Filling in the Past: On Nathan Harris’s ‘The Sweetness of Water’

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Nathan Harris’s father was obsessed with researching his family history, but when Harris asked what he’d discovered, the answer was almost nothing—a common situation for many Black Americans. In his debut novel, The Sweetness of Water, Harris creates that missing history through the story of two brothers, Prentiss and Landry, who are freed by the Emancipation Proclamation and hired to work on the Georgia farm of George and Isabelle Walker, whose only son died as a soldier in the Civil War. “All Black writers are drawn to filling in their past,” he says.

Realizing how little he knew about the period in American history right after emancipation, Harris says he started thinking about the repercussions of the enslaved suddenly becoming free, and what that freedom meant when there were no guidelines to help navigate the change.
“What did it feel like to be these people in this time in history?” Harris asks. “The power of imagination is very strong. I’ve written my own story, sourced it from the air. I wanted to immerse readers in that world, rural Georgia in 1865.” The novel expanded to explore many issues the nation faced at that time, and in it Harris looks at class, identity, and society. A parallel plot follows the fate of two gay Confederate soldiers who return to the town of Old Ox, and the effect on the community when their relationship is revealed.
Harris says he did “enough” research. “I didn’t want to get bogged down in the details,” he adds. “I wanted to stay focused on the story. But on the other hand, I wanted to get it right.”
Ben George, Harris’s editor at Little, Brown, says, “History comes alive through Nathan’s characters. Nathan is only in his 20s. Most debut novels are autobiographical. It’s astounding how big his canvas is, how he’s able to marshal research from the era. I completely fell in love with this novel the first time I read it and more so each subsequent time. I told Nathan on the phone that the book ‘set my hair on fire.’ ” George recalls that everyone at Little, Brown felt the same, and he was able to preempt Sweetness soon after he received it.
Emily Forland, Harris’s agent at Brandt & Hochman, tells me she was lucky with this book. “Emails are treasure houses,” she says. “You never know what you will find.” In March 2019, she found Harris’s query letter. “He was a fellow at the Michener Center at the University of Austin, and I always notice Michener fellows because the program produces such high-quality work.”
Forland says she was initially attracted to the subject matter: “What did that mean emotionally, when freed men became free?” And then she was taken with the elegance of the writing (she has a poetry MFA from Sarah Lawrence). “The opening pages had so much beauty and observation,” she notes.
The description of George Walker on the first page of Sweetness is testament to Forland’s comment. “He’d developed a hitch over the last few years,” Harris writes, “had pinned it on a misplaced step as he descended from his cabin to the forest floor, but he knew this was a lie: it had appeared with the persistence and steady progress of old age itself—as natural as the lines on his face, the white in his hair.”
Harris is from Oregon but moved to San Francisco after graduating from the University of Oregon. He started writing in college and says he always “had an idea” to write a big book. “I was influenced by classic sweeping epic books. These were the books that moved me, that feeling when you’re a kid and you turn that last page. So one morning I sat down and gave it a try.”
From 2013 to 2015, Harris worked on the novel in the mornings and evenings while delivering food for Postmates in the afternoons. He says he’d never written historical fiction and had to work to keep the “thoughts of fear out of my head.”
Harris shared some chapters with Jason Brown, a mentor at Oregon, who told him, “I think you have gold here. Finish it.” Then Harris was accepted as a fellow at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin, knocked his draft into shape, and in 2019, the third year of the program, decided it was time to get an agent.
“It was a dark period,” Harris says. “I met with a few agents and not much happened.” Then he found Forland online. “Emily got in touch and we hit it off. She’s always there for me. When there’s anxiety, Emily is there.”
Forland thought the manuscript was very polished. She sent it out to a “fairly wide group of editors, 10 or 12”, in June 2019. George’s reaction was “quick and strong,” she recalls. “And I always pay attention when a house and an editor feels this way.”
George got the manuscript June 18, got back to Forland on June 24, and spoke with Harris on June 26.
“Ben was a whirlwind,” Harris says. “I was at the gym when Emily called to tell me how much Ben liked the book and we were off to the races. He really connected to the material.”
Forland remembers George’s keen interest. She remembers because she had taken her son to see Toy Story 4, and, she tells me, “I only saw the last 10 minutes. I was negotiating with Ben and talking to Nathan through the whole movie. When Ben wants something, he’s passionate and enthusiastic. We closed the deal for a ‘nice, substantial advance’ for world English rights on my way to the subway the next morning.”
Sweetness will publish simultaneously in the U.K. with Tinder Press.
The praise in Richard Russo’s blurb says it all: “Harris has, in a sense, unwritten Gone With the Wind, detonating its phony romanticism, its unearned sympathies, its wretched racism.”

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Maggie Shipstead Wants to Transport You

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There’s nothing like a big book with a map in front to ramp up my excitement, and Maggie Shipstead’s new novel, Great Circle (Knopf, May 2021), is one of those books. Add globe-trotting women protagonists and a story that moves across decades and I’m ready to be transported, which, Shipstead tells me, is her hope. “I’m writing what I want to read: a provocative book with literary value that’s also entertaining.”
Great Circle tells the story of two women, living in different times, both ambitious and destined to determine their own futures. It opens in 1909 with the sinking of an ocean liner and the rescue of twins Marian and Jamie. Marian becomes a famous aviator, from Prohibition-era Montana to WWII Europe. In present-day Hollywood, actor Hadley Baxter hopes to reinvent herself by playing the role of Marian (who disappeared over Antarctica in 1950).
This is Shipstead’s third novel, after her 2012 bestselling debut, Seating Arrangements, and 2014’s Astonish Me. A Harvard graduate, she says she applied to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2005 “not expecting to get in”—but when she was accepted, she thought, “Amazing—I have a life plan for the next two years.” While at Iowa, she began to think of writing as a feasible career.
Iowa is also where Shipstead also met her literary agent, Rebecca Gradinger, of Fletcher & Company. “During my second year, Connie Brothers [then program administrator] called me to ask if I had an agent,” she says. “When I said I didn’t, she sent me to pick up Rebecca, who was coming to talk to the students. At that point, I only had a few short stories.”
Gradinger remembers traveling to Iowa when she was a “baby agent”: “I didn’t have a driver’s license, and Connie kindly sent [Shipstead] to pick me up. We had an amazing conversation, didn’t talk about work, but she did send me a story I read on my BlackBerry. Remember those? I couldn’t stop reading it: it was so crisp and funny and insightful.”
Interestingly, Gradinger recalls, Shipstead was not one of the students who signed up for her talk.
Shipstead offered to drive Gradinger back to the airport and a year and a half later sent her some stories. One of them was a long story that became Seating Arrangements.
“Rebecca is the only agent I’ve ever had; I never spoke to another one,” Shipstead says. “It’s like marrying the first person you go on a date with.”
They worked together on Seating Arrangements, and Gradinger submitted it widely. But, she says, “there was a real connection” with Knopf’s Jordan Pavlin. And she’s been Shipstead’s editor ever since.
“Maggie came into my orbit about 10 years ago,” Pavlin says. “I was dazzled by her work from the opening paragraphs of that first novel.”
“Jordan’s brilliant,” Shipstead says. “It was so exciting to sell that first book. I was 26 years old and, being so young, it was a great relief.”
The following year, Shipstead went to Stanford with a Stegner Fellowship, and after that she took to the road, traveling to Bali, Paris, and Edinburgh. During that period she also finished Astonish Me, which evolved from a short story about ballet that she had written at Stanford.
“Astonish Me was finished in five months and sold before Seating Arrangements was published,” Shipstead says. She had another novel going but “couldn’t get back into it.” Then at the Auckland airport, she saw a statue of Jean Batten, an aviator who made the first-ever solo flight from England to New Zealand in 1936. The statue bore a quote: “I was destined to be a wanderer.” Right then, Shipstead recalls, “I decided to write about a female aviator.” The adapted quote became the first line of Great Circle: “I was born to be a wanderer.”
Shipstead acknowledges that Great Circle became “an unwieldy project” two years into the writing. She “did a lot of research, a lot of traveling.” In 2015, she started writing travel articles, and she calls her journalism symbiotic with her fiction.
“I put places in the book where I’d been,” Shipstead says. Great Circle moves through Montana, Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, New Zealand, Paris, Berlin, and Los Angeles.
In 2018, after four years of writing, Shipstead had a draft of Great Circle and sent it to Gradinger. They worked on it for about nine more months before sending it to Pavlin.
With the new book, Pavlin says, she knew Shipstead was working on “something important, special—something epic.” She signed it on a partial manuscript. “It’s a spectacular book—wondrous and magisterial, a book you can get lost in, that lifts you out of everyday life.”
Pavlin says Great Circle is “exactly the kind of novel we know what to do with at Knopf—the kind of book we all crave. It’s a tour de force about two unforgettable women in vastly different geographic and historical places yet they are also entirely of the moment. It’s an immersive reading experience about female power, about dreaming big dreams and having the courage to pursue them.”
The contract for North American rights was signed in late 2018 for two books, in a six-figure deal according to the Bookseller. The second title is a collection of short stories that Pavlin says showcases Shipstead’s range. Transworld will publish Great Circle in the U.K. on May 27.
Shipstead’s wish for Great Circle is to take readers away, to elicit an emotional response. “With the pandemic,” she says, “we all feel confined. This book is about freedom, a breath of escape.”

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

The Poetic Fiction of Gabriela Garcia

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“When I wrote this book,” Gabriela Garcia says of her debut novel, Of Women and Salt, “I had the ambitious idea of combining all these different threads I was obsessed with: Cuba, America, detention, deportation, addiction, privilege.” She also knew she wanted to write a book with all the voices being those of women—and so she has.
The story begins with Maria Isabel, who in 1866 Cuba was the sole woman working in a male-dominated cigar factory. Moving back and forth in place and time, from Cuba to Miami to Mexico and from the 19th century to the present, Garcia spins tales of generations of Latinx women bound by blood and heritage and trauma: Carmen, a Cuban immigrant who becomes successful in the U.S.; Carmen’s daughter Jeanette, addicted to drugs and an abusive man; and Gloria, a Central American woman separated from her daughter when she’s taken into custody by ICE.
Garcia, 35, is the daughter of immigrants from Mexico and Cuba and grew up, she says, in “the overwhelming Latinx community in Miami.” She adds, “I was aware of the factions that existed—race and class, and what Latinx means in that community.” But while there are elements of her life in the book, her background is very different from that of the wealthy family in Of Women and Salt.
Garcia tells me she had a variety of jobs in music, magazines, newspapers, and social justice organizations but did not take her creative writing seriously until “I realized it was all I wanted to do.” She went to Purdue University for a three-year MFA program, where she studied with Roxane Gay, whom she calls “a mentor and a great supporter who championed me.” When Gay tweeted about Garcia’s work (the book was her MFA thesis), agents took notice.
PJ Mark, a partner at Janklow & Nesbit, and Marya Spence, an agent there, are co-representing Garcia. “It’s an unusual situation,” Spence says. “It started because there were different avenues of discovering her.” Spence saw Gay “wax poetic about Gabriela as a writer” and reached out.
Meanwhile, Brian Leung, the director of the creative writing program at Purdue, put Mark in touch with Garcia. “He told me Gabriela was ‘the real deal’ and about to receive a major prize” Mark says. Leung wouldn’t reveal which prize (it was the 2018 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award). So both agents, who first heard about Garcia in July 2018, were reading the manuscript at the same time. Both were loving it; both got in touch with her.
“PJ and I work really well together,” Spence says, “so we decided to join forces in a complementary way.”
Mark adds that he and Spence have worked together on many projects, but this is the first time they’ve collaborated as co-agents. “We have an intuitive shorthand, so this was our getting back together,” he says. He stresses how “fiercely Garcia brought these women’s lives to bear, emphasizing the theme of force reverberating through generations of women: force as revolution, force as reproduction.”
Spence was immediately aware that Garcia is first and foremost a poet and of how that shows in her fiction. “Gabriela talks about women’s struggles, which are shown in poignant vignettes, yet there’s continuity,” she says.
Garcia signed on as a client with Janklow & Nesbit in October 2018 and in March 2019, the manuscript was sent to publishers. Within a week, there were 10 interested editors, which led to a heated auction. Megan Lynch, then editorial director at Ecco, won North American rights.
“I found Megan easy to talk to,” Garcia says. “I felt like she got my vision for the book.” And there was the “good advance”—close to seven figures, according to Mark.
Of Women and Salt was Lynch’s last purchase before she went on maternity leave. “I was not taking on any books,” she says. “But I read the manuscript from two of my favorite agents and was so taken with the firepower and emotionally compelling characters, I had to have it. It engaged my brain and my emotions. I sent off my edits hours before my leave, which was perfect. Gabriela had three months to work on it.”
Lynch was tapped to be the publisher of Flatiron Books last November, and in another unusual and, she notes, fortuitous situation, “the book followed me over.” Of Women and Salt was her first presentation at Flatiron. “It was exciting, and there could have been no better book to introduce me to the imprint,” she notes. She also says it’s been interesting to work on the book during the pandemic: “So many video chats, so much experimentation. We are learning that there are things we don’t need, but we need each other.”
Flatiron will publish Of Women and Salt in April 2021, and it will be released simultaneously in the U.K. by Picador. Rights have already been sold in eight territories.
Garcia says in writing the book she wanted to challenge herself—to look at how history shapes our lives in invisible ways and to explore the complexity of mother-daughter relationships. “My general life philosophy,” she admits, “is to expect the least, so it shocks me to have this much interest in the book.” Absolutely exciting, and fortuitous.


This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Nadia Owusu on Processing Trauma

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In January, Simon & Schuster will publish Nadia Owusu’s Aftershocks: A Memoir, which traces her nomadic childhood, the early absence of her parents, and the enduring impact of experiences that have shaped her as a person and an artist. Born in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to an Armenian American mother and a Ghanaian father who worked for a U.N. agency, Owusu lived in England, Italy, Ethiopia, and Uganda before the age of 18, when she moved to New York City. And while, she says, she “loved the countries I lived in,” she “never deeply understood them, and grew up far from my parents’ cultures.” To that feeling of displacement, add the trauma of Owusu’s mother abandoning the family when Owusu was two, and the death of her adored father when she was 14. Owusu struggled emotionally, especially after coming to learn more about the circumstances of her father’s illness and death.
“To heal,” Owusu writes, “I would need to look inward as well as outward. I would need to examine my memories. I would need to interrogate the stories I told myself—about myself, about my family, about the world. My unsolved questions were about my mothers and my father. They were about loss, longing, and fear; about my abandonment…But they were also about the borders and boundaries and fault lines on which we all live. They were about fractured surfaces and tectonic forces; about energies unleashed.”
“I started writing about a decade ago,” Owusu says, “not for a book—just writing, trying to understand. I spent time following my curiosity, connecting the countries I’d lived in to the story of my life.” At the international schools she attended, Owusu says, the history she studied was mostly about the West; she knew very little about African history. Owusu was interested in family history and also wanted “to dig into the bigger histories, to process my traumas, not as a project but for myself.”
Now 39, Owusu works full-time as the associate director for learning and equity at Living Cities, a racial economic justice organization in New York City. Deciding to take her writing seriously, Owusu applied to the Mountainview low-residency MFA program at Southern New Hampshire University and started writing memoir. “I found the heat in my musings,” she says. “I trusted my teachers that this material was urgent.” In the second year of the program, she wrote her “first real draft.”
Some chapters were published as standalone pieces: Owusu’s agent, Meredith Kaffel Simonoff at DeFiore & Company, tells me she first encountered Owusu “through an essay she wrote for Catapult, titled “The Wailing,” depicting the days just after the death of her father, whose presence and love were colossal in her life.” Kaffel Simonoff was impressed that Owusu was able “to conjure such a strong sense of character in such a short span of pages. I reached out and we began a correspondence.”
“The Wailing” became part of the memoir, and the next piece Owusu sent to Kaffel Simonoff, “First Earthquake,” became the opening entry. “It was so clean,” Kaffel Simonoff says. “Line by line, word by word. Nadia writes with such incredible empathy and emotional accessibility. It’s rare to find a writer with her mix of ferocious rigor and warmth and grace.”
In the summer of 2017, Owusu sent a full draft to Kaffel Simonoff, and by fall they had made the commitment to work together. “Nadia came in with all these brilliant interlocking pieces,” Kaffel Simonoff remembers, “and when we spread them out on the conference table, the aftershocks metaphor was there.”
“Meredith got what I was doing,” Owusu says. “I liked her ideas about structure and trusted her feedback. She did deep research into earthquake aftershocks! We didn’t use most of it, but it was interesting, and I felt I had a good partner connected to the work.”
Kaffel Simonoff sent the book to U.S. publishers in April 2018, and within the first few days meetings were set up with several editors. But the fateful one was with S&S publisher (now CEO) Jonathan Karp and senior editor Ira Silverberg, who told me, “I trust Meredith. She sent me the manuscript and I immediately said, ‘We have to have this!’ ”
“There was so much chemistry between Nadia and Ira,” Kaffel Simonoff says. “We did not anticipate taking a preempt, but shortly after we left we got an offer that knocked us out. It was clear that this was the right home.” According to Kaffel Simonoff, S&S bought North American rights to Aftershocks for “a healthy six figures.”
Silverberg did most of the editing. When he left S&S, Carrie Goldstein had it for a time, and finally Dawn Davis took it over in March 2019. Davis, founder and publisher of 37 Ink, says, “When Meredith asked me if I would take over Aftershocks, I was very interested in the places in it, and I love Ira’s taste. I was happy to protect and be custodian for something he loved. It was an honor, not a favor. This is a classic narrative.” She adds: “There’s the heart of a poet in Nadia’s language. It’s one of those books you start underlining as soon as you start reading.” Davis will be leaving 37 Ink for a new position at Bon Appétit but says she may be a consulting editor for the book.
Aftershocks will publish in the U.K. in February with Sceptre, and rights have been sold in the Netherlands and Sweden. And then there’s the 2019 Whiting Award that Osuwu won on the basis of the memoir’s manuscript.
“I was in shock when I got the news,” Owusu says. “They called but I didn’t answer. I thought it was spam, and then I checked my emails too late to call back. I didn’t have a book out, so I was completely surprised. When they told me I had won, I said, ‘How?’”
Bonus Links:
Nadia Owusu on Validating Each Other’s Experiences
Making Sense of Trauma: The Millions Interviews Melanie Abrams
Trauma Is the Thing We Inherit

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Sprawling Messes Are What I Aim For: The Millions Interviews Chris Ware

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The product of 18 years of work, Chris Ware’s graphic novel Rusty Brown is set in a parochial school in 1970s Omaha, Neb. The book will be published in Sept. 24 by Pantheon.

Ware’s book takes a plunge into the daily consciousness of his characters—third grader Chalky White; his sister Alice, perpetually bullied middle-schooler Rusty Brown; his remote father, Woody Brown; cruel stoner Jordan Lint; and Joanne, a black teacher with a powerful secret—in a methodical, unsentimental, lyrical rendition of their lives.
Meticulously drawn and designed, each page is a testament to Ware’s distinctive visual syntax and to a story that is both heartbreaking and heartrending. In this email exchange, Ware responded to questions about the creation of the book and his  process.
The Millions: You’ve been working on this book for 18 years. When did you imagine Rusty Brown as a book? Your editor Chip Kidd said that the last hundred pages or so are unpublished. How long did they take you?

Chris Ware: I drew the first page of Rusty Brown a week after finishing [my earlier graphic novel] Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (2000). I knew it would be a long book, but as in the embarrassing cases of my other experiments, never thought it would go on as long as it has, or metastasize into such a sprawling mess. Then again, sprawling messes are what I aim for, since they most accurately reflect real life. After a few years of working on it along with other projects (I started Building Stories [a PW Best Book in 2012] and finished that somewhere in the middle) it became clear that it would stretch well into a many-years-long project and I decided to make that a defining characteristic of the book rather than a humiliating secret.
I’ve changed as a person while working on it, reflected both in how I draw and in how I write, and the nation has changed as well, all of which I’ve tried to acknowledge and incorporate into the “feel” and plot (for lack of a better word.) Then again, this sort of “staying the same while changing” is no different from the way in which we all live, trying to fix what we consider important moments in our minds yet inevitably changing and rewriting them, while making plans which always change or fall apart in the face of unpredictable fortune and tragedy.
TM: How autobiographical is Rusty Brown?
CW: Well, comics are the art of memory, and every word, picture, gesture, idea, aim, regret, etc. that’s gone into the story has somehow filtered through my recollection and selectivity, so it’s all somehow autobiographical. I did grow up in Omaha, and while I share qualities with all of the characters in the book, I’ve tried to imagine people different from myself and also to understand and empathize with them as much as possible, since I believe that’s really the only aim and hope for humanity and art, and also one of the points of the book, more or less.
With Building Stories I tried to write a book without a beginning or an end, and Rusty Brown is an attempt to write a book without a protagonist, despite its goofy title. Without going all college-seminar-y here, it’s inspired by the structure of a snowflake, the six-sided shape of which is determined by the molecular structure of a water molecule, and which cannot form without a central piece of flotsam or grit. Though that sounds really pretentious; sorry.

TM: Can you tell me something about your process?
CW: Every morning after recording the events of the previous day in my comic strip diary, I sit down at my table and try to avoid all of the distractions of the modern world day by turning off my computer and phone. If I’m starting from a blank page I might have some notes or ideas as to how the page is going to take shape, but those might also be completely jettisoned once I get going, since when I start drawing, new ideas and memories float to the surface based on what I’m looking at that rather than what I was thinking about; sometimes I might even remember a person or an incident I’ve completely forgotten, or a character “reacts” to something in a way I would not. In simpler words, it’s improvised, but no more improvised than it would be to sit down, stare at a wall and see what I could script and come up with—which, from experience, I find is always vastly inferior and banal compared to what the slow-release inward-looking process of drawing suggests.
I work in lumps of two pages each, since that’s how books are bound, and once I get two pages all “written,” which means drawn in pencil and which usually takes two to five days, I’ll ink it using a brush and ink, which usually takes a day or two. Then I’ll scan it in and color it, which takes a day. So generally it takes about a week to do two pages. Not a very efficient mode of storytelling. Then again, it allows for a certain slow percolation of ideas and story that perhaps other art forms don’t. The guiding rudder of writers I revere like Zadie Smith, Tolstoy, Joyce, Nabokov, etc. provide a humiliating reminder that I’m never trying hard enough or getting enough done, but Rusty Brown is my current best attempt to make a literary graphic novel that respects its reader, and unlike a film director or even an artist with multiple assistants, it’s all me doing it and none of it involves any collaboration or editorial adjustment. So if a reader doesn’t like it, then I’m solely to blame.
TM: Can you tell me about the book jacket for Rusty Brown?
CW: Not unlike the folding jacket for Jimmy Corrigan, this one is something of the conceptual inverse, designed to be folded into a different jacket for each of the book’s three protagonists. Once the second part is published for the other three, it could also be arranged into a larger diagram of how the six characters combine and narratively mortify each other. It, like the book itself, is loosely based on the structure of a water molecule. Perhaps I was in college for a little too long.