In 2002, at age 33, I’d been waitressing at Julienne, a high-end restaurant in San Marino, Calif., for over eight years. My husband, a painter and graduate of Art Center College of Design, worked at a local private school. Our two sons were toddler-aged. We juggled parenting duties. I squeezed in writing time. Forget about writing at home: laundry, dishes, and chaos. I wrote at coffee shops and libraries, craving solitude and quiet, and never quite managing to get it.
The closest I’d come was a decrepit coffeehouse in Alhambra (long since out of business), the main clientele of which seemed to be ditching teens. The teens made out on the ratty couch near my chosen workspace and mostly left me alone. They had a system: rotating lookouts for the truancy officer who periodically stopped by. A long whistle, and then I’d watch as they scrambled and disappeared. After the truancy officer left, they’d come back one by one, wariness and giddiness in the air.
When I would turn on the light to use the dimly lit, token-operated bathroom, cockroaches would scramble and disappear (one time scurrying over the skin of my flip-flop wearing foot) like a bug reenactment of the ditching teens.
There was occasional drama. Drug deals, homeless people, fights, and yelling. But I could stay and work without pressure to give up my space for other clientele, since there really wasn’t much other clientele, and people mostly left me alone. The coffee was awful, the food bad. The workers behind the counter (they didn’t call themselves baristas) were in their early-20s, respectful and friendly. They shared their newly acquired tattoos with me, told me about their hangovers, and complained about the owner. Often they’d turn the music down for me. I can’t count the number of times the live version of “Free Bird” played while I wrote.
Sometimes workers wouldn’t show up (too hung-over, they’d explain later). I’d wait outside for someone to open the doors, and then finally concede defeat, resorting to the dreaded corner Starbucks, where I’d sit beneath a poster of a man holding a steaming toffee-nut latte while playing with his golden retriever. The poster asked, What Stirs You?
Right around Christmas that year, David Partridge, a wealthy businessman, came into Julienne for lunch. I served him, as I’d been doing for eight years. He — like other preferred regulars — had a personal account, meaning he didn’t pay by cash or credit. He signed for his meals and was billed later. I knew that he worked across the street in a red brick building. He collected art and was on the boards of museums. Like other regulars, he often ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner (taking it home) from Julienne.
After so many years of serving him, a familiarity had grown between us. He was one of my favorite regulars, openly optimistic and kind. He often asked me about my writing. That afternoon while signing he said, “You can work in my office.”
When I didn’t speak, he looked at me and said, “I mean it. I’m serious. Come by tomorrow before your shift, or after. Work. No one will bother you. It’ll be quiet.”
Writers know what it’s like: countless rejections, everything and everyone seemingly an obstacle. Looking back, it wasn’t just that Mr. Partridge offered me a quiet and private space. He believed in me. He — with his booming, confident voice — said, “You can do this! I’ll help.”
I showed up the next morning in my Julienne uniform — dress shirt and dark slacks, my tie in my pocket — and waited in the lobby for someone to open the door. From the lobby window, I could see the servers and customers at my workplace across the street. David (he asked me to call him David and not Mr. Partridge, and though this never came easy, I’ll try again here) shared his workspace — a floor of offices — with lawyers. I’m not sure the arrangement, but I assume that David must have owned the space, since no one ever kicked me out.
A secretary to one of the lawyers arrived and opened the door, giving me a strange look when I entered. She never did warm to me, nor did the other secretaries: over the years, their open hostility turned to indifference. But I grew to appreciate their cold professionalism. They worked, so I worked. How could I not? It seemed wrong to fiddle around on the Internet or stare into space when others diligently worked nearby.
It was a conference room: quiet and private. I fell in love. A long table with chairs around it, reminding me of scenes in movies of important business meetings. A large window overlooked the other offices, the kitchenette, and the bathroom on the floor. A couple of abstract paintings hung on the wall. I scanned the bookshelves: financial records and business books: The Changing World of the Executive, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, Innovation in Marketing, U.S. Competitiveness in the World Economy, The Achieving Society. I began to leave some of my books (William Trevor, Andre Dubus, Richard Yates, and Alice Munro) amongst the business tomes, like wild, beautiful hippies poking through a humorless crowd of overachievers.
Unfortunately I had to share the space with the lawyers when they had arbitration and deposition meetings. David set up a daily planner/calendar on a table by the conference room door for the lawyers to fill out, so that I could see when the room had been signed out and plan my writing time accordingly.
David said I could share his office with him when the conference room was occupied. I tried once. It was just too weird, his booming voice discussing money and such on the phone. He owned and operated Data Devices International, which sounded like a huge company, but was actually run by him and his private secretary, an Indian woman named Patty, who also looked at me with skepticism. He had big crate boxes on the floor, and a Fed Ex man came every now and then to take them away. From what I understand, his business erased data permanently from computers. He did very well, his daughter once told me, during the Bush years.
That first morning, David lightly tapped on the conference room door, poked his head inside and asked, “Can I get you a coffee?”
“This is weird,” I said, and he laughed before shutting the door.
Later as I was leaving, I told him: “When I publish a book, I’ll thank you in my acknowledgments.” It bothered me that I couldn’t reimburse his generosity, and it was the only thing that I could come up with.
“I’d like that,” he said, nodding.
I wanted a key to the floor, since waiting in the lobby was inconvenient, only to find out that the conference room was signed out. But I didn’t dare ask David. Businessmen and lawyers came through on their way to their offices. I’d watch them go up the stairs or take the elevator to the second floor. Some said hello, others ignored me. I waited on most of them across the street.
I hoped not to run into Mr. Galbraith, another regular with a personal account. Sometimes I delivered his breakfast to his office. Two poached eggs and dry toast. For my small effort, he tipped me five bucks. But he made me nervous — an A-type personality. I didn’t want to explain to him why I was there.
One morning Mr. Galbraith (he’s asked me more than once to call him Jim, so from here on, with the usual difficulty, he’s Jim) found me in the lobby, my laptop opened on my lap.
“I like your office,” he said.
“Actually,” I said, “Mr. Partridge lets me use his conference room. I’m just waiting for someone to open the door.”
“Well,” he said, “good for him.”
Soon word spread through the restaurant that I worked at David Partridge’s office. The other waiters and busboys teased me. My bosses didn’t like it. It felt like the boundaries of the conventional San Marino class hierarchy had somehow smeared.
About six months later, Jim told me that I could work in his office instead of waiting in the lobby for the conference room. Tuesdays and Thursdays were best, he said, since his partner didn’t come in on those days, and I could use Andy’s desk. I said I’d think about it.
A few weeks before Christmas of 2003, Jim found me waiting in the lobby yet again. He invited me upstairs to write. I took the elevator with him. I started using Andy’s office.
I could hear Jim on the phone while I worked, which made me want to work more, since Jim’s a no-nonsense kind of guy.
He poked his head through the door at one point, offering me coffee or water. I declined. I couldn’t believe it: Mr. Galbraith offering to serve me!
Phones rang, doors buzzed. Jim got hot because of his Crohn’s disease, and so he kept it very cold. The secretary arrived and answered Andy’s phone from her desk. Andy’s office was a mess, papers everywhere. His wife smiled at me from a photograph on his desk.
At one point, my boss warned me, saying that Jim couldn’t be trusted. He would want something in return, she said. Be careful. He’s a ruthless businessman. (He’s a corporate finance lawyer, I found out later, and he apparently helped pioneer the concept of leveraged buyouts.) But that wasn’t my experience. Sometimes he showed me photographs of his children and grandchildren. We chatted. He tried to be easy going. I appreciated his efforts.
For five years, I alternated between working at David’s conference room and Jim’s partner’s office. David gave me pep talks and encouraged me. Jim’s seriousness rubbed off on me and helped me work.
Drift, my collection of short stories, was published in 2009. In my acknowledgments I wrote:
Thank you, as well, to David Partridge and Jim Galbraith, for serving a waitress by acknowledging her as a writer: they gave me a space to work, away from the countless interruptions and distractions of libraries and coffeehouses.
David told me he bought a box full of my books. He died of complications from pancreatic cancer on March 29, 2014. His daughter emailed me: “My dad adored you.”
“I adored your dad as well,” I wrote back.
Jim and I are still in touch. His eyesight has dwindled due to his Crohn’s disease. He has told me more than once, “I’m your biggest fan.”
Image Credit: Pixabay.
In his preface to Mattaponi Queen, the recipient of the 2010 Bakeless Fiction Prize awarded by the Breadloaf Writers Conference, Percival Everrett states, “It is always good to hear new voices, but the newness of a voice alone carries no literary value.” This is a telling statement in regards to Belle Boggs, for though the stories contained in Mattaponi Queen comprise Boggs’ debut, they give the impression of a writer who has been lingering in our midst for many years.
Often reviews will cite passages, lines and turns that encompass the greater themes of a work as a whole, Boggs’ writing is not the type that necessarily lends itself to quotation. She is not a stylist whose isolated sentences will jump off of the page, but when taken as a whole the reader learns to appreciate them in the same manner one might marvel at the individual thread so as to fully understand the tapestry it helps to create, and her writing possesses a gravitas and earnestness that belies her youth.
Mattaponi Queen takes as its subject matter the plethora of characters who inhabit the rural backwoods of King and Queen County, Virginia. Because of this, Boggs has and will invariably draw comparisons to Susan Straight and Victoria Patterson, other notable contemporary writers whose debut collections revolved around the notion of place and the “identity” afforded by it, but unlike her California compatriots, Boggs’ work is steeped in the idea and myth of the American South, and despite having spent time in Brooklyn and Irvine—where she earned her MFA—Boggs’s work is Faulknerian in its consistency. Still, whereas Faulkner’s verbosity proclaimed a writer tasked with penning into being a people displaced by the loss of a confederacy that never truly was, Boggs’ work quietly reminds us that they are still there, and her main skill is in showing us that although her residents are, by dint of their addresses, “Southern” they are more so citizens of a world that, like a town along Route 66, has been doomed by the approach of an interstate being constructed mere miles away. Far from being harbingers of good fortune, in Boggs’ world time and progress are the enemy, bringing with them more issues, problems and fears that will hang in dubiously in the air like the dense humidity commonly smothering the Virginia landscape.
Still, while Boggs’ characters are rural, they are anything but folksy. They are cosmopolitan in their own way—people with dreams and ideas of betterment. People who, like George in Boggs’ penultimate story “Shelter,” lie in bed and imagine “Brick with dark shutters, a little green yard in front. Trees lining the street. Kids riding bicycles…” yet full-well knowing that this cartoon-like fantasy of suburbia is a place beyond them. It is something not allowed, for to live in the literal and figurative space of King and Queen County is to reside deep inside the many sinkholes that pock the country. The surface is a faraway place protected from their advances by steep and slick walls of dirt and limestone, and even should one be able to taste some semblance of life on the surface George understands that betterment often comes from trading in a view of a cornfield for one with a bus shelter. To survive in Boggs’ world one must learn quickly how to differentiate small victories from hollow ones.
The language of Mattaponi Queen is simple, but precise and skilled, as Boggs has a knack for capturing both the comedy and absurdity in all levels of human relationships that, in the hands of a lesser writer, would smack heavily of the melodramatic and the clichéd fables of the downtrodden, but the failures of her characters are active ones. They do not curse fate nor do they resign themselves to it, but gaze upon it with the unique perspective that allows a character who has recently attempted suicide to write to a friend that he will be returning home from the hospital soon. The assumption being that he is recovering, until Boggs concludes her paragraph with the darkly funny “as soon as his mom’s insurance money ran out.”
In Mattaponi Queen this gallows humor proves necessary, and often one is unclear whether the light at the end of the tunnel signals the brilliance of the sun or a rapidly approaching train. But her characters are more than snarky derelicts. They are questioning beings, ones often searching for meaning to an isolated existence or to recapture a moment, now gone forever, in which they believed themselves to be truly happy even as Boggs’ narration reveals to the reader how it is all self-delusion, an illusion born of nostalgia for anything but the present moment. They bend and twist and contort, but even if small fissures develop in the process, they remain unbreakable.
If one attempted to define the uniting theme behind Mattaponi Queen besides its geography, they would be left with a discourse on love in all its various unrequited and confused forms. For Ronnie, the pregnant wife of a maimed veteran, it is “Something you thought you should have until it was right there in front of you and you realized you were committed to it whole.” For Melinda it is the silent understanding that in accepting her husband’s sex change, she will forever destroy her relationship with her daughter. But through all of this Boggs never offers anything resembling answers, let alone truisms, for unlike her characters she knows the questions she poses to be unanswerable and their the discovery of anything will bring with it not knowledge and wisdom but more confusion and more catalysts for further confusion.
Of all of Boggs’ characters, though, it is Loretta, the black middle-aged caretaker of an elderly, somewhat aristocratic white widow Cutie (who will conjure in many Julian’s mother from Flannery O’Connor’s classic “Everything that Rises Must Converge”), who comes to dominate the book both through her reappearances and her stability in navigating multiple worlds, multiple relationships and multiple storylines. Thus it is not surprising that if anyone can escape King and Queen County, a place that “used to be more interesting than it is now,” it should be her, even if that escape is less physical than fantastical. But contained within Loretta is Boggs’ message en masse—hope and an understanding that it is precisely because of its stasis that King and Queen county and its people are interesting, and for Boggs an otherwise overlooked milieu in a forgotten part of a state that strives for sophistication even as it clings to its Confederate heart with compassion and tenderness needs a voice worthy of their station and confusion and resilience. And, as Everett overtly implied by his selection of Mattaponi Queen as the 2010 Bakeless Prize Winner, Boggs is this a new voice with a strong and profound value.
In the preface to his collection of stories In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, William H. Gass imagines for himself a reader. He will be “skilled and generous with attention, for one thing,” Gass writes, “patient with longeurs, forgiving of every error and the author’s self indulgence, avid for details.” Gass doesn’t stop there:
…ah, and a lover of lists, a twiddler of lines. Shall this reader be given occasionally to mouthing a word aloud or wanting to read to a companion in a piercing library whisper? yes; and shall this reader be one whose heartbeat alters with the tense of the verbs? that would be nice…
Eventually, Gass conjures a reader without a body: only lips for mouthing the words, and eyes for reading them, and perhaps a finger to hold down the page. “Let’s imagine such a being, then,” Gass writes. “And begin. And then begin.”
I’ve shown this passage to students before asking them to create their own ideal readers. Most new writers don’t like to imagine anyone actually reading their work–the idea is either preposterous or terrifying, or both–and this exercise forces them to do just that. From now on, there is an audience. An ideal reader, thankfully, is interested in what you’re interested in, delights in what you delight in, and thus reads your work eagerly, and with compassion. That’s not to say they’re your mindless yes-man, either (well, mine isn’t–though Gass’s might be). As much as my ideal reader inspires and motivates me, she also keeps me honest. That woman, she’s a tough cookie! I want to entertain, beguile, discomfit and move her. I’m beholden to her.
This reminds me of an interview with Kurt Vonnegut that I heard on NPR a few years ago. He said he wrote everything for his deceased sister. She was his intended audience whether or not she was alive to read his work. I think this a beautiful and noble reason to return to one’s desk every morning, don’t you? Or, let’s be honest: it’s a reason, period.
Not all of my readers are imaginary. My husband reads everything I write multiple times (why he hasn’t filed for divorce yet, I don’t know), and I have a few friends with whom I exchange work on a semi-regular basis. As with my fictionalized readers, I feel a modicum of safety with these real ones, as well as a desire to 1. Surprise them. 2. Not bore them. And, 3. Make them feel something complicated, maybe even transcendent. Without these reading relationships, I would be a much worse writer. And, honestly, I’m not sure writing would feel as necessary as it does to me.
Sometimes I think the best gift I could give a student would be a classmate who truly gets their writing. After the class ends, they could go off on their own, and carry on a friendship that would hopefully last years, manuscripts. I have such a friendship with a poet I’ll call Alice. We don’t exchange work often, but we’re big fans of each other’s writing, and we understand the other’s voice and vision of the world.
Recently, Alice sent me some prose, which she had originally written for another friend. Alice had written the piece for her friend’s birthday, with her friend in mind; the writing itself was the birthday gift. I loved this idea, but in an email Alice expressed her concerns:
I sometimes like to give myself little assignments to write something for a very particular audience–rather than the ambiguous, ambivalent “world”–it helps me to return to a more generous and playful place in my poems. I don’t know. Perhaps these small acts of “publishing,” a story sent to a friend on her birthday, a poem written for a wedding, reveal a lack of ambition–or perhaps deep fear of real, acknowledged failure. Maybe keeping the stakes so low is cowardly. Perhaps bravery must hold hands with generosity, and in that, real genius.
I don’t totally agree. After all, Alice’s prose was not intended for me, and yet I still enjoyed it. Just because a piece of art is made for one particular person doesn’t mean it can’t be consumed and adored by others. And narrowing the “ambiguous, ambivalent” world into one person is, in its own way, daring. In his “Thirty-Two Statements About Writing Poetry,” Marvin Bell suggests writing poems that at least one person in the room will hate; that seems easier than writing poems that only one person in the room will love. Pleasing a single idiosyncratic reader is indeed an act of generosity, and if that will liberate you and open you up to artistic risk, then I say: Why question it?
Of course, Alice might have a point. She doesn’t submit her work; for the past couple of years, she has kept the stakes low by only sharing her poems with friends. Her aesthetic ambition soars, but without the acknowledgment of, and engagement with, a larger audience of readers, one could argue that she’s playing it safe.
I’ve been wondering a lot about how sharing one’s writing with a larger audience alters one’s process–how having multiple readers, a potential world of them, can strengthen that process, and challenge it, and how it can also, if you aren’t careful, wound and compromise it. A few more-seasoned writers than I have advised me to try to finish my second novel before the first one is published. After all, once a writer’s first book comes out, she has expectations to live up to or defy, she has a body of work to build upon, she has an identity to answer to. Before that, she’s just a writer in her garret, sharing her words with one imaginary reader and perhaps her husband and a handful of friends. There is freedom in being unknown; you’ve still got your shimmering potential to keep you warm at night.
Ronlyn Domingue’s refreshingly honest essay about receiving a horrible review of her first novel The Mercy of Thin Air in the New York Times has stayed with me since I read it over a year ago. Her experience is one any writer would struggle with. Perhaps it’s the very threat of this kind of rejection and criticism that my friend Alice fears. But Domingue’s conclusion is wise:
Although the advice to have a thick skin was well-meant, it is emotionally dishonest. Sharing one’s writing is a naked act not intended for the meek. Harsh words can—and sometimes do—undermine the most confident, successful writers. It’s human. It’s okay. It will pass. Now, my guidance to myself, and others, is to have a permeable skin, one that doesn’t resist or trap the good or the bad. Reviews, critiques, comments come in, then move on. Then there’s space, inside and out, for something new.
The opportunity for “something new” is created, I think, by a readership.
This may sound silly, but before my novella If You’re Not Yet Like Me came out, I didn’t anticipate what it might feel like to have readers respond to it. I had no idea how biographically (and, in some cases, autobiographically), the readers I know personally would read my writing. An old friend thought the main character was a lot like her; her ex-boyfriend admitted to me in an email that he saw himself in the main character’s love interest. My brother, who mistakenly believes he has big hips, wanted to know why I had to rag on men who “gain weight like a woman does,” as if I were my narrator. A former coworker thought the story of Joellyn and Zachary’s failed romance was a parallel story of me and my husband, had things gone awry. My closest friend listed all the elements of the story I’d taken from my own life–and she was accurate.
My mother said that my book was “good”–and she only volunteered this laconic response after I’d asked for one. I guess my face fell at her unconvincing tone, and she said, “What am I supposed to say? Oh, Edan, you’re so talented!” Um–maybe? I suppose, since she’s an avid reader, that I’d hoped we might have an in-depth conversation about the text, and that she might share observations that I hadn’t considered when writing it.
But–wait–is that true? My mother is one reader that I purposefully don’t consider when writing, for fear of how her spectral presence might censor me. Lorrie Moore has told her students to write something they’d never show their mother or father, and that’s sound advice if you want to write freely. But when an “orphaned” writer publishes said book, she must contend with these readers. Victoria Patterson wrote about this very experience for The Millions last year. Of her mother’s response to her short story collection, she said:
Despite my apologies (“I never meant to hurt you, that wasn’t my intention; no one wants to hurt their mother!”), and my insistence on the fictionalized nature of the stories, my mom continues to feel deeply wounded, and she vocalizes it, especially after a few glasses of wine—lashing me with guilt. Yet she keeps a file with all my reviews and articles, and has given copies of Drift to her friends
That’s more tame than Gina Frangello’s account of her mother-in-law’s outrage at her first novel, My Sister’s Continent:
What I know a little something about could only be called the interpersonal consequences of trying to write with emotional honesty. The way we writers stretch ourselves out on the line, inviting grudges, inviting a fight. The way I discovered I hated to fight (how had this happened? I’d kicked my share of little-girl-ass back in the hood when I was a kid. But my temper, it seemed, had been “gentrified,” and I realized, more than anything else, that I had left the environment of my youth not for a bigger house or even an advanced degree, but because I wanted to be able to live without violence) . . . yet even this being true, I would continue to put my neck out to the blade of others’ criticism or anger when writing. I would continue to write as if everyone I had ever known was already dead, even though they were not, and even knowing there could be reckoning.
Neither Patterson nor Frangello regret their work, no matter the pain it might have caused these readers. As Frangello says, “Writing is risk. If you don’t feel that when you’re writing, for god’s sake stop.” Part of that risk is offending those who might not want to venture into your imagination. Maybe I foolishly long for an extreme response from someone close to me, for it means that reader has been truly affected by my work. When I re-read Patterson’s essay, I thought, My father hasn’t even read my book. I’ve realized that another challenge of readership is that some members of your audience aren’t paying attention.
As has been advised, I’m working on a new novel now. The way things are going, it will certainly be done (a good draft at least) before my first one is published. When I head to my desk, I think of my ideal reader–slathering butter on French bread as she reads, greasing up the page. She’s got the window open, as she likes the breeze on her face, and maybe there’s some music playing softly in the other room. I think of my husband, who loves a good campus novel, and of my writer-friend Madeline, who delights in an acrobatic sentence. I think of Alice, who will help me name the trees in this book, and who I hope will someday write a poem for me and me alone.
There are many, many people I won’t think about. They’ve been banished from the garret. But only for now.
(Image: bunker: light-door of hope ? from frenchy’s photostream)
If 2010 was a literary year of big names — featuring Franzen, Mitchell, Delillo and McEwan to name just a few — 2011 is lining up to be more subtle. Amid a very full lineup of intriguing forthcoming books, just one stands above the rest in terms of hype and anticipation, a literary peak that’s likely to be bittersweet in the form of the posthumous release of David Foster Wallace’s final novel. Readers will be hoping it does justice to his legacy.
In the shadow this big book are many others likely to be deserving of readers’ time. While 2010 was given over to the headliners, 2011 may be a year of new discoveries. Here are some of the books we’re looking forward to — 8,000 words strong and encompassing 76 titles, this is the only 2011 book preview you will ever need.
January or Already Out:
Gryphon by Charles Baxter: A collection of short fiction from an acknowledged master of the form. Seven of the twenty-three stories in the collection are new; others, including the title story, are considered classics. In each of these pieces, Publisher’s Weekly writes in a starred review, “the acutely observed real world is rocked by the exotic or surreal.” Baxter’s previous works include four novels (including a National Book Award nominee, The Feast of Love) and four prior short story collections. (Emily M.)
The Empty Family by Colm Tóibín: Tóibín follows up his wildly successful 2009 novel Brooklyn with a new collection of nine short stories concerned with love and loss, memory and homecoming. The Telegraph has called this collection “exquisite and almost excruciating.” (Emily M.)
While Mortals Sleep by Kurt Vonnegut: In the four years since his death, the Vonnegut vaults have been raided, yielding 2008’s Armageddon in Retrospect and 2009’s Look at the Birdie. Now comes While Mortals Sleep, 16 more unpublished pieces described by Delacorte Press as “a present left behind by a departed loved one.” Perhaps. But Vonnegut’s short fiction was generally uneven, and one might be forgiven for wondering how many more presents there are. Because the further we move from his passing, the further we move from his best. Dave Eggers, in the book’s foreword, calls Vonnegut “a hippie Mark Twain”; he is also in some danger of becoming a dorm-lit Tupac Shakur. (Jacob)
Night Soul and Other Stories by Joseph McElroy: Underappreciated master McElroy is known (and loved) for the challenging body of work, and these stories aren’t likely to disappoint his fans, though they may have come across some of them before. The oldest story in this collection of 12 dates back to 1981 and the title story was first published in 1982. But seven of them are reportedly from the last decade, including one “The Campaign Trail” which one early review describes as imagining “the 2008 Democratic presidential primary much like a Matthew Barney film of the subject might: unnamed figures representing Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama ceremonially confront each other in a wild area of what once was Canada.” (Max)
Swamplandia! by Karen Russell: Swamplandia! is the first novel from New Yorker “20 Under 40” writer Karen Russell. It builds out of a short story from her 2006 collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and tells the tale of the Bigtree family, operators of an alligator wrestling tourist attraction deep in the Everglades. The family business is imperiled when the star ‘gator grappler dies, setting off a chain of catastrophes that lead 12-year-old Ava Bigtree to set off through the swamp in search of her lost sister Osceola. (Kevin)
Townie: A Memoir by Andre Dubus III: Andre Dubus III, of The House of Sand and Fog fame, grew up poor and hard in a Massachusetts mill town. His famous father, the late great short story writer Andre Dubus was AWOL, chasing younger tail, leaving Dubus and his three siblings to the care of their loving but overworked mother. The Townie is Dubus’s memoir of growing up and learning to fight before he learned to write. Advance word coming out of Kirkus and Booklist suggests this is going to be a good one. (Kevin)
When the Killing’s Done by T.C. Boyle: In his thirteenth novel, T.C. Boyle turns his attention to the Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara and the practice of killing non-native fauna in an effort to protect the original ecosystem. A starred review in Booklist says, “Incisive and caustically witty, Boyle is fluent in evolutionary biology and island biogeography, cognizant of the shared emotions of all sentient beings, in awe over nature’s crushing power, and, by turns, bemused and appalled by human perversity.” (Edan)
The Strange Case of Edward Gorey by Alexander Theroux: Originally published in paperback in 2000, this biography of writer and illustrator Edward Gorey is being reissued by Fantagraphics Books in a new hardcover edition. Gorey was a reclusive, enigmatic figure who never married, professed asexuality in interviews, and became famous for a twisted and faintly ominous body of work — marked by a distinctive Victorian Gothic sensibility — that includes an alphabet book of dead children (“A is for Amy who fell down the stairs.”) Alexander Theroux was Gorey’s friend and neighbor for more than a quarter century. Part biography, part artistic analysis, and part memoir of a long friendship, with exclusive interviews conducted shortly before Gorey’s death, this book is generally accepted as the most comprehensive portrait of Gorey ever written. (Emily M.)
Mr. Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt: Perhaps you are aware that Winston Churchill called his spells of depression “black dog”? Well, Mr. Chartwell is that black dog–literally, he’s a man-sized, ill-intentioned black laborador. In Rebecca Hunt’s fabular first novel, Mr. Chartwell rents a room in a terrace in Battersea from a recently widowed young librarian named Esther Hammerhans: the black dog has business with the widow and with the war-weary Prime Minister. British reviewers have been quite taken with the book’s whimsy and its muscular grappling with the nature of depression—through the stinking, canine bulk of Chartwell himself and the dark philosophy he whispers such that only his intended victim can hear. (Emily W.)
The Illumination: A Novel by Kevin Brockmeier: A new novel from the author of A Brief History of the Dead asks the question: What if our pain is the most beautiful thing about us? On a particular Friday night at 8:17pm, the Illumination commences: wounds and bruises begin to radiate light, to glimmer and shine. The Illumination follows the journey of a private book, a journal of love notes written by a man for his wife. The journal passes into the hands of a hospital patient following a lethal accident, and as it passes from hand to hand—to a data analyst, a photojournalist, a child, a missionary, a writer, a street vendor—the recipients find their lives subtly altered by their possession of the book. (Emily M.)
Portraits of a Marriage by Sándor Márai: Sándor Márai is one of those novelists, like Irène Némirovsky, about whom those of us in the English-speaking community tend to employ words like “discovered,” as if they were an obscure wine of quality unearthed in a Parisian basement. When Márai killed himself in 1989 in San Diego, shortly before his books began being translated to English, it’s true that his status as a great mind of an imperial age was probably unknown to the gang at his local Circle K. However, the (Austro-)Hungarian novelist was one of the premier authors of his milieu–Budapest before World War II–and English readers are the redeemed rather than the redeemers now that we can finally read his beautiful novels. Portraits of a Marriage is a chronicle of a relationship and an era on the way out. (Lydia)
West of Here by Jonathan Evison: Evison’s new novel is the #1 Indie Next pick for February, meaning that independent booksellers across the United States have voted it their favorite of all the books scheduled for publication that month. Set in a fictional town on the Pacific coast of Washington State, West of Here moves back and forth in time between the stories of the town’s founders in the late 1890s, and the lives of their descendants in 2005. It’s a structure that allows for a remarkably deep sense of history and place, and Evison handles the sweeping scope of his narrative masterfully. (Emily M.)
The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale: In this buzzed-about debut novel from Twelve Books, the eponymous hero is a chimpanzee who has learned to speak, read, and enjoy the visual arts, among other human endeavors. There is apparently interspecies love (and sex!) in the book, and the jacket copy declares that it goes beyond satire “…by showing us not what it means, but what it feels like be human — to love and lose, learn, aspire, grasp, and, in the end, to fail.” A bookseller at legendary West Hollywood indie bookstore Book Soup has raved to me about the novel’s inventiveness and its beautiful, beautiful prose. (Edan)
Other People We Married by Emma Straub: This debut collection of stories is one of the first books being printed by FiveChapters Books, the new publishing imprint of the popular website FiveChapters, which publishes a story a week in five installments. Straub inaugurated the New Novella series for Flatmancrooked Press with her much-praised novella, Fly-Over State, and she proved that with the internet and some good old fashioned charm, an unknown author can sell books and win hearts. Straub’s new book includes that novella as well as eleven other stories. Straub has been compared to Lorrie Moore for her humor and playful wit, and Moore herself has called this debut collection, “A revelation.” (Edan)
The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books edited by C. Max Magee and Jeff Martin: Yes, there’s certainly a conflict of interest in naming my book one of the year’s most anticipated, but what’s the point of having a website if I can’t use it to self-promote? And anyway, if my co-editor Jeff and I had an ideal reader in mind when we put together this collection, it was the Millions reader, passionate about books and reading and thoughtful about the future of this pastime as it intersects with the onslaught of technology. The essays we managed to gather here are illuminating, entertaining, funny, and poignant, and taken together they form a collection that is (dare I say) essential for the reader and writer invested in books at this critical and curious moment in their long history. Along with appearances by Millions staffers Garth Risk Hallberg, Emily St. John Mandel, and Sonya Chung and an introduction by me and my co-editor, this collection includes pieces by Jonathan Lethem, Reif Larsen, Elizabeth Crane Victor LaValle, Ander Monson, Tom Piazza, Lauren Groff, Benjamin Kunkel, Clancy Martin, Joe Meno, Rivka Galchen, and several others. All you technophiles: Consider making this the last physical book you ever buy. All you technophobes: This might be a good candidate for the first ebook you ever own. (Max)
You Think That’s Bad by Jim Shepard: Jim Shepard will once again dazzle us with his talent for universalizing the highly particular. According to the publisher, the stories in this new collection, like those of his National Book Award nominated Like You’d Understand Anyway, “traverse centuries, continents, and social strata,” featuring, among others, an Alpine researcher, a French nobleman’s manservant, a woman traveling the Arabian deserts to track an ancient Shia sect, and the inventor of the Godzilla epics. Further, Shepard culls “the vastness of experience—from its bizarre fringes and breathtaking pinnacles to the mediocre and desperately below average.” Easier said than done, and Shepard is a master. One of the stories, “Boys Town,” appeared in the November 10 issue of the New Yorker. (Sonya)
The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht: Of all The New Yorker’s choices for the “20 Under 40” list, none was more surprising than Obreht, the youngest on the list and the only author chosen who had not yet published a book. That changes in March with the publication of her debut novel The Tiger’s Wife. The novel follows a young doctor, Natalia, as she travels to a war-torn Balkan country to work at an orphanage. But Natalia is also in search of answers – specifically, what happened to her grandfather, who has died recently. With blurbs from T.C. Boyle, Ann Patchett, and recent National Book Award winner Colum McCann already secured, expectations are high for this literary debut. (Patrick)
At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing from Library of America edited by George Kimball and John Schulian: Boxing writing inhabits a curious niche, resting at the juncture of sports journalism and noir. Perhaps “resting” is the wrong word, as the genre’s best examples rush toward victory or loss; even away from the arena, motion remains the thing. In a recent Irish Times article, Kimball described a 1954 John Lardner piece as At the Fights’ “cornerstone,” and delivered its opening line: “Stanley Ketchel was 24 years old when he was fatally shot in the back by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking his breakfast.” Also on the card: Talese, Mailer, Mencken, and many, many others. (Jacob)
Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell: “I’m better with dead people… than the living,” claims Sarah Vowell, only half joking. Her books often deal with historical figures, in most cases, long-dead and overlooked. In Assassination Vacation she chronicled her travels while researching the murders of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley. Details such as Garfield’s assassin bursting into song during trial coated the history lessons with a good dose of social intrigue. Vowell’s latest, Unfamiliar Fishes, was borne out of a fascination with American Imperialism in 1898, a year when the U.S, annexed Hawaii, invaded Cuba and the Philippines, and acquired Guam and Puerto Rico. Vowell follows the Americanization of Hawaii from its first missionary settlers to the overthrow of its monarchy and later annexation. A quote exemplary of Vowell’s humor, to prep you for reading: “They still love their last queen, celebrate her birthday, drape her statue with leis. It can be a traditional, reverent place. And I am a smart-alecky libertine.” (Anne)
Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews by Geoff Dyer: Dyer has a gained a reputation as one of our most inventive essayists (not to mention novelists). Dyer delights in bending genres and subverting expectations, and covering a 25-year span, this collection will likely showcase Dyer’s impressive range. The book, published by indie Graywolf, appears to have at least some overlap with a British collection that came out last year under the title Working the Room. The Guardian called Dyer “the most productive of slackers” and described the British collection as seeming to be “constructed as a vague quest. You move through the unusually lit rooms of the author’s fascinations.” (Max)
All the Time in the World: New and Selected Stories by E.L. Doctorow: When a new story collection arrives from an elder master, one is eager to know the balance of “new” versus “selected,” who has done the selecting, and by what criteria. But Random House has revealed little as of yet. We do know that six of the stories have never before appeared in book form; the title story appeared in the winter ’09 issue of the Kenyon Review. Doctorow is the author of 11 novels, and I for one hate to think the release of this collection signals a denouement in his novel production. On January 6, Doctorow turns 80 – happy birthday, ELD; may this be a productive year for you, for all our sakes. (Sonya)
Pym by Mat Johnson: Eager readers of Edgar Allan Poe, having dispatched his short stories may have then turned to his hauntingly weird novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. As I noted a few years back, the book has been an inspiration for generations of adventure and science-fiction writers and has maintained a cultish allure to this day. It is into this milieu that Johnson’s Pym arrives. Johnson wrote a pair of well regarded literary novels in the early part of last decade, turned to comics, and is now returning novels with this tale of a literature professor obsessed with the Pym tale, believing it to be true, and tracing the the journey of the doomed sailor to see what secrets might be unlocked. (Max)
Day of the Oprichnik by Vladimir Sorokin: The scenes of sodomy between Stalin and Krushchev in Vladimir Sorokin’s novel Blue Lard incurred charges of pornography and sparked protests, which included protestors wearing latex gloves while tossing flowers and copies of Sorokin’s books into a papier mâché toilet. Another novel of Sorokin’s (The Norm) depicts a Russian society where coprophagy is a la mode and only outcasts and outsiders refuse to partake. Needless to say, Sorokin’s fiction isn’t restrained in its critique of contemporary Russian society. His commentary continues in his latest novel, Day of the Oprichnik, where the ruling classes incorporate futuristic technology alongside the governing strategies of Ivan the Terrible. As Sorokin describes: “I just imagined what would happen to Russia if it isolated itself completely from the Western world–that is, if it erected a new Iron Curtain…. This would mean that Russia would be overtaken by its past, and our past would be our future.” (Anne)
This Vacant Paradise by Victoria Patterson: Victoria Patterson follows her acclaimed debut story collection Drift with a novel – her first – set in the posh environs of 1990s Newport Beach, California. As the title suggests, Patterson’s novel promises a social critique of the often vapid, money-laden 90s. It follows the beautiful but aging Esther Wilson as she attempts to navigate life without the aid of a wealthy man on her arm. Drift was a finalist for both the California Book Award and the Story Prize. (Patrick)
The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise by Georges Perec: Georges Perec wrote: “for us, who continue to have to do with a human race that insists on thinking, writing and above all publishing, the increasing size of our libraries tends to become one real problem.” We readers will have to deal with the fortunate burden of clearing shelf-space for another novel by Perec this spring, with the first English translation of The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise. The novel depicts an office underling’s attempts to ingratiate himself to his corporate superiors, while his neuroses expand a la Woody Allen. If Perec’s astutely observed yet darkly comical catalogue of managing directors, magnates, and heads of state in his essay “The Holy of Holies” is any indication, this “account of the office worker’s mindset” will offset the disorder it imposes. (Anne)
The Pale King by David Foster Wallace: When David Foster Wallace died in 2008, he left behind a huge, fragmentary manuscript set in and around a Midwestern IRS office and featuring a character named David Wallace. The manuscript, quixotically, takes monotony as its master-trope, much as Infinite Jest used “entertainment.” Since then, Michael Pietsch, Wallace’s real-life editor, has been working to arrange the fragments in book form. Published excerpts of varying degrees of sublimity – reportedly including two stories from Oblivion – offer glimpses of a Jest-like complex of supporting characters. But these beleaguered office workers have more in common with the denizens of the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House (redundancy sic) than with the Enfield Tennis Academy’s student-athletes. A note, quoted in D.T. Max’s New Yorker piece, hints at the gift Wallace wanted to give his characters: “Bliss – a-second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious – lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom.” For readers still mourning the books he didn’t get to write, may it be so. (Garth)
The Free World: A Novel by David Bezmozgis: Another debut novel from a Twenty-Under-Forty’er, Bezmogis’ The Free World tells the story of three generations of the Krasnansky family as they try to escape Communist Russia for the United States. They are waylaid in Rome where the characters pursue different paths through the underbelly of their adopted city, ultimately bringing them into tension with each other as they grapple with a merciless immigration system and try to decide the family’s fate. (Kevin)
The Great Night by Chris Adrian: Chris Adrian’s last novel, The Children’s Hospital, showed him to be a writer of immense daring, curiosity, and heart. Along with two other books, it earned him a spot (by a whisker – he’s now 40) on The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40 List.” His new book The Great Night, looks back to one of magical realism’s forebears: Shakespeare. It’s a retelling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, set in modern-day San Francisco’s Buena Vista Park. (Garth)
Someday This Will Be Funny by Lynne Tillman: As if the publication of Lynne Tillman’s first book of short stories in nearly ten years–and her first book following her stand-out novel, American Genius: A Comedy–weren’t enough to celebrate, Tillman’s Someday This Will Be Funny also marks the debut of Richard Nash’s new publishing venture, Cursor. If Nash’s reading list, interviews, and speeches are any indication, Cursor will take publishing one giant leap into the future, with Tillman’s book at the forefront. Tillman’s new collection features appearances by Madame Realism, Marvin Gaye, and Clarence Thomas and incorporates epistle, quotation, and haiku as the stories “bounce between lyrical passages of lucid beauty, echoing the scattered, cycling arpeggio of Tillman’s preferred subject: the unsettled mind.” Tillman once said in an interview: “Writers are promiscuous with experience, absolutely.” She’s a woman of her word, and of the word. Hear, hear! (Anne)
Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles and Speeches 1998-2003 by Roberto Bolaño: Anyone who read “Literature + Illness = Illness” or “Myths of Chulu” in last year’s collection The Insufferable Gaucho can attest that a Bolaño essay no more resembles Montaigne than a Bolaño novel resembles Samuel Richardson. Indeed, the closest cousin of Bolaño’s nonfiction may be his fiction, and in some cases it’s hard to tell which is which. Confusion over the genre of the short piece “The Beach” (essay? story?) seems to have been the source of the misconception that Bolaño was a recovering junkie. Either way, though, it’s phenomenal writing – a single, extended, coruscating sentence – and it appears in this Natasha Wimmer translation of a 2004 Anagrama volume, along with 340 other pages of uncollected, unclassifiable Bolaño. (Garth)
The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips: Phillips hasn’t quite recaptured the buzz that accompanied Prague his debut novel about expats in Budapest, but this new book just may. “The Tragedy of Arthur” is a fictional (or is it?), lost Shakespeare play about King Arthur and it is accompanied by a long introduction penned by a character (or is it the author?) named Arthur Phillips. Intertextual games ensue. (Max)
The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke: In another memoir about grief, O’Rourke draws on her dual patrimonies as a poet and cultural critic. The result is a searching account of losing her mother to cancer. O’Rourke finds herself blindsided by her own grief and bewildered by her inability to “share” it. Even as she documents her own feelings, she examines the changing cultural role of grief, and comes to long for the mourning rituals that are even now vanishing. The interplay of the objective and the subjective here speaks to audiences of both Oprah and The New Yorker, where the book was excerpted. (Garth)
The Basement of the Ivory Tower by Professor X: To begin, a short exemplary excerpt from Professor X’s manifesto against higher education for all: “America, ever-idealistic, seems wary of the vocational-education track. We are not comfortable limiting anyone’s options. Telling someone that college is not for him seems harsh and classist and British, as though we were sentencing him to a life in the coal mines. I sympathize with this stance; I subscribe to the American ideal. Unfortunately, it is with me and my red pen that that ideal crashes and burns.” And let me tell you (because I have wielded that red pen and know Professor X’s bloody business: adjuncting and community college teaching) it is a sad, sad world out there in America’s lesser colleges, many as crassly business-minded as Walmart and utterly delighted to have students who aren’t cut out to make the grade. Of course, liberal-minded idealists will object and cry Barbara Covett! at the likes of Professor X, but having been in his trench, I know how deeply painful and demoralizing—and pointless and dishonest—it is to teach college-level curriculum to those who are not equipped for high school: It’s like trying to teach the legless to dance. This is another commentary on the shoddy state of American higher education (see also, most recently, Ed Dante’s “Shadow Scholar” piece at The Chronicle of Higher Ed)—sure to be an incendiary little book. (Emily W.)
The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer: Wolitzer’s ninth novel is inspired by Lysistrata, the ancient Greek play wherein the women withhold sex from their menfolk until they agree to end their war. In Wolitzer’s novel, a New Jersey high school puts on a production of the play, and soon, the females in the town lose interest in coupling with their men. The Uncoupling follows Wolitzer’s bestselling novel The Ten Year Nap, about the lives of stay-at-home mothers in New York City, and I hope her latest is as funny, readable and wise as that book was. (Edan)
Fire Season by Philip Connors: This debut nonfiction effort by Connors is an account of his time spent over part of each of the last ten years as a fire lookout in New Mexico in a 7′ x 7′ tower. Connors also happens to be a literary critic and journalist whose writing has been fairly extensively published, including book reviews in the LRB and VQR. Some of his most powerful work has taken the form of diaries, including one in n+1 that recounts his brother’s suicide and another in The Paris Review about life as a fire lookout. The book takes the diary form and expands on it, with five long chapters, each one dedicated to a month he spends in the lookout tower each year. (Max)
My New American Life by Francine Prose: Francine Prose, former National Book Award finalist and prolific producer of novels, short stories, children’s books and nonfiction, will take us on a fictional tour of the bad old days of Bush-Cheney. My New American Life spins around Lula, a 26-year-old Albanian living in New York City on an expiring tourist visa. When she lands a job as a caretaker for a rebellious teenager in suburban New Jersey, she begins to live the American dream — until her brothers show up in a black Lexus SUV, a jarring reminder that family and history are always with us. The novel, according to the publisher’s jacket copy, captures the moment when American “dreams and ideals gave way to a culture of cynicism, lies and fear.” (Bill)
Swim Back to Me by Ann Packer: Ann Packer, who first burst onto the scene in 2002 with her blockbuster debut The Dive from Clausen’s Pier, returns with a fourth book. Kirkus describes it as a novella and five stories in its starred review, while the publisher calls it a collection of narratives framed by two linked novellas. Whichever the case, the collection seems likely to investigate the same avenues of grief that have been a hallmark of her prior, powerful work. (Max)
Bullfighting by Roddy Doyle: The title story of Doyle’s collection appeared in the New Yorker in early 2008 and concerns a collection of middle-aged Irish guys blowing off steam on a guys’ trip to Spain, wives and kids left behind in Dublin. When I traveled to the Mediterranean later that year and saw many a seaside watering hole advertising the “Full English Breakfast,” I thought of this story. (Max)
Nat Tate: An American Artist: 1928-1960 by William Boyd: Boyd, a wonderful author (Any Human Heart, Brazzaville Beach) who for whatever reason doesn’t seem to get much attention outside of prize committees, made culture vultures everywhere feel like complete assholes in 1998, when he carefully constructed and published a life of a fictional American artist who died by suicide at age 32. Enlisting the help of David Bowie, Gore Vidal, and others, Boyd had a number of people who should have known better reminiscing about Tate and lamenting his early death. Evidently a lot more people would have looked a lot more stupid had David Lister (an editor at The Independent who knew about the ruse), not revealed the hoax prematurely. Boyd’s great literary hoax is to be reissued this April. (Lydia)
Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman: A year after the publication of his last novel, The Divine Husband, Francisco Goldman watched his wife of two years, the promising young writer Aura Estrada, die as a result of a freak body-surfing accident. The aftermath sent him back to journalism for a time. Now Goldman has trained his considerable novelistic powers directly on the tragedy of his wife’s death, and on the ineffable continuities among love, grief, and art. (Garth)
There Is No Year by Blake Butler: Butler, one of the minds behind HTML Giant and author of the indie press favorite Scorch Atlas hits the big time with this new novel. The Harper Perennial catalog glosses it as evocative of House of Leaves and the films of David Lynch. A more iconoclastic “20 Under 40” list might have made room for Butler, and as for Harper’s labeling 32-year-ole Butler “one of the voices of his generation,” that may say more about how apocalypse-minded we are these days than it does about Butler. (Max)
Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar: Stories of Work edited by Richard Ford: We’ve reminisced in the past about the steady disappearance of the short story anthology. Once common, these pocket-sized wonders now fill shelves at the kind of used bookstore I like to haunt but are rarely seen on the new release table at your local Borders. Still, a timely theme in these economically stagnant times (employment or lack thereof) and the imprimatur of a master of the form, Richard Ford, make this collection worth looking out for. Sure, most if not all of these stories have been previously published in other books, but how nice to have Stuart Dybek, Edward P. Jones, Charles D’Ambrosio, Ann Beattie, Alice Munro, John Cheever, Richard Yates, Deborah Eisenberg, Jhumpa Lahiri, and several others, all thematically linked and between two covers. (Max)
Embassytown by China Mieville Give China Mieville credit for refusing to rest on his laurels. After scoring a major hit with last year’s Kraken, his seventh lushly imagined fantasy novel, Mieville will abandon the world of Bas-Lag and his phantasmagorical London and take his fans someplace altogether different and unexpected. Embassytown, he recently told a Liverpool audience, will contain “science fiction, aliens and spaceships.” The title refers to “a city of contradictions on the outskirts of the universe” where humans and the native Hosts live in uneasy peace. When an unimaginable new arrival hits town, catastrophe looms. Given Mieville’s track record, expect a wild ride. (Bill)
Mondo and Other Stories by J.M.G. Le Clezio: The 2008 Nobel laureate’s large body of work continues to make its way into English. This collection of stories was first published in French in 1978. One of the stories collected here, the atmospheric “The Boy Who Had Never Seen the Sea,” appeared in the New Yorker shortly after Le Clezio’s Nobel win. Like that story, the rest in this collection focus on a child protagonist who seems to see the world through a different set of eyes. (Max)
To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays by Gertrude Stein: Described as “a fanciful journey through the alphabet” and originally conceived as a children’s book, Stein’s To Do “spiral[ed] out of simple childlike progression, so that by the time she reached the letter H, Henriette de Dactyl, a French typewriter (who exchanges typed messages with Yetta von Blickensdorfer, a German typewriter, and Mr. House, an American typewriter) wants to live on Melon Street and eat radishes, salads, and fried fish, and soup.” Written in 1940, the book was rejected several times by publishers for being too complex for children. A text-only version appeared in 1957 (after Stein’s death) from Yale, and in 2011, the publisher is putting out To Do with Giselle Potter’s illustrations, realizing Stein’s original concept. (Sonya)
Paying for It by Chester Brown: Throughout his twenty-year-long career, Chester Brown has developed a reputation as a wan and fearless confessor, presenting his lapses and failures from a dispassionate remove. Paying For It—subtitled “A Comic-Strip Memoir About Being a John”—may prove to be his most quietly self-lacerating. In exploring his penchant for prostitutes, Paying For It will likely feature little glamour, little boasting, and an understated honesty. Drawn and Quarterly predicts that the book “will be the most talked about graphic novel of 2011,” yet Brown doesn’t seem to relish controversy. When asked in 2004 why he might write so openly about his sex life, he responded, “Because it’s interesting.” (Jacob)
The London Train by Tessa Hadley: Stalwart of the fiction section of The New Yorker, Hadley’s latest is described as a “novel in two parts.” An early review in the Financial Times calls the book “darkly elegant” with “two distinct halves reflecting, enhancing and informing each other. The social and geographical territory is familiar for Hadley, that of the bourgeoisie and their travels (and travails) as they go looping between London and Cardiff.” (Max)
Pulse by Julian Barnes: Barnes’s latest is his third book of short stories. A preview from The Spectator explains the collection’s over-arching theme: “Each character is attuned to a ‘pulse’ – an amalgamation of a life-force and an Aristotelian flaw. They struggle against or thrive upon the submerged currents of life – touched by ambition, sex, love, health, work and death.” (Max)
The Tao of Travel by Paul Theroux: Theroux, the aging, still entertaining rake of the travel writing genre will indulge in a potentially interesting exercise here, collecting “the best writing on travel from the books that shaped him,” from Samuel Johnson, Eudora Welty and Mark Twain to Peter Matthiessen, Pico Iyer, and John McPhee. Cheesy title aside, it certainly sounds like an essential tome for travel writing fans. (Max)
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett: Ann Patchett has fearlessly ignored the admonition to write what you know. Her breakout novel, the intoxicating Bel Canto, centered around opera, Japanese business practices and a hostage situation in a South American embassy. Her new novel, State of Wonder, will have elements that sound similarly abstruse – doctors, medical students, drug development and the Amazon jungle. But at the heart of the novel is an inspiring student-teacher relationship, which, Patchett told an interviewer, is similar to the bond she had with her own writing teachers, Allan Gurganus and the late Grace Paley. “This one was a picnic,” Patchett says of State of Wonder, “because I didn’t have to make everything up wholesale.” (Bill)
The Astral by Kate Christensen The question to ask about Christensen’s next novel is will it deliver up another character on par with Hugo Whittier of The Epicure’s Lament? (“May we all simmer in the dark with such humor and gusto,” Sam Lipsyte wrote of Christensen’s immortal misanthrope.) The Penn-Faulkner Award-winning Christensen’s forthcoming sixth novel promises the story of a successful Brooklyn poet, Harry Quirk, whose marriage is in crisis and whose children have been swept up in cultishness of various kinds (perhaps a sort of Freedom, redux?). As a writer who reliably turns out novels that elicit warm praise from most of her reviewers, expect (at least) a genial, smart, gently satirical tale of the joys and woes of bougie New York life. (Emily W.)
The Curfew by Jesse Ball: What to expect from an author who teaches classes on dreaming, false identities, and lying? If the author is Jesse Ball, then one should expect expectations to be defied, plot summaries to fall short, and critics to use structures to describe the framework of his imaginative plottings (nesting-boxes, Klein bottle, labyrinth). Perhaps the magical realms Ball creates have something to do with his process: “to conjure up a state of affairs–a glimpse of one situated thought, where the situation is all that surrounds it in the mind.” Or with his imaginative approaches to writing, evident in his classes. Ball’s novel The Curfew depicts a father and daughter during wartime, the father risks it all to find his wife and the young daughter imagines her father’s treacherous journey. Expect for this description to only loosely conjure the realms of wonder within. (Anne)
Kurt Vonnegut: Novels & Stories 1963-1973: For those seeking Vonnegut’s aforementioned best, the Library of America will bestow upon him its black-cover treatment, collecting his great early novels (Cat’s Cradle, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Slaughterhouse-Five, Breakfast of Champions) and stories into one thick volume. In this setting, it will be especially jarring to read Breakfast of Champions, whose “World Classics Library” “published hard-core pornography in Los Angeles, California.” (Jacob)
The Storm at the Door by Stefan Merrill Block: The precocious Block published his first novel at 26. The Story of Forgetting, ambitious but flawed, nonetheless suggested Block might be a name to watch. Sure enough, here he is with a second novel arriving before his 30th birthday. This time around, Block will again take mental illness as a primary theme. (Max)
Lola, California by Edie Meidav: Meidav is a rare thing, a less than well known writer who continues to publish big, dense, challenging novels with a major press. Meidav’s third such effort weighs in at 448 pages and asks “Can an old friend carry in amber the person you were going to become?” Should Meidav be better known? Almost definitely. (Max)
Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell: A 2009 National Book Award nod (for her collectionAmerican Salvage) landed Campbell on the radar of many a reader. Her backcountry fiction focuses on rural characters, meth-cookers, and bad jobs or none at all, all shot through with redemption and compassion. This new novel, which Campbell says has been in the works for more than four years, sounds like something of a modern-day Huck Finn, following a sixteen-year-old girl who takes to the Stark River in search of her vanished mother. (Max)
Estonia: A Ramble Through the Periphery by Alexander Theroux: In his one-of-a-kind Year in Reading piece, Theroux mentioned being this year “in the outback of frozen Estonia where I was not only writing a book but, as a kind of project, undertaking a private study of St. Paul and his life.” The book in question was this title, forthcoming from Fantagraphics. The book emerges from Theroux’s time spent in the former Soviet republic while his wife was on a Fulbright Scholarship. Ever observant, Theroux uses Estonia and its people as a lens through which to look back at America. (Max)
The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock: Former meatpacker and paper mill employee Pollock’s debut story collection Knockemstiff was a favorite amongst indie booksellers, landed on both Amazon and Publishers Weekly’s lists of best books of the year, and garnered the following enigmatic praise from the LA Times “a powerful, remarkable, exceptional book that is very hard to read.” According to his blog, Pollock’s debut novel is set in the 50s and 60s and “centers on the convergent lives of a tough but morally-upright young man from Ohio, a pair of serial killers who prey on hitchhikers, and an itinerant, spider-handling preacher and his crippled guitar virtuoso accompanist.” Naturally. (Patrick)
House of Holes: A Book of Raunch by Nicholson Baker: There’s very little info out there on Baker’s forthcoming novel, aside from some Twitter-excitement, including, “I don’t think it’s about poems” (McNally Jackson Bookstore) and “Back to Fermata territory?” (Ed Champion). So fans of Baker’s earlier (erotic) novels may be in for a treat. At Amazon, the description reads: “a gleefully provocative, off-the-charts sex novel that is unlike anything you’ve read.” (Sonya)
Night Film by Marisha Pessl: My first impression of Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics was clouded by the many, many stunned reviewers who could not help but mention Pessl’s beauty, often in the first paragraph of their reviews. (Indeed, it has been said that her picture was removed from advance copies of the novel to avoid just this.) Fortunately for those who do not choose books based on the bangability of their authors, while Ms. Pessl is hot, her prose is, by most assessments, hotter. Whether or not you liked Special Topics, you have to admit that the babe-authoress created one of the most startlingly distinctive fictional voices of recent years in Blue van Meer, the heroine-narrator of Pessl’s academic novel qua murder mystery (Oh, the breathtaking allusiveness! Ah, the witty figurative language—almost exhausting in its inventiveness!). My fear for Night Film—according to Pessl’s agent, “a psychological thriller about obsession, family loyalty and ambition set in raw contemporary Manhattan”—is that without Blue, Pessl’s nothing. Can she–could anyone (think Jonathan Safran Foer after Everything Is Illuminated)–generate another voice as distinct and scintillating as Blue’s? (Emily W.)
Lights Out in Wonderland by DBC Pierre: After the curious panic surrounding 2003’s Vernon God Little (“It’s sort of about Columbine!” “He’s not even from here!” “It won all kindsa prizes!”), Australia’s DBC Pierre faded from American minds. Three years later, his Ludmilia’s Broken English failed to gain traction, and it seems a sensible bet that Lights Out In Wonderland—another scattershot soap-box rant—will continue the downward trend. But as Lights Out is a foggy howl against the global market (“My hair crests over my head like the dying wave of capitalism,” reads one unfortunate simile), Pierre shouldn’t get too upset if units fail to move. (Jacob)
Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar: Hisham Matar, author of In the Country of Men, is the child of Libyan parents. In 1990, the novelist’s father Jaballa Matar was kidnapped in Cairo and extradited to Tripoli as a political dissident. Since then, his family has endured a special hell of loss and uncertainty–scant news punctuating long periods of silence–which Hisham Matar described in a haunting piece for the Gaurdian last January. His novel, due in August, is about a missing father, and will presumably draw upon Matar’s experience as the child of someone disappeared. (Lydia)
Beijing Welcomes You by Tom Scocca: Slate blogger and former New York Observer Editor Scocca chronicles his years spent in Beijing, observing a city and a culture moving into the global spotlight. The book examines the Chinese capital on the cusp of its global moment, tracking its history and exploring its singular character. Since Scocca lived in Beijing in the middle of the last decade, one can assume the buildup to the 2008 Beijing Olympics figures prominently in the text. Assuming Scocca brings his typical insightful and sometimes scathing perspective (witness his epic takedown of The New Yorker for publishing Dave Eggers’s The Wild Things excerpt which ran two years ago at The Awl), Beijing Welcomes You promises to offer astute cultural observation on a culture Americans would do well to observe. (Patrick)
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami: Murakami’s three volume stemwinder came out in Japan in 2009 and sold out its first printing in a day. The first two volumes will appear in the US this fall and fervor among English-speaking Murakamians is already building. The alpha-numeric title is a play on Orwell’s 1984 – in Japanese the letter Q is a homophonic with the number 9 – and the book’s plot (which was a tightly guarded secret prior to its Japanese release) concerns two characters, a PE teacher and a writer, who become involved in a religious cult through which they create “a mysterious past, different than the one we know.” (Kevin)
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach: In the Winter issue of n+1, Harbach published a provocative piece suggesting two paths for the novelist: MFA vs. NYC. Who needs the former, when you can ride the latter to a half-million dollar advance? Insiders have, predictably, likened Harbach’s treatment of a baseball team at a Wisconsin liberal arts college – presumably as a lens through which to view the American scene and the human condition – to the aforementioned Enfield Tennis Academy. (Garth)
The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright: Enright, winner of The Booker Prize for the international bestseller The Gathering, explores a woman’s affair and her relationship with her lover’s young daughter. (Max)
Parallel Stories by Péter Nadas: Péter Nádas’ A Book of Memories might just be the best novel published in the ’80s, and Imre Goldstein’s translation into English of its massive successor would, in a just world, be the publishing event of the fall. Nádas is, simply put, a master. The freedom with which he combines the diverse idioms of realism, modernism, and postmodernism can only come from decades of discipline. More importantly – as a recent excerpt in The Paris Review illustrates – he generates a continuous, Proustian intensity of feeling and perception – psychological, philosophical, and physical. This three-volume work, structured as a set of braided short stories, tracks two families, one Hungarian and one German, across many decades. Readers looking for a fuller preview might consult Hungarian Literature Online, or Deborah Eisenberg’s appreciation in The New York Review of Books. (Garth)
Unknown (fall and beyond):
The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee: Described by Chee – a Whiting Award and NEA Fellowship recipient, currently a Visiting Professor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop — as a kind of “historical fairy tale,” Queen is set in the time of the Second Empire (1852-70), in Paris. Chee’s first novel, Edinburgh, focused on a young boy’s surviving pedophilia. “The Queen of the Night sort of picks up in some ways from where Edinburgh leaves off,” Chee said in an interview, “in the sense that it is about a young woman who believes her voice is cursed, and if she uses it, terrible things will happen. And then she does, and they do. And she tries to put it right as best she can.” (Sonya)
The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq: Michel Houellebecq, the reigning bad boy of French letters, has been accused of every imaginable sin against political correctness. His new novel, The Map and the Territory, is a send-up of the art world that tones down the sex and booze and violence, but it does feature a “sickly old tortoise” named Michel Houellebecq who gets gruesomely murdered. The book has drawn charges of plagiarism because passages were lifted virtually verbatim from Wikipedia. “If people really think that (this is plagiarism),” Houellebecq sniffed, “then they haven’t the first notion what literature is.” Apparently, he does. The Map and the Territory has just been awarded the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize. (Bill)
The New Republic by Lionel Shriver: Shriver apparently finished a draft of The New Republic in 1998. After six well-regarded but commercially ignored novels, she couldn’t find a buyer for this story of “cults of personality and terrorism” and was about to give up fiction-writing altogether. Flash forward a dozen years: Shriver is an Orange Prize winner, a National Book Award finalist, and has sold over a million copies worldwide. She has been fêted by…er…The New Republic, and hailed in these pages as “America’s Best Writer.” Also: terrorism and cults of personality are very much on people’s minds. Maybe this will be the book that lands her on the cover of Time. (Garth)
Hot Pink by Adam Levin: Viewed from afar, Levin’s first novel, The Instructions, looked, for good and ill – mostly for good – like a kind of apotheosis of the McSweeney’s house style: playful, inventive, funny-melancholic, youth-focused. However, it also possessed a couple of attributes that set it apart from other titles on the McSweeney’s list. One was its dialectical genius; another was the ferocity of its anger at the way the world is (which elsewhere in McSweeneydom often gets sublimated into melancholy). Though Levin wears his influences on his sleeve, his sensibility is utterly distinctive, and almost fully formed. Look for the stories in the follow-up, Hot Pink, to be formally audacious, occasionally adolescent, but always bracing in their passion. (Garth)
The Unfolding Haggadah by Jonathan Safran Foer with Nathan Englander: The only evidence of what this might be comes from Tablet where an essay by Judith Shulevitz includes a note about this title in the author’s bio. An anthology it is then. And with Foer and Englander at the helm, this is one to keep on the radar. (Max)
Four Selected Titles with UK publication dates but no US date yet:
Dante in Love by A. N. Wilson: Later this year, English biographer and critic A.N. Wilson comes out with Dante in Love, a study of the Florentine poet that, confusingly, shares a title with a 2005 book about Dante written by Harriet Rubin. Wilson’s book will, one imagines, address Dante’s exile, Beatrice, Guelphs, Ghibellines, and so on; his perspective as a very public defector from and subsequent re-convert to Christianity might bring new insight to this well-trod territory (then again, it might not). (Lydia)
River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh
King of the Badgers by Philip Hensher
The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst
So, which of these books are you most looking forward to and which great new books did we neglect to include?
I’m always seeking places to write. Never at home—laundry piles, dishes in the sink, MOM emblazoned on my forehead. Although problematic, coffeehouses and libraries are a mainstay. Inevitably, I’ll be thick into my work when someone I know will come up behind me, “Hey, hi! What’cha doin’?” Depending on a combination of fluctuating circumstances—a scale that includes politeness, how the writing is coming, and how well I know the person—my reaction will be to glare until I’m left alone, drop everything and chat, or, more likely, a response somewhere in between the continuum of these two extremes.
For a while, I used a private conference room at my local library, partitioned like an office. The conference room’s intended purpose was for gatherings—conferences—and I was politely asked to stop, even when it wasn’t signed out, and just sat there, vacant, begging to be used. Apparently, the various voices in my head do not constitute a group.
I’m a nervous writer. I drink coffee and subsequently get thirsty and drink water. I chew gum—packs and packs, studding the wastebasket with my spit-out wads. I read my work out loud, again and again (I imagine one might hear a light mumble coming from my direction). There are frequent trips to the bathroom (coffee and water). I have to haul my writing materials—computer, notebooks, etc.—with me, so that they won’t get stolen. Or else I take on the Bathroom Sprint—going as fast as I can, returning in a light sweat.
Also, I attract unusual people. Possibly they sniff in me some sort of kindred spirit. I’ve had many a stranger choose—with vacant spaces everywhere—to sit right next to me, and strike up conversations with openers such as, “My aunt who passed away sixteen years ago still speaks to me through my shoe.” In this case, I looked down, studied his soiled sneaker, laces undone. Later, the same man (I recognized his shoe) was in a stall of the ladies restroom when I did my Bathroom Sprint, his feet turned toward the toilet, flushing it over and over again.
For a long while, I wrote at a particularly grungy coffeehouse (now out of business) where no one knew me, until I became such a regular that it was impossible for me not to be known. The place was long and corridor-like, dark, and with a perpetually robust disinfectant stench that did nothing to dissuade the cockroach population, especially in the graffiti-filled, coin-operated bathroom.
In the daytime—school hours—when I wrote, the coffeehouse was pretty much deserted, except for a throng of ditching teenagers, varying in ages from junior high to high school, heartbreakingly young and drugged out. I wrote at a table near a ratty couch. A completely ignored placard sat on the coffee table, warning the patrons not to sleep or display affection on that couch, and reminding them of the two-dollar minimum purchase requirement.
There were bursts of excitement, as when the truancy officer made his regular appearances, a thrum vibrating beforehand (I never figured out how the teenagers knew he was coming). The teens would disappear quickly, much like the cockroaches when I turned on the light in the bathroom (sometimes a cockroach scurrying right across my shoe). Slowly, the teens would come back, one by one, a bit wary, looking over their shoulders.
One sleepy afternoon, a man entered, walked halfway in, and shouted, “Fuck you! Fuck you; fuck you; fuck you all!” And then he left, and no one seemed alarmed, so I went back to my writing.
I became known as “that woman who writes”—the patrons and employees showing me new tattoos, telling me about their breakups and fights and hangovers, and complaining about the “dickhead” who owned the coffeehouse. One of my favorites, a purple-haired, eyeliner and mascara wearing boy of thirteen, asked me one afternoon if I would name a character after him, and I agreed: thus, the son in my story “Castaways” became Anthony. Another time, two young women—regulars who had spoken with me a few times before—became enthralled with a sweaty man who entered the coffeehouse in an agitated state; he told them he’d just ran from the cops after stealing a car and leaving it abandoned at the side of the freeway. He had a neck tattoo and spoke in a hushed tone. As they began to leave the coffeehouse—the young women following behind him—one of the girls turned and shot me a wistful look, and I couldn’t help calling out, “Be careful!” to which I received a small sad smile from her and a full on glare from the man.
The coffee was awful (yet I developed a taste for it), the bagels and muffins stale, and the music selection limited. I remember a two-week span where every time I set up my computer to work, an extended live version of Lynyrd Skynard’s “Free Bird” came on. (I chose to take this as a good sign.)
An elderly street woman named Esther made daily visits, coming in with a shopping cart filled with baby dolls. She had more wrinkles than any person I’ve ever seen, and she usually wore a baseball cap with Winnie the Pooh on the bill, sticking his paw in a pot of honey.
We developed a ritual: Esther would pretend to sneak up on me, and even though I could hear her cart rattling, I’d pretend to be surprised when she yelled out, “Boo!” Our conversations were strange, perfunctory, a bit aggressive, and I always gave her a dollar bill. Large and shuffling, she’d make her way out, but not before yelling at the teenagers (“Don’t you dare look at me, you fucking miserable little pieces of shit!”), whom she hated, although I never witnessed them antagonizing her; afterwards, they’d stare at each other and laugh, but they always seemed a little startled.
The coffeehouse owner’s father, a pink-faced man with thick glasses that made him goggle-eyed, reverentially approached me one morning and asked if I’d read a “biographical novel” written by a woman friend of his. I read the first chapter, a mess of nostalgia, and I realized his devotion to the work was more a testament to his pining for the woman who wrote it than anything else, and that if given an opportunity, he would talk about her with me for hours and hours. After that, every time he entered, I tensed, wanting to avoid him.
One of the most dramatic boons to my writing life came when two businessmen offered me private places to work, rent-free—one a conference room used only on occasion by lawyers for arbitration purposes, the other an office in the same building. I’d been their server for over ten years, working as a waitress at a high-end restaurant. They became art patrons, in a sense. I told them that I’d thank them in the acknowledgments of my book if I ever got published, and I did.
Both office space and conference room reeked of business and productivity, and the secretaries—who for a long time eyed me skeptically—had to work, so I worked. No Internet-surfing. I didn’t have a key, so often I’d arrive early and wait on the couch in the small hallway for one of the secretaries.
A perfect writing day: Conference room or office space open, no one there, meaning I don’t have to say hello or good morning to anyone, and can immediately immerse myself in a writing trance. I leave without notice, without the explosive shock of small talk, to pick up my boys from school.
Of course, once I got to my kids’ school, the transition from solitary writer to fully engaged member of the human species and Mother was often a rocky transition—with the noise and tumult of children, the swarm of mothers and teachers and life all around me—though most of the conflict took place in the confines of my head.
I’ll never forget when one of my businessmen patrons opened the office door where I was working, poked his head inside, and said, “Can I get you a coffee?” I declined, uncomfortable with the role reversal, having served him for so many years. Both insisted I call them by their first names—but I never quite got the hang of that either.
More than anything, the conference room and office space amplified my desire for private quiet writing places, and my next writing space was a friend’s house, while she was away at her nine to five job. When she moved, an email went out, enlisting the help of friends, and I found another place, which is where I sit writing this.
My current art patron is a successful lawyer. Her daughters recently left for college, leaving the house empty and quiet. My one job is to keep her Jack Russell Terrier, Joey, company, because he’s an empty nester dog.
Joey is deathly afraid of lightning, and he has barking tantrums whenever gardeners are near. But otherwise he’s a peach, and we get along famously. Sometimes, as a break from an intense bout of writing, or a distressing vacuous pit of non-writing, Joey and I will engage in a strenuous match of tug of war with his favorite towel.
Someday I hope to have a place of my own, like my writer friend—a simple shed-like studio assembled in her backyard, book-laden, and with a small bed for naps. Until then, I have writer studio lust, and I’ll continue to seek places to work.
[Image credit: Randen Pederson]
While writing Drift, my collection of interlinked short stories, I did my best to shut out the ongoing clamor of imagined disapproval and alienation from my family, promising myself to write uncensored. As I got closer to the reality of publication, I realized that the shit was going to hit the fan. So I bolstered myself with the support of writers, many of who had already endured the shit/fan combination.
Autobiographical fiction? How much is true? A woman from a readers’ group I recently attended said, “Bye, Rosie,” when I was leaving, calling me by my main protagonist’s name, even after my earlier explanation:
“Everything I’ve experienced, everything I’ve read, everything I’ve imagined, it’s like it’s all in this blender, and I don’t necessarily control what’s in there or the way it comes out. But once it’s out, I reshape and rearrange things, organize it. Parts are fictionalized versions of what my life could have been or might have been—but it’s not real.”
Yet I’d be lying if I said that Rosie didn’t contain me; that I wasn’t Rosie, Rosie wasn’t me.
Fiction, I’ve explained, over and over. It’s fiction.
I warned my parents, told them that they didn’t have to read the book. In fact, my brother decided not to read Drift, possibly ever, and our relationship has subsequently strengthened.
My parents both thought that I was overreacting, until they read their galleys, months before publication. Silence. A condemning two- to three-month silence, except for rumors and statements via circuitous sources, including the involvement of Satan in the cultivation of my prose, and the pitying assurance that my two young sons would be ashamed of me, once they were old enough to read and understand the horrors that I had committed.
During this time, I leaned heavily on my writer friends, who made statements such as: “Congratulations. Now you’re a real writer because your family hates you.” And at my darkest moments, I morbidly and angrily relished the fact that my family’s rejection would give me not only more to write about, but also the motivation-propeller of needing to write.
My mom spoke up first. Swinging between pride and disappointment, she declared that I had hurt her, whether fictionalized or not, since the stories drew on a shared painful time in our lives, rekindling all sorts of troublesome memories.
Apparently, she read the stories aloud while her husband drove them to and from their two homes and various golf courses, pausing only to shed tears and mutter, “Oh, no; no, no, no, no.”
Despite my apologies (“I never meant to hurt you, that wasn’t my intention; no one wants to hurt their mother!”), and my insistence on the fictionalized nature of the stories, my mom continues to feel deeply wounded, and she vocalizes it, especially after a few glasses of wine—lashing me with guilt. Yet she keeps a file with all my reviews and articles, and has given copies of Drift to her friends.
For our mutual comfort, Drift is already becoming an off-limits topic, relegated to the Siberia of other tender subjects, such as politics.
My dad is a born again Christian who doesn’t see R-rated movies on principle. Despite our differences, we have maintained a loving relationship, and I dreaded its loss. An initial reaching out by me was followed by a blunt email that he was “still processing and not ready to talk”; and then, finally, he contacted me by phone.
His first question—“Are you okay?”—led me to wonder if he imagined that I might be injecting heroin in alleyways or having unsafe sex with multiple partners, both male and female. My parents don’t read literary stories. Drift, to its credit, crawled off the page and lodged itself in life. I scared him.
Reality, for both parents, blurred with non-reality: they read themselves and others in fiction, and the autobiographical portions of the book that I fretted over sailed over their heads.
Dad: “Remember when we had that conversation about the birds and the bees at the park? From your story? I certainly wish it had gone better.”
Me: “Dad, that never happened. It’s fiction. I made it up.”
Dad: “Well, it very well could have happened.”
That first phone conversation with my dad after he read and processed Drift was one of the most harrowing conversations of my life (and I imagine his). But we hashed out our feelings, and the subject of Drift’s content has not been brought up again, immediately and permanently landing itself in Siberia. To my great relief, we continue to have a relationship.
Aside from my parents, the most surprising and disappointing negative reaction came from a close friend, who lectured me on the nature of the creative process for writers, despite the fact that she’s not a writer. Her problem sprouted from two juicy sentences of dialogue in one of the least autobiographical of my stories, taken from a real-life conversation I had had with a mutual friend. (I had run the story by the mutual friend: she did not have a problem with the dialogue, and she loved the story.)
I was told that genuine writing does not draw on autobiographical elements; that the true mark of a gifted writer is that his or her fiction is completely fabricated, purely from the imagination. Despite my protestations, my listing of the endless well-known writers who feed off their lives, my insistence on the fictional nature of the stories (and in particular that story), she would not budge. I gave my friend the blender theory. I explained that the essential emotions and truth did come from a deep core of reality, but that the stories themselves were fictional. She disagreed, and we could not find common ground.
Mourning the change of a deeply important friendship, not once did I question her lack of authority on the subject. I may not like the negative reactions and disapproval, the guessing as to what’s true and what’s not, the labeling and blurring of fiction and nonfiction, but since I wrote Drift, I have to live with the repercussions. I can’t control how people read the stories, nor do I want to. And so far I don’t regret writing what’s important to me, even when it causes trouble.