Because my own book was released in March, and because I’ve never done this before—the tour, the interviews, the reviews, my teaching jobs, all at once—my 2019 reading was terribly inconsistent, with jags and starts, some devoured-in-one-sitting-books and some long-plane-ride-crying-books and many books I had to abandon because they made me feel too sad or too jealous or too dark or they made my mushy brain work too hard. I let go of any book that lacked sincerity in 2019; I plan to maintain that rule. Still, I’ve never in my life felt more grateful to return to words at the beginning or end of my days, to sit still and awed at the marvelous work of others and remember the only point of my little life: that zing, that achey divine something that comes when you fully believe the world someone has created for you and then your own bedroom or hotel room or subway car feels a little more romantic and detailed and bright because of it. Here’s a very incomplete list of works that made my year immeasurably better.
Dani Shapiro’s Inheritance and Sarah McColl’s Joy Enough made me feel cared for the way some books do, books that answer the particular questions you’ve been gripping at, that seem to say I know, yup, I hear you. Jaquira Díaz and Kristen Arnett’s powerhouses, Ordinary Girls and Mostly Dead Things, respectively, reminded me of home, of the fire and weird wonder of where we’re from, the sweaty creeping queer-as-fuck Florida I most want to read about. Both of Sally Rooney’s books felt like goddamn candy after long days, and Jesus she is funny as shit and I feel like people miss that when talking about her.
Esmé Weijun Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias read like a tremendously generous guide on how to be a better person, a greater listener, and Starling Days by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan did the same. I listened to Danielle Lazarin’s Back Talk on audio and texted her whenever the actor mispronounced our Inwood street names, but jokes aside Danielle’s work reads like a hug (a really fucking smart hug? what does that mean?) and I’m so grateful to her and every writer writing High Goddamn Serious Literature about Girlhood. Fuck yes.
I reread the stories of James Salter and Jamaica Kincaid and Elizabeth Bishop and Kenzaburo Ōe because sometimes I forget how to write a sentence, and marveled at Amy Hempel’s new collection Sing to It, which, like all of Hempel’s work, changes its terms on you so quickly, sometimes between two little words, in ways that’ll knife-twist your dumbly blinking face. For my classes I read and reread Outline by Rachel Cusk, We the Animals by Justin Torres, I Love Dick by Chris Kraus, Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima, Mean by Myriam Gurba, Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick, and Syllabus by Lynda Barry (my queen, my hero, my everything).
I fell asleep most nights to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. Once upon a time I fell in love with writing because of Jayne Anne Phillips’s collection Black Tickets, and this year Kimberly King Parsons’s Black Light made me feel that same pang of joy-shock when words are so charged they carry their own vibrations. Miriam Toews’s Women Talking made me feel like oh, that’s how a genius does this, and same for Chelsea Bieker’s forthcoming cult-novel (no, literally, it’s about a fucked-to-the-hills birthing cult) Godshot, which is the kind of novel that comes around every decade, maybe, the kind of book that made me feel it was meant for me (is there a greater feeling than that?).
Rick Moody’s memoir The Long Accomplishment was so graceful and so packed with heart and wisdom and sincerity, and Mathea Morais’s There You Are made my heart hurt in similar lit-up ways. I am stunned by the beauty of Chanel Miller’s writing in Know My Name (people will talk about the story, the headline; I want to talk about her prose), and, on that note, Carrie Goldberg’s Nobody’s Victim should be required reading for all. I was fortunate enough to read and perform the texts from As I Hear the Rain, PEN America’s 2019 American Prison Writing Anthology, which is a miraculous cross-genre collection of really great really urgent writing.
Cyrus Grace Dunham’s A Year Without a Name is another life-changing world-warping (really, I’m obsessed) book I’ve now read and reread several times this year, with writing and imagery so lush and so good it’ll leave you hot and choking on vines. It’s still November, and I’m making my way through my final books of the year, but I can tell you Brandon Taylor’s Real Life, Garth Greenwell’s Cleanness, C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills Is Gold, and Genevieve Hudson’s Boys of Alabama have me rotating through them so none will end too soon. Taylor’s writing the best prose out there; Greenwell’s got a sex scene in this one that left me WEEPING; Zhang’s golden epic will be an instant classic; Hudson is rewriting the fairy tale, rewriting the body, with sentences like spun dirt and knuckle and all things true.
Lastly, I must shout out the many, many yet-to-be-published book manuscripts of my students, books that have left me as breathless as I am hopeful for the landscape to come. How grateful I am.
I almost had a tarot reading this year (or last, my memory is not great). I have a special relationship with magic of that kind; it’s forbidden. I had a deep-woods old-school church kind of perspective programmed in me that said Ouija boards and tarot cards and conjure-woman mumbo jumbo were conduits of dark spirts. Don’t play with dark spirts. Once you let them in, you might not be able to let them out. Starting a new book for me feels like sitting down to a tarot reading. Before the deck is cut and the cards are dealt there is a promise looming, something that could be condemnation or a salve. There is still time to change my mind, to say no thank you, Ms. Magic Lady, your curtains are weird and I’m going to go grab a snack. Getting to the end of a book is the real flip of the card, when I can’t say no thank you to the spell, I can’t say my future is my own, I am compelled to grip the chair, press on to see and be changed. I read a lot of effing books this year, but so far these are the ones that I experienced from beginning to end and once complete turned them over again and again in my hands to shake one more word of destiny from the paper.
Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill is the kind of book that is more of an experience than a read. It isn’t hyperbolic or dazzling the way some highly stylized narratives can be, a sort of smelly circus that alarms as well as entertains. This novel is quiet and hilarious, every word is the thing you need to hear when the end of the world happens. I think I planned to write this novel or live this novel years ago. That is how it leaves you.
We the Animals by Justin Torres is another tiny novel with epic, crushing force. I love narrators that exist as a collective consciousness. I write them often. This one explores the violence of boyhood with such accuracy we should set clocks to it.
Finally, the novel that I did not expect that has changed my whole brain is This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. It is weird, a sci-fi fantasy epic romance with all the creaking machinery I demand of science fiction but also the heart-breaking poeticism I demand of all good literature. Swoon.
Monstress by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda is gorgeous, full of incredible art and seriously sexy heroes and villains all of which are interchangeable, mostly women and may or may not be possessed by ancient gods. You’re welcome.
Lately, I’ve been trying to
understand what the word deserve means as in “I deserve” or “you deserve” or
“they deserve” anything. We offer these judgments as if they are real and slide
people easily into the category of deserving or undeserving with thoughtless habitual
conviction despite all manner of suffering that blooms from our lips.
Citizen by Claudia Rankine came out years ago, won pretty much all the awards in some capacity, and I never knew about it until this year. Where was I? I don’t know. But I have now arrived. The poems are mirrors that show how our collective psyche continues to unravel in this nation on a micro and macro level.
A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley: The stories are brooding, black, violent, calm, and masculine—though not the typically canonized version of masculinity (racist/sexist/narcissistic). In this collection, another masculinity flexes, strong, patient, and ferocious with characters that feel like they will live on beyond the page whether we want them to or not for their own good or ours. This book put sad and frightful people in my mind forever, and I am grateful.
The other collection I encountered this year with stunning language and haunting environments was Florida by Lauren Groff. The prose is lovely and controlled. I’m always excited when I read women authors that not only know what they’re doing, but they know they know what they’re doing and that you know it too. Reading her work is like watching a 1940s black-and-white film of a glamorous woman smoking a cigarette, and it’s so perfect that the plot, the cameras, the wars, the taxes, and the whole quaking world doesn’t matter.
I’ve read far less this year than I typically do. Not by choice, really, but by circumstances. There just didn’t seem to be enough time, but when is it ever enough time to read all of what one sets forth to read? So, the little reading I did get to do really stuck with me. Maybe what they say about less is more is true.
Kiese Laymon’s memoir, Heavy, was beautiful devastation in prose. I raged, I thought, I cried. I read it all on one cold Saturday, devoting the day to those words, taking my time to feel all it does so masterfully. Alicia Elliott’s A Mind Spread Out on the Ground and Jaquira Díaz’s Ordinary Girls were another set of memoirs that were everything to me. Each one I set aside a full day to read. These writers demanded such time and attention from me, and I am glad I made time for them.
I read the New Directions reissue of Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann’s 1971 novel Malina. A very strange book, an oddly composed and written book, but one that is deeply moving for how it represents obsession and how those we love the most can hurt us the most. I am hooked on Bachmann and all I look forward to in 2020 is reading more of her work.
I encountered essays and reviews by Tobi Haslett and I am downright obsessed. Haslett’s fabulously incisive and bitingly spot-on analysis of contemporary literature and art production I can read for days.
Took the time to reread books that continue to awe and inspire me like Jamaica Kincaid’s My Brother; the poems, plays, and essays collected in Assotto Saint’s unfortunately out of print Spells of a Voodoo Doll; Justin Torres’s We the Animals; and Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse.
The Grave on the Wall by Brandon Shimoda gave me a poetic and stunning memoir about his search to find out more about his grandfather who lived through Japanese internment in the United States. I continue to recommend this book to everyone and anyone.
Jess Row’s White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination is an impressive book of literary criticism, cultural analysis, and memoir that raises many important questions about whiteness and literature in the United States. My mind is still reeling and working through all the ideas it generates.
One book that I will never forget from this year is Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval. A marvelously written—innovative in its use of research—and just an all-around radical book we all should be reading. It’s a book that gave me genuine hope this year.
Not enough reading for me this year, but what little I did has left its lasting impression and a multitude of stunning writers to continue reading on into 2020, and beyond.
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As my relationship to reading has changed and deepened these past few years, so too has my ability to devour books as voraciously as I once did, when I read mainly for pleasure rather than parsing technique. The pleasure is still there, of course, but now there’s an additional layer of wonder, of anxiety, of “How the hell did you do this?” and “Can I make this magic work for me?” Add this to selling and editing my first book, facilitating my first graduate-level workshop, the absolute shit-fire of our country’s white supremacist agenda, and you have a recipe ripe for not reading as much as you wanted. But I did read, and in the spirit of learning to be kinder to myself and not measuring my productivity by the productivity of others, I’m glad to put together what I’m calling my “Past, Present, and Future” list of books by favorite, new, and new-to-me authors.
2019 has been a year of rereading for me, of taking refuge in the pages of books that have already won my heart. I do this with television and films, too. Rewatch and dissect rather than hopping into anything new. Between us, my husband and I have four streaming services and yet I’ve watched Mad Men thrice in its entirety; I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve mouthed lines along with Crooklyn. Sometimes I wonder if I’m afraid to fall in love, to be vulnerable to or invest in new characters, new worlds. There’s something about the feeling of sinking down into a life for the first time, wondering if you’ll understand the rules by which the author set the game. I both love and resist it. I reread A Visit from the Goon Squad for its form and the devastating ending of “Safari,” and We the Animals for another lesson on brevity and beauty. The Color Purple, which teaches me so much about our ideologies on God and power, is a book I will read for the rest of my life. I dove back into Alice LaPlante’s The Making of a Story to help me structure lessons I wanted to impart in my classrooms, and as a reminder that, in this life, I want to remain a student myself. Maybe my resistance isn’t about fear of the new, so much as the appeal of a knowledge that seems fixed, but never really is.
The End We Start From by Megan Hunter made me think more seriously about white space in novels; Bryan Washington’s Lot opened me to the possibility of endings; the entire collection of Julie Orringer’s How to Breathe Underwater was so stunning that, at times, I was almost offended. And I read both Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks and Sigred Nunez’s The Friend so quickly, so needfully, it reminded me that I can still allow myself to be wonderfully overcome. I read Nella Larson’s Passing and NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names; I wish I’d read them sooner. I’ve been so grateful to the spate of stories allowing women to be human, to be unsexy and imperfect and absolutely radiant in that imperfection: so thank you to Chemistry by Weike Wang, Come to Me by Amy Bloom, Goodnight Beautiful Women by Anna Noyes, and Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden. I am indebted to Tiana Clark’s I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood. This one straddles the line between present and future, but the language in C. Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills Is Gold kindled a spark in me, and I got to walk around the whole day after finishing it feeling permeable to inspiration.
My TBR pile judges me (or I continue to project judgement upon myself), especially for my tendency to add to it before I’ve finished others waiting. But I’m looking forward to reading so many more books, monumental to myself, maybe even before the year is through. Here are just a few on my list: Aria Arber’s Hard Damage; Chet’la Sebree’s Mistress; Michael Lee’s The Only Worlds We Know, because poetry is at the raw heart of language; Elaine Castillo’s America Is Not the Heart and Ayşe Papatya Bucak’s The Trojan War Museum because fiction is at mine; and Toni Morrison’s The Source of Self-Regard because of her timelessness, her wisdom, her place in the shaping of my past, present, future. Because it is necessary, and I am not yet ready to let the Queen go.
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It seems to me that few ideas are as freighted with ambivalence as the idea of home. I don’t mean ambivalence in the sense in which the word’s often misused, as a synonym for half-heartedness, but in the true sense of being pulled in two directions at once. Once you start looking for it in books, you see it everywhere. In Justin Torres’s We The Animals, home is violent and dangerous and a place to run away from, but home is also the protagonist’s brothers, from whom he’s inseparable. In Larry Watson’s Montana 1948, home is a place where it was possible for terrible things to happen and to be covered up; but when the protagonist’s wife suggests to the protagonist’s father, years later, that “[t]hat sure was the Wild West, wasn’t it?” the father flies into a rage and shouts at her not to blame Montana. Or the ache of immigration, documented in books like Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn: home is here and also there, I belong here and also I don’t, home is this country and also that one and I am always somewhere in between.
In Eric Barnes’s haunting new novel, Something Pretty, Something Beautiful, this ambivalence is built into the structure of the book. (Full disclosure: Barnes and I published our first novels with the same small press back in 2009 and met a couple of times at booksellers’ conventions that year.) Barnes’s protagonist is Brian Porter, born and raised in Tacoma. The book is divided into five sets of five chapters, identically titled in all five instances: Now, With Kyle, Tacoma, Driving Away, Returning. The Now chapters are haunted by the past; the With Kyle chapters are suffused with regret; Tacoma is home, to be driven away from and returned to. Home exerts a pull, and it simultaneously repulses.
The novel circles through Brian’s life at various points. He is a motherless boy, a wild teenager, and a haunted man. Barnes has a good eye for the Pacific Northwest, the way grey skies and constant rain can lend a not-entirely-unpleasant melancholy to a place. Brian grows up in a working-class neighborhood, not so much gritty as perpetually damp. His parents were teenagers when he was born, and his mother walked out soon after. His father’s raising him, when he isn’t working, which is most of the time. His friends live in similar situations.
From early childhood onward, Brian is caught between two social poles. Kyle, his best friend, has always been good, in some essential sense of the word. Kyle’s low-key decency puts him at odds with Will Wilson, a sociopath who exerts a gravitational pull on Brian and on two other boys.
Brian spends a great deal of time with Kyle, and a great deal of time with Will Wilson, but never both at the same time. From puberty onward, life revolves around cars, but here is the difference: Kyle “started driving to his after school job when he was twelve, using a beat up car his older cousin had given him.” Will Wilson’s crew, on the other hand, uses cars to play car tag — two cars, a driver and a gunner in each, the teams trying to take each other out with BB guns. Later, there’s another, more dangerous game, in which the driver takes the car up to high speeds and then climbs out the window. Whoever’s in the passenger seat takes the wheel; the first driver slides over the roof — if the car’s going fast enough, he levitates just above the metal — and then into the car through the back passenger-side window, breathless and exhilarated with the nearness of death. “You live your life telling stories,” Barnes writes,
to people in a bar, to the guys you work with, to women you meet. When you’re a kid you tell stories to each other, sometimes only killing time between the next story you’d make. Will Wilson told stories with us and now when I think about him I think that maybe he told the stories with us, about the things the four of us did, only until he got bored of them, and then he started to make a new plan, to start a new story we could later tell.
The question, of course, is how far Will Wilson will go. He pulls Brian and the others further and further out, beyond ordinary teenage recklessness and into the kinds of stories that can mark lives forever. Quietly and methodically beating up other teenagers makes a good story, but not as good a story as arson. Arson’s not a bad story, but it’s less exciting than breaking and entering. The story no one thinks of, because the future seems so abstract, is how they’ll find a way to live with these stories in adulthood.
Something Pretty, Something Beautiful is a remarkable book. Barnes effectively builds the tension of the story with his elliptical structure, and his prose is beautiful. He expertly manages events that in lesser hands would devolve into melodrama. This is a world where the pull of friendship is far stronger than the pull of family, where cars are freedom, stories are everything, and home is thick with ghosts.
When author Pauls Toutonghi set out to write his first book, he made himself a promise: he would not be another stereotype of “the debut novelist writing about his life.” So Toutonghi penned a “really terrible” World War Two novel followed by a cringe-worthy attempt at experimental fiction—a choose-your-own-adventure rip off. He never wrote in the first person, lest readers assume he was writing about himself. He didn’t sell either book; his career—or lack thereof—was a disaster.
Eventually, Toutonghi gave up on his rigid strategy of avoidance and did what any smart writer does: he let the story and characters lead him, instead of the other way around. Toutonghi is half Latvian, half Egyptian and was raised in the U.S. He sold Red Weather, a coming-of-age story about a 15-year-old Latvian-American boy, followed by Evel Knievel Days, about a young Egyptian-American man in search of his father. Toutonghi wrote both books in the first person. And yet, he considers this less than a complete success: “I was reading Dickens,” he wrote in a recent essay for Salon, “who kept himself away from the page…and I can’t help wondering if anything is lost in the frank disclosures of our modern, first-person, memoir-driven fiction.”
This is perhaps the greatest hang-up of the modern novelist—that fiction is somehow unsophisticated or inherently cliché if it is rooted in the writer’s own life, and that writers should be creative enough to invent entirely new worlds and find drama only in the unfamiliar. None of that is true, of course: Bookstores are full of beautiful novels like Toutonghi’s, and reviewers often celebrate autobiographical debuts. And yet this fear of self-reliance can be limiting, almost crippling.
But if you talk to writers who have taken the autobiographical plunge, you’ll hear an almost universal relief—that writing about yourself allows you to follow your best instincts. Patrick DeWitt, author of The Sisters Brothers, spent a long time writing books that even his wife was unimpressed by. His problem, he decided: He was too afraid of seeming like “the white guy feeling sorry for himself.” But hey: in some way, that’s what he was. “I needed subject matter that was familiar to me if I wanted to go the distance.”
So where does this fear come from? Today’s literary criticism, for one. Laura Miller, who reviews books for Salon, is often turned off by coming-of-age debuts, particularly from writers who have just come of age themselves. She has some words for, say, white girls from Connecticut: “Your book could be really well written,” she says. But “you feel like you’ve read a million of them. It’s the story about this person growing up and learning to live and to love and whose parents get divorced and the mom dies of cancer. It feels like watching an episode of Law and Order—but that’s not really fair, because Law and Order is reliably entertaining.”
Even the New York Times can be dismissive like this. In 2005, when Deborah Solomon wrote about Jonathan Safran Foer, she praised him for avoiding “the usual rites of first-noveldom. He never wrote a tremblingly sensitive account of his adolescence, a novel featuring toxic mothers and passive, gone-to-sleep fathers, a novel abounding with malls and S.U.V.’s, and suburban anomie. Instead, he found his inspiration in the darkly fragmented masterworks of European modernism (Kafka, Joyce, Bruno Schulz)…”
But do not be fooled: Everything Is Illuminated is a wonderful book, both highly innovative and emotionally powerful, but it is also a coming-of-age, semi-autobiographical story about a young white man coming to understand himself. Solomon would never belittle Foer’s book by writing in these exact terms, but when she speaks of “the usual rites of first-noveldom,” she’s not making a neutral statement. She’s making a derogatory one. She’s throwing all of these other books—and which books, by the way?—into the dustbin, castigating them all as navel-gazing and small-minded.
And you wonder what kept Toutonghi and DeWitt from writing about their own lives.
Some writers were fortunate enough to begin writing before reading much literary criticism. “I felt free to take from personal experience,” says Justin Torres, author of the critically acclaimed and heavily autobiographical debut novel We The Animals. After the book, he says, he’d often meet writers who came out of MFA programs and seemed to believe he’s navel-gazing. “You’re mind-gazing,” he corrects. “You’re turning yourself outward, challenging your own assumptions and trying to make meaning out of life. I love Dickens, but thank god not everyone tries to write like him.” (In fact, Laura Miller cuts Torres a break here because We The Animals is based on Torres’s experience growing up gay and underprivileged in upstate New York. “To be crass,” she says, “his book was unusual in the type of people it was about. That was refreshing.”)
When writers ask Torres, “Why write fiction if you want to write about yourself?”, he tells them there’s a magic in translating personal experience into make-believe: “The composites become characters, and the scraps of lived experience morph, so that what you end up with is wholly transformed.”
And the transformation is key. There are a finite number of experiences in the world and the trick is how to present them in a way that is both relatable and unique. It would be idiotic for a young author not to write a book based on her adolescence in Connecticut, if that’s what she’s compelled to write. And if her protagonist has a toxic mother or hangs out at the mall, it would be disingenuous not to include those details. But including them doesn’t necessarily mean you’re painting by numbers or writing a story that is narcissistic. “You just have to ask yourself, ‘What can I bring to literature by writing about this?’” Torres says. To him, authors who write outside their own experience have the exact same challenge as those writing close to the bone: how best to say something valuable. “There’s a lot of people writing formulaic gunslinger Cormac McCarthy fiction,” he says.
The literary world didn’t always dismiss autobiography. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man by James Joyce, The Lover by Marguerite Duras, and The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway are all rooted in their authors’ lives. It’s impossible to trace this hang-up back to its origin, but Toutonghi has a suspicion of what triggered it: a resistance, especially prevalent in the MFA world, to the commoditization of fiction.
Literature is an art, of course—though like in any art, there are those who hate to also think of it as a business. Writers who are overwhelmingly focused on craft and style might believe that writing the story of one’s young life is too crass, too obvious, and, god-forbid, too sellable. “Writers see that autobiographical work is more marketable, so many move in that direction,” Toutonghi says. And the purists do the opposite.
Whether the market is really dictating authors’ subject matter is debatable, but it’s certainly true that right now mainstream publishing will unabashedly use an author’s back story to sell his or her book. Two recent debut novels that share similarities with Everything is Illuminated—The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht and No One Here Except For All of Us by Ramona Ausubel—have been marketed with the author’s life as a selling point, as if biography is the ultimate “truth” of their stories.
That’s certainly news to emerging authors. “I didn’t realize my life would be the thing I’d be talking about in the interviews,” Torres said. Patrick DeWitt told me that most interviews about his novel Ablutions revolved around parsing the imaginary parts of the book from the real ones. “It became sort of a drag,” he said.
But there’s an upside to this marketing hook, at least for me, as I shopped around my own debut: a semi-autobiographical, prep school novel called The Year of the Gadfly. Editors clearly saw the autobiographical material as a positive thing, and a potential way to market the book. Until then, I’d been so embarrassed about writing from my life that throughout my three-year MFA, I never told anybody where the story originated. I was just another white girl from Connecticut after all (well, actually, Washington DC, but same difference), writing about a young woman coming of age. I spent years feeling like a failure before I’d even started writing, all because I was terrified of producing a cliché. If only I could have written a World War II epic with a chose your own adventure twist.
But I never would have finished writing that sort of book. The Year of the Gadfly took me seven years from conception to publication. And my personal connection to the story was a key part of my stamina. It’s what fueled me to work so tirelessly in pursuit of truly unique characters and a compelling plot. My editor bought my book because the manuscript kept her reading all night. To her, to me, and hopefully to my readers, that’s all that really matters.