Follow Me to Ground: A Novel

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Writers to Watch: Spring 2020

1.Kevin Nguyen: Crash Override

Say what you will about New York City’s oft-delayed transit system, but the subway helped Kevin Nguyen write his first novel, New Waves (One World, March). Riding the train, Nguyen jotted down sci-fi stories, dialogue, and aperçus about technology on his phone. “I wrote all of this in one note, and then one day the note got so long that the app crashed,” he says.

Pasting the nearly 20,000-word note into a document, Nguyen, 33, thought, “Just as an exercise, maybe I should try to connect these dots through fiction.”

Nguyen’s agent, Sarah Bowlin, says, “When he mentioned shyly over drinks a couple years ago that he had been writing a novel—on the subway! on his phone!—I was certain that whatever he was working on would be urgent and alive.”

The resulting novel is about mourning and the moral abdication of technology companies. It tells the story of Lucas, an Asian-American content moderator at a messaging app startup, who is grieving his deceased coworker, Margo, an African-American server engineer. “It has a lot of ideas in it, but it’s not an ideas book,” Nguyen says.

Originally envisioned as a secure communication tool for dissidents and reporters, the fictional app explodes among teenagers using it to lob vicious messages. “It’s really easy when you’re on the inside of a tech company to not grapple with or take responsibility for the implications of what you’re doing,” says Nguyen, who, after graduating from the University of Puget Sound in 2009, worked various “start-up-adjacent jobs” before landing at Amazon’s books division in New York City. He then pivoted to journalism, first at GQ and now at the Verge.

At the novel’s core is the relationship between Lucas and Margo, who leaves behind a trove of speculative fiction she has written. “There’s this wealth of her that he never saw and is still able to explore,” Nguyen says. “But with grief, the sad part isn’t that the person is gone. It’s that they’ll never do anything new or surprise you again.”

2.Mary South: All Too Human

For Mary South, who worked as an ad writer for Google, composing SEO copy was instructive for how not to write fiction: “SEO writing is the opposite way of how I work with text—just optimizing for an algorithm, not even necessarily for a reader. I naturally didn’t like it very much.”

South’s debut collection, You Will Never Be Forgotten (FSG Originals, March), offers piercing explorations of technology’s impact on humanity. “Even though we have access to more information than ever before in history, we’re still dealing with the same trauma,” she says.

South’s agent, Cynthia Cannell, says she was “in thrall to her uncanny humor and lively voice,” and her editor, Julia Ringo, praises the “delightfully alien curiosity about and insight into human behavior.”

The collection ventures into the internet’s collective id, most notably in a story about a camp for recovering internet trolls. “A lot of these characters are repressing their feelings, so it’s interesting to me fictionally how those feelings eventually come out,” South says.

Raised in Minnesota, South attended Northwestern and later Columbia’s MFA program. She then became an assistant at Noon, a literary journal run by Diane Williams. “Seeing her edit was incredible for me, because every sentence has to be perfect,” South says. “Once you observe someone doing that, it rubs off on you. Or so I’d like to hope.”

The stories offer frank portrayals of human desires. In one, stunted man-children clamor for breast-feeding privileges, and in another, elderly patients call phone-sex hotlines from their assisted living facility. “That story is about very overt, sometimes raw, comic sexuality, as well as the need for connection and solace and companionship,” South says. “It’s very valid that they have those needs, and they deserve them.”

3.Marcial Gala: A Monumental Novel

The Black Cathedral (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, January), the first of Marcial Gala’s novels to be translated into English, is a choral tale of architectural folly and serial violence in Cienfuegos, Cuba. “I was drawn to the possibility of a different kind of storytelling, of giving a voice to those who generally don’t have one, and of being able to narrate the plurality of the Cuban national being,” says Gala, 56.

That delirious style intrigued Gala’s translator, Anna Kushner. “The process of translating this novel was a bit like trying to take apart and reassemble something in order to determine what it is that makes it work so well,” she notes.

Gala was born in Havana, “in the same old palace on the Prado where the great Cuban poet Julián del Casal died in the 19th century,” he says. “Sometimes, I think that that coincidence marked my fate forever.”

At the age of 10, Gala moved to Cienfuegos, where he still lives part-time. He began studying architecture in Santa Clara when he discovered Borges. “His stories seemed so good to me that they may have even driven me a bit mad, to the point that I was putting aside my work as an architecture student in order to go write,” Gala remembers.

The cathedral of the title is a messianic project conceived and undertaken by a town newcomer, the zealous father of a strange family. Gala describes the ambitious endeavor as “an architectural object imprisoned in the most disparate and exaggerated interpretation,” one that is emblematic of the “tendency toward exaggeration and the Pantagruelian that characterizes the Cuban people.”

4.Meng Jin: Cosmic Characters

“I’m a fiction writer so I’m not as comfortable talking about my own life,” says Meng Jin, whose debut novel, Little Gods (Custom House, January), revolves around a similarly reticent character: Su Lan, a physicist who emigrates to the United States with her toddler daughter who was born on the night of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

With Su Lan, Jin wanted to portray someone from the “huge waves of scientists and engineers” coming from China to the States—a character Jin says she “hadn’t really seen represented in Chinese American literature.”

After Su Lan’s death, her teenage daughter travels to Shanghai and Beijing to learn about her inscrutable mother’s past and the two men once infatuated with her. “The story would be told by people orbiting Su Lan, and she would be like a black hole at the center of it,” Jin says she realized early on.

“It is deceptively distanced and cool, when in fact, it feels increasingly emotional as the reader moves further along in the novel,” says Jin’s agent, Jin Auh.

Born in Shanghai and currently living in San Francisco, Jin, 30, moved to the U.S. when she was 5. She adjuncted in New York City after receiving an MFA from Hunter College, then secured a writing fellowship at the University of East Anglia, in Great Britain.

Jin examines historical events on an individual scale. “I spent a lot of time in my childhood listening to my Chinese grandparents’ stories,” she says. “In the American classroom and in the media, I would encounter the history of China with a capital H. It took me a long time to understand that actually those two stories were overlapping.”

The novel draws on scientific metaphors to illuminate human mysteries. Jin recalls the impact of reading the Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli. “He’s standing at science and looking at art,” she says. “I want to be standing at art and looking at science.”

5.Hilary Leichter: Going Steady

“I let the language of the gig economy take me to the most fantastical places I could imagine,” says Hilary Leichter of the absurdist exploration of the working world in her debut novel, Temporary (Coffee House, March). Perhaps no place is as fantastical as the “adventure capital” pirate ship to which the heroine, a temporary worker desperately seeking the steadiness of permanent work, is assigned.

“[Leichter] takes on expected tropes and themes and makes them unexpected, and to me, there is nothing harder to do as a writer,” says her agent, Monika Woods. Ruth Curry, Leichter’s editor, recalls her delight at receiving the witty, honed manuscript, which “emerged from Hilary’s gigantic brain fully formed, painted, wallpapered, and in move-in condition.”

Interspersed among the heroine’s picaresque adventures is a tale of how the gods, when exhausted, farmed out their labors to temporary workers. “We use mythology to understand love, to understand politics, to understand war,” Leichter, 34, says. “Why not work?”

After graduating from Haverford College, Leichter says she worked for seven years on and off as a personal assistant to a “very funny, wise, elderly New Yorker.” The job planted the seed for Temporary. “I started thinking about work as this thing that has emotions connected to it that we’re not necessarily allowed to express.”

Along with the humor and wordplay, the novel examines the moral and emotional costs of work. “I always find myself caught between these two ideas of having to survive in terms of actual survival and also of preserving yourself,” Leichter says.

The novel builds toward a future in which the distinction between temporary and permanent workers blurs. “Because the temp is such an expert at replacing people,” Leichter says, “the question of what will replace us after we are all gone is interesting to me.”

6.Megha Majumdar: Heated Rhetoric

Megha Majumdar conceived of A Burning (Knopf, June), about a persecuted young Muslim woman in India, as a response to the “very dangerous turn to right-wing politics throughout the world,” she says. “I wanted to write a book about how individuals with loves and ambitions survive that turn.”

Majumdar, 32, grew up in Kolkata. She studied social anthropology at Harvard and then Johns Hopkins at the gradual level, doing fieldwork in Senegal. She is now an acquiring editor at Catapult, though she still draws on her anthropological training. “Those experiences of listening to other people’s stories and trying to understand their perspectives has informed my work,” she says.

According to Majumdar’s editor, Jordan Pavlin, A Burning “has the force of an epic tragedy and the economy and restraint of a poem.”

Majumdar’s agent, Eric Simonoff, praises her mixture of the propulsive and the poetic: “She is that rare writer who shines on a virtuosic line-by-line level and also as a compulsively readable storyteller.”

The novel follows a Muslim woman accused of aiding a terrorist attack and two characters called to testify at her trial. “I wanted to create the sense that this is not just a story of three people but the story of a whole nation,” she says. Apart from Jivan, there’s a gym teacher ascending the ranks of a populist political party and a hijra, or intersex person, who dreams of becoming an actor.

“The hijra are marginalized in so many ways, and I wanted to see how someone who is oppressed at the intersection of all these kinds of marginalization never surrenders her humor and her intelligence and her big, big dreams,” Majumdar says.

7.C Pam Zhang: All That Glitters

C Pam Zhang heartily defends writing fan fiction. “I stand by that as the best teacher for learning how to write, because you have this world you don’t have to build up,” she says.

In her debut novel, How Much of These Hills Is Gold (Riverhead, April), Zhang conjures the rough terrain of gold rush–era California, in which two Asian-American orphans struggle to survive. Her editor, Sarah McGrath, says, “I saw not only a ferocious new voice and a vivid, propulsive plot, but also a storytelling approach that offered me a fuller understanding of America, past and present.”

The novel sifts through a tragic family history marked by ambition and dissimulation. “It’s almost what defines a family are the secrets that divide and bind them,” says Zhang, 30. “I think this comes from being born into an immigrant family myself.”

Zhang was born in Beijing and immigrated to the United States when she was a child. Her father died when she was 22—a loss that still affects her writing. “I felt like the fiction I was writing after my father’s death was richer, more honest, raw,” she says.

After being laid off from a copywriting job in San Francisco, Zhang moved to Bangkok, the first place in Asia she’d lived. “There was something wonderful about being able to be anonymous and blend into the crowd,” she recalls.

A rough draft soon poured out of her. “I write a first draft with the goal that it will be a raging tire fire,” Zhang jokes. She eventually refined the work into a vivid portrait of a family and the unforgiving landscape they inhabit.

“I have a great fear and respect of the outdoors,” Zhang says. “I navigate that fear by imagining it in excruciating detail. I don’t know if that’s healthy.”

8.Fernanda Melchor: Bewitching Prose

Fernanda Melchor, a 37-year-old Mexican author and journalist, has a predilection for American writers including Dennis Cooper, Bret Easton Ellis, and Cormac McCarthy. “I’ve always been drawn to dark stories where violence plays a strong part,” she says.

Hurricane Season (New Directions, March) is Melchor’s first novel to be translated into English, and it chronicles the brutal murder of a recluse named the Witch in a small Mexican town. “You can find crazy violence everywhere,” she says. “It’s just that Mexico’s violence has this carnivalesque, burlesque, or grotesque side.”

Stylistically, Hurricane Season, represents a break from Melchor’s previous work, which includes a novel and a forthcoming English translation of essays. “The events in this novel are so crude and difficult that I needed this strong style to hold it together, like the centrifugal force of the hurricane,” she says.

“Melchor tells horror and violence with grace and purpose, never arbitrarily and always cleverly interwoven within complex psychologies,” says Sophie Hughes, her translator.

The chapters are told in a torrential narration that flits in and out of various characters’ minds. “The first two chapters came out like this,” Melchor says, “and then it was a technical challenge to see if I could keep on doing that.” As a result, the reader feels “immersed and implicated in the depraved and superstitious community of a destitute Mexican coastal village,” she adds.

“I was in a very pessimistic place when I wrote it a few years ago,” recalls Melchor, who despaired over solutions to the region’s “violence, femicide, homophobia, and misogyny.” More broadly, though, the novel is about “being young and having no future—and feeling this incredible urge to escape through any means possible.”

9.Ho Sok Fong: Narrative Buffet

“Our multiculturalism is like a sampler platter, from which you can pick and choose, but it’s not a melting pot,” says Ho Sok Fong of Malaysia’s religious and linguistic divisions. “The flavors have not assimilated.”

The Chinese-Malaysian author of the story collection Lake Like a Mirror (Two Lines, March), Ho, 49, was born in Kedah, Malaysia, and trained as an engineer. She left her electrical engineering job at age 30, first for a career in journalism and then to pursue graduate degrees in Chinese literature.

Ho had long immersed herself in Mahua (sinophone Malaysian) literary journals, which generally avoid addressing the repressive policies of the ruling regime toward its Chinese population. “The impression I took away from those journals was that politics could not be literary,” Ho says. “So it was hard to conceive of fiction as a means to express the limitations imposed by the regime.”

In Ho’s collection, by contrast, there are several stories whose protagonists butt up against the state’s repressive apparatuses. “As a writer, I’m reaching inside myself for something that will resonate,” she says. “Even if this means touching on politics.”

The stories feature spectral characters disassociated from the waking world. “I think a lot about the incompatibilities between humans and the world around us,” Ho notes. “There are things we cannot explain or point to that we are forced to experience in invisible, illegible ways, perhaps as traumas or psychological wounds.”

“Like translating underwater”: that’s how Natascha Bruce describes the experience of rendering Ho’s distinctive style in English. “There’s a visceral quality to the ambiguity running through the stories, which means they often hit me first as intense, wordless feeling.”

Ambiguity is a structuring principle of these dreamlike tales. “The things that entice us to read, and to write, are not the things we already know but the things we cannot yet identify—the strange questions it takes time to explore,” Ho says.

10.Sue Rainsford: Healing Touch

“I’ll start writing a very naturalist piece, and then something strange will come through to inflect it,” says Sue Rainsford, whose debut novel Follow Me to Ground (Scribner, January) thrums with the uncanny.

While in a visual arts practice master’s program in Dublin, Rainsford became interested in the language of female experience as expressed by writers like Simone de Beauvoir and Julia Kristeva. “The novel’s fantastical elements came out of trying to put all of this strange imagery that gets ascribed to the female body through psychoanalysis or horror film and make those things live in the world,” she says.

The novel’s heroine is Ada, a glacially aging supernatural healer who springs from a mysterious patch of earth called the Ground. “I love how Sue has created a world that operates completely according to its own rules, but that she has the confidence and stylistic verve not to overexplain,” says her agent, Amelia Atlas.

Ada lives apart from the human population, or “Cures,” and enters into a secret affair with one. “Sue has a very distinct voice,” says Rainsford’s editor, Sally Howe, “and she writes about desire, transgression, and the body with insight and nuance.

Rainsford, 31, grew up in Dublin. “When I was in my teens, it felt by turns comfortingly and asphyxiatingly small,” she recalls. She completed an MFA at Bennington College and is currently a writer-in-residence at Maynooth University in Ireland. “Walking through the woods and coming out at Shirley Jackson’s house in North Bennington was something that got under my skin,” she says.

Though its central theme is healing, Follow Me to Ground also portrays harmful familial bonds. “I’m really interested in how a relationship becomes toxic,” Rainsford says. “Families are fascinating because people try so hard to make these relationships work, often to their detriment, over a lifetime.”

This post was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

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