The Seas: A Novel

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Every Story Is a Ghost Story: The Millions Interviews Samantha Hunt

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Samantha Hunt won critical acclaim for her first novel, 2006’s The Seas, capturing a National Book Award “5 Under 35” nod. Her follow up, 2008’s The Invention of Everything Else, earned her a spot on the Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist. Her fans have waited seven years for her new novel, Mr. Splitfoot.

Mr. Splitfoot is about Ruth, a foster child turned con artist turned mysterious mute. Two parts of her life are told in alternating chapters. The first is from her youth: she meets a fellow foster child named Nat and the two become as close as siblings. The second is years later, when she mysteriously returns to her long lost niece, Cora. Ruth refuses, or is unable to talk, yet convinces Cora to walk across upstate New York on a life-altering pilgrimage.

We interviewed Hunt early one morning over the phone and talked about researching religion, mediums, and ghost stories.

The Millions: Let’s just start off with genre. Your last book really blended historical fiction and science fiction, and Mr. Splitfoot is a modern, gothic ghost story. What draws you to certain genres and styles when it comes to writing?

Samantha Hunt: Hmm. I can’t say that it’s originally part of my thinking. I mean the interest in Tesla one was just him. So, I was surprised that I ended up writing historical fiction. In fact the first time I got invited to a historical fiction conference I was like, “Me?! What?!” But they told me like, yeah, I did write a historical fiction novel.

With this one, I think it’s different. Who isn’t interested in ghost stories? Maybe there are some people, but I find it hard to imagine. The most natural interest in the world is death. So that was I guess the idea from the start. Really, the start of this book was a record that I cut off the back of a box of Honeycombs when I was probably six years old that was given out at Halloween. It was really scary. First of all, it was amazing that they were giving out records on the back of a cereal box. I was totally obsessed with it. It was a recording of the story of the [vanishing] hitchhiker. It’s in the book again and again. I keep telling that ghost story in Mr. Splitfoot. So that was the real start.

You probably wouldn’t even notice [the use of the story]. In my own thinking I notice. There’s one very obvious retelling of it and then I keep on coming back to the hitchhiker story.

TM: I don’t know much about ghost stories. I never sat around a campfire trying to scare people or be scared. Yet that initial early use of that tale that Ruth tells really struck me. And then she says that every story is a ghost story. Do you personally believe that sentiment? Or did you just attribute it to Ruth?

SH: I think that I definitely believe that. I don’t think I would have said that when I was younger. Now, you know the longer you live means the more people that die, and it’s like every story is a ghost story. Everybody’s dead. It’s not in such a bleak way. It’s just that everybody, every character, will die eventually. Everybody’s life is a ghost story. Wow, that’s totally bleak. I’m trying to convince you that it’s not, but it totally is. Maybe I just like to think about ways to use the hauntedness of life in a different way. To think about “haunted” is not necessarily a bad thing; to think about our dead in a different way. To use them in some way. Even though the people using the dead in this book are total con artists, it does give some shake and hope to [the people they talk to].

Part of the reason for me going up to Lily Dale [a camp and meeting place for spiritualists] was because there is a spiritualist community there. I live in upstate New York — maybe you can tell that from the book’s setting — and Lily Dale is in another part of the state. It’s kind of this wonderful, creepy spiritualist community. They have mediums there all of the time. A lot of the people there were parents of dead children. I understood it. To me, it seemed like a really hopeful thing. That they would go and try it, even if it meant paying these con artists to “talk” to their children. It seemed like such a hopeful thing, because how could you go on if your child died? You couldn’t. You would need some understanding about why something so sad could happen.

TM: Did you research these con artists yourself?

SH: When I was researching this book I did go to mediums. I never believed them, but I was definitely affected by them.

TM: What do you mean by you didn’t believe them, but they still affected you?

SH: Well the first lady I went to, I went in and was very skeptical and cynical. That was in Lily Dale. She tried contacting this older women with emerald rings on, but I was like, “Oh I see how you go there: girl with red hair, Irish girl, emeralds.” So immediately I realized she was a complete con artist. But it didn’t matter, because the next person she tried she said to me, “So there’s a man here and he wanted you to know that in life he would have never walked through those gates.” My dad is dead and he’s a total skeptic, but even though I didn’t believe him I was in total shock and tears. I couldn’t stop. She asked what I wanted to say to him and so I sat there sobbing and sobbing on her couch even though I wasn’t falling for this. It didn’t matter at that point. It affected me that she was able to cut through a lot of bullshit and ask me to talk to a dead person. I was pregnant with the twins at that time, but she didn’t pick up on the two other people in the room. (laughs) So immediately after I talked to my mom and she said how the lady tried a lady first in case my mom was dead and then when I didn’t respond she tried a male. But it didn’t change anything. After the book was complete I went back and asked that medium to give me a blurb from Charlotte Brontë. And she did. (laughs)

TM: When I saw that in the press packet I thought “What the hell is this?” But now it makes sense. This is Charlotte talking to me. Let’s talk about the genesis of the entire book. So you’re a kid and you get a recorded version of a ghost story on the back of a cereal box and you decided to write this decades later. There are two stories in this: Ruth and Nat but also Ruth and Cora. Which came first?

SH: Ruth and Cora came first. I was pregnant with twins when I started writing this book. I couldn’t walk much and was pretty immobilized because of the pregnancy. I also just moved to upstate New York, so the idea of walking across the state was interesting. I was in a place I didn’t know and wasn’t able to explore. So I just sat there and had time to work. I fantasized about walking across the state to see what it was about, but couldn’t because of the immobilization.

After the twins were born, I took the family on the road and we went all over upstate. One of the most startling things — and I grew up down by the city and lived in the state nearly my entire life — but I knew so very little about upstate. It was kind of amazing and how shocking about how many American religions were founded up here. Like the Spiritualists and the Mormons were like 15 miles from each other. I kind of liked that idea that there was a time where this could happen. That someone could shout at people that god was angry at them because of a solar eclipse.

Out of that came the idea to build my own religion to see what kind of con artistry I could work into it. The way I did that was that I just sat down and thought about what I would throw in. I threw in all of the good things that I like. I studied geology as an undergrad so I added some geology. I was watching the new Cosmos with my girls and I watched the original one as a girl. I remember what that meant for my family; it was a communal event. It was so amazing. So I added outer space to it too. And I have a really big record collection, so that became the third part of the religion. That was it: outer space, geology, records.

TM: So you came up with these ideas, and then how did research evolve?

SH: I started researching Mormons in New York. I lived in Vermont for some time and I lived right down the road from [Mormon leader] Joseph Smith’s birthplace. I became interested in him then, and the idea of an American-made religion always interested me. So, once a summer in New York they throw a pageant in Hill Cumorah where he found the Golden Tablets. Mormons from all over the world come to this really remote place. I went, and it’s basically hundreds and hundreds of Mormons in costumes. I loved it. It was an amazing spectacle. It was a 10-story stage. They had ships flying through the air. Lightning bolts and Jesus flying in over the hill.

I just visited a lot of religious sites across upstate New York. It’s funny. Every time I say that, my husband says that it doesn’t have anything to do with my book. Which maybe it doesn’t, but it definitely got me there.

TM: I think you needed to have that deep understanding of the foundation of what it’s really like up there to have a story like this unfold in that realm. I definitely felt the religion. So all of this deals a lot with Cora and Ruth. When did the younger Ruth come into the scene?

SH: I wish I could tell you exactly when. I should be able to tell you this, but I think that relationship that Ruth and Nat has, that platonic girl-boy relationship is always in everything I’ve written. I don’t know why that is. I just have to keep exploring it. It’s like Hansel and Gretel. It’s the portrait of true innocence: starting off with this young boy and young girl and then see what the world does to them.

TM: Structure is really important to me when I read, and this one alternates past and present. When you were writing this, did you have two different documents and just decided to piece it together or how did that process work for you?

SH: I always had a vision in my head from the start that I wanted to have them bound back-to-back. I had done a lot of book making when I was younger so that seemed like no big deal, but I was really surprised that every single press said they couldn’t do it. So it was at the end when it came together that my vision had to be changed. So I like thinking of them as two distinct books. Even the idea that a person would read one story and then another would be interesting. Although, my idea of having them bound back-to-back was that both stories involve climbing the mountain and they were going to meet in the middle. It would all be solved in the middle at the top of the mountain top. I hope that structure still exists even if it’s in more of a traditional alternating chapter way.

TM: Which story would you want people to read first if it were bound that way?

SH: I think I would still start with [Ruth and Nat] in the foster home. If you were just going to read one and then another.

TM: I found it interesting when I was reading it because I wanted to skip ahead to learn more about Ruth and Nat or Ruth and Cora, but thought I shouldn’t because that would be cheating in a way. Now maybe I should have just done that.

SH: I like that it’s sort of left up to the reader. One person could read one book first and how different that experience would be if someone read the other book first. I mean there’s the fact that you can’t unread it once you’ve read it.

TM: I’ll officially tell people to read it different ways and get some research for you.

SH: (laughs) Sounds good, sounds good.

TM: I love that you get so immersed in your research as well as the narrative. Are you already onto the next book?

SH: Yeah, I started. The next one is more memoir based. A lot of it comes from the research I did for Mr. Splitfoot. I was just thinking of ways people get haunted. It’s still dealing with the idea of the ghost story very much so. I love the research part. It’s so much easier than the writing part for me. Maybe that’s the one common theme throughout the books. I could research Tesla for a long, long time. I could research ghost stories and religion for a super long time. It’s a lot less painful than writing books.

20 More Under 40

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One might have imagined that the emergence of an online kommentariat would have made The New Yorker’s 2010 “20 Under 40” Fiction Issue, released last week, an even bigger buzz engine than its 1999 predecessor. For some reason, though – high humidity in the mid-Atlantic? the preponderance of Knopf and FSG authors? the preexistence of a Granta theme issue with significant overlap? the nebulous formulation “writers who we believe are, or will be, key to their generation”? – the magazine’s list of the best young American fiction writers has met mostly with polite golf clapping.

To be sure, it’s hard to begrudge these 20 terrific writers their honor. We’ve been excited to read in the issue new work from friends (and interested to observe the generational influence exerted by 1999 honoree George Saunders). But, as the accompanying Comment suggests, “to encourage . . . second-guessing is perhaps the best reason to make lists.” And, wishing to see more such second-guessing, we’ve decided to rise to the bait and offer our own, non-overlapping, list of young-ish writers to watch.

The exercise gave us a new appreciation for The New Yorker’s editorial staff: It turns out to be damn hard to figure out who to call American. (There’s also a shocking number of writers who are 40 this year: Brady Udall, Nathan Englander, Ed Park, Danzy Senna, Paul LaFarge…). It’s nice to be reminded, however, as we all wring our hands about the future of fiction, of the preponderance of of thirtysomething talent out there. So, with apologies for obviousness, we hereby present an informal, unscientific, alternate-universe “20 Under 40” list.

Calvin Baker’s three works of fiction range fearlessly across the expanse of American experience from the Middle Passage forward. In Dominion, one of several recent novels to tackle the antebellum period, Baker finds his own, hybrid solution to the challenge of voicing the past.
Jesse Ball’s first two novels, Samedi the Deafness and The Way Through Doors, both reviewed here, show off a fabulist sensibility that’s somehow both minimalist and maximalist – Paul Auster by way of The Arabian Nights. Ball won The Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for fiction in 2008.
Chris Bachelder, author of Bear vs. Shark and U.S.! wields the two weapons all great satirists need: an eye for the absurd and a deep moral sense. For what it’s worth, Bachelder’s remarkable lexicon had at least one reader convinced for a few weeks in 2007 that he was a pseudonym of David Foster Wallace.
Mischa Berlinski’s first novel, Fieldwork, like the best fieldwork, moves beyond the parochial concerns of the American writing program without resorting to exoticism. It was a National Book Award finalist. Berlinski is currently in Haiti, we’re told, working on another.
Tom Bissell, who has lately published nonfiction in The New Yorker, might have been a plausible candidate for inclusion on its list. His first collection of short fiction, God Lives in St. Petersburg, was a finalist for the Believer Book Award.
Judy Budnitz is one of America’s great unsung short-story writers. Her two collections, Flying Leap and Nice Big American Baby marry Kafka-esque premises with a ruthless willingness to follow them to their conclusions. Also a novelist, she made the Granta list a couple years back.
Joshua Cohen, a prolific (and quotably bellicose) 29-year-old, just published his sixth book, a Ulyssean 800-pager called Witz. Expect serious reviews to start appearing in the fall, when people have actually finished the damned thing.
Kiran Desai is now a permanent resident of the U.S….or so says Wikipedia. Her 2006 novel, The Inheritance of Loss, was a Booker Prize winner and was on a lot of people’s year-end lists.
Myla Goldberg may have lost some credibility with literary mandarins when her first novel, Bee Season, became a Richard Gere vehicle. However, her second novel, Wickett’s Remedy, shows that her ambitions extend well beyond orthography.
Sheila Heti, a puckish Canadian, can be on our list if David Bezmozgis can be on The New Yorker’s. Her first collection, The Middle Stories, featured fables skewed sui generisly. She’s since published a novel, Ticknor, and appeared as Lenore in Leanne Shapton’s Important Artifacts.
Samantha Hunt’s most recent novel, The Invention of Everything Else, was a fabulist meditation on Nikola Tesla; her previous piece, The Seas, was similarly inventive. Like Heti and Bissell, she cut her teeth in McSweeney’s.
Porochista Khakpour’s debut, Sons and Other Flammable Objects, showed off her acrobatic voice; recent work in Guernica suggests more of the same.
Benjamin Kunkel, aside from having mastered the voice of bemused neuroticism in Indecision, has one of the most interesting minds around, as evidenced by his far-ranging criticism in The London Review of Books. A play, Buzz, is forthcoming from N+1.
Victor LaValle’s third book, the splendidly eccentric Big Machine, has been his breakout. A Publisher’s Weekly best novel of 2009, it has won him many fans, including our own Edan Lepucki, who reviewed it here last fall.
Fiona Maazel’s Last Last Chance is one of the most ambitious debuts of recent years, covering plague, addiction, and chicken processing. Maazel was a Lannan Foundation fellow in 2005.
Joe Meno, unlike any writer on the New Yorker list, published his first few novels with an independent press, Brooklyn’s Akashic Books. A writer of considerable range, the Chicago-based Meno last year published a rollicking family novel, The Great Perhaps, which occasioned an interview with and profile by Edan.
Julie Orringer spent the several years of radio silence that followed her feted story collection, How to Breathe Underwater, productively. Her expansive first novel, The Invisible Bridge, has been hailed for its historical sweep and intimate portraiture.
Salvador Plascencia’s memorably and typographically strange novel, The People of Paper, rivals Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital for the title of Most Interesting Novel McSweeney’s Has Published (Non-Eggers Division). We have no idea what he’s working on now, but we look forward to it.
Eric Puchner is the author of Music Through the Floor, a collection that won the NYPL’s Young Lions Award. This year, he published the similarly well-received novel Model Home. His wry essay about being married to the novelist Katharine Noel can be found here.
Anya Ulinich’s debut, Petropolis, rendered the life of a post-Soviet expatriate with Bellovian figurative brio. She’s got a great story called “Mr. Spinach” floating around out there somewhere…hopefully part of a collection?

The Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far): An Introduction

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Ah, 1999… We laughed along with Chandler and Phoebe, invested our surplus Benjamins with Lehman Brothers, danced a national macarena. Those days seem like the distant past now, and in many ways, the first decade of the 21st Century has been quite different from the giddy future we might have projected. In one way, though, the new millennium has delivered: we’ve gotten great fiction, often from unexpected quarters. When The New York Times named “The Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years” in 2006, none of the finalists was younger than 69, and the most recent publication date was 1997. But the ’00s have introduced us to new voices, spurred others to new levels of achievement, and ushered in the late masterworks that have capped distinguished careers.

It’s a bit early, of course, to pass definitive judgment on the literary legacy of the ’00s, or how it stacks up against that of the 1930s, or 1850s. Who knows what will be read 50 years from now? But, with the end of the decade just a few months away, it seemed to us at The Millions a good time to pause and take stock, to call your attention to books worthy of it, and perhaps to begin a conversation.

To that end, we’ve conducted a poll of our regular contributors and 48 of our favorite writers, editors, and critics (listed below), asking a single question: “What are the best books of fiction of the millennium, so far?” The results were robust, diverse, and surprising.

We’ve finished tabulating them, and this week, we’ll be counting down the Top 20 vote-getters, at a rate of five per day. Each book will be introduced by one of the panelists who voted for it. On Friday, we’ll reveal Number One, along with the results of a parallel reader poll conducted via our Facebook group. And next week, we’ll run follow-up posts including Honorable Mention and “Best of the Rest” lists.

This page, updated as we post the list, will become an index. You can use it to navigate the series, or can check back at our home page; we also invite you to consider subscribing to The Millions via RSS feed or Kindle.  We hope you’ll share your thoughts here or on the entries for the individual books throughout the week as our list is revealed.

The List
#20: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
#19: American Genius, A Comedy by Lynne Tillman
#18: Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link
#17: The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem
#16: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
#15: Varieties of Disturbance by Lydia Davis
#14: Atonement by Ian McEwan
#13: Mortals by Norman Rush
#12: Twilight of the Superheroes by Deborah Eisenberg
#11: The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
#10: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
#9: Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro
#8: Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson
#7: Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald
#6: The Road by Cormac McCarthy
#5: Pastoralia by George Saunders
#4: 2666 by Roberto Bolaño
#3: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
#2: The Known World by Edward P. Jones
#1: The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

The Panel

Sam Anderson is the book critic for New York Magazine.
Rosecrans Baldwin is the author of the forthcoming You Lost Me There and a founding editor of The Morning News.
Elif Batuman is the author of the forthcoming The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them
Mark Binelli is the author of Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die and is a contributor to Rolling Stone.
Elise Blackwell is the author of Hunger and other books
Patrick Brown is a contributor to The Millions.
Sonya Chung is the author of Long for This World and is a contributor to The Millions.
Elizabeth Crane is the author of You Must Be This Happy to Enter and other works of fiction.
Ben Dolnick is the author of Zoology.
Ben Ehrenreich is the author of The Suitors.
Stephen Elliot is the author of The Adderall Diaries and other books and is founding editor of The Rumpus.
Scott Esposito is the founding editor of Conversational Reading and The Quarterly Conversation.
Joshua Ferris is the author of Then We Came to the End and the forthcoming The Unnamed.
Rivka Galchen is the author of Atmospheric Disturbances.
Lauren Groff is the author of Delicate Edible Birds and The Monsters of Templeton.
Garth Risk Hallberg is the author of A Field Guide to the North American Family and is a contributor to The Millions.
John Haskell is the author of Out of My Skin and American Purgatorio.
Jeff Hobbs is the author of The Tourists.
Michelle Huneven is the author of Blame and other novels.
Samantha Hunt is the author of The Invention of Everything Else and The Seas.
Sara Ivry is a senior editor of Tablet.
Bret Anthony Johston is the author of Corpus Christi: Stories and is director of the Creative Writing Program at Harvard University.
Porochista Khakpour is the author of Sons and Other Flammable Objects.
Lydia Kiesling is a contributor to The Millions.
Benjamin Kunkel is the author of Indecision and is a founding editor of N+1.
Paul La Farge is the author of Haussmann, or The Distinction.
Reif Larsen is the author of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet.
Dorothea Lasky is the author of Awe and other books.
Edan Lepucki is a contributor to The Millions.
Yiyun Li is the author of The Vagrants
Margot Livesey is the author of The House on Fortune Street and other books.
Fiona Maazel is the author of Last Last Chance.
C. Max Magee is the founding editor of The Millions.
Sarah Manguso is the author of the memoir The Two Kinds of Decay and other books.
Laura Miller is the author of The Magician’s Book and is the book critic at Salon.
Meghan O’Rourke is the author of Halflife: Poems and is a founding editor of DoubleX.
Ed Park is the author of Personal Days and is a founding editor of The Believer.
Emre Peker is a contributor emeritus to The Millions.
Arthur Phillips is the author of The Song is You and three other novels.
Nathaniel Rich is the author of The Mayor’s Tongue and is a senior editor at The Paris Review.
Marco Roth is a founding editor of N+1.
Andrew Saikali is a contributor to The Millions.
Mark Sarvas is the author of Harry, Revised and is the proprietor of The Elegant Variation.
Matthew Sharpe is the author of Jamestown and other works of fiction.
Gary Shteyngart is the author of Absurdistan and The Russian Debutante’s Handbook.
Joan Silber is the author of The Size of the World.
Martha Southgate is the author of Third Girl From the Left and other books.
Lorin Stein is a senior editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Felicia Sullivan is the author of The Sky Isn’t Visible from Here and is the founding editor of Small Spiral Notebook.
Jean Thompson is the author of Do Not Deny Me and other books.
David Ulin is book editor of the Los Angeles Times
Amanda Eyre Ward is the author of Love Stories in This Town and other books.
Dan Wickett is executive director and publisher of Dzanc Books.
John Williams is founding editor of The Second Pass
Anne K. Yoder is a contributor to The Millions.
Todd Zuniga is the founding editor of Opium Magazine

Each panelist could name up to five books available in English with an original-language publication date no earlier than Jan. 1, 2000. We then tabulated the votes of our panelists, along with those of our contributors. Books were ranked according to number of votes received. In the few cases where more than one book received the same number of votes, our contributors, believing firmly that ties are like “kissing your sister,” voted to break them.

Best of the Millennium, Pros Versus Readers

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