A Year in Reading: Edan Lepucki


I was thinking of calling 2021 a non-year. I turned 40 in February and marked it by gazing at the camellia bushes at a nearby garden, and because I hadn’t spent much (or any) time alone since that fateful day in March 2020, the visit was blissful. Still, it wasn’t the celebration I had imagined for that milestone birthday. By the end of March, I was fully vaccinated, but, for most of the year, my kids couldn’t be—and the youngest, who is two, is still waiting. All three of them have been back in school full time since mid-August, although each week I steel myself for a call from the principal—it’s already happened twice—telling me there’s a positive case in the classroom. An unexpected 10 days without childcare is enough to keep any parent on edge. (“Writing! Is this just a hobby of mine now?” I sometimes want to cry out, and do.) Life in 2020 felt scary and small; this year it feels liminal, perhaps irrelevant. As in 2020, I’m still scared: less by Covid and more by…everything else. What fun.

What does one read and enjoy in a non-year?

In January, I started reading and rereading Toni Morrison’s novels because I wanted a project. One of relevance, perhaps. There are 11 and I figured I could read them all in 2021. I certainly could have, until I realized I didn’t want to rush through them, to conquer them as if cramming for an exam. Instead, I slowed down and picked one up when I was in the mood for Morrison’s rich prose and vivid, often brutal, worlds. I’ve read five so far, in order of publication: The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, Tar Baby, and Beloved. My favorite was The Bluest Eye (a reread) although all of them deranged my brain as I dipped into their syntactical feats. I could not get over how experimental The Bluest Eye was, with its perspective shifts and refusal to bend to the reader’s expectations. Instead, it bent me.

All of Morrison’s characters have bodies, are embodied, and there are moments of sexiness, just as there are moments of humor and celebration that don’t get talked about when we talk about Morrison’s work. Take this sentence from Sula, for instance, about men’s pants and the treasures within: “The cream-colored trousers marking with a mere seam the place where the mystery curled.” That phrase, “marking with a mere seam”—I’ll live off it for days.

(Something I discovered in 2021: eating a weed gummy, waiting 30 minutes, drawing a bath, and reading two pages of Toni Morrison in the hottest water. Nothing like swimming in a single paragraph for far too long.)

This year, I read Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong and I keep wishing I hadn’t done so because I want to read it for the first time. This essay collection about being the daughter of Korean immigrants in America is snarling and nuanced, and Hong keeps making herself vulnerable on the page, wading into the thorniest of topics, including depression, family dysfunction, making art, and, of course, race. Hong made me laugh out loud—”The Korean girls were so moody they made Sylvia Plath seem as dull as CSPAN”—and the essay about Oberlin College (also my own alma mater) sent me into a delicious fugue state of memory. I want more books like this: unafraid to think through the most complicated of topics with honesty and rage, its complexity a recognition that nothing will be solved easily or assimilated into a slogan. The project is deeper and more wide reaching than that.

Midway through this strange non-year, I read a book my oldest, who is 10, loved and asked me to read: The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo. Last year, I had caught Ann Patchett’s appreciation of DiCamillo’s work in the New York Times Book Review, so I was already curious. Patchett writes:

“I couldn’t remember when I had read such a perfect novel. I didn’t care what age it was written for. The book defied categorization. I felt as if I had just stepped through a magic portal, and all I had to do to pass through was believe that I wasn’t too big to fit.”

Apparently, my son agreed about the novel’s perfection. Like Patchett, I read the book in a single evening and, like her, I felt like I’d slipped into a magical portal. The novel is about, yes, you guessed it, Edward Tulane, who is a rabbit made “almost entirely of china,” and DiCamillo’s elegant, heart-crushing tale follows him from owner to owner. He is a doll, so he has no agency, a curious premise for a fictional hero. And yet. And yet! At the outset, Edward is a detached observer of his circumstances, and doesn’t think much of them beyond feeling himself “to be an excellent specimen.” Over the course of the novel he comes into a deeper understanding of love. Many degrading things happen to this poor bunny doll—he is crucified at one point, making the symbolism quite clear—and throughout the language is simple, refined, and, like another of my favorite books, Stoner by John Williams, it’s utterly devastating in its simplicity and refinement.

Hey, look, maybe this year wasn’t a bust after all!

I haven’t even begun to cover all the books I loved (the muscular prose of Matrix by Lauren Groff, and the forthcoming Mouth to Mouth by Antoine Wilson, mischievous and sly, and the utter delight that is Good Company by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, to name a few.) Maybe it wasn’t a non-year. I’m here, aren’t I? I’m still writing. I’m about to be 41. My kids, goddess willing, are in school, two of the three of them are vaccinated.

We carry on. We read. We’ll do it again next year. Won’t we?

More from A Year in Reading 2021 (opens in a new tab)

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2020,  20192018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

A Year in Reading: Edan Lepucki

- | 6

Since mid-March, I’ve had Rayanne’s famous phrase from “My So-Called Life” running through my head: “We had a time, didn’t we?”
2020 is not a nineties teen drama, but it is adjective-defying. And because so many days resemble one another, it feels endless. It is a time.
I think of it when my five-year-old plays school, saying to her Barbies, “Can everyone hear me? Please remember to mute yourselves,” or when my nine-year-old models his blue light-blocking glasses, or when my baby throws the masks from the mask bowl all over the entryway. (A mask bowl! A bowl…of masks! This isn’t a George Saunders story! This is life now!) I think of it when we’re all dancing around the house before dinner, safe and lucky, and keenly aware of our safety and luck.
I thought of it when my husband, and then my oldest son, tested positive for the virus, and had to isolate. Halloween, my daughter’s birthday, and the Presidential Election passed with them shut away. Those were the longest and loneliest two weeks of my life. They are fine, we are fine. We are safe. We are lucky.
I thought of it when we went to the beach this summer, nearly every other weekend because what else was there to do, and I slipped into the caress of the ocean and felt legitimately healed, however briefly.
And I thought of it when we woke up and found our dog dead on the living room floor, eyes open, tongue puddling out of his open mouth.
We had a time, didn’t we?

Oh, but I’m supposed to talk about books. I read a lot of average books. And a lot of good ones, too. Through everything, save for a lost week when I obsessively refreshed the New York Times to see if they’d called Pennsylvania for Biden, I read. Books helped me get through this year.
Like everyone else, I loved The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. This novel and The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel win prizes (from me) for Best Structure. I loved sitting back and letting the chapters move from one place to the next, from one character to the next. I could live inside Brit Bennett’s rich summaries and in Emily’s spare stylish mysterious moments. Also, please, can I go stay at that eponymous glass hotel for a month? By myself? Thanks.

In the spring, I stayed up late to read all of The End We Start From by Megan Hunter in the span of a couple hours. Hunter’s debut is about an unnamed mother who must make sure she and her newborn survive a massive, end-times flood in London; because it’s a short, epigrammatic novel, I recommend consuming it in one sitting. Let it maintain its mesmerizing haunt. Dread-inducing apocalypse aside, Hunter’s descriptions of babies and the postpartum body are the best I’ve ever read. She describes milk released from engorged breasts as “honeyed pain.” I gasped in recognition.
I loved The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder, about a group of men who meet annually at some bland chain hotel to re-enact a famous football injury I could not tell you much about because I don’t even know, and don’t care to know, how football works. No matter. This novel is so funny, I laughed until I was crying (really), and it was so tender, I still occasionally think of its characters as real men I knew once. I wonder how they’re doing. The writing is daring and playful, its shifts in tone and perspective so skilled and surprising. Another sort of person might call this novel sui generis, but I don’t know how to pronounce that word, so. Please just read it.
I took Heartburn, Nora Ephron’s only novel, with me on our single vacation: a rental house in Palm Springs. It was the single most pleasurable reading experience of my year, maybe this decade. I floated on a raft in a turquoise pool in 112-degree weather, sometimes a little tipsy from a tequila-based cocktail, or high from a gigantic sugary iced coffee, and let myself be carried away by this novel, which probably everyone else but me has already read. If you are one of the few left who haven’t read it, it’s Ephron’s autobiographical novel about a food writer whose husband cheats on her when she’s pregnant. It’s got recipes, it’s got rants, it’s got Ephron’s trademark genius wit and her wry it-sucks-being-a-woman-in-hosiery perspective. I wish there were more contemporary novels like this: essentially stand-up comedy routines that will make you cry. The only thing Ephron gets wrong is capers—which the narrator claims no one actually likes. I love capers.
As the year ends, I keep returning to my most memorable reading experience. It’s branded in my mind. Thursday, March 12. I had taken my own novel manuscript, printed out and bound at Staples, to one of my favorite coffee shops to read with a red pen. I needed a cappuccino, for courage. I remember all of it vividly, not because of what I read (please, ugh, no), but because of where I was, and when: in a public space, at the cusp of quarantine. The shop was crowded, and there were no free tables, and so I had to settle for a stool at the narrow bar by the front window. I recall the cacophony of people talking, and the grinding and frothing of coffee and milks. No face masks yet, no plexiglass, no six-feet-apart. The shop had a last-day-of-school mania because we all knew what was about to happen. We had read the news. We had stopped sleeping. Our hands were scaley from washing. That day, I tried to read my book, and I couldn’t. I just drank my coffee and looked around at everyone and everything. Beneath my panic was also elegy. 
God, how I miss a crowded coffee shop.
What a time we’ve had, haven’t we?

More from A Year in Reading 2020

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 20192018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The Millions Least Anticipated: Post-Coronavirus Fiction

- | 4

For nearly four weeks now, I’ve been practicing social distancing with my husband, our three kids, and one geriatric dog who can’t hold his bladder. When I’m not homeschooling or making beans or wiping up dog urine, I’ve thought a lot about what kind of art will come out of this crisis. What fiction, specifically.

It won’t all be good.

Below are just a few transmissions from Publishing Future.

Social Distance Warrior Before the global pandemic known as Covid-19 forced her indoors with her cat Bernie, Angela Morales was a passionate community organizer who regularly marched in protests, called her senators, and went online to cancel society’s worst. Now, stuck inside with a crate of wine (thanks, Mom) and a tower of canned food (thanks, Dad), Angela is alternately scared and bored. Before she knows it, she’s engaging daily, then hourly, with her most vicious online troll, the right-wing, Incel member known only as @MarkMAGA. Is it possible, in this crisis, to become friends with your worst enemy? Maybe even more than friends? LOL funny and NSFW sexy, Social Distance Warrior shows us that opposites really do attract, especially when all you’ve got is a modem, a cat, and a steady diet of Spaghetti-O’s.

The Covid-19It’s March 2020 and the coronavirus has swept the country. Citing an abundance of caution, Giles College, a small, elite liberal arts school tucked away in the woods of New Hampshire, sends everyone home. Or almost everyone. Three college freshmen—field hockey teammates Lara and Rachel, along with their friend Manuel—defy the order and hide in the college cafeteria. There, they confess their deepest fears and secrets, have a little fun, and, of course, stress eat…thus gaining “The Covid-19.” But within a week, this once happy-go-lucky alliance begins to falter. When they discover that an enigmatic senior, Fiona F., and her English professor, Dr. Harris, are also hiding out, things take a dark turn. Haunting and delicious, suspenseful and thoughtful, The Covid-19 is The Secret History meets The Art of Fielding meets She’s Come Undone meets Wonder Boys meets The Middlesteins meets Lucky Jim meets The Breakfast Club.

The Spread

From an outdoor market in China’s Wuhan Province, to a purse-stitching factory in Milan, to an elder care facility in the suburbs of Seattle, The Spread follows the coronavirus as it proliferates across the world, caring not for borders or race, only a rapacious need to infect—and connect. This is a sweeping and searing tapestry of a portrait of an infinity pool of a novel about humanity’s vulnerability, penned by one of our greatest contemporary storytellers, where even the virus’s spiky genome is given its own consciousness and rendered in luminous yet mischievous prose. All it takes is this single continent-leaping, genre-bending novel to prove that we are all the same beautiful, fallible species with dirty hands and dirtier saliva. The Spread reminds us that what we’re most susceptible to isn’t disease…but love.

Stay-at-Home Mom

It’s been almost two years since Hannah gave up her career in publishing to raise her daughter, Olive, and three years since she put on anything besides maternity jeans. Her pelvic floor sags like a hammock and she can’t remember the last time she didn’t smell like curdled breast milk or didn’t stay up until two a.m, leaving snarky comments on various Mommy message boards. But all this seems frivolous now that she and her husband, Ben, are quarantined with Olive in their cramped Brooklyn apartment as the coronavirus brings New York to its knees. When Ben isn’t locked in the bedroom making his glitchy conference calls for work, he’s riding anxiety attacks about the state of the world and begging Hannah to don their single dingy surgical mask and gloves to pick up yet another box of Honey Nut Cheerios. With nothing to do but occupy Olive and appease Ben, Hannah feels her sanity crumbling. Then she misses her period. Faced with another possible pregnancy, she can’t stop thinking about the episiotomy she begged for when Olive was born, and which she and Ben are still paying off via their health insurance’s installment plan; how when she masturbates, she can’t get fellow BabyCenter user MomtoMaddox447 out of her head; how Olive looks so much like Ben that Hannah wants to vomit; that sometimes she imagines cutting off her own arms and legs and hoisting her bleeding torso into her rollaway suitcase and zipping it up (with her teeth) and rotting there forever. And how all this is better than her old publishing job where she was regularly expected to kiss the egomaniacal asses of Bookstagrammers who never read the novels they posed next to succulents and mugs of bone broth. What if she contracted coronavirus, just to be alone? What if she went to buy cereal and never came back? In the tradition of Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation and Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State, with a soupçon of Ali Wong’s irreverence and Cardi Bi’s social media sass, Stay-at-Home Mom is an unflinching and pitch-perfect portrayal of motherhood during our biggest contemporary crisis. Ask yourself, are you a good mom?

My Mother and Other Respirators: Stories The sparkling, foaming 12 stories about families struggling during the coronavirus crisis of 2020 shed new light on how family at once soothes and alienates. In “Shelter in Place,” Mac’s Boomer parents insist the global pandemic “will probably just blow over,” and he must grapple with their loosening grip on reality. In “I Love You, Dr. Fauci,” Meredith and her mother bond over the wise words of the disease expert until Meredith realizes her mother is having an affair with another man named Dr. Fauci, a dentist two towns over. In the title story, Darren’s mother is an ER nurse, beloved by many, except Darren himself—off duty, his mom is a real bitch. My Mother and Other Respirators is a stunning debut story collection by a wunderkind author, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a current Stegner Fellow. She was born in 1996, so she is a truly young and nubile voice, pure and virginal, her publishing hymen thoroughly intact. She was in kindergarten when 9-11 happened, so the Covid-19 virus was the first tragedy to really pierce her as an adult and her words about it are refreshing and true and will surely burst onto the scene with elan.


This novel is about a writer stuck at home during a global pandemic, trying to find value in made-up worlds and pretty sentences while hospital workers beg for personal protective equipment and the death toll rises exponentially with each passing day. The writer opens the document of the novel she was working on before Covid-19 began to spread across the world. She laughs. Closes it. She opens a new document, cursor blinking.  And blinking. She turns away. Picks up her phone. Bakes some banana bread. Cries. Looks at her phone again. The cursor is still blinking.

Book covers courtesy of Chris Daley and Canva.

A Year in Reading: Edan Lepucki

- | 1

Well, I must start and finish this essay while my mother watches my youngest child, my third, but who’s counting? (Dear God, I am!) With writing and motherhood, one is always aware of how little time there is. Writing takes time, and babies don’t give you any of it: particularly breastfed ones; they are like tiny bombs that go off approximately every two hours.

So here we go.

This third child, his name is Mickey Ocean Brown, was born in August. Before and after that I was reading voraciously. I swore off social media for all of 2019, which didn’t so much reveal endless vistas of time and encourage profound thinking, but, rather, showed me that I’m a compulsive reader: I’ve got to be reading something, anything, at all times. I’m like a slobbery Golden Retriever at its dog bowl. More, more, more! At least this year I devoured less Facebook and more, you know, real books.

And I read so many great books!

My fatigue of postapocalyptic novels ended with Severance by Ling Ma. Let me tell you, once you write a novel about the end of the world, you’re asked to blurb many others and also be on every apocalypse-related panel known to humankind. “Enough already!” I felt like shouting, around 2015. But here I am, in 2019, recommending this one. I read Ling Ma’s debut of my own volition (I admit the millennial pink cover drew me in…) and was immediately enthralled by its post-epidemic landscape: an emptied-out New York City, the desolate roads beyond, a repurposed shopping mall. I loved heroine Candace Chen’s pre-apocalypse job as production editor of bibles; I will read the prequel, Ling! I felt Candace’s longing for her mother and boyfriend as if her mournfulness were my own. I loved it.

This year I discovered two writers who have been around for some time, one so long that she is now dead. That’s Anita Brookner, whom novelist Rumaan Alam recommended in this appreciation. Brookner passed in 2016 but she thankfully left us many novels, which is astonishing when you consider that she didn’t publish her first until she was over 50. I read three Brookners this year, and my favorite was A Closed Eye. Because describing plots is boring, I’ll say that all her work seems to be about a hemmed-in life and a chance for freedom and pleasure that is always, ultimately, denied. Brookner conveys character consciousness with such clarity and depth; she reminds me a bit of Henry James in this regard. However, because her sentences are not nearly as labor-intensive, she can be read poolside and near rambunctious children without a snag.

The other writer I discovered this year is Cathleen Schine. I read They May Not Mean To, But They Do and her newest, The Grammarians. Oh what a delight it is to read Cathleen Schine! Both of these novels are about families and the pain and love and miscommunications and in-jokes and required delusions found therein. Her work is breezy without being stupid, and wise while also being very funny. I keep worrying about the matriarch of They May Not Mean To, But They Do as if she is a real person. What a feat!

I read a lot of wonderful, thought-provoking nonfiction for my podcast, Mom Rage, including On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss. I didn’t realize one could tackle the subject of vaccinations from so many vantage points; it makes sense that Biss’s father is a doctor and her mother a poet, for this book’s mix of science and poetry, of the known and ineffable, is a marvel.

On Immunity is kindred spirits with another book I read for the podcast: Flash Count Diary: Menopause and the Vindication of Natural Life by Darcey Steinke, which also looks at a single subject through many lenses. I recommend everyone read Flash Count Diary, whether you menstruate(d) or not, because there isn’t enough knowledge about (or even acknowledgment of) this big life experience that happens to so many human beings. Steinke’s book is a tapestry of history, science, poetry, scholarly work, and firsthand account. It’s beautiful and raw and brilliant. She writes:

Becoming animal. This does not mean I go feral or become base. It is not complicated. If you pay attention, you can feel animal many times a day: when you fuck, shit, breastfeed your baby, run, swim, eat, or have a hot flash. But I find it hard to sit in the void with my animal self. I want to check my phone every few minutes, to make sure I have enough soy milk for my morning coffee, to see how many people liked the picture I posted on Facebook of my cat.

This spoke to me, in 2019, as I tried not to look at
my phone—and often failed. As I pushed a baby through and out of my body and fed
him from that same body. As I sat in the void, sometimes with great discomfort.

And now I’ve got to run upstairs and feed my child. As I do so, I’ll read The Handyman by Carolyn See. Or I’ll close it to look at Mickey. More than books this year, I have read my new child. I have memorized those big blue eyes of his, his funny nostrils, that roll of fat at the back of his neck, his tiny flat thumbnails. Leaving the internet, and having another baby, and reading so much, has made me feel more private and more vulnerable. I feel softer. I feel irrelevant. I feel mysterious. I feel grateful.

A Year in Reading: Edan Lepucki


To start, a list of the books I enjoyed very, very much:

I expected to like Lydia Kiesling’s debut novel, The Golden State, not only because she is my friend, but because I only made her be my friend after reading her genius nonfiction on this very website. However, I did not like the book. That puny, superficial word doesn’t portray my experience with this powerful, singular work. Never! The novel’s anxiety-laced vulnerability, its at once mundane and urgent first person narration, was a revelation. Of course!  This is what parenting a young child is like!  The novel begins, “I am staring out the window of my office thinking about death when I remember the way Paiute smells in the early morning in the summer before the sun burns the dew off the fescue.” Its brilliance never lets up.

My favorite nonfiction book of the year was Like a Mother: A Feminist Journey Through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy by Angela Garbes. In her book, Garbes shares her personal experiences as a pregnant person and mother, and balances these with larger investigations into the history and science of reproduction, pregnancy loss, childbirth, breastfeeding, and so on. Her writing is accessible and compassionate, and filled with wonder at the miracle of the female body. (I get it! The placenta, for instance. HOLY SHIT.)  Garbes’s project takes on political weight as it becomes increasingly clear how the medical and scientific communities have ignored and/or devalued women, especially black and brown women, which is perhaps why it’s taken this long to get a book this good.

This summer I found myself about to get on a plane without a book. The horror! I ran into the nearest Hudson Gum and Magazine Store and bought the first novel that looked the least egregious. I have to admit, I wasn’t planning to read Less by Andrew Sean Greer. Sure, it won the Pulitzer, but I’d read and not cared for a previous novel of his, and the premise, about a writer trying to avoid his ex-boyfriend’s wedding by accepting every literary invitation to come his way, and thus traveling the world, sounded annoying. Writers! Who cares? Well, turns out, I do. Less was by such a delight: funny and moving, with paragraphs that made me weak. The writing made me at once jealous and full of joy. Everyone and their mom has read this book, but if you’ve resisted, please just give in and read it. Here’s a taste: Greer describes a jellyfish as  “a pink frothing brainless negligeed monster pulsing in the water.” Negligeed.  Isn’t that perfect?

For professional events, I re-read two books that I had the pleasure of reading for the blurb-industrial-complex the year before: Invitation to a Bonfire by Adrienne Celt and And Now We Have Everything by Meaghan O’Connell. Celt’s second novel takes its inspiration from Vladimir and Véra Nabokov’s famed marriage: it’s got sex, intrigue, a vicious all girls boarding school in 1920s New Jersey, and lines like, “On a budget, eggs are the perfect food, until they’re not.” It’s delicious and smart and I want HBO to adapt it into a mini-series. O’Connell’s is a collection of funny, irreverent, cry-fest-inducing essays about becoming pregnant by accident at age 29, and follows her pregnancy and the beginning of her son’s life. Yep, another motherhood book, and a necessary one. In the tradition of A Life’s Work by Rachel Cusk, And Now We Have Everything doesn’t hold a single thing back in its mission to convey the mindfuckery that is becoming a parent for the first time.

I read these and many other wonderful books in 2018 all by my lonesome: in the bath or in bed or over lunch, or, as mentioned, on an airplane. My favorite reading experience, however, occurred with another person—my son, who turned seven in June. Most of the time, since I am busy putting his sister to bed, or making school lunches, or hiding in the corner with my phone, he reads alone or with his dad. However, a few times this year, I took over. Have you recently read a chapter book to a child? Sometimes they cuddle. Sometimes they wipe their snot on your shoulder. Sometimes they pace the room as you narrate. Sometimes you have to argue about the division of labor (in our house, it’s supposed to be two pages per person, back and forth). The experience is different from reading a picture book, for there is no shared visual to comment upon; it’s a comforting alone-together feeling, each of us projecting images inside our own brains as we read from the text.

Together we’ve read Because of Winn-Dixie, and the first Harry Potter, and began the new translation of The Odyssey (but, I admit, stalled out at Book 3). My favorite book I got to read with him, though, was Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I love the beauty of the sequel, the more famous Little House on the Prairie (there is an image of the stars in the sky that pretty much ruined me…), but Wilder’s racist depiction of the Osage Indians—and the fact that the family is taking their land—is, though an important history lesson, not my favorite book to share with my kid.

Little House in the Big Woods, however, takes place in Wisconsin, before the family moves to “Indian Country” and it offers some of the same pleasures as the later, more problematic books, including detailed-yet-simple descriptions of their everyday tools and domestic duties. We learn how Ma colors the butter with some carrot-soaked milk, and how Laura and her sister Mary get a pig bladder to toss around like a ball, and how to smoke some Venison in the hollow of a tree. Wilder’s prose is clear and easy for a young reader, but it’s not without its poetry. The final paragraphs are the best thing I read all year:

“She thought to herself, “This is now.”

She was glad that the cozy house, and Pa and Ma and the fire-light and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.”

Reading these words, I recalled what it was like to be a child, to be seven again, my son’s age.  I didn’t just think about it, I felt it.

What a gift reading is.

More from A Year in Reading 2018

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

Uncomfortable Territory: The Millions Interviews Meaghan O’Connell


When my friend Amelia Morris and I decided to start a podcast about motherhood called Mom Rage, my first thought was, “We need to get Meaghan O’Connell on the show!”

O’Connell’s first book, And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready, recounts her accidental pregnancy at age 29, her harrowing birth story, and the angst and anxieties of early motherhood. She writes honestly and with humor about looking at her own body in the mirror soon after returning from the hospital, about her complicated feelings surrounding breastfeeding, and about the time she fled a library story time, unable to connect with the other moms.  When she writes, “I couldn’t figure out whether motherhood was showing me how strong I was or how weak. And which one was preferable,” I nod with recognition, and I cheer when she writes, “What if everyone worried less about giving women a bad impression of motherhood?” Meaghan is a brilliant writer. I am so glad she became a mother so that she can convey on the page all the muck of parenting that seems—while it’s actually happening to me—impossible to convey.

As hosts of Mom Rage, Amelia and I start every show sharing our own struggles and frustrations as parents, and we investigate the unfair expectations and assumptions placed on mothers. We then interview a guest: authors, healthcare professionals, and regular parents just trying their best. Meaghan fulfills two of those three categories. We talk to her in episode 4.

After our podcast conversation, which focused on parenting and her expectations for her soon-to-be-born second child, I sent Meaghan some questions via email. These were about the craft of writing a book like hers; they were my way of asking, “How did this masterpiece come to be?” She was kind enough to shed some light on her process.

The Millions: You were penning regular columns on parenting for The Cut before your memoir came out. Were you writing the memoir alongside these essays? I’m curious how the shorter work informed the book, and how writing about parenting related to parenting itself. More to the point: How does writing help you process motherhood?

Meaghan O’Connell: I was. The book came out of the regular freelance writing I was doing and then became its own, separate thing. I would have loved to only write the book but couldn’t afford to do that. So it was a year or two or three of being completely immersed in this subject, for better or worse. At the beginning it was where my brain was anyway, so it was very convenient in a sense. Like being paid to think about what I was already thinking about in the first place.

Web writing became a sort of farm team for my brain. Some of it ended up being adapted into the book; some just led to deeper thinking; some was about getting things out of my system. It was also nice to publish little things along the way, proof of life, getting to feel like I was part of the conversation, etc.

I thought writing a book would be so much more overwhelming than writing a column, but I was surprised by how much safer it felt. Just spending the time on it, in what felt like a secret document. And then the year of editing that went into it! It is overall much less terrifying than writing 1,000 words in two to three days and then seeing it online with a comments section under it. That is a different kind of fun!

Writing helps me process everything. There is a sweet spot for me with essays where I know I have a lot of ideas about something, but they’re only 60-80 percent formed, and getting to that last 20 percent can happen in the writing. Or maybe it’s just 10 percent more and you leave the rest open because certainty is a lie. That’s what’s been funny about doing interviews. If I could easily talk about this stuff in a way that is neat or cogent, I would not have needed to write a book about it.

TM: What was your process for putting this memoir together? Was each chapter considered a discrete section, planned ahead of time as a separate essay, or was it all in your head as an overall arc?

MO: Well, I will start by saying I never thought of it as a memoir! It’s certainly autobiography, and I wouldn’t argue it’s not a memoir, but the m-word has really only come up now that the book is out.

In the writing (and selling) of the book, it was always “essays.” Granted, some chapters (technically the word “chapter” is not in the book either! But I keep falling back to it, so maybe that is a tell) are more essayistic than others, meaning there is more of an attempt to figure something out, with a central question or a central idea, and others are more story-ish.

So to answer your question, there wasn’t an arc. I thought of the book as a series of distinct essays around different ideas or experiences: pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding, sex, gender roles, etc. The list was always changing, and it was never as neat as that. But still.

The structural challenge all along, though, was that the birth is a natural climax. But it couldn’t be at the end. I had a few talks with editors about putting it at the beginning. It wasn’t supposed to matter whether it was chronological. Part of me wanted everything out of order.

But then you write all these words, and I really wanted it to feel like a cohesive BOOK, not just a bunch of essays “packaged” as a book as a career move (you know the sort of book I mean). I wanted it to be its own world. I wanted it to be propulsive. Or I was afraid to want this and resisted it, feeling it beyond me, until I sent the first draft to my editor. I got the sort of feedback that you dread but more so because you know it’s true, that you have work to do, that it’s not quite there yet, etc.

The trick for this particular book was how to have each essay/chapter have a mini-resolution but not enough of one where the book loses momentum. It also took me a long time to figure out how to end it in a way that could carry all the emotional weight that came before but not be false or too tidy or undermining. I think at one point I literally Googled “suspense.” I was semi-resentful initially at having to even think about this stuff—what was I, a fiction writer?—but really, I was just in uncomfortable territory, doing something I didn’t know how to do yet.

Then one day on a walk it came to me as almost a revelation: I could structure the last chapter the same way I did the pregnancy chapter (“Holding Patterns”)—short, numbered sections written in the present tense. This form can feel like a cheat to me, and I think people use it when it isn’t justified, so I hesitated. But when I realized it would solve the bigger problem—of resolution and suspense and so on—I just went for it. It wasn’t as simple as cutting the last few paragraphs of every essay that came before and adding them to this last one, but in many cases that’s exactly what I did. And it still feels like a cheat, but I think it works enough to not matter. I don’t know how else I would have solved the structure of the book.

TM: What books on motherhood and parenting did you look to as you were writing yours? I certainly felt a spiritual connection to Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work, which you quote in the epigraph: “Oh dear, they say. Poor baby. They do not mean me.” I’m curious what other books lit your path, and why they spoke to you.

MO: Well, once I started writing mine I actively avoided reading anything too similar, but I read them all already and had the books sort of ringing in my head, spurring me on.

I read all of Rachel Cusk’s other books, for instance. And Maggie Nelson’s. I remember reading a passage in The Red Parts that unlocked something for me—I’m looking through the book now and nothing jumps out, and I don’t even remember what I took away from it. What I remember and miss now, being out of that stage of the writing process, was the feeling of something being unlocked. It was always a little beyond language, just a sense of possibility, a door opening in my brain after I’d been hitting a wall. Despondency giving way to hope.

I read a lot of Sylvia Plath, which I guess is funny. Her journals, her poetry. Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman, which is a genius book. Then a lot Anne Sexton poetry. I also read Knausgaard. Book 5 and then reread Book 2.

I mean if Sylvia Plath can write Ariel and if Knausgaard can write My Struggle…

As a person, I am self-conscious and shy and I second-guess myself, but as a writer I am trying to break out of that, to be unabashed and unapologetic (about being abashed and apologetic) in a way I wish I could be in life. I think I turned to writers who really know how to wield and twist the knife, to remind myself that in this realm, I can be that way, too.

TM: It feels like we’ve gotten some terrific mother-centric literature in the past few years. Moms are really enjoying some cultural relevance right now!  Any hypotheses of why that is?

MO: I could answer this a dozen different ways and none would be the full picture. But from a publishing perspective—maybe the least interesting but most straightforward way to look at this?  My theory is that there were a few breakout hits three to five years ago and we are currently in the next wave of that. Of bigger houses acquiring books that might have seemed like more of a risk before Graywolf published The Argonauts (2015) and On Immunity (2014), for instance. A book of personal essays by an unknown entity about something “ordinary” is a hard sell in publishing, but it’s maybe easier than it’s ever been? Again, look to 2014: Graywolf published the breakout Empathy Exams and Harper Perennial published Bad Feministin an interview for Scratch, Roxane Gay said her advance for that book was $15,000.

I also remember the rave New York Times review for Elisa Albert’s After Birth, written by the inimitable Merritt Tierce, as a particular MOMENT. That was March 2015.

2014 was the year I had my son. So all of this was happening as I started writing my own book. Whether writing about this stuff was respectable, or intellectual, or ART, felt like less of a question than it had ever been. I imagine other writers had the same experience.

TM: Because this is The Millions, I must ask: What’s the last great book you read?

MO: Well, this being The Millions, I have a very relevant answer: Lydia Kiesling’s forthcoming novel, The Golden State. I love the voice and prose style so much, I could have stayed swimming in it forever. It’s the perfect mix of bleak and funny and angry and desperate and tender. Also motifs such as string cheese, cigarettes, small-town restaurants, road trips, work emails—I JUST LOVED IT.

For more about Mom Rage, be sure to access all the episodes here.

A Year in Reading: Edan Lepucki

- | 1

The last couple of months or so, I’ve taken a break from the Internet—or as much as I’m able to. Writing this piece feels a bit like yelling to you from across an enormous canyon filled with photos of latte art and babies and feminist slogans etched across coffee mugs in millennial pink. There is despair, too, and hourly screeds. There is so much suffering. Every day there is another story about a powerful man “asking” for a massage, or for a date, or if he can masturbate in front of you. There are Twitter rants that might lead to nuclear war. There are also, probably, puns about Charles Manson’s death. Are there? I don’t know because I haven’t checked. It feels good not to know.

2017 is the year I decided that the human brain can’t thrive if all it does is absorb a never-ending stream of information. It’s also the year I began to occasionally wake before dawn so that I could sit in silence with a book and read. It was a gift I gave myself. It has saved me in an era that seems intent on doing the very opposite.

I loved Jane Smiley’s The Last Hundred Years trilogy, which starts in 1920 and ends in 2020 and concerns a farming family in Denby, Iowa. I realize this description put you to sleep it sounds so boring, but trust me, you will be stunned by how skillfully Smiley compresses a year per chapter, and slips from character to character, finding the epic in the intimate. In her hands, newborn babies and a war sniper turned spy and an elderly woman on her deathbed all enjoy particular, vivid ways of seeing the world. In his appreciation for her novels, Rumaan Alam wrote, “I like to imagine that Jane Smiley has reached her don’t give a fuck phase.” I think Rumaan is onto something; this is an audacious trilogy.

Because the last book, Golden Age, ends three years from now, in an imagined America, Smiley’s trilogy is also a sneaky work of speculative fiction. So too is Golden Days by Carolyn See, about a twice-divorced mother in her late 30s renting a house in Topanga for herself and her two daughters. It’s the 1980s, and the writing is wry and sharp, and you can feel the despair trying to nudge into every paragraph. Much of the novel is about our heroine’s renewal: a self-help convention, reuniting with an old best friend, her daughters’ absurd, moneyed private school. But when a nuclear event occurs in some far-off country (the details are fuzzy), the book shifts into the post-apocalyptic and we are taken from swanky westside interiors to a small group of survivors, their skin charred, then healing and itching, as they crawl toward the ocean. This is a bonkers, life-affirming book about the end of the world.

I plan to read all of See’s books. So far, I’ve also read her novel Rhine Maidens, about mother-daughter dysfunction with a delicious mean streak that hides, and then emphasizes, its characters’ fragility and pain. (It also partially takes place in cow-shit-smelling Coalinga, Calif., and does so with such wicked derision.) Carolyn See died last year, but she’s left us with a powerful oeuvre of fiction and nonfiction about life in Southern California. It’s strange, and exhilarating, to discover her influence on my own work.

Dark times call for dark books, which is why I’ve continued to be drawn to noir crime fiction. I continued last year’s study of Ross MacDonald with The Galton Case, an impeccable example of the genre, and the best of his novels, plot-wise, that I’ve encountered so far. After reading Megan Abbott’s essay about In a Lonely Place by Dorothy Hughes, I sought out the new edition published by the New York Review Books. Told from the perspective of a serial killer in 1940s Los Angeles and dripping with paranoia, In a Lonely Place reads like a Patricia Highsmith novel set in the Spanish bungalow apartments between Beverly Hills and West Hollywood. It’s also a chilling display of how, as Abbott puts it, “trauma connects to gender and a dangerously beset masculinity—and how it can explode into sexual violence.” An appropriate tale for our times.

My favorite novel published this year was Danzy Senna’s New People, about a young, biracial couple, Maria and Khalil, in 1990s Brooklyn (“Their skin is the same shade of beige,” Senna writes). It’s really about Maria’s unraveling, and it tackles big topics like race and identity with a comic sensibility that discomfits and complicates. It’s also funny. (Here’s a good line: “But she didn’t really feel it was rape. It was more like inserting a tampon.”) Reading it was a balm after one too many afternoons reading progressives on Twitter (my tribe!) swap sanctimonious judgments. There’s a suspenseful, breath-holding scene of Maria pretending to be the nanny for a woman, and baby, she’s never met. There’s a cringe-inducing flashback to a prank-turned-accidental-hate-crime. As with life, there is hilarity. There is also pain. The two often overlap.

Hey you!  Can you hear me across the canyon?  These are all terrific books! Drop your cell phone in the closest dumpster and read them!

More from A Year in Reading 2017

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

Great Art Doesn’t Just Happen: The Millions Interviews Bill Goldstein


Bill Goldstein and I met in the spring of 2014 at Ucross, an artists’ retreat in Wyoming. Our studios were actually quite far from each other but we became fast friends in part because we shared the same work schedule: every morning we’d meet in the quiet kitchen for a pre-dawn breakfast, both of us eager to get to our desks before procrastination could claim the day. A lot of the time we joked around; my coffee was always sludgy with grounds, Bill said, and I would remark on his debonair bathrobe-and-pajamas combo. Other times we talked novels. Bill not only hosts a segment about books on NBC’s Weekend Today in New York, he also went back to school a few years ago to get a PhD in literature, and we’d often sit for longer than planned chatting about Edith Wharton or a contemporary novel we loved. Sometimes we would discuss our works in progress. While I was wrestling with my second novel, Bill was writing a literary history of 1922, specifically, the creative and personal lives of Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, and E.M. Forster. His studio was filled with books about these figures, and I knew that before coming to Ucross he had dug into primary sources at many libraries and archival centers; his book struck me as so much more expansive than mine, and I enjoyed hearing about it. Sometimes one of us would have a breakthrough with our writing. Other days, we were made miserable by a bad paragraph or uncooperative chapter. I distinctly remember Bill worrying he’d never complete what he had begun.

Well, he didn’t have to worry: The World Broke in Two: Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster, and the Year that Changed Literature was published last month, receiving praise from such varied publications as The Times Literary Supplement, People, and The New York Times Book Review. I myself tore through the book in just a few days. I loved it. Bill renders this history vivid, compelling, and even dishy. It made me want to re-read The Waste Land and seek out D.H. Lawrence’s novel Kangaroo. It inspired me to return to my (lately neglected) third novel.

It also made me grateful for my own literary friendship with Bill. All of our sprawling, funny, and thought-provoking conversations in Wyoming informed my work and helped me to clarify my aesthetic intentions; I’d like to think that in some minuscule way I was involved in the making of The World Broke in Two. Bill was kind enough to continue our conversation here for The Millions; he answered these questions via email.

The Millions: As someone who only writes fiction and the occasional personal essay, I’m interested in the process of writing biography. It strikes me as such a daunting and mysterious task! How do you shape all this history into a compelling—and, perhaps more importantly, intimate—narrative? Tell me about your process. How did you go about researching this material, and then organizing it?

Bill Goldstein: I wouldn’t say I was aware that it was going to be either or both of those things while I was working, or even that I was consciously shaping it to be that. The editing process is so different from the writing and the researching (and the researching, at least for me, was so much easier than the writing). I think, at least from the evidence of what my own main subjects were dealing with in 1922, that one thing writers of fiction and nonfiction have in common is the difficulty and anxiety of writing. Poets, too—because I think T.S. Eliot said it most succinctly, when he wrote to a friend in December 1921, just before The Waste Land began to take its final shape, “I do not know whether it will work.” (Being Eliot, he wrote it in French—“Je ne sais pas si ça tient.” I think he turned to French for that one sentence in the letter because it was too frightening to say it in English, and yet he had to confide it to someone.) This was just before he went to Paris, in January 1922, and began to edit, with Ezra Pound’s help, what had been nearly 1,000 lines of poetry into the poem half that length that was published at the year’s end. At almost the same time, Virginia Woolf was editing Jacob’s Room, her first unadulteratedly modern novel, into its final form, and was worried that it was only “sterile acrobatics.”

So much of my book is about my main subjects’ insecurity about what they are working on, and their absolute despair that they will be able to do the work they want to do. Whether they will achieve their artistic goals—or whether, physically, they will be able to finish the work. I loved that Virginia Woolf, just before her 40th birthday in January 1922, wrote to E.M. Forster that writing was like heaving bricks over a wall—she had a severe case of influenza—but also cautioned him that even though she was about to turn 40, he must count her only 35 because she had spent so much time sick in bed.

But finding lines like that is why the research is the best part of biography. Also because the process is comparatively straightforward, as opposed to the writing or editing. I spent a lot of time in libraries and archives, and it is just wonderful to be able to go through original letters, diaries, manuscripts—you’re actually holding them, and that’s thrilling in and of itself —but then you always convince yourself (and you’re right) that you must look at more. My focus is pretty specifically 1922, but I found so many important things looking in later and earlier archival material. So much depended on how much time you had in any one place. I was lucky enough to have a fellowship at the Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, where I researched for two months. You don’t have to do the same kind of triage as when you are in a place for only a few days or a week. The New York Public Library was a similarly endless resource, and luckily I live here. You gather this enormous amount of stuff, and then you have to cut most of it.

In terms of writing and editing, I found that the thing I most resisted, but in the end most depended on, was simply chronology. You’d think that in the story of a year that would be obvious! But that is somewhat alien to my digressive mind, and I learned I had to keep the story as chronologically clear as possible, and that involved, in the editing, sometimes working paragraph by paragraph. If one paragraph did not follow logically from the previous one, and I was spending too much time working on a transition that inevitably became too baroque or abstract—I gave up, basically, and cut it. It only took me several years, and imminent deadlines, to sharpen my mind that way.

I think one thing nonfiction writers can do that is perhaps harder for novelists is that whole chapters can move around—they are much more discrete than chapters in a novel, I would imagine. I don’t know that novelists write in order—I certainly didn’t—but then once I got back to the chronology, I could find the place for things I had drafted, or I could cut. The chapters fit into place because of the time period they covered. Though I remember once many years ago interviewing Ann Beattie, who said that in writing her novel Love Always she didn’t want to “tell a story chronologically.” She wrote the novel in pieces, and when she had finished all the chapters, she spread them on the floor of her living room and re-assembled them “like pieces in a puzzle.” What “foiled” her, she said, was “having to fix it technically, to go back and revise the chronology.”

Talk about losing myself in research—I just went back and looked up the interview.

TM: Was there any sweet little piece of history that you couldn’t fit into the book?

BG: Do you know the phrase l’esprit d’escalier? Literally, the spirit of the staircase? What you think of saying to someone only after the conversation has ended, some caustic or brilliant reply that only comes to you when you’re on your way out—dramatically—down the stairs? When I do my TV segment, I almost always think more of what I should have said, what I wanted to say, than I do of what I did say. So, in terms of the book—most of what I wanted to get in I had to leave out. I feel almost as much despair now about all that I couldn’t use as I did when I was trying to organize all my research notes into a draft. But there are two quotes I tried to fit in, moving them from place to place, and they just never fit. One was a line of Clive Bell’s to his mistress Mary Hutchinson. Clive Bell was married to Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf’s sister. He admired T. S. Eliot’s poetry but did not warm to him as a person. Mary, on the other hand, was close to Eliot, was very sympathetic to him in the many financial and marital struggles that in 1922, as at other times, consumed his life (and which made their way into The Waste Land). I think Clive liked to tease her with his barbs about Eliot, a kind of literary foreplay, almost. Eliot published The Waste Land in late 1922, but also spent a lot of time that year working on the first issue of The Criterion, a literary magazine he inaugurated that year (and which he edited in one form or another until 1939). Eliot wrote the prospectus for the magazine in the summer, and Clive, as he often was, was dubious of Eliot’s efforts. When the prospectus arrived, he wrote to Mary that the morning post brought many letters, “all, except yours, very dull—bills for the most part.” One of the very dull things she had likely seen herself: “the prospectus of The Criterion on which most unluckily, though perhaps prophetically, a swallow shat before I had time to read it. You will lend me your copy I dare say.”

The other quote was one of E.M. Forster’s. He read Woolf’s Jacob’s Room in late 1922, and wrote her a beautiful letter about how ecstatically he read it, and what a profound an effect it had on him and, he thought, on the work (A Passage to India) that he was trying then to do. I quote the letter at length. It just didn’t fit to have the wonderful kind of P.S. that he offered to a friend, more traditional than he was, to whom he recommended it highly, but with a caution: “Good. Very very very very very very very—modern.”

TM: You rely on diaries and personal letters to provide insight into these writers’ careers and domestic situations. There are some real gems here. For instance, D.H. Lawrence remarks that the people in Ceylon would be as “beshitten” there as anywhere else on “this slippery ball of quick-silver of a dissolving world.” In her diary, Virginia Woolf describes an evening spent with T.S. Eliot; he was, “sardonic, guarded, precise, & slightly malevolent, as usual.” Can you describe what it was like to interact with these personal papers? Did reading correspondence or private writings alter your understanding of these writers, or even change the course of the book as you might have first imagined it?

BG: Yes, and yes. When you write a nonfiction book, you usually write a proposal first, for your agent and prospective publishers. That, of course, takes years of work (or at least it did for me). You have to do a lot of research, but in researching that, I relied on published material—Virginia Woolf’s complete letters and diaries are published, and Lawrence’s letters too. But when I began working most of Eliot’s letters of the period were still unpublished, and most of Forster’s letters (and his diaries) were also unpublished. You don’t know, of course, what you don’t have, or even whether you will find it or if it still exists. I knew the story of 1922 I wanted to tell, and knew that there was a story in these people’s lives that I could tell by focusing on one narrow bit of time in which they did important work. A story that by necessity the definitive biographies of all of these people could not tell because they had whole lives to encompass. Each of them had a little about 1922, of course.

I knew the story, then—of Woolf, for example, writing “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street” in the spring of 1922, the story that by the end of the year gives rise to Mrs. Dalloway; of Forster’s picking up his “Indian fragment” (which becomes A Passage to India) after nearly a decade. In the same way, I knew where Eliot and Lawrence began and ended the year. In the book, the story is the same—the stories, I suppose I should say—but the details are almost completely different from what I’d planned. What I hadn’t counted on was the range of unpublished material by them and about them. The fact that Woolf’s diaries and letters, and Lawrence’s letters, for example, have been published in complete editions obscures the other salient fact—that so much private writing by and about my subjects is available in archives and libraries and has not been published. There’s so much of Eliot’s correspondence and Forster’s that hasn’t been collected yet, and it was all a revelation to me, including much that they wrote later that revealed essential aspects of 1922, and their work—and their private lives—in that period. Even more thrilling for me—because finding it all was completely unexpected—were the diaries and letters of the people who knew my main subjects extremely well, and either loved or loathed them or both. That was a perspective I never thought to have, and discovering them provided me with some of the most juicy and insightful and bitchy and jaundiced raw material (see Clive Bell’s letters to Mary Hutchinson; and there are hundreds of them at the Ransom Center). The trouble, then, was that I had more than I could ever use—which brings us back to the editing paragraph by paragraph. My editor, Gillian Blake, had a very help suggestion (really, directive)—quotations should be ornaments. Perhaps that’s something every editor says—but it related very specifically to a dilemma my drafts posed to both of us, and that advice helped me enormously.

One other thing about working in these archives is the thrill of holding the original letters. You’re looking for particular things, of course, and you get so used to moving quickly through the papers. Sometimes I would have to scan letters looking only for capital letters—to see if any of my subjects were mentioned. And then every so often you just stop yourself in awe and realize, these are Virginia Woolf’s letters! This is her paper, her ink, she wrote this—it’s not a facsimile. The same thing with drafts. You are holding Eliot’s typescript. You are holding D.H. Lawrence’s notebooks. At the Ransom Center they have Virginia Woolf’s copy of A Passage to India inscribed to her by Forster. And Ezra Pound’s copy of The Waste Land, in which he made not one single pencil notation, unfortunately.

The challenge, I think, is to convey some of the excitement in the book.

TM: I read The World Broke in Two on vacation, far from my writing desk, and by the time I was done, I was thinking a lot about my new book, eager to get back to it. Part of that is due to reading about these brilliant writers and their artistic processes, challenges, and goals. I loved learning about Woolf’s interests in depicting human consciousness, and how inspired she was by Marcel Proust. I’ve read a lot of Forster but didn’t know much about what was happening in his personal life as he returned to the book that would become A Passage to India. And then there’s Eliot, struggling to finish The Waste Land, take care of his ailing wife, and go to work as a banker, a job that demoralized him and caused him great anxiety. Last, we’ve got D.H. Lawrence, giving himself the challenge to start and finish a draft of a novel in six weeks. These could be writers I know personally, in 2017! I felt a connection between their artistic struggles and passions and my own, which was exhilarating. Was that your intention, or was that simply an intriguing part of these writers’ lives that you couldn’t help but focus on, being a fellow writer yourself? Did their processes echo your own, as you worked on your book?

BG: I struggled for a long time with the book, as we’ve discussed. It took me over six years to finish it. And practically every day as I wrote I was immersed in these writers’ despair (which eventually becomes triumph in one way or another by the end of 1922). And I kept thinking of my own difficulties, “But they are Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence and E. M. Forster! Who am I?” It was comforting on the one hand and intimidating on the other. I mean, what right did I have to struggle? The end result was not going to Mrs. Dalloway or The Waste Land. But at least I had a much smaller goal!

I was talking to a friend just after I was finished with the book. He works in politics but admits he is really a struggling screenwriter. When he said something about how hard it was to do it, and even to find the time, I told him about what Woolf, et al were going through in 1922. He said, “Most people think great art just happens—but it doesn’t.” I think that’s what my book is about. It helps goad you forward, at least a little, to know that whatever struggle you are having with your writing doesn’t indicate, by itself, that you are doing bad work or aren’t a good writer. You can recognize you are not Woolf, Forster, Eliot or Lawrence, and still try to do your work.

TM: You have a PhD in English and you’ve written this literary history of 1922. But you’re also very much part of today’s book culture: you host “Bill’s Books” where you review contemporary work, and you were the founding editor of The New York Times books website. I’m curious how it felt, to be immersed in two literary worlds, past and present. What feels different? What feels similar? Do we have modern day counterparts to these brilliant minds? (And who is our modern-day James Joyce—arrogant, uncouth, genius?)

BG: It was a relief to move between the past and the present. I mean, each was an escape from the other, though of course having to do so much work in the real world leaves you less time for writing. But if you don’t earn money, you can’t write. It’s not a new dilemma. Forster put it wonderfully (and sadly) about his own journalism, which he was doing in part to distract himself from his failure at his novel: “How fatuous!…Always working never creating.” So much is the same, or at least we seem to feel the same way about some things as the writers in my book felt then—overwhelmed by their own work (of course), but also, as Woolf, who was also a publisher of the Hogarth Press, felt, simply by the number of books published. She made fun of the sheer number of books published, and the hype about them (that’s not the word they used then, but she describes the same machinery for it, both from the publisher’s side, creating it, or trying to, and the public’s side, the press’s side, trying to make sense of it). She wrote an article in 1922 decrying this very thing, part of which was trying to understand what her own place was in that universe, not only as a publisher, but as a writer—where would her own work fit in? How would Jacob’s Room make its way in that world? It was the start of her trying to figure out what role the “common reader” plays in making an audience for a writer—but also a posterity for a writer? Would she be read in later years? She could barely see her way to finishing the work she was doing—but still she was anxious about whether she and it would have a posterity. She and Leonard Woolf conducted a mock debate for the BBC in 1927 about whether too many books were being published. The text survives, but not a recording, unfortunately.

As for who is like Joyce—two things. One, I love that you’re quoting Clive Bell’s reaction to him when they met in Paris in 1921, which is from one of his letters to Mary Hutchinson, and which I think he also shared with Virginia Woolf and which influenced her own sense of him as a person (she and Joyce never met) and more vitally as the writer of Ulysses. And two—I think I know too few writers well enough to answer your question. I only know the nicest ones.

TM: Since this is The Millions, I must ask you, what’s the last great book you read?

BG: You mean other than Woman No. 17? I recently read and liked Pachinko by Min Jin Lee; Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout; and My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent (in alphabetical and chronological order, conveniently enough). The last great book I reread is Mrs. Dalloway.

31 Writer Dreams: A List

- | 7

By the time September rolls around, the publicity cycle for my latest novel, Woman No. 17, will be over. That means, unless something totally unexpected happens for the book, there won’t be any more press opportunities. It’s a little sad (Wait? It’s over? I’m already yesterday’s news?!) and also: Phew, what a relief. As anyone who’s published a book knows, the process can make you feel exposed and vulnerable. You’re fragile. Your ego is in overdrive, as is your shame. Once a friend of mine was interviewed on Fresh Air about his novel. I was like, “OH MY GOD! YOU TALKED TO TERRY GROSS! ARE YOU DYING OF HAPPINESS?” He shook his head. He said he’d been doing a lot of weeping. I understood his pain; even when my first novel was a bestseller lauded by a famous TV host, I felt weird and confused. Publishing doesn’t feel like writing does, and no matter how your book’s doing, you kind of just want to crawl into a cave and pretend it isn’t happening.

Since Woman No. 17 has been published, I’ve wondered what would have to occur for me to feel 100 percent satisfied with the book’s performance and reception.

Here’s what I came up with:

1.The book is a New York Times Bestseller for at least eight weeks in a row, but preferably 767 weeks in a row.

2. My Amazon ranking vacillates between #1 and #2 for those 767 weeks.

3. Oprah calls.

4. Terry Gross wants to interview me, and on Fresh Air we have a super deep conversation about my upbringing and my writing process that’s better than any therapy. Plus, I make her laugh twice. “Thanks for having me, Terry,” I say in a smoky, wise voice.

5. There’s a Triple Crown situation that throws the literary world in a tizzy: the book wins the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Pulitzer Prize. Someone stuffy writes an essay about my wins, which basically boils down to: “Since when did FUN books win awards?”

6. I’m asked to pose in a couture gown, holding a baby goat, for a profile in Vogue.

7. I do events across the nation, all of them packed to the gills, and there is not a single person in the audience asking me to read their as-yet-unpublished paranormal romance.

8. It’s named a best book of the year by every publication that makes lists of best books of the year.

9. The Los Angeles Times decides to review it.

10. My husband pours me a glass of wine (Vinho Verde, maybe?), and begs me to read some of my writing aloud to him, just so he can “hear the words pour over my soul.”

11. It’s adapted for the screen in a collaboration by Nicole Holofcener, Christopher Nolan, and Jill Soloway. Reese Witherspoon is definitely involved, and she keeps texting me, just to say hi. We send Bitmojis back and forth. (Cue to me chuckling privately every time my phone dings.)

12. The movie-version is a huge hit and I get to go to the Oscars and the Globes, where I befriend Chrissy Teigen and Terrence Malick.

13. My daughter realizes I’m an Important Author and stops throwing her smoothie across the room with an evil cackle.

14. Stephen King tweets rapturously about my writing. Lauren Groff retweets his tweet and adds something like, “Oh. My. God. SAME!”

15. I’m invited to do a Beauty Uniform, House Tour, and a Week of Outfits on Cup of Jo. However, it turns out readership for all blogs has gone down in recent weeks, because everyone is too busy reading my book to look at their phones.

16. The Obamas are photographed on vacation somewhere and Michelle’s got my book under one of her perfectly toned arms. When asked about it, she says, “Oh Barry said I had to read it.”

17. My book, or my name, appears in a New York Times Crossword Puzzle. I’m thinking something like, “2 across, four letters, American Author, _____ Lepucki”

18. All of my former lovers find ways to tell me they’ve never forgotten about my miraculous pussy. This is done in a non-creepy, non-threatening manner. (Maybe friends of friends tell me? Or: One of them (the rich one) hires a sky-writer above Malibu?)

19. No one ever spells my name Eden ever again.

20. I’m invited on The Ellen DeGeneres show. She and I do a little dance routine together in matching white suits and Converse.

21. The New Yorker reaches out. Can I write 200 words about Ocean Isle Beach, or chocolate rugelach, or Negronis, or unicycles, for their upcoming issue? Of course, they’ll take a short story if I have one ready.

22. The Iowa Writers’ Workshop calls to apologize for never offering me a Teaching-Writing Fellowship.

23. That mean British lady who reviewed my first novel on NPR issues a formal apology for not understanding how essential my work is to the next generation of writers and readers.

24. The next generation of writers and readers—in their jean-shorts that show their butt cheeks, with their mysterious internet acronyms—photograph my book with crystals, with bowls of cherries, with pottery they threw themselves. They post these photos with various hashtags, #edanlepucki #thenextjoandidion #butreally #read #it #now, and tag me.

25. My son tells me it’s fine if I go away for book events and artist retreats because he finally understands how difficult it is to be a writer and a mother. He also stops asking me to wipe his butt after he’s “tried” to wipe it himself.

26. George Saunders emails. He has my 2004 application to Syracuse’s MFA program in front of him. He knows they rejected me then, but would I want to come now? Full scholarship, etc.

27. Everyone who reads this list goes out and buys my novel.

28. In the rare event that someone posts a one-star review of the book on Goodreads, an angel dies somewhere. The reviewer understands this angel-loss intuitively. Also, physically: there is a loud, uncomfortable buzzing in their left ear, then a pain in the gut, possibly diarrhea, followed by a loss of hope more extreme than anything felt on November 9, 2016. They decide to re-read Woman No. 17 and it’s on this second read that they get it, the book is actually, really, truly good! Four stars!

29. The Trump pee tape is finally released. It turns out the women are pissing on a copy of my novel.

30. My mom calls to tell me I’m her favorite.

31. Time stops—literally stops moving forward—until everyone has read my book, and loved it, and told me so, and all my suffering is erased forever and ever amen.

Modest dreams, no?

Image: Envy Plucking the Wings of Fame, Wikimedia

You Can’t Go Wrong With Heart: The Millions Interviews Jami Attenberg

- | 6

I’d been hearing about Jami Attenberg’s latest novel, All Grown Up, long before it went on sale. Early readers loved it, and their praise produced a kind of roar across the Internet, one full of joy and ferocity. People were grateful for this story and this character: Andrea Bern, a single woman who doesn’t have kids, and doesn’t want them. When I finally got my hands on a copy, I saw what everyone was talking about; Andrea is like so many women I know, and yet, she is unlike most female characters in fiction. She is also more than her demographic (as we all are). Through a series of droll but big-hearted and compassionate vignettes, Attenberg depicts a profound and authentic portrait of a woman as she moves through this beautiful yet often unjust world. In All Grown Up, there is joy, loneliness, pleasure, despair, grief, hope, frivolity, and matters of great import.

Jami Attenberg is The New York Times bestselling author of five other books, including The Middlesteins and Saint Mazie. She was kind enough to answer my questions via email.

The Millions: All Grown Up is told in a series of vignettes about Andrea’s life — there’s one terrific, pithy chapter early on, for instance, called, simply, “Andrea,” about how everyone keeps recommending the same book about being single. There are a few chapters about Andrea’s friend Indigo: in one she gets married, in another she has child, and so on. Some are about Andrea’s dating life, and others focus on her family. I’m curious about how working within this structure affected your understanding of Andrea herself, seeing as she comes into focus story by story, but not in a traditional, chronological way. I also wonder what you want the reader to feel, seeing her from these various angles, some of which overlap, while others don’t.

Jami Attenberg: I made a list — I wish I could find it now; it’s in a notebook somewhere — of all these different parts of being an adult. For example: your relationship with your family, your career, your living situation, etc. And then I created story cycles around them, and often they were spread out over decades. As an example: what Andrea’s apartment was like when she was growing up versus how she felt about her apartment as an adult in her late 20s versus her late 30s, and how those memories informed her feelings of safety and security and space. A sense of home is a universal topic. And then eventually more relevant, nuanced parts of a specifically female adulthood emerged as I wrote, and little cycles formed around those subjects. So the writing of this book in terms of structure was really an accrual of these cycles.

The goal was to tell the whole truth about this character, and why she had become the person she was — the adult she was, I guess — so that she could understand it/herself, and move on from it. The fact that it’s not linear is true to the story of our lives. The moments that inform our personalities come at us at different times. If you were to make a “What Makes Me the Way I Am” top 10 list in order of importance, there’s no way it would be in chronological order. And to me they’re all connected. I’d hope readers see some of their own life challenges in her, and if not her, in some of the other characters, even if they happen at different times. Everything keeps looping around again anyway. (We can’t escape our pasts, we are doomed to repeat ourselves, we are our parents, etc.)

TM: In my mind, and likely in the minds of others, you lead an ideal “writer’s life” — you’re pretty prolific, for one, and you also don’t teach. You now live in two places: New Orleans and New York City — which seems chic and badass to me. Plus you have a dog with the perfect under bite! Can you talk a little about your day-to-day life as an artist, and what you think it’s taken (besides, say, the stars aligning), to get there? Any advice for writers who want to be like you when they’re all grown up?

JA: It took me a long time to figure out what would make me happy, and this existence seems to be it, for a while anyway. I’m 45 now, and I started planning for this life a few years ago, but before then I had no vision except to keep writing, and that was going to be enough for me. Then, after my third winter stay in New Orleans, I realized I had truly fallen in love with the city. And then I had a dream, an actual adult goal. I had two cities I loved, and I wanted to be in both. So it has meant a lot to me to get to this place. I worked so hard to get here! I continue to work hard. No one hands it to you, I can tell you that much, unless you are born rich, which I was not, and even then that’s just money, it’s not exactly a career. And I think the career part, the getting to write and be published and be read part, is the most gratifying of all. Unless success is earned it is not success at all.

My day-to-day life is wake, read, drink coffee, walk the dog, say hi to my neighbors, come home, be extremely quiet for hours, write, read, look at the Internet, eat, walk the dog, have a drink, freak out about the state of America, and have some dinner, maybe with friends. Soon I’ll be on tour for two months, and that will be a whole different way of living, though still part of my professional life. But when I am writing, it is a quiet and simple existence in which I take my work seriously. I have no advice at all to anyone except to keep working as hard as you possibly can.

TM: I’ve always loved the sensuality of your writing. Whether the prose is describing eating, or having sex, or simply the varied textures of life in New York City, we are with your characters, inside their bodies.  What is the process for you, in terms of inhabiting a character’s physical experience? Does it happen on the sentence level, or as you enter the fictive dream, or what?

JA: Well thank you, Edan. I’m a former poet, for starters, so I’m always looking to up the language in a specific kind of way. I certainly close my eyes and try to be in the room with a character, and inside their flesh as well, I suppose. I write things to turn myself on. Even my bad sex scenes are in a strange way arousing to me, even if it’s just because they make me laugh. It’s all playtime for me.

All of this kind of thinking comes in the early stages but also in my final edits of the second draft.  Most of the lyricism of the work is done before I send the book out to my editor. Her notes to me address the nuts and bolts of plot and architecture, and often also emotions and character motivation. But the language, for the most part, she leaves to me.

TM: My favorite relationship in the novel is between Andrea and her mother. It’s loving and comforting even though there are also real tensions and conflicts between them. Can you talk about creating a nuanced, and thus realistic, portrayal of mother and daughter?

JA: It is also my favorite relationship! I could write the two of them forever. I am satisfied with the book as it stands but would still love to write a chapter where the two of them go to the Women’s March together, and Andrea’s mother knits her a pussy hat and Andrea doesn’t want to wear it because she only ever wears black. I have pages and pages of dialogue between them that I never used but wrote anyway just because they were fun together, or fun for me the author, but maybe not fun between the two of them.

Their relationship really comes from living in New York City for 18 years and watching New York mothers and daughters together out in the world and just channeling that. These characters are very much a product of eavesdropping. I try to approach these kinds of family relationships like this: everyone is always wrong and everyone is always right. Like their patterns and emotions are already so ingrained that there’s no way out of it except through, because no one will ever win. But also there is love. Always there is love. And that’s how I know they’ll make it to the other side.

TM: This novel has so many terrific female characters, who are at once immediately recognizable (sort of like tropes of contemporary womanhood, if that makes sense) and also unique. Aside from Andrea and her mother, there is Andrea’s sister-in-law, Greta, a once elegant and willowy magazine editor who is depleted (spiritually and otherwise) by her child’s illness; Indigo, ethereal yoga teacher turned rich wife and mother, and then divorcée and single mother; the actress with the great shoes who moves into Andrea’s building; Andrea’s younger and (seemingly?) self-possessed coworker Nina. They’re all magnetic — and they also all fail to hold onto that magnetism. Their cool grace, at least in Andrea’s eyes, is tarnished, often by the burdens of life itself. Did you set out to have these women orbiting Andrea, contrasting her, sometimes echoing her, or was there another motivation in mind?

JA: These women were all there from the beginning — all of them. I had to grow them and inform them, but there were no surprise appearances. I never thought — oh where did she come from? They were all just real women living and working in today’s New York City, and also they were real women who lived inside of me. I needed each of these women to be in the book or it wouldn’t have been complete. And also I certainly needed them to question Andrea. For example, her sister-in-law in particular sometimes acts as a stand-in for what I imagine the reader must be thinking, while her mother acts as a stand-in for me, both of them interrogating Andrea at various times.

And also always, always, always in my work the female characters are going to be the most interesting. Most of the chapters are named after women. I had no doubt in my mind that I wanted a collective female energy to buoy this book. We’re always steering the fucking ship, whether it’s acknowledged or not.

TM: Were there any models for this book in terms of voice, structure, tone of subject? Are there, in general, any authors and novels that are “fairy godmothers” for you and your writing?

JA: Each book is different, I have a different reading list, but Grace Paley is my mothership no matter what, because of her originality, grasp of voice and dialect, and incredible heart and compassion.

As I began writing All Grown Up, I was reading Patti Smith’s M Train and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, and when I was halfway done with the book I started reading Eileen Myles’s Chelsea Girls. I was not terribly interested in fiction for the most part. I wanted this book to feel memoiristic — not like an actual memoir, that one writes and tries to put in neat little box, perfect essays or chapters, but just genuinely like this woman was telling you every single goddamn, messy thing you needed to know about her life.

Those three books all feel like unique takes on the memoir. Patti Smith just talks about whatever the fuck she wants to talk about, and Maggie Nelson writes in those short, meticulous, highly structured bursts, where you genuinely feel like she is making her case, and in Chelsea Girls Eileen has this dreamy, meandering quality, although she knows exactly what she’s doing, she’s scooping you up and putting you in her pocket and taking you with her wherever she wants to go. So all of those books somehow connected together for me while I was establishing the feel of this book.

And when I was finishing I read Naomi Jackson’s gorgeous debut, The Star Side of Bird Hill, which is also about family and a collection of strong women and coming of age, although the people growing up in her book are much younger than my narrator. But it was just stunning, and it made me cry, and the emotions felt so real and true. So I think reading her was an excellent inspiration as I wrote those final pages. Like you can’t go wrong with heart.

TM: Since is The Millions, I must ask you: What was the last great book you read?

JA: I just judged the Pen/Bingham contest and all of the books on our shortlist were wonderful: Insurrections by Rion Amilcar Scott; We Show What We Have Learned by Clare Beams; The Mothers by Brit Bennett; Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, and Hurt People by Cote Smith.