Disinformation Nation: On Francine Prose

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In June 2017, while Americans were furiously debating former FBI director James Comey’s testimony on Capitol Hill, the writer and critic Francine Prose offered a staid, almost schoolteacherly response to the hearing. In the New York Review of Books, she presented a close textual analysis of Comey’s testimony and his exchanges with the members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, dissecting word choices and rhetorical tics. What did he mean by the word honest, what did former president Donald Trump mean by the word loyalty, and why exactly did Republican senators repeatedly assert that Trump was “not under investigation”?
At times, Prose wrote, the hearing served as a reminder that politicians could still “speak in complete sentences” and “strive for linguistic and moral clarity.” At other times, it reflected what she described as an “impoverished and debased public discourse: cryptic, incoherent, evasive, designed to prevaricate.”

Prose’s interest in the uses and misuses of language, both political and literary, drives her forthcoming novel, The Vixen. In it, she asks, how can language be used to reveal truth, how can it be used to obfuscate, and how can we—readers, citizens—parse the difference?
Over the course of her nearly 50-year career, Prose has emerged as a kind of guardian angel of the written word. (Like Usain Bolt and Anthony Weiner, she was born with a last name that practically spelled out her professional destiny.) A distinguished writer in residence at Bard, she is also a former president of the PEN American Center, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the author of more than 30 works of fiction, nonfiction, children’s literature, and criticism, including Reading Like a Writer, her now-classic primer on literary analysis.
Speaking via Zoom from her home in Upstate New York, Prose says she wrote The Vixen as a way of thinking through the “horrible polarization of our era, the threats to free speech from everywhere,” and Americans’ sense of being persistently “lied to.”
The Vixen takes place in the 1950s and centers on a recent Harvard graduate named Simon Putnam who, thanks to a well-connected relative, lands a job at a prestigious book publisher called Landry, Landry and Bartlett. Simon, born to a working-class Jewish family on Coney Island, feels out of place at the company, where the people highest on the totem pole tend to be “Protestant and rich.” But, with his Gentile last name and WASP-y good looks, he manages to blend in, and he labors in the hope of one day entering his superiors’ ranks.
Simon’s sense of alienation is also political. Ethel and Julius Rosenberg have just been executed, and Sen. Joseph McCarthy is still conducting his anti-Communist reign of terror. Simon takes umbrage at the treatment of the Rosenbergs—in large part out of sympathy for his mother, who went to school with Ethel and who believes “McCarthy is the devil.” But he understands that, given the paranoid climate, one word of even mild skepticism about the Rosenbergs’ guilt could spell his doom.
Simon’s political loyalties are soon put to the test when his boss, Warren Landry, gives him his first book to edit. The novel, titled The Vixen, the Patriot, and the Fanatic, is plainly a work of propagandistic trash. Written by a mysterious debut author named Anya Partridge, it depicts Ethel Rosenberg as a scheming, traitorous nymphomaniac. Warren concedes that the book is bad, but he hopes that, given its topicality and sensationalism, it will sell well and shore up the house’s ailing finances. Simon senses that his job, and by extension his career, will hinge on his ability to shepherd the book to readers with its terrible prose polished but its odious politics intact.
Prose has long been in interested in the ways history can be distorted. Her novella collection Guided Tours of Hell, for example, touches on how the Holocaust has been commodified. “Turning historical tragedy into something kitschy—I’ve thought about that a lot,” she says.

In a sense, The Vixen is of a piece with Prose’s time-hopping, peripatetic oeuvre. To review her bibliography is to undergo a kind of geographic, temporal, and perspectival whiplash. She’s written about a rabbi in 17th-century Poland (in Judah the Pious), a creative writing professor navigating contemporary sexual politics (in the National Book Award–finalist Blue Angel), and a female race-car driver who collaborates with the Nazis (in Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932).
In another sense, though, The Vixen is Prose’s most autobiographical novel. Like Simon, she was born in Brooklyn and attended Harvard. And, like Simon’s mother, hers knew Ethel Rosenberg.
“They graduated from Seward Park High School together, so I would hear about her,” Prose explains. “And I’m old enough to remember her execution. It was a big thing in our house. It was always in the back of my mind.”
Given how upset her parents were by the Rosenbergs’ executions, Prose was wary, she says, of centering a novel on the case. “In a way, I had to write about something that was exploiting it to feel that I wasn’t exploiting it,” she adds.
Prose litters The Vixen with passages from the novel Simon is editing, showcasing the exploitation at hand. In one excerpt, Esther—as the Ethel stand-in is called—wraps her arms around the bars of her prison cell “like the serpent in the Garden of Eden” and flaunts her “ample, shapely breasts.” Prose also leaned on her own experiences in publishing to inform Simon’s.
“The most directly drawn-from-life incident in the novel is when Simon goes out with his uncle to lunch and he drinks too much,” Prose says. “That happened to me. My editor, Harry Ford, took me out to a restaurant. I wasn’t a drinker. I ordered a whiskey sour and we split a bottle of wine. And then I fell over.”
As Simon tries to refine the novel—largely by deepening Esther’s character in a bid to do Ethel a kind of justice—complications accumulate. He falls in love with the novel’s erratic author and eventually discovers that Warren’s motives for publishing the book aren’t strictly commercial: Landry, Landry and Bartlett isn’t the only institution that stands to benefit from the release of an anticommunist bodice ripper.
Prose sees resemblances between Simon’s era and our own, with their shared partisan mistrust, divisive misinformation, and scapegoating. Being in a time similar to the McCarthy years is partly what enabled her to write about them. “Here we are, and there we were,” she says. “The fact that the Rosenbergs were being executed and it wasn’t entirely proven what they’d done—that they were just being executed as some example of what could happen to you if you did a certain thing—was horrifying for people. I think that the cascade of horrors wasn’t as fast and intense as it has been in the last few years. Horrors had a kind of resonance that they’ve lost, because now we’re on a kind of 24-hour horror cycle.”
Like Prose’s essay on the Comey hearing for NYRB, The Vixen makes an implicit argument for good writing, and even good editing, as a form of political defiance. As Simon revises Anya’s novel, he begins to see his clandestine editorial effort as “my protest, my low-key revenge, my barely visible act of resistance.”
At the same time, Simon comes to realize that writing, whether it seeks to reveal the truth or distort it, is ultimately a method of persuasion with a single rhetorical toolset. In a climactic moment, one character tells Simon that the most effective political lies are the ones that make use of a memorable “detail”—that shibboleth of the creative writing workshop.
“One of the things you think about when you’re writing fiction is, how do you make things believable?” Prose says. Peddlers of political misinformation ask themselves the same question.
By giving her own novel the same title as the salacious one Simon is editing, Prose forces the reader to consider the fine dividing line between literature and propaganda. She also illuminates the dangers inherent in writing both—in writing, period. After all, the fate-sealing charge against Ethel Rosenberg was that she’d typed up some notes for her brother.
As one character in the novel puts it, “How bizarre, that typing can get you in so much trouble.”
Bonus Link:
Albania the Beautiful: Francine Prose’s ‘My New American Life’

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Filling in the Past: On Nathan Harris’s ‘The Sweetness of Water’

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Nathan Harris’s father was obsessed with researching his family history, but when Harris asked what he’d discovered, the answer was almost nothing—a common situation for many Black Americans. In his debut novel, The Sweetness of Water, Harris creates that missing history through the story of two brothers, Prentiss and Landry, who are freed by the Emancipation Proclamation and hired to work on the Georgia farm of George and Isabelle Walker, whose only son died as a soldier in the Civil War. “All Black writers are drawn to filling in their past,” he says.

Realizing how little he knew about the period in American history right after emancipation, Harris says he started thinking about the repercussions of the enslaved suddenly becoming free, and what that freedom meant when there were no guidelines to help navigate the change.
“What did it feel like to be these people in this time in history?” Harris asks. “The power of imagination is very strong. I’ve written my own story, sourced it from the air. I wanted to immerse readers in that world, rural Georgia in 1865.” The novel expanded to explore many issues the nation faced at that time, and in it Harris looks at class, identity, and society. A parallel plot follows the fate of two gay Confederate soldiers who return to the town of Old Ox, and the effect on the community when their relationship is revealed.
Harris says he did “enough” research. “I didn’t want to get bogged down in the details,” he adds. “I wanted to stay focused on the story. But on the other hand, I wanted to get it right.”
Ben George, Harris’s editor at Little, Brown, says, “History comes alive through Nathan’s characters. Nathan is only in his 20s. Most debut novels are autobiographical. It’s astounding how big his canvas is, how he’s able to marshal research from the era. I completely fell in love with this novel the first time I read it and more so each subsequent time. I told Nathan on the phone that the book ‘set my hair on fire.’ ” George recalls that everyone at Little, Brown felt the same, and he was able to preempt Sweetness soon after he received it.
Emily Forland, Harris’s agent at Brandt & Hochman, tells me she was lucky with this book. “Emails are treasure houses,” she says. “You never know what you will find.” In March 2019, she found Harris’s query letter. “He was a fellow at the Michener Center at the University of Austin, and I always notice Michener fellows because the program produces such high-quality work.”
Forland says she was initially attracted to the subject matter: “What did that mean emotionally, when freed men became free?” And then she was taken with the elegance of the writing (she has a poetry MFA from Sarah Lawrence). “The opening pages had so much beauty and observation,” she notes.
The description of George Walker on the first page of Sweetness is testament to Forland’s comment. “He’d developed a hitch over the last few years,” Harris writes, “had pinned it on a misplaced step as he descended from his cabin to the forest floor, but he knew this was a lie: it had appeared with the persistence and steady progress of old age itself—as natural as the lines on his face, the white in his hair.”
Harris is from Oregon but moved to San Francisco after graduating from the University of Oregon. He started writing in college and says he always “had an idea” to write a big book. “I was influenced by classic sweeping epic books. These were the books that moved me, that feeling when you’re a kid and you turn that last page. So one morning I sat down and gave it a try.”
From 2013 to 2015, Harris worked on the novel in the mornings and evenings while delivering food for Postmates in the afternoons. He says he’d never written historical fiction and had to work to keep the “thoughts of fear out of my head.”
Harris shared some chapters with Jason Brown, a mentor at Oregon, who told him, “I think you have gold here. Finish it.” Then Harris was accepted as a fellow at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin, knocked his draft into shape, and in 2019, the third year of the program, decided it was time to get an agent.
“It was a dark period,” Harris says. “I met with a few agents and not much happened.” Then he found Forland online. “Emily got in touch and we hit it off. She’s always there for me. When there’s anxiety, Emily is there.”
Forland thought the manuscript was very polished. She sent it out to a “fairly wide group of editors, 10 or 12”, in June 2019. George’s reaction was “quick and strong,” she recalls. “And I always pay attention when a house and an editor feels this way.”
George got the manuscript June 18, got back to Forland on June 24, and spoke with Harris on June 26.
“Ben was a whirlwind,” Harris says. “I was at the gym when Emily called to tell me how much Ben liked the book and we were off to the races. He really connected to the material.”
Forland remembers George’s keen interest. She remembers because she had taken her son to see Toy Story 4, and, she tells me, “I only saw the last 10 minutes. I was negotiating with Ben and talking to Nathan through the whole movie. When Ben wants something, he’s passionate and enthusiastic. We closed the deal for a ‘nice, substantial advance’ for world English rights on my way to the subway the next morning.”
Sweetness will publish simultaneously in the U.K. with Tinder Press.
The praise in Richard Russo’s blurb says it all: “Harris has, in a sense, unwritten Gone With the Wind, detonating its phony romanticism, its unearned sympathies, its wretched racism.”

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Inside the Souvenir Museum with Elizabeth McCracken

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Elizabeth McCracken’s career is a steady and unassuming success. This may be due in part to her lack of interest in self-aggrandizement. “I haven’t been a public librarian myself for more than 10 years now,” she wrote in her 2008 memoir, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, “but I retain what I like to think of as an air of civic acceptance.” And indeed, she does—she’s unpretentious, kind, and less concerned with a bust being rendered in her honor so much as cataloging other figures.

McCracken has written six books and won a PEN Award, the Story Prize, and been both a finalist and longlisted for the National Book Award. Nonetheless, she’s not exactly a household name. Now the 54-year-old is preparing for the publication of her short story collection The Souvenir Museum.
When asked what characterizes her work, McCracken, who teaches fiction at University of Texas at Austin, pauses to give the question real thought—and to let her cat out. “Well, there’s always a cat in my books,” she says, sitting back down in front of an ajar wooden dresser. “I also tend to write about eccentrics. I’m interested in people who are different because of pure bloody-mindedness. People who do not feel obliged to conform, people who don’t necessarily feel the same societal…” She laughs at herself. “Now I’m sounding pretentious, and I can’t stand the sound of my voice. I said ‘societal.’ God. Why am I expounding on this?”
Reassured that she’s been asked to expound and is not being pretentious, McCracken concludes, succinctly, “I’m interested in people who are emotionally different.”
Her bloody-minded eccentrics are on full display in The Souvenir Museum. And they are aware of their place in history. In the story “It’s Not You,” for example, the narrator looks back on a stay at a hotel when she was heartbroken and had an encounter with a famous radio psychologist. But the retrospective narrator warns: “There isn’t a moral to the story. Neither of us is in the right. Nothing was resolved. Decades later, it still bothers me.” In the title story, the narrator muses on the meaning of souvenirs: “Souvenir: a memory you could buy. A memory you could plan to keep instead of being left with the rubble of what happened.”
This theme of time lost pervades McCracken’s work—as does a sense of mirth over life’s ephemeral nature. That the title story of her new collection takes place at a real souvenir museum is also no coincidence: McCracken and her family collect antique knickknacks, and they are clustered throughout the house. The author clearly treasures the long-lasting. She’s been with her agent, Henry Dunow, for more than 30 years, and she’s long been married to playwright and novelist Edward Carey.
“There’s no author I cherish more,” Dunow says. (The author Ann Patchett must feel similarly, since, as she once told NPR, McCracken is her favorite—and often only—early reader.) The author-agent match was made when McCracken was a graduate student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Dunow was a fledgling agent. They began their careers together and have stayed loyal to one another ever since.
“After all this time, I’m still in awe of her,” Dunow says. “I don’t know how many times I’ve said that I would recognize an Elizabeth McCracken sentence from a mile away, so singular and distinctive is her prose, so unlike anyone else writing today. She has a way of putting things that is entirely her own: an earthy, pungent way with language; a sly and feisty wit; a piercing insight expressed with such precision it might make you smile, shake your head, or even gasp.” And, he adds, “an array of characters you could not meet anywhere else.”
Despite mostly writing fiction, McCracken also put her own character on the line with her aforementioned memoir, which Reagan Arthur (then at Little, Brown) published. The moving book is about the death of her first child, whom she lost, stillborn, at nine months. Amazingly, the book was written as she literally nursed and rocked her second child (born a few years later) in her lap.
The memoir grew out of McCracken’s urgent need to process her still-present grief coinciding with the arrival of her new bundle of joy. She goes back to the raw aftermath of the tragedy, writing, “At that moment I felt so ruined by life that I couldn’t imagine it ever getting worse, which just shows that my sense of humor was slightly more durable than my imagination.”
This experience appears to help McCracken keep things in perspective, and to stay extremely productive. During the pandemic, she’s felt an obligation to make the most of her writing time, which she notes is an immense privilege in itself. “I always have the sense when I’m working on something that I’m aware of what I will regret in the future,” she says. “Because I had a semester’s leave this year during quarantine, I knew I would not be able to live with myself if I couldn’t get work done during that time.”
And so McCracken and Carey rented a shared space; one would write while the other stayed home with the kids. “I’m all about avoiding the self-loathing I can avoid,” she says. “There’s plenty of self-loathing I cannot, that is coming for me one way or the other. But getting work done is one of the arenas in which I can mitigate it.”
When she was teaching, McCracken also saw the many small treasures to be unearthed under these unusual circumstances. “I found it quite dear to see my students on screen,” she says. “The very shy people in class were less shy. I found, at the end of the class, watching everybody disappear, sort of unbelievably poignant. There was one guy who was always the last person to click away. It was very sweet.”
Asked to predict what kind of trends in fiction this pandemic era might bring, McCracken says she thinks we might at first see many books set right before the coronavirus hit, until writers gain more perspective and comfort with the subject matter.Inside
“After 9/11,” McCracken says, “a ton of fiction writers I know, including me, went, ‘We can’t write fiction anymore. Nothing that we could write could speak to this moment.’ We were like, ‘We’re going to be poets.’ Then everybody, I don’t even know how long it took, was like, ‘No, actually, we didn’t mean it.’ The human mind’s ability to forget atrocities is impressive. We want to write.”
Bonus Links:
The Good Place: The Millions Interviews Elizabeth McCracken
‘Bowlaway’: Featured Fiction from Elizabeth McCracken
A Year in Reading 2008: Elizabeth McCracken
A Year in Reading 2018: Elizabeth McCracken

The piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Found in Translation: On Jhumpa Lahiri and ‘Whereabouts’

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In 2012, after a run of successful story collections and novels, including 1999’s Pulitzer-winning Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri embarked on a daring experiment. Having studied Italian off and on since graduate school, she decided to move with her husband and children to Rome, where she would immerse herself in the language and, eventually, write a book in it.

Many people in Lahiri’s life, understandably, advised against this plan. By jettisoning English, she was effectively laying down the tool of her trade, exchanging it for one that would be far more cumbersome. It was as if a tennis star had opted to compete with a ping-pong paddle.
At first, the going was indeed tough. As Lahiri recalled in her 2016 memoir, In Other Words (written in Italian and translated into English by Ann Goldstein), “In spite of my great enthusiasm for living in Rome, everything seems impossible, indecipherable, impenetrable.” Writing in Italian, she says in the book, made her feel “like a child, like a semiliterate.”
Over time, though, Lahiri made enough progress to speak, think, and compose in her adopted tongue. Besotted by the country and language, she ended up staying in Rome for three years. By the time she returned to the U.S. in 2015, she’d started a novel in Italian. That book was published in Italy in 2018 as Dove mi trovo; Lahiri’s English translation of the work, titled Whereabouts, is being released by Knopf in May.
“When we first moved, I thought, ‘I’d like to live in Rome for a year,’ ” Lahiri says via Zoom from her home in Princeton, N.J. “Instead, it’s had this completely profound, ongoing influence on my personal life, on my family life—on life.”
Lahiri’s experiment has also had an influence on her writing. Fans of her fiction will be glad for Whereabouts, her first novel in eight years, but they may be surprised by the book’s subject matter and style. Traditionally, Lahiri’s fiction has centered on the experience of Indian immigrants in the U.S. and their descendants. Her work has also tended to sport all the accoutrements of realist fiction: named characters, defined settings, glimpses of a larger, outside world.
Whereabouts, by contrast, is about an Italian woman—a person itching to leave her birthplace, rather than one struggling to adjust to an adopted home—and, at just over 150 pages, is unusually brief. The book, divided into 46 chapters, is deeply inward looking, and it contains little in the way of personifying or geographic detail. The reader is not given the narrator’s name, for example, and, were it not for a few telling words, such as piazza, one might not know it is set in Italy. Near the end of the book, when the narrator, a middle-aged writer and professor, tells her mother she’s leaving the country for a fellowship, she describes her destination simply as somewhere “on the other side of the border.”
Lahiri, who directs the creative writing program at Princeton University, has “always been interested in space and place,” she says. That interest has roots in her biography. She was born in London to Indian immigrants and raised in Rhode Island, where she felt the dissonance between her Bengali household and her American environs acutely—a dissonance she would go on to explore in her work.
“Are we in India or are we in New England? That’s always been a preoccupation of mine,” Lahiri says. In Whereabouts, though, she “wanted to look at place differently” and to “render things in a more abstract way.”
That decision may have been informed by the circumstances of the book’s composition. After she returned to the U.S. from Italy, Lahiri embarked on a period of dizzying peregrination. For a while, she commuted regularly from Brooklyn to Princeton, where she’d started teaching. On top of that, she flew back to Rome every six to eight weeks, as if carrying on a long-distance relationship with the city. It was there that she’d work on the jottings that, over time, became Whereabouts. “I think one of the reasons I didn’t want to specify the place was that I, in the writing of this book, was in no specific place,” Lahiri says.
For all its geographic abstraction, Whereabouts does emphasize place on a more local level. The chapters are headed by prepositional phrases (“At the Museum,” “On the Balcony”) that provide concrete backdrops for the narrator’s meandering reflections—about her foredoomed attraction to a married friend, about the trauma of her father’s early death.
Lahiri started out using these titles intuitively. But she observes that, for a language learner, prepositions—those words describing our proximity, our positionality, our place—can pose a special challenge, and thus attain a special meaning. “Unless you’re born with the language, they can escape you,” she says.
After years of studying and writing in Italian, does Lahiri now feel like a native speaker? In In Other Words, she writes, “I can write in Italian, but I can’t become an Italian writer.” Nevertheless, she feels that, at this stage, her “center of gravity” has moved to someplace between English and Italian.
For example, when she was first immersing herself in the language, Lahiri found it “impossible” to write in Italian while in the U.S. But she recently completed another book in Italian while in Princeton, having been grounded stateside by the pandemic. “That feels like a real shift for me,” she says. And, after Whereabouts was published in Italy, she felt she’d come far enough in her linguistic journey to attempt to translate it herself. “Something told me I should try.”
In attempting this feat, Lahiri joins a rarefied group of writers—including Samuel Beckett, Vladimir Nabokov, and Argentine writer J. Rodolfo Wilcock—who have learned new languages, composed texts in those languages, and then translated them into their principal tongues.
Initially, Lahiri had apprehensions about the task. “I was worried I couldn’t hear the book again in English,” she says. But she found it “pleasantly challenging.” She likens the experience to suiting up for a walk in the snow only to find that the weather is warmer than you’d expected. “I put on all of my layers and braced myself and walked out the door and then—‘Oh, it’s actually a nice day.’”
Still, Lahiri values the difficult, early days of her apprenticeship. If she feels remade as a writer, it’s because learning Italian has forced her to part with some of her certainty and some her authority. “I’m always trying to get back to that place where I really wasn’t sure of anything,” she says. “To make art, you’ve got to be in a very precarious place all the time. You really have to realize that it’s a dangerous thing you’re doing, and the stakes are very high.”
Lahiri doesn’t know when she’ll able to return to Italy. After years of traveling there so frequently, she’s found the pandemic “devastating.” She’s compared learning Italian to falling in love, and even over Zoom her grief at not being to reunite with the country and its language is palpable. When asked, “Why Italy?” she fumbles for words. Who can explain why they fall in love with a certain person?
“It’s very mysterious,” Lahiri says. “All you know is that you have to be with that person. There’s something about them that makes you makes feel safe, and loved, and alive.”
Bonus Links:
Lydia Davis and Jhumpa Lahiri Learn New Languages
Another Mask: On Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘In Other Words’

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Maggie Shipstead Wants to Transport You

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There’s nothing like a big book with a map in front to ramp up my excitement, and Maggie Shipstead’s new novel, Great Circle (Knopf, May 2021), is one of those books. Add globe-trotting women protagonists and a story that moves across decades and I’m ready to be transported, which, Shipstead tells me, is her hope. “I’m writing what I want to read: a provocative book with literary value that’s also entertaining.”
Great Circle tells the story of two women, living in different times, both ambitious and destined to determine their own futures. It opens in 1909 with the sinking of an ocean liner and the rescue of twins Marian and Jamie. Marian becomes a famous aviator, from Prohibition-era Montana to WWII Europe. In present-day Hollywood, actor Hadley Baxter hopes to reinvent herself by playing the role of Marian (who disappeared over Antarctica in 1950).
This is Shipstead’s third novel, after her 2012 bestselling debut, Seating Arrangements, and 2014’s Astonish Me. A Harvard graduate, she says she applied to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2005 “not expecting to get in”—but when she was accepted, she thought, “Amazing—I have a life plan for the next two years.” While at Iowa, she began to think of writing as a feasible career.
Iowa is also where Shipstead also met her literary agent, Rebecca Gradinger, of Fletcher & Company. “During my second year, Connie Brothers [then program administrator] called me to ask if I had an agent,” she says. “When I said I didn’t, she sent me to pick up Rebecca, who was coming to talk to the students. At that point, I only had a few short stories.”
Gradinger remembers traveling to Iowa when she was a “baby agent”: “I didn’t have a driver’s license, and Connie kindly sent [Shipstead] to pick me up. We had an amazing conversation, didn’t talk about work, but she did send me a story I read on my BlackBerry. Remember those? I couldn’t stop reading it: it was so crisp and funny and insightful.”
Interestingly, Gradinger recalls, Shipstead was not one of the students who signed up for her talk.
Shipstead offered to drive Gradinger back to the airport and a year and a half later sent her some stories. One of them was a long story that became Seating Arrangements.
“Rebecca is the only agent I’ve ever had; I never spoke to another one,” Shipstead says. “It’s like marrying the first person you go on a date with.”
They worked together on Seating Arrangements, and Gradinger submitted it widely. But, she says, “there was a real connection” with Knopf’s Jordan Pavlin. And she’s been Shipstead’s editor ever since.
“Maggie came into my orbit about 10 years ago,” Pavlin says. “I was dazzled by her work from the opening paragraphs of that first novel.”
“Jordan’s brilliant,” Shipstead says. “It was so exciting to sell that first book. I was 26 years old and, being so young, it was a great relief.”
The following year, Shipstead went to Stanford with a Stegner Fellowship, and after that she took to the road, traveling to Bali, Paris, and Edinburgh. During that period she also finished Astonish Me, which evolved from a short story about ballet that she had written at Stanford.
“Astonish Me was finished in five months and sold before Seating Arrangements was published,” Shipstead says. She had another novel going but “couldn’t get back into it.” Then at the Auckland airport, she saw a statue of Jean Batten, an aviator who made the first-ever solo flight from England to New Zealand in 1936. The statue bore a quote: “I was destined to be a wanderer.” Right then, Shipstead recalls, “I decided to write about a female aviator.” The adapted quote became the first line of Great Circle: “I was born to be a wanderer.”
Shipstead acknowledges that Great Circle became “an unwieldy project” two years into the writing. She “did a lot of research, a lot of traveling.” In 2015, she started writing travel articles, and she calls her journalism symbiotic with her fiction.
“I put places in the book where I’d been,” Shipstead says. Great Circle moves through Montana, Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, New Zealand, Paris, Berlin, and Los Angeles.
In 2018, after four years of writing, Shipstead had a draft of Great Circle and sent it to Gradinger. They worked on it for about nine more months before sending it to Pavlin.
With the new book, Pavlin says, she knew Shipstead was working on “something important, special—something epic.” She signed it on a partial manuscript. “It’s a spectacular book—wondrous and magisterial, a book you can get lost in, that lifts you out of everyday life.”
Pavlin says Great Circle is “exactly the kind of novel we know what to do with at Knopf—the kind of book we all crave. It’s a tour de force about two unforgettable women in vastly different geographic and historical places yet they are also entirely of the moment. It’s an immersive reading experience about female power, about dreaming big dreams and having the courage to pursue them.”
The contract for North American rights was signed in late 2018 for two books, in a six-figure deal according to the Bookseller. The second title is a collection of short stories that Pavlin says showcases Shipstead’s range. Transworld will publish Great Circle in the U.K. on May 27.
Shipstead’s wish for Great Circle is to take readers away, to elicit an emotional response. “With the pandemic,” she says, “we all feel confined. This book is about freedom, a breath of escape.”

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Fact or Fiction: On Vendela Vida’s ‘We Run the Tides’

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Vendela Vida is a little bit tired, which is understandable. It’s the day after the presidential election. The night before this interview she stayed up until three in the morning watching the results come in from a neighbor’s backyard in the Bay Area. At the time, she thought she might go to sleep knowing who the next president was. That didn’t happen, but they ate “lots of cheese and drank two gin and tonics each,” she says, “and that’s basically how our evening went, yeah.”
Vida, 49, remains “cautiously hopeful” about the state of America, in part because she doesn’t want her son and daughter, who are 11 and 15, to feel her anxiety. “It’s just very hard to try to comfort your kids during this time, so that’s what my main goal is today,” she says. So far, that’s involved doing electoral college math with her son while checking the New York Times home page every 10 minutes, though she’s taking a break for this interview about her sixth novel, We Run the Tides, due out in February from Ecco. (She’s also written a nonfiction book, 2000’s Girls on the Verge, as well as a screenplay with her husband, author Dave Eggers, that became the 2009 movie Away We Go.)
“It’s really funny that we’re talking today,” Vida begins, “because this book started the day after the 2016 election.” Back then, it was a nonfiction book about lying, a subject she had become obsessed with after rereading Swedish philosopher Sissela Bok’s 1978 work, Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life. “If one person starts lying, especially someone in power, it just bleeds into society and everyone starts lying,” she explains. “It’s kind of like a cesspool.”
As Vida pondered the ways in which lying contaminates a community, a novel featuring teenage girls in a 1980s seaside community in San Francisco slowly arose. “I feel like for every book I write, there’s kind of the dead twin book that doesn’t make it into the world,” she says.
We Run the Tides starts with friendship—the best friendship between protagonist Eulabee, an astute observer with a keen, often misunderstood sense of humor, and Maria Fabiola, a charismatic beauty who insists on spinning a web of deceit that captivates peers and adults alike. When Maria Fabiola tells a story about something Eulabee knows is not true, Eulabee refuses to go along with her, and in a moment, everything changes. What comes to pass is an exploration not only of truth and fiction but also of the cruelty and power of teenage girls, the male gaze and its subversion, and what happens when a city loses its bohemian soul.
In a 2011 interview, Vida told the Guardian that as a teen, she used to lie often. One whopper involved telling her neighbors that her parents had adopted a newly orphaned friend. Eulabee, too, offers up that lie early on in We Run the Tides.
But the novel isn’t based on its author or her experience, Vida insists. Yes, she grew up in the Bay Area in the ’80s, like Eulabee, with a Hungarian father and a Swedish mother. The two share a certain sensibility and sense of humor, she notes, but how could they not? Characters are an extension of a writer’s truth, even when the characters are not based on anyone.
“Maria Fabiola: it really started with her name,” Vida says. “I thought, who would this person be?” We all have Maria Fabiolas in our lives, she adds. “But for me, Maria Fabiola is completely a fabrication.”
A novel, itself a fabrication, can’t exist without poignant truths that spring to the surface through plot and characterization and detail, and Vida is excellent at details so specific and resonant as to be breathtaking. “The book is fiction, and it doesn’t even have a lot of details of things that really happened to me, but the sensibility and the sensory details are very real to me,” she explains. While writing, “it was incredible how many details came flooding back. I remembered how important the Esprit outlet was to us, in San Francisco in the ’80s. The colors of the clothes there really inspired a lot of what we did, and also inspired the book cover.” Another memory was the sound of skateboard wheels on the cement: “That was definitely a Proustian Madeleine moment, because obviously there are a lot of skateboarders in San Francisco now, but the cement is smoother and it’s just a different sound.”
And so, even though the world in which Eulabee and Maria Fabiola exist is a creation—there is no actual “Sea Cliff” community—it feels real. (The made-up schools in the book are named for Edith Wharton characters.) The novel, which is imbued with that hauntingly melancholic but strangely delicious sense of looking back that will resonate with any adult who has ever been a teen (i.e., everyone), even features a dedication noting that the characters and story in the book are not real.
Three years ago, Vida sold the Believer, the literary magazine she started in 2003 with her Columbia grad school friends Heidi Julavitz and Ed Park, to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. As founding editor, she now applauds the magazine from the sidelines, which frees her up to give more time to her own writing. Recently, she rented what she generously describes as a “studio space”—a room in an establishment that used to rent hot tubs by the hour. (Given the current global pandemic, the hot tubs have been removed.)
Vida says she plans to start a new book in her new “tiled hot tub room with no hot tub.” It’s too new, the creative balloon too fragile, to be discussed. But she reveals that her books begin with “an idea that won’t go away—if there’s something I keep thinking about, there’s something there.”
In We Run the Tides, Eulabee’s father shares two important truths: that hard work conquers all obstacles, and that good triumphs over evil, which is always lurking. Knowing what we do now—about society, about human nature, even about writing—how true are those lessons? Vida still believes in them, she says. “It’s funny to be saying that today, on this day, while we’re waiting for the election results. But yeah, I do believe that.”
At the same time, lying isn’t always bad. For a teenager, the act of making up stories offers a special power. “You’re creating different futures for yourself, right?” Vida asks. “You’re trying on different hats, different personalities, and different looks or different sports. You’re trying to figure out your identity. I think that’s part of your adolescent development. The problem arises when you don’t stop lying, when it actually becomes a compulsion.”
The twist, perhaps, is that teenagers grow up, but novelists, if they’re lucky, get to keep telling stories their whole lives—and those stories change not only those who read them, but those who write them, in multiple ways. “Now it’s actually funny, because when I look at the book, I can’t even remember a little bit of what happened to me and what happened to the character,” Vida says. “It sounds very strange, but it’s kind of merged.”
Of course, in a novel, that’s not a lie. It’s just good writing


This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

On Nature and Nationalism with Sarah Moss

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The seventh novel from English writer Sarah Moss, Summerwater (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Feb. 2021), is a slim book with a lot to unpack. Like Ghost Wall, her breakout work in the U.S. (published by FSG last year), it concerns an ill-fated expedition to a remote part of Great Britain. Stuffed with ideas about people’s relationship to nature and questions of national identity, the book, bereft of a central hero, takes up the point of view of a different character in each chapter.
“I was thinking of it almost as a relay race—that each time there’s an interaction across households, the narrative baton passes on,” says Moss, speaking over Zoom from her house in Dún Laoghaire, Dublin, where she’s surrounded by bare white walls.
Summerwater, which is set in the Scottish Highlands and follows several families who rent neighboring cabins in a national park, is a strange, episodic mix of interconnected scenes and lyrical interludes. It’s not clear where the story is going until at least halfway through the work.
Though Summerwater is not a thriller, Moss keeps the reader turning the pages by imbuing each chapter with a sense of foreboding. Some of the characters run into danger—a treacherous rope swing, a solitary paddle across a blustery loch, a secret nighttime excursion to a man’s illegal campsite on the fringe of the park—while others hang back and watch the goings-on from their cabins. The dynamic creates an unsettling sense of voyeurism, more so when the gaze of most of the watchers converges on one particular cabin, where loud music is played at all hours by the “foreigners” who are renting it.
When asked if she began with a plan to subvert the reader’s expectations about thriller motifs or if she was just having fun, Moss, who teaches creative writing at University College Dublin and has published scholarly works on 19th-century literature, says she was “entirely playing.” She doesn’t think like an academic when she starts a work of fiction, she adds. Ideas come later.
“The more I proceed on instinct and in the spirit of playfulness, the better it tends to be,” Moss says. She notes that her first novel, Cold Earth, “tends to be read as much more thrillerish than the later ones.” Often that instinct leads her to start with an old-fashioned plot form. “It’s an obvious way of building a novel, and it’s fun.”
Moss’s previous novel, Ghost Wall (a PW Best Book of 2019), is about a man who, obsessed with the Iron Age and the bog people, forces his teenage daughter to come along with him for a reenactment in the remote English countryside, where they strive to live as ancient Britons. Moss grew up in a family of hikers in Northern England and spent nearly every weekend in the mountains. She found the germ for Ghost Wall while on a writing residency in Northumberland.
The novel was read primarily as a Brexit book in the U.K., so Moss says she was surprised to see it make such an impact in the U.S. She believes now that this may be due to the fact that readers in Europe and the U.S. picked up on a broader theme of nationalism, which is also present in Summerwater.
In Ghost Wall, nationalism is dramatized through an obsessive, dangerous drive to authentically reenact the lives of the characters’ forebears; in Summerwater, the English and Scottish strangers are united around their outrage over the presence of a group of people who they assume, by the sound of their accents, have come from overseas.
The first character the reader meets in Summerwater is a middle-aged woman named Justine, who goes for a run through the park in the early morning despite the heavy rain. When she notices a tent pitched at an illegal campsite, her initial fears about “murderous nutters” give way to a more charitable estimation, as she remembers camping outside of bounds, as a young person, to avoid paying fees.
Justine’s husband, Steve, in contrast, is less benevolent toward the perceived interlopers, and is particularly irate over the loud cabin. It doesn’t matter that they’re “foreign, Romanian or what have you,” he says. “They can stay up all night and deafen themselves if they want to, but they should do it somewhere else, such as back where they came from.” Steve does not know, however, that the mother of the partying family, Alina, is from Ukraine and has lived in the U.K. for 20 years, or that her daughter is English.
Summerwater came together quickly for Moss after a stay with her family in a holiday park in Scotland, similar to the park where the book is set. Like the characters, they were met with two weeks of rain, but still they went out to climb mountains. “What are you going to do, sit inside for two weeks?” she asks. “We also became fairly fascinated by everybody else in the holiday park, and I was thinking how odd it was that there were these families who were kind of stuck in this place but still weren’t talking to each other.”
Moss says she brought her own children up the way she was raised, encouraging them to spend time outdoors and to believe “climbing mountains is what normal people do.” She also says she gives herself a couple hours each day for running, like her character Justine, in order to quiet her thoughts.
“I have this fantastic Joycean run,” Moss says, “that starts in Dún Laoghaire and goes along the coast that Joyce writes about, past the Forty Foot bathing place, Sandy Cove, Dalkey, and then up a Killarney Hill, where on a clear day, you can see the tops of the Welsh mountains.”
As a resident of County Dublin, Moss has the right to use the local running paths during the county’s Covid-19 lockdown, but they’re closed to outsiders—even to Irish people from other counties. “I barely know where the county boundaries are,” she says. “I don’t belong here.”
As she wrote Summerwater, Moss was thinking about the attitudes about public space that emerge in moments of popular nationalism such as Brexit. “It’s a really dangerous kind of blood and soil narrative, where you earn the right to be in a place and there’s no distinction between the right to be in a place and the right to exclude other people,” she says. “In some ways those issues have only become more vexed with Covid. Some of my neighbors are getting really cross about people coming from other parts of Dublin to walk here, which they’re doing because they’re not allowed to go anywhere else.”
When it’s pointed out to Moss that the “foreign” characters are the only ones who seem to be having any fun in Summerwater, she admits to reserving a special rage for people who make noise while she’s trying to write. As such, she claims that when she began the book, her sympathy was with the characters who objected to the loud music. But as she finished, with the lockdown in effect, she realized it’s “kind of wrong” to hate the sound of others having fun.
“Over the summer, cases dropped and restrictions lifted,” Moss says. “So everybody was socializing in their gardens, and it was so nice to lie in bed and hear people having real-life human interactions with each other and listening to music and enjoying each other’s company.”


This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Quiet on the Set: William Boyd on His Latest Novel

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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

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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

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“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.