Beautiful Ruins: A Novel

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The Point of the Paperback

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“Why are they still bothering with paperbacks?” This came from a coffee-shop acquaintance when he heard my book was soon to come out in paperback, nine months after its hardcover release. “Anyone who wants it half price already bought it on ebook, or Amazon.”

Interestingly, his point wasn’t the usual hardcovers-are-dead-long-live-the-hardcover knell. To his mind, what was the use of a second, cheaper paper version anymore, when anyone who wanted it cheaply had already been able to get it in so many different ways?

I would have taken issue with his foregone conclusion about the domination of ebooks over paper, but I didn’t want to spend my babysitting time down that rabbit hole. But he did get me thinking about the role of the paperback relaunch these days, and how publishers go about getting attention for this third version of a novel — fourth, if you count audiobooks.

I did what I usually do when I’m puzzling through something, which is to go back to my journalism-school days and report on it. Judging by the number of writers who asked me to share what I heard, there are a good number of novelists who don’t quite know what to do with their paperbacks, either.

Here’s what I learned, after a month of talking to editors, literary agents, publishers, and other authors: A paperback isn’t just a cheaper version of the book anymore. It’s a makeover. A facelift. And for some, a second shot.

About ebooks. How much are they really cutting into print, both paperbacks and hardcovers? Putting aside the hype and the crystal ball, how do the numbers really look?

The annual Bookstats Report from the Association of American Publishers (AAP), which collects data from 1,977 publishers, is one of the most reliable measures. In the last full report — which came out July 2012 — ebooks outsold hardcovers for the first time, representing $282.3 million in sales (up 28.1%), compared to adult hardcover ($229.6 million, up 2.7%). But not paperback — which, while down 10.5%, still represented $299.8 million in sales. The next report comes out this July, and it remains to be seen whether ebook sales will exceed paper. Monthly stat-shots put out by the AAP since the last annual report show trade paperbacks up, but the group’s spokesperson cautioned against drawing conclusions from interim reports rather than year-end numbers.

Numbers aside, do we need to defend whether the paperback-following-hardcover still has relevance?

“I think that as opposed to a re-release being less important, it’s more than ever important because it gives a book a second chance with a new cover and lower cost, plus you can use all the great reviews the hardcover got,” says MJ Rose, owner of the book marketing firm Authorbuzz, as well as a bestselling author of novels including The Book of Lost Fragrances. “So many books sell 2,000 or 3,000 copies in hardcover and high-priced ebooks, but take off when they get a second wind from trade paperback and their e-book prices drop.”

What about from readers’ perspectives? Is there something unique about the paperback format that still appeals?

I put the question to booksellers, though of course as bricks-and-mortar sellers, it’s natural that they would have a bias toward paper. Yet the question isn’t paper versus digital: it’s whether they are observing interest in a paper book can be renewed after it has already been out for nine months to a year, and already available at the lower price, electronically.

“Many people still want the portability of a lighter paper copy,” said Deb Sundin, manager of Wellesley Books in Wellesley, MA. “They come in before vacation and ask, ‘What’s new in paper?’ ”

“Not everyone e-reads,” says Nathan Dunbar, a manager at Barnes & Noble in Skokie, IL. “Many customers tell us they’ll wait for the paperback savings. Also, more customers will casually pick up the paperback over hardcover.”

Then there’s the issue of what a new cover can do. “For a lot of customers the paperback is like they’re seeing it for the first time,” says Mary Cotton, owner of Newtonville Books in Newtonvillle, MA. “It gives me an excuse to point it out to people again as something fresh and new, especially if it has a new cover.”

A look at a paperback’s redesign tells you a thing or two about the publisher’s mindset: namely, whether or not the house believes the book has reached its intended audience, and whether there’s another audience yet to reach. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s Rorschach. Hardcovers with muted illustrations morph into pop art, and vice versa. Geometric-patterned book covers are redesigned with nature imagery; nature imagery in hardcover becomes photography of women and children in the paperback. Meg Wolitzer, on a panel about the positioning of women authors at the recent AWP conference, drew knowing laughter for a reference to the ubiquitous covers with girls in a field or women in water. Whether or not publishers want to scream book club, they at least want to whisper it.

“It seems that almost every book these days gets a new cover for the paperback. It’s almost as if they’re doing two different books for two different audiences, with the paperback becoming the ‘book club book,’” says Melanie Benjamin, author of The Aviator’s Wife. Benjamin watched the covers of her previous books, including Mrs. Tom Thumb and Alice I Have Been, change from hardcovers that were “beautiful, and a bit brooding” to versions that were “more colorful, more whimsical.”

A mood makeover is no accident, explains Sarah Knight, a senior editor at Simon & Schuster, and can get a paperback ordered in a store that wouldn’t be inclined to carry its hardcover. “New cover art can re-ignite interest from readers who simply passed the book over in hardcover, and can sometimes help get a book displayed in an account that did not previously order the hardcover because the new art is more in line with its customer base.” Some stores, like the big-boxes and airports, also carry far more paperbacks than hardcovers. Getting into those aisles in paperback can have an astronomical effect on sales.

An unscientific look at recent relaunches shows a wide range of books that got full makeovers: Olive Kitteridge, A Visit From the Goon Squad, The Newlyweds, The Language of Flowers, The Song Remains the Same, The Age of Miracles, Arcadia, and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, as did my own this month (The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.)

Books that stayed almost completely the same, plus or minus a review quote and accent color, include Wild, Beautiful Ruins, The Snow Child, The Weird Sisters, The Paris Wife, Maine, The Marriage Plot, The Art of Fielding, The Tiger’s Wife, Rules of Civility, and The Orchardist.

Most interesting are the books that receive the middle-ground treatment, designers flirting with variations on their iconic themes. The Night Circus, The Invisible Bridge, State of Wonder, The Lifeboat, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Tell the Wolves I’m Home, Tigers in Red Weather, and The Buddha in the Attic are all so similar to the original in theme or execution that they’re like a wink to those in the know — and pique the memory of those who have a memory of wanting to read it the first time around.

Some writers become attached to their hardcovers and resist a new look in paperback. Others know it’s their greatest chance of coming out of the gate a second time — same race, fresh horse.

When Jenna Blum’s first novel, Those Who Save Us, came out in hardcover in 2004, Houghton Mifflin put train tracks and barbed wire on the cover. Gorgeous, haunting, and appropriate for a WWII novel, but not exactly “reader-friendly,” Blum recalls being told by one bookseller. The following year, the paperback cover — a girl in a bright red coat in front of a European bakery — telegraphed the novel’s Holocaust-era content without frightening readers away.

“The paperback cover helped save the book from the remainder bins, I suspect,” Blum says.

Armed with her paperback, Jenna went everywhere she was invited, which ended up tallying more than 800 book clubs. Three years later, her book hit the New York Times bestseller list.

“Often the hardcover is the friends-and-family edition, because that’s who buys it, in addition to collectors,” she says. “It’s imperative that a paperback give the novel a second lease on life if the hardcover didn’t reach all its intended audience, and unless you are Gillian Flynn, it probably won’t.”

There’s no hard-and-fast rule about when the paperback should ride in for that second lease. A year to paperback used to be standard, but now a paperback can release earlier — to capitalize on a moderately successful book before it’s forgotten — or later, if a hardcover is still turning a strong profit.

At issue: the moment to reissue, and the message to send.

“Some books slow down at a point, and the paperback is a great opportunity to repromote and reimagine,” says Sheila O’Shea, associate publisher for Broadway and Hogarth paperbacks at the Crown Publishing Group (including, I should add, mine). “The design of a paperback is fascinating, because you have to get it right in a different way than the hardcover. If it’s a book that relates specifically to females you want that accessibility at the table — women drawn in, wondering, Ooh, what’s that about.”

The opportunity to alter the message isn’t just for cover design, but the entire repackaging of the book — display text, reviews put on the jacket, synopses used online, and more. In this way, the paperback is not unlike the movie trailer which, when focus-grouped, can be reshaped to spotlight romantic undertones or a happy ending.

“Often by the time the paperback rolls around, both the author and publicist will have realized where the missed opportunities were for the hardcover, and have a chance to correct that,” says Simon & Schuster’s Sarah Knight. “Once your book has been focus-grouped on the biggest stage — hardcover publication — you get a sense of the qualities that resonate most with people, and maybe those were not the qualities you originally emphasized in hardcover. So you alter the flap copy, you change the cover art to reflect the best response from the ideal readership, and in many cases, the author can prepare original material to speak to that audience.”

Enter programs like P.S. (Harper Collins) and Extra Libris (Crown Trade and Hogarth), with new material in the back such as author interviews, essays, and suggested reading lists.

“We started Extra Libris last spring to create more value in the paperback, to give the author another opportunity to speak to readers. We had been doing research with booksellers and our reps and book club aficionados asking, What would you want in paperbacks? And it’s always extra content,” says Crown’s O’Shea. “Readers are accustomed to being close to the content and to the authors. It’s incumbent on us to have this product to continue the conversation.”

Most of a paperback discussion centers on the tools at a publisher’s disposal, because frankly, so much of a book’s success is about what a publisher can do — from ads in trade and mainstream publications, print and online, to talking up the book in a way that pumps enthusiasm for the relaunch. But the most important piece is how, and whether, they get that stack in the store.

My literary agent Julie Barer swears the key to paperback success is physical placement. “A big piece of that is getting stores (including the increasingly important Costco and Target) to take large orders, and do major co-op. I believe one of the most important things that moves books is that big stack in the front of the store,” she says. “A lot of that piece is paid for and lobbied for by the publisher.”

Most publicists’ opportunities for reviews have come and gone with the hardcover, but not all, says Kathleen Zrelak Carter, a partner with the literary PR firm Goldberg McDuffie. “A main factor for us in deciding whether or not to get involved in a paperback relaunch is the off-the-book-page opportunities we can potentially pursue. This ranges from op-ed pieces to essays and guest blog posts,” she says. “It’s important for authors to think about all the angles in their book, their research and inspiration, but also to think about their expertise outside of being a writer, and how that can be utilized to get exposure.”

What else can authors do to support the paperback launch?

Readings have already been done in the towns where they have most connections, and bookstores don’t typically invite authors to come for a paperback relaunch. But many are, however, more than happy to have relaunching authors join forces with an author visiting for a new release, or participate in a panel of authors whose books touch on a common theme.

And just because a bookstore didn’t stock a book in hardcover doesn’t mean it won’t carry the paperback. Having a friend or fellow author bring a paperback to the attention of their local bookseller, talking up its accolades, can make a difference.

I asked folks smarter than I about branding, and they said the most useful thing for authors receiving a paperback makeover is to get on board with the new cover. That means fronting the new look everywhere: the author website, Facebook page, and Twitter. Change the stationery and business cards too if, like I did, you made them all about a cover that is no longer on the shelf.

“Sometimes a writer can feel, ‘But I liked this cover!’” says Crown’s O’Shea. “It’s important to be flexible about the approach, being open to the idea of reimagining your own work for a broader audience, and using the tools available to digitally promote the book with your publisher.”

More bluntly said, You want to sell books? Get in the game. Your hardcover might have come and gone, but in terms of your book’s rollout, it’s not even halftime yet.

“The paperback is truly a new release, and a smart author will treat it as such,” says Randy Susan Meyers, author The Murderer’s Daughters, her new novel The Comfort Of Lies, and co-author of the publishing-advice book What To Do Before Your Book Launch with book marketer and novelist M.J. Rose. “Make new bookmarks, spruce up your website, and introduce yourself to as many libraries as possible. Bookstores will welcome you, especially when you plan engaging multi-author events. There are opportunities for paperbacks that barely exist for hardcovers, including placement in stores such as Target, Costco, Walmart, and a host of others. Don’t let your paperback launch slip by. For me, as for many, it was when my book broke out.”


A Year In Reading: Wrap Up

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Another year, another Year In Reading. Another year, a bigger Year In Reading. The site gets older, the site continues to grow – for that we thank everyone who wrote and shared the pieces in this series, as well as everyone who read along.

The numbers this year were simply bonkers. Up from 2011, our 2012 totals amounted to a whopping 74 participants and 261 different books. These books run the gamut from graphic memoirs to cookbooks, and they were written by 238 authors – we’re happy to note that 15 of those authors submitted their own pieces in the series.

Our participants included a finalist for this year’s National Book Award;  a past winner of the Pulitzer Prize; not one, but two authors whose books appeared on The New York Times’s “10 Best Books of 2012” list; a longtime New Yorker staff writer; and a comedian who, for a few incredible months, made the life of Mitt Romney’s social media director into a living hell.

The mission of the series is to put good books – regardless of publication date – into the minds of our readers. In that regard we’ve succeeded. The “average” year of publication for all 261 books was 1992. (No doubt that date has something to do with Michael Robbins’s recommendation of The Temple, which dates back to 1633.) But in order to highlight the true range of the books selected, I feel there are some awards in order. So here we have it.

Presenting the 2012 edition of The Millions’s annual Year In Reading Wrap-Up Awards:

The Golden TARDIS for Excellence in Time Travel is hereby bestowed unto Emma Straub. We recognize Emma’s ability to read in the past year four different books that will not hit shelves until 2013. Tell us, Emma, where do you keep your flux capacitor? (I know, I know, I’m mixing time travel references here. Apologies to the nerds.) Runner-up: Michael Robbins, who went the other way and tapped two books from the 1600s.

The George Wallace Commemorative Airhorn for Multiple Shout Outs goes to none other than Alexander Chee, who, before settling on Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai as his favorite read of the year, gave much-deserved props to no fewer than twenty-three different books and authors. Runner-up: Kate Zambreno, who named fifteen texts – two of which are actually blogs, which is awesome – in her Year In Reading (Apparently Everything there is to Read).

“Mr. Consistent” is from now on the epithet we’ll use to describe Scott Esposito, who recommended fourteen different Oulipo books. (Out of respect for Scott’s theme, none of the words in that first sentence included the letter “a”.) Runner-up: David Haglund, who laid out a literary and historical tour of the real Mormon faith.

The Bob Ross Memorial Golden Paintbrush is awarded to Matt Dojny, whose Year In Reading entry is beautiful and succinct, but also comprehensive and fresh. That book on his list from The RZA? It wasn’t a mistake. There aren’t mistakes. Just happy accidents. Runner-up: Chris Ware. (Duh.) Not for his text-based Year In Reading post, but for his most recent book.

The George Washington Cup for Honesty goes, of course, to Michael Schaub for his elegant, heart wrenching essay about his brother, his family, and A. M. Homes’s latest book. Thank you for this one, Michael. Runner-up: Mark O’Connell, who finally came clean. Those books on his shelf? Hasn’t read most of ‘em. (One additional prize is in order as well. The “Oh Man, Please Don’t Accuse Me of Stealing Your Idea” Memorial Fruit Basket should go to Janet Potter, whose list of literary awards served at least in some way as inspiration for this post.)

Overall, a collection of seven books were named by more than three Year In Reading participants. These lucky few are: Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (picked by Edan Lepucki, Janet Potter, Ed Park, Michael Bourne, and Jennifer duBois); Chris Ware’s Building Stories (picked by Zadie Smith, Mark O’Connell, and Reif Larsen); David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (picked by Janet Potter, Matt Dojny, and Elizabeth Minkel); Edward St. Aubyn’s The Patrick Melrose Novels (picked by Meg Wolitzer, Elliott Holt, and Alix Ohlin); Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins (picked by Emma Straub, Roxane Gay, and Robert Birnbaum); Sarah Manguso’s The Guardians (picked by Alexander Chee, Ed Park, and Antoine Wilson); and Lauren Groff’s Arcadia (picked by Alexander Chee, Emily St. John Mandel, and Janet Potter)

And so we come to the end of 2012. May 2013 be better than the year that led into it. May your eyes fly quickly over the page. We hope you enjoyed the time, and we’ll see you again next year.

P.S. Special shout outs are due to C. Max Magee, founder of The Millions, without whom none of this would be possible – and also to Ujala Sehgal and Adam Boretz, our tireless editors, without whom all of these posts would look horrendous. Last but not least, shout outs are owed to Rhian Sasseen and Thom Beckwith, both of whom have helped make this our biggest Year In Reading to date. Thanks to you all, and to all a Happy New Year!

More from A Year in Reading 2012

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

A Year in Reading: Robert Birnbaum


From the gaggle of books I have read over this past year Beautiful Ruins, Gods Without Men, and The News from Spain stand out as especially special.

Jess Walters’s novel Beautiful Ruins is a lovely story in which a handful of likable characters wend their disparate ways across nearly a half of the last century, from an obscure Italian coastal town to an array of locales on the shores of America, to resolve an unlikely but plausible narrative. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor make appearances.

Gods without Men is a sprawling high-powered multi-threaded story that diverges into some rarified and elevated subjects — parents flailing at the near impossible task of raising a seriously autistic child, a stock trader searching for and believing he has found an algorithmic formula for trading that in its Kabbalistic form is the Holy Grail, recondite anthropologists studying southwestern Native American culture, hippy cults, and more, spark a steady forward fugal motion. Reading this story sometimes feels like a breathtaking roller coaster ride as it shoots from one dissimilar point of view to another. It’s an exciting read with some brainy and amusing digressions.

Andre Gregory’s blurbs on Joan Wickersham’s collection of stories The News from Spain asserted that the stories were sufficiently weighty that they could be read twice in succession — an unusual notion, methinks. And yet I found that the stories were so engrossing and rich with thoughtful characters that I easily followed Gregory’s suggestion. And was indeed rewarded with another pleasurable read. Not linked stories, but bound by the author’s conceit of having the phrase The News from Spain appearing in each — without, I must say, an appearance of contrivance or showiness.

I volunteered to participate in this exercise because it required me to focus my attention on my own reading habits — which I otherwise wouldn’t do, as I am not usually interested in the meta-gesture of thinking about or reading about reading (though I do recommend Andrew Piper’s Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times).

What did I learn? Looking over what I read in the past 12 months, the list confirmed what I already knew — that I am a literary omnivore and any litany of books tells more about the reader than individual the books listed. No big surprise there.

More from A Year in Reading 2012

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

A Year in Reading: Roxane Gay

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I can’t remember a better year of reading. I particularly enjoyed books where women or girls were allowed to be dark and dangerous and fucked up and “unlikable.” Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects and Gone Girl, Claire Vaye Watkins’s Battleborn, Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine, and Megan Abbott’s exceptional Dare Me, in particular, rose to that occasion and then some. What Dare Me does with describing the body and its limits? Unforgettable. One of my favorite books of the year, though, was a novel with a really elegant structure — Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter. I didn’t realize how intelligent and complex this novel was until I finished, took some time and found myself reading the book again and again to make proper sense of it all. With each reading, there was more to appreciate. Beautiful Ruins is the story of a young man and hotel proprietor from a forgotten Italian beach town who falls in love with an actress, who loves a man she can’t have, and how they lose each other and find each other again across 50 years and two continents. It’s about a craven Hollywood producer and his development assistant and the decisions they make and the lines they’re willing to cross. It’s about a screenwriter who wants his big break and what he’s willing to do to get it. The narrative transitions seamlessly from being richly imbued with a sense of time and place on the Italian coast during the early 1960s to exposing the cynical, overly ambitious Hollywood we’ve come to know and love and hate. More than anything, Beautiful Ruins is about how love can endure and how maybe, just maybe, we should believe in love’s endurance despite all the reasons we have to doubt such a thing exists.

More from A Year in Reading 2012

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

Going Back to the Page: An Interview with Tatjana Soli

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“I’m not going to win.” Those words came by email from The Lotus Eaters author Tatjana Soli on being shortlisted for Britain’s oldest literary prize. Recent winners of the James Tait Black Award include A.S. Byatt, Ian McEwan, and Graham Swift. Earlier winners read like an all-time literary greats list: E.M. Forster. Margaret Drabble. Nadine Gordimer. Evelyn Waugh. In its almost 100-year history, very few debuts have won, much less ones written by Americans.

The Lotus Eaters, as happens so often with first efforts, almost never saw its way into print. The story — about the Vietnam War, told from the perspective of a female photojournalist — was written, and revised, and submitted and rejected. And rewritten. And rejected. And rewritten again. By agents. By editors. Soli was told that Vietnam was considered a niche audience, all military and all male, and that a woman’s perspective, not a soldier’s, would be too limiting. The Lotus Eaters sold to St. Martin’s Press for a modest advance some ten years after Soli first conceived it — and then this quietly understated debut began attracting fans with pretty big pulpits.

Janet Maslin, writing for The New York Times the day before The Lotus Eaters was published, called it “haunting” and “quietly mesmerizing” – and that was just the opening two lines of the review. That weekend, it gained raves on the cover of The New York Times Book Review and in The Washington Post. It went on to become a New York Times bestseller, was named a notable book of the year by the Times and the ALA, and was a finalist for the LA Times Book Award. Still, Soli was as surprised as anyone when it was shortlisted for the James Tait Black.

And then it won.

Soli is back this fall with a second novel, The Forgetting Tree, about Claire Baumsarg, the complicated matriarch of a California ranching family, and Minna, the enigmatic young woman who comes to take care of Claire as she battles cancer. I had a chance to chat with Tatjana about her second novel, the James Tait Black, and what she’s up to next.

The Millions: While The Forgetting Tree is clearly a Tatjana Soli book — the gorgeous language, the plumbing of complex characters in challenging circumstances — it is also a departure from The Lotus Eaters. It’s set in contemporary California peacetime rather than 1970s Vietnam War, and it includes a larger cast of characters. Did you consider doing something closer to the first novel? How did this story come to be the one you chose to write about?

Tatjana Soli: I spent such a long time working on the first novel, doing tons of research, that I really wanted to get as far away as possible from both a war novel and a historical one. It was draining subject matter. Although you are writing fiction, there is the additional burden of historical accuracy that also made the writing process less free. I did write more short stories about the war that I couldn’t resist doing, extra material that didn’t find its way into the book, but I knew none of the material had enough heft for another novel.

As far as the second book, it’s mysterious how the subject matter seems to pick you, but I live surrounded by the old citrus orchards of Southern California so that setting spoke to me, or rather how those orchards are disappearing spoke to me. I wanted to write about a character who mourns that change and is angered by it. Although plenty happens from the outside, the second book is more character-driven.

My interest in the clash and misunderstandings between cultures definitely comes from where I live, and it’s been a huge influence in both books. I think there is the same concern for how one lives in both books. How does one bear witness during war? How does one overcome tragedy in a very personal, private life? Those were issues that compelled the writing.

It’s hugely disconcerting that you work blinkered as a writer — thinking you are on to fresh material — only to realize after the fact that you’ve returned to the same themes. I tell my students that you cannot control what you write, but only how you write and communicate that vision. The vision is out of your control.

TM: “The vision is out of your control.” I love that, and it makes me think of another parallel in the two novels, which is that the main characters in each — Claire and Minna both in The Forgetting Tree, and Helen, the American photojournalist in The Lotus Eaters — have left the worlds they grew up in to live elsewhere. Place is incredibly important in both novels, too. Not to get all psychobabble about it, but I know your mother immigrated to the United States with you when you were a child. Is that experience, do you suppose, involved in that subject matter choosing you?

TS: Well, I don’t want to get psychobabble in reply, but I can’t imagine anything more boring than writing about my own experiences. The way I look at it is that all of us, writers and non-writers, are a product of what happens to us. But for the writer, experience creates unique areas of sympathy. The types of stories that call out to you and not someone else. I was born in Salzburg, Austria, and came to the United States as a child, so being displaced is something that I have experience with, and displacement happens to be a major, worldwide phenomenon of our century. Due to wars, poverty, discrimination, genocide, or even opportunity, for whatever reason, lots of us are far from home, and we are probably never going back.

Wide Sargasso Sea is a major text in The Forgetting Tree. I remember my writing professor in college recommending for me to read it. She said, “This book will change you.” I think she meant that you will always question the accepted text afterwards, in this case, Jane Eyre. But what it did for me is make me want to be a writer. I totally got Jean Rhys from the first lines: “They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did. But we were not in their ranks.” Rhys was always on the side of the underdog, the outsider. She was born in Dominica and spent most of her life in Europe, primarily in England, which she claimed to hate. In the last part of Wide Sargasso Sea, Antoinette’s confinement in England is terrifying. I can picture Rhys reading Jane Eyre the first time and shaking her head: No, this isn’t the way it is.

It’s funny because I can put these ideas together retrospectively, but I never was conscious of it as I was writing. Even on my third novel that I’m working on now, I hadn’t thought of it that way, but again it’s about characters far from home.

TM: You open The Forgetting Tree with another character far from home in a sense: Octavio, who is if not a Mexican immigrant himself then a man who is steeped in that culture, at home on the farm but not necessarily in the world of the whites who own it. And you make some interesting choices in the book, starting with revealing in the prologue a tragedy that informs the events of the novel — told from Octavio’s point of view. We also see Octavio in the book’s closing, but much of the rest of the story is told from two other perspectives: Claire’s and Minna’s. Was the book structured this way from its inception, or did it evolve in the writing process?

TS: Those choices all evolved during revision. During my first drafts, I usually write whatever seems to have heat to it, whatever seems important, even if I’m not sure how to fit it in. My revision process then is a very deliberate distancing exercise — trying to think of how to present what I have to the reader. So I move things around. If I’ve done my job right, I’ve communicated that excitement to the reader. I struggled a great deal with the secret at the heart of The Forgetting Tree, how not to reveal it, and yet not make it a trick, and so the shifting viewpoints evolved naturally.

I never outline because the way my mind works, the outline rules out all other possibilities. I’d like to talk myself out of this conviction, but there it is. Lately, I’ve been playing with the idea of shapes, or movements, that represent either the whole novel or a part of it. Let me give you an example. Recently, I read Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins, and I thought the ending was magnificent. Afterwards, when I heard him speak, he said he had this idea for the ending of holding these fuzzy flowers, like dandelions, and letting the wind scatter all those little seed heads in every direction. As soon as he said that, I recognized the feeling I got reading that last chapter. Somehow visualizing instead of outlining short-circuits the critic inside.

TM: Can you tell us a little about where Minna — who is one of the most fascinating characters I have read in a long time — came from? She doesn’t appear until 100 pages into the book. Was she in your mind when you started writing?

TS: Minna was there at the very beginning, but she was such a loaded character that I knew the stage would have to be set for her appearance. Claire would have to have gone through enough and be ready for that relationship. I also knew that she would be hiding her identity. Again, living in a very multicultural area of the country, I see how even open-minded people can live for years around a person from another culture and not understand what their life experience has been. They make assumptions. One example. I had jury duty. The case involved a man from a Central American country being accused of a fairly serious crime by a family from the same country. None of them spoke English well enough to understand the court proceedings, so interpreters were ordered for both sides. Suddenly we get into these long stories told by each side. It seems the man was a type of healer; he talked at length about some of the spells or incantations he performed. Well, the interpreters, the lawyers, the judge, no one knew what to do with this. They thought this guy was crazy. Then it came out that the family had actually hired him as a healer — they accepted the validity of these practices he was talking about. It was part of their culture. The whole case just broke down. The whole apparatus of Western justice fell apart.

TM: Fascinating. And The Forgetting Tree is very much about healing, with the tree of the title playing a role. Minna, not long after she meets Claire, calls the farm “a God place” that could heal Claire if she allowed it to. “Maman said trees healed you,” she says. At that point Claire is very skeptical of this, just as I imagine that jury was skeptical, but it isn’t the end of the magic — or the superstitions, anyway. Can you talk about how the “voodoo,” as Claire’s daughter Lucy calls it, came into the story, and what kind of research you did in shaping it?

TS: I actually enjoyed the research for that the most. There is a long tradition of Western fascination with vodou rituals, and there are many books about outsiders attending ceremonies, both in Haiti and in Haitian communities in the United States. Of course there are all the silly movies that play up the sensationalistic aspects, and they mostly get it wrong — things like putting spells on people and having zombies running around. I’m certainly not an expert, but mostly the rituals seem to be a combination of Christianity, brought by the French, and African myths and beliefs. During the most oppressive years of colonialism, vodou ceremonies were outlawed because they were a way for the people to empower themselves.

I’m not so concerned with questions such as is it real, but rather what is the effect? This was one aspect of the average person’s life in Haiti that they could take pride in. The vibrant Haitian folk art comes from priests and priestesses of the religion. Much of the music is associated with these ceremonies, and protest songs grew out of this tradition. In a country with a high illiteracy rate, songs were the main way to communicate. During the Duvalier years, popular bands would have their protest songs banned. Breaking the ban could mean imprisonment or death. So none of this was the Disney stuff we usually associate with vodou.

Minna, of course, grew up with this from a mother who had early on distanced herself from such “primitive” beliefs, but had returned to her roots eventually. Minna, in her survival instinct, uses the accouterments of the religion for her own purposes. Part of it is to make the world around her familiar, part of it is to obscure.

TM: Will you tell us a little about what’s next for you?

TS: I’m about two-thirds done with my next novel. It’s a comic one about a group of Californians on a South Sea island. I wanted to have a new challenge from the first two books. This is lighter in tone and has a large cast of characters. It’s been a fun experience so far.

TM: And will you indulge the rest of us in a moment of living vicariously? What was it like to learn — after working so long and hard on both writing The Lotus Eaters and finding a publishing home for it — that you’d won the James Tait Black?

TS: It was an out of body experience to be sure. No one, here or in England, was giving me any kind of odds. My mom and I booked a flight so that we could attend the ceremony because truly it was such an honor just to be nominated. It’s been won by Graham Greene (one of my all-time writer heroes) and D.H. Lawrence, as well as contemporary writers such as Salman Rushie, Zadie Smith, and Cormac McCarthy. Awards are always a lottery, but it was hugely affirming. The honest truth is that once it’s over, you forget about it. You go back and struggle over each page. The writing doesn’t get the least bit easier. It’s like a really incredible vacation — you go return to your real life. The biggest lesson I learned through the whole publication process is that whatever happens, good or bad (and there will always be a fair share of both), you go back to the page. That’s where reality is for a writer.

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