Quiet on the Set: William Boyd on His Latest Novel

William Boyd was 16 in 1968, the year his new novel, Trio, is set. It was a moment of change and social revolution, but Boyd’s impetus to write the novel—which centers on a shoot in Brighton, England, for a fictional film titled Ladder to the Moon—was driven by his teenage recollections of an era that was much less political.
During a phone call from his London home, Boyd says he was living in the U.K. in 1968 and then in 1969, he left for Paris. There, at 17, he met numerous people “who had been on the barricades” the previous May, and he soon realized that “the world was going to go to hell on a handcart.” But this wasn’t the feeling in the U.K.
“In Britain we were in a swinging ’60s bubble,” Boyd explains. The mood of fun and frivolity was expressed in a string of zany and largely subpar films like A Hard Day’s Night and the lesser-known Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? The latter, he notes, was a flop, but it served as an inspiration for the novel. He wanted to “have a swinging ’60s movie being made in Brighton, and around it the real world creeps in.”
Trio focuses on three characters—the film’s producer, its leading lady, and the director’s wife—who must navigate the bizarre world of the film and the reality beyond it. It follows them over the course of an increasingly chaotic shoot.
Boyd has 16 novels to his name and is also an accomplished screenwriter and producer. His screenwriting credits include 1992’s Chaplin, starring Robert Downey Jr., and the 1994 adaptation of his debut novel, A Good Man in Africa (the book version won the Whitbread Book Award for first novel in 1981). Given this, he knows the world of Trio well, and the on-set machinations are a highlight of the book.
Paradoxically, Trio also betrays how little film sets have changed since the ’60s. There are still incomprehensible, expensive delays; egocentric male directors; and intense on-set romances.
Boyd acknowledges that this is partly to do with the essentially patriarchal traditions of the film world. “There are some differences,” he notes. “Joan Collins used to do her own make up. There was no catering or lunch breaks. But the fundamentals of life on the set—the temperaments, the tantrums, the things that can go wrong so easily—are exactly as true in 1968 as 2020. For a long time the movie business was a boys’ town. I’m old enough, and have had the experience to see how it’s slowly changed. Certainly in 1968, it was very patriarchal, and that’s only really started to change in the last few years.”
All three of the main characters in Trio are oppressed by the weight of this patriarchy in different ways. The producer, Talbot Kydd, is secretly gay. Anny Viklund, the film’s star, is being threatened and exploited by a succession of bad boyfriends. And Elfrida Wing, the director’s wife, endures her husband’s affair with the film’s screenwriter.
The misery experienced by Elfrida, who is also working on a novel, has an impact. Tormented by her marriage, alcoholism, and writer’s block, she becomes dangerously paranoid. She is unable to distinguish her husband’s lies from reality and is convinced she can see worms beneath her skin. There are recurring, devastating scenes in which she rewrites the opening paragraph of her new novel and then starts drinking again.
Boyd reveals that Elfrida is loosely based on a real-life novelist and poet named Rosemary Tonks, who disappeared from public view after an auspicious literary debut. Tonks was later discovered to have entered the religious life—a decision that fascinated Boyd. “It haunted me that someone could do that,” he says, “and I was interested to know more, too, about writer’s block.”
It is notable that the most functional and self-possessed character in Trio is a man who has no links to the film world—a private detective named Ken Kincaid, who is gay and at ease with himself. Through Ken’s eyes, we have some perspective on how strange this world of make-believe has become.
Boyd still has great affection for the film industry but says he is relieved to have the option to withdraw from it when necessary, into the world of novel writing. “My saving grace is that I have the two worlds. I really enjoy collaborating. I have more friends in the filmmaking business. I now coproduce. But I’m so pleased there are times that I can say cheerio and write.”
This affection is evident in the book’s many period details. Boyd says research is key to all of his writing. He can spend 18 months to two years preparing for a new novel. In the case of Trio, he read copiously.
“I’ve about 80 to 100 books about this era on everything from Jean Seberg, who was a model for Anny [the actor in Trio], to French politics,” Boyd says. “I think of a novelist as a magpie rather than a scholar. Anything bright that catches your eye can be brought into the work.”
Boyd explains that part of the novelist’s art is deciding what to use and what to discard. “I’ve taught myself that you have to throw out 90 percent of the research, and that is part of the discipline, too,” he says. As time has gone by, he adds, his nose for the right detail has improved.
For Boyd, the past is a more attractive setting for his fiction than the present. “You avoid any built-in obsolescence,” he says. “Contemporary novels have a terrible problem of dating very quickly. They can date. In the recent past, everything is fixed.”
Boyd’s 2002 novel Any Human Heart was written as a series of journals by a writer named Mountstuart who lived from 1906 to 1991. It includes recollections of many significant historical events, such as the Wall Street crash of 1929 and WWII. It has sold, according to NPD BookScan, more than 58,000 print copies in the U.S. and was shortlisted for the Booker and the International Dublin Literary Award.
For his next project, Boyd is going to embark on what he describes as another “whole-life novel”—a novel that portrays the entirety of a character’s life. It will be set “completely in the 19th century,” he says, and be “very ambitious,” extending beyond 500 pages.
“Unlike Elfride, I haven’t experienced writer’s block. Yet.”
Bonus Links:
Identity Crisis: William Boyd’s Ordinary Thunderstorms
Spy Story: A Review of William Boyd’s Restless

Image Credit: Trevor Leighton

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Bryan Washington Is Writing for Himself

When asked about his favorite recent meal, author Bryan Washington thinks back to a previous week’s takeout order of steaming hot dim sum. For Washington, food isn’t just sustenance—it’s a detailed and eloquent form of conversation. And his new book, Memorial, sets it right at the center of the table.
What Washington and his editor lovingly refer to as “a lowercase l love story,” Memorial details the collapsing relationship between Mike, a Japanese-American chef, and his boyfriend, Benson, a Black daycare teacher. The two live in Houston, cook together, and are fairly sure they love each other. But when Mike’s father is diagnosed with a terminal illness, he flies to live with him in Osaka, Japan—just as his mother, Mitsuko, comes to stay with the couple in Houston. With a measure of wit, pain, and gorgeous descriptions of food, Memorial shows how Benson stuck with an unlikely roommate, learning about what he wants in life, and reconciling himself with what love is really worth.
Asked how he would describe his novel, Washington answers decidedly: “I think it’s a novel about a handful of folks that are trying to find what it means just to be okay as a person, and what it means to be okay as a person among people.” Being okay, for Washington’s novel, means in more than just relationships. Memorial spans a journey from food that is just okay to food that serves an important purpose. For Benson and Mitsuko, who only know each other tangentially through their equally strained relationships with Mike, cooking dinner together becomes a way for the two to articulate their feelings, even if they don’t know how to speak them. It’s a device that a lesser author might let overwhelm a book, but one that Washington handles with a delicate reverence.
“I think that trying to use cooking and sharing of meals as a way of communication was definitely something that I wanted to carry through over the course of the novel,” Washington told PW. “I was trying to convey the concurrent pleasure the characters are trying to get across that they may not have the language for at the time, and to be conscientious and thoughtful about who was eating what and when they were eating it. How they were relating to the meal, and if that changed over the course of time, was really important to me.”
A winner of both the Dylan Thomas Prize and the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence, Washington’s first collection, Lot, put him on the map—but Washington didn’t let the pressure that often accompanies a sophomore book get to him while working on Memorial. “What was most important to me for Memorial was telling the best story,” said Washington. “I really wasn’t too bent out of shape as far as how it would be received, because I just wanted to write the best version of it that I could.”
The strategy paid off. Even before Memorial was published last week by Riverhead, production company A24 won the rights to the title for its TV division, and Washington is set to adapt it himself. For Washington, getting a hand in the adaptation is “absolutely gratifying,” he said. “It’s a story that I care a good deal about and there are themes that I wanted to see on the screen.“
Memorial is one of 2020’s most anticipated titles, and Washington hopes that his novel’s visibility will serve as a model for other writers working on books that don’t initially seem like the next great marketable masterpiece. He also hopes that systemic changes come to the publishing business so that Black voices, stories, and creators are given more prominence not just this year, but every year.
“Much of the change that needs to occur in American publishing needs to happen on the masthead front,” he said. “The whole thing needs an overhaul, but I’m thinking about lasting, substantial, generational change. It’s about ensuring that you have publicists from marginalized backgrounds, you have designers from marginalized backgrounds, you have marketing folks from marginalized backgrounds, you have folks who are making decisions not just at the book level from every background you could imagine. Those are the changes that will ensure that we don’t simply have seasons of progression.”
One of the more unique aspects of Memorial is its central love story, which centers parental and platonic love rather than romance. While writing the book, Washington was careful to ensure that his characters didn’t venture into an overwritten territory. Rather, he said, wanted to write a book “in which many different things were true simultaneously,” in a way that allowed “each character to have the capacity for understanding.” He added: “I didn’t want to write a novel that came to hard conclusions. I didn’t want to write something that was prescriptive, or something that was deeply definitive.”
As a result, Memorial plays with time in a way that twists and melds the characters’ growth, a technique whose effect is only heightened by reading the book in a year characterized by stark physical separation. While quarantine didn’t change the way Washington employed time as a literary device in the book, it did “calcify the importance of context in time,” he said, in a way that foregrounds the ways time and space contextualize and change the characters’ past experiences and their perceptions of them.
“I tried to have every character exist in a state of simultaneity, where they’re given the benefit of the doubt,” says Washington. “That they’re given room to expand and grow was really important to me. That was something that I knew from the outset would just have to be true. But I also knew that ideally I strive for that in all fiction that I’m trying to work with.”
Memorial is as much a novel of place as it is of time, a love story to two places Washington has called home. Houston and Osaka are two starkly different cities, each featuring strongly in Memorial not only as settings, but almost as characters in themselves. That tangibility came directly from Washington’s own experiences.
“It’s a rare and special thing anytime that you’re privy to warmth, and to the benefit of the doubt, to the generosity of other folks who absolutely don’t have to give it to you in any place,” says Washington. “When you’ve experienced that in a place consistently, it sticks out. I’ve experienced that in Houston, and I’ve also experienced that in Osaka. In a lot of ways, the writing in Memorial was me trying to figure out why that is—because I couldn’t quite come up with an answer to it.”
Even for its own author, Memorial doesn’t give easy answers. Instead, the novel defers on answering questions in favor of methodically allowing its characters the time and space to learn how to be okay. For Washington, seeing his characters do just that was the most gratifying part of the whole process. “I wrote the book that I wanted to read, and in a lot of ways I finished it because I wanted to see how it would end up,” he said. “I wrote [Memorial] for myself.”
Bonus Links:
Bryan Washington’s Houston Is a City of Multitudes
A Year in Reading: Bryan Washington

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

The Poetic Fiction of Gabriela Garcia

“When I wrote this book,” Gabriela Garcia says of her debut novel, Of Women and Salt, “I had the ambitious idea of combining all these different threads I was obsessed with: Cuba, America, detention, deportation, addiction, privilege.” She also knew she wanted to write a book with all the voices being those of women—and so she has.
The story begins with Maria Isabel, who in 1866 Cuba was the sole woman working in a male-dominated cigar factory. Moving back and forth in place and time, from Cuba to Miami to Mexico and from the 19th century to the present, Garcia spins tales of generations of Latinx women bound by blood and heritage and trauma: Carmen, a Cuban immigrant who becomes successful in the U.S.; Carmen’s daughter Jeanette, addicted to drugs and an abusive man; and Gloria, a Central American woman separated from her daughter when she’s taken into custody by ICE.
Garcia, 35, is the daughter of immigrants from Mexico and Cuba and grew up, she says, in “the overwhelming Latinx community in Miami.” She adds, “I was aware of the factions that existed—race and class, and what Latinx means in that community.” But while there are elements of her life in the book, her background is very different from that of the wealthy family in Of Women and Salt.
Garcia tells me she had a variety of jobs in music, magazines, newspapers, and social justice organizations but did not take her creative writing seriously until “I realized it was all I wanted to do.” She went to Purdue University for a three-year MFA program, where she studied with Roxane Gay, whom she calls “a mentor and a great supporter who championed me.” When Gay tweeted about Garcia’s work (the book was her MFA thesis), agents took notice.
PJ Mark, a partner at Janklow & Nesbit, and Marya Spence, an agent there, are co-representing Garcia. “It’s an unusual situation,” Spence says. “It started because there were different avenues of discovering her.” Spence saw Gay “wax poetic about Gabriela as a writer” and reached out.
Meanwhile, Brian Leung, the director of the creative writing program at Purdue, put Mark in touch with Garcia. “He told me Gabriela was ‘the real deal’ and about to receive a major prize” Mark says. Leung wouldn’t reveal which prize (it was the 2018 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award). So both agents, who first heard about Garcia in July 2018, were reading the manuscript at the same time. Both were loving it; both got in touch with her.
“PJ and I work really well together,” Spence says, “so we decided to join forces in a complementary way.”
Mark adds that he and Spence have worked together on many projects, but this is the first time they’ve collaborated as co-agents. “We have an intuitive shorthand, so this was our getting back together,” he says. He stresses how “fiercely Garcia brought these women’s lives to bear, emphasizing the theme of force reverberating through generations of women: force as revolution, force as reproduction.”
Spence was immediately aware that Garcia is first and foremost a poet and of how that shows in her fiction. “Gabriela talks about women’s struggles, which are shown in poignant vignettes, yet there’s continuity,” she says.
Garcia signed on as a client with Janklow & Nesbit in October 2018 and in March 2019, the manuscript was sent to publishers. Within a week, there were 10 interested editors, which led to a heated auction. Megan Lynch, then editorial director at Ecco, won North American rights.
“I found Megan easy to talk to,” Garcia says. “I felt like she got my vision for the book.” And there was the “good advance”—close to seven figures, according to Mark.
Of Women and Salt was Lynch’s last purchase before she went on maternity leave. “I was not taking on any books,” she says. “But I read the manuscript from two of my favorite agents and was so taken with the firepower and emotionally compelling characters, I had to have it. It engaged my brain and my emotions. I sent off my edits hours before my leave, which was perfect. Gabriela had three months to work on it.”
Lynch was tapped to be the publisher of Flatiron Books last November, and in another unusual and, she notes, fortuitous situation, “the book followed me over.” Of Women and Salt was her first presentation at Flatiron. “It was exciting, and there could have been no better book to introduce me to the imprint,” she notes. She also says it’s been interesting to work on the book during the pandemic: “So many video chats, so much experimentation. We are learning that there are things we don’t need, but we need each other.”
Flatiron will publish Of Women and Salt in April 2021, and it will be released simultaneously in the U.K. by Picador. Rights have already been sold in eight territories.
Garcia says in writing the book she wanted to challenge herself—to look at how history shapes our lives in invisible ways and to explore the complexity of mother-daughter relationships. “My general life philosophy,” she admits, “is to expect the least, so it shocks me to have this much interest in the book.” Absolutely exciting, and fortuitous.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Gina Apostol Gets Meta

“What a weird world we’re in,” Gina Apostol says via Zoom on the day news broke of President Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis. She’s at her partner’s house in Western Massachusetts, where she usually spends summers.
As a teacher at the New York City prep school Fieldston, Apostol is able to work remotely. This semester, she’s teaching James Baldwin to freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors. “It’s all Baldwin, all the time,” she says. “I was just texting my friends and my co-teachers saying that the freshmen call Baldwin ‘James.’ They’re the cutest.”
Apostol, 57, is the author of 2013’s Gun Dealer’s Daughter, a PEN Open Book Award–winning novel and her American debut, as well as 2018’s Insurrecto. Her first two novels, 1997’s Bibliolepsy and 2009’s The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata, both won the Philippine National Book Award for fiction and have only been available in her native Philippines. But in January, a revised edition of Raymundo Mata will be released by Soho Press. The timing might be ideal, given the subject matter and its relationship to the weird world we’re in.
Raymundo Mata is a concoction of voices, languages (Cebuano, Tagalog, Waray, and English), and stories within stories. It’s based on the recovered diary of the eponymous Mata, a fictional night-blind, somewhat accidental revolutionary and fervent reader during the Philippines’ war against colonizers Spain and America at the end of the 19th century. Mata is obsessed with the writing of actual Filipino revolutionary hero, author, and ophthalmologist José Rizal.
Apostol says it was hard to use Rizal as a character. “Filipinos love this guy,” she notes. “He more or less created the country. And his novels—more or less, that’s how the country knows itself. That’s how the country articulates itself. It was hard because it was so disrespectful. But like Mata’s diary, I just put weird sock puppets in there. I don’t know. It is a scandal. It’s not what you do with Rizal. So that was fun.”
Just as important as Mata’s memoir and its connection to Rizal are the three female voices in the novel—translator Mimi C. Magsalin, psychotherapist Diwata Drake, and kooky nationalistic editor Estrella Espejo—who weigh in on the text of Mata’s diary in less-than-objective footnotes. (The characters of Magsalin and Espejo also appear in Insurrecto, which Apostol describes as “Raymundo Mata without footnotes.”)
“I was saying to my agent, ‘I’d like to actually go back to Raymundo Mata and look at it again, because of the fake news shit that’s going on right now—to reflect on what this metatextuality means,” Apostol says. “Because in our current space, it is weirdly damaging in the sense that people are making up all of these things. The novel is about the instability of textuality that we all seem to be victims of right now.”
Raymundo Mata is also about being a reader and about the reader’s experience, which, Apostol points out, is something we’re missing in the conversation about fake news. In the last third of the book, Mata writes in his diary, “A reader has as much to say about a book as an author, if not more.” By weaving together the voices and opinions of the three women weighing in on Mata’s diary, Apostol makes the book about the readers, not the writer. And, as she sees it, there are five readers in play: the three women, Mata, and the reader of the novel itself. In this sense, the book questions the necessity of recognizing the inherent multiplicities of thought, opinion, interpretation, and reality that must coexist in any society.
As the saying goes, two things can be true at the same time. “We keep wanting the unifying thing, which is really problematic and unhealthy,” Apostol says. What we should seek instead, she adds, is to be ethical—to consider the effects of our actions and consider multiple ways of looking at something, choosing the one that brings about the better result.
None of this means that Raymundo Mata isn’t fun. It is—especially once you let yourself fall into it. Writing it was clearly a romp for Apostol. “I was just laughing every day,” she says. When revising the U.S. version, she let herself do it all over again. “In the spirit of the novel, whatever I wanted to change, I changed. One of the ways I envisioned that novel is that you could put it online and people could just keep adding footnotes, forever.” She also “punned away,” she says. “It is true, Filipinos just… I mean, if you look at even just their Twitter handles or whatever, they’re full of puns. Because they have 60 languages. And it’s a form of power. If you’re going after President Duterte, you use a pun. You punish him. As I’ve always said, it’s not an efficient form of revolution, but it has its uses.”
Like her other novels, Apostol says, Raymundo Mata is about “figuring out truth given the ways we’re always so blinded to it.” Understanding and accepting what the translator, the psychotherapist, and the editor each want lets readers interrogate their own desires—what they hope for in their relationship with a book, and even with history. It also highlights their power and responsibility in crafting stories, no matter how they come to them.
“What’s our place in the stories that are being told?” Apostol asks. “It’s not just being a Filipino or these identifiers that we have. There are multiple pulse points. And that might allow us to be more aware of being manipulated, aware of the authorship that others are doing to us. It’s so important now, because we have to be so much smarter about how we read, how we take in information.”
The act of writing itself turns out to be yet another story—”a way to block off all the noise and do something that might be more meaningful,” Apostol says. “Writing really is what pulls me. It’s what drives me. But I will say this about teaching, and especially teaching younger people: it’s an everyday kind of meaningful activity. It is grounding, I think, to have a job that takes you out of yourself. And to be honest, here’s the self-interest part: I get a lot from them, too.”

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Nadia Owusu on Processing Trauma

In January, Simon & Schuster will publish Nadia Owusu’s Aftershocks: A Memoir, which traces her nomadic childhood, the early absence of her parents, and the enduring impact of experiences that have shaped her as a person and an artist. Born in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to an Armenian American mother and a Ghanaian father who worked for a U.N. agency, Owusu lived in England, Italy, Ethiopia, and Uganda before the age of 18, when she moved to New York City. And while, she says, she “loved the countries I lived in,” she “never deeply understood them, and grew up far from my parents’ cultures.” To that feeling of displacement, add the trauma of Owusu’s mother abandoning the family when Owusu was two, and the death of her adored father when she was 14. Owusu struggled emotionally, especially after coming to learn more about the circumstances of her father’s illness and death.
“To heal,” Owusu writes, “I would need to look inward as well as outward. I would need to examine my memories. I would need to interrogate the stories I told myself—about myself, about my family, about the world. My unsolved questions were about my mothers and my father. They were about loss, longing, and fear; about my abandonment…But they were also about the borders and boundaries and fault lines on which we all live. They were about fractured surfaces and tectonic forces; about energies unleashed.”
“I started writing about a decade ago,” Owusu says, “not for a book—just writing, trying to understand. I spent time following my curiosity, connecting the countries I’d lived in to the story of my life.” At the international schools she attended, Owusu says, the history she studied was mostly about the West; she knew very little about African history. Owusu was interested in family history and also wanted “to dig into the bigger histories, to process my traumas, not as a project but for myself.”
Now 39, Owusu works full-time as the associate director for learning and equity at Living Cities, a racial economic justice organization in New York City. Deciding to take her writing seriously, Owusu applied to the Mountainview low-residency MFA program at Southern New Hampshire University and started writing memoir. “I found the heat in my musings,” she says. “I trusted my teachers that this material was urgent.” In the second year of the program, she wrote her “first real draft.”
Some chapters were published as standalone pieces: Owusu’s agent, Meredith Kaffel Simonoff at DeFiore & Company, tells me she first encountered Owusu “through an essay she wrote for Catapult, titled “The Wailing,” depicting the days just after the death of her father, whose presence and love were colossal in her life.” Kaffel Simonoff was impressed that Owusu was able “to conjure such a strong sense of character in such a short span of pages. I reached out and we began a correspondence.”
“The Wailing” became part of the memoir, and the next piece Owusu sent to Kaffel Simonoff, “First Earthquake,” became the opening entry. “It was so clean,” Kaffel Simonoff says. “Line by line, word by word. Nadia writes with such incredible empathy and emotional accessibility. It’s rare to find a writer with her mix of ferocious rigor and warmth and grace.”
In the summer of 2017, Owusu sent a full draft to Kaffel Simonoff, and by fall they had made the commitment to work together. “Nadia came in with all these brilliant interlocking pieces,” Kaffel Simonoff remembers, “and when we spread them out on the conference table, the aftershocks metaphor was there.”
“Meredith got what I was doing,” Owusu says. “I liked her ideas about structure and trusted her feedback. She did deep research into earthquake aftershocks! We didn’t use most of it, but it was interesting, and I felt I had a good partner connected to the work.”
Kaffel Simonoff sent the book to U.S. publishers in April 2018, and within the first few days meetings were set up with several editors. But the fateful one was with S&S publisher (now CEO) Jonathan Karp and senior editor Ira Silverberg, who told me, “I trust Meredith. She sent me the manuscript and I immediately said, ‘We have to have this!’ ”
“There was so much chemistry between Nadia and Ira,” Kaffel Simonoff says. “We did not anticipate taking a preempt, but shortly after we left we got an offer that knocked us out. It was clear that this was the right home.” According to Kaffel Simonoff, S&S bought North American rights to Aftershocks for “a healthy six figures.”
Silverberg did most of the editing. When he left S&S, Carrie Goldstein had it for a time, and finally Dawn Davis took it over in March 2019. Davis, founder and publisher of 37 Ink, says, “When Meredith asked me if I would take over Aftershocks, I was very interested in the places in it, and I love Ira’s taste. I was happy to protect and be custodian for something he loved. It was an honor, not a favor. This is a classic narrative.” She adds: “There’s the heart of a poet in Nadia’s language. It’s one of those books you start underlining as soon as you start reading.” Davis will be leaving 37 Ink for a new position at Bon Appétit but says she may be a consulting editor for the book.
Aftershocks will publish in the U.K. in February with Sceptre, and rights have been sold in the Netherlands and Sweden. And then there’s the 2019 Whiting Award that Osuwu won on the basis of the memoir’s manuscript.
“I was in shock when I got the news,” Owusu says. “They called but I didn’t answer. I thought it was spam, and then I checked my emails too late to call back. I didn’t have a book out, so I was completely surprised. When they told me I had won, I said, ‘How?’”
Bonus Links:
Nadia Owusu on Validating Each Other’s Experiences
Making Sense of Trauma: The Millions Interviews Melanie Abrams
Trauma Is the Thing We Inherit

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Writing, Always Writing: On Charles Baxter, Craft, and Aging

There’s a maxim in the teaching of creative writing: like death, a story’s ending should be unexpected, yet inevitable. Across an impressive half-century career full of books, accolades, classroom hours, and awards (including a Guggenheim Fellowship, multiple Pushcart Prizes, and the Rea Award for the Short Story), Charles Baxter has mastered this maxim. He’s lectured about it and written about it in his seminal book on craft, Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction, and the many short stories of his six collections—from 1984’s Harmony of the World to 2015’s There’s Something I Want You to Do—put the maxim into clear practice.
Encountering the unexpected is one of the joys of reading Baxter’s stories. He’s the rare expert craftsman who’s also an alchemist. And he’s published as many novels as collections, including The Feast of Love, nominated for the National Book Award in 2000 and featuring a nocturnal wanderer named Charles Baxter.

The Sun Collective is Baxter’s sixth novel, and his first in 12 years. For perspective, his previous novel, The Soul Thief, was published back when George W. Bush was president. Summarizing the plot of a novel by the writer of The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot is at best reductive and at worst like bringing a knife to a gun fight. But here goes: retired engineer Harold Brettigan and his wife, Alma, have heavy hearts. Their children have disappeared—their daughter into the dull comforts of middle-class life, their son into the mean streets of Minneapolis. Once a promising actor, their son has been seen with the anti-consumerism radicals of the Sun Collective and may be living on the street, a dangerous proposition with the violent homeless-hating “Sandmen” on the prowl. Age has been rough on Brettigan. “In contrast to several of his contemporaries who had been hardened by life,” the novel explains, he “had been softened.”

From the bright study of his home in downtown Minneapolis, Baxter, 73, says over Skype that there’s a fair amount of himself in Brettigan. “I have those days, and I don’t think I’m unique in this, when I think, I don’t know if there’s a book I want to read today, I don’t know if there’s a movie I want to see, I don’t know if there’s any music I want to listen to.” As you get older, he says, the art you once loved “loses its shine.” After a pause of two breaths, he smiles and assures me, “It comes back.”
The Sun Collective begins with Brettigan on a train bound for the Utopia Mall, a totem to consumerism that produces “a disorienting spatio-temporal rupture” in visitors. Ironically, 20-something Christina Lubdell, also on the train, is tripping on a designer drug called blue telephone that does the same thing, making users feel that they are in “two places at once,” like Schrödinger’s cat. Her life is similarly quantum: by day, she works in a bank; after hours, she serves the Sun Collective in a “semi-ironic” capacity as its minister for propaganda, urging Minnesotans to “de-consume.”
Christina is a mess. “Blessed and afflicted with the scourge of empathy,” according to the novel, she’s also a magnet for unstable men. One, a self-proclaimed revolutionary named Ludlow, is hatching “little plans of revenge and ruination.” The other is the Brettigans’ missing son.

While Brettigan goes on nocturnal wanderings in search of him, Alma takes a different approach: she befriends the radicals. The inevitable collision of these disparate seekers creates fissures and bonds of unexpected depth and consequence.
Baxter says that the first ideas for the book began to appear five or six years ago. There were three, like a Venn diagram. The first: Reading about the flu pandemic of 1918, Baxter came across folklore cures of the era. One directed the ill to hold mirrors underwater and wash their reflected faces. He recalls that when he told Louise Erdrich about this over dinner, “she looked at me with that predatory look novelists have, and said, ‘If you don’t use that, I will.’ ”
The second: Baxter says that riding Minneapolis light rail to work, he was plagued by the moral dilemma of homelessness. “You ask yourself, What should I be doing? Is there anything I should be doing? That feeling was sort of a narrative generator.”
The third: Baxter heard that the number one al-Qaeda target in North America was Minnesota’s infamous shopping mecca, the Mall of America. “Instead of being horrified,” he says, “I thought it was funny.” Light pours through his windows as he laughs. The wall behind him is a bright puzzle of books. “That’s such a ridiculous place. Who would want to take it down?”
In some writers’ hands, the ridiculous is simply ridiculous. In Baxter’s hands, the ridiculous is strangely menacing and oddly disorienting. From the start, he knew he needed a different approach with this novel. “The sort of realism that I’ve practiced in the past isn’t adequate to the times we’re in,” he says. “I needed something more like Joseph Heller, or somebody whose work is running a fever.”
The result is a novel in which characters can be grounded in the quotidian and communicate with house pets; a novel in which a heartless American president can have a hair-trigger Twitter finger and stoke the flames of the economic divide with poetry. His name is Amos Alonzo Thorkelson, and a sample stanza from his poem, “No Free Lunch,” reads, “At the cash register she paid/ For junk food with a wad/ Of food stamps, and this made/ Me very very very sad.”
Baxter, who is among a handful of contemporary writers known almost as much for their teaching as for their literary output, has been a fixture at the esteemed Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference since 1995. He’s turned many of his craft talks—which are more philosophical ruminations on lesser-explored aspects of writing fiction—into essays published in literary journals, as well as in Burning Down the House. His full-time academic career began in the 1970s at Wayne State in Detroit and included positions at Warren Wilson College’s low-residency MFA program, the University of Michigan’s MFA program, and, for the past 18 years, the University of Minnesota. His final course there, “Reading Like Writers,” was forced online by the coronavirus outbreak, and he had to make his retirement celebrations virtual.
It was a muted coda to a vital career, but Baxter says he didn’t miss being celebrated in “those ego fests.” He’ll remain involved with Bread Loaf and other literary conferences as long as he can, and a third volume on craft, tentatively titled Wonderlands: Essays on the Life of Fiction, is due in 2022. “I think it’ll be my last book of essays,” he says, which will make a lot of writers very, very, very sad.
When asked what he’s most looking forward to about retirement, Baxter pauses for several seconds. “Like a lot of people, I’ve almost stopped looking forward,” he says. Still, he is eager for the time “when people can sit around and talk and not be scared to death that their conversation is going to lead to a lethal illness.” And as soon as it’s safe, he’ll volunteer again with food pantry or literacy efforts.
Until then, Baxter will be writing, always writing. “This is one of those things I probably shouldn’t say,” he offers. “But I started a new novel, a sort of thriller.” His mouth twists into a broad grin and he spreads his arms in front of the laptop. “I’ve always wanted to write a thriller, and who’s going to stop me?”
Bonus Link:
A Year in Reading: Charles Baxter

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Fiction Is Freedom: On Martin Amis

A novel tells you far more about a writer than an essay, a poem, or even an autobiography,” says Martin Amis. He then adds, “My father thought this, too.” This statement is especially intriguing in light of his soon-to-be-published book, Inside Story, which Knopf is billing as an autobiographical novel.
Amis’s life has been exceptional. He has enjoyed great success, and the company of literary notables from birth. His father was Kingsley Amis; his stepmother was acclaimed writer Elizabeth Jane Howard; and Philip Larkin, one of the finest English poets of the last century, was a family friend. His peer group—formed largely while he was studying as an undergraduate at Oxford—includes Christopher Hitchens, Ian McEwan, and Salman Rushdie.
“I apologize for all the name-dropping,” Amis writes in the book. “You’ll get used to it. I had to.” He then counters that it’s not actually name-dropping “when, aged five, you say ‘Dad.’”
These relationships alone ensure that Inside Story will attract enormous comment, but condemnation will likely follow. Amis is accustomed to this. He’s long been a fascination—and a punching bag—in the U.K., where his status as a celebrity author has done him no favors. The British love to hate this native son. In a negative review of his 2012 novel, Lionel Asbo: State of England, in the Independent, Amis was called “one of those writers about whom it is increasingly difficult to find anything worth saying.” In a 2014 article for the Guardian (titled “Why We Love to Hate Martin Amis”), Spectator literary editor Sam Leith wrote, “There is no living British writer who garners as much attention as Amis, so much of it hostile, and so much of that hostility, circularly, arising from the attention itself…It’s as if, and in answer to some inchoate public need, we demand of Amis that he say things in public so we can all agree on what an ass he is.”
Now almost 71, Amis displays the kind of confidence that only a privileged white man can downplay. Or, to paraphrase British actor Michaela Coel, nearly all men of his age and milieu carry themselves in this way—without fear of interruption. Nonetheless, Amis’s contribution and commitment to literature are substantial. And his very particular upbringing was, in reality, an apprenticeship.
Inside Story engages with some of this background, traversing territory covered in Amis’s well-received 2000 memoir, Experience (which he wrote in response to his father’s death in 1995). But Inside Story is a very different book. It is presented as fiction, though Hitchens, Kingsley Amis, and other real figures from Amis’s life make appearances as characters. The names are slightly changed for others, such as his wife and children. And some characters are entirely fictitious, though it’s not always clear which, making the work something of a play on the concept of memoir and novel writing. On another level, the novel allows those with knowledge of Amis’s literary circle to play a guessing game about who might have actually said, and done, what.
Inside Story begins with an invitation to join Amis in his home, and one of the best qualities of the book is its regard for the reader. Amis acknowledges this during a call from his home in Brooklyn. “You have to love the reader,” he says. “It’s not about toadying to the reader but loving and respecting them. A book is nothing without a reader. The relationship between writer and reader is very mysterious and fascinating and not terribly well explained. There is an intimacy to reading a novel because you feel you know the writer embarrassingly well. The great excuse for a public event is that it’s great to meet a reader.”
There is plenty to make the reader feel cherished in this novel, particularly if they like highly wrought literary criticism or are fans of those within Amis’s personal orbit. Inside Story describes encounters with those people over time and, along the way, explores ideas of childhood, family, love, literature, politics, terrorism, aging, illness, and death.
The world of the book is one that now seems very distant: Everyone smokes and drinks copiously as they work. A career in journalism provides plausible means. Social change is often tentative. Social media doesn’t exist. One might feel some nostalgia, especially if one is of a certain demographic.
The tone of the book is generous. Amis has very much sought to praise rather than to blame. “I’m not an angry person,” he explains. “I’ve read autobiographical stuff that’s full of settling scores and smearing people. I’m so glad I don’t have that.”
Amis’s father was married to Howard for 18 years and, according to Amis, during his teenage years they provided him with a vision of how to live as a writer. “It did feel like an exciting household,” he explains, noting that fellow writers were always dropping by. “The rumor is that writers are at each other’s throats. But I’ve never found that to be true. Those feelings belong at the periphery, if your confidence reasonably corresponds to your abilities.”
Accordingly, Inside Story contains wonderful considerations of what it is to be a writer, the importance of reading while writing, and writing while reading. It offers, in a way, what Amis’s parents gave him: an insight into the lives of writers.
“Most fictions, including short stories, have their origin in the subconscious,” Amis writes in Inside Story. “Very often you can feel them arrive. It is an exquisite sensation. Nabokov called it ‘a throb,’ Updike ‘a shiver’: the sense of pregnant arrest. The subconscious is putting you on notice: you have been brooding about something without knowing it. Fiction comes from there—from silent anxiety. And now it has given you a novel to write.”
The richness of this passage and others like it are nearly eclipsed by the startling plot involving Phoebe Phelps, with whom the character of Amis has a doomed five-year relationship. Their relationship is funny, wretched, and very readable. The “night of shame” is a darkly comic highlight in which Phelps refuses to have sex with Amis yet again and he starts to pay her for various sexual acts. Several decades later, long after their breakup, the 9/11 attacks prompt Phelps to reconnect with Amis. When the pair reunites, another remarkable scene occurs: she tells him that he is not the son of Kingsley Amis. It would spoil the story to say more, though the question of who Amis’s real father is will likely prompt much discussion.
Amis is reluctant to reveal much but clarifies that Phelps represents “an anthology of various women” he has known, and that she took on “a life of her own.” He also confirmed that the post-9/11 scene had not taken place but rather was “something Phoebe would do.”
In the book, Amis expresses relief that he has reached 70 and escaped both the self-doubt of middle age and the arrogance of youth. But during our call, he seems a little less assured. It had been difficult, he says, to find “a creative flow” while writing this book. “Age is a real consideration. There are so many ways you start to decay. Your certainty of what goes where tends to be harder to convince yourself of. And some very basic givens of writing a novel don’t fall into your lap.”
This is not evident from reading Inside Story. It is markedly more sincere than some of Amis’s previous work, and events and insights seem to flow seamlessly. His love for literature is earnestly shared. The Phelps plot is audacious and well done. A lifetime of scholarship is reflected in the quality of the writing. But there is still material to derange, or perhaps delight, Amis’s detractors. Some references to women are jarring at best, and the perspective is certainly one of great privilege.
Amis says he feels “fatalistic” about the launch of his 15th novel. He seems particularly stung by the criticism of Lionel Asbo, whose portrayal of working-class lives led to accusations of voyeurism. “You’ve got to be able to do what you want if you write,” he says. “If you feel the urge to write about something, that’s all you need. I was scolded by a critic about the working classes, and suddenly one wonders why he feels qualified to write about it. I’m not going to seek anyone’s permission to write. Fiction is freedom, or it’s nothing.”
Bonus Links:
The New Normal: Martin Amis’s ‘The Pregnant Widow’
A Martin Amis Hatchet Job? On ‘Lionel Asbo: State of England’
The Arcades Project: Martin Amis’s Guide to Classic Video Games
The Adulatory Biographer: On Richard Bradford’s ‘Martin Amis’

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Xiaolu Guo’s Search for a Perfect Home

In March, Chinese-born British author and filmmaker Xiaolu Guo left New York City in a rush. She’d been a visiting professor and writer-in-residence at Columbia University, and, just before the Covid-19 lockdown, she started to get very worried, she explains on a Zoom call from Berlin.
“I thought they were announcing closing borders,” she says. “And I changed my ticket, actually, to leave earlier. I left everything, so the rental flat is still full of clothes. And my office, full of books. Everything’s there”—including some chocolate she remembers leaving on the table. “I thought, Oh I’m just going to be back. Maybe a week or something, you know?”
Months later, home, for Guo, remains in wild, disconcerting flux. In a way, though, she is more prepared than most for the isolating geographical complications of a pandemic. Questions of identity, language, and what makes a home—both internally and externally—are central to the 47-year-old’s impressive body of work, which includes six books written originally in English, seven books originally in Chinese, and 11 films.
Her new novel, A Lover’s Discourse, which will be published by Grove Atlantic in October, returns to familiar topics for the author. It’s an examination of linguistics, love, and the connections between people, often disrupted by country. She began exploring these themes in A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, the first novel she wrote in her second language of English, which she largely taught herself. (That book was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2007 and has been translated into more than 20 languages.)
Both A Lover’s Discourse and A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary were inspired by the work of Roland Barthes, whose 1977 book A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments Guo studied in her 20s while attending the Beijing Film Academy. Dictionary is told from the perspective of a young Chinese woman who moves to London and falls in love with an Englishman as she attempts to learn English. Discourse tackles similar themes, and is composed largely of conversations between a Chinese graduate student (like Guo once was) and an Australian man (Guo’s partner is Australian), who fall in love in Brexit-era London.
“In the book, the Chinese character, she’s a new immigrant,” Guo says. “The man is Anglo-Saxon, widely European.” As a white man in Britain, he naturally fits in, in terms of language and identity, whereas she struggles to find her way as an outsider. Searching for identity and connection, the unnamed narrator of Discourse moves through various roles—immigrant, academic, lover, wife, mother—each of them allowing her to sample a sense of purpose, place, comfort, and belonging, or lack thereof, while giving Guo a chance to explore the nuances of feminism, power, language, and strangely subjective cultural expectations. What her character is truly after is authenticity, Guo says. “The idea of authentic home and the idea of authentic love. Whether you’re married or not. I really think it’s what we miss in modern life.”
The author calls her books “documentary novels,” and notes that she was almost offended when A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers was classified as fiction: “In China, you don’t separate fiction and nonfiction. I’m not used to this idea: ‘Are you a fiction writer? Are you a poet?’ I thought, ‘Oh, but you can’t categorize me.’ ”
But the social reality of categorization—that the groups to whom one belongs, where one belongs, and why can so easily define you—isn’t just a matter of her work. When Guo was a newborn in China, her parents, unable to care for her, gave her to a peasant couple in the mountains to raise. At the age of two, she was given back to her grandparents, who lived in small fishing village. Then, at seven, she rejoined her parents, living on a Communist-era compound. (She chronicles these early life experiences and others in her 2017 memoir, Nine Continents.)
Art helped her survive these disconnections, and she left China in 2002, coming to London on scholarship to the National Film School. She’s since lived in Berlin, Switzerland, Paris, and the U.S. “I’ve been drifting along in all these countries as a short-time resident,” she says. “This is a habit as a person, a nomad, continues to drift and to look for a perfect home. Because I think, once you lose your original home, you just don’t have one.” Even after nearly 20 years in Europe, the author grapples with where she truly belongs: “I became a legalized European, then Brexit happened, and now I am only British. Now, suddenly, I’m a foreigner in Europe.”
At first, upon news of impending lockdown, Guo returned to her flat in East London, which she shares with her partner, a philosophy professor, and their seven-year-old daughter. In June, when travel restrictions were lifted, the family went to Berlin, with hopes of returning to London in a month. (Guo intends to go back to New York City at the end of August to start her new residency at Baruch College.) But the American Embassy where she needs to get her scholar visa has been closed indefinitely, she says. Travel bans between Europe and the U.S. continue. Home is as confusing to her, right now, as it is to her characters.
In A Lover’s Discourse, there’s a scene in which the protagonist and her partner go to get the birth certificate for their child, who, by virtue of being born in London, is English, even though neither of her parents are. The clerk asks if they want an original copy, as well as the original certificate. The narrator is perplexed: How can a copy be original? “The original copy I will produce here is original,” the clerk explains, adding that future copies will be produced elsewhere, and therefore will not be original.
This foregrounds a series of questions Guo continues to ponder throughout the novel: What is original—and does it matter? What is authentic? And how has colonialism influenced our thinking? “Who owns the land originally?” Guo asks. “Before that, who was killed in order to allow that? I think we move around, we just think, Okay, we might not be original now, but we might be original 10 years ago or 10 years after.” Where you’re born is, after all, “a very accidental human consequence,” she says, and is more political than anything. “We could be born in a war zone in Vietnam as American, or French in Burma,” she says. Through the couple in A Lover’s Discourse, Guo presents a countering, modern idea: “We should abandon the idea of traditional land. Adopt a new concept of home and identity.”

Meanwhile, Guo’s own feelings continue to evolve. “In my novel, there’s a strong sentimental value to the new home,” she says, an idea “that the nature, the human geography, should be something close to your original homeland. But nowadays, after a pandemic, you think, ‘Well, it’s not about that sentimentality, it’s about sustainability.’ The idea of home is even more pressing and also may demand to be more local.” At the same time, she finds herself pulled back to New York City, arguably the least familiar of her many homes.
As an artist, Guo posits, perhaps your home is the work you do, and your need to follow your drive to create wherever it takes you. “I try to live as this process of my character going through different languages and different lands,” she says. “It became so obvious: language is a writer’s identity. There’s only one loyalty—to the language I’m writing in now.”
Bonus Link:
Sticks and Stones

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Politics Is in Its DNA: On Jess Walter’s ‘The Cold Millions’

A cold city square fills with protesters. Armed police approach from all sides, penning them in, and a standoff ensues. Voices, signs, fists are raised. “We are here to stand against injustice,” shouts one man, only to be silenced by the swing of a stick. Within minutes, the peaceful show of solidarity has become a full-scale riot. Protestors run, fall, are trampled, shackled, and hauled away. A holding tank fills beyond capacity; gaunt faces are stained with blood. No one is read their rights. They fall ill, starve, some die. The youngest is only 16, and he’s not even a member of the union that staged the protest. His name is Rye Dolan. He was only there to support his older brother, Gig, as proud a union man as there ever was. Now both are guests of a corrupt, malevolent system. Their crime? Sedition: speaking out against the established order.
Though this scene could have been torn from today’s headlines, the protest occurred 111 years ago. It ignites the drama at the heart of The Cold Millions, Jess Walter’s first novel since his runaway 2012 bestseller Beautiful Ruins.
It’s mid-June, and, like everyone else, Walter is home, social distancing. We are speaking via Zoom. He’s backed by the harsh afternoon light of two windows on the top floor of a 1909 river rock carriage house at the back of his property in his hometown of Spokane, Wash.

Writing Beautiful Ruins, Walter explains, made him realize that the stories he likes to tell are themselves composed of stories and contain a multitude of characters and forms. He’s come to question the I narrator. “When I’m reading a first-person novel, sometimes I hear the voice of social media leaking in,” he says. “Somebody on their Facebook page or Twitter feed. I want a larger world than that.”
That larger world is on full display in Walter’s new novel. Even its title evokes a multitude, referring to a subset of desperate souls that Emma Lazarus, in her 1883 poem “The New Colossus,” called “huddled masses.” Though The Cold Millions spans 100 years, it takes place mostly in one: 1909, when the Industrial Workers of the World, or Wobblies, formally began their fight for free speech in Spokane.
At the novel’s core lie two brothers who couldn’t be more different: Gig is idealistic; Rye is uncertain. Gig provokes; Rye mediates. Gig is content in rags; Rye spends six months’ salary on a suit. Gig enjoys the affection of local vaudeville legend Ursula the Great; Rye could pass 100 women with nary a notice.
The story turns first when Rye reluctantly joins that protest only to find himself pulled into a battle he doesn’t care much about. Because of his age at the time of his arrest, he becomes a cause for labor. He’s given a lawyer and released, while Gig, incarcerated indefinitely, begins a hunger strike. The story turns again when Rye becomes a pawn in the fight, manipulated by both sides. In labor’s corner stands real-life progressive firebrand Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a 19-year-old Irish beauty who uses Rye, and his sob story, to fire up her base. In industry’s corner stands fictional Lem Brand, who owns much of Spokane and thinks he can own Rye too.

Walter was born in Spokane in 1965. At the age of five, playing in an empty lot with a friend, he was blinded in his left eye. (He says he’s “possibly the greatest 54-year-old one-eyed point guard still playing.”) He says he grew up embracing adventure tales like Treasure Island and dreamed of “stowing away on a train, stowing away on a pirate ship.” But at the tender age of 19, he set sail on a different adventure: “I was a dad living in government housing trying to not drop out of college, looking into factory jobs,” he recalls. “If I hadn’t gotten subsidized housing, I don’t know that I would have finished college and been a writer. It doesn’t take much to derail you. I think we underestimate how many people are in that situation. My car breaks down, I’ve gotta call my brother, get a ride, go rent a car. Someone else’s car breaks down, their life falls apart.”

Walter was lucky. He got through college and found a journalism job at his hometown paper, the Spokesman-Review. His reporting on the Ruby Ridge standoff (a violent days-long confrontation between white separatists and the FBI) led to a Pulitzer nomination, and his first book, 1995’s Every Knee Shall Bow: The Truth and Tragedy of Ruby Ridge and the Randy Weaver Family.
When asked if he sees his new novel as a battle cry, Walter says, “Being a former journalist, I discovered early on that fiction is a terrible way to break news. I think it’s also a hard way to practice politics. What fiction can do is more important than that: it’s such a shot of empathy. I don’t think of it as a cause novel.”
Maybe not, but The Cold Millions has politics in its DNA. It raises questions about power’s corrupting influence, about the sides people take and fortify with rhetoric, and about brotherhood, both genetic and thematic. The book is intimate enough to tell a moving story about Rye and Gig, and expansive enough to tell other stories too—about labor, class, inequality, privilege, corruption, and migration. But above all, The Cold Millions is about Spokane.
“Writers should have to write a book about the most interesting period of time in their city’s history,” Walter says. He raises a postcard he found when he began his research, showing downtown streets teeming with people as work horses wait with equine patience at the roadside. “This is a normal day in Spokane in 1910,” he notes. “Spokane was income inequality as a sort of social experiment. The wealth of these mining and timber families was unbelievable. The mayor couldn’t afford to live on the hill. It connects with where we are now. Anyone who’s been watching income inequality over the last decade knows that we are at the highest point since the Gilded Age.”

From the publication of Walter’s first novel, Over Tumbled Graves, in 2001 to that of Beautiful Ruins, no more than three years elapsed between books. When asked about the eight-year gap after Beautiful Ruins, Walter says that book “took a lot out of me, creatively.” Then his beard bends with a grin. “And I may have taken a slightly longer victory lap than usual.” He pilots his laptop around the room in his carriage house for a tour. “This is the house Beautiful Ruins renovated,” he says, pointing out his writing desk, his other desk, his Nerf basketball hoop (crucial to the creative process, he says), his “napping couch” and his “napping chair.”
Walter takes us downstairs and out into the overblown day. The back of his main house lies ahead, flanked by homes built, like most of Spokane, in 1909 or 1910, when union men like Rye and Gig were being imprisoned for modest demands that threatened the immodest profits of the industry titans up the hill. He enters his house at the back, crosses to the front, and points his camera out a window at the river valley, stretching as far as the eye can see.
“I wrote once about Spokane that it doesn’t matter where you live, you’re never more than two blocks from a bad neighborhood,” Walter says. “I kind of love that about my hometown. I still live in the flats, I still live next to the river I lived next to when I got a stick in my eye. I feel so connected to the person that I was, and maybe more comfortable than ever being that person and writing class stories that are about meth addicts stealing televisions, not about which private school you send your kid to.”
Bonus Link:
A Year in Reading: Jess Walter

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.
Mike Harvkey is the author of ‘In the Course of Human Events’ and was the researcher/reporter for the bestselling true crime book ‘All-American Murder.’

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s Rising Star

When Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi began writing her ambitious novel A Girl Is a Body of Water in 1998, she knew it would center on a young woman’s coming of age in Uganda. What she didn’t anticipate is that she would revise the novel on and off for 20 years, perfecting the sweeping multigenerational tale while working full-time in nursing homes and airport security.
“I was so close to giving up,” says Makumbi, grinning, her yellow knit head wrap matching the cheery yellow walls of her living room in Manchester, England, where she also works as an adjunct professor. Behind her are stacks of books growing up like trees from the floor. That she can’t stop smiling on this Zoom call isn’t surprising: A Girl Is a Body of Water is giving Makumbi her starring moment, with the novel attracting buzz in publishing circles and drawing raves in early reviews.
“When I left Uganda, I sold everything I had,” Makumbi says. She had been teaching at an international school there but moved to Manchester in 2001 to enroll in a graduate program in creative writing. “All of the money I made, I put into my writing. I gave up on being wealthy, but I had to succeed.”

Makumbi continued to work on the novel after her MFA and sent it out to agents in 2003. She was devastated when it was rejected. Even after resubmitting new drafts in 2005 and 2008, multiple agents said no. She put the novel away in 2008 and didn’t pick it up again until eight years later. By then, she’d published her first novel, Kintu, which won her the prestigious Windham-Campbell Prize. Feeling she was a much stronger writer, she began revising A Girl Is a Body of Water once more.
That willful sense of determination is familiar in the pages of A Girl Is a Body of Water. In the book, headstrong and whip-smart Kirabo Nnamiiro, a 12-year-old Ugandan girl living with her loving grandparents in a village, is determined to find her mother, whose identity is unknown to her. (Kirabo’s family won’t speak to her about her mother.) Kirabo’s journey first leads her to visit the local witch, Nsuuta, to ask for help in her quest. But a larger question emerges on the visit: why does Kirabo sometimes fly outside her own body and observe herself? Is it why her mother abandoned her?
The answer frames the beginning of Kirabo’s seven-year trek to empowered womanhood. “Listen,” Nsuuta tells her. “You fly out of your body because our original state is in you…The way women were in the beginning…We were not squeezed inside, we were huge, strong, bold, loud, proud, brave, independent. But it was too much for the world and they got rid of it.”
Makumbi, 52, has long been fascinated by creation myths—specifically the story of the first woman—and initially she attempted to write the novel around some variation of Eve, whose Ugandan counterpart is called Nnambi. She’d succeeded once on this front: Kintu, which The New York Times called “a sweeping portrait of Ugandan history,” centers on the story of the first man.
Still, Makumbi couldn’t find the right character to focus the first woman on, so instead Nnambi became Kirabo’s stepmother, a secondary character who encapsulates the darker side of the Ugandan version of the myth. Makumbi weaved Ugandan folklore and myth throughout the novel. She used Kirabo’s love of oral storytelling to demonstrate the girl’s changing perspectives as she leaves her sheltered rural existence to live with her father in Kampala and, later, at a private girls’ school. The book opens with her spinning a yarn that will mimic her journey—a clever way to set up the plot.
Many of the stories that Kirabo shares in the novel are stories that Makumbi heard growing up but reinvented on the page with a feminist slant. She says she realized in graduate school that her literary history didn’t lie with Shakespeare or Dante; it was in the oral tradition. “I wanted to take those stories that I’ve inherited from my ancestors into a new form,” she explains. “I want readers to see that oral histories may not have been written, but they can be very sophisticated.”
The author’s retelling of creation myths is in part what drew Maisie Cochran, editorial director at Tin House, to the 546-page manuscript when she read it, over the course of two days, last summer. Cochran highlights the moment when Nsuuta tells Kirabo that women come from the ocean and bring life, just as water does. This, Nsuuta explains, gives them majesty and power; in the telling, one woman is so strong that she’s able to squat and birth the Mayanja River, giving her people the gift of water.
“I immediately thought: I’m reading something I’ll never forget,” Cochran says. “The book is a reckoning with myth, of the very first stories that we have based our cultures on.” She adds that Makumbi’s decision to tackle the origin story from a feminist angle also grabbed her. “I’d never read anything like that.”
A Girl Is a Body of Water went to auction within two weeks of it being shopped in the U.S. last summer. Several large and small houses were competing for the book alongside Tin House. Veronica Goldstein, Makumbi’s American agent at Fletcher & Company, says she quickly began getting calls from editors who were extremely drawn to Kirabo. As different as the young Ugandan girl’s upbringing is—she straddles two worlds: the village and the city—she’s incredibly relatable. “You watch her grow up in the novel, and you can see a bit of yourself in her,” Goldstein says.
Still, A Girl Is a Body of Water is unapologetically African. Dialogue is written in patois—a mix of English and Luganda known as Uglish. At times, the back and forth between characters is so realistic that readers may need to reread lines to get their bearings. Makumbi and Cochran went through every line in the novel together, attempting to strike a balance in the use of authentic Luganda words, after copy editors expressed concern that certain passages might confuse a Western audience.
A Girl Is a Body of Water doesn’t explain Ugandan history or cultural mores to situate a potential Western reader, even though it’s set in the late 1970s, during one of the bloodiest periods in Ugandan history, when the country was ruled by Idi Amin. Makumbi simply invites the reader in. “I don’t think readers want everything explained to them,” she says. “You come into this world, you know it’s a different world, and you may have to work to understand it.” That is what makes reading interesting, she adds, and it’s how she grew up reading British and American novels. “Imagine a girl growing up at the equator, where it’s only hot or wet, reading about the harshness of winter, or snow. In Africa, we read Mark Twain and Austen and Dickens, but we figure it out.”
Makumbi wrote the novel with a Ugandan audience in mind, she says, to free herself from writing within the confines of what the West might expect of a Ugandan writer. She wasn’t going to tackle subjects like colonization or poverty. “I wanted to negate that image of the African childhood seen on Western television,” she says.
Instead, Makumbi tells the story of a child surrounded by love and a family who nurtured her and supported her, even as she hunted for her birth mother and grew into a strong feminist. “That cliché of the poor African child—it’s not how I grew up, and it’s not how most people I knew grew up,” she says.
In the end, Makumbi wanted a Ugandan woman to be able to read the book and relate to it just as much as a Western woman would. “The minute that I realized that I was writing for Ugandans, I didn’t have to be careful of what to say or how to write,” she says. “Everything was on the table.”

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.