This year was bracketed by both joy and terror. I watched, scared, as people I love grew, learned, succeeded at various things—including me. What did it mean? Writing for years, coming close to getting published once before, then suddenly finding my book out in the world, cherished and loved by strangers who became friendly readers—and why now? Of all times, when our country is literally being burned down? And when, on a daily basis, I fear for our lives? All year, in response, I held on tight to books I love, remembering not only specific words, but the moments of real comfort I found in these books. Cherishing these.
Beloved, by Toni Morrison, a book I read in high school when it was first published, always one I “mean to” return to but found myself too dazzled and silenced by—this year was the year that, in my studio cabin at MacDowell Colony, I sat and read the book without interruption, making extensive notes on structure and strategy. Embracing the past to let it go. Sixty million and more. For the first time, reading Morrison’s hallowed words, I was delighted to find that I understood the book’s structuring, the unfolding, building of tension in specific scenes. For the first time I dared to hope that I would write a book, a real book, that could matter.
Citizen, by Claudia Rankine, completely woke me up to poetry. What had I been doing, all this time? In high school too, I’d been lucky enough to be part of the Academy of American Poets workshop. I’d written poetry, “always” written it, I thought. Then stopped. This year, I couldn’t remember why, and so the poems came out, got revised, but not with any kind of condescending withering. “Citizen” taught me all too well—there’s already a world ready to hate. We must honor ourselves. I read Rankine’s bold, intellectually rigorous, extremely serious and vivid words and felt like she was saying to me, “Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you don’t know what you know.” All the poems I published this year (19! And counting, including this one that received a Joy Harjo prize, and this one in THE SAME MAG where Maggie Smith published her poems (!), and THIS ONE where Natalie Diaz published poetry—and this essay I wrote even before reading all of Citizen this year, and being awakened to poetry again, in general, by the conflagration of hatred and terror that we are living through, somehow.
All my writing, engagement with any words and rhythms, had as its backdrop the feeling of being supported by poems by women and people of color, all the time. All year, while writing, I also “ate up” poetry quietly and gratefully—like Life on Mars, by Tracy K. Smith, which made me realize that I, too, was radiant from “panic” about the state of current affairs, like cold, lovely splashes of Maggie Smith’s Good Bones, which made me too shy to say hi to her when I saw her and she smiled back at AWP, and like surreptitious “sips” of My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz, which made me question the simplistic dreams I’d had as a medical student of “volunteering on the rez,” realizing on a visceral level how there is SO MUCH MORE to it, to any kind of engagement with a brutalized and marginalized community when you “happen to have” services they need, through “accidents” of history (that are not really accidents, a la Marianne Moore, another poet I reread this year, loving her words and hating myself for how deeply ingrained her words are in my mind given that she was a person who supported Indian boarding schools for children. The poet who wrote “Marriage” was never who I dreamed she’d be).
My anger had to find some quarter, I suppose. Who could’ve guessed that it would be turned into appreciative laughter so easily? That I’d be so susceptible to charm? But it did and I was: Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s Friday Black, even for the title story alone, which I read and then hugged tightly to myself like a puffy jacket I’d been coveting (reminiscent of another puffy jacket, from another great story, by Sana Krasikov talking about post-Soviet Russian consumerism in One More Year, also brilliant and another book that I reread this year).
To finish revisions on the novel that my agent will (I hope) submit to publishers in 2019, I read (what else?) This Year You Write Your Novel, by Walter Mosley, and it is true that “luck favors the prepared mind” because, reader, I MET him in person at the Texas Book Fest not long after I read and took notes on that book, including 1) at least “touch” your novel for one and a half hours per day, even if all you do is read and reread what you have, just touch it so it doesn’t become foreign to you and 2) get the complete draft done. Just get it done. Tell the story. (Worry about “telling it slant” later). Then I MET WALTER MOSLEY! And so, I could honestly tell him, before I fled our 90-second “meeting,” “I adore you.” Upstairs in the building that Moseley was walking out of it, I said the same thing (again meaning each syllable, probably almost too fervently) to Alexander Chee, FACE TO FACE OVER HUEVOS RANCHEROS. His book Edinburgh that I’d read last year was as masterful and moving as How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, which capped for me the trend in reading I realized I was pursuing, of reading a novel, then tracking down writing advice from its author, then devouring the essays by that author… about writing. Following this thread I read everything I could find on the Internet (and attended her talks too! Including at AWP) by Min Jin Lee—both Pachinko (for the first time, crying at the sad parts by a swimming pool where children thought the crying was from their ruthless splashing of me, and my paperback) and Free Food for Millionaires, which I also read for its immensely skillful plot structure, engrossing, yet unfolding at a stately 19th-century pace, though without any didactic digressions. (I eagerly, EAGERLY await Min’s book of essays about writing which, if not already in the works, I SO HOPE will now be in the works. Hint, hint.)
Naturally (I felt) Lee’s use of the omniscient third had to lead me to novels like Jude the Obscure, by Thomas Hardy (whose prologue long ago inspired me to write this story in White Dancing Elephants, featured recently at Electric Lit). I loved Hardy, of course, and also dipped into Wuthering Heights again, on a long plane ride where sniffling was assumed to be something everyone was doing (and hiding), because of the dry air and so on (and dipped into it mainly because of the brilliant, hilarious, melancholy evocation of the book I’d heard read out loud in a piece at Sewanee Writer’s Workshop, by Shanti Shekaran, whose novel Lucky Boy I read once, utterly loved but couldn’t bear to read again, for how close it came to uncovering my own feelings about infertility and miscarriage, and how it described such heartache around attachment and loss and parenting, I just couldn’t bear it. But no 19th-century novel made as indelible an impression on me as Henry James’s Washington Square, which I listened to twice all the way through, driving to and from work, in the Librivox version beautifully narrated by “Dawn”, one of the many tireless readers who make these free audio books a widely accessible resource.
Perhaps it’s because, like the heroine Catherine’s father, I am a doctor too, but I felt so keenly for nearly everyone in this book (except of course the hapless Morris, whom Catherine never would have expected a thing from, had she not been so blinded and burdened by the painful, enmeshed, guilty, tormented relationship with her father). The perfect, Victorian-era “snark” of how the book sets up the cruel events that lead Catherine to lose her mother, implying just enough that the doctor-father was too detached, and simply didn’t act fast enough, to save his own wife and son from death– I felt the devastating wound of it, of how much people expect from doctors, yet how little compassion is extended to us when, like every other human being on this earth, we suffer loss. We grieve. We feel the limits of what humans can control, and what we can’t.
Strangely, though, the essay collections I read were not by doctors. Nor were the novels, though I did read an interview I really enjoyed, with gifted novelist and fellow psychiatrist Daniel Mason in The New York Times, for how the tone of the interviewer SO COMPLETELY ERASED any people of color or women from the identity “psychiatrist” so breathlessly parsed therein.
(Um, NYT dude whose name I think I had trouble pronouncing, no offense—not all psychiatrists are cishet white upper middle class males preoccupied with “affective containment” as an ultimate goal. That very limited, exclusionary, anti-public health/private pay vision of psychiatry pretty much ended in the ’70s. What we have now are “recovery communities” and “neurodivergence,” in case you didn’t realize. Like, psychiatrists who are women of color who can get down with The Collected Schizophrenias as forthcoming by Esme Waijun Wang, for instance, or who can clearly express compassion and caring for patients with eating disorders as detailed by writers with these conditions like Kathryn Harrison in The Mother Knot. Thanks for understanding, dude. No doubt.)
Instead, in reading as in life, I pursued a kind of lightness, an attitude, insouciance, coupled with breathtaking honesty, shrewdness. One might put all these book covers in a Twitter post and caption it MOOD. Chelsea Hodson’s Tonight I’m Someone Else, and Melissa Febos’s Abandon Me (yes, if she comes to AWP, I’ll get shy and girl-crush-struck and run away from her too, I don’t doubt it). Morgan Jerkins’s This Will Be My Undoing. As a Rhodes Scholar, my voice caught in my throat reading her account of being “instructed” on how, as a woman of color, she could “assimilate” into various white elite spaces her intelligence and drive had helped her gain access to. She cut close to the bone.
Then to cap off the year, I read and took a lot of notes on story collections to help finish revisions on my second story collection, which only exists because it turns out I’m a writer literally with manuscripts in a drawer that I take out and revise and don’t send out anywhere for years (and not any of the stories that belong to this second collection were written recently, though excerpts were featured recently here and here). The jewels among the several collections that I read include (in addition to Friday Black, above, which I just read out of love, and not for work)—Florida, by Lauren Groff, reading again and again the particular story of a woman writer obsessed enough with researching her novel to have to go to France; anxious enough to take her children with, literally dragging them, making them walk in rain and cold, making them speak French, forcing them, making them, almost crying from the effort of trying to hold the structure together while staying dreamy enough to actually sit down and write. Sigh.
Also read, and studied (again, after reading the first story while in high school too—“The Chinese Lobster” when it first came out in The New Yorker) the whole collection by A.S. Byatt, so stunning: The Matisse Stories, and timely too—dipping into #MeToo themes as well as fundamental questions about “who gets to make art” which then took me, on a pleasurable digression, to Claire Messud’s thrillingly good, extremely entertaining, admittedly shrill book The Woman Upstairs, which I liked but I think was secretly wishing would talk more about the racism that a Middle Eastern family might experience in the Republic of Cambridge, MA (yes, even there). I got back to the stories, though, delightedly wading through Everyday People, the anthology edited by Jenn Baker and one that includes a detailed bibliography of works by women and nonbinary authors of color in the back.
All in all, the year of reading made me a little less afraid. Not really less afraid of our political futures. No. But less afraid of losing hold of what and whom I love. Much less afraid of forgetting any of what is most vital to me. Maybe memories do define who we are—a recent interesting and long thread of Twitter, and something I contemplated while reading a lot of press coverage about the fascinating Amazon Prime original with Julia Roberts, Homecoming (which draws directly from PTSD research and prolonged exposure therapy for PTSD, modalities I’m trained in administering).
I also thought more about trauma and memories while reading Marlena for the first time, to interview Julie Buntin here—and thought about my family’s memories, coming to terms with my younger brother’s autism and disabilities, when I read (and wept with real gratitude) over Gary Shteyngart’s Lake Success and how it represented a level of acceptance and love of a child with differences that I’d always wished myself and those I knew could feel and demonstrate more clearly, more spontaneously, without such hard effort and constant education of ourselves, to understand my brother’s perspective, to hear his voice. It may be true that our memories somehow define us—but I prefer to think that books are loving and beloved carriers of our memories, trigger the ones we need to remember the most, stimulate the memories that heal us.
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I was on book tour for much of the year. And when I tour, I read. I’m not sure how many books I got through exactly, but I read about quantum gravity, a few different translations of Beowulf, microbiology, and cave art. I read Elon Musk’s biography, meaning I can now more accurately predict the size and shape the coming apocalypse. I read many, many novels.
In looking at my read pile, I decided I needed a focus and narrowed in on Canadian books. But I immediately ran into a problem. What makes a book Canadian?
Margaret Atwood published Survival in 1972, a thematic guide to Canadian literature that searched for ways to define our national literature. Back then, American and British novels tended to dominate our bookshelves. Bookstores often had a curious shelf labelled Canadiana, where the local authors were tucked away.
We spent the next few decades searching for reasons to see ourselves as distinct. We often did this by pointing out who we were. When I was growing up in the ’80s, one of my favorite games was to name famous people who were actually Canadian and I still do this—Sandra Oh, Michael J. Fox, Drake, Pamela Anderson, and William Shatner. We hide so easily among others.
Since then, our ideas, our identities, and our writing have all expanded. Canadian literature, or CanLit, has its own hashtag (#canlit), but that’s about the only straightforward thing I can say about it. Now that it undoubtedly exists, we spend our time arguing about what it might be. The central question, as writer Russell Smith asked, “is it a literature that is made here, or set here, or addresses uniquely Canadian themes?” But for many, CanLit also stands for what needs to change. It’s a shorthand for an out-dated colonial point of view, structural racism and sexisim, a lack of diversity and opportunity.
So after thinking it through, I’ve decided why the books on my list are Canadian: They have little or nothing in common. Each is different from the other. There are no similar themes that stand out. The authors have their own identities that are best defined by them. If you asked each author if they are Canadian, I think they would answer yes—but likely with some kind of qualification, caveat, or hyphen. They might include a second citizenship, language, culture, or country. And maybe two or three.
I’m aware that this isn’t exactly a clear definition. I don’t need it to be. And similarly, I don’t think CanLit is a particularly useful term anymore. We’ve grown beyond the need to agonize about what we are. But more, the act of defining artistic work involves creating a boundary. Who gets to draw that literary line? I hope that no person nor group would assume that they have the ability to define our books. I will be wary if they do.
So, here are a few of my favorite novels published this year, written by authors who, when asked if they are Canadian, would probably answer, “yeah, and…,” and start telling a long and complicated and fascinating story about their identity:
The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill
When I interviewed O’Neill earlier in the year, I confessed to a certain kind of creative jealously. I’d like to say that I’ve since matured, however I’m a writer. Her prose sparkles, her way with the metaphor is unparalleled, and this, her third novel, has an intricate construction. You know when someone folds paper, cuts little holes in it, and—like magic—smooths out a perfect snowflake? Reading it feels like that, except add in some cigarettes, sex, and swearing. O’Neill often writes about Montreal, which in her words is, “totally funny, it’s wry, it’s dirty.” Also a perfect description of this book.
Brother by David Chariandy
A perfectly sculpted novel, each word is placed with a heart full of hip hop. It tells the story of an enduring love between two brothers, Michael and Francis, who live in the suburbs of Toronto (though the T-word is never mentioned). The book gives voice to black and brown men with beautiful and complex emotional lives. As said in The Walrus, the novel shows, “a very different picture than what CanLit usually peddles: comfortable and self-soothing narratives about our supposedly progressive cities.” Brother is already out in Canada. It just won one of our biggest awards, the Writers’ Trust Roger Fiction Prize. It will be out in July.
American War by Omar El Akkad
A novel that follows the life of Sarat Chestnut, who is six years old, in 2074, when a second civil war breaks out. Set in what used to be the South, it is told from that perspective. I went to the same Canadian university as El Akkad and asked about this choice. He explained that his work as a reporter often took him to the South. He would find himself talking to a certain kind of person, “incredibly hospitable, would give you the shirt off their back. But also deeply tied to some very old traditions, some of them good, some of them terrible, and god help you if you challenge those traditions.” He went on to explain that he was born in Egypt and grew up in the Middle East, “incredibly generous people who are also tied to some very old traditions, and god help you if you challenge those traditions.” In my view, that insight lays the framework for this brilliant book.
The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall
This novel came out in Canada in 2016 and in the U.S. this fall, but in our post-Harvey Weinstein world it feels more timely and urgent than ever. A family saga set in Connecticut, a respected teacher at a prep school is accused of sexual assault. The story follows the people who are closest to him, family and close friends. Without ever getting preachy, it draws an elegant line between rape culture, patriarchy, and privilege. I compared it to The Ice Storm or Ordinary People, but it has more contemporary companions, too, in The Interestings or The Woman Upstairs.
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I’ve been trying to think how I’d describe The Best Kind of People. The novel has been compared to Judith Guest’s Ordinary People for the depiction of an affluent family trying to cope with trauma. I’d add in The Ice Storm by Rick Moody for the close critique of WASP culture in Connecticut. But Zoe Whittall’s novel is also completely contemporary, taking some of Meg Wolitzer’s ability in The Interestings to show the feelings and motivations of a large cast of characters, with Claire Messud’s willingness, in The Woman Upstairs, to tackle discomfort, or Margaret Atwoods’s ability, in A Handmaid’s Tale, to show how a wider culture influences individual behavior.
Reading The Best Kind of People felt like a kind of compulsion—I stayed up way past my bedtime because I had to finish. It tells the story of the Woodbury family. When the father, George, teacher at the prep school and local hero, is accused of sexual impropriety, his wife, daughter, and son face isolation from their community as they struggle to reconcile the accusations with the man they know. “I miss who I thought he was,” says the mother, Joan. The characters are flawed and human as they struggle, some of them achingly so, but Whittall is also generous towards them. There is a warmth and kindness to the story that, at times, make it feels like a gossipy, insider dish about a prominent family—the one who lives in the big house, who seem to have lots of money, but everyone in town is always trying to guess exactly how much. At the same time, the novel takes a big topic: It shows the link between rape culture, patriarchy, and privilege. The balance between these two sides of the book is perfectly judged.
The Millions: The Best Kind of People was first published in Canada in 2016, before the Bill Cosby trial, but just as several high profile sexual misconduct cases were in the media. What prompted you to start writing this book?
Zoe Whittall: The book began with the character of the mother, Joan, who came to me after listening to a radio program about a high-profile murder and sexual assault case, where the wife of the killer didn’t know anything about the crimes. After finding out her husband was a monster, she faced so much stigma, because everyone assumed she had to have known. I’m always drawn in by news stories of extreme marital deception or the lives of con men and women. I think that fascination began after I had a year-long relationship with someone who told me they were in remission from cancer, but it became clear to me near the end of our relationship that she was lying—about the illness and a whole lot of other things. It was nothing like Joan and George’s marriage, but the feeling of being blindsided, and loving someone who could be that manipulative, of not knowing what the real truth is while someone you love is looking you in the eye and trying to get you to believe them, that was my way in to figuring out who Joan might be and how she might feel, even though her life is so different from mine.
In terms of the timeliness of the book, I had no idea that it would be published at the same time a massive cultural conversation about rape was happening in the media. Women have always talked and written about sexual assault but what’s new is that people are listening right now.
The first piece of literary work I had published was a poem about rape culture—though it wasn’t called that in 1995. I was 15 when the Montreal massacre happened in my city, and I was a young feminist who came of age during the era of 1990s No Means No campaigns. Back then to talk about rape was to have conversations on the margins—campus radio, riot grrl zines, with likeminded activists—but the idea of discussing it in the mainstream media, or creating art that could reach beyond the festival circuit or the small press world seemed highly unlikely.
My other novels are about queer and trans people, and they have done really well but never beyond the indie literary market. I’m very surprised at how well The Best Kind of People has done commercially in Canada and very happy that it’s contributed to this wider conversation. I’m hopeful it might also be of interest to readers in the U.S.
TM: It takes a long time to write a novel. Were you worried while you were writing that you might miss the moment?
ZW: I wasn’t worried it would miss the moment, I was just hoping it would have its own moment. It took me so much longer to write this novel than my first two—I thought it was done in 2011, 2012, 2013—each spring I gave it to my agent, and she handed it back with excellent notes and calmly explained it wasn’t quite there yet. By 2014 I wanted to bury it in the yard, I was convinced it was absolute garbage and no one would want to publish it. By the time it was done, I was just grateful that my publisher was interested in putting it out at all.
I wasn’t really aware of the moment—that people might want to discuss this book in a way that felt timely and coincided with major news stories—until it was done, and my editor said oh, this is exciting and is going to potentially have a lot of interested readers given what’s going on right now. We were editing it during a big celebrity assault trial in Toronto. So I kind of realized it after it was already finished, but I had so many pre-publication anxieties that I tried not to think about it.
TM: And then Cosby was acquitted and here we are. Still. It doesn’t feel like much has changed? But the one upside—and I say this with some regret—is that your novel, it is published in the U.S. today, feels every bit as relevant as it did when it came out in Canada. I got so much from it because it shows how rape culture works. Not just as a theory, but in a life. Is this what you set out to do?
ZW: I didn’t set out to write a novel about rape culture. In terms of novels about sexual assault, there are crime novels, survivor memoirs, books about false accusations—and I wasn’t interested in writing those. I wanted to look at what it feels to be impacted by the issue from the point of view of the family of the accused and the stigma they face. That was something I hadn’t read before.
I did want to explore, through overlapping narratives, how complicated issues of power, youth, and sexuality can be. Andrew’s storyline, the brother, was my way of looking at age and consent through a gay male lens, which cannot be properly understood using heterosexual norms. I wanted Sadie’s crushes, relationships, and sexual experiences to be varied and chaotic in a way that felt true to my memories of what it feels like to be a teen girl. Because of the form, it all had to happen at the level of life.
It doesn’t feel like much has changed, no. There’s a lot of hysteria in the media about false accusations as though they are suddenly a common occurrence, when really what is common is what happened with Cosby, or with Brock Turner, or a million other powerful men. They are not held accountable, even when the proof is undeniable—they are on film and there was a witness, or 60 people are accusing someone of the same crime— it doesn’t really matter. So the conversation has changed, in that we’re even having a conversation, but it doesn’t feel like there has been a real shift in how rapists are held truly accountable.
What’s different is that young women are able to refuse to take some of bullshit that women of my generation had to live with. It’s exciting to see how willing young women are to speak up about sexual assault and sexism in general. That’s a change.
[Rape Culture’s] most devilish trick is to make the average,
non-criminal person identify with the person accused, instead of the
person reporting the crime…
—Kate Harding, Asking for It
Did you include this quote at the beginning or end of your writing process?
ZW: I included it at the end because I was aware that once your book becomes an object that no longer belongs to you, it is read in ways you cannot anticipate. I had fears about feminists reading the book and being angry or annoyed that it wasn’t what they’d hoped it would be. I had fears that people would read it and get a message that wasn’t intended. (This has happened—a woman approached me to say my novel was “so realistic” because “teenage girls do lie!” and I was so shocked. That is not the book I wrote or the way I hoped it would be read.)
Before I sold the film rights to Sarah Polley, I met with quite a few older male film producers who wanted to make a did-he-or-didn’t-he type of film, and it became clear they could only relate to the accused, not the accuser. A young man sent me a long (so long!) email teaching me about feminism, because even though the MRA plotline was clearly meant to be fairly satirical, he interpreted me as someone who was sympathetic to MRAs. But as a novelist, I cannot present characters one-dimensionally, so thus, in the Men’s Rights Activist plotline for example, there is a character named Dorothy. Even if we see her through the daughter Sadie’s discerning eyes, Dorothy still has to be a full-blooded person. You can’t create art any other way. It was complicated to do this since the plot involves many characters who don’t believe the young women accusing George, and I didn’t want it to be read, right off the bat, as a book that is about questioning the veracity of teen girls. That book—and article—has been written a million times and I had no desire to write it again. (Though I will say that an excellent book on false accusations is The Blue Angel by Francine Prose, which I think is a masterful novel.)
So the Kate Harding quote—who also generously contributed a blurb for the book—was my way of stating at the start that the automatic assumption of who is telling the truth when a man is accused, is part of the problem, and a question I kept in mind as I wrote it. And this is, if you can think about it after the fact, part of why I felt the novel needed to be written.
TM: The idea of rape culture can be confusing to some in that can be hard to see. This book lays it all out. I had a frustrating conversation the other day and I found myself tempted to hand over a copy of your book and walk away. But some of my least favorite, heavy-handed novels read like an author sets out to explain an issue. Your book avoids this. How did you write with a light touch, while delving deep?
ZW: It was sometimes difficult to pull back on my own beliefs about sexual assault and let my characters have their own thoughts and feelings as the events unfold. You’re right, no one wants to read a polemical novel or a story where the authorial voice intervenes clumsily in order to educate the reader. I learned so much about the world by reading fiction as a young adult, in a roundabout way. The same way I hate exercising but I love dancing or riding my bike. It’s always so much more interesting to learn through story. I approach plot through character and I was interested in the emotional arcs of the family, Joan, Sadie and Andrew, after the arrest of their father/husband, and how it might feel to be the bystander who is implicated by virtue of who they are to the accused. I wanted to write about how it feels to love someone accused of sexual assault and not know what to do, not know how to process it and understand it.
I think a lot of the problems we have in situations like this come from having been lead to believe that rapists are strangers, monsters, and not real people in our communities. That they can’t be rapists and also good friends, fathers, teachers, mentors, at the same time. People often say, “Well, he was a great professor to me, so it’s impossible,” even though we have had the hard data on who commits sexual crimes for decades, and it’s mostly people who are known to the victim. We know the majority of women and men who are assaulted never report. We know that those who report rarely ever get justice through the court system, or even get that far in the process, if they report to the police. We know who the police tend to believe. And when white men with power are accused it is customary to believe they are being honest when they say they’re innocent. We owe a lot to the violence against women movement who have done the labor on these issues with no support for decades. We know what we know because of them.
It was hard to keep that light touch, as you describe it. In some ways I was attempting to write a social novel, but a non-polemical one. It was my first attempt at literary realism with a close third person narration and I had all sorts of clumsy failures while trying to set the scene and go deep into it that way. Sometimes I look at the book and it looks like a clump of dirt or a bunch of string. I can’t believe it’s an object in the world provoking discussion.
TM: The book is a perfect balancing act between an issue and, dare I use the word, entertainment? It feels odd given what the book is about, but that’s what I think when, in her blurb, Kate Harding compares this novel to Ordinary People. This book captures a moment. Issue driven versus entertainment—what do you think a novel should be?
ZW: What a novel should be? Some of my favourite novels are long poems or plotless diversions, so I don’t really have an answer for what a novel should be. As a writer who has tried to do different things with each one of my novels, I think I’m still figuring it out. I never feel that they are finished and long to rewrite them forever.
The Best Kind of People was my experiment with realism, with a social novel and a family novel, all mixed up. In terms of the art versus entertainment set-up, I’m a literary reader and poet who enjoys challenging books, but I’m also a television writer who loves and appreciates pop culture. I don’t think those two interests need to be in opposition anymore, and I think that is due to a shift in how we consume culture, and the elevated artistry of auteur-lead television, which sounds trite to mention, but it’s really been a gift to storytellers. I think it has shifted how I write. If I had all the money and time in the world, I’d be working on non-linear novels written in poetic fragments, that’s where my heart is. But learning how to write for television has ignited a new love of action and clarity, and that bled into the writing of this novel. So, I suppose I’m a recovering snob.
Learning to write sketch comedy (on IFC’s The Baroness Von Sketch Show) has really taught me about tone and sitting in those excruciating awkward moments. I deeply related to the moment in The End of Tour where David Foster Wallace can’t stop watching TV. I don’t drink or do drugs much anymore and my sedative of choice is Netflix, and I’ve developed a real interest in telling stories on screen and the craft of scriptwriting. This has affected my prose, but in a way that has been a gift, in terms of brevity, clarity, pacing.
TM: The story centers on a white wealthy family in Connecticut. In many ways, they individuals are harmed by the system of power that they also uphold. We get to see how rape culture works on them, all while they continually struggle to see it themselves. But the story doesn’t undermine the characters. It would have been easy to lay blame, or present a binary balance of power. As I said before, as an author you are generous to the characters. You slowly show the complexity of their situations. Can you tell me more about how you found and held this balance?
ZW: It’s funny—I just read a bad review of the book on Goodreads that complains the book contains “mixed messages,” which I kind of like, because who wants a book with a “message?” That’s not a novel, that’s a political pamphlet. I tried to come at each character’s story with compassion and curiosity. Sexuality is not simple, especially not in a repressed world like the one the Woodbury’s live in, especially not for teenagers. Given the complexities of human desire and behavior and problems with communication and honesty, a book with a message is just not what I was going for.
It wasn’t a balance that came easy. With third person, you can’t really step in with your authorial voice and lay blame in a pedantic kind of way, it doesn’t work. You can only show what the characters do and say, and through that action, you can understand what their struggle is.
TM: Without spoiling the plot, I will say that the end of this novel is an incredible kick in the gut. It drives home everything that came before. Can you tell me something about your thinking around it the end?
ZW: I agonized over the ending, and continued to even after I wrote the final sentence, which took a long time to write. It was based on discussions I had with a woman whose father is in jail for molestation, and how her mother feels about him now, what she wishes for her life and their relationship. (My friend the filmmaker Chase Joynt made a documentary called Between You and Me for the CBC about her story.) The circumstances are different, but what Joan does at the end made sense to me.
I wanted the conclusion to be realistic, not aspirational, in terms of where the country is at with regards to sexual assault. And a lot of people feel mad about that, but I wanted it to be an accurate portrait of the time we’re living in, and who the characters really are.
It’s the (second) most wonderful time of the year: Millions Most Anticipated Great Second-Half Preview time! Below you will find just shy of 80 wonderful books to get you from July to December 2017. We’ve got new titles from big names (Erdrich! Eugenides! Ward! Messud!); we’ve got stellar debuts (Zhang! Clemmons! Rooney! Khong!); we’ve got translated gems (Binet! Szabó! Krasznahorkai!); we’ve even got cross-genre celebrities (Weiner! Hanks! McKibben!).
The Millions Previews — both our semi-annual long lists and our newer monthly offerings — are some of the best things we do at this site. As Millions founder and publisher C. Max Magee wrote yesterday, you can help ensure that these previews, and all our great books coverage, continue for years to come by lending your support to the site as a member. The site has been running for 14 years on a wing and a prayer, and we’re incredibly grateful for the love of our recurring readers and current members who help us sustain the work that we do.
Please enjoy the rich offerings below, come back August 1 for the monthly preview, and prepare yourselves for 2018 (which, according to our agents in the literary field, is going to be a doozie).
Made for Love by Alissa Nutting: A retiree has sold his station wagon to buy a lifelike sex doll, his daughter’s come home after running out on her paranoid tech billionaire husband, and another man’s been sexually assaulted by a dolphin. Just so you know what you’re getting into: all of this happened in the first 60 pages of Nutting’s new novel, a darkly comic exploration of familial and romantic love, and how technology warps both. (Read our review.) (Nick M.)
Who Is Rich? by Matthew Klam: Klam was one of The New Yorker’s original “20 Under 40” writers in 1999 and published a story collection, Sam the Cat, the next year. And then nothing. For 17 years. Now at last, Klam is publishing his debut novel, about a has-been cartoonist who leaves his family behind to teach at a weeklong arts conference where he rekindles an affair with one of his students, the unhappy wife of a Wall Street titan. When he’s firing on all cylinders, Klam is hilarious. (Michael)
What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons: The buzz around this debut is more like a roar. Thandi is caught between black and white, America and South Africa. When she loses her mother, she has to try to connect the dislocated pieces of her life. While Clemmons has recently burst to prominence, she has long been doing the work to get there. She teaches literature and creative writing, her work has appeared in Zoetrope: All-Story, Transition, the Paris Review Daily, she is co-founder of Apogee Journal, and a contributing editor to LitHub.com. The best part? She’s got a two-book deal. (Claire)
The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich: Nobel Prize—winner Alexievich is best known stateside for her Voices of Chernobyl, where she documented the stories of survivors of the nuclear disaster, but it’s her first book The Unwomanly Face of War that established her as an oral historian. Alexievich gave voice to the less documented women’s role in WWII by interviewing female gunners, pilots, medical workers, and others. She writes: “Their words and feelings? A whole world is hidden from us. Their war remains unknown…I want to write the history of that war.” First published in English in 1985, this new edition is translated by the renowned Russian duo Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky. (Read our interview with her.) (Anne)
My Heart Hemmed In by Marie NDiaye: A novel “in the existentialist tradition” that both obscures and exposes xenophobia in contemporary French society, the story of provincial school teachers Nadia and her husband, Ange, is described by the publisher as “surreal, allegorical, and psychologically acute,” and by Publishers Weekly in a starred review as “revelatory and devastating.” NDiaye, winner of both the Prix Goncourt and Prix Femina, is the author of 13 works of fiction, seven of which have been translated into English. She also co-wrote the powerful, artful film White Material with Claire Denis. Despite comparisons to Elena Ferrante and Doris Lessing, she is little known in the U.S.; hopefully this will change. (Sonya)
Refuge by Dina Nayeri: Nayeri’s first novel, A Teaspoon of Earth, follows a young girl as she grows up in post-revolutionary Iran and dreams about her sister’s life in America. Refuge, Nayeri’s second novel, also centers on a young Iranian girl, Niloo, but this time the story is flipped: Niloo flees Iran, leaving her father behind, and grows up in Europe. Twenty years later, she’s a sophisticated academic struggling to navigate her connections to her family, a growing community of Iranian refugees, and her adopted homeland. A nuanced look at what it means to seek refuge; novels don’t get more timely than this. (Kaulie)
The Dark Dark by Samantha Hunt: Maybe you’ve heard of Hunt’s last novel, Mr. Splitfoot? It’s in our Millions Hall of Fame, and Hunt’s been interviewed for the site. She’s also published in The New Yorker and been reviewed (glowingly) by almost every major publication. Now she’s back with her first collection of short stories and, in true Hunt style, they’re bizarre, beautiful, and haunting. Dead dogs come back to life, women turn into deer, and there’s at least one killer robot; there’s also suburban loneliness and anxiety mixed with a healthy dose of witty humor. What more could you ask for? (Kaulie)
Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney: In Rooney’s debut novel, former lovers and current best friends Frances and Bobbi are Trinity College students turned spoken word artists who become entangled in the lives of Melissa and Nick, an older married couple with married-people problems. Much has been made of Rooney’s age (she was born in 1991), and her sharp, funny dialogue. Her editor calls her the “Salinger for the Snapchat generation” and in its review, The Guardian notes, “Her hyperarticulate characters may fail to communicate their fragile selves, but Rooney does it for them in a voice distinctively her own.” (Edan)
Out in the Open by Jesús Carrasco: In this 2013 debut, the Spanish novelist spins a dystopian yarn tracking a young boy’s flight into the wild. There he is confronted by an ancient goat herder bearing wisdom that trust is a hard-won commodity, and once violated, often too fragile to ever be redeemed. Described as “harrowing,” “stark,” “violent,” and “parabolic,” Out in the Open provides a timely and certainly intense meditation on the role trust plays in cultural progress and preservation. A reliably literate, fluid Margaret Jull Costa translation makes for a gripping read. (Il’ja)
A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause by Shawn Wen: A long essay exploring, of all things, a mime. Wen, a former radio producer, pens this tribute to Marcel Marceau, the “artist of silence,” who in addition to being the most well-known mime in history was also a Holocaust survivor and member of the French Resistance. Kirkus raves “Readers will marvel not only at Marceau, but at the book itself, which displays such command of the material and such perfect pitch.” (Lydia)
The Art of Death by Edwidge Danticat: In this hybrid work of memoir-criticism, prolific writer (and Year in Reading alumna) Danticat reflects on the death of her mother, part of a longer meditation on the way that artists cope with death. Michiko Kakutani writes that Danticat “wants to learn how to use language to try to express the inexpressible, to use her art to mourn.” (Lydia)
Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong: Khong, who was an editor at Lucky Peach, brings us a debut novel about a 30-year-old woman who’s moved back home with her parents to help with her father’s Alzheimer’s. Told in short vignettes that span a single year, Goodbye, Vitamin has, according to Justin Taylor, “breathed fresh life into the slacker comedy, the family drama, and the campus novel.” In its starred review, Booklist writes: “In her tender, well-paced debut novel…Khong writes heartbreaking family drama with charm, perfect prose, and deadpan humor.” (Edan)
South Pole Station by Ashley Shelby: Just when you think you’ve seen all the books, along comes a comedy of manners about climate change starring a ragtag team of cultural misfits at the edge of the world. Shelby’s novel grew out of a(n award-winning) short story, but its scope is capacious; in an advance review, Year in Reading alum Robin Sloan says “South Pole Station is a portrait painted with the whole palette―science and politics; art and history; love and frostbite―and all of it crackles with the can’t-make-this-up details of life at the bottom of the world.” (Kirstin)
Sex and Rage by Eve Babitz: 1960s and 70s L.A. party girl and writer extraordinaire Babitz is having a revival. Eve’s Hollywood and Slow Days, Fast Company were recently published by NYRB Classics, and now her novel Sex and Rage is being re-issued by Counterpoint. Readers can’t seem to get enough of her writing and it’s hard to imagine literary L.A. without her voice. That’s because Los Angeles is not just a setting in her work, it’s not a character, it’s not a myth, or a lover. It’s love itself. (Zoë)
The Violins of Saint-Jacques by Patrick Leigh Fermor: Fermor, who died in 2011, is perhaps best known for the books chronicling his youthful tramp across Interwar Europe—drinking and frolicking and picking up a half-dozen languages along the way. Here, in his only novel (originally published in 1953), the action is concentrated on the island of Saint Jacques, whose French aristocracy is in the midst of Mardi Gras revels. A volcano looms over the picturesque town in carnival, an outsized force of nature in this slender work as florid as it is fun. (Matt)
Moving Kings by Joshua Cohen: The latest by the man behind the labyrinthine Book of Numbers kicks off with a situation that’s nothing if not explosive. Two Israeli veterans, Yoav and Uri, decide to spend a year in New York with Yoav’s cousin, a right-wing American patriot who runs a tri-state moving company. In short order, the two get enlisted to work as ruthless eviction-movers, which leads inevitably to one homeowner seeking revenge. (Thom)
A Life of Adventure and Delight by Akhil Sharma: The title of Sharma’s new story collection is apparently ironic—“An apter phrase might be ‘bad luck and isolation,’” according to Kirkus Reviews. David Sedaris deems the stories “complex, funny enough to laugh out loud at but emotionally devastating,” and the Kirkus reviewer does ultimately concede that the stories exhibit “a psychological acuity that redeems their dark worldview.” Fans of Sharma’s Family Life may be interested in a story that seems to have been the seed of that novel. And if you’re interested in a sneak, the title story and “You are Happy?” (among others) were both published in The New Yorker. (Sonya)
The Epiphany Machine by David Burr Gerrard: In an interview with Vol. 1 Brooklyn about his first novel, Short Century, Gerrard succinctly described the plot of his second: “It’s about a machine that tattoos epiphanies on the forearms of its users. That is my attempt to question and honor one of the major ideas of fiction, which is that fiction should lead up to an epiphany.” This new work explores the effects of such epiphanies—the narrator’s tattoo reads “Dependent on the Opinion of Others”—on the inscribed-upon individuals and society as a whole. The result, according to Publishers Weekly, is a “wildly charming, morally serious bildungsroman.” (Matt)
I Hear Your Voice by Young-ha Kim: One of Korea’s most prolific and celebrated authors brings us a new novel, translated by Krys Lee, about two young men on the streets of Seoul: Jae, who is abandoned as a baby and becomes a leader of a powerful motorcycle gang, and Dongyu, who runs away from home as a teenager to follow Jae. Booklist remarks: “this is a wrenching examination of discarded youth, abuses of power, and the irreparable disintegration of societal structures,” and John Darnielle is a fan, saying, “Young-ha Kim is kin to those writers of more experimental times than ours: Daniel Defoe and Thomas Nashe, writers who followed their stories and themes into whatever haunted, humid dark corners they found, and who weren’t afraid to linger in those places to see what else might be there. (Edan)
Like A Fading Shadow by Antonio Muñoz Molina: Part memoir and part historical fiction, this unusual book uses recently declassified FBI files to trace the escape of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassin, James Earl Ray. With a fake passport, Ray managed to elude capture for 10 days in Lisbon, Portugal. Muñoz Molina’s fascination with this story has to do, in part, with his personal connection to Lisbon, a city that was the inspiration for his first novel, Winter in Lisbon. Muñoz Molina recounts Ray’s hideouts in Lisbon in 1968, while also looking back on his own memories of the place, when he lived there in the late 1980s, and was just getting started as a novelist. Throughout the narrative, Muñoz Molina reflects on the writing process itself, and how he came to construct Ray’s narrative. (Hannah)
The Burning Girl by Claire Messud: Following The Woman Upstairs, Messud’s new novel tells the story of lifelong friends Julia and Cassie. Their paths diverge and the result is a story about adolescence that contrasts a childhood’s imaginary world against adult reality. Messud, who will always have my heart for her response to a question about an unlikeable female character, tackles big questions with complex and nuanced novels. It looks like this will deliver. (Claire)
Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang: Sour Heart is Lena Dunham’s first pick for her imprint at Random House, which is a delight since Zhang is a powerful fiction writer who offers an intimate look at girlhood. Karan Mahajan says that the book, which is narrated by daughters of Chinese immigrants, “blasts opens the so-called immigrant narrative.” And Miranda July reveals that Sour Heart will come to “shape the world—not just the literary world, but what we know about reality.” (Zoë)
Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta: Here is how Mrs. Fletcher, the seventh novel by the author behind The Leftovers, begins: a woman named Eve Fletcher gets an anonymous text with a simple and unsubtle message: “U R a MILF!” The message, over the course of several months, drives Mrs. Fletcher to grow obsessed with a MILF-porn website, which leads to some unsavory consequences in her day-to-day life. It doesn’t bode well that she’s also the director of a senior center. (Thom)
The Seventh Function of Language by Laurent Binet: French intellectual history is unlikely whodunit territory, but leave it to Binet to mine comic and genre gold from the milieu of 1980s Paris. Set into motion by the sudden (and real-life) 1980 death of cultural critic Roland Barthes, Binet’s novel features all the literary and cultural heavyweights of the time—Butler, Derrida, Deleuze, Eco, Foucault, and Kristeva—while also, in a Calvino-like touch, including a hunt for a manuscript that purports to unlock hitherto unknown linguistic mysteries. Highbrow hijinks ensue, obviously. (Kirstin)
The Red-Haired Woman by Orhan Pamuk: The 10th novel from Nobel Prize-winning Pamuk, The Red-Haired Woman is a story of fathers, sons, and myths. Master Mahmut, a traditional Turkish well-digger, and his young apprentice work hard at their back-breaking trade, searching for water in a barren land, until an accident changes everything; the “demonic” voice of a red-haired woman haunts the survivor. Allusions to Oedipus Rex and Shanameh, stories of patricide and filicide, fill the novel, but there’s more than a little mystery here as well. And since this is Pamuk, you can be sure to find plenty of musings on the clash between modernism and tradition, new and old. (Kaulie)
New People by Danzy Senna: The fifth book from Senna, whose previous work includes the best-selling novel Caucasia and a memoir, Where Did You Sleep Last Night?, about her parents’ marriage. Like her earlier work, New People explores complex issues of race and class, following two light-skinned black Americans who marry and attempt to have it all in Brooklyn in the 1990s. In her review for The New Republic, Morgan Jerkins writes “What this novel succeeds in is creating a dense psychological portrait of a black woman nearing the close of the 20th century: inquisitive, obsessive, imaginative, alive.” (Lydia)
Autumn by Karl Ove Knausgaard: What’s newsworthy about Autumn is what it is not: it’s not an entry in the epic (and still going) My Struggle, which made Knausgaard famous. Instead, it’s book number one in a new, unrelated project, which the author refers to (naturally) as the Four Seasons Quartet. Conceived as a “lexicon for an unborn child,” the projects consists of hundreds of very short texts, each of which tackles a different everyday object. “Now, as I write this,” the first entry begins, “you know nothing about anything, about what awaits you, the kind of world you will be born into. And I know nothing about you…” (Thom)
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie: Described as “a modern-day Antigone,” Home Fire follows Isma Pasha, a British woman who comes to America in pursuit of her Ph.D., her beautiful younger sister, and their brother, who’s haunted by the legacy of their jihadi father. Add in a rival London family, an increasingly tense political climate, an impossible romance, and remorse in Raqqa, and perhaps you can begin to see the Grecian similarities. The latest novel from Shamsie, whose Burnt Shadows was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction, Home Fire should prove moving and thought-provoking, even for those who never cared much for Antigone. (Kaulie)
The Mountain by Paul Yoon: In his second published story collection, Yoon presents six distinct stories set at various times—past, present, and future—and all across the world. Throughout, characters are linked not by personal connections to one another, but instead by a shared theme: how they reconcile violent, traumatic pasts with their present-day lives. (Nick M.)
The Talented Ribkins by Ladee Hubbard: The Ribkins are quite the talented family. Johnny Ribkins, now 72, can make a precise map of any space, whether he’s been there or not. Johnny’s father could see colors no one else could see. His brother could scale walls. His cousin belches fire. This black American family once used their powers to advance the civil rights movement, but when disillusionment set in, Johnny and his brother turned their talents to a string of audacious burglaries. Now Johnny’s got one week to come up with the money he stole from a mobster—or he’ll swim with the fishes, as they say. Praised by Toni Morrison and Mary Gaitskill, Hubbard arrives on the scene with an auspicious bang. (Bill)
White Plains by Gordon Lish: Would we be highlighting this collection of literary odds and ends from a tiny indie press if its author were not the erstwhile Captain Fiction, editor of Raymond Carver’s early stories, and one of American fiction’s most infamous provocateurs? Probably not. Even the publisher’s own promotional materials expend more words on Lish than on the book he has written, enigmatically subtitled Pieces and Witherings. But whatever else can be said about the man, Lish is among the most influential literary figures of his generation. His own work, though wildly uneven, is worth a read. (Michael)
After Kathy Acker by Chris Kraus: In her life and work, radical punk writer Kathy Acker assaulted the male hegemony of narrative fiction with her transgressive experimental books, including Blood & Guts in High School and her re-appropriation of Great Expectations. As true to these ideals in life, Acker begat a full mythology. “Acker understands that writing without myth is nothing,” writes Kraus, Semiotext(e) editor, author of I Love Dick, and now author of Acker’s first biography. After Kathy Acker, according to Sheila Heti, “feels like it’s being told in one long rush of a monologue over late-night drinks by someone who was there.” (Anne)
Gravel Heart by Abdulrazak Gurnah: Gurnah’s Gravel Heart is a book that may remind some readers of the author’s Man Booker Prize finalist, Paradise. It circles around the falling of a society, herein Zanzibar, in the wake of colonial disruption. The protagonist, Salim, is caught in the midst of all this, and his slow spinning—internally and externally—revolves into a moving portraiture of a man caught in a web of things, hard and difficult. The structure of the book pays homage to William Shakespeare, and it may this that solidifies Gurnah’s ninth novel as an ambitious work worthy of attention. (Chigozie)
My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent: The book industry trades in superlatives, but the buzz for this debut novel stands out. To read it is to become an evangelist for it, apparently, and Stephen King says he’ll remember it forever. It’s about 14-year-old Turtle Alveston and her “tortured but charismatic father,” from whom she’s gradually realized she needs to escape, with the help of her one and only friend and an arsenal of survival skills. (Janet)
Eastman Was Here by Alex Gilvarry: Artistic ambition, intellectual misogyny, and Saigon provide the backdrop for Gilvarry’s second novel, whose Norman Mailer-like protagonist seeks to reclaim his former journalistic eminence by chronicling the end of the Vietnam War. It turns out, however, that no matter how far from home you go, you take your troubles with you; and the titular Eastman finds that his ghosts, like those of the nation that created his oversized public persona, can’t be outrun. Year in Reading alum Saïd Sayrafiezadeh says “Eastman Was Here is a wildly entertaining book, intoxicatingly written and deceptively profound in its insights into the nature of celebrity, country, marriage, war and the pitfalls of being a writer.” (Kirstin)
Stay with Me by Ayobami Adebayo: This debut was described by The Guardian as a “clever and funny take on domestic life and Nigerian society.” Set in the 1980s, the story centers around the familial—and family planning—struggles of a young woman trying to conceive. She does everything she can, including ascending the Mountain of Jaw-Dropping Miracles, goat in tow, only to have her in-laws foist a second, and presumably more fertile, wife, upon her feckless husband. Published earlier this year in Britain, the novel was shortlisted for the Bailey’s Women Prize for Fiction. (Matt)
The Future Won’t Be Long by Jarett Kobek: Kobek had a surprise hit on his hands with 2016’s I Hate The Internet, his self-published satirical novel that lambasted the tech industry’s distortion of San Francisco. After that novel published to favorable reviews—including one from Dwight Garner in The New York Times—and strong sales, Kobek is returning with The Future Won’t Be Long.The forthcoming novel is a prequel to Internet that finds a younger version of Internet’s protagonist, Adeline, as a struggling young artist in New York. Written before Internet, Won’t Be Long tracks Adeline and her friend Baby as they navigate, in Kobek’s words, “the decaying remnants of Punk New York.” We can expect this novel to observe that decay with the same wit that characterized Internet. (Read our interview with him.) (Ismail)
A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton: New Orleans native Sexton’s debut novel tracks the sliding fortunes of three generations of a black family in her hometown, as they move from tenuous middle-class respectability during World War II through the ravages of the War on Drugs, the crack epidemic, and the psychic calamity of Hurricane Katrina, casualties of the American Dream that has unraveled from Jim Crow to Donald Trump. (Bill)
To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts by Caitlin Hamilton Summie: Ten stories whose settings range widely from WWII Kansas City to New York City to western Massachusetts to woodsy Wisconsin to rural Minnesota and the Twin Cities—from a writer who’s been working the biz side of indie publishing for decades. Foreword Reviews writes: “What is remembered; what is missed; what will never be again…all these are addressed with the tenderness of a wise observer whose heart is large enough, kind enough, to embrace them all without judgment…intense and finely crafted.” From Kirkus: “…Summie writes elegantly of Minnesota and northern Wisconsin, with their disappearing farmland, aging population, and winters that are both brutal and engendering of intimacy.” Summie’s debut marks her later-life chapter, and you can read about that in our interview with her here. (Sonya)
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward: Ward returns with her first novel since her National Book Award-winning Salvage the Bones. Ward’s two books between, a memoir (Men We Reaped) and a book of essays she edited (The Fire This Time), deal head-on with racism in America and the woeful ways it’s still deeply embedded in our society. In Sing, Unburied, Sing, Ward’s southern-steeped voice is just as keen and continues to take on the South’s murky history, this time through the young Jojo as he travels with his drug-addicted mother and baby sister as they go to pick up his father just released from prison. (Anne)
Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss: Krauss’s fourth novel follows the lives of two Americans in Israel in alternating chapters. The first character, Jules Epstein, is a recently-divorced, retired lawyer drawn to a rabbi; the second, a novelist named Nicole, is recruited by a mysterious literature professor working on a project about Franz Kafka. Krauss’s novel A History of Love has been rightly praised, but this new book might send people back to her equally intriguing debut, Man Walks into a Room, another investigation of what happens when our lives are radically transformed. (Nick R.)
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng: With her 2014 debut, Everything I Never Told You, Ng proved she is a powerful storyteller of multifaceted families and the women within them forced to make difficult decisions. Her sophomore effort tangles multiple families in a drama of class and race in a Cleveland suburb. When single mother and artist Mia Warren moves to Shaker Heights, she rents from the well-off Richardson family. Of course, the initial fascination with the Warrens turns sour when they are pitted against the Richardsons in a town rift about a family adopting a Chinese-American child. (Tess)
The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott: National Book Award winner McDermott is simply one of the finest living Catholic writers, and her new novel looks to capture the spirit of her previous work: families and cultures strained by the optimism of faith tempered by the suffering of reality. A man’s suicide early in the novel leaves behind his pregnant wife. She is comforted by The Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor, a Brooklyn convent. A generational novel sure to appeal to longtime McDermott fans, and to bring-in new readers as well. (Nick R.)
Five-Carat Soul by James McBride: McBride returns to fiction for the first time since winning the National Book Award for The Good Lord Bird, his masterly novel about the exploits of the doomed abolitionist John Brown and his entourage. McBride’s new book, Five-Carat Soul, is a collection of stories told through the eyes of an antique toy dealer who makes the score of a lifetime; the poor kids in a neighborhood band called the Five-Carat Soul Bottom Bone Band; a mixed-race child who believes he’s the son of Abraham Lincoln; a boxer; a lion; a doctoral student who uncovers a beautifully complicated war story. Five-Carat Soul will thrill fans of McBride’s unmistakable fictional voice. (Bill)
The Golden House by Salman Rushdie: Rushdie’s 13th novel—heralded by his American publisher as a return to realism—is concerned with the lives of the extremely wealthy in Obama-era Manhattan. On Obama’s inauguration day, a mysterious billionaire named Nero Golden and his three adult sons move into a “cloistered community” in Greenwich Village. Their young neighbor René, drawn in by the family’s glamor, finds himself increasingly entangled in their lives, while elsewhere in Manhattan, another billionaire—or, well, perhaps we should go with “self-proclaimed billionaire,” because who knows—begins an improbable campaign for the presidency. (Emily)
The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison: This volume collects the great novelist’s Norton lectures at Harvard University, giving those of us who didn’t get to attend a glimpse at Morrison’s thoughts on race and otherness, and how these things affect literature and lives around the world. The lectures also include revealing discussion of her own novels. With an introduction by Ta-Nehisi Coates. (Lydia)
Dinner at the Center of the Earth by Nathan Englander: Though the latest by Englander takes place on three different continents, at heart it’s a novel about the conflicts of modern Israel. Z, or rather Prisoner Z, has been held at a black site in the desert for close to 12 years, where the only company he’s allowed is a single guard. The one official who knows about him is a comatose figure named The General. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn who Z really is: an American operative who compromised Israeli state secrets. (Thom)
Katalin Street by Magda Szabó: Why does writing this vivid take so long to find its way West? Equal parts lament, paean, and family saga, Szabó’s 1969 novel (and 2007 Prix Cévennes winner) in Len Rix’s legato English translation captures handily the “double tragedy of eastern Europe”—razed by Nazis and rebuilt by Communists. The unquiet spirits of post-war Budapest put meat on the bones of the Soviet joke that “only the past is unpredictable,” and one less-than-silent witness of the sins and slights of a shattered community harbors no illusions about permitting the living to exist peaceably in the soft-focus sentimentality of their survival. (Il’ja)
Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke: I heard Locke—award-winning author of Pleasantville, a writer on Fox’s Empire, and a native of Texas—say that she wanted to write something about the black experience in the South that wasn’t only about prejudice, but showed that complexity and love and joy exist even in oppressive systems. I may be paraphrasing poorly, but I’m excited to read her book, which is about a black Texas Ranger trying to solve the murders of a black lawyer from Chicago and a local white woman. (Janet)
The Living Infinite by Chantel Acevedo: Acevedo’s third novel is a retelling of the life of the Spanish princess Eulalia, born four years before the revolution that removed her mother, Queen Isabella II, from the Spanish throne. After an upbringing in the Spanish court and in exile, Eulalia traveled first to Cuba and then to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, with secret hopes of finding a publisher for her scandalous memoir. (Emily)
The Twelve-Mile Straight by Eleanor Henderson: It is 1930, in Cotton County, Ga., and Elma Jesup, a white sharecropper’s daughter, gives birth to two babies, one light-skinned, the other dark. A field hand is accused of her rape, lynched, and dragged behind a truck down a road known as the Twelve-Mile Straight. So begins this second novel by the author of the radically different Ten Thousand Saints, set in New York’s gritty Lower East Side in the 1980s. “This is the kind of novel you sink into, live inside,” says Victor LaValle, author of The Changeling, about The Twelve-Mile Straight. (Michael)
Draft No. 4 by John McPhee: McPhee has been producing lithe nonfiction pieces like “Uncommon Carriers,” “The Ransom of Russian Art,” and “Coming Into the Country” for The New Yorker for 54 years. That alone should provide sufficient incentive to sit up and listen when the man offers a primer in the how, the why, the who, and the humor of getting at the story without sacrificing the art. And that’s what Draft No. 4 is: eight crunchily practical, previously published New Yorker essays/workshops on the craft of creative nonfiction. Written by the departmental dean, no less. (Il’ja)
A Loving, Faithful Animal by Josephine Rowe: Rowe’s two previous books—How a Moth Becomes a Boat and Tarcutta Wake—were collections that walked the line between short fiction and prose poetry. A Loving, Faithful Animal, her exquisite first novel, is concerned with the long shadow of war across generations. Rowe tells the story of a fractured family in 1990s Australia after the father, a Vietnam War veteran, leaves home. (Emily)
Border by Kapka Kassabova: When Kassabova was a child growing up in Iron Curtain-era Bulgaria, the country’s isolated southern borderland—where Bulgaria meets Turkey and Greece—was rumored to be a relatively easy crossing point into the West, and so the region swarmed with migrants, soldiers, and spies. In Border, a work of narrative reportage, Kassabova returns to a region whose natural beauty is matched only by the complexity of its political and cultural landscapes: the Communist-era spies have long since departed, but the borderland, Mark Mazower wrote recently in The Guardian, remains “an environment that does not spare the unlucky or the vulnerable.” (Emily)
The Doubles by Scott Esposito: Esposito wears many literary hats as founder of lit blog Conversational Reading and its companion journal Quarterly Conversation; as director at Two Lines Press; and as a columnist at Lit Hub writing on strategies for enduring the Trump Presidency. With The Doubles, he turns his focus to film and through film, back to his own life. Mathew Specktor writes that through this prism, Esposito “arrives at something magnificent: a work of sustained criticism that is itself a work of high art and a profound meditation on how the art we see becomes who we are.” (Anne)
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan: Six years after her quirkily brilliant novel-in-stories A Visit from the Goon Squad won the Pulitzer, Egan is back with a noirish historical novel set in wartime Brooklyn. At the Brooklyn Naval Yard, Anna Kerrigan becomes the nation’s first female diver, repairing ships that will help America win World War II. Through a chance encounter, she meets nightclub owner Dexter Styles, who she hopes can help her solve the riddle of her father’s disappearance years before. (Michael)
Fresh Complaint by Jeffrey Eugenides: Surprisingly, this is Eugenides’s first collection of short fiction—a debut of sorts from an author best known for his novels, especially his sprawling, Pulitzer Prize-winning saga, Middlesex. The stories in this collection span Eugenides’s 25-year career, and many were originally published in The New Yorker, including the story “Baster,” which was adapted into the 2010 romantic comedy The Switch. (Hannah)
Dogs at the Perimeter by Madeleine Thien: After the massive success of Man Booker Prize shortlisted Do Not Say We Have Nothing, the world has realized that Thien is one of the most gifted and powerful novelists writing today. Her previous novel, Dogs at the Perimeter, set in Cambodia during the regime of the Khmer Rouge and in present day Montreal, explores the aftermath of war. It was published in Canada 2011 and will now be released in the U.S. for the first time. Welcome to the party. (Claire)
We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates: A collection of new and previously published essays on the Obama years, from the writer whose access to and insights about the former president were beautifully documented in The Atlantic essay “My President Was Black.” The new collection includes an interview with Obama. (Lydia)
A Field Guide to the North American Family by Garth Risk Hallberg: A decade after it first appeared, Hallberg’s debut illustrated novella is being reissued in a newly designed edition. It arrives two years after Hallberg, a contributing editor at The Millions, published his breathtaking first novel, City on Fire. Field Guide consists of 63 interlinked vignettes with accompanying photographs and annotations, which probe the inner workings of two families in the New York suburbs. The book’s subtitle would have delighted John James Audubon: “Concerning chiefly the Hungates and Harrisons, with accounts of their habits, nesting, dispersion, etc., and full descriptions of the plumage of both adult and young, with a taxonomic survey of several aspects of family life.” Taxonomic is the perfect word for this gorgeously executed little marvel. (Bill)
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado: Machado is a talented essayist; particularly notable are her pieces for The New Yorker, including “O Adjunct! My Adjunct!,” one of the finest examinations of the adjunct crisis in America. Her fiction deals with more surreal fears, with sharply-drawn pieces like “Horror Story” in Granta: “It started so small: a mysteriously clogged drain; a crack in the bedroom window.” Stories like “The Husband Stitch” are marvels of language and experimentation. A fiction debut to watch. (Nick R.).
Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks: Yes, it is that Tom Hanks. A collection of 17 short stories involving typewriters, which the author also collects in real life. This is the debut collection of the 60-year-old cinema lion. According to The Guardian, everything came together for Hanks as a fiction writer when he published this story in The New Yorker in 2014. (Lydia)
The King Is Always Above the People by Daniel Alarcón: Award-winning writer Alarcón returns with a new short story collection that features a wide range of memorable characters. The King Is Always Above the People examines immigration, Latin American families, Los Angeles, and much more. Alarcón has received much critical acclaim for his previous books and his most recent novel, At Night We Walk in Circles, was a finalist for the 2014 Pen-Faulkner Award. (Zoë)
Here in Berlin by Cristina García: The Cuban-born American writer García—novelist, journalist, poet, anthologist, and National Book Award finalist—transports us to Berlin for her seventh novel. An unnamed Visitor, armed with a camera, goes spelunking in the German capital, seeking to reckon with the city’s tangled, living history. The result is a series of snapshots: a Cuban teenager taken as a POW on a German submarine; a female lawyer still haunted by her childhood in the bombed-out suburbs of Berlin; the son of a Berlin zookeeper who fought to protect the animals from both bombs and a starving human populace. These and other ghosts still walk the streets of García’s bewitching contemporary Berlin. (Bill)
A Natural by Ross Raisin: Named one of Granta’s “Best Young British Novelists” in 2013 and the author of books (God’s Own Country, Waterline) about intense loners, Raisin places his latest protagonist within a more communal setting: a soccer (or rather football) club. The novel follows a young, gay player navigating the sporting world. As Raisin explained in an interview, the subject threw some British publishers off, who explained their reasoning thusly: “We don’t know how to sell it to women because it’s about football, but at the same time we don’t know how we sell it to football supporters because it’s got gay in it.” Quite the dilemma, but thankfully not all were scared off the pitch. (Matt)
Ferocity by Nicola Lagioia: Ferocity is the latest from Europa Editions, which also publishes Elena Ferrante (as well as gems like Treasure Island!!! and The Elegance of Hedgehog). Pitched as Gillian Flynn meets Jonathan Franzen, Ferocity won the 2015 Strega Prize, Italy’s preeminent fiction prize, and concerns a dead woman, her brother who’s set on figuring out what happened to her, and Southern Italy in the 1980s. Sign me up. (Edan)
Vacationland by John Hodgman: Known variously for his work on The Daily Show, his podcast and New York Times Magazine column—both titled “Judge John Hodgman”—his role as “the PC” in those Mac commercials in the aughts, and three books of fake facts, Hodgman is a unique and hilarious public figure. Hodgman’s new book—a memoir about fatherhood, aging, travel, and his home state of Massachusetts—is the most (maybe the first) unironic thing in his career. (Janet)
Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich: A new offering from Erdrich on the heels of her National Book Critics Circle Award win for LaRose last year. The new book takes place during an environmental cataclysm—evolution has begun reversing itself, and pregnant women are being rounded up and confined. A pregnant woman who was adopted in infancy from her Ojibwe birth mother returns to her mother’s reservation to pursue her own origin story even while society crumbles around her. (Lydia)
Don’t Save Anything by James Salter: November 2017. I remember hearing Salter read his heartbreaking story “Last Night” to a captivated audience in Newark, N.J., at Rutgers University—it was a moment of shared intimacy that I’ve rarely experienced at a reading. Salter had a presence both on and off the page. Don’t Save Anything collects Salter’s previously uncollected non-fiction; essays that appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, People, and elsewhere. The book’s title comes from a line from one of Salter’s final interviews: “You try to put everything you have in a book. That is, don’t save anything for the next one.” (Nick R.)
Mean by Myriam Gurba: In her coming-of-age nonfiction novel about growing up queer and Chicana, Gurba takes on misogyny, racism, homophobia, and classism with cutting humor. Mean will make you LOL and break your heart. Mean has already received advance praise from brilliant, badass feminist writers Jill Soloway, Michelle Tea, and Wendy C. Ortiz. Gurba’s previous book Dahlia Season won the Edmund White Award and was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. (Zoë)
Houses of Ravicka by Renee Gladman: This fall Dorothy Project publishes Houses of Ravicka, the fourth book in Gladman’s series of novels set in the city-state of Ravicka and told in the author’s nimble prose. The books catalog the intricacies of language and architecture and their intersection—something Gladman’s recent Prose Architectures from Wave Press does quite literally. As The Renaissance Society notes, “Gladman approaches language as a space to enter and travel within, and her writing is attuned to the body as it moves through architectures of thought and experience.” In this latest volume, Ravicka’s comptroller tracks the ways the houses in the city-state shift with time. (Anne)
The World Goes On by László Krasznahorkai: The Hungarian author has described his style as “fun in hell.” With this, the seventh! New Directions translation of his work, English language hell just got even more fun. A giant with an H2O fixation and a Portuguese child quarry slave on a quest for the surreal are just two of the characters met in this short story collection that examines the practicalities of cultural entropy, and stylistically sacrifices little of the author’s depth, range, and extraordinary stacking of subordinate clauses. These stories should provide the uninitiated with a workable introduction to Krasznahorkai and his formidable oeuvre. (Il’ja)
Heather, the Totality by Matthew Weiner: The creator of Mad Men and former writer and producer for The Sopranos applies his screenwriting chops to literary fiction with this debut novel. Set in a privileged milieu in modern-day New York, it’s been described as “a dark fable,” “a collision course,” and, most intriguingly, by Philip Pullman, as a story characterized by an “ice-cold mercilessness reminiscent of Evelyn Waugh.” At 144 pages, this novel apparently cuts to the chase and doesn’t spare any of its characters. (Hannah)
Radio Free Vermont by Bill McKibben: Is it a surprise that the debut novel from one of our best-known environmental activists focuses on grassroots resistance? In backwoods Vermont, two radicals use an underground radio show to recruit people interested in seceding from the United States. What follows is a zany, witty, and altogether timely imagination of modern resistors. (Nick M.)
They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib: A collection of essays on music, culture, and personal history from the poet and Year in Reading alum (and MTV News writer, before MTV News made their woeful decision to “pivot to video”). Terrance Hayes writes, “Abdurraqib bridges the bravado and bling of praise with the blood and tears of elegy.” (Lydia)
The Vanishing Princess by Jenny Diski: British writer Diski won a wide following with a strikingly clear-eyed chronicle of her battle with the lung cancer that killed her last year at the age of 68. The Vanishing Princess, her only collection of short stories, is now available in the U.S. for the first time, and it will be welcomed by fans of Diski’s piercing nonfiction and dreamlike novels. In the story “Short Circuit,” Diski mines her own stays in mental institutions to pose an old but not unreasonable question: are the people we regard as mad the truly sane ones? (Bill)
Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Şafak: Şafak is one of Turkey’s most popular novelists, and her fiction and nonfiction has been translated around the world. Three Daughters of Eve, her 10th novel, takes place in contemporary Istanbul, but looks back on an earlier era, as Peri, a wealthy housewife, recalls her friendship with two fellow students at Oxford University. Together, these three young women became close through their studies, debating the role of women in Islam, and falling under the influence of a charismatic but controversial professor. The scandal that broke them apart still haunts Peri. (Hannah)
Helen Garner was born in Geelong, Australia, in 1942. She’s been a key figure in Australian letters since 1977, when she published Monkey Grip, a short novel that confronted readers with the grit and lyricism they’ve since accepted as Garner’s trademarks. It was an appropriately bold start — Garner had reaped a whirlwind of controversy in the early ‘70s when she gave frank answers to high school students she taught when they asked questions on matters of sexuality. She lost that job and launched herself as a writer, though she’s said that even with the publication of her first book, there wasn’t some grand shift in her identity. She wrote, then as now, to figure things out, to probe and test her ideas and preconceptions. She’s kept at it through four novels and half a dozen books of nonfiction, through awards — most recently the Nonfiction and Premier’s Awards at the Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards — and controversy, as in the aftermath of The First Stone, which so aggrieved “the academic feminists and the Women’s Studies people.”
She writes before we meet to say I will know her, “by [her] unfashionable appearance.” It’s charming if unnecessary, this bit of self-deprecation, not least because she’s standing front and center on the cover of her most recent book, Everywhere I Look. I’d recognize her anywhere, I think, and sure enough, she’s dressed much the way she is in that cover photo when I find her in the hotel lobby. She’s small and neat, with a direct gaze and soft-set, intelligent eyes behind steel-rimmed glasses, her hair swept back from her face. There’s a moment just after I sit down across from her and introduce myself when she stiffens, as if to brace for the unpleasantness to come. I’ve maybe surprised her — she’s on a sofa, reading and doesn’t see me approach — and whether it’s for that reason or not, I can’t begrudge her the moment’s instinctive caution. I’ve read past interviews and profiles beforehand, as one does, and I’m prepared for the prospect that I’m entering the den of Helen Garner: Grouchy Literary Lioness. That prospect strikes me as vanishingly slim, based on her work. I think in particular of a moment’s reflection in “Suburbia,” when she writes of coming across a documentary about Barry Humphries, of Dame Edna Everage fame, on TV several years ago:
It showed black and white footage from the 1950s: a man in tightly rolled up shirtsleeves polishing his new FJ Holden with exaggeratedly vigorous arm movements; a bunch of unsmiling middle-aged women in horn-rimmed spectacles and hats like meringues. These people were offered to us viewers for our mockery. But in the 1950s I was a provincial Australian schoolgirl. I lived back then, in a suburb in Geelong. In that documentary footage I saw nothing to sneer at. What struck me was the man’s cheerful pride and energy. I saw the woman’s shyness, their anxiety about being no longer young, their uncertainty about whether they would be considered fashionable or attractive; and my heart cracked.
And so, I’m more expectant that I’ll meet Helen Garner from Geelong, a provincial girl who moved to the city, made a big name for herself, and has seen something of the world, all while searching for ways to afford the people she meets the same dignity she wants for herself. She doesn’t disappoint.
The Millions: I saw that someone called you “a counterculture Joan Didion.” There’s another comparison I like better: Colette.
Helen Garner: Colette! I’ve hardly ever read Colette, to tell the truth. I must’ve read some many, many years ago. I’ll try again.
TM: The reason I say this is, you read Colette’s things and you think, maybe it’s an occasional piece, maybe it’s a short story, and you really can’t tell the difference a lot of the time.
HG: That appeals to me greatly. It was funny, the other night in New Haven, we had a reading on the last night of the [Windham-Campbell] Festival. When I stood up to read, I read “The Insults of Age,” and I was the last one to read, and I stood up and I said, ‘I’m going to read an essay and it’s called–” and I thought, “Is this an essay?” And I had this moment of thinking, “Shouldn’t I have said ‘story?’” And I thought, ah, fuck it, I’ll just read it. And I read it, and everybody roared with laughter, so that was really nice.
TM: Aleksandar Hemon says there are no words for fiction or nonfiction in Bosnian, Croation, and Serbian. He had to call [The Book of My Lives] “true stories.” But the takeaway seemed to be that the line [between fiction and nonfiction] is porous and not all that important.
HG: It’s a strange thing to feel at ease in something that isn’t really a form and that you don’t know what it is. And so people say to me, ‘What do you write?’ People I haven’t met before, they say, ‘What sort of things do you write?’ And they just automatically assume that you write novels. And I say, ‘Oh, well, I used to write fiction, but now I write, um,’ and I go blank. If you say nonfiction to people who haven’t thought about all this, they don’t know what you’re talking about.
TM: It’s fascinating, because the novel has such great cultural power imaginatively, I think, and the writer is a romantic figure to people, but as far as people reading a novel and being invested in who the specific writer is, and the arc of an individual’s career, I’m not sure that’s so anymore on such a broad basis.
HG: I’m interested in this because I used to be married to a writer called Murray Bail. He was a kind of autodidact, and a very severe person, like autodidacts sometimes are. They apply strictures to things, and he thought that the novel was the absolutely preeminent form in literature, better than poetry, better than anything, and anything else was really kind of not worth doing. And so this caused difficulties between us, and it’s probably one reason why I shifted away from fiction, and I didn’t do this with conscious intent, but firstly I wrote The First Stone, which got me in a lot of trouble, but at that point I was thinking I was going to write a magazine article, but it kind of blew out into something bigger. And suddenly, bang, I was on the bestseller list week after week, and started making a lot of money, and people were coming up to me in the street, you know, some abusively and some favorably, but I think this wasn’t much fun for him, and there was some difficult stuff around there. But the thing was, I realized I was comfortable in that form, writing like that, and I’d always written between books, I’d always made a living by writing features, so it was just a matter of taking two extra steps and there I was. I sort of wish I didn’t have to argue, that I could just write a book, and say ‘This is a book by Helen Garner, and maybe you’ll enjoy it and this is what it’s about.’ But bookshops like to know if it’s fiction or not.
TM: I was thinking about The Spare Room, and the Helen character, how people found her unlikable a lot of the time. There were a couple of things that came to mind. You I’m sure saw Claire Messud had written The Woman Upstairs, and this interviewer asked her about the character being so unlikable, and she said she felt like it filled a void in the sense that there are probably a shortage of unlikable woman characters, and often we expect women not to show anger.
HG: That’s the exact point. That book, The Spare Room, it really interested me that a lot of men criticized the book for its anger. Not many women did. I think I know why, I mean here’s my guess, that women who are supposed to be looking after somebody, well obviously they just fall into a maternal archetype. And I think men, especially older men, younger men didn’t seem to have this problem with it, but for example, David Malouf reproached me for the amount of anger that was in the book. He said it was too angry. I do know him, I mean we’ve known each other for years, but he reproached me, and I was shocked. But I can’t help thinking there are men who still somewhere deep inside them have an unconscious fantasy that one day they’ll be helpless again. And they don’t want the person who’s going to be looking after them to be thinking, ‘Fuck you, I wish you’d die in the night.’ Nobody wants that, they don’t, but then, I was terribly taken aback by this. You know, the critics would say, this is great writing, it’s really wonderful, she’s at the peak of her powers and all that kind of shit, but there’s this awful anger and I hated it and it was ugly and how could she have been so cruel? But around this time, I was invited to speak at the annual general meeting of an organization called Carers Australia, and I don’t do much of that sort of speaking, but I got this letter from them saying, would I address their general meeting, and I thought, hey, there’d be people there who know what it’s like to look after somebody long term.
I walked in and I thought, I don’t know what i’m going to say. I walked in and I just looked around, and in that room there were scores of people, most of them women but some men, who had the kind of look of weary endurance. And I’m talking about people who’d had, say, a [special needs child] who was now, like, 6’4”, and that was their life. And there were people there who had children in wheelchairs, anyway we’re talking long term care. People who’ve gone to hell and they haven’t come back. They’ve got to live there and they’ve got to make a life, and it’s terribly impressive. Anyway, so I thought in this company, I can talk about this. So I basically said that, and I said, I’ve been criticized for this book, for the anger in it, and they laughed. They didn’t laugh uproariously, but one of them came up to me at the end, and she said, ‘Helen, never be ashamed of the anger.’ She said, ‘We all feel it. We all feel it. Don’t ever be ashamed, and don’t feel guilty about it.’
TM: There seem to be a lot of women, readers and writers I mean, who are very invested in you. You’re someone’s Janet Malcolm, as it were.
HG: Yeah. Well, there are also lot of women who are invested in hating my guts forever, and that’s what came out of The First Stone, when I kind of crossed the academic feminists and the Women’s Studies people. There were some people who never got over that, but that doesn’t worry me anymore, because I get quite a lot, well not a lot, but I have had letters from people who’ve said, I was a student when your book came out, and I put shit on you, and I refused to read the book because I knew what it was supposed to say, and now I’ve been out in the world, and I’m really sorry. They were really quite funny letters, saying, “What an idiot I was!” And one woman said, “We all ran around town blowing the shrill whistles of outrage.” And I thought, great, you just have to live a few more years for it to pan out.
TM: What about the people who are a bit overawed, a bit too fervent?
HG: That’s kind of embarrassing, but by the same token, every now and then people, especially this latest book, Everywhere I Look, I’ve had these really sweet letters from people. Not adoring, worshipping ones, but ones saying, “I’m sending you this little scarf that I knitted. I think you might like it.” This other woman sent me, after The Spare Room came out, I had a little parcel from this woman, and I open it up, and there’s a note in it that says, “Dear Helen, I read in The Spare Room that when your friend was sick, you gave her a hot water bottle and it was wrapped in a tea towel,” she said, “so I’m sending you two hot water bottle covers that I made,” and she said, “I made them out of old Japanese kimono material. These are things that I make.” She’s obviously an artist. These two glorious things, with little ribbons around their neck, but there was something kind of dry and funny about the way she did it. She didn’t say, “Aw, I adore you, and here, please use these.”
TM: What have you been reading where contemporary writing’s concerned? How about Australian writers?
HG: I’ve been reading Svetlana Alexievich. She’s fucking awesome. I spend a lot of time reading that kind of stuff, but I read novels from the ‘40s and ‘50s by English writers. I’ll tell you a terrific Australian novel that was published last year, by Joan London, it’s called The Golden Age. I loved it. It’s very, very good, but she’s a quiet person, she lives in Western Australia, which is a component of the story, and she’s a beautiful writer.
TM: You’d written that David Malouf writes a paragraph and keeps it as a tuning fork for the tone of a piece.
HG: That makes me think of a writer that I absolutely adore, Charles Portis. He was a journalist, and some of those novels of his, they’ve got this perfect voice. I’ve read True Grit about a hundred times. When he’s got that Mattie Ross talking, I read somewhere that he used to have to coordinate the stringers, people in the furthest flung parts of Arkansas or wherever they were, and a lot of them were women, and that’s where he must’ve gotten that voice from, that sort of rather strict voice but full of this kind of gutsy contempt for falseness.
TM: I did want to ask you about your diary because you’ve published parts of it, and obviously if you’re keeping a diary every single day, which is what you’ve said, there’s a lot more.
HG: Yeah, heaps. There’s crate after crate.
TM: I had talked to James Salter, who did the same thing [kept a daily journal], toward the end of his life, and I said, “Are you thinking about doing anything with these?” And he looked back at them, and he said he couldn’t publish them yet because there were so many people’s names in there who are still alive, and the things he’d written about them weren’t meant for public consumption. And he said, the big thing he came away with is thinking how much life he wrote down and just didn’t use in fiction.
HG: Same. There’s so much there that I don’t know what to do with it. But I’ll think about it. You know, it’s very tempting to do something super rational, like burning everything. I have had two big burnings.
TM: You’re making me think of the Writers’ Pyre, which came up in one of your diaries, where a group of writers got together and read a piece they’d written and wanted to do away with for one reason or another.
HG: They didn’t invite me to the Writers’ Pyre, but I wish they had. But I burnt all my diaries when I left home to go to university, when I was 18. I just burnt the lot, but there wasn’t very much, just a few exercise books, and I didn’t want my mother to read them. Then, about 10 years ago, I burnt a whole lot up to, well, what happened was, I was thinking about this particular political [event], the Labour government in what must’ve been 1975, and it was quite radical, and it did all sorts of fantastic things, but it was economically hopeless, and the other side got organized and basically, there was a double dissolution and they fired them, and it was called “The Dismissal,” and it was a great wound in the modern political la-di-da. So, I was just thinking about it, and I said, “I wonder what I wrote about that at the time.” I thought, I’ll go and get it out, so I dived into the pack, I found the date, and I hadn’t even mentioned it. And I thought, ‘Oh. This is worse than I thought.” And again I started reading all around, and the whole thing was just so whiny and adolescent, and you know, I was 30 or something. So it was like the worst sort of diary keeping that women and girls do, which was “He did me wrong, and I’m sick of it, and he’s wounding me,” and all this crap, so I just kept reading slightly forward in time, and I got to a part where there was a switch, and suddenly it was like I opened a door and the world came in. So I burnt all the bits up to then. I just kept a few things that my daughter had, little drawings she’d done and little stories and things like that, I kept all that in a folder. Also, Monkey Grip came out of that period, so I have never regretted this act, not for a single second, but now I wouldn’t. But it was almost like [the change in tone] was from one day to the next, and I don’t know what made it change, but suddenly there were dialogues written out, or there were descriptions of places and strangers that I’d met.
TM: So suddenly it became sort of a writer’s diary.
HG: I guess, yeah, that’s what it was. So you’ve put your finger on it, because maybe that was the turning point. That was after I’d published a book.
TM: Well you’ve said that the first book happened and you still didn’t feel consciously like anything was different, or that it had set you on some path that you absolutely had to stick to.
HG: Not consciously, no, I didn’t. But I think perhaps it did. Yeah, that’s interesting. I’m going to tell you something really shocking that happened the other day in New Haven. Do you know a woman called Amy Hungerford? Anyway, she was chairing this session, and there was me, Tessa Hadley and Hilton Als as part of this panel. We were talking about why you write certain books and how you don’t know why you’re writing them, and I said I don’t know why I chose to write a book about a man who chose to drive his kids into a dam and left them and ran away. And she said, but don’t you remember? In The Spare Room, she said, the narrator is driven so insane by her sick friend that she’s driving along the street and she has this fantasy that she’ll drive the car into a tree, the friend will die, and she’ll get out and run away? I was so shocked. But I kind of felt relieved, because strangely, when I look back on it, the two books kind of overlapped slightly in time, because I’d started going to the Farquharson trials when my friend came to stay. So anyway, there, that gave me a terrible shock, and there must be more of those traces that I’ve left behind.
TM: Do you read other writers’ diaries?
HG: The last one that I looked at was Witold Gombrowicz. Well I read about it, you know in the TLS, or, “What I Plan to Read This Summer.” I always like that better than the ones that say, “This is what I read this year.” This woman, whoever she was, said “I’m going to read Gombrowicz’s diary,” and she put a little quote from it, it said, “I felt hungry, so I went downstairs and I went to the shop and I bought myself a sandwich and I ate it,” and she said, “That’s why I’m going to read these diaries.” And I thought, “Yes!” and I rushed to the shop and I bought the book and of course it’s like a doorstopper of a thing, and I’d never read any of his work. I didn’t know anything about him, how he went to Argentina and lived there right during the war, and he was in torment all the time, but he’s very kind of like, The Angry Pole. I dip into them, but I don’t read straight through. And I’ve looked a million times over the years at Virginia Woolf’s diaries, of course. Who else have I read? Probably heaps but I can’t think of any right now. No, I don’t go looking for them, no.
TM: I’d go letters, then diaries.
HG: Oh, you read writers’ letters?
TM: Yeah. Actually, I wish people still wrote letters.
HG: My diary’s all handwritten, and I like to write letters. I’ve always loved writing letters, and I know that the landscape is thickly coated with letters from me, up until about 10 years ago, when i started to do email. But I really miss it. I love to get a letter.
TM: There’s a different charge to that than an email.
HG: Yeah, totally. The only person I correspond with, in letters — no, there’s two — is Tim Winton, he lives in WA [Western Australia], so we write to each other. He’s the sort of guy, though, who can write a 14-page letter without turning a hair, and the other is a painter friend of mine who lives in Sydney, a guy called Tom Carment, and we write to each other, too. He writes in pencil on little scraps of paper when he’s out. He’s the sort of artist that goes out and draws and paints outdoors, and he does quite small, lovely works, beautiful painter. I love his work and I love his way of seeing things. He likes to tell what’s happened with his kids, or he tells who just walked past. He’s a lovely letter writer.
TM: Nobody does that anymore. It just doesn’t fit [emails] somehow.
HG: No, it’s a great loss. It’s just very intimate. I think people don’t want that sort of intimacy. I’m shocked by how, oddly in New York it’s not like this — people tend to greet you, strangers will give you eye contact and nod — this is something that seems to be dying out in Australia. You find that people just act as if you’re not there, quite often, and that’s part of the insults of age factor, I think, if you’re outside that erotic part of life, erotic in the broader sense, it’s not like they trample you. It’s just like they walk past without giving you eye contact.
TM: It seems a lot of people find those granular, day-to-day interactions are easier to skip over.
HG: I think old people, that’s a privilege of getting older, is that you can actually strike up conversations and people aren’t threatened by you. You know, there’s something I love about where I work. I just have an office in a little office building in a suburb of Melbourne, and it’s right opposite the big central hospital, the Royal Melbourne Hospital, and in the basement, the ground floor of it, there’s a great big cafeteria, and I often go there at lunchtime just to get a sandwich.
TM: People watching in the cafeteria?
HG: Yeah, but not just watching them. You can strike up a conversation with anyone in a hospital, because everyone’s in extremis or they’re really worried or else they’ve got their arm in a sling, or they’ve got a drip in their arm and they’re sitting there.
TM: It takes you out of regular life.
HG: Yeah, and so you can say, Oh, what happened to your arm?’ ‘Ah, I come off my tractor,’ and then they tell you the whole story and I love it, I could spend hours in there. But I get the same feeling from that, being there, I recognize from being in the court. When I walk into a court, there’s this zing of adrenaline, because people around you are in a state. And when people talk to you, they don’t just bide the time.
TM: Well, there are stakes attached to what they’re talking about. It’s a world unto itself. I’m trying to think of what other situations would be similar.
HG: Those are the only two that I know. I must’ve experienced it, but restaurants, it’s not the same. It’s just that those are places of trauma, I suppose, where you can be a stranger there and not be in trauma yourself, and you can just be there.
TM: It’s acceptable to be vulnerable there.
HG: Maybe that’s what it is, yeah. I remember once having to go and get a mammogram, and there were a whole bunch of women, and we were all sitting around, and you’d go and get the mammogram, and then you’d wait for the results. So there was maybe six or seven women, and we’re all strangers to each other, and we’re sitting around this waiting room and we all got to, everyone was talking quite intimately. And I guess I was there for three quarters of an hour, and every now and then the nurse would come out and call your name, and you’d go and she’d say, ‘You’re okay, you’re clear,’ and you can go home. And so, when my name was called, I got up and she says to me, ‘All clear, you can go home.’ And I looked around to say goodbye to the women and they all looked and they all reached out and they all touched me. It was kind of like they wanted a piece of my luck? But it was so lovely, they smiled and said, ‘Oh, fantastic! That’s such good news.’
TM: That’s a gracious moment, what with you all also being so worried about yourselves.
HG: Yeah, it was a moment of grace, exactly.