I’m a promiscuous reader, always reading multiple books at a time, switching back and forth. I’m not a poet, but every year, I find myself reading more and more poetry collections. My biggest poetry crushes this year? Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, and (though they weren’t published this year) Stacey Waite’s Butch Geography, and Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, which (I guess) qualifies as poetry, but I would call it fiction. My poet friends and I keep having the same argument about whether Maggie Nelson’s work is poetry or nonfiction. They keep trying to claim her, of course, but we all know the truth. After reading Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, an examination of love and suffering and her personal obsession with the color blue, I immediately went out and got The Argonauts, which is a hybrid of sorts, although I’d call it lyric essay. It’s a love story, but it’s also an exploration of motherhood and gender and family and queerness and sexuality, and so many other things. Bonus: the sections discussing women’s anal eroticism, in which Nelson writes, “I am not interested in a hermeneutics, or an erotics, or a metaphorics, of my anus. I am interested in ass-fucking.” Yes!
Most of the novels and story collections I enjoyed most this year were fabulist, or had some kind of supernatural element — apparitions or hallucinations or ghosts or the unexplained — and required some suspension of disbelief. Kelly Link’s stories in Get in Trouble, funny and imaginative, were rife with ghosts, super heroes, vampires, and pocket universes. César Aira’s allegorical novel Ghosts, in which a family squatting in an unfinished apartment building in Buenos Aires can see ghosts, is strange and witty and sometimes a little disturbing but surprisingly lighthearted. John Henry Fleming’s stories in Songs for the Deaf were inventive in the best way, sometimes satiric, sometimes dreamy and lyrical, sometimes dysfunctional, and often hilarious. This year I also revisited Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle — one of my all-time favorites — a gothic novel, about two sisters who still live (with their elderly uncle) in a house where most of their family was murdered. It’s dark and funny and surprising, part murder mystery, part psychological thriller. Bonus: Merricat, the young narrator, is creepy and sadistic as hell.
Diane Cook’s Man V. Nature was probably my favorite story collection in the last two or three years. I finished it and then texted a bunch of friends to tell them about it and then immediately re-read it because DAMN it was just that good. Cook’s stories are hilarious, even when they’re tragic. Executives are hunted by a monster in an office building, babies are stolen from their mothers, unwanted (or “not needed”) boys are sent off to be incinerated, a giant baby can bench press more than his father. Cook’s stories remind me of Karen Russell, whose stories always knock me out. (By the way, Karen Russell’s novella, Sleep Donation, was one of my favorite reads last year.)
My two favorite memoirs this year, Lacy M. Johnson’s The Other Side and M.J. Fievre’s A Sky the Color of Chaos were both as harrowing as they were beautiful. The Other Side opens with Johnson’s escape from a soundproof room, where she was imprisoned by her former boyfriend — he’d intended to kill her, but she managed to escape. Johnson’s memoir, rather than just a story of the trauma and violence inflicted on her, is about how one deals with the aftermath and effects of trauma, written mostly in short, lyrical sections, often laced with metaphor. M.J. Fievre’s A Sky the Color of Chaos is a memoir about growing up in Haiti after the fall of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, the country’s violent dictator, when Jean-Bertrand Aristide became president. During this time, the Haitian people were taking violent revenge on the Tonton Macoutes, who were responsible for thousands upon thousands of rapes and murders, and several massacres. As much as it explores Haiti’s difficult history, A Sky the Color of Chaos is a coming of age story, and a story about Fievre’s complicated relationship with her father.
I started reading Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House while planning a move to Detroit. I was looking for what I thought would be “a Detroit novel.” What I got was so much more than that. A moving family saga full of complex characters and subtle metaphors — Cha-Cha seeing haints, the rise and fall of the city, the house itself. Everything about this novel feels balanced — the writing is controlled and elegant; Flournoy chooses two of the 13 siblings to focus on, the eldest and the youngest; the family experiences hard times but also, much like in real life, joy. The Turner House is timeless. And speaking of timeless: I was lucky enough to snag a copy of Amina Gautier’s The Loss of All Lost Things, her third story collection, which comes out next year. The stories in this collection, which is her best, are about all types of loss — parents who lose their son, a boy who comes to terms with the fact that he is lost, the loss of innocence. Gautier is definitely a prose stylist. Her sentences are lyrical, evocative, often haunting.
Like every other person I know, I’m in the middle of Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, which is brutal and irreverent and unapologetic and badass, which is why everybody in the world is talking about it. I’m also finishing Phillippe Diederich’s Sofrito, a novel about a restaurant owner who travels to Cuba, his parents’ homeland, in order to steal a secret recipe he thinks may save his restaurant. Diederich, a former photojournalist, really has an eye for details. Cuba is very vivid in this novel — you can see it, smell it, taste it. And I just started Suki Kim’s Without You, There Is No Us. Kim is a South Korean investigative journalist who secretly crossed the border into North Korea, going undercover in Pyongyang and posing as a North Korean teacher. Without You, There Is No Us is the book she wrote while immersed in the North Korean culture. What’s next? I’m excited to finally get to Tanwi Nandini Islam’s Bright Lines. Tanwi and I will be in conversation at the Betsy Hotel South Beach on December 12, talking about books, queer coming of age stories, and so much more!
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In January I vowed to purchase and read as much poetry as I read fiction. I traveled more this year than ever before, mostly in support of my novel, and poetry became a way to keep good words on my person without lugging around a heavy hardcover. For a fiction writer like me, who loves clause-heavy sentences and a good, chunky paragraph, poetry reminds me that every word and every sound can and should be considered. The poetry I read, in the order acquired:
Prelude to Bruise, by Saeed Jones
Citizen, by Claudia Rankine
Blue Yodel, by Ansel Elkins
Hemming the Water, by Yona Harvey
Gabriel, by Edward Hirsch
How to Be Drawn, by Terrance Hayes
[Insert] Boy, by Danez Smith
Boy With Thorn, by Rickey Laurentiis
Voyage of the Sable Venus, by Robin Coste Lewis
Bright Dead Things, by Ada Limón
An unexpected and wonderful thing happened as a result of putting my first book out this year: I read a good amount of 2015 releases. It usually takes me a while to learn about new books, and longer still to read them, but there’s only so many times you can see your book alongside other good-looking ones in bookstores and in the press before you pick them up and see what’s what.
Disgruntled, by Asali Solomon
Diamond Head, by Cecily Wong
Under the Udala Trees, by Chinelo Okparanta
Mr. and Mrs. Doctor, by Julie Iromuanya
Mrs. Engels, by Gavin McCrea
The Star Side of Bird Hill, by Naomi Jackson
Bright Lines, by Tanwi Nandini Islam
The Light of the World, by Elizabeth Alexander
Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
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Angela Flournoy is in the midst of a year all debut novelists dream of. She has secured a spot as a finalist for the National Book Award; she was also named as one of the “5 Under 35” writers by the same organization. Her debut, The Turner House, is an elegant and intimate exploration of a large family in Detroit and how the housing crisis of 2008 has affected them. While this generational saga covers a multitude of themes, it feels concise and is an enthralling page turner.
We spoke over the phone about her writing process of her debut novel, the current state of diversity in literature, and what she has planned next.
The Millions: You’ve been nominated for the National Book Award and were named part of the “5 Under 35.” How have you been feeling about all of the recognition?
Angela Flournoy: I’ve been feeling great. For your first book you really don’t sit around thinking about getting on a long list. At least I don’t as a writer because then you’d be perpetually disappointed. I was really excited, surprised, and delighted. I didn’t even think the “5 Under 35” was even possible. Especially on the first go around. There’s a way if you write short stories and you get them placed well [in certain magazines] things happen incrementally. You have this little business card out there in the world. You can get little awards or fellowships with that. When you write a novel you’re the tortoise, not the hare. For four of five years, I was just writing. There was the adjunct position and I was just waiting tables in Iowa, but I was really just out in the world writing. I wasn’t being looked at by people who can help. Everything just happened at once. As a novelist, people told me but I forgot, that if it happens, it will all happen at once. There is no business card, there is no little story out there in the world.
The night they announced the “5 Under 35” at a cocktail party in New York, I wasn’t there. I was teaching in Brooklyn. It was a class that night about Roberto Bolaño’s novel The Savage Detectives. It’s weird how everything connects because the first time I read that novel was four years prior in a class taught by ZZ Packer, who was actually the writer who nominated me. It seemed like the right place to be [teaching that class] even though I wasn’t “celebrating.” It felt right teaching about a book that I learned about by the person who nominated me.
TM: What was the writing process of your debut novel like during your time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop?
AF: I started it there. The idea for the project really came to me when I first moved to Iowa in the fall of 2009. My father’s family is from Detroit, so I had frequent trips just driving from Iowa City to Detroit. It’s about a seven-hour drive. It just seems that people from the Midwest drive more often. So I was driving to Detroit to visit the house my father grew up in and it was the first time ever that no one was living in the house. My grandmother was older and she no longer lived there. It was on the east side of town, which is a depopulated area; I was just sort of bothered by this house. People worked so hard to maintain it and it looked so great, but I didn’t really know what the future of the house would be. So it just stayed there for about 10 months.
In my second semester, I had this idea of this woman who was staying in a house. She wasn’t necessarily trespassing, but she didn’t want anybody to know that she was there. That character became Lelah, and that’s how the novel really began. I workshopped 15 pages near the end of the semester, but of course nobody knew it was going to end up as a novel. Once I started writing about her, I didn’t want to write about anything else.
Really, in my second year at Iowa, all of my workshops were just chapters of the novel. I wrote about 80 pages and I decided to stay in Iowa for a third year just so I wouldn’t have to move to an expensive city and I could adjunct [teach at the Workshop]. By staying in Iowa for the third year, I got to about 200 pages, and with those pages I got an agent. I moved and continued to work on the book and it took another year to get to the 300 pages that it ended up becoming.
The most useful thing about my time in Iowa was just not having high overhead. There’s not a lot to do there, especially in winter, so there’s just time to write.
TM: Where did the other pieces come from? There are a lot of different threads winding together to make something pretty concise.
AF: My father is from a big family. In my mind, I had to find a reason why Lelah didn’t want people to know she was in this house and I thought about the big family and the fear of judgement. One way I could explore the history of the house and the family’s relationship with the city was to have her be the youngest of a very big line of siblings. So on the other end of the spectrum I needed someone who was the opposite of her, who was Cha Cha. I was able to explore a lot of different aspects of life in Detroit and life in a big family.
TM: The novel has five different sections representing a week in 2008, as well as flashbacks to the 1940s. How does a writer come about finding the right structural elements of a novel?
AF: The background just lived in my mind as useful information that probably wouldn’t end up in the book. I first started writing the novel as a contemporary Detroit story. When people read anything that has to do with a social issue or an economic issue, if you put it in the past, people don’t really look at themselves. If the book was completely set in the past people would just disassociate themselves with it. They would think this is just how housing discrimination was working in the past and it has nothing to do with them today. So I was hesitant to focus on the 1940s. The more I researched, the more I found interesting things. The part of the city that these people moved to during the Great Migration doesn’t even exist anymore. So I thought this would be a great opportunity to teach a lesson on part of the city’s history.
Once I decided that, I knew that I could use it as a piece of backwards information. In the present timeline the question is where is the family going with this house, but in the past the question is how did this house even come into their lives? I thought the two together would play well off of one another.
TM: Identity plays a major role in The Turner House. How do you feel about race or identity in current literature?
AF: I feel like it’s one of those things that if you seek [writers of different races and genders] out you find it. I find, maybe not on purpose, that I’ve read more of that in the past year. Especially women and women of color. Once you find one writer, you find others like them. I think that publishing is a little behind of what people desire or what they’re gravitating towards.
I was on a panel at Decatur [Georgia] Book Festival on Labor Day and a writer discussed how young adult literature is written more like what the country looks like. It’s trying harder to be inclusive; people of various ethnicities or various sexual orientation. I think that’s something that literary fiction is a little bit slower to embrace. I think it’s changing though. I can only hope that it is. There are certain people who only know people who look like them still, but I think it’s become less of the norm.
As far as identity in literature, I think we’re coming to a place where readers have so many options. Eventually readers will read about everything and it will happen organically; it wouldn’t even be a thought. There’s so many books out there by such a diverse group of writers that readers won’t have to try hard to find diversity. Hopefully we can get to a point where diversity is the norm.
TM: What’s the next project you’re working on? A novel or short stories?
AF: I’m working on a book. If you can call it that. It’s the very early days. Being busy is a good problem to have. I moved to Brooklyn to teach in the summer and wanted to focus on writing in the fall. However, I got all of these opportunities to teach and talk about my book. It’s nice because when a debut novel comes out, you don’t think anything like this will happen. I’m looking forward to getting time to focus on the next book.
It’s very early days. It’s about family, but it’s more about friendship than it is about familial connection
TM: Between teaching, giving talks about The Turner House and working on the next one, do you have time to read for pleasure?
AF: Yes. One thing I like reading are big, sprawling novels. You either love them or hate them. I’m a person who loves them. I’m always on the hunt for the next big book that’s going to take me to all of these places and enter all of these points of view. There may be a few digressions, but they’re going to be beautifully written.
I’m currently reading Bright Lines by Tanwi Nandini Islam. It is probably not as sprawling as I seek out, but there’s a greatness to it. It’s a book set in the early 2000s in Brooklyn about a family from Bangladesh. It’s a coming of age story, but also familial history.
As Edan Lepucki pointed out, writers are a self-flagellating bunch: difficult to satisfy, prone to swinging wildly between absurd faith and intense self-criticism. (Or is that just me?) So you can hardly blame us for wanting to hold tight to our darlings — the favored image, the pet sentence — when we finally get them on paper. And yet, and yet — writers from Anton Chekov to Stephen King agree that one’s most precious writing often has to be cut, either because of the fact of its preciousness or because it doesn’t serve the larger work.
Having killed more than a few darlings myself—including an entire novel—I asked five contemporary writers about the most painful time they cut a piece of writing. The truth is that the kill-your-darlings phenomenon is a little bit like a lust-driven love affair: no matter how painful it is to say goodbye, I’ve heard few people say that it wasn’t the right choice, or even that they truly miss their darling once it’s gone. But I keep a graveyard document on my computer just in case. You never know when a dead darling will be called upon and brought to life again.
1. Judith Claire Mitchell, author of A Reunion of Ghosts
I’ve had to kill plenty of darlings over the years, but though the deletions may come with fleeting twinges of pain, I’ve mostly taken pleasure in making my work leaner. This is what professional writers do, after all: they edit, they revise, they trim. Once, though, I had to cut a simile from a story I was working on, and the fact that I still remember those four little excised words — my despondent protagonist described herself as “negligible as an eyelash” — reveals how much it hurt to give them up. But before I’d finished my own story, I read a newly published story by a writer I admired, and there in one of her perfect paragraphs was my simile, word for word. She’d not only come up with the same exact metaphor, she’d come up with and published it first.
I tried to convince myself we could both use the simile. It wasn’t as if I’d stolen it from this other writer, not even subconsciously. And the chances that anyone in the world (where literary short fiction is not exactly giving Harry Potter a run for his money) would read both our stories, much less read them in such temporal proximity and so darned carefully they’d notice we used the same simile was…well, as negligible as an eyelash. In the end, though, I knew I’d lost the race, and I did the right thing, erasing the four words from my story. I have been churlish and bitter about it ever since.
2. Rebecca Dinerstein, author of The Sunlit Night
The first draft of my novel went heavy on Norse mythology. Even though my male protagonist Yasha was a 17-year-old Russian boy, I thought of him as a version of Thor. I wanted Yasha’s father, Vassily, to resemble Thor’s father, Odin, the All-Father of the Norse universe who famously rides an eight-legged horse and walks around with a raven on each shoulder. I hoped to connect the fabulous, exotic heroes of those myths to my humble, bewildered characters. But I wound up with a total mess. I had hammers and horses all over the place and I couldn’t say why. It started to feel like scaffolding, or a gimmick, that my book needed to shed. In my second draft, I let Yasha be Yasha and cut back on the Thor. But I strengthened Yasha with Thor’s sensibility: I kept that mightiness, that inspiration in mind as I steered Yasha through his dilemmas and into moments of bravery. And happily, the Norse gods did make it into one climactic scene: a midnight funeral at a Viking museum.
3. Tanwi Nandini Islam, author of Bright Lines
When it came time for me to revise my novel, I killed all the darlings in Part II, 150 pages worth. Instead of reckoning with my characters’ loss and the aftermath of an intense family trip, I had flashed forward a decade, absolving myself of the inner work that was necessary for telling this story. My editor saw the heart of Bright Lines: a triad of POVs that connects the experience of two daughters, one adopted, one biological, and a father confronting his weakness. I cut some of the more dramatic turns in the novel — characters killed, lecherous uncles, good-for-nothing dads — these were shorn. The rough-hewn forms of these ideas took shape, and what resulted was a process of fine-tuning, excavating, and exploring my characters’ inner desires in the span of one year. During this time, I was in acting classes, too. I suppose this was a respite from writing as well as a way to strengthen my storytelling. In class, we’d ask: Where are you coming from? Where are you going? And as I finishing revising my novel, the choice to kill my darlings led me to write a fully-realized story that looks to a historical past, with an unspoken destination that comes decades later.
4. Rufi Thorpe, author of The Girls from Corona del Mar
For me, the hardest darling to kill was in my first novel, The Girls from Corona del Mar. In it, one of the characters is hit over the head with a gnome statue, enters a coma, and upon awakening is obsessed with the genocide of the American Indian. In the original version of the book, there was an entire 40-page section that followed that character into her coma where she went on a kind of guided vision quest regarding the nature of cruelty. It was supposed to be both a historical recap of the less clean parts of American history, as well as a meditation on those wrongs we commit that cannot be taken back or set right, even as there is a moral imperative to at least try.
My agent insisted it must be cut, I argued it could be trimmed, but in the end, I agreed with her and cut the whole thing. Still, it completed the book thematically and symbolically in a way that was painful to lose. Don’t even talk to my husband about it. “It was a tragedy!” he shouts whenever it comes up. “That was the best part of the book!” And even though it wasn’t the best part of the book, I love him dearly for saying so.
5. Marian Palaia, author of The Given World
When I was first asked if I might write a short piece on having had, at some point, to jettison a favorite character (to kill off one of my darlings, in the parlance), I couldn’t think of one off the top of my head, but figured I could come up with something. Then I sent an early draft of my new novel to my agent. Ha! The joke is on me. The universe aligns, and it is looking as though I am needing to cut, from a so-far 175-page manuscript, about 1/3, in the form of Cam. He is not only a main character, but “Cam” is the first word in the book; he is the first person we meet, aside from the narrator, who introduces him to us. The reason he needs to go, or to at least not be a main character anymore, is because he is — not to put too fine a point on it — one tragic figure too many, in a book already full (enough) of tragic figures. And he is Haitian, meaning he has an accent, and he suffers from PTSD and (probably) Gulf War Syndrome (from our first adventure there), and then there is the matter of the earthquake occurring in the course of the book’s time frame, and the fact that he is Haitian in Missoula, Mont., and, well, maybe you can see where this thing could go completely off the rails and he could become somewhat cartoonish, which would just add more tragedy to the whole affair.
The thing is, I knew he was risky when I first began to write him, but there he was, and he was pretty insistent on being there, shy guy that he is, and he is a real person, in an alternate sphere, and his story is so compelling it won’t leave me, but it is for another time, I think. For another place. Or maybe it is his story alone — compelling in the way real life can be, and not transferable to fiction — and I have no business sharing it. We’ll see. And I will miss him. Unless he moves to San Francisco and meets up with my protagonist there, and is not such a fish out of water, but there will still be the same issues, so we will just have to see. Meantime, I am going in. And changing the first word of my book. I will find out what sort of cascading effect that has. I have just arrived in Montana, the place I seem to want every morning to get up and write, and have all summer, unless we catch on fire, to finish this draft. Better get started.
Image Credit: Flickr/Maarten Van Damme.