In early July, I was able to sit down and interview Sergio De La Pava, the explosive, encyclopedic author who heralds a new era of the novel. A public defender in New York City, Sergio wrote his first novel on the commute to and from court cases, self-publishing the nearly 700-page A Naked Singularity in 2008. When it was republished by the University of Chicago Press, it received the PEN/Robert Bingham prize for Debut Novel. Since then, his second and third novel, Personae and Lost Empress, received similar acclaim from readers and critics alike. A writer on the periphery of the American literary scene, Sergio De La Pava’s response to art is electric, charged and ready to jolt complacency with the art form.
The Millions: What did literature mean to you before you began writing? In a public conversation with other authors, you explained that your interest in writing began at around seven or eight. In your latest novel, a young boy loses his father and, during that morbid transition from winter to spring, he discovers Emily Dickinson, titling a personal essay “Emily Dickinson is Saving My Life and I Can’t Even Thank Her,” and while I know that’s the intimate relation each reader has to literature, each of your novels contends with the moment an individual receives such profound experience with literature that they in turn become an artist. In A Naked Singularity, you’ve got the protagonist Casi working on an immense project; in Personae, we as readers discover the fragments of a man’s oeuvre after his death; in Lost Empress, it’s Nelson De Cervantes with Emily Dickinson and Dia Nouveau with Joni Mitchell. What was it for you?
Sergio De La Pava: I think initially, my relationship with literature was something similar to what Nelson De Cervantes experiences in the terms of, I don’t want to say initial experiences with literature, but ones the ones that persist and remain memorable, it feels like a life-raft, it feels in some sense like saving your life and allowing you to continue to navigate what has been to me a very confusing and ultimately frightening experience, meaning life. I think what I depicted, with respect to Nelson, is that means by which you find nothing so blatant as guidance, but almost consolation, such that x, y, and z may be true, but it’s also true that these poems or this novel or work of art was created.
When I refer to the seven or eight-year-old thing, I was referring to that age when I spent a summer in Colombia, and I remember kind of missing the English language above all things. I remember coming across Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea in English in my grandmother’s house. I devoured that, I distinctly remember that being the first time I made this leap between the fact that something like that exists and the realization that someone had to have created it, an individual behind this experience. It seems obvious now, but when you’re seven or eight it’s not, something like clouds, something you don’t question how it exists. But with this book, it was the first time I realized a guy like Hemingway is the reason this book exists, and it was probably the first time I remember thinking I wouldn’t terribly mind if I was the reason one of these books existed. That’s something that’s always stuck in my mind. It wasn’t so much about the artistic experience of the book, though for a 7-year-old it was intense, it was more about the realization there’s these people that identify as writers and they’re the ones responsible for books that exist or don’t exist. A lot of my novel Personae deals with that earliest question, of who gets to be called writer, who decides to dive into an activity in this more intense way than readers could experience.
TM: In the end of that public conversation I mentioned, you were asked to give a book that summarily defines the experience of being in New York, and you give Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, you described the novel as being able to “marry aesthetic concerns while still having a more revolutionary message to it… all [your] novels are trying to ferment nonviolent revolution.” Each artist, I believe, must engage in what that marriage means to produce. Whether they end up producing such as work as Invisible Man is not as important for that artist as their asking how they will use literature to advance aesthetic and cultural concerns. What works or authors became for you that marriage of aesthetic and political concerns you would place your work alongside?
SDLP: Do you think every novelist has political concerns? It would seem that—well, what book is popular right now?—it would seem that the author of The Marriage Plot did not have political concerns. But you are right that I pretty clearly do, right? I will say that all the aesthetic concerns that I have when I sit down to write a novel absolutely trump any political concerns. They are by far more paramount, more important. Because I am engaging in an activity where there is no reality, and nothing can exceed the aesthetic achievement. If my political concerns were paramount, then I would write an op-ed or a nonfiction book as many have done and very skillfully. In those situations, my concern would be those political realities I’m resisting in, what I’m agitating for, those options are open to everybody. When I’m functioning as a novelist, the demands of the novel have to be paramount. The reason I brought up Invisible Man is that it clearly has to me a political purpose but at no point do I feel that that political purpose overrides the aesthetic achievement of the novel. As somebody who has this whole other career that is almost all political purpose, I have to be more careful, maybe, than most, in writing the novel. I have to be more careful, that it doesn’t become a didactic piece of journalism because that’s a preexisting category I can feel free to engage in whenever I want to.
TM: And you have!
SDLP: The kind of concerns that build up and overflow in my mind, that cause me to write a novel, are rarely political. They feel more philosophical or poetic. Those feel to me the driving force of the novel. The politics of it, the radical agenda or whatever you want to call it, is quite often a function of the setting where the philosophy and poetry is happening.
TM: I think that act of achieving a political statement as a result of the aesthetic work connects well to what Ellison was about. I’m interested to know which American authors, like Ellison, might’ve provided a framework to search for truth, and who you eventually had to move past to develop your own work.
SDLP: Well I don’t necessarily identify with someone because they’re American. I go by language, I go by writing in English. To me a country is essentially an invented, if not meaningless, then low-meaning thing. I don’t take particular meaning from the fact I was born in the United States. English, now that’s a different story. English colors everything that happens in the work. The language colors everything. Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, to name writers who wrote in English. Certainly a lot of translated works have been important to me, but those were the seminal figures, always tempered by the thought that “great, they did what they did, but it’s time for an updating.” Those are all writers who stopped writing at least 80 years ago. In a lot of ways, I think the distance of time makes those influences more useful than looking to contemporaries or colleagues or doing the same thing you are and looking for inspiration there. It’s never worked that way for me.
TM: So it’s not necessarily the questions proposed in say, To the Lighthouse may not provoke today; it’s that enough time has passed that you feel them worth revisiting? Do they serve greater inspiration because of their distance?
SDLP: I suppose I don’t have a good grasp by what we mean when we say “inspiration.” Everything has “inspired” me to write but that’s not the same as saying I’ve found joy in or found profitable every single thing I’ve read. Often times, I receive negative inspiration, where I say “I don’t like that, I don’t think that’s what the novel is for, that that’s how you execute a novel.” And that can be more useful than sitting there and going “well, that novel’s as close to perfection.” When you think about it, in many ways, we as humans act out with dissatisfaction a lot more often than we do with satisfaction. A lot of the times when I’m reading, I receive this dissatisfaction, a wanting, and a highly critical response, and those serve as more useful than something that is masterful. When something’s masterful, to me, it’s done. There’s nothing left to say. There’s nothing left to do in response. I often wonder: If I were insanely impressed by the majority of novels I’ve read, would I even write? I probably wouldn’t. I think it’s the opposite. Part of the reason I write is because I find modern novels so lacking.
TM: It seems your latest novel, Lost Empress, was the attempt to bridge two very distinct styles of novel together. In a previous conversation, you used Invisible Man and Pride and Prejudice as examples of these two styles. I’m wondering, using this term of translation, how did you translate the experiences of previous novels into this work?
SDLP: The novel is limitless, there’s more than Invisible Man and Pride and Prejudice. I think what I meant was that I was inspired to take two conceptions of the novel that seemed like they will not mix and so Invisible Man and Pride and Prejudice are two seemingly different novels in a way no other two novels could seem as different. The challenge was this: If the novel has the ability to subsume any category into its form, can you prove that by marrying these two wildly different concepts, without the infrastructure showing? That challenge can excite you, make you go “yeah, I can do that,” and that excitement can carry you for the next four years. I have a lot more freedom with that challenge than, say, translation, because there’s a hardcap to how much I decide Anna Karenina is before it no longer fits into the idea of translation. When I do this, I’m doing it with my terms and nobody’s going to tell me it doesn’t fit.
TM: I would say that while each of your work contends with reality, Lost Empress questions what is real and how we define that. Not just translating experience but transcribing it. We have this character, Sharon, a CO for paramedics, who breaks down after decades of listening to calls in which children are maimed and assaulted. But her coworker doesn’t console her, she says “that’s as real as realism gets.” I’m wondering how you can talk about the act of writing as a series of freedoms but also have your characters confront and rebel against the tragic fictions you pit them against. Is this perhaps where you attempt to bridge the two conceptions of the novel, the fantastical reproduction of reality and reality’s strenuous subjugation?
SDLP: I’ve always had this weird sensation that the world depicted in the novel is as real as ours; it’s just a matter of perspective. I feel that the conclusions I draw from immersion in a fictious, well-done novel can easily be applied in this world, with a reality that hits us every day. I don’t make distinction, I get upset about things that happen in novels and I don’t find any consolation in being told they’re a fictitious character. When I would write Sharon’s narrative, it would upset me as much as if she were like any other person I knew in life. That’s probably not the healthiest attitude, but that’s part of the reason why I inject things that are uncontroversially true of our world, such as a Rikers Island inmate guidebook or Joni Mitchell or Salvador Dali, because the facts about them are verifiably true. Part of the reason I don’t draw distinction is because convention would have us place the fiction below reality. whereas I think that fiction should be placed alongside reality.
TM: When you say you have a visceral reaction, it’s well understood. In that public conversation, someone brought up the fate of the character Nuno in Lost Empress and you looked like you were sucker-punched, you said “well, I care a lot about him, and I’m sad that it ended.” It’s this character you spent a lot of time with, but even though you say you’re with this freedom to write the novel, your characters actively protest their existence within the novel, shouting “truth in everything!” On this idea that characters are aware of what’s happening, could you say something on where you think the novel heads in the 21st century? Throughout your work, you’re referencing pop culture and pop media such as TV, the novel Lost Empress begins with the decree “let us enter into peals of laughter,” and the opening scene is in the form of a sitcom script. Though the structure of the script disappears, the kinetic quips remain in stark contrast to the looming darkness that bridges the novel’s first and second act. I’m wondering if you did this in respect to new media that competes with the novel, or if this was an aesthetic concern.
SDLP: I don’t care about the new media, I really don’t. I don’t accept that television is the new novel, that’s silly. It’s just as dumb as it ever was. I’m not competing with that stuff because I will lose, I will lose in a first-round knockout. My novels are asking that you enter into a completely different space than the one you’re in when you binge-watch Breaking Bad. I mean I watched all of Breaking Bad and The Wire and I enjoyed that but it’s not the same as when I read Mrs. Dalloway or Moby Dick or The Confidence Man.
TM: And yet your novels interject that media constantly.
SDLP: My novels, I hope, attempt in some way that just because you’re in the world where you read The Confidence Man or Bartleby The Scrivener doesn’t mean you have to forsake all the pleasures of a quick one-liner like you said. The narrator at the beginning of Lost Empress says “we’re gonna keep this pretty light,” and then, clearly, he fails to keep it light. Sharon’s abused, people are kept in isolation by the Grand Jury. But the attempt was there in the beginning, like a screenplay for a screwball comedy, and then reality keeps interjecting to the point where it can’t sustain. And you see there’s this thing where privileged people can keep it light, but ultimately none of us can keep it light, because this commonality of experience of that desolating experience will win out, or simply time’s up. There’s a character in Lost Empress, the Theorist, who describes two timelines: that of the reader and that of the novel. You know he’s experienced our reality because he describes the David Tyree catch, and he’s the only one who’s been in our timeline that’s also in Nuno’s timeline, so he says “this timeline that we’re in is ending,” and that’s verifiably true by the fact the novel’s ending, but that’s also true for the reader’s timeline, regardless of the world you’re in. And that’s not necessarily the most salient fact of your life, I hope not, that’s not that productive. But it’s there and it colors the events of life, in Personae especially, the fact that life is so fragmentary and fast.
TM: As a reader of these narratives, we can pick and choose where and when we pick up and drop off, but then what does that do for the truths of your characters? Sharon decides to remain in an abusive relationship with her husband to ensure her son’s success, a quarterback decides to suffer terminal brain damage to win a football game, Nuno escapes prison only to realize his world is ending; what makes them matter? Not in the moralistic sense you object to, but what is the saving grace for theirs and our lives by the novel’s end?
SDLP: Nuno lays this out for us at the end of the novel rather explicitly. Despite the fact there is an ending, he finds merit in all things by the fact they happened. He lays it out for us, when people say “oh, humanity’s but a speck of dust in the history of the universe,” well that’s a dumb thing to say! It’s never been about how long we’ve been around or the value of an uninhabited planet. He tackles this sense of insignificance head on because that desire to be heard is the value. Not because what we’re going to say results in x, y, and z, but because we could manage to do something. And there are people who will disagree, who say that because life has an end renders everything meaningless. That’s a view. I don’t think that’s a logically impossible view, but I don’t share that view and I don’t think anyone in that novel shares that view. Sharon decides to create meaning from her life by ensuring her son’s survival, and she could be wrong of course, but that’s for everybody to decide for themselves. That’s what we do as human beings. Why did I put a suit on today and come into my office? Because I decided that helping someone within the machine of the criminal justice system has meaning. I could be wrong, I guess, because that seems unlikely. When you experience that meaning, such as when I’m raising my two-year-old, that doesn’t feel meaningless, it just doesn’t. It feels like meaning irrespective of the entire fate of humankind.
TM: It makes me wonder about the kind of person who is satisfied by meaninglessness, or whose fear of meaninglessness is correlated to a lack of morality. These people seem to lack the experience of meaning made by living a full life.
SDLP: Right. It’s like pessimistic authors who take these works where everyone is evil and wrong and the world is mean. That’s a weird proposition, that I think is done by infantilized writers who take on this worldview and get praised for their “honesty.” But those type of people ignore the other half of humanity, like that guy who volunteers on Sundays to bathe the elderly. You’re going to tell me that that person’s evil, that their actions are meaningless? Those writers who suffuse their work with meaninglessness have to categorize and ignore the others. I feel like it is just as intellectually dishonest to find everybody good as it is to find everybody bad. Neither one feels fair.
TM: So your fiction is an attempt at something more honest to life.
SDLP: I don’t think these are optimistic works, but I don’t think they’re pessimistic works either. I’m attempting to grapple with the fact that humanity is capable of terror and greatness.
Derek B. Miller caught the eye of readers of The Millions with his 2013 debut novel, Norwegian by Night, lauded by Richard Russo in his Year in Reading and staying atop our Top Ten for months. The novel featured an octogenarian ex-Marine, Sheldon Horowitz, who has lost his son in Vietnam and who tries to save another boy from his father, an Albanian war criminal. Set in Norway, the novel also introduced the wily cop Sigrid Ødergård; Miller followed it with The Girl in Green, in which two men involved in the Gulf War get a chance at redemption decades later. Now Miller is publishing American by Day, which sends Sigrid Ødergård from Norway to upstate New York to find her brother, who has disappeared after being named the prime suspect in his girlfriend’s mysterious death. Miller spoke with The Millions, via Skype, from his home in Oslo.
The Millions: You have a background in International Studies, I think.
Derek B. Miller: The short version is that I got a master’s degree from Georgetown in National Security, in conjunction with Oxford, where I finished my degree. I knew I wanted to do a doctorate, so I stayed in Europe, futzed around for a while working for a newspaper, and then I moved to Geneva, Switzerland, where I got a second master’s and a Ph.D. from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies.
TM: What did you do after earning your degrees?
DBM: I spent about a decade in the United Nations Institute of Disarmament Research. Basically I was looking at countries recovering from war—jump-starting the economy, trying to collect weapons after a war, establishing a transitional justice system. So I worked on that for a long time, trying to push the elephant of the United Nations in a direction that I thought was both more pragmatic and ethical.
TM: That wasn’t exactly the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, was it?
DBM: No [Laughs].
TM: So how did you become a novelist?
DBM: Well, I think the idea of creative writing was planted in my head back at Sarah Lawrence, which at the time, 1988 to ’92, had the only undergraduate creative writing program in the country. I didn’t actually do creative writing there, but I think it demystified the notion that writing is something only geniuses or crazy people do. When I tried to write, my first manuscript took me three years. It wasn’t very good, but some of the tone, my approach to characterization, my approach to the relationship between tragedy and comedy—I can look back on my efforts from my mid-20s, and it’s clearly my writing. I found that short stories weren’t for me. So I just kept writing.
TM: So all these years you’re traveling around working for the U.N.—and you’re writing fiction on the side, as an apprentice?
DBM: I was writing. I have a good education for finding patterns in data and building theory, and I think I approached writing from both a creative perspective and an analytical one. I asked fundamental questions I felt I needed to ask in order to write better, such as: What is a story? What differentiates a story from a mere sequence of events? What is the nature of dramatic tension, and where does it come from? How do you deal with large gaps of time? Lots of architecture and craft issues. So I asked these questions, I interrogated the material I was reading to see how different authors achieved that. I wasn’t trying to copy them, I was trying to learn. And it took me a long time to figure it out.
TM: Norwegian by Night, your first novel, resonated with readers of The Millions—and a lot of other readers. Do you remember, was there a day you started writing that book, or did it sort of morph into shape over the years?
DBM: What happened was, I had written a manuscript prior to that, and it didn’t work. There were two reasons why. The architecture of the story was all over the place, and my protagonist was too milquetoast. He just wasn’t interesting enough. Sheldon Horowitz was a minor character in that failed effort, and what I found was that my secondary characters were great. They were relieved of the burden of having to be the protagonist, and that let them be far more decisive and funny and wild and everything else. So when it came time to try again, I decided to move Sheldon Horowitz forward. The reason was because I was very close to my grandfathers and they were dying at that time, and my son Julian was born in 2008, which was when I wrote Norwegian by Night. The ending of the book came to me while I was at the hospital waiting for Julian to be born—it was by C-section, so it was scheduled. I was sitting there and I probably should have been thinking about my wife, Camilla, but the fact of the matter is that I was thinking about the ending of the book. And once I realized how the pieces fit together, I wrote that book in about a year.
TM: Your protagonist, Sheldon Horowitz, an 82-year-old Marine veteran who lost is son in Vietnam, feels guilt but has a second chance to redeem himself. Guilt seems to be a big engine in your fiction. Is that a fair thing to say?
DBM: Guilt is a funny word. It comes about from making decisions that in retrospect you feel were fundamentally wrong—getting drunk and running over a kid, pretty straightforward. Sheldon’s guilt over his son is far more complex than that—it’s tied up with patriotism, his Jewish identity, things that are too complex to pin on a bad decision. They’re the consequences of a long life lived. I think loss is a stronger word.
TM: Let’s bring it up to your new book, American by Day. Marcus Ødegård, the brother of the protagonist Sigrid, an Oslo cop—he’s off in America and he’s feeling guilt or loss or regret over his mother’s death from cancer years ago. And now his lover in America dies under mysterious circumstances—I don’t want to give too much away—but again I’m thinking about Sheldon Horowitz. Here’s something that happened years ago that a person’s carrying around like a stone in his stomach—and trying to figure out how to come to terms with it. I guess you could call that loss.
DBM: I think in Marcus’s case he feels he should have spoken up and he didn’t—and that led to his mother’s death. With Marcus I was thinking specifically of a scene from a Saul Bellow book called Seize the Day. A middle-aged guy is having a breakdown, saying, “Are you telling me that I’m not who I think I am? That I’ve lived my life under an illusion of who I thought I was?” If you wake up and you’re 50 years old and you find out you’ve been living under a delusion since childhood and clearly you’re never going to recover the life you might have led, if only—that was a very interesting and powerful theme that I wanted to explore as a way of looking at the way tragedy and crime can go together. I wanted the story of Marcus and his American girlfriend, Lydia, to be about the result of these rich but incredibly different lives, that the collision of those lives created this moment of possibility that ended very, very badly. That felt like an interesting way to create a story—not so much a crime, but to create a story that on the surface looks like a straightforward mystery, but the ultimate mystery is the way these two lives collided to create a tragedy.
TM: You’re living in Oslo now?
TM: How did you wind up there?
DBM: I met a Norwegian girl and she outsmarted me.
TM: Aha. Where did you two meet?
DBM: Geneva. We were both working in the same think tank on weapons. Basically it was an office romance.
TM: The Scandinavian literary tradition is of course gigantic—from Ibsen to Knut Hamsun to Astrid Lindgren up to Jo Nesbø. As an American writer in Norway, is that a cloud over your head? Something you don’t think about? An inspiration? I’m curious what it’s like writing in a place that’s very different from where you grew up in New England.
DBM: I’ve been living abroad for 22 years now. The fact is, I still haven’t read Jo Nesbø and he’s not on my short list. That kind of crime novel—where something horrific happens and somebody’s investigating and everybody’s miserable—it just bores me. I see myself as an American writer, and what I mean by that is that I’m writing into the American literary tradition and drawing quite heavily from it. Though I’m happy to be included in a global conversation on literature as well, that’s the footing from which I have that conversation.
When Don DeLillo published Underworld, it was came out in France. At the beginning of the book, it said, “translated from the American.” Right? And DeLillo said in an interview that he actually quite liked that because while he and everyone else knows that American is not a language, it was nice to emphasize the vernacular. It’s kind of a compliment, if you choose to see it that way.
TM: You’re not reading Jo Nesbø. So what are you reading?
DBM: What’s on my desk is Richard Russo’s debut, Mohawk. After that I want to read Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, who I have not read before but I read the first chapter and loved it. I just finished The Marriage Plot from Jeffrey Eugenides, which I quite liked. I just finished The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish, which I thought was exquisite. I do not write reviews, but I did write to her and tell her I think she’s absolutely wonderful. I haven’t checked in with Nick Hornby in a while. Then there’s Andy Weir’s new book, Artemis—he wrote The Martian, which became the movie with Matt Damon.
TM: I guess that leads to the inevitable question: What are you working on now?
DBM: I’ve written two things. I’ve written a draft—I don’t know if I should call it science fiction, maybe speculative fiction—of a post-post-post-post-apocalyptic story set a couple hundred years in the future. It’s called Radio Life, and I’m going back to revisions of it. I haven’t shared it with anybody but my agent. And I’m writing a contemporary inter-family drama set on the coast of New England called A Simple Arrangement. I’m hoping to have both of them done, in draft form anyway, by the end of the year.
TM: Are you a full-time writer now?
DBM: I would say yes. I feel the novelists around me are extraordinarily good, and while you’re always competing against yourself to be the best writer you can be, you’re also competing against the market in order to survive, and I can’t write this stuff on my knee on the way to class anymore. Which isn’t to say you try to anticipate the market, because that’s almost pointless.
TM: But you are trying to make a living.
DBM: Yeah, I have a wife and two kids and this is what I’m doing. So if I can’t pull it off, we don’t eat. It has gone extraordinarily well. I’m not a bestseller so I don’t have bestseller money, but I’m writing full time now and have been for about two years.
TM: Is it a good life?
DBM: It’s wonderful. It’s like walking a high wire without a net, but it’s a second career and it’s a chance to turn a corner. I feel I can really appreciate it at this point in my life because it’s the first job I’ve ever had where it’s just absolute blue sky, where instead of being penalized for being creative, I’m encouraged to do it. It’s an amazing space to be in.
This interview was produced in partnership with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
I took Purity in one long gallop, reading it over four days at my friend’s house. Sarah had already read it, and was desperate for me to hurry up and finish so we could talk about it. The minute I put it down, I went to go find her. She was wearing clean white shorts and a miraculously uncreased blue linen shirt. I was wearing a regretted purchase from H&M — a white cotton dress with little roses on it that looked fine in the shop, but depressing on me. I told Sarah that I’d finished and she said, “Have you noticed,” she asked, “the clothes thing?”
Yes, the clothes thing. The whole point of Jonathan Franzen is the richness of his description, his eye for a telling detail. Where are all the clothes, then? Why are there almost no descriptions of what anyone is wearing? It seems like the most amazing oversight. How is it possible that two characters can have an extremely detailed conversation about a third character being “jealous of the internet”, or that we are subjected to a long and over-vivid description of Pip’s boring job, or the smells of different kinds of soil, and yet we are given almost nothing in the way of clothing? They all might as well be walking around naked. The only detailed description of an outfit in the first section, for instance, is the following: “she saw Stephen sitting on the front steps, wearing his little-boy clothes, his secondhand Keds and secondhand seersucker shirt.” The word “seersucker” is latched onto and used twice more (“she whispered into the seersucker of his shirt”; “she said, nuzzling the seersucker”). It gets slightly better as the novel progresses, but not by much. The first time Pip sees Andreas Wolf, for instance, his “glow of charged fame particles” are vividly described, but his clothes? No. Even Tom’s mother’s significant sundress is described only as being “of Western cut.” It’s unsettling.
I know this to be a petty criticism, but there are all kinds of nerds who write long, aggrieved blog posts about how some novelist got a car wrong, or misdated the death of an actress. Clothes have always been important to me, and while their fictional depiction might be beneath some people’s notice, it is always one of the first things I see. Clothes aren’t just something one puts on a character to stop her from being naked. Done right, clothes are everything — a way of describing class, affluence, taste, self-presentation, mental health, body image. Clothes matter. Besides all that, clothes are fun. Descriptions of dresses got me through War and Peace. I think about Dolores Haze’s outfits on a near-daily basis (“check weaves, bright cottons, frills, puffed-out short sleeves, snug-fitting bodices and generously full skirts!”) I think about her cotton pyjamas in the popular butcher-boy style. Holden Caulfield’s hounds-tooth jacket, and Franny Glass’s coat, the lapel of which is kissed by Lane as a perfectly desirable extension of herself. Sara Crewe’s black velvet dress in A Little Princess, and the matching one made for her favourite doll. The green dress in Atonement (“dark green bias-cut backless evening gown with a halter neck.”) Anna Karenina’s entire wardrobe, obviously, but also Nicola Six’s clothes in London Fields. Nicola Six’s clothes are fantastic.
Aviva Rossner’s angora sweaters and “socks with little pom-poms at the heels” in The Virgins. Pnin’s “sloppy socks of scarlet wool with lilac lozenges”, his “conservative black Oxfords [which] had cost him about as much as all the rest of his clothing (flamboyant goon tie included).” May Welland at the August meeting of the Newport Archery Club, in her white dress with the pale green ribbon. I quite often get dressed with Maria Wyeth from Play It As It Lays in mind (“cotton skirt, a jersey, sandals she could kick off when she wanted the touch of the accelerator”). I think about unfortunate clothes, as well. I think about Zora’s terrible party dress in On Beauty, and about how badly she wanted it to be right. The meanest thing Kingsley Amis ever did to a woman was to put Margaret Peele in that green paisley dress and “quasi-velvet” shoes in Lucky Jim. Vanity Fair’s Jos Sedley in his buckskins and Hessian boots, his “several immense neckcloths” and “apple green coat with steel buttons almost as large as crown pieces.”
This list changes all the time, but my current favorite fictional clothes are the ones in A Good Man is Hard to Find. There is no one quite like Flannery O’Connor for creeping out the reader via dress. Bailey’s “yellow sport shirt with bright blue parrots designed on it” contrasts in the most sinister way with the The Misfit’s too tight blue jeans, the fact that he “didn’t have on any shirt or undershirt.” I’d also like to make a plug for one of The Misfit’s companions, “a fat boy in black trousers and a red sweat shirt with a silver stallion embossed on the front of it.” Any Flannery O’Connor story will contain something similar, because she used clothes as exposition, as dialogue, as mood. Anyone to who clothes matter will have their own highlight reel, and will argue strenuously for the inclusion of Topaz’s dresses in I Capture the Castle, or Gatsby’s shirts, or Dorothea Brooke’s ugly crepe dress. They will point out, for instance, that I have neglected to mention Donna Tartt, top five fluent speaker of the language of dress. What of Judge Holden’s kid boots, in Blood Meridian? What about Ayn Rand, who, as Mallory Ortberg has noted, is just about unparalleled?
The point is, we do not lack for excellent and illuminating descriptions of clothes in literature. Given such riches, it is perhaps churlish to object to the times when people get it wrong. Haven’t we been given enough? Apparently not. Just as I can think of hundreds of times when a writer knocked it out of the park, attire-wise, (Phlox’s stupid clothes in The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, all those layers and scarves and hideous cuffs), I can just as easily recall the failures. There are a variety of ways for an author to get clothes wrong, but I will stick to just two categories of offense here.
1. Outfits that don’t sound real
Purity again, and Andreas’s “good narrow jeans and a close-fitting polo shirt.” This is wrong. Andreas is a charismatic weirdo, a maniac, and I struggle to believe that he would be slinking around in such tight, nerdy clothes. Another jarring example is Princess Margaret’s dress, in Edward St. Aubyn’s Some Hope: “the ambassador raised his fork with such an extravagant gesture of appreciation that he flicked glistening brown globules over the front of the Princess’s blue tulle dress.” The Princess here is supposed to be in her sixties. Would a post-menopausal aristocrat really be wearing a blue tulle dress? Is the whole thing made out of tulle? Wouldn’t that make it more the kind of thing a small girl at a ballet recital would choose? St. Aubyn’s novels are largely autobiographical, and he has mentioned in interviews that he met the allegedly blue-tulle-dress-wearing Princess on a number of occasions. Maybe that really is what she was wearing. It doesn’t sound right, though, or not to me.
One last example, from The Rings of Saturn: “One of them, a bridal gown made of hundreds of scraps of silk embroidered with silken thread, or rather woven over cobweb-fashion, which hung on a headless tailor’s dummy, was a work of art so colourful and of such intricacy and perfection that it seemed almost to have come to life, and at the time I could no more believe my eyes than now I can trust my memory.” One believes the narrator, when he says that he cannot trust his memory, because this actually doesn’t sound like a dress, or not a very nice one. It sounds like a dress a person might buy from a stall at a psytrance party. The word “colourful” here is a dead giveaway that the narrator does not necessarily have a particular dress in mind: what kind of colours, exactly? “Intricate” is also no good — it seeks to give the impression of specificity, but is in fact very vague.
2. Outfits that make too much of a point
Many people are suspicious of fashion. They do not trust it or like it, and, while they see that it serves a purpose, they wish it was somehow enforceable to make everyone wear a uniform at all times. Deep down, they also believe that anyone who does take pleasure in it is lying to themselves, or doing it for the wrong reasons. I argue with such people in my head all the time, because this is not what clothes are about for me, at all. I argue with the books they have written as well. To be fair to Jeffrey Eugenides, he is mostly excellent on the subject of dress. The Lisbon girls’ prom dresses and the Obscure Object’s High Wasp style are in my own personal highlight reel. The Marriage Plot is different, though. It is deeply cynical on the subject of dress. Clothes in that novel are always an affectation or a disguise, a way for a character to control the way others see her.
Here is Madeline, getting Leonard back “Madeleine … put on her first spring dress: an apple-green baby-doll dress with a bib collar and a high hem.” Here is Madeline, trying to seem like the kind of girl who is at home in a semiotics class: “She took out her diamond studs, leaving her ears bare. She stood in front of the mirror wondering if her Annie Hall glasses might possibly project a New Wave look…She unearthed a pair of Beatle boots … She put up her collar, and wore more black.” And here is Madeline, failed Bohemian, despondent semiotician, after she has gone back to reading novels: “The next Thursday, “Madeleine came to class wearing a Norwegian sweater with a snowflake design.” After college, she realizes that she can dress the way she has always, in her haute-bourgeois heart, wanted to dress: like a Kennedy girlfriend on holiday. Another costume, for a girl who doesn’t know who she really is. The problem with these clothes is not that they don’t sound real, or that they are badly described. It’s that Madeline only ever wears clothes to make a point, to manipulate or to persuade her audience that she is someone other than she really is. Worse, there is the implication that she has no real identity outside from what she projects. It’s exact opposite approach to O’Connor’s wardrobe choices in A Good Man is Hard to Find. The guy in the red sweat shirt, with the silver stallion? He is not wearing those clothes for anyone but himself. Same with The Misfit and his frightening jeans.
Those who are suspicious of fashion tend to believe that people (especially women) only ever wear clothes as a form of armor, a costume, and never because they get pleasure out of it. Madeline, in other words, doesn’t wear clothes because she likes them, but because she likes what they do. I find this line of thinking very depressing.
There are other categories (clothes that I think sound ugly, clothes in over-researched historical novels where the writer takes too much relish in describing jerkins and the smell of wet leather etc.), but these two stand out. I’m not asking for anything too excessive — just a few more details, a bit more effort when getting a character dressed. Clothes matter, to some of us, and we need to see them done right.
Image: John Singer Sargent, Wikipedia
When Gabriel Garcia Marquez died in April, the general flow of eulogy settled on two interpretations of his legacy: in the first, as a titanic but essentially regional author (The Times obituary called One Hundred Years of Solitude “the defining saga of Latin America’s social and political history”); in the second, as a model for the diminishing novelties of subsequent magical realists, like Salman Rushdie and Isabel Allende.
Fair enough. Garcia Marquez himself saw his style as fundamentally linked to the politics of his continent in his lifetime. (Correctly — for example, nothing has ever better captured how important the theft of time must feel in a totalitarian state than the dictator who lives on and on for centuries in The Autumn of the Patriarch.) It’s also true that he gave license to a new kind of fabulism, unique in that it didn’t descend from Swift or Cervantes, and therefore didn’t depend on either satire or comedy to atone for the recklessness of its inventions.
Those are narrow channels of influence, however, and there’s a third, untracked, more expansive reading of his work to make. It might go like this: he solved an essential problem of the novel; he arrived at a moment of crisis for the form and offered the warring parties a graceful way out of it; and if there’s a single novel that can claim paternity for the last 20 years of American fiction, it’s probably One Hundred Years of Solitude.
That book was published in America in 1972, and it was a sensation, critically and commercially, William Kennedy famously calling it, with un-Albanyish zeal, “the first piece of literature since the Book of Genesis that should be required reading for the entire human race.” (If you somehow haven’t heard of it, One Hundred Years of Solitude is the multi-generational chronicle of a Colombian family called the Buendias.) At the time, there was a battle afoot between two kinds of fiction. Writers like Jean Stafford and Michael Shaara, traditional realists, were winning the Pulitzer Prize, while the National Book Award, inclined toward a more radical approach, went to John Barth and William Gaddis, campus experimentalists grinding out the logical final steps of the project inaugurated by Borges, by Ulysses, Hopscotch, Albert Angelo. Each side loathed the other. Updike’s declaration about Thomas Pynchon — “I don’t like the funny names” — might as well stand in for the whole cultural apparatus that was committed to realism; on the other hand Barth’s foundational postmodernist essay “The Literature of Exhaustion” called realism “used up,” and Gaddis said that such writing “never takes your breath away…it’s for people who read with the surface of their minds, people with reading habits that make the smallest demands on them.”
The great formal achievement of One Hundred Years of Solitude was that it treated the two positions not as antipodal but as dialectical. It satisfied the modernist commitment to narrative innovation in two ways, first in its compression and dilation of time — what would become the hallmark of magical realism — and second in its use of the fantastic, the twins who die at the same instant, the visitation of the ghosts, the glass city, Remedios being sublimated into heaven as she does the laundry.
But Garcia Marquez made the ingenious decision to embed those moments of originality within the stubbornly enduring structure of the traditional realist novel, turning his book into a family saga by way of a dream — Trollope by way of Barthelme. By doing so, he managed to defuse a central tension, one that had divided novelists since Hemingway and Joyce pitched their opposing camps. Of course, there were writers before Garcia Marquez who had blended the magical and the prosaic (Kafka, most famously) but none of them were perhaps as fully committed to narrative as Garcia Marquez seemed — to story. Meanwhile, other writers across the world had the same impulse, many of them, interestingly, in totalitarian states, including Milan Kundera and Danilo Kis, but their books were being passed around in samizdat, not, as Garcia Marquez’s was, in suburban book clubs and city libraries. What makes One Hundred Years of Solitude a watershed moment of cultural history is that mix of plot, experimentation, acclaim, and popularity.
That’s also why its influence has been so subtly pervasive. Many of our heaviest hitters — Franzen, Wallace, Eisenberg, Tartt, Saunders, Chabon — were born around 1960, and therefore came of age during the book’s ascendancy. Considered in that light, their debt to it seems plain, whether or not they would acknowledge it, whether or not they found the book stimulating, indeed whether or not they’ve even read it.
The reason is that all of them play the same trick, filigreeing traditional realism with enough carefully selective post-modernism to claim its gloss of coolness — but without the unfortunate consequence of making their work difficult to read. In The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay there’s the Golem of Prague; in The Art of Fielding there’s the self-consciously literary exhumation of the corpse; in The Corrections, there’s the magical device of Correctall, the pill that allows Chip Lambert to forget his anxiety and enter a state of dreamlike euphoria. (It’s a sign of our age how often American magical realism is pharmaceutical, after Franzen’s example — the decision-making drug in Indecision by Benjamin Kunkel; the test subjects in George Saunders’s magnificent “Escape from Spiderhead.”) Fiction is an essentially conventional art form, most at home in the bourgeoisie, but its practitioners have — quite rightly! — never been at ease with that fact. The compromise at which we’ve arrived is that every book now has the credibility of the avant-garde within a Victorian structure. It’s more fun to claim the influence of John Hawkes than John Galsworthy; it’s more fun to read a book whose plot is patterned after Jane Austen than B.S. Johnson.
Unsurprisingly, the first American novelist to take the full implications of Garcia Marquez on board may have been our smartest one, Philip Roth. (It’s not a coincidence that he spent the 1970s publishing Eastern European novelists, and, as Roth Unbound described, sneaking money to them via illicit networks — a fact that ought to shame the Nobel committee members who have claimed that American writers are unworthy of the prize because they’re too inward-looking, too insular.) His books The Counterlife and Operation Shylock were precursors of the great florescence of faux-mo novels in the 2000’s, using false flags and mirrored characters without their pace or urgency. The logical culmination of the trend is probably The Marriage Plot, which states the tension outright, dropping a college student who just wants to read 19th-century novels into the semiotics craze of the 1980s.
At their weakest, these post-Garcia Marquez books have been kinetic without moving, emotional without evoking any real sensation, readable without deserving to be read. The novel of this type that comes to mind for me is Absurdistan by the sometimes terrific Gary Shteyngart, a disagreeable blend of absurdism and soft sentimentality. Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Junot Diaz, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Colson Whitehead can feel similarly limited by their very limitlessness — their work at times too ironized for readers to treat its narrative seriously, but too committed to narrative to offer the sense of alienation, dread, and obliqueness we feel in, for example, Don DeLillo and William Gibson. The writer for whom cultural critics were so eager to give Garcia Marquez credit, Salman Rushdie, might be the least exciting of the bunch. The Pale King offers a glimpse of what David Foster Wallace’s pushback against his own trend might have looked like — his reconnection with difficulty as a means of higher artistic consciousness.
Recent Pulitzer Prize committees have waded into this fray again; books of high seriousness, eschewing the jokey gloss of the comic book generation, have won the prize, including three lovely but deeply conservative novels, Tinkers by Paul Harding, March by Geraldine Brooks, and Olive Kitteredge by Elizabeth Strout. How much does that matter? The painter Gerhard Richter has spent the last 50 years dissolving what previously seemed like a crucial distinction between figurative and abstract painting; is it possible that novelists, too, no longer need to declare a single allegiance? If so, the books that Garcia Marquez gave a generation permission to write, produced during the truce between fabulism and realism, may begin to look odd: artifacts of the historical moment they thought they were creating. One of the pieces of shallow wisdom people like to repeat is that every great book either creates or dissolves a genre, and sometimes it’s true. One Hundred Years of Solitude, though it hasn’t quite received credit for this, established the school of fiction we currently consider great. It’s up to some other genius to dissolve it.
“To start with, look at all the books.”
This is how Jeffrey Eugenides opens his novel The Marriage Plot, and it may as well be the opening of my life. I am surrounded by piles and piles (and, seriously, piles) of books. In my office, my bedroom, the bathroom. My girlfriend’s always annoyed with the stacks that appear as if by magic on our living room coffee table. She counts them, and then says, “Fourteen books? Really?”
Well, I want to say, yeah. Really. Fourteen books. What do you want from me?
So in the interest of proving the worth of all of these piles, recently I’ve been writing essays about them. Some of them I’ve published. My essay “The Art of the Epigraph,” published a few weeks ago right here on The Millions, came out of my desperate ploy. Now, I’m turning my attention to opening sentences. Why? Well, first, because I have a prodigious and unembarrassed passion for opening sentences. But also: Look at all the goddamn books.
I tend to prefer opening sentences that get right to the point, so I’m just going to state right off the bat that this essay intends to analyze a handful of opening sentences from classic to recent novels and examine their effects. Opening sentences have long fascinated me, so much so that I’ve even made a point to memorize the beginnings of most of the books I read. This is what I do with my time. If possible, I love opening sentences even more than epigraphs. If I were ever a contestant on Jeopardy!, and “Opening Sentences” popped up in one of the blue boxes, I would destroy that category.
Like any reader, when I pick up a book, I open it and check out the first words. I’m not looking for anything specific. Actually, what I love about opening sentences is the complete lack of rules, how each writer gets to decide how best to guide a reader into their narrative. A writer, after all, is the instructor for the experience of their own work, and the opening sentence—after the book design, title, and epigraph—is among the reader’s first impressions. Opening sentences are not to be written lightly.
But how do they work? What’s makes a good one effective? Is there a better way to do it? Or is it a creative free-for-all?
As a teen, I became enamored of the 19th-century standard: that of the Grand Declaration, a way of establishing the high themes of the work. We know these openings by heart: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina; “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice; and, of course, Dickens’s “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times…” from A Tale of Two Cities. When I first came upon these novels, these declarations thrilled me, as they implied high-mindedness, a lofty ambition of subject, even if that subject was treated satirically, as in Austen’s case. The absolutist vibe they gave off made the work itself feel chiseled into rock, as if each word were crafted to unimpeachable perfection. As a fledgling novelist, I now see the malleability of fiction, its fluidity, how it is never as hard as stone, how, at most, it only appears that way. The Grand Declaration has, thankfully, mostly fallen out of fashion, though our reverence for these famous sentences persists. They’re great lines, to be sure, but readers know by now that a novel is a perfect place for moral, emotional, political, and spiritual investigation. We don’t need to be cued into the game so directly.
Later, writers offered increasingly subtle and idiosyncratic opening lines. Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself,” expressed a woman’s small claim of autonomy. Ken Kesey established the mood of paranoia of authority in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with, “They’re out there.” J.D. Salinger distinguished his novel’s famous protagonist from a particular famous protagonist of the past with the honesty of his voice and the statement contained in the opening:
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
Contained in each of the above sentences is something crucial to the novel it opens, all without stating it outright. Much can be accomplished in seemingly straightforward prose.
It would be easy to think of opening sentences as somehow representative of the rest of the book, as exemplifying some quintessence of the novel’s aims, but this isn’t—and shouldn’t—always be so. Take D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which opens with, “Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically,” and goes on to describe the state of life after WWI. The pronouns here—the first-person-plurals “our” and “we”—are not used in the rest of the book, which stays firmly in third person. The line immediately following this section is: “This was more or less Constance Chatterley’s position.” The switch from first- to third-person places us squarely into the mind and story of Lady Chatterley, and makes us, because of their aberrance, remember those lines as we read on. Does the “tragic age” remain tragic? Or, as Doris Lessing puts it, will “England…be saved through warm-hearted fucking”?
Jumping ahead a number of decades, let’s examine another work in which the opening line is far from representative of the style to follow. Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections starts with curiously ill-fitting grandness: “The madness of an autumn prairie cold front coming through. You could feel it: something terrible was going to happen.” Isolated, this is a wonderfully evocative opening, but once I read the rest of the book (which is utterly fantastic), I wondered about those first lines. They now seemed such a transparent attempt to elevate the book to classic status. On my second read, I came across this lit bit of dialogue from Chip, about his unsold and pretentious screenplay:
“My idea,” Chip said, “was to have this ‘hump’ that the moviegoer has to get over. Putting something offputting at the beginning, it’s a classic modernist strategy. There’s a lot of rich suspense toward the end.”
Is Franzen being meta here? Is he acknowledging the ill-fitting language of his opening when set against the “rich suspense” of the rest? It’s hard not to see Chip as the closest character resembling Franzen himself, who, before publishing The Corrections famously worried about the direction of the novel in his Harper’s essay “Why Bother?” He writes:
I resist, finally, the notion of literature as a noble higher calling, because elitism doesn’t sit well with my American nature, and because even if my belief in mystery didn’t incline me to distrust feelings of superiority, my belief in manners would make it difficult for me to explain to my brother, who is a fan of Michael Crichton, that the work I’m doing is simply better than Crichton’s.
Is The Corrections, which marked a significant shift in Franzen’s style, his way of leaving his past behind? Of declaring a new ambition for fiction? Maybe the following bit of dialogue captures how Franzen felt about his former fiction, and maybe about difficult social fiction in general: As Chip’s girlfriend (who couldn’t make it all the way through his script) leaves him, he tries to convince her of the opening’s value: “You see, though,” he says, “the entire story is prefigured in that monologue. Every single theme is there in capsule form—gender, power, identity, authenticity—and the thing is…Wait. Wait. Julia?” Though Chip’s argument is probably reasonably founded, no one really cares about prefiguring themes in capsule form. Readers aren’t necessarily looking for structural innovations or cerebral thematic overtures. More likely, they’re looking, as Franzen himself wrote, “for a way out of loneliness.”
I do not mean to suggest that great, classic novels can’t begin simply and straightforwardly, in a style that is illustrative of the novel it opens. In fact, it’s the more common practice. But that fact does not diminish the power or the greatness of any work. Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, for instance, gets right into the story, like the thriller it is: “Early one evening, during an exceptional heat wave in the beginning of July, a young man walked out into the street from the closet-like room he rented on Stoliarny Place.” From there, we are thrust into the mind of Raskolnikov and his murderous, immoral descent. Any other kind of opening would have been unnecessary.
A novelist teaches the reader how to read the novel, and along the way they express innumerable opinions about their view of literature in relation to this one work. Dostoyevsky didn’t believe that Crime and Punishment needed a conspicuous opening. (It needed a quotidian introduction with hints of aberrance. The “exceptional heat wave” (implying tension, heat, murkiness, anger) pops out of the routine, and so although Raskolnikov attempts to act naturally and arouse no suspicion, the reader knows—subtly, maybe inexpressibly—that something is amiss. (Regular life, this isn’t.) But Dostoyevsky did think his incredible short novel Notes from Underground ought to start ostentatiously: “I am a sick man…I am a spiteful man.” You do not get any grander than that.
In other words, a portion of our measurement of an opening line’s efficacy must be contextual. How does it set up what follows? From what perspective is it written? Where does it take us? And yet, it must also be judged completely on its own, for if a novel starts slowly, unpromisingly, no one will want to continue. Inserting something “offputting” at the beginning, despite what Chip thinks, is generally a really stupid idea.
Two of the best novels of last year open with sentences that are simple, straightforward and representative of the whole, and they both get right to the point. Meg Wolitzer’s beautiful and funny novel The Interestings begins like this: “On a warm night in early July of that long-evaporated year, the Interestings gathered for the very first time.” Simple, direct, yet enticing—suggestive of a history about to unfold. See, this is an opening aimed at both establishing the focus and the narrative. The Interestings are nothing more than a group of artists who meet at a summer camp in 1974 when they’re fifteen and sixteen years old. They named themselves The Interestings. Still, with this sentence Wolitzer imbues a sense of grandeur—a kind of historical importance—to the story of these friends as they age, as they wax and wane in their careers, and as they struggle to stay together. They all grow up, eventually, but when they first met, when they were teens, they believed they were important, destined for fame, fortune, critical respect—and the opening sentence reflects that.
Eleanor Catton’s whopper of a masterpiece, the Booker Prize-winning The Luminaries, is set in nineteenth-century New Zealand, and its language harkens back to those big Victorian novels. It is undoubtedly a tale—no other word for it—with rousing adventure and ridiculously complex intrigue and mystery. It also features an enormous cast and a narrative that moves through all of their points of view. How does one begin such a novel? How does a writer set the style, hint at its high population, and yet still retain the enigmatic air of a tale? Here’s how Catton answers those questions: “The twelve men congregated in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel gave the impression of a party accidentally met.” Pretty perfect, right? In this short, direct sentence, you’ve got the large cast (twelve men), the period and atmosphere (smoking room), and the air of mystery: why have these men met? Do they know each other? Who are they? But Catton does one better with the next sentence:
From the variety of their comportment and dress—frock coats, tailcoats, Norfolk jackets with buttons of horn, yellow moleskin, cambric, and twill—they might have been twelve strangers on a railway car, each bound for a separate quarter of a city that possessed fog and tides enough to divide them; indeed, the studied isolation of each man as he pored over his paper, or leaned forward to tap his ashes into the grate, or placed the splay of his hand upon the baize to take his shot at billiards, conspired to form the very type of bodily silence that occurs, late in the evening, on a public railway—deadened here not by the slur and clunk of the coaches, but by the fat clatter of the rain.
Come on! How masterful is that stretch of writing? How evocative, how eloquent, how, how…inviting. As soon as I read those words, I knew I would read all 834 pages of The Luminaries, and quickly. And I did: I blazed through it at (at least) a hundred-and-fifty-page-a-day pace. Everything in the novel is, like Chip’s screenplay, “prefigured” in that opening. Except here, Catton’s work is so sly, so skillfully wrought you’d have to read the whole thing to even begin to understand how expertly Catton guided you as a reader.
Catton, by the way, is twenty-eight years old.
Both Wolitzer’s and Catton’s openings skirt grandness and express no overarching theme directly. They are elegant and direct, but that doesn’t mean they are only accomplishing one thing. Often the most artful way to communicate something is when it is couched within ostensible artlessness.
Then, of course, there are the allusive openings, the ones that, to use a crass verb, borrow from the work of their forebears. Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle references what is perhaps the most famous opening line ever, “Call me Ishmael,” from Melville’s Moby Dick. Melville’s line, more than simply being famous, is also one of the most complex (and economic, at three words). First, this narrator is talking to us, and in a friendly, almost conspiratorial way. Second, someone asking you to call them something usually means it’s not their real name, so “Ishmael” appears a tad suspicious. Third, the reference to the Biblical Ishmael (son of Abraham, half-brother of Isaac, ancestor of the Arab peoples) hints at our narrator’s exiled status.
Vonnegut plays a great joke on Melville’s line in Cat’s Cradle: “Call me Jonah. My parents did. Or nearly did. They called me John.” Again, the same direct, conversational tone toward the reader; again, the discrepancy between given name and chosen name (except here, we’re given his real name); and again, the Biblical reference. And that’s the great joke: the Book of Jonah tells the story of a man who is—you guessed it—swallowed by a whale. Vonnegut’s Jonah, through his adventures on the mysterious island of San Lorenzo, gets swallowed by much bigger whales—religion and politics.
Zadie Smith’s allusive opening of On Beauty isn’t nearly as cheeky as Vonnegut’s (after all, how many people in the world are as cheeky as Vonnegut?). Her novel begins: “One may as well begin with Jerome’s e-mails to his father,” and proceeds to do just that. This is an update of the opening of E.M. Forster’s Howards End, which goes: “One may as well begin with Helen’s letters to her sisters.” Smith’s is a respectful nod, a deferential ode to a writer “to whom,” she writes, “all my fiction is indebted.” But Smith goes one further: her protagonist is named after Forster’s titular house, and, considering what happens to Howard in On Beauty, Smith’s novel may have borrowed Forster’s title as well, with one addition: an apostrophe between the d and s in Howards. (Instead, Smith borrowed her title from Elaine Scarry’s essay “On Beauty and Being Just.”)
Allusions are risky, as they can fall flat very easily. I’ve seen numerous stories that, for example, open with something similar to Kafka’s famous, “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect,” from The Metamorphosis. Most of these referential lines are just plain bad. Recently, Haruki Murakami showed that a writer could tackle Kafka’s famous sentence with wit and originally. His story “Samsa in Love” from The New Yorker takes this approach: “He woke to discover that he had undergone a metamorphosis and become Gregor Samsa.” Now that’s interesting. In Kafka’s time, the idea of changing into a bug was novel, terrifying, and confounding. We’re used to such a premise by this point. Now, our great terror would be becoming a Kafka character.
But, you know, that’s Murakami. Most writers aren’t as imaginative.
And last but not least are those openings that provoke, that immediately stun a reader with brutal frankness. Philip Roth’s Sabbath Theater is a dark, twisted novel, full of sexual explicitness and moral ambiguity, and Roth wastes no time letting a reader know this: “Either forswear fucking others or the affair is over.” This ultimatum comes from Mickey Sabbath’s mistress, and it aptly captures the strange, strict limitations sex and love can force upon us, even when they are “maddeningly improbable.” Roth really does his reader a favor—if you’re not comfortable with this level of candidness, this isn’t the novel for you. Because, oh yeah, it only goes down (or up, depending on your view) from there.
Toni Morrison’s Paradise famously provides immediate and heartbreaking shock: “They shot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time.” The massacre at the Convent sets up the complex and tragic tale of Ruby, Oklahoma, an all-black community. We never learn who the “white girl” is; she joins the list of millions—billions, even—of the anonymous dead. Morrison, no stranger to frankness, is particularly good at opening her books. A Mercy: “Don’t be afraid.” Song of Solomon: “The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at three o’clock.” And, of course, Beloved: “124 was spiteful.” Morrison’s prose style is one-of-a-kind, and her ambition—to, in part, “work credibly and, perhaps, elegantly with a discredited vocabulary”—has more than been met, surpassed, even stunned into submission. These opening lines are her first punches.
I probably fetishize opening lines because, well, I’m a reader and a writer. As a reader, a really wonderful opening line makes me giddy with excitement. I nestle myself as deeply into my couch as I can go, and I accept the deal the novel has offered me. Yes, I will read the rest of you. You’ve earned it. As a writer, the opening line is the purest, most unadulterated part of a work. Before it, the blank page. After it, the whole of a story, a novel, a book. It is the division between nothing and something, the bridge between emptiness and fullness, between something in your head and something on the page. The opening sentence is the first utterance of life, the initial gasp of air that birth forces out.
Perhaps this would be better expressed through what is perhaps my favorite opening line from a recent novel. Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin revolves around Philippe Petit’s incredible guerilla tight-rope walk between the World Trade Center towers in 1974, and this is how it starts: “Those who saw him hushed.” The image of Philippe Petit does not need to be described here, though a beautiful image it undoubtedly is. McCann wisely focuses our attention to the people on the pavement. Their hush is full of more beauty than any description ever could be. This accurately captures how I feel about a great opening—hell, about great literature in general: it’s amazing and unbelievable, and although there is so much you can say about it, sometimes all I can do is shut up and witness.
Image credit: Pexels/Plush Design Studio.
At my wedding last September, my theme — beyond the necessary trilingual nature of the event due to being Russian and marrying an Israeli — was books. For the centerpieces, I chose my favorite literary works, stacked ten copies of them on top of each other, tied them with a large gold ribbon, and then gave them away to the attendees when the night ended. I had classics for the more aged (and non-English-speaking) of the bunch, Russian translations of One Hundred Years of Solitude and Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but for the younger crowd, I picked Jonathan Franzen and Safran Foer titles, Gary Shteyngart’s appropriately titled Super Sad True Love Story, Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot. But probably my most current favorite of the bunch was The Borrower by fellow Chicagoan Rebecca Makkai. It was a book I had recently read and one that had stuck with me as a great representative of contemporary literature. I wanted everyone I knew to read it (and it didn’t hurt that there were Russian characters involved, since anyone reading it from my wedding would at least be able to relate on that level). Makkai now has a new book, The Hundred-Year House, a novel about the life of a haunted family and a haunted mansion, told in reverse. We recently sat down to discuss it:
The Millions: The first thing that was really clear to me after finishing your book is how incredibly complicated the structure of it is, especially how every section goes backward in time – from 1999 to 1955 to 1929. How did you go about writing it? Did you write it in chronological order, or did you play around with it a lot?
Rebecca Makkai: I wrote a short story once called “Gate House,” which consisted of some of the plot of the 1999 story. And it didn’t work as a short story at all; it was terrible. But when I revisited it, years later, I suddenly thought of turning it into a novel, and that’s when I started to consider what I would have to do to move backwards in time. At that point the whole thing was coming to me as I went about my day, as I was brushing my teeth – I would have these ideas of the way the plot would be layered. Soon I realized it would be stupid to start writing without seriously outlining, so that was the next thing I did. I ended up with a sixty-page outline. I had calendars, I had timelines, I had historical events. And of course it changed a ton as I was actually writing it. I knew I wanted to write it in reverse chronological order, as it appears in the book, but I had to outline first. Because I couldn’t write 1955 until I knew what happened in 1929.
TM: So you did have to jump around a little?
RM: Well it’s not that I was jumping around, it’s that I had to have every detail worked out before I could write anything, which is unusual. I think people are afraid of outlining, but it didn’t take any of the creativity out of it. And even with the scaffolding the outline provided, I was still catching things up to the last moment. For instance, there’s this bear statue in the woods, and you find out later that it was built in 1957, but I accidentally had it there in 1955… It’s probably not something the reader would really catch until the second or third read—but someone would eventually.
TM: I saw Nathan Englander last year at Printer’s Row, and he said something very similar to that, about how every detail of a story needs to be thought out, no matter how small. If there’s a story set in Chicago, you can’t have a character turn left down a one-way street going in the opposite direction.
RM: Yes, exactly. For me, the details of this house were really important. I ended up drawing the floor plans three times, once for every era. From different angles too. I had to refer to them constantly.
TM: Did you have fun with that, or do you not like drawing?
RM: Oh they look horrible – and I was staying at Ragdale [an artists’ residency] at the time, so there were actual artists there.
TM: Did they see the drawings?
RM: Oh yeah. One of the painters was laughing at me. But it was very helpful. I thought I knew the space pretty well, but then as I drew it, I realized that mentally I’d had the kitchen in two different spaces, depending on the scene.
TM: I would imagine it was really helpful to draw it, since basically all of the scenes take place in that house.
RM: Exactly. In each era there’s someone kind of trapped there.
TM: I did have that feeling a lot. Especially with Case, where all those bad things keep happening to him; the car fire, the knee injury, the bee stings.
RM: The house has this sort of magnetism to it. In 1999, Case is literally crippled by all these accidents. Then in 1955, Grace is trapped there by an abusive husband. And in the ’20s, when it’s an artists’ colony, the characters want to be trapped there. It’s their home, and they’re protecting it. I talk to students a lot about keeping people trapped together in a story so that they don’t just leave, because most people are so conflict-averse that they’d realistically just walk away. I have them practice by writing a scene with characters trapped in an elevator. I don’t think I realized that I’d done that myself until just now.
TM: Was your intention to have some sort of magical element to that feeling of entrapment? And to the house in general?
RM: For sure. I wanted everything to theoretically have some kind of an explanation, but at the same time there’s this question of luck – can you really have that much good luck or bad luck, or does it at some point start to feel supernatural? That’s the question a lot of them are dealing with. For Case, its almost like the house hates him. He just doesn’t belong there.
TM: You said that the first section, the one in 1999, was also the first thing you wrote. Did it change a lot once you decided to make it novel-length?
RM: Yes, quite a lot. Originally, if you can believe it, the story was about male anorexia. No one believes that this guy, who later becomes Case, is anorexic, and the character who later became Doug follows him around, obsessively trying to prove it. The main problem with that story was it was too long. But there was something in it that I loved, and I kept going back to it and trying to cut it, so that it would be publishable, but nothing ever came of it. Five years later it was still sitting there, one of many unpublished stories.
TM: Do you remember why you suddenly came back to it?
RM: I wish I could remember, but no, I don’t. And the original story, about the anorexia, it’s not even there at all anymore. The only trace of it that’s left is the idea of Violet, the original owner of the house, possibly starving to death. There is also a point when Doug takes that idea and puts it into one of the children’s books he’s writing, and it gets him fired. I tried really hard to keep that anorexia in the novel; it was hard to admit that was the thing that needed to go because it was the spark. It was like putting out the match that lit the candle.
TM: The character of Miriam probably resonated the most with me, because I lived with a lot of art majors in college, so someone creating works of art with found objects is very familiar. Did you know someone like that as well?
RM: Twelve years ago, I was in a pizza restaurant in New Haven, CT, with my husband and in-laws. It’s this world-famous place called Pepe’s, where you have to wait in line for hours to get in the door. We had finally made it into the lobby and there’s this group there, and it’s clearly a guy introducing his girlfriend to his parents for the first time. And what she did for a living was create portraits of people’s pets out of strange materials. In my memory, she was making marionette puppets, but I could have made that up. And the parents were trying so hard to be supportive, but they clearly didn’t understand. For some reason that was the seed of Miriam—this person who does this thing that no one would think would be sustainable but she’s actually quite successful.
TM: One thing that surprised me is that you had three separate sections with characters that we never see again. Did you think about the risk of that a lot?
RM: It’s not entirely true, though. The middle section is about Grace, and you do see her again in the 1929 section, as a small child. And there are other characters you see briefly too. I did worry that readers might be disgruntled as I divorced them from these people I’d just gotten them invested in, but I was careful to try and keep certain characters’ spirits in the story. For Doug and Miriam in particular, even though you never get back to 1999, you learn things in 1955 and 1929 that affect their story – that even change our understanding of what’s going to happen to them.
TM: Was there anything else you worried about?
RM: Well, I’m confident that none of my readers will remember 1929 clearly. But I’m worried about 1955, because readers who were around (and know that I wasn’t) could go into it looking for mistakes. But 1999, I remember myself. For a long time I’d wanted to write about the Y2K hysteria, because it was an interesting time, and I like to give deadlines to my stories. There’s a clock ticking; things that are going to happen have to happen by a certain time.
TM: It was a lot like a movie in that way, with the pacing.
RM: Yes. That said, I don’t think it would make a good movie. You’d have to take a lot of liberties, and do it very differently, and maybe return to 1999 in the end.
TM: The Borrower would make a good movie too.
RM: I feel like no one would want to touch that with a ten-foot pole. A ten-year-old boy… With sexuality issues… It would have to be an indie film.
TM: These two books are so different from each other. Was there anything different about the writing processes?
RM: I think it was more fun [with The Hundred-Year House]. All that outlining that I had to do paid off hugely when I sat down to write. The problem with The Borrower is that in the beginning I didn’t understand what I was doing yet and I wasted years floundering around, just figuring out how to write a novel.
TM: How long did this one take, after you just sat down to finish?
RM: I really got back to it around the time The Borrower came out, in 2011. So it happened fast. The Borrower took ten years, because I was poking at it, and I was working full-time so I didn’t have as much time to write.
TM: If you could tell your past self anything about writing The Borrower, what would it be?
RM: Just to outline. You can see the shape of something when you outline. You can see the structural flaws. Working on a novel is like painting a mural: if you’re close enough to work on it you’re too close to see the whole thing. You have to step away and look at it from across the room.
TM: Do you edit as you go along? Or do you write and come back?
RM: Both. You don’t want to spend time editing language when you’re not even sure if that scene is going to stay in the book. You don’t want to polish something you’re still carving. I’ll fix it up if something sticks out, but I wont do micro-edits.
TM: What’s your favorite part of the writing process?
RM: I actually love outlining. Especially when it’s new and you’re just generating ideas. I also love polishing the language. I don’t like the big structural edits as much. I get myself geared up for those edits by letting myself play spider solitaire. It turns on the math-and-logic part of my brain. At least that’s what I tell myself.
TM: How much of an impact do your editors at Viking have on your books? Do they change it quite a bit?
RM: They don’t change it themselves; they ask the writer to change it. But it’s mostly bigger things, not the details. They pushed me to cut a lot from the 1999 setting; it was much, much longer before.
TM: Oh! Is that why the chapters are kind of short? Or is that just how it came out?
RM: No, that’s just how it came out. I ended up cutting entire chapters, rather than parts within the chapters. I think I cut it by a third or a half. But I’m really happy with the way it turned out. I’m glad they pushed me.
TM: How many times has your husband read this book?
RM: That’s a good question! Definitely not as much as The Borrower… He’s probably read the entire book three times. I held off giving it to him, so he didn’t read it till close to the end.
TM: Was he helpful?
RM: Yes. He’s my best editor.
TM: Are you in a place where you never want to look at it again?
RM: Weirdly, I’m not. I’m never going to sit down and read the whole thing, but I’m not dreading the many occasions where I’ll have to read from it out loud. Whereas with The Borrower, I’ve read from it so much that I don’t particularly want to read from that again for a while.
TM: Do you have a book tour coming up for the release?
RM: Yes. I’m going to the east coast in July, and in August I’m doing Chicago, Minneapolis, and Milwaukee.
TM: What are you working on now?
RM: I’m wrapping up a short story collection called Music For Wartime that’s coming out next summer.
TM: Are you editing a lot or is everything pretty much done?
RM: Yes and no. There’s one story I feel strongly about that’s unpublished and I really need to revise it, so I’m working on that. I’m also working on the order of the stories. It was done a couple years ago, but we decided to publish the novel first, so I had an order picked out, but since then I’ve written more stories.
TM: How many stories total?
RM: Some of them are short, one or two pages, so it actually ends up being sixteen stories all together – but the total page length isn’t unusual for a story collection.
TM: Have you started a new novel?
RM: I have the idea. I want to work on something set in the New York art world in the ’80s amidst the AIDS epidemic, and Paris in the ’20s. There are artists, some stuff about tuberculosis, and a connection between the two worlds, though I’m not sure what yet.
“Why are they still bothering with paperbacks?” This came from a coffee-shop acquaintance when he heard my book was soon to come out in paperback, nine months after its hardcover release. “Anyone who wants it half price already bought it on ebook, or Amazon.”
Interestingly, his point wasn’t the usual hardcovers-are-dead-long-live-the-hardcover knell. To his mind, what was the use of a second, cheaper paper version anymore, when anyone who wanted it cheaply had already been able to get it in so many different ways?
I would have taken issue with his foregone conclusion about the domination of ebooks over paper, but I didn’t want to spend my babysitting time down that rabbit hole. But he did get me thinking about the role of the paperback relaunch these days, and how publishers go about getting attention for this third version of a novel — fourth, if you count audiobooks.
I did what I usually do when I’m puzzling through something, which is to go back to my journalism-school days and report on it. Judging by the number of writers who asked me to share what I heard, there are a good number of novelists who don’t quite know what to do with their paperbacks, either.
Here’s what I learned, after a month of talking to editors, literary agents, publishers, and other authors: A paperback isn’t just a cheaper version of the book anymore. It’s a makeover. A facelift. And for some, a second shot.
About ebooks. How much are they really cutting into print, both paperbacks and hardcovers? Putting aside the hype and the crystal ball, how do the numbers really look?
The annual Bookstats Report from the Association of American Publishers (AAP), which collects data from 1,977 publishers, is one of the most reliable measures. In the last full report — which came out July 2012 — ebooks outsold hardcovers for the first time, representing $282.3 million in sales (up 28.1%), compared to adult hardcover ($229.6 million, up 2.7%). But not paperback — which, while down 10.5%, still represented $299.8 million in sales. The next report comes out this July, and it remains to be seen whether ebook sales will exceed paper. Monthly stat-shots put out by the AAP since the last annual report show trade paperbacks up, but the group’s spokesperson cautioned against drawing conclusions from interim reports rather than year-end numbers.
Numbers aside, do we need to defend whether the paperback-following-hardcover still has relevance?
“I think that as opposed to a re-release being less important, it’s more than ever important because it gives a book a second chance with a new cover and lower cost, plus you can use all the great reviews the hardcover got,” says MJ Rose, owner of the book marketing firm Authorbuzz, as well as a bestselling author of novels including The Book of Lost Fragrances. “So many books sell 2,000 or 3,000 copies in hardcover and high-priced ebooks, but take off when they get a second wind from trade paperback and their e-book prices drop.”
What about from readers’ perspectives? Is there something unique about the paperback format that still appeals?
I put the question to booksellers, though of course as bricks-and-mortar sellers, it’s natural that they would have a bias toward paper. Yet the question isn’t paper versus digital: it’s whether they are observing interest in a paper book can be renewed after it has already been out for nine months to a year, and already available at the lower price, electronically.
“Many people still want the portability of a lighter paper copy,” said Deb Sundin, manager of Wellesley Books in Wellesley, MA. “They come in before vacation and ask, ‘What’s new in paper?’ ”
“Not everyone e-reads,” says Nathan Dunbar, a manager at Barnes & Noble in Skokie, IL. “Many customers tell us they’ll wait for the paperback savings. Also, more customers will casually pick up the paperback over hardcover.”
Then there’s the issue of what a new cover can do. “For a lot of customers the paperback is like they’re seeing it for the first time,” says Mary Cotton, owner of Newtonville Books in Newtonvillle, MA. “It gives me an excuse to point it out to people again as something fresh and new, especially if it has a new cover.”
A look at a paperback’s redesign tells you a thing or two about the publisher’s mindset: namely, whether or not the house believes the book has reached its intended audience, and whether there’s another audience yet to reach. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s Rorschach. Hardcovers with muted illustrations morph into pop art, and vice versa. Geometric-patterned book covers are redesigned with nature imagery; nature imagery in hardcover becomes photography of women and children in the paperback. Meg Wolitzer, on a panel about the positioning of women authors at the recent AWP conference, drew knowing laughter for a reference to the ubiquitous covers with girls in a field or women in water. Whether or not publishers want to scream book club, they at least want to whisper it.
“It seems that almost every book these days gets a new cover for the paperback. It’s almost as if they’re doing two different books for two different audiences, with the paperback becoming the ‘book club book,’” says Melanie Benjamin, author of The Aviator’s Wife. Benjamin watched the covers of her previous books, including Mrs. Tom Thumb and Alice I Have Been, change from hardcovers that were “beautiful, and a bit brooding” to versions that were “more colorful, more whimsical.”
A mood makeover is no accident, explains Sarah Knight, a senior editor at Simon & Schuster, and can get a paperback ordered in a store that wouldn’t be inclined to carry its hardcover. “New cover art can re-ignite interest from readers who simply passed the book over in hardcover, and can sometimes help get a book displayed in an account that did not previously order the hardcover because the new art is more in line with its customer base.” Some stores, like the big-boxes and airports, also carry far more paperbacks than hardcovers. Getting into those aisles in paperback can have an astronomical effect on sales.
An unscientific look at recent relaunches shows a wide range of books that got full makeovers: Olive Kitteridge, A Visit From the Goon Squad, The Newlyweds, The Language of Flowers, The Song Remains the Same, The Age of Miracles, Arcadia, and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, as did my own this month (The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.)
Books that stayed almost completely the same, plus or minus a review quote and accent color, include Wild, Beautiful Ruins, The Snow Child, The Weird Sisters, The Paris Wife, Maine, The Marriage Plot, The Art of Fielding, The Tiger’s Wife, Rules of Civility, and The Orchardist.
Most interesting are the books that receive the middle-ground treatment, designers flirting with variations on their iconic themes. The Night Circus, The Invisible Bridge, State of Wonder, The Lifeboat, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Tell the Wolves I’m Home, Tigers in Red Weather, and The Buddha in the Attic are all so similar to the original in theme or execution that they’re like a wink to those in the know — and pique the memory of those who have a memory of wanting to read it the first time around.
Some writers become attached to their hardcovers and resist a new look in paperback. Others know it’s their greatest chance of coming out of the gate a second time — same race, fresh horse.
When Jenna Blum’s first novel, Those Who Save Us, came out in hardcover in 2004, Houghton Mifflin put train tracks and barbed wire on the cover. Gorgeous, haunting, and appropriate for a WWII novel, but not exactly “reader-friendly,” Blum recalls being told by one bookseller. The following year, the paperback cover — a girl in a bright red coat in front of a European bakery — telegraphed the novel’s Holocaust-era content without frightening readers away.
“The paperback cover helped save the book from the remainder bins, I suspect,” Blum says.
Armed with her paperback, Jenna went everywhere she was invited, which ended up tallying more than 800 book clubs. Three years later, her book hit the New York Times bestseller list.
“Often the hardcover is the friends-and-family edition, because that’s who buys it, in addition to collectors,” she says. “It’s imperative that a paperback give the novel a second lease on life if the hardcover didn’t reach all its intended audience, and unless you are Gillian Flynn, it probably won’t.”
There’s no hard-and-fast rule about when the paperback should ride in for that second lease. A year to paperback used to be standard, but now a paperback can release earlier — to capitalize on a moderately successful book before it’s forgotten — or later, if a hardcover is still turning a strong profit.
At issue: the moment to reissue, and the message to send.
“Some books slow down at a point, and the paperback is a great opportunity to repromote and reimagine,” says Sheila O’Shea, associate publisher for Broadway and Hogarth paperbacks at the Crown Publishing Group (including, I should add, mine). “The design of a paperback is fascinating, because you have to get it right in a different way than the hardcover. If it’s a book that relates specifically to females you want that accessibility at the table — women drawn in, wondering, Ooh, what’s that about.”
The opportunity to alter the message isn’t just for cover design, but the entire repackaging of the book — display text, reviews put on the jacket, synopses used online, and more. In this way, the paperback is not unlike the movie trailer which, when focus-grouped, can be reshaped to spotlight romantic undertones or a happy ending.
“Often by the time the paperback rolls around, both the author and publicist will have realized where the missed opportunities were for the hardcover, and have a chance to correct that,” says Simon & Schuster’s Sarah Knight. “Once your book has been focus-grouped on the biggest stage — hardcover publication — you get a sense of the qualities that resonate most with people, and maybe those were not the qualities you originally emphasized in hardcover. So you alter the flap copy, you change the cover art to reflect the best response from the ideal readership, and in many cases, the author can prepare original material to speak to that audience.”
Enter programs like P.S. (Harper Collins) and Extra Libris (Crown Trade and Hogarth), with new material in the back such as author interviews, essays, and suggested reading lists.
“We started Extra Libris last spring to create more value in the paperback, to give the author another opportunity to speak to readers. We had been doing research with booksellers and our reps and book club aficionados asking, What would you want in paperbacks? And it’s always extra content,” says Crown’s O’Shea. “Readers are accustomed to being close to the content and to the authors. It’s incumbent on us to have this product to continue the conversation.”
Most of a paperback discussion centers on the tools at a publisher’s disposal, because frankly, so much of a book’s success is about what a publisher can do — from ads in trade and mainstream publications, print and online, to talking up the book in a way that pumps enthusiasm for the relaunch. But the most important piece is how, and whether, they get that stack in the store.
My literary agent Julie Barer swears the key to paperback success is physical placement. “A big piece of that is getting stores (including the increasingly important Costco and Target) to take large orders, and do major co-op. I believe one of the most important things that moves books is that big stack in the front of the store,” she says. “A lot of that piece is paid for and lobbied for by the publisher.”
Most publicists’ opportunities for reviews have come and gone with the hardcover, but not all, says Kathleen Zrelak Carter, a partner with the literary PR firm Goldberg McDuffie. “A main factor for us in deciding whether or not to get involved in a paperback relaunch is the off-the-book-page opportunities we can potentially pursue. This ranges from op-ed pieces to essays and guest blog posts,” she says. “It’s important for authors to think about all the angles in their book, their research and inspiration, but also to think about their expertise outside of being a writer, and how that can be utilized to get exposure.”
What else can authors do to support the paperback launch?
Readings have already been done in the towns where they have most connections, and bookstores don’t typically invite authors to come for a paperback relaunch. But many are, however, more than happy to have relaunching authors join forces with an author visiting for a new release, or participate in a panel of authors whose books touch on a common theme.
And just because a bookstore didn’t stock a book in hardcover doesn’t mean it won’t carry the paperback. Having a friend or fellow author bring a paperback to the attention of their local bookseller, talking up its accolades, can make a difference.
I asked folks smarter than I about branding, and they said the most useful thing for authors receiving a paperback makeover is to get on board with the new cover. That means fronting the new look everywhere: the author website, Facebook page, and Twitter. Change the stationery and business cards too if, like I did, you made them all about a cover that is no longer on the shelf.
“Sometimes a writer can feel, ‘But I liked this cover!’” says Crown’s O’Shea. “It’s important to be flexible about the approach, being open to the idea of reimagining your own work for a broader audience, and using the tools available to digitally promote the book with your publisher.”
More bluntly said, You want to sell books? Get in the game. Your hardcover might have come and gone, but in terms of your book’s rollout, it’s not even halftime yet.
“The paperback is truly a new release, and a smart author will treat it as such,” says Randy Susan Meyers, author The Murderer’s Daughters, her new novel The Comfort Of Lies, and co-author of the publishing-advice book What To Do Before Your Book Launch with book marketer and novelist M.J. Rose. “Make new bookmarks, spruce up your website, and introduce yourself to as many libraries as possible. Bookstores will welcome you, especially when you plan engaging multi-author events. There are opportunities for paperbacks that barely exist for hardcovers, including placement in stores such as Target, Costco, Walmart, and a host of others. Don’t let your paperback launch slip by. For me, as for many, it was when my book broke out.”
I know people who read all the hot young novels. And I’ll occasionally buy one or two (although after getting burned by The Corrections, I wait for the paperback). But mostly the past is too full of fiction I haven’t read: fresh green breasts of James, Beckett, Mishima, Woolf remain uncharted, and I’m going to spend my time with The Marriage Plot? 2012 was the year I got around to what proved to be my favorite novel, period. I’d been meaning to read V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas for years — Naipaul was already the author of my favorite opening line: “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.” (I often say this to myself like a mantra; make of that what you will.) And Naipaul is possessed of a most delightful literary personality. But Mr. Biswas — nothing could have prepared me for the breadth of this book. Everyone in these pages is weak, silly, utterly human. I’m not sure any postwar author has known his own character — inspired by Naipaul’s father — so thoroughly. (Bellow comes close, in Herzog, published a few years after Biswas.) It’s hilarious and sad and all the usual things we say a work of literature is when we mean it seems to contain all of life. Going to buy that gold brooch for you, girl.
Other books that made my year — besides some poetry titles I wrote about for the Chicago Tribune — include John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead; Richard Hughes’s In Hazard; Haddawy’s translation of The Arabian Nights (except the verses — it’s called meter, dude); David Graeber’s Debt (read if you have student loans and want to feel even angrier about them); Fantagraphics’s reprints of Carl Barks’s duck comics; Brian Michael Bendis and Klaus Janson’s Daredevil: End of Days (for those who preferred Frank Miller before he became a right-wing dipshit); George Herbert’s The Temple; and the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.
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What do Talking Heads, The Smiths, Judas Priest, and Blondie have in common? They’re all featured in the playlist Picador made to accompany the paperback release of Jeffrey Eugenides’s latest novel, The Marriage Plot. The Spotify list is chock full of songs “Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell might have been listening to in the early 1980s.” You can read Eugenides’s take on the book’s genesis over here, too.
A big week for books: Zadie Smith’s NW is out (read the first lines), as is Christopher Hitchens’s Mortality, a collection of essays penned while he fought cancer (our essay on Hitchens’ death) (his collection Arguably is out in paperback today). More new books: Emma Straub’s Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, Umberto Eco’s essay collection Inventing the Enemy, Davy Rothbart’s essay collection My Heart Is an Idiot, Frederick Seidel’s poetry collection Nice Weather, documentarian Errol Morris’s A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald, and the Navy Seal book about the bin Laden mission. Also, The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides is now out in paperback (read Eugenides on the book’s genesis), as is Stephen Greenblatt’s Pulitzer winner The Swerve.