Sunday Brennan drives into a Los Angeles freeway divider while drunk, prompting her bar-owner brother to bring her back home to New York City. With the crash, Sunday has reached the end of the line in an attempt to start a new life away from her Irish Catholic family.
“I come from a big Irish Catholic crew,” says Lange, who now lives in Oregon and was raised in an Upper West Side apartment building where her father worked as the super. “My dad was one of 15 kids from Ireland, and I just loved being around that kind of clan feeling. There’s so much fodder to dig into.”
The story isn’t autobiographical, but Lange, like Sunday, also headed west once she came of age, settling first in Arizona, where, with her husband, she built and ran a business providing behavioral health services for 15 years. “The focus was so much about the family, and what makes a family work and not work,” she says.
Several years ago, Lange was able to focus solely on her writing, and completed the manuscript while enrolled in an online novel writing program at Stanford. “The program came at a great time because I trying to wrap my mind around the novel’s multiple point of view,” she says. In doing so, she was able to get underneath the surface of the guarded members of the Brennan clan.
Describing her own extended family, Lange says, “There’s a great closeness, but there’s also a lot of hiding flaws and a lot of shame, whether it’s mental illness issues, drug use, financial worries, or divorce. I felt very connected to Sunday, growing up in a family where there’s a bit of keeping things on the down low.”
Lange met agent Stephanie Cabot at a writers’ conference in Kauai, Hawaii. Cabot was impressed by her pitch and her professionalism, and saw how the book fit in her wheelhouse. “I’m always drawn to this idea that history is always with us,” Cabot says. “I think she pulled it off really well. There’s a lot of heart and emotion and compassion.”
Claire Luchette: Out of the Habit
In summer 2016, Claire Luchette was in graduate school at the University of Oregon, broke and eating expired yogurt while working on short stories. She remembered something her nun macroeconomics teacher would always say at her Jesuit high school back in Chicago: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” The line inspired her to write the story “New Bees,” which was published in Ploughshares and became her meal ticket for a series of writing residencies.
The story also became her way into the novel Agatha of Little Neon (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Aug.), which PW called “a lovely story of… cross-cultural exchange.” It takes place in a halfway house in Rhode Island, where a group of nuns explore their sense of agency as well as their sexuality.
“I was wondering how nuns could live with the fact that in the eyes of the church they’re second-class citizens,” Luchette says. At the time, Donald Trump was on the rise and she was thinking a lot about power and inequality. “It stoked a lot of rage.”
She also developed the theme of conviction. “What if you revisited this thing you always assumed was true about yourself?” she asks. “That’s something the church doesn’t really make possible. At the time, I was starting to ask questions about my own sexuality, and it seemed natural for the characters.”
In 2018 Luchette finished what she calls “a crappy first draft” and sent it to agents. One of them was Julie Barer, whom she cold queried despite having a friend already represented by Barer. “I was insistent on doing it myself and not have anyone, you know, introduce me and make it easier,” she says.
Barer encouraged Luchette to coax out the themes of identity in the story, which Luchette thinks was the right move. “I never wanted this to be a coming-out story,” she says, “but I did want it to ask some of the same questions, and she made that seem possible.”
As early readers start to weigh in, Luchette finds the responses really moving, but she also continues to feel anxious. “I’m still not sure how to manage the fact that people will find in it what they will,” she says. “It’s a really specific kind of vulnerability to share the last five years of one’s life with complete strangers.”
Wanda M. Morris: A New Kind of Legal Thriller
After I started this book 13 years ago, I put it down,” says Wanda M. Morris, speaking of All Her Little Secrets (Morrow, Nov.). “I convinced myself nobody was going to want to read a story about a 40-ish Black woman who has to bring down a group of awful people.”
Morris continued her career as a corporate lawyer in Atlanta, where she has lived and worked for the past two decades, and where the book is set. It follows a woman named Ellice Littlejohn who has a corporate counsel job and discovers her boss’s dead body, with an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Ellice and her boss had been having an affair, and he’d asked her to meet him that morning. As the plot unfolds, readers will be reminded of John Grisham’s The Firm for the way Ellice uncovers criminal activity at the company and confronts an ethical dilemma.
After a health scare several years ago, Morris realized it was time to finish the project. “I thought, I’m in this high-pressure job and I have a family and I’m trying to do all these things and be all these things to everyone else,” she recalls. “And what am I doing for me?”
Morris’s longtime interest in writing was partly what made her want to become a lawyer. She reads widely, from biographies to poetry to literary fiction, but she’s mainly drawn to mysteries. “I like that whole figuring out the puzzle,” she says. But she hungered for stories that featured smart Black female protagonists.
“I like the idea of, you know, a Black woman chasing down bad guys in dark office towers,” Morris says. “But I just didn’t see a lot of books like that on the shelf. I think Toni Morrison probably launched a lot of careers when she said, ‘If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.’ And so I did.”
Sang Young Park: A Cosmopolitan Romance
Alexander Chee turned more than a few heads this past winter when he interviewed Korean writer Sang Young Park and announced on Twitter that Park’s Love in the Big City (Grove, Nov.; trans. from the Korean by Anton Hur) was “the first gay novel published in South Korea,” where it appeared in 2019. Previously, Hur has heralded the work of Park’s queer South Korean predecessors.
“There are things that would be very relatable for American millennial readers, like an experience someone could be having in Brooklyn,” says Peter Blackstock, editor at Grove. “And then there’s the dimension of mandatory military service.”
Early on, the narrator recounts how he has a female friend send him love letters while in boot camp, so his fellow trainees won’t think he’s gay. Later, back in Seoul, he has a string of sexual encounters until he finds love.
For Park, Seoul loomed in his early years as a promise of liberation. “I was raised in Daegu,” he says via his translator, Hur, “which is notorious for being conservative. Throughout my teenage years all I could dream of was escaping.” After leaving to study at Sungkyunkwan University, he found in Seoul “a good place for anyone in the minority to meet others anonymously and stay hidden in the crowds.”
As a writer, Park was inspired by Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, as well as by French writers such as Annie Ernaux and Margeurite Duras, and he also drew on Korean and American pop culture. His story “Searching for Paris Hilton” won him a debut writer prize. “Maybe Paris Hilton herself was a deeply inspirational figure to me,” he jokes.
He hopes American readers will dive into the Korean references in his work. “I mention a lot of K-pop acts that are not BTS and Blackpink, who are already super famous in America, so I hope readers check them out,” Park says.
Blackstock notes that Grove editorial assistant Yvonne Cha, who read the whole book in Korean, was instrumental to the acquisition, and says they hope to reach an audience of Korean American readers. “It was really cool to have her make the case,” he adds.
Javier Serena: Books Nobody Wants to Read
What if a blockbuster author of the Spanish-speaking world, whose stature reached mythic proportions just before he died, had toiled for years in obscurity because his early work wasn’t all that great? Spanish writer Javier Serena explores this question in Last Words on Earth (Open Letter, Sept.; trans. from the Spanish by Katie Whittemore), about a Roberto Bolaño-esque writer named Ricardo Funes.
Asked about how the book was received in Spain, where it was first published in 2017, Serena, who aspired to become a writer as Bolaño’s work began to make a splash in the late 1990s, says via Whittemore, “Bolaño is still a delicate topic among the Spanish literary elite. He’s still treated with kid gloves by the people who were close to him. It’s not a topic that people just jump into.”
At least not in Madrid, where Serena lives and works for Latin American cultural exchange program, or Barcelona, near where Bolaño lived when he was in Spain. But Chad Post, publisher and editor at Open Letter, was more than happy to take it on. “It’s an incredibly moving book,” says Post. “I think it really hits home with people who work in creative fields where you don’t know where your success and value is going to come from and at what point in time.”
Post received a sample from Whittemore before the 2019 AWP conference in Portland, Ore., and then at the conference, Whittemore told him about Serena’s other book, Atila, about the writer Aliocha Coll, and a third forthcoming in Spanish. “So we started conceiving of this as a three-book project that groups together novels about the writing life and an unwavering commitment to your art and how that plays out for people,” Post says.
Serena wants to make clear that his character Funes is not Bolaño, but says he was inspired by the gulf between Bolaño’s day-to-day life and the image he’d cultivated. “We like to think of him as this sort of like punk hippie writer on the margins, but for a while, he was just like, dithering around this town and trying to write books that nobody wanted to read.”

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Brandon Taylor’s Constellations of Stories


Rising literary star Brandon Taylor is terrifically prolific. He wrote his debut novel, Real Life, which was shortlisted for last year’s Booker Prize, before starting his MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2017, along with an early draft of Filthy Animals, a collection publishing next moth from Riverhead. Since then, he’s sold a second novel and another collection to Riverhead, and written two more books—a story collection and a Southern gothic novel.

“I’m not Joyce Carol Oates,” Taylor says via Zoom from his Iowa City apartment. “I just don’t have a life. All I do is write all day.” He claims he owes his intense and fruitful work habits to his years, before Iowa, in a doctoral program for biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “Science grad school destroyed any sense of work-life balance or the ability to sleep. It’s not hard if you just shirk all your responsibilities and do the thing.”
After the Iowa program, the novelist Garth Greenwell, a friend of Taylor’s, noticed he could write quickly and encouraged him to “live by his pen,” prompting him to build a name for himself with a steady output of essays.
Taylor’s big laugh, bright eyes, and wide smile balance a sturdy and serious composure. He speaks confidently and thoughtfully, using his outstretched hands to hold an idea or a detail, sometimes sending it off with a flick of the fingers—such as when he mentions how stories would come in and out over different drafts of his linked collection as they evolved. The noon light cuts through the mini blinds on the windows surrounding him in the apartment. He wears a black fleece vest and baseball cap, along with a black-and-white-striped, long-sleeved tee, a casual complement to the striped sweater worn in his author photo.
Taylor has had a long journey to becoming a writer, marked by hard work from the beginning. He grew up on a farm in rural Prattville, Ala. His parents, who met as kids while living across the road from one another in Prattville, both come from big families. “I was related to everyone around me for like dozens of miles in any particular direction,” he says. There was hunting and fishing with his brother and cousins, and he absorbed a range of skills, such as learning how to fix cars and tractors. “I always think of it as my family was preparing me for one kind of life. And that’s just not the life I live now.”
Taylor was also responsible for reading the family’s bills and medications (their “admin and clerical work,” as he calls it now), since his parents were mostly illiterate. “Reading wasn’t a big thing in my family,” he says. “We were country people.”
As an undergraduate at Auburn University, Taylor majored in chemistry, but writing was always a big interest, and he received encouragement from his “lit nerd” friends. He looks back fondly on college—he says it was when he began to befriend other Black people interested in creative pursuits and find a sense of community. After a bookseller at an Auburn Books-a-Million told him that the store didn’t stock books by Black writers because it was a “family store,” he felt especially driven, he recalls. “I went home and wrote my first real short story in a furious rage. I was like, how dare you tell me you’re not going to stock this in a family store?”
Taylor’s interest in writing initially took a backseat to his interest in science, as the 15- to 18-hour days in the lab left little time for anything else. But the itch to write was still there, and he wasn’t happy without doing it. At a Lambda retreat in 2015, he met novelist Justin Torres, whose encouragement began to help him see that he could confidently change course. He began publishing stories, and by the end of 2016 he had his first draft of Real Life, which he dashed off in five weeks.
Real Life follows Wallace, a Black gay biochemistry student clearly modeled on Taylor, who navigates microagressions from his friends and racist double standards in the lab, where he suspects someone sabotaged his work. Taylor says when he wrote it, “I felt like I was floundering in science for reasons related to how my advisor chose to encourage me.” At that point, he chose writing over science. When told that some people read Real Life as a metaphor for writing school, he laughs and says, “No, it was literally just about being a scientist. It was in fact a metaphor for science school, unfortunately.”
Also during that pre-Iowa burst, Taylor wrote the first draft of Filthy Animals, which is mainly set in Madison. The result, which has been extensively rewritten (he significantly revised one story just a week before this conversation took place), pushes further on his interest in uncomfortable situations.
Taylor’s agent, Meredith Kaffel Simonoff, calls him a “master of wrenching moments” that are often sparked by fraught interactions between people. Referring to the stories in Filthy Animals, she says these moments “arrive each time on the page like a subtle and ravishing detonation.”
After reading the first pass, Taylor says he felt he had more to do on a story called “What Made Them Made You,” about a North Carolina family. Many of the book’s stories had already been published, and Taylor says his editor, Cal Morgan, asked, “Why are you blowing them up?”
When asked about the revision process, Morgan says, “There is a kind of reality that sets in the first time you see a book typeset, that makes you ask different questions of it and respond to different things within it. He’s aware of harmonics under the surface that even I, after having read the book seven or eight times, hadn’t picked up on, but that amounted to small challenges he wanted to set himself.”
Explaining how he approaches building out a linked collection, Taylor says he’s “always thinking in constellations of stories. I don’t write a story until I have a sense of how it fits into a larger manuscript.”
The opener, “Potluck,” traces the collection’s constellation. In it, Taylor commits to peeling away the awkwardness, insecurity, and uncertainty that often delineate interactions with strangers. Lionel, a Black gay man, is treading back out into the world after extensive psychiatric care following a suicide attempt. He used to be in a graduate program for math. Now he works as a test proctor. At a dinner party, he trades glances with Charles, a dancer, who is there with this girlfriend, Sophie. After the exchange of looks, the two men chat.
As the story progresses, exploring the points of view of Charles and Sophie, it comes to light that the two are in an open relationship. In later stories, the couple’s arrangement seems to bother Sophie less than Charles, and when she encourages Charles to sleep with Lionel, it leads to complications among the trio.
While the characters don’t always take the best care of each other—parents disapprove of their children’s sexuality or career choices, and feelings are selfishly trampled upon—Taylor always treats them considerately, eschewing judgment for understanding.
This quality, Morgan says, is at the root of Taylor’s powers. “There’s not a touch or a word in his stories that is casual,” he adds. “Everything is so intently meaningful that we feel the need to take them as seriously as he does.”
Bonus Link:
A Year in Reading: Brandon Taylor

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Writers to Watch: Spring 2021


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.

1. Alexandra Andrews: Naked Ambition

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.”

2. Dario Diofebi: Leaving Las Vegas
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.
3. Jamie Figueroa: A Dream Realized

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.”

4. Nancy Johnson: Blue Collar
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.”
5. Dantiel W. Moniz: Scratching the Surface
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.”
6. Rebecca Sacks: Rashomon in Israel
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.”
7. Sanjena Sathian: Stay Gold
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.”
8. Christine Smallwood: Beneath the Ivory Tower
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.”
9. Rachel Yoder: A Mother Under the Influence
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.”
10. E. Lily Yu: A Great Escape
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.

On Nature and Nationalism with Sarah Moss


The seventh novel from English writer Sarah Moss, Summerwater (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Feb. 2021), is a slim book with a lot to unpack. Like Ghost Wall, her breakout work in the U.S. (published by FSG last year), it concerns an ill-fated expedition to a remote part of Great Britain. Stuffed with ideas about people’s relationship to nature and questions of national identity, the book, bereft of a central hero, takes up the point of view of a different character in each chapter.
“I was thinking of it almost as a relay race—that each time there’s an interaction across households, the narrative baton passes on,” says Moss, speaking over Zoom from her house in Dún Laoghaire, Dublin, where she’s surrounded by bare white walls.
Summerwater, which is set in the Scottish Highlands and follows several families who rent neighboring cabins in a national park, is a strange, episodic mix of interconnected scenes and lyrical interludes. It’s not clear where the story is going until at least halfway through the work.
Though Summerwater is not a thriller, Moss keeps the reader turning the pages by imbuing each chapter with a sense of foreboding. Some of the characters run into danger—a treacherous rope swing, a solitary paddle across a blustery loch, a secret nighttime excursion to a man’s illegal campsite on the fringe of the park—while others hang back and watch the goings-on from their cabins. The dynamic creates an unsettling sense of voyeurism, more so when the gaze of most of the watchers converges on one particular cabin, where loud music is played at all hours by the “foreigners” who are renting it.
When asked if she began with a plan to subvert the reader’s expectations about thriller motifs or if she was just having fun, Moss, who teaches creative writing at University College Dublin and has published scholarly works on 19th-century literature, says she was “entirely playing.” She doesn’t think like an academic when she starts a work of fiction, she adds. Ideas come later.
“The more I proceed on instinct and in the spirit of playfulness, the better it tends to be,” Moss says. She notes that her first novel, Cold Earth, “tends to be read as much more thrillerish than the later ones.” Often that instinct leads her to start with an old-fashioned plot form. “It’s an obvious way of building a novel, and it’s fun.”
Moss’s previous novel, Ghost Wall (a PW Best Book of 2019), is about a man who, obsessed with the Iron Age and the bog people, forces his teenage daughter to come along with him for a reenactment in the remote English countryside, where they strive to live as ancient Britons. Moss grew up in a family of hikers in Northern England and spent nearly every weekend in the mountains. She found the germ for Ghost Wall while on a writing residency in Northumberland.
The novel was read primarily as a Brexit book in the U.K., so Moss says she was surprised to see it make such an impact in the U.S. She believes now that this may be due to the fact that readers in Europe and the U.S. picked up on a broader theme of nationalism, which is also present in Summerwater.
In Ghost Wall, nationalism is dramatized through an obsessive, dangerous drive to authentically reenact the lives of the characters’ forebears; in Summerwater, the English and Scottish strangers are united around their outrage over the presence of a group of people who they assume, by the sound of their accents, have come from overseas.
The first character the reader meets in Summerwater is a middle-aged woman named Justine, who goes for a run through the park in the early morning despite the heavy rain. When she notices a tent pitched at an illegal campsite, her initial fears about “murderous nutters” give way to a more charitable estimation, as she remembers camping outside of bounds, as a young person, to avoid paying fees.
Justine’s husband, Steve, in contrast, is less benevolent toward the perceived interlopers, and is particularly irate over the loud cabin. It doesn’t matter that they’re “foreign, Romanian or what have you,” he says. “They can stay up all night and deafen themselves if they want to, but they should do it somewhere else, such as back where they came from.” Steve does not know, however, that the mother of the partying family, Alina, is from Ukraine and has lived in the U.K. for 20 years, or that her daughter is English.
Summerwater came together quickly for Moss after a stay with her family in a holiday park in Scotland, similar to the park where the book is set. Like the characters, they were met with two weeks of rain, but still they went out to climb mountains. “What are you going to do, sit inside for two weeks?” she asks. “We also became fairly fascinated by everybody else in the holiday park, and I was thinking how odd it was that there were these families who were kind of stuck in this place but still weren’t talking to each other.”
Moss says she brought her own children up the way she was raised, encouraging them to spend time outdoors and to believe “climbing mountains is what normal people do.” She also says she gives herself a couple hours each day for running, like her character Justine, in order to quiet her thoughts.
“I have this fantastic Joycean run,” Moss says, “that starts in Dún Laoghaire and goes along the coast that Joyce writes about, past the Forty Foot bathing place, Sandy Cove, Dalkey, and then up a Killarney Hill, where on a clear day, you can see the tops of the Welsh mountains.”
As a resident of County Dublin, Moss has the right to use the local running paths during the county’s Covid-19 lockdown, but they’re closed to outsiders—even to Irish people from other counties. “I barely know where the county boundaries are,” she says. “I don’t belong here.”
As she wrote Summerwater, Moss was thinking about the attitudes about public space that emerge in moments of popular nationalism such as Brexit. “It’s a really dangerous kind of blood and soil narrative, where you earn the right to be in a place and there’s no distinction between the right to be in a place and the right to exclude other people,” she says. “In some ways those issues have only become more vexed with Covid. Some of my neighbors are getting really cross about people coming from other parts of Dublin to walk here, which they’re doing because they’re not allowed to go anywhere else.”
When it’s pointed out to Moss that the “foreign” characters are the only ones who seem to be having any fun in Summerwater, she admits to reserving a special rage for people who make noise while she’s trying to write. As such, she claims that when she began the book, her sympathy was with the characters who objected to the loud music. But as she finished, with the lockdown in effect, she realized it’s “kind of wrong” to hate the sound of others having fun.
“Over the summer, cases dropped and restrictions lifted,” Moss says. “So everybody was socializing in their gardens, and it was so nice to lie in bed and hear people having real-life human interactions with each other and listening to music and enjoying each other’s company.”

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

The Dark Side of Daisy Johnson


British author Daisy Johnson is in her Oxford study on an unseasonably hot day in late May. “Everyone’s kind of piled out into their gardens,” she says, gesturing via Zoom at the glare from the window, which falls on her shoulders and wavy blond hair. She’s kept busy writing during the pandemic, as is evidenced by the gentle sway of Post-it Notes on the wall behind her.
Johnson’s first book was a story collection, Fen, which she wrote while pursuing her masters at Oxford and working in a bookstore. A year later, in 2018, she published a novel, Everything Under. Then the unexpected happened. Johnson was babysitting when her editor called with the news that she’d been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. “The little girl I was looking after was excited, too, and we went to a playground and ran around and around and around,” she recalls.

The recognition has changed Johnson’s life, allowing her to write full-time and reach a larger audience than she’d imagined. Fortunately, she says, she’d already begun her second novel, Sisters, when she found out about the Booker nomination. “It meant that after everything calmed down, I could get back to work.”
Sisters is about July and September, ages 15 and 16, and their depressive mother, Sheela. Like Johnson, they live in Oxford, but after a catastrophic series of incidents that begins with July being cyberbullied, Sheela uproots them.
These events drive the plot, but they are secondary to the psychological horror faced by the family in the isolated seaside cottage, situated at the edge of the moors in northern England, where they move. There, Sheela disappears into her bedroom, leaving the girls to play a grotesque, increasingly dangerous game called September Says, in which July is expected to do anything her sister asks. In one instance, July agrees to eat an entire jar of mayonnaise; in another, she agrees to sacrifice her life in the event that only one of them could survive.
Johnson originally planned to set the book in Wales, but after teaching at the University of York and living with her partner in a converted Ford Transit van—driving around the nearby national park with him and camping—she decided to set it in North Yorkshire. “We were living in quite a small space, both of us trying to work,” she says. Those tight quarters served as inspiration. The region, she adds, is “a very rural, wild area, as much as you can get in the U.K. I wanted nature to surround the characters, which is why there’s a murmuration of birds early on and then a swarm of ants. The idea of the house being kind of inside and outside really interested me.”
Johnson says she’s fascinated by the in-between age before adulthood. “I remember everything feeling very bright and intensified, and the weird superstitions and the nastiness. I went into this book thinking about scary things and monsters. That age in particular is a really good place to explore because you are in this liminal space where it feels like uncanny things could happen.”
At one point, while July and September are messily repainting the walls of the house, a stream of ants comes through a crack in the wall, followed by a noise that sounds like a scream. Then a beak tears through the plaster and a bird emerges, with more ants “digging beneath the down.” The next morning, July wakes and looks for the hole, unsure of whether the episode was a dream, and all she sees are globs of half-dried paint.
Johnson wrote the scene to leave the reader guessing as to whether it was a dream (or hallucination) or it really happened. After hearing that the passage made this reader squirm, she says she’s glad. “I’m pleased you said that because for me, when I was growing up, I really loved reading books where you begin to understand what it means to have a body. There’s a very uncomfortable and slightly squirmy thing about existing as a human with other humans. I didn’t want Sisters to be a horror novel, but I wanted it to take aspects from horror, one of them being this kind of body horror, particularly from a female point of view. They are in a very intense situation, and I wanted it to feel very intense for you, too.”

Johnson was born on Halloween and says her parents gave her lots of horror books. “I immediately loved Stephen King, and grew up feeling very connected to those books. And then when I started thinking about Sisters, I knew I wanted to return to them. I was also reading a lot of Shirley Jackson and some Anne Rivers Siddons.” She has been excited, also, at how the genre has evolved in films over the past decade. “There’s been something really interesting happening, with The Babadook and It Follows exploring feminist issues. I’ve loved that way of looking at something from an angle, at big themes through the lens of horror.”
The subject of cyberbullying came late in the writing, Johnson says, partly because she’s generally interested in maintaining a timeless quality in her work. “The more I wrote the characters, the more I realized that things like social media or the Internet or having a phone were going to be for them a lot bigger than they were for me. This is a book about hauntings in various ways, and I wanted it to feel like the Internet or social media is haunted for them as well, and not necessarily trustworthy.”
Peter, the girls’ father, who died years earlier, and whose sister gave Sheela the cottage so they could leave Oxford, doesn’t literally haunt the characters, but memories and conceptions of him take up a great deal of space in their minds. Sheela remembers her violent fights with Peter and how she’d left him when the girls were babies, seeing him as “a black hole” that would eat them alive. She found fulfillment writing children’s books, using her daughters as subjects. But as the girls grew older, Sheela’s relationship with September soured, taking a heavy toll, especially as Sheela recognized Peter in her. Johnson expresses Sheela’s burden of being a single mother in brutal, lyrical prose: “Her love for them was like carrying shopping bags up a hill and at times she became convinced they wanted the very foundations of her, wanted to break the bricks of her body apart and climb back in.”
Johnson says she worried about writing Sheela, since she is not a mother herself and has a very different relationship with her own mother. The character came from “talking to women and seeing the way women react to grief,” she notes. She wanted to explore what happens when a mother “suffers from heavy depression, which changes her relationship with her children.” She also thought about her own response to “the pressure of having children, and the fight between being a mother and also having a career.”
Everything Under took Johnson four years to write, but Sisters came together more quickly. “I think I trusted and enjoyed my methods, but it changed a lot, and it’s a lot shorter than it was,” she says. Now, rereading it, she’s struck by the difference in the writing compared to her past work. “There’s this breakdown in the language and a different use of space on the page, which I think has come from what the book is about.”

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

John Waters Has Never Been Wrong


Back in Baltimore after the third annual John Waters Camp, where fans live and dress like his characters over a long weekend, the transgressive filmmaker was still processing his new status of respectability. “A lot of people said, ‘My parents told me about your movies,’” he says. “When I was young, their parents called the police when they found them with my movies. So a lot has changed.” His newest book, Mr. Know-It-All, tracks the Prince of Puke’s evolution into insider and offers advice—like harnessing one’s insanity and finding happiness through creative fulfillment—for the misfits and weirdos plagued by crazy ideas.

“I’m being Norman Vincent Peale for the neurotics,” he says, “although I actually don’t think my fans are neurotic. I think when society told them they were crazy, they learned how to triumph above that. Mr. Know-It-All is like all self-help books, but at the same time I might be telling you to go a very different way than you’ve been taught by your parents or what came before.”

Waters, who wrote all of his dozen feature films, published his first book, Shock Value, in 1981. The memoir covered the making of classic midnight movies, like Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble, and chronicled his childhood in Baltimore, the “hairdo capital of the world,” a line that anticipated his best-known work, Hairspray, which features a “hairbopper” played by Rikki Lake who championed body positivity before it was a thing. His next film, Cry-Baby, spoofed Elvis movies and their fans. While straight men from his generation like Bruce Springsteen cite Elvis as the inspiration to pick up a guitar, Waters writes that it was Elvis who made him realize he was gay. “Is there anything more rock ’n’ roll than whacking off the first time to Elvis Presley?”

Ricki Lake as Hairspray’s Tracy Turnblad by Henny Garfunkel

Asked when he started writing, he says, “That’s what I really am, more than anything, a writer. That’s how I could discover forbidden worlds. Life magazine corrupted me because I read about beatniks and Tennessee Williams and drug addicts and homosexuals and everything.” He also learned at an early age that his delight in grotesque material could be contagious—and dangerous. As a 12-year-old at summer camp he wrote a horror story called “Reunion.” “I read it each night around the campfire,” he says. “At the end, there was this hideous gore and people had nightmares. The parents called the camp and called my parents and complained, so right from the beginning it was trouble.” Later, his first published work, “Inside an Unwed Mother’s Home,” written under the pseudonym Jane Wiemo, proved to be an exercise in drag. “It was written for Fact magazine,” he says, “but I made it up!”

Other books include Crackpot, a collection of journalism published in Rolling Stone, and Carsick, which is built around the stunt of hitchhiking across the country. Waters is no stranger to stunts—at screenings for Polyester, audience members received scratch-and-sniff Odorama cards with smells that corresponded to scenes from the film. In Mr. Know-It-All, he explains how the idea emerged from an unsympathetic critic’s warning to readers: “If you ever see Waters’s name on the marquee, walk on the other side of the street and hold your nose.” His response? Fill up scratch-and-sniff cards with smells of flatulence, gasoline, and skunk spray. Somehow, Waters knew that proving his critics right was always the best way to build an audience. He also needed a new business plan after the decline of midnight movie theaters. “People wanted to see [movies] at any time, at their house, with their friends, and smoke their pot that they didn’t have to hide from nosy ushers,” he writes in Mr. Know-It-All. “Better yet, they could jerk off while watching—the real reason home videos became so big.”

When I tell him that I was 13 the first time I saw a John Waters movie on VHS, he says, “God, that might’ve been illegal.” Then I name the film—Serial Mom—and he claimed it’s his best. In the book, he describes the original pitch: “Not the usual John Waters movie about crazy people in a crazy world, but a movie about a normal person in a realistic world doing the craziest thing of all as the audience cheers her on!” Kathleen Turner played the titular homicidal maniac straight, and a suburban rampage became punk rock catharsis, complete with a scene starring the band L7 scorching a Baltimore club as Camel Lips.

John Waters and Kathleen Turner by Greg Gorman

With right-wing provocateurs co-opting the absurd theatrics of the radical leftists who inspired him in the 1970s, Waters hasn’t given up the urge to provoke. In a chapter on the sex clubs of yesteryear, he pitches a business plan: a club for gay people to copulate with the opposite sex and create, he says, a “new sexual minority… Gay heterosexuality.” The name of the club? Flip Flop.

“They flipped out when [I proposed this at the John Waters Camp],” he says. “But they laughed, that’s the whole thing. The main thing I’m trying to do is make you laugh. If I’m taking you into a world that makes you uncomfortable, people are okay if I’m the guide, because I’m not mean. I’m mean about the Catholic Church, but that’s not mean, that’s protection. That’s religious war.”

It’s been 15 years since Waters has released a film, though he’s not bitter toward Hollywood. “I have been paid to write many movies since A Dirty Shame,” he says. “As I said in the book, I don’t really complain about anything, but I do believe that I’ve probably made my last movie. I think I’m just in the wrong business because my movies have shelf lives, like what you want with a book. It’s always in print and always there’s two copies in every bookstore, even 40 years later.”

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and the Miami Book Fair.

Lead image credit: Larry Dean

All Books Are Maybe Books: The Millions Interviews Tim O’Brien


Dad’s Maybe Book, the first in almost two decades from the National Book Award-winning author of The Things They Carried and Going After Cacciato, began with stories and reflections Tim O’Brien wrote for his sons after becoming a father at the age of 58. Over time, the book evolved into a recursive meditation on fatherhood, fiction writing, and the unexplainable mysteries of life.

Midway through the book, O’Brien shares a scene from his own childhood in the 1950s, when his father—often drunk and absent—gave him a book of Hemingway stories and asked him to pick five to read and discuss with him. When he finished, his father was nowhere to be found. As a boy, it was devastating, but in looking back on it now, discussing the Hemingway stories and telling us how the best fiction doesn’t explain, he arrives at a stirring description of what fiction does instead:
The essential object of fiction is to embrace and widen and deepen all that is unknown and unknowable —who we are, why we are—and to offer us late-night company as we lie awake pondering our universal journey down the birth canal, and out into the light, and then toward the grave.
O’Brien and I talked about the book, the life lessons he offers, and how to tell a true story.

The Millions: At what point did you know this would be a book book as opposed to a “maybe book”?

Tim O’Brien: All books are maybe books until they’re finished. Even War and Peace and the Bible. So it went beyond just a title to something important about the way we live our lives. We’re always provisional and conditional. Maybe there’ll be tomorrow and maybe there won’t. So that’s kind of how it developed. After I knew I would have children, I gave up writing and thoughts of publication for many, many years, but periodically I’d sit down and write a little vignette about something that caught my attention that I’d laughed at or cried at. It began really as little messages in a bottle to leave for my children. The way I wish my own dad had done.

At some point along the line, my youngest kid saw me writing and he said, “What is it?” And I said, “I hope it’ll be a book someday.” It was the first time I’d even said that, kind of not believing it when I said it. He said, “What are you going to call it?” And I said, “I don’t know. I don’t even know if it’ll be a book.” That’s when he suggested the title. Call it what it is. Call it a maybe book.

TM: Sometimes, in literature and in life, fathers inhabit a silence. Your book speaks from the place of late fatherhood, and you have a great deal to share, which made me think about how other fathers and sons might interact with the book. What did you want to share about fatherhood?

TO: There are several chapters called “Pride,” which get into my misgivings about the subject. We tend to erase our kids’ failures or remember the basket they made from the three point line, and then forget the 25 ones they missed. The same goes with grades and everything else you tend to take pride in. On the other side, disappointment and anger and sadness can come in. Then there’s the pride we take in our country and how we’ll kill and die for it. Pride can be a vice and it can kill people. So there’s this tension inside of me about this whole fatherhood and pride thing. Telling myself, “Watch it. Be careful. It can kill.” And not only can it, it does and has. This is an example of how the book moved from fatherhood to a kind of memoir, in a way. I suppose the book really is essentially a selective memoir. Not chronological, but picking out points of my life or things that have happened that have changed my life.

TM: You write about the dangers of certainty and absolutism. In our increasingly polarized world, what you think is the best way to beat them?

TO: Going After Cacciato ended with the word “maybe” as the second-to-last word, and it infects all my work, since I was in Vietnam when staying alive was always a maybe proposition. Everything seems conditional and I see few absolutes that I can’t some way modify or qualify or change my mind about.

There’s a kind of know-nothing rhetoric, when it comes to immigration and warfare. Who cares about the facts? We’re hearing it from very high places now on a regular basis, in the form of little tweets, which have their own kind of absolutist rhetoric. A tweet doesn’t qualify, show modification or exceptions to the rule. It just declares things. It’s disturbing. 

TM: Some of the book’s vignettes are similar in style to your short fiction, where you convey a truth while calling attention to the made-up parts. Did you start drawing intentionally on the writing style that you became famous for?

TO: That’s the age-old question of writing, in that it’s not going to be word for word dialogue. It’s going to be my reconstruction of things that were said, and so on, as faithful as I can be to what I recall. Never exact, but I think that’s true for everybody, not just me. If I were to ask you, “Tell me what happened yesterday,” how much you could get out of your mouth before you’ve blocked out the dish washing and the dialogue coming out of the TV set? I don’t think you could reconstruct what you said when you were shopping for groceries. But none of us can. So much is lost.

There’s a line in Nabokov’s Speak, Memory: “Well, your memory speaks, but it stutters. It speaks in ellipses.” You do your best to give an impression of a thing that happened, but it’s not an exact replication of what occurred. A few things were so indelible they remained permanent. There’s a part where we’re vacationing in France and my mom died. I told my young kids, who were then 7 and 5. We were walking down this long road down to a little town in France, and one of my sons looked over to me. I asked, “Are you thinking about grandma?” He said, “No, I’m thinking about you thinking about grandma.” That’s indelible. I didn’t make that up.

I’m Very Bad at Being Secular: The Millions Interviews Nathan Englander


In Kaddish.com, Shuli (née Larry) tries to set things right with his dead father 20 years after paying a stranger to say Kaddish through the internet instead of doing it himself. The Millions chatted with author Nathan Englander, who discusses the fascinations that drove his novel of obsession, the creepiness of Instagram, and why it doesn’t make any sense to be a writer.

The Millions: The book opens in 1999, at a crossroads where many people allowed the line between technology and private life to dissolve. What kind of thoughts about the internet did you bring to it?

Nathan Englander: I grew up really religious. I remember being tossed out of class for asking a question. It was like Philip Roth’s “The Conversion of the Jews.” My rebellion was solely theological, which is just heartbreaking. They were asking us to believe in a god that could know what everybody in the world was doing, what they’d done before, and what they’re going to do next. Like a predictive omniscience. It was such a giant ask. And so looking back, I was like, we’ve built it! My Instagram is full-on creepy. It knows I’m hungry and it offers me food. I think I found out my wife was pregnant from, like, a side ad. It really knows your stuff.

TM: What do you think makes people susceptible to strong religious beliefs?

NE: We’re in a moment of extreme black-and-whiteness, and I’m obsessed with the gray space. So I thought, this radically secular Larry still has his old self in him. What would it take to flip? “He used to be religious, now he’s secular,” is so part of my bio. But then I was thinking, man, I’m so hardwired for switching. People tease me that I’m very bad at being secular. I feel like my wife’s afraid she’s going to come through the door and I’ll be koshering the kitchen, or I’ll turn Hasidic while she’s out picking up our kid or something.

I’m also interested in giving mass to jokes. One of my first stories, “Reb Kringle,” is about a Hasidic guy who can’t afford to pay for his synagogue, so he has to work as a Macy’s Santa Claus. I used to have long hair, and my sister’s religious friends used to say, “I could make such a great wig out of that hair.” I was like, that’s a good joke—a woman who desperately needs a man’s hair.

TM: Why was it important for Larry to mourn his father in his own way and reject (initially) the pressure from his family?

NE: When a sister believes it’s a brother’s job to say Kaddish, it’s not symbolic. You need to say this prayer eight times a day for 11 months, and if you miss once, your father burns in hell. I wanted to find a bridge between such extraordinary opposing realities within a family. You know, it had been 10 years since my father passed away when I started the book. It’s been really moving to be on the road and hear from people who’ve accidentally read it while mourning. People are reflecting on how they mourn. Your relationship continues. I really feel that I get closer to my father as the years go on.

TM: In a dream, Shuli’s father inspires him to take on a crazy task. It reads like satire, but the emotions are genuine. How did you balance the different registers?

NE: We’re all on a mission. It really doesn’t matter what it is. I can’t read any more articles about people who need to “summit” things. Did you watch Free Solo? I was like, is it even ethically tenable to film this guy? The fact that he’s not dead is actually surprising. I’m also interested in us having empathy for the framing of a mission. We all cheer this guy on. I’m almost 50 and I still need everyone’s approval. Maybe that’s the writing life. My wife is always like, “Are you on the phone with your mother again?” It doesn’t make any sense to be a writer. It’s not supposed to work. And even after it does, you feel like it doesn’t. So you have a mission. What are you supposed to do except be on it?

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

A Veteran Reflects on America’s Longest War

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Erik Edstrom enrolled in West Point in 2004 with the goal to effect positive change in the world through a career in the military. Things didn’t go the way he hoped. His platoon suffered senseless casualties for a senseless, unending war, and in the years since he has examined the War on Terror’s “legal injustices, unforced errors, and gaffes.” Edstrom hopes his book Un-American “can be an antivenom to America’s fetish for war.” Part memoir, part treatise against blind patriotism and war for war’s sake, the book is a must-read for those who believe we should redirect our resources away from endless wars.

The Millions: How did you come to write about your time overseas?

Erik Edstrom: Un-American started not as a book but rather as a combat journal of sorts. In 2009, I began a one-year deployment to Kandahar, Afghanistan. I was 23 years old and leading a platoon of light infantrymen in the spiritual birthplace of the Taliban—a district affectionately known as the heart of darkness. My platoon and I spent a lot of our time playing human minesweeper—either with our tires, or worse, our boots. Roughly 25% of the platoon became casualties.

We lived outside the wire, beyond the relative comfort and security you’d get from being on a large military base, in dilapidated mud shacks. We slept in the dirt and in our vehicles and had little access to satellite phones that would allow us to connect with the world outside. And even when you were at the main base, there wasn’t enough time to speak to everyone you cared about, so I chose to write.

I punched out long emails—about 10 pages per week—and sent them to a thread of about 100 people. After 52 weeks, I realized I had inadvertently created a ream of really emotional, primary source content from the nexus of the “war on terror.” As more time passed, I felt like every life event conspired to tell me that I needed to keep writing. The military provided me, through the medium of the daily news, with a constant stream of atrocities, whipping me to persist.

TM: What broader point are you making in this book about your military experience?

EE: The War on Terror remains one of the greatest crimes of the 21st century, and it’s difficult to recall a time in our past when more was spent to accomplish less.

I want America to reflect on whether we believe in justice, and if so, ask the question: “when do we intend to hold military and political leaders accountable for crimes committed across the Greater Middle East?”  In America, justice is subordinate to the military. America’s relationship with its military is creating a slew of unwanted consequences. Patriotism has mutated into blind support for almost anything the military does. Blind support betrays the American soldier, exacerbates problems the military intended to resolve, devastates people we are allegedly trying to help, and threatens all organized human life on this planet, escalating nuclear tensions while simultaneously diverting assets and attention from far larger threats such as climate change.

Our leaders have deliberately chosen to shackle generations of Americans to trillions in war debt to fight low-value, morally dubious conflicts in dusty parts of the world. This should spark sufficient outrage. The message that America needs to take away is that investing in climate change is an investment in national security.

TM: Your book is part memoir, part policy. How did you balance the two?

EE: I was thinking about it as a ghost-of-Christmas-past structure. If it were possible to be visited by three different visions before supporting another bout of American political violence in some other country, what sort of questions would you ask yourself? First, imagine your own death in the specific war you’re being asked to support. If you’re not willing to die in that conflict, then don’t ask anyone else to. The second part stems from my getting a small taste of what war and conflict are like and imagining the other side. If the birth lottery had allowed you to grow up in Iraq or Afghanistan, how would you think about an occupation of your country by people who are aiming guns at you? Third, imagine the opportunity cost. If you’re an able-bodied 25-year-old combat soldier and you look at a map of the world, you’re physically capable of going anywhere. Then imagine what that map would look like with an overlay of disabilities from battlefield amputations.

TM: What role do you think the military should play in the world?

EE: The role of the military is to defend the borders of the national territory and supplement global intervention when it is agreed upon by a governing body. In nine years wearing military uniforms I only trained to fight offensive wars. My training had nothing to do with the defense of American soil. I didn’t prepare to defend Washington D.C., or a protectorate like Costa Rica, or even a US military base plopped down in a foreign country. I was trained to force people in foreign countries to orient themselves towards the will of the U.S. military. If these people chose to defend themselves from us, it was my job to fight and kill them.

Humanity’s greatest problems will not be solved by the military. The military is not a tool for development and I certainly wasn’t issued a “humanitarian aid rifle” that shoots apples and warm blankets to the needy. To build a better world, I believe that we need to grow our capacity for cooperation, not conflict. This involves the reorientation of our patriotic instincts. We must minimize, rather than expand the scope and importance of the military in society and the world.