Freedom On Her Mind

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Poet, critic, writer, and MacArthur fellow Maggie Nelson says she knew she was “biting off quite a bit” when she decided to write about freedom. The idea for her 10th book, On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint, publishing in September with Graywolf, began when she was working on 2011’s The Art of Cruelty. “Writing that book,” she recalls, “I noticed that if you focused on the sibling or cousin concept, the first thought of cruelty’s opposite would be kindness. “But once I started to think about cruelty as being compressed space or choices, humiliation or violence, its opposite seemed to be freedom. Then I became interested in writing about it. There’s no more vexed word, with all the things freedom means to different people.”
Nelson is excited about On Freedom, her first book since the pivotal and successful The Argonauts, which won the 2015 NBCC award in criticism. The intro to On Freedom, she says, “swoops through the four spheres I wanted to write about in a concrete and contemporary way: art, sex, drugs, and climate. As a writer, I don’t feign interest in things that don’t move me, and these four are important to me.”
She goes on to explain that art is a natural fit: she’s taught art and writes about art. She calls art, along with sexual freedom, her “most native ground.” Her chapter on drugs is “more niche, esoteric, but as a sober person I’m interested in substance abuse—the idea of being enslaved, enthralled.” And climate “is what’s on everyone’s mind. This took the longest to write, because I read a lot about it.”
Ethan Nosowsky, Graywolf’s editorial director, was a big fan of Nelson for years.
“Maggie and I were in touch after she’d been awarded a fellowship from the Creative Capital Foundation, where I was a consultant for some years,” he tells me. “She’s a writer who published a bunch of books and writes in a critical mode that’s also lyrical. The Argonauts caught both, and at Graywolf, we really got the book. We understood it, knew how to publish it, pitch it, talk about it. It’s a conversation about gender and family that came at the right moment.”
Nosowsky and Graywolf publisher Fiona McCrae knew about On Freedom when Nelson and her agent, Janklow & Nesbit partner PJ Mark, attended Graywolf’s 45th anniversary gala in September 2019 in Minneapolis, where Nelson was a featured author. “The Argonauts did really well for us, and we really wanted to publish Maggie’s next book,” Nosowsky says. “We had a lovely conversation, during which Fiona and I made a case for Graywolf acquiring the next book whenever Maggie was done with it, when Maggie pulled a copy of On Freedom out of this big bag she was carrying!”
Graywolf, Nosowsky adds, “made it clear that we would stretch to make a competitive offer. This book is a contribution to the cultural conversation. Maggie takes the loftiest ideas and tethers them to the ground; she makes important things legible and there’s warmth to her writing. Also, she doesn’t come to answers but poses questions. The book is full of thinking and feeling. She’s appreciative of human messiness: a 21st-century intellectual.”
A two-book, North American rights deal was announced in January 2020, for what Nosowsky calls “a very substantial advance for Graywolf.” (The second title will be a collection of essays.)
Mark has been Nelson’s agent for 15 years, since The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial, about the murder of her aunt. He and Nelson are in sync on the new book. “Maggie and I speak the same language,” he says. “She’s been writing this book since 2015; I knew she was trying to untie the knots of freedom.”
The manuscript was finished in fall 2019, but Mark was seeing pieces as early as 2016 and they were discussing it. “Maggie,” he says, “is extraordinary. She’s a broad thinker; for her thinking is an ethical act. She gathers sources and unpacks them and wrestles with the world in a way that most writers cannot. Instead of a hot take, she pulls across fields and genres to make something new. Every book invents something new.”
Mark tells me that there were only conversations with Graywolf. “Maggie was happy with the publishing relationship. She’s been published by both large and small publishers and found an amazing collaboration with Graywolf. It made sense to stay with them.”
On Freedom sold to Jonathan Cape in the U.K. in a major deal and will publish there simultaneously with the U.S. release in September. To date, the book has been sold in 18 other foreign territories. The plan, Mark says, is to take it to the 2021 London Book Fair in June.
“The practice of freedom—i.e., the morning after, and the morning after that—is what, if we’re lucky, takes up most of our waking lives,” Nelson writes in her intro. “This book is about that experiment unending.”


This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Fifty Years Later, a New Novel Emerges

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Wole Soyinka’s literary and activist careers are as marvelous and impressive as his full name, Akinwande Oluwole Babatunde Soyinka, which Pantheon executive editor Erroll McDonald told me to look up. The winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize for Literature, Soyinka is coming out with his first novel in almost 50 years, Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth.
A biting satire that looks at corruption in an imaginary contemporary Nigeria, Chronicles is also an intriguing and droll whodunit. The mystery unfolds around someone trying to stop Duyole Pitan-Payne, a prominent Nigerian and a Yoruba royal, from taking an important post at the United Nations in New York City. Meanwhile, Pitan-Payne’s childhood friend, Dr. Menka, confides that body parts are being stolen from his hospital to be used in rituals. Who is involved and why come together in a brilliant story that takes on politics, class, corruption, and religion from the very first chapters, and that highlights Soyinka’s lush, elegant language:

“That the nation known as the giant of Africa was credited with harbouring the Happiest People in the World was no longer news. What remained confusing was how such recognition came to be earned and, by universal consent, deserved. Aspiring nations needed to be rescued from their state of envious aspiration, a malaise that induced doomed efforts to snatch the crown from their head. The wisdom of elders counsels that it is more dignified to acknowledge a champion where indisputable, thereafter take one’s place behind its leadership, than to carp and wiggle in frustration. When we encounter an elephant, let us admit that we have seen the lord of the forest.”

And this description of a woman: “May I just say that she was like the blending of the kola nuts in the tray she balanced on her head…. I look that skin, and is like God take the red kola and mix it a little with the yellow-white kola nut, and you get a complexion for which even an angel will sell one of his wings, I swear.”
The playwright, poet, essayist, memoirist, novelist, and film writer tells me via Zoom from Nigeria that he did not write this novel “suddenly,” noting, “These ideas have appeared in all my work, my theater, my poems, but I decided they needed an extensive prose treatment.” It took many years; he says he needed “time out of it—time away to write about my country. I had to wait until it was ready.”
Theater, Soyinka tells me, is where he is most at home—“both my work and [plays by] others. I love all of it.” His first major play, The Swamp Dwellers, was written in 1958, when he was 24.
Soyinka calls the Covid-19 pandemic “the nasty icing on the cake” that provided so much time to work. Before the pandemic, he had “carved out spaces,” spending 10 days in a little village in Senegal on the sea and then in Ghana at a residency. The actual writing of the book took close to 12 months, he says, working in a “white heat.” He cites the “trials of computers, losing text, computer crashes,” adding, “I was outside and by myself, and then Covid happened and lockdown.”
I ask Soyinka why he’s framed this book as a mystery. “Secretly,” he says, “I always wanted to write a whodunit. This is a confession! I would come across ideas and think, this would make a good mystery. It was always lurking in my mind, so this book was an opportunity to inject a bit of mystery.”
Soyinka sent the first draft of Chronicles to three friends—writers—to ask if it was worth pursuing. “One friend I chose because he’s crazy,” he says. “I told him, ‘I am sending it to you because you are mad.’ ” The other two, he adds, are sane. He also sent it to McDonald.
“I wondered if I had forgotten how to write a novel that was intelligent and intelligible,” Soyinka recalls. “I asked Erroll, ‘Frankly, tell me how you feel,’ and he wrote back enthusiastically.”
McDonald tells me that when Soyinka contacted him to say he had written a novel, he was “thrilled to reconnect and thrilled with the book.” He hadn’t spoken to Soyinka in many years. He says the last time he saw Soyinka was eight or nine years ago at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard. “I heard someone behind me call out ‘Shadow’—my nickname—and there was Wole.”
McDonald’s first book with Soyinka was his 1981 memoir, Ake: The Years of Childhood. Five years later, Soyinka won the Nobel Prize, and he invited McDonald to attend the ceremony as a guest.
“It was my first time,” McDonald says (he went again with Toni Morrison in 1993). “And it was life changing.”
McDonald calls Chronicles Soyinka’s magnum opus. “It’s culturally rooted and scathing in its attitude toward elites, the hoi polloi, everyone,” he says. “Wole is rambunctious; he has such spirit, such linguistic facility.”
The final draft came to McDonald from agent Melanie Jackson, who has represented Soyinka since the early 1990s. She says she heard of the new novel the week before Labor Day 2020 and submitted it in September. “It was a competitive situation that Pantheon won,” she adds.
When I ask how McDonald won it, she’s succinct: “Because Erroll McDonald is great.” The deal for North American and audio was made a few weeks after submission. Pantheon will publish Chronicles in the U.S. in September, and Bloomsbury will release it simultaneously in the U.K. Foreign rights to date have been sold in eight other territories.
Soyinka was a political prisoner in Nigeria in the 1960s and went into exile in 1971. He returned in 1975 and left again in 1994 for exile in the U.S. He was sentenced to death in absentia during the rule of Gen. Sani Abacha. He tells me that exile “has never set well,” calling it a “political sabbatical.” He says he “dealt with the pangs with annoyance and anger—anger that I had to leave in the first place. I didn’t feel pathos, but mostly anger, and when I came back [in 1998, after Abacha’s death], I thought, I hope nothing ever takes me out again.”
About publicity plans, Soyinka is clear: “I’m a minimalist when it comes to hard work. I wish others would take over. My main purpose has been achieved. I’m throwing the baby into the lap of others and wish it good luck!”

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Anthony Doerr’s Libraries of Wonder

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Do you remember reading a mammoth mesmerizing book that transported you to other worlds and times so that all you cared about was turning the next page? If so, I give you another one: Anthony Doerr’s new novel, Cloud Cuckoo Land (Scribner), and I hope you have a comfy chair.
Doerr’s follow-up to his 2014 megaselling, Pulitzer Prize–winning All the Light You Cannot See is an immersive, ambitious epic with three major story lines, moving between 1453 Constantinople, an Idaho library in the present, and a spaceship decades into the future hurtling toward a new planet. The connecting piece is an ancient text, written by the Greek author Diogenes about Aethon, who wants to become a bird so he can fly to the paradise of Cloud Cuckoo Land.
Nan Graham, Doerr’s editor, says this about the book: “Tony soars over his own incredibly high bar.” She talks about the author’s empathy for his characters: “The three different sets of characters are so moving. You love them, one after another you fall in love with them.”
Early on, Cloud Cuckoo Land introduces Konstance, a young girl alone on an interstellar spaceship in the future. And in 15th-century Constantinople, under attack from Ottoman armies, another young girl, Anna, talks to Omeir, who is born with a “split that divides his upper lip from his gum all the way to the base of his nose,” on the other side of the city’s walls. At a library under siege in present-day Idaho, we meet Seymour, a socially conscious teenager whose T-shirt reads “I LIKE BIG BOOKS,” and Zeno, the achy old man who has devoted himself to translating the story of Aethon.
The book, Doerr says, is “a love letter to libraries and books—the book is dedicated to librarians. I thought about how to dramatize the power of books. Each character falls in love with this text as it moves through history, and each becomes a steward for the text.” Doerr also emphasizes the book culture of Constantinople, where copies were preserved and survived over generations. He tells me he got into books as a boy because of the library. “The library was practically a babysitter. You could leave yourself and enter worlds. It’s such a rich life when you get to be a reader. Books can give you multiple lives.”
It was when he won the Rome Prize and lived at the American Academy in Rome for a year with his family—documented in the 2007 memoir Four Seasons in Rome—that Doerr started thinking about walls, inspired by dinner conversations with a scholar at the academy who was researching walls as art. “I had never lived in a city that big or that old,” he says of Rome. “I started looking at the defensive walls around Rome, thinking about walls and tyrants. I saw pictures of the insane walls around Constantinople.”
Doerr describes them in Cloud Cuckoo: “Theodosius the Second began constructing these walls, four miles of them, to connect with the eight miles of sea walls the city already had. The Theodosian walls had an outer wall, two meters thick and nine high, and an inner one, five meters thick and twelve high—who can guess how many bodies were broken in their construction?”
And there’s the theme of technology that runs through Doerr’s work. “New technology is revolutionary,” he says. “All the Light was about radio and how Hitler used radio during World War II; until gunpowder was invented, walls were the preeminent defense.”
Doerr began working on Cloud Cuckoo in 2014, “but it was just notes. I started concentrating in 2015 and ironically we get this president talking about walls!”
Graham has been with Doerr from the beginning, ever since agent Wendy Weil sent the first book, a collection of short stories, The Shell Collector, which Scribner published in 2002. Graham says she remembers “dithering for three months” with her editorial assistant Gillian Blake (now publisher of Crown) about whether or not to buy the book. She paid little, and the book was a success; “11,000 copies in hardcover,” she tells me, adding, “I’ve been there for all of them.”
All the Light was Doerr’s first book represented by Amanda “Binky” Urban at ICM Partners. “Wendy Weil was my original agent,” he says. “It was very sad when she died.” Urban reached out months later with an email and Doerr went to her offices in New York City. “It was amazing,” he recalls, “to see the shelves with all my favorite writers. Binky saw Cloud Cuckoo first and Nan got it May 31, 2020.”
Graham says, “We’ve had maybe four meals over the last seven years in which he tells me something. I knew about the girl and the boy on either side of the wall, and then he said he was going into the future and I thought, what?”
Doerr doesn’t sell a book until it’s done. “I always finish a book before submitting it,” he says. “I’m too anxious to write a book that has a monetary value on it. When I write the whole idea of capitalism, New York—all of it falls away and what I do is solve the puzzle of my work.” He says Konstance was an early character and the one he was most nervous about, “because readers had to imagine space and the future.”
Graham lauds Doerr’s “range of humanity and his attempt to find reasonable hope,” noting, “Doerr so speaks to this moment of the need for compassion. He’s what we need now. I can’t gush enough.” She acquired North American and audio rights to Cloud Cuckoo Land, and it will be published September 28 simultaneously in the U.K. with 4th Estate. To date, rights have been sold in 18 other territories .
Doerr writes in a letter of introduction to the book, “I tried to pour all of my love for our astonishing, green, wounded world into this novel…. Primarily this is a book about our planet—in itself a vast library—and the stories that connect us.”
As for me, I don’t anticipate joining Konstance in space and I’m not planning a visit to Idaho, but you can bet I’m going to take a good look at those walls next time I’m in Istanbul!

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

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.