Beautiful Ruins: A Novel (P.S.)

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The Next Great American Crime Writer May Be Living in Norway

Derek B. Miller caught the eye of readers of The Millions with his 2013 debut novel, Norwegian by Night, lauded by Richard Russo in his Year in Reading and staying atop our Top Ten for months. The novel featured an octogenarian ex-Marine, Sheldon Horowitz, who has lost his son in Vietnam and who tries to save another boy from his father, an Albanian war criminal. Set in Norway, the novel also introduced the wily cop Sigrid Ødergård; Miller followed it with The Girl in Green, in which two men involved in the Gulf War get a chance at redemption decades later. Now Miller is publishing American by Day, which sends Sigrid Ødergård from Norway to upstate New York to find her brother, who has disappeared after being named the prime suspect in his girlfriend’s mysterious death. Miller spoke with The Millions, via Skype, from his home in Oslo.

The Millions: You have a background in International Studies, I think.

Derek B. Miller: The short version is that I got a master’s degree from Georgetown in National Security, in conjunction with Oxford, where I finished my degree. I knew I wanted to do a doctorate, so I stayed in Europe, futzed around for a while working for a newspaper, and then I moved to Geneva, Switzerland, where I got a second master’s and a Ph.D. from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies.

TM: What did you do after earning your degrees?

DBM: I spent about a decade in the United Nations Institute of Disarmament Research. Basically I was looking at countries recovering from war—jump-starting the economy, trying to collect weapons after a war, establishing a transitional justice system. So I worked on that for a long time, trying to push the elephant of the United Nations in a direction that I thought was both more pragmatic and ethical.

TM: That wasn’t exactly the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, was it?

DBM: No [Laughs].

TM: So how did you become a novelist?

DBM: Well, I think the idea of creative writing was planted in my head back at Sarah Lawrence, which at the time, 1988 to ’92, had the only undergraduate creative writing program in the country. I didn’t actually do creative writing there, but I think it demystified the notion that writing is something only geniuses or crazy people do. When I tried to write, my first manuscript took me three years. It wasn’t very good, but some of the tone, my approach to characterization, my approach to the relationship between tragedy and comedy—I can look back on my efforts from my mid-20s, and it’s clearly my writing. I found that short stories weren’t for me. So I just kept writing.

TM: So all these years you’re traveling around working for the U.N.—and you’re writing fiction on the side, as an apprentice?

DBM: I was writing. I have a good education for finding patterns in data and building theory, and I think I approached writing from both a creative perspective and an analytical one. I asked fundamental questions I felt I needed to ask in order to write better, such as: What is a story? What differentiates a story from a mere sequence of events? What is the nature of dramatic tension, and where does it come from? How do you deal with large gaps of time? Lots of architecture and craft issues. So I asked these questions, I interrogated the material I was reading to see how different authors achieved that. I wasn’t trying to copy them, I was trying to learn. And it took me a long time to figure it out.

TM: Norwegian by Night, your first novel, resonated with readers of The Millions—and a lot of other readers. Do you remember, was there a day you started writing that book, or did it sort of morph into shape over the years?

DBM: What happened was, I had written a manuscript prior to that, and it didn’t work. There were two reasons why. The architecture of the story was all over the place, and my protagonist was too milquetoast. He just wasn’t interesting enough. Sheldon Horowitz was a minor character in that failed effort, and what I found was that my secondary characters were great. They were relieved of the burden of having to be the protagonist, and that let them be far more decisive and funny and wild and everything else. So when it came time to try again, I decided to move Sheldon Horowitz forward. The reason was because I was very close to my grandfathers and they were dying at that time, and my son Julian was born in 2008, which was when I wrote Norwegian by Night. The ending of the book came to me while I was at the hospital waiting for Julian to be born—it was by C-section, so it was scheduled. I was sitting there and I probably should have been thinking about my wife, Camilla, but the fact of the matter is that I was thinking about the ending of the book. And once I realized how the pieces fit together, I wrote that book in about a year.

TM: Your protagonist, Sheldon Horowitz, an 82-year-old Marine veteran who lost is son in Vietnam, feels guilt but has a second chance to redeem himself. Guilt seems to be a big engine in your fiction. Is that a fair thing to say?

DBM: Guilt is a funny word. It comes about from making decisions that in retrospect you feel were fundamentally wrong—getting drunk and running over a kid, pretty straightforward. Sheldon’s guilt over his son is far more complex than that—it’s tied up with patriotism, his Jewish identity, things that are too complex to pin on a bad decision. They’re the consequences of a long life lived. I think loss is a stronger word.

TM: Let’s bring it up to your new book, American by Day. Marcus Ødegård, the brother of the protagonist Sigrid, an Oslo cop—he’s off in America and he’s feeling guilt or loss or regret over his mother’s death from cancer years ago. And now his lover in America dies under mysterious circumstances—I don’t want to give too much away—but again I’m thinking about Sheldon Horowitz. Here’s something that happened years ago that a person’s carrying around like a stone in his stomach—and trying to figure out how to come to terms with it. I guess you could call that loss.

DBM: I think in Marcus’s case he feels he should have spoken up and he didn’t—and that led to his mother’s death. With Marcus I was thinking specifically of a scene from a Saul Bellow book called Seize the Day. A middle-aged guy is having a breakdown, saying, “Are you telling me that I’m not who I think I am? That I’ve lived my life under an illusion of who I thought I was?” If you wake up and you’re 50 years old and you find out you’ve been living under a delusion since childhood and clearly you’re never going to recover the life you might have led, if only—that was a very interesting and powerful theme that I wanted to explore as a way of looking at the way tragedy and crime can go together. I wanted the story of Marcus and his American girlfriend, Lydia, to be about the result of these rich but incredibly different lives, that the collision of those lives created this moment of possibility that ended very, very badly. That felt like an interesting way to create a story—not so much a crime, but to create a story that on the surface looks like a straightforward mystery, but the ultimate mystery is the way these two lives collided to create a tragedy.

TM: You’re living in Oslo now?

DBM: Right.

TM: How did you wind up there?

DBM: I met a Norwegian girl and she outsmarted me.

TM: Aha. Where did you two meet?

DBM: Geneva. We were both working in the same think tank on weapons. Basically it was an office romance.

TM: The Scandinavian literary tradition is of course gigantic—from Ibsen to Knut Hamsun to Astrid Lindgren up to Jo Nesbø. As an American writer in Norway, is that a cloud over your head? Something you don’t think about? An inspiration? I’m curious what it’s like writing in a place that’s very different from where you grew up in New England.

DBM: I’ve been living abroad for 22 years now. The fact is, I still haven’t read Jo Nesbø and he’s not on my short list. That kind of crime novel—where something horrific happens and somebody’s investigating and everybody’s miserable—it just bores me. I see myself as an American writer, and what I mean by that is that I’m writing into the American literary tradition and drawing quite heavily from it. Though I’m happy to be included in a global conversation on literature as well, that’s the footing from which I have that conversation.

When Don DeLillo published Underworld, it was came out in France. At the beginning of the book, it said, “translated from the American.” Right? And DeLillo said in an interview that he actually quite liked that because while he and everyone else knows that American is not a language, it was nice to emphasize the vernacular. It’s kind of a compliment, if you choose to see it that way.

TM: You’re not reading Jo Nesbø. So what are you reading?

DBM: What’s on my desk is Richard Russo’s debut, Mohawk. After that I want to read Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, who I have not read before but I read the first chapter and loved it. I just finished The Marriage Plot from Jeffrey Eugenides, which I quite liked. I just finished The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish, which I thought was exquisite. I do not write reviews, but I did write to her and tell her I think she’s absolutely wonderful. I haven’t checked in with Nick Hornby in a while. Then there’s Andy Weir’s new book, Artemis—he wrote The Martian, which became the movie with Matt Damon.

TM: I guess that leads to the inevitable question: What are you working on now?

DBM: I’ve written two things. I’ve written a draft—I don’t know if I should call it science fiction, maybe speculative fiction—of a post-post-post-post-apocalyptic story set a couple hundred years in the future. It’s called Radio Life, and I’m going back to revisions of it. I haven’t shared it with anybody but my agent. And I’m writing a contemporary inter-family drama set on the coast of New England called A Simple Arrangement. I’m hoping to have both of them done, in draft form anyway, by the end of the year.

TM: Are you a full-time writer now?

DBM: I would say yes. I feel the novelists around me are extraordinarily good, and while you’re always competing against yourself to be the best writer you can be, you’re also competing against the market in order to survive, and I can’t write this stuff on my knee on the way to class anymore. Which isn’t to say you try to anticipate the market, because that’s almost pointless.

TM: But you are trying to make a living.

DBM: Yeah, I have a wife and two kids and this is what I’m doing. So if I can’t pull it off, we don’t eat. It has gone extraordinarily well. I’m not a bestseller so I don’t have bestseller money, but I’m writing full time now and have been for about two years.

TM: Is it a good life?

DBM: It’s wonderful. It’s like walking a high wire without a net, but it’s a second career and it’s a chance to turn a corner. I feel I can really appreciate it at this point in my life because it’s the first job I’ve ever had where it’s just absolute blue sky, where instead of being penalized for being creative, I’m encouraged to do it. It’s an amazing space to be in.

This interview was produced in partnership with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

The Book Report: Episode 36: Judging 2016 by Its Covers

Happy New Year, and welcome to a new episode of The Book Report presented by The Millions! Inspired by Most Anticipated: The Great 2016 Book Preview, Janet and Mike take a look at several books coming out this year, and guess their plot based solely on their covers. Don’t try this at home. Janet and Mike are experts, and are always right.

Discussed in this episode: The Girls by Emma Cline, optometrists, Charles Manson, The Beatles, drugs, Shelter by Jung Yun, tragic childhoods, The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan, chess, The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder, diners, football, Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, The Daredevils by Gary Amdahl, the Bechdel test, The Winter Girl by Matt Marinovich, Everybody’s Fool by Richard Russo, sassy waitresses, I Am No One by Patrick Flanery.

Not discussed in this episode: A long segment where Janet and Mike talk about their Christmas vacations, which they spent in Monaco and aboard a luxury yacht, respectively. (They have book critic money.)

Outside the Neighborhood: Reading Italy Through Elena Ferrante

1.
Near the beginning of My Brilliant Friend, the first of Elena Ferrante’s series of novels about a complicated friendship between two women from the slums of Naples, the girls, then in elementary school, play hooky and sneak out of “the neighborhood,” their claustrophobic network of courtyards and stairwells filled with violence and poverty. Lenú and Lila aim for the sea. Though Naples is a port city, neither of them has seen the “vague bluish memory” of water. After hours of walking, Lila becomes suddenly afraid and turns them back, while Lenú, usually the timid one, discovers that distance “extinguished in me every tie and every worry.”

The Neopolitan Novels, as they are known, expand this dynamic tension between the pull of Naples, the city, and the expansion of the girls’ consciousness as Italy enters the modern era. This is a story of self-realization alongside the self-realization of a nation. Acutely sensitive to the workings of class and power, Ferrante subtly works in black market war profiteers, fascist collaborators, mafiosi, the workers’ movements and radical terrorism of the 1960s and ’70s, and the arrival of wealth and consumer goods to Italy’s new middle class. Ferrante attaches the story of Lenú and Lila to the history of postwar Italy in a way that never feels contrived.

That’s also the history of feminism in Italy, a story that remains unfinished. Lenú escapes the confines of the neighborhood thanks to her book smarts, but remains tethered to Lila, and to the alienation and difficulty that makes “the form of a female body break.” The burden of the physical, the invisible work that makes up women’s lives, is a recurring theme in Ferrante. Radical Italian feminists once proposed wages for housework, but Ferrante is writing, after all, in the Italy where Silvio Berlusconi hosts bunga bunga parties with underage girls, and jokes that to prevent rape, the country needs “as many soldiers as there are beautiful Italian women.” In Ferrante’s early novel The Days of Abandonment, set in contemporary Italy, the protagonist has a breakdown trapped in her apartment. Her children whine and one falls ill; it’s unnervingly possible she may ignore them entirely. She mentally runs through her chores to calm herself. “The vomit stained sheets. Run the vacuum.” “Housecleaning,” is the last word of the chapter, sinking like a sentence.

I wonder if, for the American reader, part of Ferrante’s appeal is that her Italy — with its complicated women and its political history — is an antidote to popular destination literature and visions of expat romance like Eat, Pray, Love, Under the Tuscan Sun, or Beautiful Ruins. The next and final installment of the Neapolitan novels, which have become a surprise hit in the U.S., will be brought out in English this year (her website says only that an as yet untitled fourth volume in the series will be published in September 2015). In the meantime, here are a few suggestions for those hungering for more of Ferrante’s dark Naples and Italian feminist heroines.

2.
A History of Contemporary Italy
Ferrante’s heroines, Lenú and Lila, are born in Naples in 1944, at the very end of World War II. In September 1943, American troops landed south of Naples and marched up the peninsula after the Germans, who retreated looting and killing along the way. Italy — a country then less than a century old — soon found itself “with national state authority having dissolved, two occupying armies and three Italian governments…claimed the obedience and allegiance of the Italians,” writes Paul Ginsborg in History of Contemporary Italy, an exhaustive accounting of Italian politics from the war to the 1980s, paying special attention the position of Italy’s poorest, in the South.

Naples, with over one million inhabitants, was devastated and impoverished by the war. Sewers and water systems barely functioned, Allied bombing left 200,000 homeless, and the black market commandeered what little supplies existed. Ginsborg quotes an Allied report describing “many hundreds of urchins” roaming the streets, “pimping, prostitution of minors, acting as ‘fences’ for stolen goods, etc.,” and “little girls ill and pregnant, at thirteen and even twelve years of age.” Even as Italy experienced enormous economic growth in the 20th century, the South continued to lag stubbornly behind, remaining until today the poorest part of Italy. Ginsborg also explains the consolidation of the reign of the mafia, romanticized in American mob movies and exposed as very real in Gomorrah, Roberto Saviano’s account of the mafia wars of the early 2000s. The children that Saviano finds fed into the Camorra’s violent underworld are modern-day remnants of the destitution that has long characterized Naples: the city’s reputation is still dirty, difficult, and dangerous.

The Skin
In the spring of 1944, Mount Vesuvius erupted violently. American troops captured footage of villagers on the outskirts of Naples preparing to evacuate, holding a religious procession before billowing ash filled the streets and smashed their homes. It must have seemed like the end of the world.

This is the dark setting of The Skin, a novel by Curzio Malaparte, a former fascist and political shapeshifter, perhaps better known now for his pink modernist villa on the rocks of Capri, where Bridgitte Bardot sunbathes nude in Contempt. The book’s narrator is an Italian Army captain also named Malaparte who has been assigned to escort occupying American officers around the “dreadful Neopolitan mob.” (The novelist, born Kurt Suckert, invented his name, which means “the bad part,” the opposite of Bonaparte.) Dressed in the bullet torn uniforms of dead Allied soldiers, Malaparte and his troops now have “to show ourselves worthy of the shame of Italy,” a people simultaneously liberated and conquered. Malaparte’s Naples is lurid and apocalyptic. He applies caustic humor equally across the decaying pretensions of European aristocrats, the naïve crowds cheering the arrival of U.S. troops, and the dangerously blithe good faith of the Americans. Misogyny abounds: the only women are prostitutes and Nazi collaborators, easy metaphors for Italy’s prone postwar position.

But Malaparte’s chilling prose and bantering wit animate the most surreal horrors of postwar deprivation. The book’s finale is a frenzy at the summit of Vesuvius after its eruption, where supplicants pray and fling offerings into the volcano beneath the “blood-soaked sponge” of the moon. All the book’s cynicism rises to a sincere effort to make sense of the sacrifice the country made to war.

Discovery of the World
Luciana Castellina was 14 in 1943, when she began keeping a “political diary.” On the day it begins, she played tennis with the daughter of the fascist leader Benito Mussolini. The girl was called off the courts abruptly — her father had been turned out of government and arrested. Four years later, when her teenage journals end, Castellina has become a student radical and gone to volunteer building railroads in Communist Yugoslavia. Discovery of the World: A Political Awakening in the Shadow of Mussolini, is a memoir “reconstructed” from these diaries, so we get rather a lot of Castellina, now an elderly former politician and prominent figure on the Italian left, interrupting to explain her younger self. Nonetheless, the diary excerpts are charming. They begin with a dutiful student whose notebooks are marked with her fascist party membership number, to whom the war arrives as the sudden need to hide Jewish relatives, to smuggle rations, and to await the Allies while hiding from their air raids. Later, she learns about the resistance, becomes enmeshed in Communist politics and debates on modernist painting and the atom bomb. It was a historic intellectual moment, when fascism’s fall seemed to have created an opening for utopian political reforms. Though it may be hard to follow for someone unfamiliar with the history of the European left, there’s still something infectious and familiar in the adolescent excitement that declares, one day, “It’s two years since Rome was liberated. What have I learned? Almost nothing. My ideas are more confused than ever,” and on another, “I am happy with everything. The world is mine and I want everything.”

The Art of Joy
“The world is mine and I want everything” might be a motto for Modesta, the ironically named firebrand heroine of The Art of Joy, a novel by Goliarda Sapienza. Completed in 1976, the book didn’t find a publisher until decades later, saturated as it is with sex and blasphemy (one Italian critic called it “a pile of iniquity.”) If Ferrante elegantly weaves history through her protagonists’ lives, Sapienza’s Modesta drags the 20th century behind her by the hair. Born in 1900 in a peasant hut in Sicily, she rises through a mix of guile and happenstance to become the unorthodox matriarch of a prosperous family. Her purpose in life is the pursuit of pleasure and freedom from authority in any form: she battles Catholicism, fascism, Freudianism, and even the demands of lovers and children. She realizes very young in life “how many false concepts I had fallen victim to.” Self-educated in business, politics, and history, she determines to take up every word she encounters, “wipe away the mold, free them from the deposits of centuries of tradition, invent new ones, and above all discard and no longer use…the most corrupt ones, such as sublime, duty, tradition, self-denial, humility, soul.” The first half of Sapienza’s mammoth book is that breathless wreckage, as Modesta’s self emerges from an angry, eccentric, and impoverished child. Later, it sometimes lapses into didactic dialogue and tedious political exegeses. But the initial brilliance of the book is, as with Ferrante, in watching the formal evolution of the narrator’s voice from the sensual environs of childhood to a sharp awareness of herself and her place in history.

The Millions Top Ten: September 2014


 

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for September.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.


The Bone Clocks
1 month

2.
1.

A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World
5 months

3.
9.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
3 months

4.
2.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
2 months

5.
7.

Cosmicomics

2 months

6.
4.

The Round House
3 months

7.
5.

Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction’s Most Beloved Heroines

6 months

8.
10.

My Struggle: Book 1

3 months

9.
8.

Reading Like a Writer
3 months

10.
6.

The Son
6 months

 

Welcome to the party, David Mitchell! Or, perhaps it’s more accurate to say, “Welcome back to the party.” Mitchell’s no stranger to our Top Ten, you see. Back in May, I observed that Mitchell is part of an elite group of eight authors who have reached our Hall of Fame on two separate occasions. Will this be number three? Every indication so far tells me that, yes, The Bone Clocks will follow in the footsteps of its predecessors — Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet — straight to the Millions record books. (No author has made it to our Hall of Fame for three separate books.)

Why, exactly, is The Bone Clocks so individually appealing, though? Well, as Brian Ted Jones put it in his review for our site, the book serves as a pivot point in Mitchell’s canon:
The Bone Clocks marks such a change of attitude in Mitchell, a turn toward something grimmer. He’s always been drawn to elements of darkness, of course. Predacity — the animal way humans have of making prey out of each other — has been his primary theme throughout the five novels that came before this. And those novels, to be sure, are all full of monsters.

In The Bone Clocks, though, Mitchell explores a new theme:  regret.
And, aside from what’s different, the book also displays some of Mitchell’s best writing to date. As Jones explains:
There is a moment in the very last pages — you will definitely know it when you get there — where Mitchell reaches right into your chest, puts his fingers on your heart, and presses down. The kind of moment you would choose to live inside for all eternity, if you had to pick just one.
I predict we’ll be seeing Mitchell’s name atop our Top Ten for many months to come.

Meanwhile, with the addition of one work comes the graduation of another. At long last, Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins has ascended to our Hall of Fame. Walter’s novel represents the first addition to our Hall of Fame since last June.

Near Misses: The Children Act, To Rise Again at a Decent HourAmericanah, 10:04, and The Secret Place. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: August 2014


 

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for August.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World
4 months

2.


Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
1 month

3.
2.

Beautiful Ruins
6 months

4.
3.

The Round House
2 months

5.
4.

Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction’s Most Beloved Heroines

5 months

6.
5.

The Son
5 months

7.


Cosmicomics

1 month

8.
6.

Reading Like a Writer

2 months

9.
9.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
2 months

10.
10.

My Struggle: Book 1
2 months

 

When it comes to literary fiction bestseller lists, is there a more reliable fixture than Haruki Murakami? Not only is the author prolific — having published thirteen novels (including a 1,000+ pager!) over his career — but he’s also incredibly popular. It was reported last year that in his native Japan, copies of his latest book, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, were flying off shelves to the tune of a million copies per week. And his reach is increasing, if you can believe it. A recent poll indicated that the author’s popularity is growing in Korea, and his work has been adapted for the screen in Vietnam. (His 2011 doorstopper, 1Q84, was banned from China, but that could be viewed as a mark of success depending on who you ask.)

So of course it should come as no surprise to see his latest novel break into our latest Top Ten, even despite Woody Brown’s fairly tepid review of the work for our site. “All of the hallmarks of Murakami’s style are present in Colorless Tsukuru,” Brown wrote back in August. “But for perhaps the first time … they seem flat and uninteresting, almost overused, as if the novel is a parody of his earlier work.” Ultimately, Brown notes, it’s a novel that, like Franz Liszt’s “Le mal du pays” (which figures prominently in the book), is “aloof, quiet, and finally, dissonant.”

Here’s hoping his next effort — due before the end of the year — is stronger, although it seems like no matter what, it’ll sell plenty of copies.

Meanwhile, the Top Ten saw the emergence this month of Italo Calvino’s classic work of “scientific” fiction, Cosmicomics. Undoubtedly Millions readers have Ted Gioia’s tantalizing review (“Italo Calvino’s Science Fiction Masterpiece“) to thank for putting the under-appreciated gem onto their radars:
Imagine a brilliant work of science fiction that wins the National Book Award and is written by a contender for the Nobel Prize in literature. Imagine that it is filled with dazzling leaps of the imagination, stylish prose, unique characters, philosophical insights, and unexpected twists and turns, but also draws on scientific concepts at every juncture. Imagine that it ranks among the finest works in the sci-fi genre.

And then imagine that almost no science fiction fan has read it, or even heard about it.
Rounding out this month’s list, we see the continued dominance of Rachel Cantor’s A Highly Unlikely Scenario and Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins. Both Well-Read Women and The Son remain popular mainstays as well. The list is due for a major shake-up in two months, as all four will likely be gracing our Hall of Fame by October and November. Will Knausgaard hang on to the last spot of the list by then? Will it have moved up? Will Book 2 have cracked the rankings? Only time will tell.

Near Misses: Americanah, Jesus’ Son, Bark, and Just Kids. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: July 2014


We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for July.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.
2.

A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World
3 months

2.
1.

Beautiful Ruins
5 months

3.


The Round House
1 month

4.
6.

Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction’s Most Beloved Heroines
4 months

5.
3.

The Son

4 months

6.


Reading Like a Writer
1 month

7.
4.

Bark: Stories
4 months

8.
8.

Americanah

2 months

9.


We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
1 month

10.


My Struggle: Book 1
1 month

 

July is the month of revolutions, writes Tom Nissley, and the theory is borne out in our July Top Ten. Not only do we have a new number one, but we also have four newcomers to our list — this in spite of the fact that not a single book from our June Top Ten graduated into our hallowed Hall of Fame. Are you intrigued? Then let’s get right to it.

Rachel Cantor’s A Highly Unlikely Scenario continues its months-long ascent up our list. When it debuted at #8 in May, I attributed its success to its placement on our Great 2014 Book Preview, but it looks like Millions readers have grown more and more intrigued ever since. Last month, Cantor’s book rose all the way to #2, and now it’s finally edged Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins out of the top spot. What will August hold in store for Cantor’s novel about “competing giant fast food factions rul[ing] the world?” Only time will tell.

Of the four newcomers to our list, the appearance of Karen Jay Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is probably the easiest to explain. The novel, which has been described by Khaled Hosseini as “a gripping, bighearted book,” won this year’s PEN/Faulkner award, and was also recently longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

Likewise, the debut of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: Book 1 is understandable — and, frankly, overdue — considering the immense hype it’s been getting lately. When Jonathan Callahan reviewed the book’s early installments for our site last year (which feels like ages ago…), he wrote of the autobiographical project:
With astounding single-mindedness (or monomania, if you prefer), Knausgaard conceives of and then executes the writing project that both consumes him and sequesters him from life. He’s Ahab, only with the final volume’s publication — which reportedly concludes with whatever the Norwegian is for “I am no longer an author” — he’s gone and caught the whale.
At the time, it seemed an unlikely candidate for breakout success. But oh, how wrong we were. Since last year, Knausgaard’s earned himself praise in the New York Times, the New Yorker, and more. He’s packed standing-room-only bookstore readings and he’s been talked about about just about every bar in New York. In fact there were rumors recently that the book was so popular in the author’s native Norway that the country had to institute “Knausgaard-free days” in order to keep its economy humming.

Also joining the list this month are books by Louise Erdrich and Francine Prose. The Round House has been knocking on the Top Ten’s door since its publication in 2012, and Reading Like a Writer seems like it’s perfectly suited for most of our readers.

Near Misses: The Good Lord Bird, Jesus’ Son, Just Kids, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and The Fault in Our Stars. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: June 2014


We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for June.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.
2.

Beautiful Ruins
4 months

2.
9.

A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World
2 months

3.
4.

The Son
3 months

4.
3.

Bark: Stories
3 months

5.
8.

The Good Lord Bird

3 months

6.
7.

Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction’s Most Beloved Heroines
3 months

7.
5.

Just Kids
6 months

8.


Americanah

1 month

9.
6.

Eleanor & Park
3 months

10.
10.

Jesus’ Son: Stories
3 months

 

As I predicted in last month’s write-up, the ascension of The Beggar Maid to our Hall of Fame means that Alice Munro has now officially graduated to the “Top Ten Two Timers Club” (working title) — a nine-member cohort of authors who’ve reached the Hall of Fame for more than one book.

Consequently, space on the Top Ten has opened up for a new number one — Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter — and for a new addition to the list: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which saw a sales bump after it was released in paperback last March, and then again after it was announced that a film adaptation could be on the way. (Of course, being featured on a surprise Beyoncé album never hurts, either.) Millions readers looking for an additional Adichie fix are welcome to check out her contribution to our Year in Reading series, as well.

Meanwhile, Rachel Cantor’s A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World continues to enjoy breakout success among Millions readers. The book takes place in the not-too-far-off future, where “competing giant fast food factions rule the world.” (One could be forgiven for wondering how, exactly, that’s different from the way things are right now.)

Next month, I expect to see multiple books from our recent Most Anticipated list to make it into our Top Ten. After all, two Millions staffers did just publish books last week, you know

Near Misses: Little Failure: A MemoirStories of Anton Chekhov, My Struggle: Book 1, The Fault in Our Stars, and Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: May 2014


We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for May.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose
6 months

2.
2.

Beautiful Ruins
3 months

3.
5.

Bark: Stories
2 months

4.
3.

The Son
2 months

5.
4.

Just Kids

5 months

6.
8.

Eleanor & Park
2 months

7.
6.

Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction’s Most Beloved Heroines
2 months

8.
9.

The Good Lord Bird

2 months

9.


A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World
1 month

10.
10.

Jesus’ Son: Stories
2 months

 

In order to graduate to our Hall of Fame, books must remain on the Millions Top Ten for more than six months. The feat has only been accomplished by 82 books in the series’s five year history. Within that subset of hallowed tomes, though, eight authors have attained an even higher marker of success: they’ve reached the Hall of Fame more than once. This accomplishment is remarkable for two reasons: 1) the Top Ten typically favors heavily marketed new releases, so it means that these eight authors have more than once produced blockbusters in the past few years; and 2) because Top Ten graduates must remain on our monthly lists for over half a year before ascending to the Hall of Fame, that means their books must be popular enough to have sustained success. (In other words, marketing only gets you far.)

The names of these eight authors should be familiar to Millions readers, of course. They belong to some of the most successful writers of the past 25 years: David Foster Wallace* (Infinite Jest, The Pale King), Junot Díaz (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, This Is How You Lose Her), Stieg Larsson (The Girl with the Dragon TattooThe Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest), David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet), Hilary Mantel (Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies), Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections, Freedom), George Saunders (Tenth of December, Fox 8), and — as of this month — Dave Eggers (Zeitoun, The Circle).

(*David Foster Wallace has the unique distinction, actually, of having two of his own books in our Hall of Fame in addition to a biography written about him.)

Even money would seem to indicate that Alice Munro is poised to join this esteemed group next. Her Selected Stories graduated to the Hall of Fame shortly after her Nobel Prize was awarded in 2013, and her collection, The Beggar Maid, has been holding fast ever since. Meanwhile, the surprise re-emergence of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, which has been hovering at the bottom of the Top Ten lists these past two months, indicates that maybe he’ll reach that group soon as well. His novella, Train Dreams, graduated in August of 2012.

Changing gears a bit: the lone new addition to our Top Ten this month in the form of Rachel Cantor’s mouthful of a novel, A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World. The book, which was published last month, was featured in our Great 2014 Book Preview, during which time Millions staffer Hannah Gersen posed the eternal question, “It’s got time travel, medieval kabbalists, and yes, pizza. What more can you ask for?”

What more, indeed?

Near Misses: Little Failure: A MemoirAmericanahStories of Anton Chekhov, My Struggle: Book 1, and Tampa. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: April 2014


We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for April.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.
6.

The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose
5 months

2.
9.

Beautiful Ruins
2 months

3.


The Son
1 month

4.
8.

Just Kids
4 months

5.


Bark: Stories

1 month

6.


Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction’s Most Beloved Heroines
1 month

7.
10.

The Circle
2 months

8.


Eleanor & Park

1 month

9.


The Good Lord Bird
1 month

10.


Jesus’ Son: Stories
1 month

 

Major shakeups to the April Top Ten were wrought by the graduation of six (count ’em) titles to our Millions Hall of FameThe Goldfinch, Selected Stories, The Flamethrowers, The Luminaries, Draw It With Your Eyes Closed, and The Lowland. This “March 2014” class of ascendants is noteworthy not only for being the biggest single-month Hall of Fame class ever, but also for being one of the most highly-decorated classes in series history. How decorated? Let’s run the tape: Donna Tartt’s novel won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Alice Munro won the last Nobel Prize for Literature. Rachel Kushner’s novel was a finalist for the National Book Award. Eleanor Catton was the winner of last year’s Man Booker Prize. And Jhumpa Lahiri’s work was shortlisted for that same Man Booker Prize. Objectively speaking, this is the biggest and best class to date.

Of course, here at The Millions, our readers have plenty of decorated authors on their “to be read” shelves, and as a result, our Top Ten doesn’t so much rebuild — to borrow the parlance of a college football team — as it reloads.

To wit: we’re replacing a National Book Award finalist, a Pulitzer winner, and a Man Booker winner with two National Book Award winners, a Pulitzer finalist, and Lorrie Moore.

Heading off this new crop of titles is Philipp Meyer’s The Son, which was a Pulitzer finalist this past year, and which was met with critical acclaim for weeks after it was first published. It’s a book that John Davidson described for our site as being, “a sprawling, meticulously researched epic tale set in southern Texas,” and one that “leverages” a “certain theory of Native American societies … to explore the American creation myth.” Indeed, Meyer himself noted in his Millions interview that, “If there’s a moral purpose to the book, it’s to put our history, the history of this country, into a context.”

Additionally, the April Top Ten welcomes James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird, which blew past the field at last year’s National Book Awards to claim top prize overall. (The announcement of a movie deal soon followed.) For The Millions, our own Bill Morris sang the work’s praises and he sang them loudly. The book, Morris wrote in his latest Year in Reading piece, is “one of the most astonishing, rollicking, delightful, smart and sad books I’ve read in all my life.” Evidently you listened.

New(ish) releases weren’t the only new additions to our list this month, either. Sneaking into the tenth spot on our list was a classic collection from Denis Johnson, the winner of the National Book Award in 2007. It’s a pity they no longer print the version that fits in your pocket.

And what to say of Lorrie Moore, whose addition to the Vanderbilt faculty last Fall was overshadowed by news of Bark‘s imminent publication? Perhaps it’s best if I let the final paragraph from Arianne Wack’s profile of the author speak for itself:
Exploring the demands of a life is the heart of Moore’s work, and the resonate truth of her prose has fueled a fevered desire for her books. Her characters don’t so much adventure through life as they do drift and stumble through it, making it a map of emotional landmarks, places you keep finding yourself in. One suspects that Moore is not simply writing a life, but cleverly recording yours. There is a commonality linking reader with character, an elastic boundary between her fiction and our reality that both reinforces and subverts one’s own sense of uniqueness. Coming away from one of her stories, one is reminded that we are all just doing this the best we know how.
Or better yet, perhaps I should point you toward our own Edan Lepucki’s summation of Moore’s influence on a generation of American short story writers:
We all came out of Lorrie Moore’s overcoat–or her frog hospital, her bonehead Halloween costume.  If you’re a young woman writer with a comic tendency, and you like similes and wordplay, and you traffic in the human wilderness of misunderstanding and alienation, then you most certainly participate in the Moore tradition.
Lastly, the April Top Ten welcomes two other newcomers as well. Entering the field in the eighth spot is Eleanor & Park, of which Janet Potter proclaimed, “Rarely is a realistic love story a page-turner, but when I got to the end I tweeted: ‘Stayed up til 3 finishing Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell. Would have stayed up forever.'” (The book is being made into a movie, by the way.) Meanwhile, a collection of portraits entitled Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction’s Most Beloved Heroines enters the list in sixth place, likely owing to its prominence on Hannah Gersen’s list of gift ideas from last year.

Near Misses: AmericanahLittle Failure: A MemoirStories of Anton ChekhovA Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World: A Novel, and Tampa. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: March 2014

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for March.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

The Goldfinch
6 months

2.
2.

Selected Stories
6 months

3.
3.

The Flamethrowers
6 months

4.
4.

The Luminaries
6 months

5.
5.

Draw It with Your Eyes Closed: The Art of the Art Assignment
6 months

6.
6.

The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose
4 months

7.
8.

The Lowland
6 months

8.
10.

Just Kids
3 months

9.


Beautiful Ruins
1 months

10.


The Circle
1 month

 

The first six spots in the March Top Ten are unchanged from February, and only two newcomers — Beautiful Ruins and The Circle — managed to crack this month’s list. Their arrival was made possible by the ascension of Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings and Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge to the hallowed ground of our Millions Hall of Fame.

It may come as a surprise to faithful Millions readers that this is the first time Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins has made our Top Ten. First published in 2012, Walter’s novel has been a mainstay in our Year in Reading series ever since. First came the estimable trio of Emma StraubRoxane Gay, and Robert Birnbaum, who by turns referred to the book as “precise, skilled, quick-witted, and warm-hearted,” “one of my favorite books of the year,” and “especially special.” More recently, Kate Milliken commented on how it seems the entire world has read the book already, and that she was late to the party when she got to it in 2013. Of course, that didn’t stop her from diving in, later confirming what others have said all along: “Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins is indeed bumpin’.”

(If you still need more convincing, then know this: the book is on its way to the big screen, too.)

On the other hand, Dave Eggers’s The Circle has hovered outside of the Top Ten ever since Lydia Kiesling identified it as “occup[ying] an awkward place of satire and self-importance.” It wasn’t the most positive review she’s written, but it wasn’t altogether negative, either: “There are noble impulses behind this novel — to prophesy, to warn, and to entertain — and it basically delivers on these fronts.” And if nothing else, Kiesling notes that the book provides a reliable glossary of “awful techno-cum-Landmark Forum-cum-HR-cum-feelings-speak,” which should prove useful for anyone hoping to understand the language of blog posts on TechCrunch, ValleyWag, and other sites devoted to the latest digital secretions from Silicon Valley.

Stay tuned next month for the likely graduation of six titles to our Millions Hall of Fame. Which books will take their places? Will surprises emerge? As with March Madness, the only certainty is uncertainty, so we’ll have to wait and see.

Near Misses: Eleanor & Park, Bark: StoriesThe Son, The Unwinding, Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction’s Most Beloved Heroines, and The Good Lord Bird. See Also: Last month’s list.

A Year in Reading: Kate Milliken

So, it seems that I am late to the party. Not only am I late to the party, I resisted going because everyone was going and word on the street was so loudly proclaimed, “Best Party of the Year,” that I felt sure I’d be disappointed. But, finally, only one year late (honestly, I am often far more behind than this), I slunk in the door and, low and behold, Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins is indeed bumpin’.

I have been hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t already read this book, but hopefully you are out there, another foot-dragger (how great could a literary breakout be, anyway?), and now I get to tell you at least some of what you’ve been missing: A Richard Burton that’s better Burton than Burton himself, a flawlessly executed high wire act of narrative time travel (no, there’s no worm hole; maybe another selling point?), a playful yet swift elbow to the ribs of our cultural priorities, characters that—when not reading—you will find yourself fondly considering, profound insights into parental and romantic love, a hopefulness about humanity that is both refreshing for a literary novel and reassuring as a human animal, dialog that is practically audible from the page, and a wit and humor that will one minute have you smiling inwardly and the next minute slapping your knee, teary-eyed, and snorting. In public. But it’ll be okay, because you can just explain that you are finally, finally reading Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins and everyone on the bus/train/boat/plane will likely understand.

Or, don’t read it. I get it. Just go ahead and assume that I drank the punch.

More from A Year in Reading 2013

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

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

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Sing It, Sister! On Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings

My son will be two in June, and his favorite books include The Paperbag Princess, Eloise, and any story starring that lovable mouse Maisy. This is no accident; since our son was born, my husband and I have made sure he’s exposed to books about boys and girls. We also always recite the author’s name along with the title so that he understands that books are made by humans, male and female, for humans, male and female. We are feminists raising a boy who will become a man, and (we hope) a feminist and (we pray) a reader. If he reads diversely, he will not only have access to a wider and more complex world, but he’ll also read a shitload of great books. Plus, if he reads a lot of lady writers, he will — if he wants it — get so much more pussy. Let’s face it: nothing’s hotter than a man with an Emily Books subscription.

I myself try to read books by men and women in equal numbers. Yes, it’s true, I keep track of stuff like this; how else to hold myself and my reading proclivities accountable? I admit, though, had Meg Wolitzer’s new novel The Interestings been written by a dude, I might have waited for it to come out in paperback. It’s just so…long. Like other women readers I know, I’m a little sick of the big literary book written by the big literary man. And maybe I’m resentful. My editor wanted to me cut about 20,000 words for my forthcoming novel California, which I did because the criticism was spot-on, the book was longer than it needed to be; still, I couldn’t help but wonder (aloud and all the time) if Eugenides, Franzen, and Harbach had also been edited for length. Thankfully, Meg Wolitzer is a woman, and after reading her famous and astute New York Times essay, “The Second Shelf,” about the ways books by women are marketed and treated by readers, I was happy to support her ambitious and, yes, long book. Sing it, sister!

In some ways, The Interestings reminds me of Joanna Smith Rakoff’s captivating (and big) novel A Fortunate Age, also about a group of friends in New York over a period of many years. The Interestings, though, covers even more time, introducing us to its characters when they’re teenagers at an arts summer camp in the 1970s and following them into their 50s. Though told in a sweeping and shifting third-person point of view, the novel is anchored by Jules Jacobson, one of six friends who ironically (and not-so-ironically) call themselves The Interestings that first year together at summer camp, when they’re young and brilliant and the world is theirs for the taking; the book follows them through marriage, parenthood, and (for one) even death. It’s a book about how talent develops, or withers, as people grow up. It’s also about intimacy and loyalty — in families, between friends, between spouses — and about money, jealousy, and comparing yourself to others as well as to a past version of yourself. Like many big books, it’s about the cruelty and solace of time’s passage.

I’d say Wolitzer has written “a novel of ideas” if said novel weren’t so engaging. (In my household, the phrase, “a novel of ideas,” is followed by an eye-roll. Such books are made for humorless people who don’t like television, candy, and/or dancing.) I read the book in four days, hushing anyone who tried to speak to me as I finished a paragraph or chapter, and laughing aloud at various cafes (yeah, I became that person). The pure enjoyment of reading The Interestings belies its skill and craft. The narrative perspective, authorial yet also intimate, is so nimble. Wolitzer is able to pull off that rabbit-out-of-a-hat trick of offering wise and assured narration, and then narrowing into a particular consciousness, as she does here:

Julie Jacobson, at the start of that first night, had not yet transformed into the far better sounding Jules Jacobson, a change that would deftly happen a little while later. As Julie, she’d always felt all wrong; she was gangling, and her skin went pink and patchy at the least provocation: if she got embarrassed, if she ate hot soup, if she stepped into the sun for half a minute.

The book also occasionally fast-forwards in time, and does it so deftly that I didn’t even notice it was happening until I was already inside of a new moment. Here is one example, regarding the brilliant cartoonist Ethan Figman:

Once, as Ethan bent the flexible straw, he became aware of the tiny little creak it made upon bending, and he filed away the idea, straw sound, for some future endeavor. “Straw sound! Straw sound!” the character Wally Figman demanded of his mother, who’d given him a glass of chocolate milk a few months later in a flashback to early childhood in one of the short Figland films. The noisy, brash cartoon soundtrack came to a halt while Wally’s mother bent the straw for her son, and the straw made that unmistakeable and somehow pleasurable squeaking creak.

Once Figland hit primetime, stoners watching the show would soon say to one another, “Straw sound, straw sound!” And someone might go into a kitchen, or even run out to a store, and bring back a box of Circus Flexi-Straws and bend straw after straw to hear that specific, inimitable sound, finding it unaccountably hilarious.

The novel’s narrative style complements its multi-character cast, and, like other recent books of this kind (Jess Walters’ Beautiful Ruins and Jami Attenberg’s The Middlesteins come to mind), it offers a multifaceted yet deeply imagined rendering of experience.

But what, exactly, makes it so readable? The Interestings, after all, relies on large swaths of exposition and summary to cover so much time, and if a writer isn’t careful, shifting characters can often slow down a story. Furthermore, the book reveals the outcome of certain characters’ lives early on; the novel isn’t initially told chronologically, and a lot is “given away” in the first 30 pages. How come I kept reading then? Wolitzer’s unpredictable structure and her modes of narration reminded me, as a writer and teacher of writing, that telling can and does create narrative propulsion, provided that the telling is specific and thoughtful, sensual and fluid. Zipping through juicy, character-deepening summary is one of reading’s big pleasures, and Wolitzer gets that. What she does choose to withhold from the reader, to be revealed in-scene, is significant. She dramatizes the conflict that corrodes this group of friends, and that makes all the difference.

(Also, Wolitzer writes terrific sex scenes, and that will always keep my interest. The phrase “stingy little anus” is magnificent, don’t you think?)

The book’s second half isn’t as strong as the first, maybe because Wolitzer has such a gift for exposition. As the novel hurtled toward September 11, 2001, I felt a familiarity to the events, and an awful sense that these sections were obligatory though not central to the story’s arc.  Jules, Ethan, and the rest of the group continued to live their lives, one day unspooling into the next; time’s passage felt believable and moving, and yet not as electric as the first half of the book. When, fairly late in the novel, Jules and her husband return to the arts camp, to run it themselves, I was less interested in this plot-line, for whatever reason. Nevertheless, my enjoyment of the book didn’t disappear. I remained captivated. As I read its final lines, declarative and profound and true, I felt mournful. The book — this book! — was over. I closed the novel and wondered if I could write a book this big, this ballsy. I imagined Ms. Wolitzer behind an imposing mahogany desk, quill in hand. “Why not?” she said to me, and smiled. Yes, why not?

Maybe one day, when my son is an adult, I’ll force him to be in an intermittent book club with me. When it’s my turn to pick something, I’ll choose The Interestings.

Unless, of course, he’s already read it.

The Point of the Paperback

1.
“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.

2.
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.”

3.
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.”

4.
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.”

 

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