Fate, Capitalism, and Football: The Millions Interviews Katherine Hill

Katherine Hill has always been an omnivorous sports fan, someone who can get caught up in March Madness, World Cup soccer, Wimbledon, and the Olympics. But football was the sport she wanted to explore in her second novel, A Short Move, which follows the life story of Mitch Wilkins, a high school football star who makes it all the way to the NFL. For Hill, football was the perfect sport for thinking about fate: “There were so many formal aspects of the game that were interesting in terms of thinking about a lifespan—the stopping and starting of the clock, the specificity of each position and what each particular player’s skills are, what they’re good at, what their job is on the field. And with the intensity of its collisions, with its demands—it’s such a physically demanding sport—it really felt like kind of the perfect metaphor for life under capitalism.”

Told from a variety of perspectives, A Short Move begins when Mitch is in utero, and his parents are deciding whether or not to have him. (Spoiler Alert: Mitch is born.) The reader then meets Mitch at different points in his life, sometimes seeing the world through Mitch’s eyes, other times inhabiting the perspectives of Mitch’s parents, coaches, wives, and teammates. It’s a kaleidoscopic approach that looks beyond one man’s individual talent to the ecosystem of people, places, and industries that both nurture and exploit an athletic gift. 

Hill is a friend of mine, our connection forged in part by the fact that we both have school administrator parents, an occupation that entails a certain amount of moving around. Born in Washington D.C., Hill grew up in Manhattan, small-town Ohio, central Virginia, and suburban Maryland. A Short Move hops all over the country, but the heart of the book is in central Virginia, where Mitch is born and raised. It’s a region that Hill remembers well, maybe because she left it at a formative age, in her early teens, to go to high school in the suburbs of D.C. “When you move a lot, you notice differences in culture. Amherst, Virginia, and Bethesda, Md., are just three hours apart, but the climate is different, the people are different, the politics are different. It’s night and day.”

I had hoped to interview Hill in person, in her Brooklyn home, but in these times of quarantine, we ended up talking over the phone. The following interview has been edited and condensed.

The Millions: Tell me how you came to write this particular story, a cradle-to-grave
story about a football player.

Katherine Hill: It started with a short story that I wrote that was about a woman who drops out of college and finds herself working in retail. Her name is Alyssa, and her father, a minor character, is a former NFL football player. I wrote that story, thought it was a one-off, and published it in n+1. The editor asked me if it was part of something larger, and it actually wasn’t, but sometimes you just need someone to ask you that question. I was really interested in the father, so I wrote another story about him, when he is basically the same age that Alyssa is in the first story. He’s 18, about to go to college, and he has an awareness that he’s about to become the person he’s going to become, that he’s on the cusp of some new self. In that story, I met his mom and his girlfriend and I wanted to know more about all these people. I also found it interesting to think about the huge changes in his life, from his late teens to his early 40s. I wanted to fill in the gaps knowing I could never actually fill in the gaps. But I wanted to plot out his life and its trajectory.

TM: What
do you mean you wanted to fill in the gaps knowing that you couldn’t fill them
in?

KH: Well, one of the really important features of this book is the absences, which is something I’ve always been interested in, artistically. In theater, it’s the stuff that happens offstage. In visual art, it’s the negative space. And in novels, it’s the stuff that’s off the page or between the lines. From the beginning of this project I was attracted to the idea of a novel that would invite the reader to supply a lot—the actions and events that are not put into words by the author. I thought this structure made a lot of sense for a story about an athlete who wears many different identities, who experiences blackouts as a matter of course, and whose body develops rapidly, and also falls apart rapidly within a compressed period of time. He’s a retired old guy in his late 30s. For most of us, late 30s is prime.

TM: You use
a lot of different points of view in your novel: Mitch, Mitch’s wife, his
father, his coach, his teammate, his mother. I wondered how you decided which
points of view to include?

KH: I centered the book on the family: I started close and then moved out. I was really interested in his mother, first of all, who raised him on her own. And also, the absent father. And then his first wife. Perspective from the family seemed really important, because it’s a life narrative, not a classic sports story. It’s a family novel. Some of us grow up and have our full story from womb to tomb without family being a huge part of it, but for most of us, the family that you leave, the family that you raise, the family that you work hard to build—in many ways that is the plot of life. But Mitch also has an important public life, so I had to include some perspectives from that world. And I think, in a way, the perspectives I found there were also familial. His teammate, D’Antonio Mars, is like a brother, a fellow traveler. So there’s a family quality to those sections of the book, too.

TM: Were there points of view you attempted and then decided not to do?

KH: I
considered doing something with a reporter, and someone involved in the corporate
sponsorships of athletes. But in the end, I just went deeper on the family. Even
though I was interested in gaps and leaving things out, it’s inevitable—for me,
anyway—to want to get to know my existing characters better. And so I worked
that out by going very deep in short sections. You get to know the characters
very well during a particular moment in time.

TM: Was
there a character who surprised you?

KH: They
all did. One of the bigger surprises for me was the solidarity between Mitch’s
mother and his first wife. They clash in the beginning, so realizing that they
might find a way to get along was a lovely surprise and kind of a
counter-intuitive one—but one that I was really committed to once I realized it
could be true. The more standard and more boring story is one of rivalry and
irreconcilable differences. In this case, that seemed like the direction it was
headed in, but it emerged in a different way.

TM: Do you
think of this book as linked short stories? Can they stand alone?

KH: I did think of it as a novel in stories, or an episodic novel. A book that was really important to me when I was writing was A Visit from the Goon Squad, which is a novel but also kind of a collection of stories. I just admired so much of what Jennifer Egan did, the way we had to imagine what had happened to characters between what she calls point A and point B. I actually think you have to fill in a lot more with her book because she has so many characters, whereas with my book, Mitch is always there at the center. He’s the spine of the novel. His life is the structure.

TM: I think A Visit from the Goon Squad has been pretty influential to writers, it gets mentioned a lot. I think it gave people permission to think about how to structure things in a different way.

KH: Agreed.
Permission is a great word. I think many of us are looking to bust out of the
current conventions of novel structure, which somehow feel so fixed. Which is
interesting to me because the novel is actually a pretty unregulated form,
unlike the sonnet or the tragedy. It’s a kind of wonderfully lawless form.
Maybe it’s something about the commercialization of it, or the institutionalization
of creative writing as an academic discipline, that’s tricked us into thinking
the novel has a set form. But Egan reminded us that the form has so many
possibilities—that it’s actually defined by its infinite possibilities. The
only one standard feature being: figures over time.

TM: This
is your second book. How did it compare to writing your first book?


KH: My first book, [The Violet Hour], is the one that taught me how to write a novel. And it felt very exciting because I was doing this big thing. I was writing a novel—it was so ambitious! But it also felt scary because I had no idea what success was going to look like. I mean I sort of had an idea, because I’d read a lot of novels, and I was trying to enter their company. But until you’ve done it, you haven’t done it. So there was this kind of incredible relief and elation at the end, and I started the second one on the high of having completed the first. I thought, I know how to do this now! I’ll just do it again! It got off to a great fast start. Much faster than the first one, which required a lot of wrong turns and starting over and re-outlining and all that. But the second one, once I had the first two moments in time—the daughter and the father—was easy to outline.

The first novel had a very
complicated structure of going forward and backward in time, and it was also a
family novel. So there are similarities between the two. But the structure of
the second novel is more radical. I’m not sure it’s more ambitious, or harder
to pull off. It’s just aesthetically more radical from what we consider to be
the standard form. And as I was making it, I had to have a lot of faith that
the choices I was making were good ones. Because once you start building
something, it becomes more itself and harder to pick apart and rearrange. It ran
into a lot of trouble getting sold. I was tested on that front, and it hurt,
but I always believed that I had made the right choice.

TM: What
was the trouble you had in selling it?

KH: It’s a pretty typical story. I actually think what happened to me is what happens to many novelists writing their second books. My first novel was published with a major press, and got some nice review attention, but it didn’t light the world on fire and it wasn’t a bestseller. So when the time came to sell my second novel, and it was more formally daring than the first one—which happens a lot, too—my first publisher declined to publish it. That was a big blow. They had an option on it, and I thought once you’re in, you’re in. Which is so naïve. But I had to believe that to write it. That kind of stupid confidence is really necessary when you’re working on a big, risky project.

My agent was like, it’s fine, this book is amazing, it will sell. I made a few revisions because I always have to revise after rejection, and then he took it out pretty widely in New York. They just all rejected it. I don’t even know how many. It was probably 30 or 40—a huge number of publishers. I was numb at first, then I was devastated, and then I was determined. It was a very emotionally volatile time, because I had devoted my entire artistic and professional life to this book. I’m a professor, I teach writing, and I had to get the book published to keep my job. But I’m also pretty stubborn about my creative work. My agent and I had some hard conversations. He still believed in it but had felt pretty discouraged by the response.

The one theme that emerged
was that people weren’t into the structure. But for me, the structure was the book. It’s a life narrative,
chronological, from before our protagonist’s birth to after his death, and it’s
told episodically through a relay of perspectives. I was so committed to the overall
effect. I didn’t want to write a different football novel, and I didn’t want to
write a different family novel. And so I went out in search of independent
presses that would be more open to formally challenging projects. I got a
couple of offers and Ig was really enthusiastic. They got it right away and
were excited about it. It was all the affirmation I needed.

TM: How
has it been coming out with a book during this strange time of Covid-19?

KH: Well, fortunately for me, it’s corresponded with the strange and wonderful time of having my first baby, so I was home all the time anyway. I knew at some point during the first months of her life that I would turn my attention back to promoting the book. And that is all still true and the same as I imagined. But one difference is that everything physical has been canceled. I was going to have readings in several places, a mini book tour. So that’s a bummer, because I love the chance to do big readings in the cities I’ve lived in—D.C., Boston, Philly, and New York. But, I guess because I have this wonderful baby, it doesn’t really feel like a loss. If anything it’s like, oh well, I don’t have to worry about the trip. Maybe that’s short-sighted. But a book lives for a long time, so I’m hopeful there will be opportunities in the future when we can gather again. Which I do believe will happen, maybe not as soon as everyone wants, but at some point.

I think a lot of publishers
have been cancelling and postponing or moving their books, whereas we just
stayed the course. So it remains to be seen how affected we will be by that
decision—to be coming out in June when people are still at home or only
tentatively going out. I’m hopeful that one of the things people do at home is
read. And maybe they’re sick of screens, so maybe having a book with pages will
be appealing to more people in this moment. I think if it had come out in
March, when everyone was getting used to this new life, that would have been
worse, but with June I’m bizarrely hopeful.

TM: Since
this is a football book, I have to ask you about football: What team do you
follow?

KH: I follow Washington. I can barely say the name out loud. So yeah, we have a racist name, it’s really bad, and we should change it. But I said it for many, many years before the current effort to stop. So, that’s my team. It’s a terrible franchise, the owner is despicable, and the team has been a disappointment for, I don’t know, 20 years? They last won a Super Bowl in the early 1990s.

D.C. is the closest thing I have to a hometown and I married a D.C. local. I followed them obsessively throughout the 2000s, in my 20s, especially in the years I lived in Philadelphia. Every Sunday my husband and I went to this ramshackle sports bar called Cavanaugh’s and watched the team play. We had to go out because unless you have Direct TV, you can’t follow anyone but the local team on television. And the local team was the Eagles.

On the one hand it was it was kind of nice because we couldn’t just stay at home and have our private obsession; we had to go out to a communal space, which is what sports want. And in Philly, we had all these wonderful fan friends. They were friends from, I think, a Quaker camp in Maryland. Many of them had gone to college in Philly and stuck around and they were all involved in social justice in some way—just the most decent, best people you could ever meet, and all die-hard Washington fans. Not only that, they were our kind of fans: in love with the players, optimistic, and really faithful. So we would watch with them. We literally met just sitting next to them at the bar.

I think that experience was something that led me to write this book, just that kind of die-hard fandom in my 20s. And, as I think often happens when we devote ourselves to a subject, the process of writing the book or going deep on the subject actually cures you of the subject, a little bit. I’m now watching less football than I ever have in my life. It’s not because I’m protesting the treatment of the athletes or anything like that; they’d want me to watch. It’s just because at this time in my life, I feel like I did football. Though I’m also pretty sure it’ll always be there for me to come back to. I have a daughter now, and I’m sure watching the game will be something we do together, which is something I did with my parents.

TM: What
was your research process like for the book?



KH: I read a lot of football memoirs and journalistic accounts of football seasons. It’s sort of a classically clichéd genre, so I had to work hard to find the ones that would be illuminating and interesting—that would spark my imagination in some way. I have a shelf of pretty good books that got me thinking about the day-to-day experience of the athlete. I read Warren Sapp’s memoir, Sapp Attack, which is really outrageous but has a terrific voice; and Tony Siragusa’s memoir, Goose; and Nate Jackson’s memoir Slow Getting Up. He’s a pretty decent writer, and he wasn’t a star, which is such a valuable perspective. There’s also a really wonderful book by Nicholas Dawidoff called Collision Low Crossers, about a single season with the New York Jets—that’s full of really great details. So, books like that, that’s where I started. I also watched a lot of old game footage and did some in-person interviews. I spoke to a few former players, and I found this really wonderful YouTube show called The Real Rob Report, with Michael Robinson, who was a fullback for the Seattle Seahawks. It’s really hard to find now, you can only get little bits and pieces of it, but it was basically a behind-the-scenes perspective. He just had so much great locker room footage, which was the one thing I was never going to get access to. I toured one practice facility, the Baltimore Ravens, but they wouldn’t let me in the locker room.

A lot of the research was
just armor I needed to convince myself that I could write about this world that
I had never participated in myself. I had to make sure I got the football
details right, or right enough, and I had to make sure I was representing a
possible truth about our world. The harder stuff was the emotional and
psychological stuff that no amount of research can teach you. You just have to
let the characters discover that themselves, and you have to discover that with
them.

Returning to Books After Climbing Peak TV

In 2016, I started keeping track of the television shows I watched, along with books and movies. That was the year I started taking television a bit more seriously, I guess. Or maybe I just wanted to see where all my time was going. This year, when I was looking at my books list to compose my annual “Year in Reading” post, I noticed that the amount of TV I’d watched had dropped dramatically. I started a lot of different series, but hardly finished any of them. Suddenly, it seems, I’m a lot pickier about what TV shows I watch, as picky as I have always been about books.

It used to be that I would try to watch what everyone else seemed to be watching. I grew up in a household where the television was mostly off-limits, so as an adult, I’ve relished the opportunity to stay current. The Sopranos, The Office, Mad Men, Friday Night Lights: These are a few of the mid-aughts shows I started watching because of the cultural conversation around them, rather than my personal interest in the material. I continued to watch them because I liked them, but for the past few years, the social pressure to keep up with a particular show has dissipated. I’m hardly the first person to observe that everyone seems to be watching their own version of TV. In the same way that I never expect anyone to be reading the same book as I am, I don’t have any expectation that other people will be watching the same TV shows. There are some things that I watch that are so obscure I’d be shocked to find another viewer. (Is there anyone besides me and my seven-year-old who watches PBS’s Monstrum, a series of mini-lectures about famous monsters?) With the recent exception of Succession, I can’t think of the last show that I tuned into because it was What People Are Watching.

Without the social pressure to try a particular show, I’ve been choosier. There’s more TV than ever before, yet I find myself listlessly scrolling through the options in the same way I sometimes gaze at my bookshelves, wondering what I’m in the mood to read next. Where I once would have stayed with a better-than-average TV series because my friends and family were into it, I now have to feel personally compelled to watch a show. Basically, I hold TV to the same standard that I hold books—not a higher one, necessarily, but more idiosyncratic.

When I think about how I choose what to read, it’s either nonfiction about a subject that I’m curious about, or it’s fiction with a voice that speaks to me, for whatever mysterious reason. It’s still hard for me to guess what fiction I’m going to adore. Earlier this year, I stayed up until the wee hours to finish Ling Ma’s Severance, a zombie-office novel that I was not expecting to be my cup of tea. I had a similar experience with HBO’s Chernobyl, a show that didn’t initially sound like something I wanted to dwell on, but once I started watching, I eagerly awaited every new installment.

In this era of Peak TV, I try to approach a new series with the same open mind I have for contemporary fiction—and with the same critical gaze. I’ll try more shows than I used to, but I’ll give up more quickly, too. Sometimes that means I’ll enjoy and genuinely admire a couple of episodes but don’t feel the need to continue (The Bold Type, Lodge 49, Queen Sugar). Five years ago, I think I would have given those shows more of a chance. I remember someone telling me that I had to watch about seven episodes of Mad Men before it got good. I actually followed that advice, but I can’t imagine doing it now. Life’s too short, and there’s so much more TV out there anyway. But also: the other night I re-watched a random episode from season six of Mad Men because I couldn’t decide what new thing to watch.

I choose books with the resigned sense that I will never in my lifetime read all of the authors recommended to me. It’s strange to have that feeling with television. As with classic unread novels, certain TV shows have begun to carry with them a hint of obligation. There are so many shows that people assure me are really good, really smart, really fun, shows like Breaking Bad and Borgen and Schitt’s Creek. Then there are the documentaries that promise to teach history: Ken Burns’s Vietnam, Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us, Ken Burns’s Country Music, OJ: Made in America—actually, I did watch OJ, and it was incredible. I would like to watch it again. But then I’d like to read Middlemarch again, too.

I don’t want to overwork this comparison or to suggest that I’m pitting books against TV. (If I’m pitting books against anything, it’s the internet.) Books and television are fundamentally different. TV is theatrical and collaborative, with stories concocted by a room full of writers, and influenced by producers with varied motivations. Even showrunners with distinctive and quirky visions, such as Donald Glover (Atlanta) or Amy Sherman-Palladino (Gilmore Girls, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) depend on their cast, crew, and production team to make certain narrative decisions. In contrast, the author of a book is in charge of all its narrative effects. Editors and publishers have their influence, but when you read a book, it’s you and the author in conversation. Books give a cozy feeling of privacy that I’ve always appreciated. TV never feels private, but it can feel lonely.

It’s possible that this essay is nothing more than a diary of my own exhaustion, of a new discernment brought on by children who leave me desiring quiet at the end of the day and news sites that shred my attention. There may be something generational going on here, too. Having come of age in an era where people tuned into the same shows, I could be bringing expectations to the medium that a younger generation doesn’t have. From what I gather from my nieces and nephews, TV shows are just one part of their daily dose of streaming entertainment, something that gets mixed in with YouTube clips, Instagram stories, memes, and other kinds of social media. This seems to be the future of entertainment, and maybe my recent choosiness regarding television shows is a reflection of the many, many things competing for my attention. As always, I feel overwhelmed. More often than not, I seek the comfort in a book.

Image: Scheier .hr

A Year in Reading: Hannah Gersen

This year, I had the jarring experience of reading Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman Is in Trouble after Richard Powers’s The Overstory. I do not recommend this pairing, nor would I have chosen it for myself, except that Fleishman was on hold at the library with a 400-person waitlist, and if I didn’t read it right away, it would be another four-month wait, and it wasn’t a book I wanted to buy, mainly because it’s on the long side and would be cumbersome to carry around in hardcover.

The Overstory, on the other hand, was an even longer book that I did buy in hardcover a few months after it was first published, in the spring of 2018. I started reading it shortly after I bought it, and was immediately impressed by the narrative variety of the first 200-some pages, which contain a series of discrete short stories about people and their relationship to trees. Although the stories are from the point of view of humans, the lives of trees quietly steal the narrative.

As an example: The first story in the book seems to be about an immigrant couple moving to the Midwest at the turn-of-the-century but is actually about the chestnut seedling that the husband carries in his pocket and plants on his farm. As the tree slowly grows and reaches maturity, three generations of human life unfold nearby, lives full of drama that could be the subject of multiple novels, but instead are quickly summarized. The real miracle, Powers tells us, is the survival of this particular tree, which evaded the blight that killed four billion American Chestnut trees in the first half the twentieth century.

The Overstory is full of miraculous stories about trees, and it changed the way I see the green giants in my neighborhood. Now I notice their behaviors: In the small park near my apartment, I’ve observed that a number of the trees nurse shoots at the base of their trunks, and I wonder why they’ve chosen this reproductive strategy—does the parent tree think it’s going to die soon and is hedging its bets? (Then, when the Parks Department prunes the saplings, I wonder how the trees feel about that.) In another part of the park, two trees of different species lean toward each other, their leaves intermingling to form a picturesque canopy. There doesn’t seems to be any reason for them to grow so closely and I wonder if they’re friends, or if there is some other benefit from this growth pattern.

The most beautiful trees on our block are the gingkos that tower alongside the Catholic church. In the fall, their fan-shaped leaves turn golden and drift into the backyard our family shares with our upstairs neighbor. One afternoon, when I was sitting outside reading The Overstory, I noticed that a gingko seedling had grown up in the crack between two patio stones. I was struck by its fragility as well as its strength: here was a tiny thing that could potentially grow into something taller than my apartment building, taller even than the church. It could outlive me and my children—depending, of course, on its ability to adapt to the saltwater flooding that will become a regular occurrence in my neighborhood in the coming decades.

I decided to save the seedling, and transplanted it into a small pot. Then I went on vacation. I took The Overstory with me, but I also brought along my seven-month-old baby. I thought for sure I’d read during her naptimes, but instead I dozed off. When I finally got back to The Overstory, a few weeks later, I found I couldn’t remember several of the characters. It felt daunting to start over. So I put it aside—for a year! Meanwhile, my ginkgo seedling grew ten inches and sprouted three leaves.

I returned to The Overstory during another summer vacation, this time with older children and the determination to set aside reading time. I got the book out immediately after the kids went to sleep, and read for two-hour stretches for five nights in a row. To read every night for two hours is generally wonderful, but when I finished The Overstory, I felt a kind of awe. I think it’s the best book to read on the climate crisis, and I say this as someone who read several books on the subject over this past year, including The Uninhabitable Earth, Losing Earth, Falter, and The Myth of Human Supremacy. I got a lot of useful information from these books, and they definitely stoked my anger, but I didn’t stop, midway through any of them, to plant a gingko seedling—though I did engage in panicked online real estate searches for inexpensive property in elevated regions.

Which brings me to Fleishman Is in Trouble, the novel I read immediately after The Overstory. This was a book that everyone seemed to be talking about, and I was very eager to read it. It’s set in contemporary Manhattan, and follows a newly divorced single dad as he navigates online dating apps and feels aggrieved about the poor treatment he’s getting from his ex-wife. Later, we hear the wife’s side of the story. Like everything Brodesser-Akner writes, it is ridiculously entertaining and smart, but when I was about halfway through, it occurred to me that I had just read 200 pages without a single reference to plants or animals. Eventually, the divorced dad gets a dog, somebody looks up at the stars, and I think the dad notices a tree. But that’s it. After the rich tapestry of The Overstory, it struck me as a flat, desolate world of buildings and cell phones. I felt sorry for the characters not because their marriage had ended, or because their children were unhappy, but because they were blind to other living things. I thought: no wonder they’re so lonely.

To be fair to Brodesser-Akner, any number of contemporary novels would have struck me as overly focused on human concerns after The Overstory. Most fiction is filled with human characters who don’t give much thought to non-human species. While writing this essay, I came across this passage in Voices from Chernobyl, Svetlana Alexievich’s oral history of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. This quotation is from a filmmaker named Sergei Gurin, who documented the evacuation of the contaminated zone. After showing one his films to a group of schoolchildren, he is startled by a boy who asks why the animals weren’t also evacuated:

I couldn’t answer that question. Our art is all about the suffering and loves of people, but not of everything living: animals, plants, that other world. . . I want to make a film called “Hostages,” about animals. A strange thing happened to me. I became closer to animals. And trees, and birds. They’re closer to me than they were, the distance between us has narrowed.

I think this “strange thing” is what must happen to all of us if we wish to address the environmental crisis. We need to get closer to plants and animals, to remember that we are all living on this planet together. If you read the climate action platforms of the leading presidential candidates, you’ll see a lot about creating jobs, saving the economy, and averting catastrophe, but nothing about the beauty and value of plants, animals, insects, fungi, and clean air and water; nothing about our shared love of particular landscapes and bodies of water. That seems strange to me, even disturbing. It also seems like poor rhetorical strategy. Our affinity for other living things is our spiritual inheritance. We need a global leap of imagination to reclaim it. A book like The Overstory is one that starts to get us there.

The Millions 2019 Gift Guide for Writers

Here at The Millions we understand that writers are some of the hardest people to shop for. All they really want is more time, glowing reviews, and a cabin for brooding. But: Time is relative, comparisons are odious, and cabins are often chilly. Here are some gift ideas that are more realistic, and might even make life easier for the writers on your holiday list. 

A Jigsaw Puzzle

Jigsaw puzzles are a writer’s best friend. They’re perfect for those moments when you need a break from writing, but you’re not ready to shut down your brain. Fifteen minutes of a jigsaw will take your mind off whatever problem you’re encountering in your writing and you can return to your work feeling mentally refreshed. (New York Puzzle Company has a New Yorker Collection, if you want to be especially literary.) 

An Imported Notebook

The first time I wrote this gift guide, I admonished gift givers not to give writers blank books for writing. But that was before I knew about this notebook that I would never buy for myself but would use immediately if someone gave it to me (hint, hint). It has numbered pages, a table of contents, and something called gusseted pockets. There’s a slim version and a classic version, and also a special metallic edition, which seems festive, no?

An Expressive Hat

When you need to write from the heart, don’t put on your thinking cap: Put on your feelings hat.

A Really Big Eraser

This giant
eraser
will remind writers that even if they handwrite 350 pages of feelings in their fancy new notebook,
they can erase them all and no one will be the wiser.

Chaga Tea

Chaga tea is made from chaga, a fungus that has a parasitical relationship with trees, particularly birches. People have been making tea from it for centuries, and there are many claims for its health benefits. I recommend it for writers because it’s a good coffee substitute when you need a pick-me-up but you don’t want to be up all night. Like coffee, it has a bitter, earthy taste, and it gives you energy, but there’s no caffeine, so you don’t feel overly wired.

Daily Calendar Pad

With this daily planner, you’re not tied to a particular month or year, so you can start and stop at will. It’s a good motivational tool for the writer who needs to be reminded that a big project can be finished by taking it one day at a time.  

Bibliostyle: How We
Live at Home With Books

This coffee table book allows you to peer into the home libraries of your dreams. It’s the perfect gift for the writer who relaxes by reorganizing her bookshelf.

Cozy Rug

Speaking of How We Live at Home With Books . . . I was
trying to figure out how to put “cozy reading nook” on this list, so naturally
I googled “cozy reading nook.” The common thread in all of the rooms on display
was a fur rug, usually draped over an ottoman. So, if you can’t gift your
friend extra space in their home, you can at least give them a rug to tie the
room together. I’ve chosen this faux
fur rug from IKEA
, not only because it’s affordable, but also because it is
made from recycled plastic bottles, instead of animal pelts. 

Pen Garden

I love this pen
garden
, not only because it’s pretty, but also because I think it would
help me to keep better track of my pens.

Cube Timer

Some days, writing is all about time management. This
timer
will help you resist procrastination, multi-tasking, dilly-dallying, online
browsing, and it might even help you to tame your children. Just tell yourself
that you only have to work on a particular project for just 30 minutes and then
turn the cube over and sit tight and write. (If you have kids, you can set the
timer for them to play quietly while you finish up whatever you need to do.)
Sure, you have a timer on your phone, but we all know what happens when we pick
up our phones to just do one quick thing . . .  

Noise-Cancelling
Headphones

I’m surprised I’ve never recommended these before. I like to
work at home in silence, and there have been some days of construction noise
when some decent
headphones
would have come in handy. I imagine that many people working in
coffee shops and shared workspaces often feel the same way.

How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy

This is the book you need to help you get through another election year. With new polls being released every 30 seconds and memes lobbed like rotten tomatoes, you’re going to want some heavy-duty Zen. Jenny Odell’s wonderfully grounding book will remind you that you’re part of a local ecology, and that the more you tune into the physical reality around you, the happier you’ll be. Her approach is not prescriptive or scolding; instead, she shares her research into a variety of interconnected subjects, from Bartleby the Scrivener to Thoreau’s retreat from society to the intelligence of crows, as she slowly builds an argument for the importance of carving a space for yourself outside of an economy that seeks to monetize your attention and behaviors.

I’m Going to Keep Writing: At 91, Lore Segal Is Still Going Strong

For the past few weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of revisiting the writing of one of my favorite authors, Lore Segal, in her new book, The Journal I Did Not Keep, a volume that includes new fiction and previously uncollected nonfiction, as well as excerpts from her best-known work. At 91, Segal is overdue for a retrospective. Her career spans six decades and includes memoir, translation, and children’s literature. She’s known best for her stories and novels, including Shakespeare’s Kitchen, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and Her First American, a 1985 novel that has as much to say about race in America as anything being written now.

Her debut novel, Other People’s Houses, published in 1964, was serialized in The New Yorker, and is Segal’s most autobiographical work. It tells the story of a Viennese child refugee, who, like Segal, was put on the Kindertransport, a rescue effort to bring Jewish children to England from Nazi-occupied Europe and place them with foster families. Very few were ever reunited with their parents, though Segal’s parents were able to escape Austria on a domestic workers visa—which meant that they had to work as live-in servants and could not live with their daughter. Segal’s father passed away before the war ended, but Segal and her mother were able to emigrate to the U.S. in 1951. Other People’s Houses was reissued last year in the U.K. to coincide with the 80th anniversary of the Kindertransport, and The Guardian noted that its subject matter is unfortunately quite timely in an era when refugee children are routinely separated from their parents.

Though Segal’s material is often weighty, she’s very funny. She revels in dialogue, jokes, and sometimes fantasy, allowing fairy tale, myth, and magic realism into her stories without any preamble. Segal also carries characters from one book to another, aging them and letting them take on slightly different identities, a technique that rewards Segal completists. The best example of this is the way that the heroine of Her First American, Ilka Weissnix, shows up again as Ilka Weisz in Shakespeare’s Kitchen—and finally in Half the Kingdom, as an old women telling stories to her grandchildren.

In Segal’s latest fiction, included in The Journal I Did Not Keep, a different set of characters has emerged, a group of 80-something women and their grown children. Segal calls them the “ladies’ lunch people,” and told me that they were her new people, a different set from Ilka, Joe and Jenny Berstine, Lucinella, Maurie, and all the rest, adding, “There are no more Ilkas, or any of those people. I think most of them have died.”

I spoke with Segal over the phone last week. The following interview was condensed and edited for clarity.

The Millions: Before we get to talking about The Journal I Did Not Keep, which looks back on your whole career, I wonder if you could tell me about when you were first published?

Lore Segal: That took forever! I was published when I was 30. I had spent ten years in England, three years in the Dominican Republic. I always say it took me 13 years to get from Vienna to New York. It was here that I walked around thinking, I don’t have anything to write about. Everyone already knows about Hitler. I took classes at the New School. I knew a lot of writers at the New School, we were all sending things out. And you had to pay someone to type your story, then you put it in the envelope, with a self-addressed stamped envelope so they could send you the story back, so you could put it in another envelope. I think in 1958, I had finally published three pieces. And then I sent one to The New Yorker and I put in a little message with the submission: Is there anyone there? I know there’s a pencil that keeps writing ‘sorry’ at the end of my rejection slips. They noticed the theme of it, and they noticed that I had published a story on a related theme in Commentary. And they called me up on the phone and they said, Would you like to write a series on this? I couldn’t believe it.

TM: And here’s another sort of debut writer question: who would you say are your major influences?

LS: Jane Austen, Kafka, The Bible, Shakespeare. Nothing extraordinary about that—oh, and the Grimms.

TM: You know, I first read your stories when I was in my 20s and I couldn’t figure out why I recognized your name. Then I realized that I knew your name from The Juniper Tree, which you translated. That was my favorite book of fairy tales when I was growing up. As a child, I couldn’t have explained why I liked it better than the others, but now I see that it was the translation.

LS: Oh, that’s wonderful to hear. You know, four of the stories were translated by Randall Jarrell. And Maurice Sendak had been wanting to illustrate the fairy tales forever. On my wall I have the printer’s proofs from that project. It was great. One of the fun things in my career.

TM: The Journal I Did Not Keep is a retrospective, with excerpts from your fiction as well as essays and memoir. Can you tell me how this project came together?

LS: I’m 91, I’m going to keep writing, but I’m not going to write another novel. So the idea was to collect what I’m writing now that has not been published, to publish something that is both fiction and nonfiction, which I think it unusual. It was to have a kind of an overview.

TM: How did you choose which pieces to include—especially from the novels?

LS: That came fairly obviously. First of all, a lot of my novels actually come in story form. That’s not a new thing. Dickens did it, Henry James did it. Some of the chapters make publishable units because they were originally published alone. I picked the ones that make the best sense by themselves, and the ones that I liked best. From Her First American, there’s a big central piece called “Summer” which introduces all the characters living together for the summer for the holiday, which I thought was a good set piece.

TM: What was it like to look back on your whole career?

LS: It was interesting, having to read them under these circumstances. I realized it was very new to me. Stuff I wrote in the 1960s I hadn’t read since the ’60s. Her First American was written in 1980s, but I had not read that novel in decades. Some of the stuff I thought was good, other times I thought, oh you should have moved this to here. And it was interesting to reread these old columns that I had written. There was a moment in the 1980s when it seemed like a good idea to ask writers, particularly women writers, to write about The Bible. I’m not a religious person, but as I said, The Bible is one of my influences.

TM: Looking back over your work, I was surprised to notice that you only used a first person narrator once, in Other People’s Houses and then never again. Why is that? 

LS: Did you know when I picked up Other People’s Houses, I couldn’t remember that it was written in the first person? I don’t think it matters. I know people have theories about first or third, but I don’t think it makes a difference. It surprised me that it was in first person.  

TM: Another thing that’s distinctive about your work is that you use a lot of dialogue.

LS: I like writing dialogue. I like it better than explaining. I’d rather have a character develop and express him or herself through dialogue than explaining what they’re thinking. It’s a preference. I like how we discover and uncover ourselves through dialogue. I tell my students, you see any two people together, walk behind them, listen, get the tone of their voice.

TM: One of the new pieces of fiction, “Dandelion,” begins with the narrator describing rereading old work. Is this something you’ve been doing lately?

LS: I thought I was experimenting with something, but it worked. I was 21 years old when I wrote that one originally. The joke is I took Henry James as an excuse to do that. In a way, I was taking the reader with me in the editing process. As a young writer I tried to remember being in the mountains. Now that I am a better writer, a more experienced writer, I can do it better. The body of the story has really not changed. The whole notion of having visions as a child—which I think children do have—that’s what I wanted to write about. It’s only the first page where I am interested looking back. Really, it’s about editing. What it is like to be edited by someone and also to edit yourself.

TM: When do you edit?

LS: I never sit down without going back to what I did yesterday. When I’m finished, I go back to first chapter. And when it’s published, I still want to edit. 

TM: What are you working on now?

LS: Actually an essay about being edited. About the pleasures and irritations of being edited. It’s called “Editing Caesar,” because my joke is they would say—what’s that they say now? Let’s “unpack” that. If Caesar said, “I came, I saw, I conquered,” the editor would say, “Let’s unpack that.”

TM: This collection showcases lots of different forms: essay, memoir, fiction; in what genre do you feel most at home? Where do you express yourself most fully?

LS: Oh, in fiction. Stories. When I was starting out, I had it in mind that to write an essay you had to know what you’re talking about. To write a story you figure out what you know by writing the story. My essays are clearly the essays written by a fiction writer. They use the methods and insights of a fiction writer. What do you think, as a reader?

TM: I think your fiction, although I really like your essays in this book. There was one that stuck with me, “The Gardeners’ Habitats.” It was about so many different things: friendship, writing, fame, grief. How did that essay come about?

LS: My husband David Segal was an editor, and John Gardner was one of his authors. We visited him in Carbondale, and John and I both taught at Breadloaf. I knew them for many, many years. I think they asked me to write an introduction to his book on writing. It just shows what an inefficient writer I am, because I wrote something that is not an introduction or an essay.

TM: You begin The Journal I Did Not Keep saying that you didn’t keep a journal because you assumed memory would be your editor—in the way we forget the things that are not important. But I noticed another theory in your book, which comes up in your fiction, where characters store away things that are confusing to them, things they don’t understand, so that they might be able to understand them. Is that right?

LS: Yes. There was a woman recently who was the first to get the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for mathematics, and she said: “If I understand it, it bores me.” It’s what we don’t understand that we put in the back of our heads. The other thing about memory, which I’ve not expressed fully, is that when you write it down, you’ve done a number on the thing that actually happened. Once you’ve put it into a story, what’s happened is lost and buried.

TM: What is it like to write at 91?

LS: It’s the same. I don’t think I had the verve I had when I wrote Lucinella. I was really surprised at the amount of energy that I had. But I still have a lot of curiosity, and a lot of celebration to do.

TM: Do you keep up your schedule of writing for five hours in the morning?

LS: I wouldn’t know what to do if I didn’t have those five or six hours. I always wonder what other people do. And then, what you call writing is often, we change the comma to the period and the period to the comma. It’s a way of life. It’s a lucky life.

TM: What are you reading these days?

LS: I belong to a reading group. We’ve are doing Goethe’s Elective Affinities. I read my German literature at school, but I haven’t returned to it since. I like to reread, but some in the group like to read contemporary work. There are eight of us, and I can no longer read except on kindle. So we have to find something that is an e-book. Most things are, but many are not. We have a hard time choosing books.

TM: Are you still teaching?

LS: I still have a class. It began with my teaching at the 92nd Street Y. So there are still some 10 to 13 students who come to my living room, these are older people. A number of them are in their 80s. We talk about each other’s work and what we are reading. It’s wonderful.

TM: Can you give some advice to the writers in our audience?

LS: Oh, you know I’m going to say something silly. Write and find the right words, be patient with yourself, don’t use words you don’t need.

I Have to Write Differently Now: The Millions Interviews Jennifer Acker

Jennifer Acker is one of my dearest friends, so I was thrilled to have the chance to interview her about her debut novel, The Limits of the World. Acker and I have been exchanging writing since our mid-20s, so I come to this interview having read multiple drafts of her book, a multi-generational story centered on Urmila and Premchand Chandaria, emigrants from the Indian-enclave of Nairobi. Like many immigrant parents, they are confused by the choices of their American son, Sunil, who has become, of all things, a PhD candidate in philosophy. They also don’t approve of his girlfriend, Amy, who, unbeknownst to them, is actually his wife. Multiple family secrets come to light over the course of Acker’s novel, which also tells the story of the Chandaria family’s ancestral migration from India to East Africa.

Acker began writing the novel in graduate school, and then spent several years revising it. While working on her novel, she founded the literary magazine The Common, which is now a publication of Amherst College, and which Acker edits, full-time, working with student interns. Although both the magazine and her novel have been met with acclaim, there have been a lot of bumps in the road. Her novel was almost accepted for publication a number of times, an experience which, if you’ve ever been through it, can feel more devastating than an open-and-shut rejection. Acker has also spent the past few years dealing with a chronic illness, ME/CFS, sometimes known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, which can leave her exhausted for weeks, and sometimes months. But through focused, efficient efforts, she has continued to edit The Common, and to find time for her own writing projects.

Acker lives in Montague, a small town in Western Massachusetts that is close to Amherst College. She visits New York City often, and travels whenever she can. When I spoke to her over the phone, she was on vacation in Arizona, soaking up some sun before a busy spring of book promotion.

The Millions: I’d like to start with the story of how your book came to be published. Because I know, as your friend, that you had a lot of near-misses, and I think for Millions readers, it would be a really interesting story—and I personally need the refresh, because I can’t even remember some of the twists and turns.

Jennifer Acker: I
knew you were interested in this question, so I’ve been thinking about it, and
it’s made me a little nervous. Telling a long and convoluted publication story or
one in which your book is not snapped up right away is kind of embarrassing.
But I do think it’s important for people to be honest talking about these
processes, because it’s often more complicated that you would think. I also
wanted to refresh for myself what the story was, because it was over a period
of several years and I wasn’t even sure if I was remembering it correctly.

So this morning I was going back through my emails, because I wanted to reconstruct things. In any case, I think, I first signed with Duvall [Osteen, Acker’s literary agent] in the fall of 2014. I loved her enthusiasm and smarts from the beginning. I did do some revising for her, which I think is typical, or at least not that uncommon. So I revised with her in 2014, we went out with the book for the first time in January 2015, and I remember that timing pretty well because I was on vacation in Puerto Rico and I was trying to grab cell signals in various places all over the island. About a week or so after I sent the book out, there was a lot of excitement and a lot of editors were interested, and it was just so exciting. I was on vacation, the sun was shining, we were at the beach, and it just felt kind of miraculous.

Basically there were several editors at big houses who were interested, and I had a few phone conversations when I got home. And then out of that group, there were two editors who were really interested in the book but wanted to see structural changes. And they weren’t willing to buy the book and then work on it, they wanted to see the changes first. So that was my first experience with the revise-and-resubmit process. I even met with both of these editors in person, and I tried to coalesce each of their comments into a direction that they would each be happy with.

TM: You were
trying to make revisions to please both editors?  

JA: Yes, it wasn’t
an exclusive revise-and-resubmit. They were both interested in similar
revisions, so I was working on a new version for both. And I kind of killed
myself on the revision—which is partially metaphorical, but as you know, I got
sick that spring. It was an incredibly busy time for me, because not only was I
running the magazine, but also teaching a seminar that semester—which was
enjoyable, but quite intense. I was traveling a lot, I was going to New York
every month, I was planning the Common in the City Party for that spring, and I
was trying to squeeze in those revisions on nights and weekends. I was working
all the time, late at night. At the time I remember thinking, I have never been
so busy as this in my life. I had a friend who said, why are you doing this so
fast? Why not just wait and tackle it in the summer? But I had this feeling
that I had to take advantage of the momentum before I sort of lost my place.

I finished a pretty significant overhaul of the book and we sent it back to those two editors and they didn’t take it. I didn’t fully understand what it was that they didn’t like. At that point it gets kind of vague in terms of the feedback that you get. It was a pretty crushing disappointment. We had The Common in the City party, and I was very tired for that, but I wasn’t sick yet. But then I had first really clear early signs of my illness in June. That period was pretty devastating. I felt that summer that I was in stasis in pretty much every way. I didn’t know what was wrong with me physically; I didn’t know what was wrong with my book. I wasn’t sure how I was going to crawl my way out of either of those situations.

Over the next year basically, I was pretty sick and mostly not doing much, but just trying to keep up with things where I could. But I had this book in my mind and I didn’t want to let it go. So then—I’m actually looking at my notes right now, because it’s really hard to remember—I didn’t do much on the book until the following spring. Then I tried to address another round of revisions with the idea of sending it out a second time. What I sort of remember about that process was that I was scaling back on a lot of things, I was cutting a lot of things, I was trying to make the book really streamlined. My impression at the time was that the book was overstuffed, so I cut out the backstory and character development. But I think it was kind of a skeletal version of the book, because when it went out again, that was the least successful response.

One good thing that did come out of that submission was that
another editor at a big house wanted to see revisions. This editor wanted an
exclusive revise-and-resubmit. I was wary of it, feeling like it hadn’t gone so
well the first time, but when I had a conversation and learned what the edits
were, they made a lot of sense to me and were in the direction I wanted to go
anyway. So that whole process took kind of a long time, getting a first
conversation with that editor, and then many months later, getting those notes,
and then taking the following winter, January through March 2017 to do my
revisions. It definitely felt more promising, I was adding things back into the
book, things I had been reluctant to cut. It felt like the book was regaining
its shape. And then—I don’t know how frequent this is, but I haven’t heard of
it happening to anyone else—once we sent back the revisions, we never got a
response from this editor. There were a few email communications, but in the
end we never heard either yes or no, which is crazy and crazy-making. Someone
who had been so invested in seeing a new version, wouldn’t even say no? It was
totally baffling. There was just this complete breakdown in communications—and
it was a process that had taken about a year and a half. But I did then have a
version that I felt good about. I felt like the editor had done the book some
good so it wasn’t totally wasted effort or time.

Then the book went out again in Fall 2017, for the third time—and the third time was the charm. That’s when we connected with Delphinium. I remember we finalized the contract on the day of the National Books Awards and I was going to the ceremony that night and I was telling everyone. I was like, yeah, yeah, yeah, these other people are getting prizes and are amazing authors, but I sold my book! It was tremendously exciting. Of course I did even more revisions with my editor. At that point we were really tightening the narrative. He was really instrumental in helping me to see how to connect the dots and how to build narrative tension.

TM: Now that
you’ve gone through this marathon revision process on this one project, how do
you think you’re going to approach revision in the future on your own work? Has
it changed for you?

JA: I think that one thing I’m going to try is to be more conscious of narrative events from the beginning. I think I’m going to try—if not to outline exactly—but to think more about cascading events, one event leading to another event, from the beginning. When I started this project, it was really about figuring out characters, creating a family, and it was this complicated, multi-voiced structure, and I had this idea about narrative tension that it meant that everything had to be at a fevered pitch, and that narrative tension was making people upset with each other in every scene, so there was lots of arguing and lots of yelling, but there wasn’t a lot of connection between events. Also, I just read a craft book, The Kite and the String, by Alice Mattison—she’s one of my Bennington teachers, who is this narrative master, we call her the novel doctor. I read it recently and I was underlining everything she said about creating narrative, and manufacturing concrete events and making one event lead to another.  

TM: Has this
process changed the way you edit other people’s work?

JA: I think the
funny thing is, I was much better at this at editing other people, when it
comes to the narrative connections.

TM: Considering
that this went on for years, revising and waiting on responses to your book,
how did you stick with it? What kept you going?

JA: I think it
just felt like so much a part of me, I just couldn’t bear the idea of
abandoning it. And every once and a while I would get some encouragement from
people who really loved it. I also knew that it was a story and a subject
matter that wasn’t very well known and would be interesting to people eventually.
Lots of different editors had different views about how the story should be
told. I felt like they liked the story that was there. It was frustrating, I
was bouncing back and forth between people’s individual views about how the
story should be told. I just needed to find the person whose vision aligned
with my own.

The hardest is when you’re on your own. Once I had Duvall as my agent, she was unwavering in a remarkable way. I don’t know how she was able to keep her confidence up. Maybe she wasn’t confident and she was just telling me that she was! But I just believed her, I just let her convince me. I could not have kept going without her being willing to keep reading, keep sending it. And then I also, after I got sick, I didn’t have any ideas, I didn’t have any energy to create anything new. So this was my one chance, because I didn’t have the faintest idea of what a new book would like.

TM: Can you talk
about how your process has changed because of your illness? I know, for
example, you use voice recognition software.

JA: Actually, I
first switched to speech recognition software because it was hard to sit at the
computer for a long time. I had a lot of neck pain and back pain and I would
get tired and achey from looking at screens, so I began to use the speech
recognition software. Now it seems like a very natural part of my writing life.
I was telling someone recently who was just shocked that I wasn’t typing those
things, I was speaking them out loud. There is a certain amount of
embarrassment that you have to get over when you’re dictating. The software
also likes you to speak in complete sentences, so I would have to speak a
little bit more at length—I couldn’t just add a word or change a word. I think
it did lead me to produce these very voluminous drafts.

If I had the physical stamina I would be one of those people
who write longhand. The other thing I’ve been doing for a long time, but more
so recently, when I’m even less tolerant of screens, is printing things out at
every stage, so I’m looking at things on paper. I’ve been trying to get myself
to do the Lauren Groff method, where you write a first draft and then forget
about it and then write it again, which strikes me as a really good way to do
things but is emotionally so difficult.

TM: Tell me both
why you think it’s a good way to do things and why you think it’s emotionally
difficult.

JA: I think it’s a good way to do things because I think your mind retains some of the strongest narrative elements, and so, when you write a first draft and then you don’t look at it again, I think when you’re trying to reconstruct the second draft, I think what sticks are some of the most singular aspects of the characters or some of the most important narrative moments. I think it helps you retain some of the most important elements at an earlier stage, instead of falling in love with a description or a paragraph. You don’t keep things in because it sounds nice—but I think it’s emotionally devastating, because you invest all these time and energy into something you’re not using. And that anxiety about throwing out things that might be good.

TM: Are there
other strategies you’ve come up with in terms of organizing your time? Or in
deciding what to work on?

JA: I do have to write differently now, I used to be able to go to a writing residency and take a week off and write for seven or eight hours a day. But I don’t have that stamina anymore. I only have a few hours a day. But I also have a hard time doing both my job and writing something new simultaneously. I think a lot of people have that difficulty, but it’s become even clearer to me that I need to focus on one thing in any given day, or any given period. I’ve been moving toward this residency model where I only focus on one thing at a time—either I’m working on The Common or I’m working on my own writing. Because everything I do is slower, I need the mornings to do whatever thinking work I have, whether that’s editing or doing some strategic thinking for the magazine, and then the afternoon is sort of catch as catch can. I’ll schedule calls or listen to music to give my mind a break. I’m trying to give myself a little more down time in between the writing. I don’t know if it means I’ll be more efficient. But my thought is that I’ll do more thinking and less drafting. Less free writing and more thinking—like what I was saying about being more thoughtful about creating a narrative.

I’m also writing a lot more personal essays than I was
before. That comes out of my own experience being so large in front of me, and
there’s something that I may be learning about storytelling that has come out
of writing personal essays as well.

TM: What do you
mean by your own experience being large in front of you?

JA: I don’t feel
well most of the time and I spend a lot of time dealing with that. So my own
physicality is so present and often kind of distracting. And then I think about
writing about those experiences, because I’m a writer, and that’s how I process
things. If I’m having a hard time, I’ll think about what is this hard time and
how is that impacting my life, and what can I learn from other people who have
had similar experiences?

TM: Now would be
a good time for me to ask you about the kindle single you’ve been working on
about chronic illness . . .

JA: Why, thank you for asking! Yes, I’m on the homestretch of that. After that first terrible year when my book didn’t sell and I got sick, at the very end of that year, I published an essay in The Washington Post about Nishi [Shah, Acker’s husband] reading to me. And that was the first thing I wrote about my illness. And then, because I wasn’t sure what was happening with the novel, I ended up writing a lot about that and how I was living this small life that was very domestic, and the people I was seeing the most were my family, and particularly Nishi. And then he developed his own physical ailments, maybe six months into mine, and it was just extraordinary and terrible confluence and we had to figure out how to take care of each other. So that was really the genesis of that essay: I found I was writing not just about my experience but about our experience—how we were coping psychologically and logistically on a day-to-day basis. I had written several different pieces that I ended up combing into one longer piece, which is going to come out sometime next year.

TM: Getting back
to your novel: earlier you were talking about how each editor had a different
idea of how to tell the story, and I was wondering how you settled on the
current structure, which has multiple points of view?

JA: I originally
was interested in the mother’s story because of this particular situation of
her an immigrant and being an unconventional character. I knew she was going to
be sort of a thorny, intense, difficult character, and it was a challenge to
think about how to write her. Then I thought I wanted it to be mother-son
story. So I added a second point of view, and then it was a challenge to myself
to write the father, because he was the most remote to me, because he was a man,
not of my generation, who also was an immigrant. And also, since the mother and
son were emotionally intense characters, I thought I would need someone who was
a little more balanced, to weigh on the actions of the mother and the son in a
way that would be helpful to the reader. And then, the grandfather’s point of
view was crucial from the beginning, because that was the point of view that
would tell the migration story of this family, the move from Kenya to India,
and give the back story of how there came to be this Indian community in East
Africa, which is surprising to most people. Once you know it has to do with
British Empire, you can understand it a bit more. So I had to tell that story
and figure out how to do it.

TM: When did you first become interested in the migration
story of Indians in Kenya?

JA: I first became aware of an Indian community in Kenya,
when I first took my year off before college. From living in Kenya I was
fascinated that this community existed. I didn’t know, really, how they got
there, I just knew that they existed and they were a pretty robust presence. There
were certain foods—like we would drink chai with my host families—so I was
noticing these influences but didn’t have another opportunity to think about it
or dig into it until I met Nishi, whose family history this was. What really
gave me an opportunity to think about it concretely was visiting his family in
Nairobi, in 2007. I had first been in Kenya in 1995 and then in 2007 I went
back with my dad. I wanted to visit my Kenyan host family, and Nishi’s parents
were also going to be traveling to Nairobi, and I wanted the chance to meet his
extended family.

TM: And how do you feel about the book now, if the seed of
it started in 2007, if not before that? Do you still feel close to it? Or do
you feel it’s in your past?

JA: It still feels very much a part of me. I think what’s
exciting about it being published, and being out in the world, is that it’s
going to be a public part of me, when for so long it was a private part of me,
and a secret and at times it was a shameful secret, and now that it’s something
that I can openly talk about and be proud of. It doesn’t yet feel distant to
me, and in part because I’ve been talking about it a lot recently. But I think
it will always feel very personal.

I Was Formed by What I Didn’t Know: The Millions Interviews Dani Shapiro

In the spring of 2016, Dani Shapiro received one of the biggest shocks of her life when she learned, through an Ancestry.com DNA test, that she and her adored, deceased father were not biologically related. She had taken the test on a whim and wasn’t expecting to discover anything new. In fact, she thought she had pretty well excavated her family history in two of her previous memoirs: Slow Motion and Devotion. But the results of the test forced her to revisit mysteries she thought she had put to rest:
There had always been something more—something I could never quite fathom. An invisible live wire stretched between my parents and me. Touch it, and we might up in smoke. I knew this, too, thought I couldn’t have articulated it. I had turned away from fiction, toward memoir, as if a trail of words might lead me there.

Inheritance, her latest memoir, is the remarkable story of how, with just a few clues, Shapiro discovers both that she was donor-conceived, and the identity of her donor. With her mother also deceased, there are many unanswered questions, and Shapiro finds herself delving into the early history of sperm donation, and interviewing the remaining friends and acquaintances of her parents. But she’s most powerful when she writes about the strange memories that have never left her, memories imprinted with a mystery she couldn’t recover.

After reading Inheritance, I was very curious about how she went about writing this story, which is so different from her recent memoirs, but at the same time, speaks directly to them. I spoke to her over the phone last week, and as in her book about writing, Still Writing, she was very good at describing the different stages of her writing process. Our interview has been condensed slightly and edited for clarity.

The Millions: When did you know you would write about this experience?

Dani Shapiro: Very, very quickly. I’m a writer who has mined my own life and attempted to shape my experience into stories for my entire writing life. And then this massive wrecking ball of a story came into my life. I can’t even say it’s a story; it’s a revelation about what has always been true. It never occurred to me not to write about it. Somebody actually wrote to me on social media today—how do you think you would have written about this story if your parents were still alive? I wrote back, that’s a big question, and I’m not going to start responding to it on social media, but the fact that my parents were gone, and I was left with this massive mystery, and the only way I’ve come to understand anything about myself or about life is by writing about it, by following the line of words. And so I began jotting down notes very early on. Just fragments. Part of it was that I thought I wouldn’t remember the very early feelings and thoughts because I was in such shock. And the other reason was because I was aware that anything I might learn about the truth of my origins and the culture and the time and place that made me, those people who might know something about that, were very old if they were still living. I felt this urgency to put my reporter’s hat on and learn as much as I possibly could. I did not have the luxury of thinking, I’m going to write about this five years from now, after I’ve processed it. And, also, some books require distance, but this one felt like it required immediacy.

TM: It’s interesting that you realized right away that the clock was ticking in terms of the research you could do, and the interviews you could do.

DS: I think I would have felt that way whether I was writing the book or not. Writing a book sometimes gives you the excuse, the permission to pick up the phone and call people. I’ve always felt that way, whenever I’ve done a journalistic piece—a personal history piece—it’s always been spurred by what I really want to know but I don’t have permission ask. And if I have an assignment, then I have permission. So, there was something of that.

TM: When I was reading it, I thought it was so lucky that you are a writer—and also you had a journalist husband who could help you with your research. I just felt you had a good way of processing it, but I wondered if you felt that way, too?

DS: Initially I was just in it. I was in the fog of it; I was just doing anything I could, whatever I could. I felt that my emotional future well-being required that I at least try to turn over every stone that I could. I didn’t know what I would discover. But one of the things I figured out very quickly is that, if you have to find out that you’re donor-conceived, I had a miraculously good story. I had almost eerily so, just enough clues. My mother had once let slip, just in one brief conversation with her, certain vital clues: the word “Philadelphia,” the word “Institute.”

And then, let’s start with the fact that I did the DNA test at all. Because I easily could never had done that. It was a very random thing to decide to do, and it was only because my husband was doing it, and the prices have come down, so I thought, Sure, why not? It was so casual, and then the incredibly fast time that it took from the moment that I realized that my dad hadn’t been my biological father to finding my biological father. It was crazy, it was 36 hours, it was a domino effect, one thing leading to another, and a kind of hypothesis, and a couple of clues, and a couple of educated guesses, and the fact that my first cousin was on my page on Ancestry.com, and the fact that we could figure out who he was. It wasn’t hard. There was a certain amount of journalistic chops that were required; I think when my husband figured out that the name associated with my first cousin wasn’t first name-last name, but last name-first name, that’s the kind of thing that maybe somebody who is not an investigative journalist might not have gotten to as quickly, but it did happen in this way that, when I look back on it now, was miraculous.

I’ve heard a lot of stories now of dead ends, of donors who don’t want to be disturbed, or who don’t come around, and don’t respond. I just recently heard a story of a woman who is nearly 80 who just found out that her father had not been her biological father. What do you do with that when you’re 80 years old? I feel like the when in my life when I found out, was probably when I had the most stability, the most time and space, to actually be able to truly, deeply go on this journey. I wasn’t too young and I wasn’t too old. I write about this in the book, but when I was told about donor-conceived people who tattoo their donor numbers on their body, I get that. I had 36 hours, which is nothing, of feeling like I may never know who my biological father was. It felt like I was walking with a void underneath me. Like I had been uprooted—the roots that I thought that I had were no longer my roots. I might never know the facts of my identity.

TM: Did you know the structure of the book right away? And did the writing of this book feel different from writing previous memoirs?

DS: I started writing right away and I thought that I was writing the book. It’s funny, because I’ve taught writing for many years, and I’ve written a book about writing, and every once in a while I come up against something where I think, I know I would tell a student that this is impossible, but it’s not going to be impossible for me…

I learned something important to writers, regarding writing from experience. I have written directly from experience before. In my memoir Devotion, and in Hourglass, those are both books written like the present is a laboratory, and writing from the center of experience, but what was totally different about embarking on writing Inheritance was that those earlier books were not being written from a place of trauma. In initially trying to get what was happening to me down on the page, I was writing from the center of trauma. There’s that moment in my book when I quote from Bessel van der Kolk’s—I don’t have the quote exactly right, but it’s something like, “It’s the nature of trauma that doesn’t allow a story to be told.” It’s the reason why people who are in a traumatic state repeat themselves, and need to keep telling the same story over and over again. But that does not make for good literature—although I want to interject and say that I do think there is one literary form in which you can write directly out of trauma, and it’s poetry.

I wrote 200 pages of a draft. And I was already under contract and I was feeling actually pretty good about what I had on the page at that point. But then I had to go on tour for Hourglass. And I went on the road and I had to go on this mode of really not thinking about it, because I couldn’t think about it and be talking about Hourglass, which was a book that I felt so proud of, and wanted to be promoting. So I was on the road, and I think it must have been about two months that I didn’t touch the manuscript. And I sort of settled in, and I took myself to a local café where I like to read, and I started reread and my heart just completely sank. It had some passages that worked, but as a whole, it simply was not the book I wanted to write. And I was in despair. I went home and told my husband, I know that this is productive despair, I would tell any writer telling me this story that it is productive, and that this is going to end up being a good thing, but it didn’t feel that way. It felt like despair with a capital D.

And then I went back and I reread The Year of Magical Thinking. Because my editor and I had spoken about The Year of Magical Thinking before I had even started writing. She brought up that book as something that had within it a sense of immediacy. And yet at the same time, a powerful coolness to it because that’s what Didion does. In my memory of the book, she was writing from the center of her husband’s death. But when I started rereading it, I realized she actually found a place that is slightly removed from, that was outside the sphere of direct shock and trauma. She was writing from that spot, which allowed her to move back into the immediacy but also away from it in a way that allowed her to tell a story. And so I understood that I hadn’t known what that was. So I spent a couple of months exploring what that place was from which to tell the story, that was on the one hand still unfolding. But the actual breathless 36 hours of that story was very much in the rear view mirror for me when I sat down in earnest and was writing.

My job as a writer was twofold. One was the opposite of what writers need to do—I had to really slow it down. It’s a runaway train of a story, and I had to really think about how to give it the ballast and the weight that it required. The other way that it was different was that I was aware of the outsized details, the sheer strangeness of the story itself, and the uniqueness of it. I mean, I know it’s happened to a lot of people, but most people haven’t experienced it. Yet I wanted to write a book that people would be able to read and find for themselves what’s universal in it. In my memoir Slow Motion for example, my parents had been in a car accident. Even if your own parents haven’t been in a car accident anyone can emphasize and imagine what the person might feel like.

When I’ve written a couple of times about my son when he was little and he was sick, anyone, whether they’re a mother or a father, can put themselves in the shoes of this person telling the story. And I was aware that discovering in midlife that my father was not my biological father, I was going to have to a) help the reader understand what that feels like and b) write a book that took those experiences and took the strange, later-in-life journey that I found myself on, and really made meaning about what is this teaching me about human nature, about personhood, about identity, about family, about love, about what makes a family, about what makes a father, about nature and nurture, about all these huge ideas that I was suddenly grappling with on a deeper level than most people ever have to, and certainly than I had ever done before.

TM: The experience you describe of being able to see your biological father online, giving a video presentation, was just so stunning—I mean, the fact that we are even able to do that, first of all, but also the way you could recognize him. It just must have been so bizarre. You did a great job of describing it, I felt like I experienced it, and it made me think about how we look like our relatives, how my children look like my grandparents, or whomever, and I take it for granted, I don’t really think about it.

DS: Yes—or, if you know that you’re not biologically related to your parents, or one parent, then you know that and that also becomes part of your identity. And that’s a point that I find that I need to make, because it’s not an obvious one. People who are adopted or people who are donor-conceived, who have always known this, or parents who have donor-conceived kids, or adopted kids, who have always disclosed to their children their origins, that is a completely different story from mine, or from the many people these days who are discovering that a secret was kept from them. If you grow up knowing that you don’t know something, then that lack of knowledge becomes part of your identity. But if you grow up believing something that isn’t the case, and something about it just doesn’t make sense—that was the story of my life, and I think it’s actually the reason for all those memoirs.

TM: I actually had the same thought while I was reading. I found myself wondering if you would continue to write memoirs after this?

DS: I very much doubt that I will ever write a straightforward memoir ever again. Hopefully I’ll write fiction and I’ll write nonfiction. I was moving in a direction before I wrote Inheritance that was kind of a more fractured narrative, and away from traditional narrative, which is hilarious to me and ironic because then I had this story land on me, that was like a story with a capital S that could only be written in a straightforward, linear way. I hadn’t written in a linear fashion in a decade or more. So I have no idea what’s next for me, but I really do believe that my writing life has been formed by not knowing and always searching for what I did not know. There are clues all over all of my books. There are clues in my first novel, there are clues in my second novel, there are clues in Slow Motion, there are clues in Still Writing, and there are certainly clues in Devotion; there are clues in all my books except perhaps for Hourglass, which is really a book that is about marriage and time and memory and kind of steered clear of some of my other obsessions, but I was formed by what I didn’t know.

TM: I think Inheritance is also, in a way, a book about writing. Because you write about looking back on your old books—on what you’ve written before—and I also appreciated the amount of textual analysis you applied to the emails from people, and to what people say to you, and what you said to yourself.

DS: I love that, you’re the first person who has said that to me, and I was aware that I was parsing Ben’s emails—he used this word or he made this Freudian slip—and parsing the language that was used at the time of my conception. The word “treatment,” the word “boost.” And all the ways in which euphemism was used, to create a cloud of unknowing, that parents could find themselves wandering in a fog for the rest of their lives about what they had done—if they wanted to, they could do that. And also, I really do feel like everything I’ve written has led to this. My husband, early on, I think he felt bad that I had made this discovery, and it was his fault because he had asked me if I wanted to do the DNA test, but I have never had a moment—not even at my most destabilized—of feeling like I haven’t known. Because my life, in particular, as somebody who has been relentlessly exploring identity, my dad, my relationship with my dad.

It’s taught me a lot about stories and the narratives that we tell ourselves—all of us, not just writers. It’s how we all understand ourselves through storytelling. My narrative about both of my parents had to be reconsidered in light of this new information. I have a shelf of books that supply reasons for why they were the way they were and all of that is still true, but it’s not the whole truth. I was missing the biggest bone. The part that puts it all into complete dimensionality had eluded me until I made that discovery. And then it made everything make profound sense. Almost instantly. It didn’t make it less painful. It was very hard to digest. But I knew absolutely that I was looking at the truth and I had never seen the truth in my life.

TM: One last question—I was wondering if you have read Proust?

DS: I have read Proust, I have taught Proust—why do ask?

TM: I felt like the theories of memories you write about are similar to the ones in In Search of Lost Time, especially the idea that the memories that survive childhood, the deep ones, are the ones that have the truth in them and you have to kind of deep dive to find them.

DS: And to return to them. Why did that conversation with Mrs. Kushner stay with me my whole life? Because I don’t have a good memory of my childhood, but that—I can tell you what the leaves on the tree looked like, and the glasses of iced tea, and what Mrs. Kushner looked like. It was seared into my memory. And that was also true of the conversation I had at Sarah Lawrence with my mother, and on the car ride home. And what’s Proustian about all that is that we don’t know that those moments are becoming recorded in a way, but they are, because somewhere within us there is this very subtle recognition of their importance.

When I taught In Search of Lost Time it was in a graduate writing program at The New School, and I was teaching the literature of autobiography. I made my own syllabus, and I chose books that I wanted to reread. I think I taught that class for 10 years. And I would end every year with Proust. What was drawing me again and again to thinking, to the way he thought about memory? That’s part of what I mean by it all led to this. My friend Hannah Tinti, who is one of the people that I told pretty early on, she had one of the best reactions: She burst out laughing, first of all—laughing at the incredulity, and also like, of course. She wrote to me the next morning and said I had been in training for this my whole life. And I thought, what is it to be in training for something my whole life and have it happen? Or was I in training because of it? It haunts me that I could have possibly have never known this, because I would have missed my mark.

A Year in Reading: Hannah Gersen

Over the summer, I read Charlotte’s Web to my son, and it was like entering the house of an old friend, someone you haven’t seen in years, maybe decades, but as you sit in their kitchen and drink their coffee and look out their window to their backyard view, you remember all the time you spent at this particular table, gazing idly at the photos and sticky note reminders on the refrigerator, at the slowly ripening bananas in a cracked wooden bowl, at the pebble-filled jam jars lined up precariously on the windowsill, at the embossed linoleum floor tiles…and it’s all so comfortable and comforting that it’s like no time has passed at all.

We’ve all had friends like that. And we’ve all had books like Charlotte’s Web. When I read it aloud to my son, the sentences were so overwhelmingly familiar that I felt like I was singing along with a song I’d forgotten I knew. I read Charlotte’s Web many times as a kid, so I knew the story had made an impression, but I hadn’t realized what an influence the prose style had been, that it was a music that would stay with me for life.

Of course Charlotte’s Web is a very sad book. It often gets described as a story that teaches children about death—and I guess it does—but rereading it, I found that the real lesson is that true friendship is rare and rarely lasts a lifetime. When you’re young, and you find someone immediately delightful, you optimistically think life will be full of such encounters; you don’t understand that such people are the exception, not the rule. Your second mistake is in thinking that your mutual affinity means that the friendship will be long-lasting, when it fact, any number of life events might separate you from your friend—not only tragic events like illness and death, but marriage, children, schooling, career, and the ultimate friendship killer, a change of address. Friendships have their seasons, like anything else.

Most children’s books contain simpler lessons about friendship that focus on how to be a good friend or how to keep a friend. E.B. White takes for granted that children have natural affinities for certain people and animals, and that they form deep attachments. Rereading Charlotte’s Web, I appreciated how subtle he was in his storytelling, with his emphasis on the changing seasons on the farm, and on Fern’s transition from childhood to early adolescence. At the beginning of Charlotte’s Web, Fern can understand what animals are thinking and communicating to one another, but by the end, she has stopped visiting the farm and is more interested in the attentions of a boy at the fair.

Did my son pick up on any of this? It’s hard to say. We read it twice, and he loves any story about animals, but it seems that Fantastic Mr. Fox, which is shorter, and funnier, is the one that tickles his soul. I read that book at least eight times this year. It’s basically a heist story that ends in a dinner party. I wouldn’t have guessed that it would be the novel I would spend the most time with this year, but parenthood is full of surprises.

As adult reader, the novels I loved most were Ali Smith’s Autumn and Winter, the first two in her seasonal quartet. These books are set in contemporary times and written quickly to reflect our changing politics—and even our changing seasons, as climate change skews temperatures and habitats. I haven’t read anything that reflects so well how the Internet has begun to permeate our everyday thoughts, or that gets the mood of our era so well, without getting bogged down by specific events or even names. They are witty and sad and strange and playful and kind. After I read them, I decided I would immediately read everything Ali Smith ever wrote. But life got in the way of that project and now I’m waiting for her next installment, Spring, which is due in April.

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

The 2018 Millions Gift Guide for Readers and Writers

It’s that most wonderful time of year, when the internet is bursting with gift guides. Here’s our annual list of suggestions for the readers and writers in your life. We’ve got all the essentials: books, candy, bobbleheads, and hammocks.

1. A Bookcase with Glass Doors
Why glass doors? Because they’re fancy. Because they protect your books from dust. Because you need to upgrade your Billy bookshelf. Because Fran Lebowitz says so.

2. Writers and Their Cats
Steven King, Beverly Cleary, Marlon James, Luis Borges … these are just a few of the writers who appreciate the company of cats. This photography book features portraits of writers and their feline companions. A great gift for writers with cats and also for writers who wish they had a cat, but are still working on convincing their families to live with one.

3. Mark Twain Bobblehead
For fans of Mark Twain, humor, and white suits. Look upon this bobblehead and remember Twain’s wise words: “When a man loves cats, I am his friend and comrade, without further introduction.” (Also: “A successful book is not made of what is in it, but of what is left out of it.”)

4. Wine Shelf
I’ve heard it said that editing your own work is best done after a glass of wine (but probably not two). If pinot noir is part of your writing process, this shelf might come in handy. It might also work well as a resting spot for the kitten you adopted after perusing Writers and Their Cats.

5. Ergonomic Desk Chair
Most writers could use a better chair, especially if they type on a laptop. Wirecutter recommends the Steelcase Gesture Chair, but at over $1,000, that’s a luxury gift. A more budget-friendly option is the “Mesh Task Chair” (also a Wirecutter pick) or Millbergert from IKEA.

6. Jelly Beans
An excellent writing snack. Also a good way to bribe small children who are trying to distract you from your work.

7. The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands
This beautiful book contains maps of imaginary lands from literature, from Narnia to Dante’s Inferno to Earthsea, Mordor, Treasure Island, and many more, both classic and obscure. With an introduction from Philip Pullman, there are also a number of essays from authors and film directors about how maps inform their creative process.

8. Literary Walking Tour
A walking tour is the kind of thing you don’t buy for yourself, especially not in the place you live, but a tour is an easy way to see a new side of a place you think you know well—especially if you live in a place with a lot of underemployed graduate students. New York City is, unsurprisingly, home to a large variety of literary walking tours that cater to both tourists and locals. I also found tours available in a number of American cities including Boston, Pittsburgh, Savannah, Chicago, Iowa City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis. For international travelers, Lonely Planet put together a list of the world’s best literary tours. (Some are offered year-round, while others are intermittent; I’ve linked to tours that are available now.)

9. Cabin Getaway Vacation
The one thing that all writers and readers want is more time to read and write. Nothing offers quiet and solitude like a cabin getaway, especially if you search for one located in an area with poor wifi access.

10. Indoor Hammock
If you can’t afford a getaway, a hammock in your home is like a daily vacation. (I recommend browsing Etsy for the widest variety of options, but many home goods stores sell them, as well as sites that sell outdoor furniture and camping supplies.)

11. A Book Blanket
Wrap yourself up in the words of your favorite author with Litograph’s blankets. Like their posters and T-shirts, their throws are printed with the text of your favorite works of literature.

12. Reading Lamp
Everyone can use a lamp for their bedside table (or floor) to facilitate cozy reading time and soothe the brain after a day of screen time. Some options: a simple light bulb, a sturdy table lamp, or this little spaceship of a lamp.

13. Literary Subscriptions
Literary subscriptions seem to be having a bit of a moment these days, with independent bookstores curating book boxes to meet the taste of their clientele. Some of the national subscriptions that we’ve mentioned in the past are defunct, while others, like Journal of the Month and The Short Story Advent Calendar are still going strong. A few others to consider: Call Number celebrates contemporary Black literature, while Coffee and a Classic helps readers catch up on all the classics they missed in college (and provides coffee to keep you awake). For used books (and a more budget-friendly subscription) try Blue Spider Books. For YA fans, there’s Bookship, which is specifically catered to adults who like to read YA.

14. Support The Millions!
And here’s something we hope you’ll consider treating yourself to: Support The Millions by becoming a member, and you’ll help ensure there’s something smart, curious, unexpected and moving to read pretty much every day in 2019. And—the ribbon on top—our members now receive an exclusive monthly newsletter in which our venerable staffers let you know what they’re reading right now. It’s a great way to find new books to read!

Image: Flickr/m01229

No Superheroes Here: Nine Upcoming Book-to-Film Adaptations

Hollywood has always looked to the literary world for stories, and 2018 has already seen a number of big screen adaptations, including Annihilation, A Wrinkle in Time, Ready Player One, and On Chesil Beach. Here’s a look ahead to the summer’s offerings, so if you’re the type of person who prefers to read the book before the movie—and we know you are, Millions readers!—you’ll have time to prepare.

Eating Animals is Jonathan Safran Foer’s memoir about becoming vegan. Now it’s a documentary narrated by Natalie Portman. Make sure to eat a good meal before watching it, because it’s one of those documentaries, like Food, Inc., that’s sure to make you lose your appetite (in theaters June 15).

Leave No Trace is an adaptation of Peter Rock’s My Abandonment, the story of a father and daughter who live secretly in a public urban park in Portland, Ore.—until they are accidentally discovered by a jogger. It’s written and directed by Debra Granik, who also directed Winter’s Bone (in theaters June 29).

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is based on the memoir of John Callahan, whose wickedly funny cartoons are the kind that make you say, “I really shouldn’t be laughing at this.” At 21, Callahan was involved in a bad car crash that left him a quadriplegic. After years of therapy, he learned to hold a pen again and started drawing. Joaquin Phoenix stars as Callahan, with Gus Van Sant directing (in theaters July 13).

Far from the Tree is a documentary based on Andrew Solomon’s nonfiction book about parents whose children are very different from them, e.g., hearing parents whose children are deaf, the parents of children with autism, the parents of child prodigies, the parents of children with dwarfism—to name just a few of the many people Solomon interviews. I loved this doorstopper of a book when it was first published and am curious to see how Solomon’s in-depth reporting and research translates to the screen (in theaters July 20).

The Wife will star Glenn Close as the titular wife of Meg Wolitzer’s 2003 novel, which is narrated by the self-sacrificing wife of a famous novelist. It’s a bitterly comic novel, one that the 2003 Publisher’s Weekly review notes has “no cheap, gratifying Hollywood ending to make it all better.” Let’s see if the movie stays true to form (in theaters Aug. 3).

Juliet, Naked is based on Nick Hornby’s 2009 novel about the girlfriend of a fanboy who begins a correspondence with the object of her boyfriend’s obsession, a singer-songwriter called Tucker Crowe. Hornby has had success with previous adaptations of his novels, including High Fidelity and About a Boy, and this latest book-to-screen transition looks like a smooth one. Starring Ethan Hawke as Tucker Crowe (in theaters Aug. 13).

Crazy Rich Asians looks like it’s going to be just as much fun as Kevin Kwan’s novel, a romantic comedy about an NYU student, Rachel Chu, who travels with her boyfriend, Nick Young, to Singapore to meet his family—who turn out to be ridiculously wealthy. Also, Nick is the sole heir to the family fortune! This spells trouble for Rachel, who is just a naive, middle-class girl from California. Kwan’s novel, the first of the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy, was a bestseller in 2013. So maybe this isn’t the last film adaptation we’ll see (in theaters Aug. 13).

The Bookshop adapts Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel by the same name. It’s a tragicomedy about a bookstore trying to thrive in a small fishing village in 1959. Today’s bookstore owners might relate? Originally published in 1978 in the U.K., it didn’t make it to the U.S. until the late 1990s. Now it’s a film starring Emily Mortimer, Bill Nighy, and Patricia Clarkson, written and directed by Isabel Coixet (in theaters Aug. 24).

The Little Stranger is based on Sarah Waters’s bestselling haunted house thriller. Set in postwar England, it tells the story of a country doctor, Farady, who is called to the estate of Hundreds Hall to treat a servant. The house is one he knows from childhood, because his mother used to work there as a maid. He soon becomes entangled with the family. With Domhnall Gleeson as Farady and Charlotte Rampling as the lady of the house, and directed by Lenny Abrahamson, who directed the 2015 adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s Room (in theaters Aug. 31).