Joshua Ferris Writes a Work of Hope

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This was always going to be about Joshua Ferris’s dad. “You catch me pretty fresh,” the author deadpans over Zoom. “I haven’t talked about it.” The “it” refers to his long-awaited new novel, A Calling for Charlie Barnes, which publishes in September. And to talk about it, he discovers over the course of this conversation, is indistinguishable from talking about his grief after the loss of his father, who died in 2014. It’s an experience that led Ferris down a long, winding road toward a book that he calls “a culmination of all of the other books that I’ve written.”
Quite a statement for the 46-year-old literary star. Ferris hadn’t hit 35 before his 2007 debut, Then We Came to the End, received a National Book Award nomination. His celebrated 2010 sophomore novel, The Unnamed, was followed by 2014’s To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, which was a Booker Prize finalist. Days after the latter was published, Ferris got to work on his next novel—sort of.
Coming off To Rise, Ferris felt challenged by his father’s perception of his calling. “He didn’t see the worth of fiction,” Ferris says. “To arrive at the answer for why that’s a facile perspective is very, very difficult.”
So Ferris began putting stories of his family, including his uncle and grandmother and cousin, to the page. “Very often I had nothing,” he admits. “That was so mystifying to me—all this life that these people generated, all of the wit and the confusion and the drama…It didn’t make for a good scene. It didn’t make for a good line. It didn’t make for a good story.” Pushing up against his late father’s perceptions, Ferris sought to “figure out what the relationship was between real life and the written word.”
The resulting book feels like both a radical departure from and a natural evolution of Ferris’s work. It’s “his version of a memoir,” says Judy Clain, Ferris’s editor at Little, Brown.
The story is narrated by Jake Barnes (a nod to the central character in The Sun Also Rises, and one of many overt literary references in the book). It opens in late 2008, when Jake’s father, Charlie, is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer while reeling from catastrophic financial losses due to the plummeting stock market. But life for the oft-divorced, ever-discontented man improbably goes on, and he’s granted a second chance. His son—so we’re told—is prepared to tell his story.
“Ironically, it follows my father’s actual biography,” Ferris says. “When he was diagnosed with a pretty damning cancer, he should have been dead within six months, but in fact he lived almost eight years. During that time, he had an opportunity to reflect upon the ways that he was and the ways he wished to be, and to bring them into closer alignment. I got an education in second chances.”
By digging into the relationship between his father’s life and the art of writing fiction, Ferris keyed into the truth behind it. “We are sustained by certain illusions until the day we die,” he says. “Those fictions are dearly held and deeply felt, and without them life would not be worth living.”
As A Calling for Charlie Barnes progresses, the eponymous hero’s mystery becomes increasingly entwined with the narrator’s image of it. “If this history of Charlie Barnes has its breaks in chronology and the occasional gaping hole…well, I wouldn’t know how to write it any other way,” one passage reads. “I couldn’t possibly hope to highlight what the man himself would have highlighted or, for that matter, present the arguments he might have presented against what I have chosen to highlight.”
The narration reflects the way Ferris talks about his book. “The leap into my father’s perspective and the conflicts that he carried around with him—I didn’t really want to do that,” he says. “Upon doing it, I recognized how difficult it is to do that in a fundamental way, even with somebody you’re incredibly close to. The emotional work that it takes to get into somebody else’s perspective is extraordinary.”
Clain zeroed in on this “autofiction aspect” and came away with a changed notion of it. “I learned that the truth in fiction doesn’t exist,” she says. “Just the truth of fiction.”


Ferris fans can rest assured that biting, laugh-out-loud humor—one of his signature strengths—returns in full force here. As ever, it’s tied up in the foibles of modern existence, from generational and political divides to the corrupt systems under which we all rather dutifully operate.
“In any kind of pattern of life, you see these ironies that rise above your own understanding,” Ferris says. “It is my preferred mode to always try to guess in my own life what those ironies are, so I don’t feel like a dupe. There’s nobody who feels more confused and benighted than me. But I’m at least out there doing my best to think, Where’s the pothole? Where’s the banana peel?”
If this is not quite Ferris’s silliest work, it feels like his most personal. But it doesn’t shy away from the political. It’s easy to see that the book was written during the Trump era. Nonetheless, the author makes clear that the novel is “not a political statement”—as it connects individual and collective experiences.
“One of the things that was continually put forth was, ‘Trump is tearing at the fabric of our dearly held illusions, he is tearing apart the fictions we’ve maintained about being a diverse, inviting country,’ ” Ferris explains. “This was very similar to the ways in which we hold on dearly to our own private notions that other people would more than happily destroy. I saw parallels all the time.”
Which brings us back, one last time, to Ferris’s father. The power of A Calling for Charlie Barnes rests exactly in those parallels, between its patriarch’s journey and the national undoing happening subtly around him.
Ferris’s work cuts to the heart of who we are by focusing very painfully on who one man was. “I am both trying to capture some of the psychological underpinnings that created a man like my father, and show the ways in which he used his brain and his heart to become not only a better father and a better man but a better American,” Ferris says. Consider this book not just a work of grief or love or memoir, then, but a work of hope, too.
Bonus Links:
A Surreal and Outrageous World: Jessica Anthony in Conversation with Joshua Ferris
Human Resources: On Joshua Ferris
A Year in Reading 2009: Joshua Ferris
A Year in Reading 2007: Joshua Ferris

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Alison Bechdel and the Secret to Human Transformation

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Acclaimed cartoonist Alison Bechdel shifts gears and takes center stage in her new graphic memoir, The Secret to Superhuman Strength, out now from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. While her previous memoirs focused on her parents, in this new book, Bechdel uses physical exercise as the lens through which she looks back on her life.
Bechdel’s bestselling, critically acclaimed 2007 graphic novel Fun Home was her memoir of growing up with her father, a closeted gay man whose frustrations and obsessions affected the whole family. Next came Are You My Mother? (2013), in which Bechdel revisits her relationship with her mother.

In The Secret to Superhuman Strength, Bechdel tells her life story once again, this time focusing on her lifelong search for transcendence in tandem with a compulsive need for physical exercise. “It feels so good emotionally and psychically to get to that state where I am not trapped in my stupid annoying self,” she say, “but I am in that flow state where my self is blessedly silent and I’m just part of something bigger.”
It’s a feeling that often comes with exercise as well as a lot of high-tech gear and stylish workout apparel that Bechdel lampoons along with her own need to buy the stuff. So Bechdel tells her story through her need for exertion in an account that includes wisecracking social satire and deep literary reflection. Decade by decade, she depicts herself skiing, running, biking, training in martial arts, and doing yoga, incrementally gaining illuminating experiences and self-knowledge with each one.

As in her other graphic novels, Bechdel weaves in canonical literary works by writers whose lives resonate with hers. “In all of my books, those other writers and thinkers come in in a really organic way, just as I am struggling to figure out what I want to say,” she says. This time, she started with Jack Kerouac’s novel The Dharma Bums. “The thing I loved is the way he went out in the back country and hiked in the Cascades and the Sierras with Gary Snyder back in the 1950s, when that was something that people in general didn’t do that much,” she says. “I found it very compelling; I like hiking and being outdoors. And while they were doing those things, they were talking about Zen and all these ideas about Buddhism and the nature of reality, which I also found very compelling. Somehow those things all connected.”
So she set out to learn more about Kerouac and then moved on to one of his chief influences, Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalists. “They were the original hippies,” she says. “These people in the early- to mid-19th century were forming communes and going vegan and sending kids to progressive schools and they had radical race and gender politics. I could completely identify with them. They were like my friends.”
That in turn led her to the English Romantic poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. “I’m not a big poetry person, really,” she says, “but I became really interested in their lives and the way they too wrote about nature, having these sort of ecstatic experiences in nature that the Transcendentalists were so moved by. I felt like I was somehow connected to this lineage of writers.”
Of course, Bechdel is more than a writer: She is a cartoonist, and combines art and text to create a story that is bigger than both. “I work hard to make my panels something that you have to read in the same way that you read words,” she says. “The image has to really play off of the text, show information that’s not in the text. It has to be something complicated. Something that will take you time and reward you for reading.”

Bechdel has been drawing comics for more than 40 years, starting with Dykes to Watch Out For, a pioneering comics strip depicting a very funny community of lesbian characters which ran from 1983 to 2008, and with each of her subsequent graphic memoirs she pushes herself and her work further. The Secret to Superhuman Strength is the first book to be in full color, a decision she made early on.
“I always feel I have to up my game with every book,” she says. “When I first became a cartoonist, it was before color was economically feasible, so I just did black and white. I loved black and white. I used a lot of crosshatching to get tonalities and gradations. With color you use color to do those things. It was a challenge that I set for myself. It also felt important to make this book, that is so much about life and vitality and exuberance, in color. It just seemed like a natural thing to do.”
Bechdel also breaks the fourth wall in the introduction to Superhuman Strength, speaking directly to the reader as she works her way through a variety of exercise activities, from running to skiing to yoga.

An interior page from The Secret to Superhuman Strength by Alison Bechdel.

Another departure from her earlier work is the way her story unfolds on the page. In Fun Home, she stuck to the classic six-panel grid, but in Superhuman Strength, she varies her page compositions, moving between traditional panels and full-page images and two-page spreads done in a soft gray ink wash unlike the style anywhere else in the book.
“The moments I do in this gray ink wash are moments of transformation,” Bechdel says, “or these moments that have stood out for me in my life where I had a realization of some kind. To me, they show this other register of reality, as opposed to the regular panels, which are done with black ink outlines. There are no lines in the ink wash. It’s all blurry, tones that kind of feel like this other level of reality where things aren’t all separate and defined the way they are in our everyday daily life.”
This is the essence of what Bechdel is looking for throughout the book. She finds these moments of transformation not only in biking, skiing, hiking, but also in drawing comics, when she throws herself into her work and everything else falls away. Fittingly, she finds it once more in the creation of the book itself.
That wasn’t something she had anticipated. “It’s weird because it all started to come together a year ago, just when the pandemic started,” she says. “The deadline was crushing down on me. I had been drawing but not nearly fast enough to get the book done in the allotted time, so I had to go into this magical hyperdrive. Being in lockdown was the absolutely perfect state. I couldn’t go anywhere or do anything anyhow, so I had this wonderful experience of month after month of drawing.”
In Fun Home, Bechdel depicts her relationship with her father, and in Are You My Mother?, she writes about her mother. In its more singular focus on Bechdel, The Secret to Superhuman Strength feels a bit like the culmination of a trilogy.
“I have been trying to put the three books in relation, and they do seem to be a kind of trilogy,” she says. “Our fathers are like the first separate person that we encounter, so that first book was a way of negotiating that farther-out relationship, then with Are You My Mother? it became more internal; as opposed to the sort of oedipal world of the father it became this pre-oedipal world of what happens before we learn to speak in those early days with the mother, or whoever your main caretaker is in the family. In this new book, I feel like I’m getting down even deeper to what is the nature of the self, in a less psychological and more philosophical way. Is there even really such a thing as the self?”
Bechdel’s is reluctant to talk about her next project but says it will probably be less chronological than the three memoirs. “I think I would look more at particular themes,” she says, “and I think that’s an endless mine of possibilities.”
That means stepping away from the drawing board from time to time. “That’s the thing about being a memoirist,” she says. “You have to stop doing the work and go do something so you can write about it.”
Bonus Links:
A Little in Love with Everyone: On Alison Bechdel
Always This Mystery: The Millions Interviews Alison Bechdel

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Dreaming in the Dark

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“I’ll be frank—there were times working on this book when I definitely felt like I was just diving into the water in the dark,” admits novelist Carolina De Robertis. She’s seated in front of a wall of books—“just a fraction, of course, of the books in the house”—in the home she shares with her wife and their two school-age children in Oakland, Calif., for a Zoom call. “At times, the only way I could continue to work on the book and really give it my best as a writer was to secretly call it the Weird Book…. Yes, just put a neon sign over the metaphorical door, it’s weird.”
In The President and the Frog (Knopf, Aug.), her sixth book, the 45-year-old writer says she’s seeking something greater than truth, or, as she puts it, the ability of fiction to “use invention to more freely explore the truth.”
It opens with an 82-year-old former leader of an unnamed Latin American country being visited by a Norwegian journalist for an interview. Noticing in her something the narrator calls “the listening gift,” he wonders if he should finally reveal a long-kept secret: that talking to a frog during his time in solitary confinement when he was imprisoned for inciting revolution was what kept him alive.
The basis for the character of the aging politician was Uruguayan president and former guerrilla José Mujica, who spent 12 years in prison and later became known for his quest for human rights. Mujica, president from 2010 to 2015, donated most of his salary to charity and stayed in his own humble home, where he continued to work the land himself. And the frog is inspired by, well, a frog.
In 2013, De Robertis, who is Uruguayan American, was living in Uruguay while Mujica was president. That’s when she read an interview in which he mentioned that he had survived his torture and imprisonment by talking to a frog. “I tend to reflect on, dream on, gather material for a novel for years before I begin,” she says. “I call it the dreaming phase. But I was also in the dreaming phase for my prior book, Cantoras”—about five queer women who find refuge in one another in 1970s Uruguay and beyond—“and I wrote that book first.”
By the time she started writing The President and the Frog, Donald Trump was in the White House. “Many people, including myself, were grappling with grief and despair or other forms of really asking tough questions about how we were going to exist and how we were going to support each other to live our full humanity in the context of more open hostility,” she says.
While envisioning The President and the Frog, De Robertis also found herself thinking a lot about her grandmother—“a poet, and very bohemian and wild”—who fled to Uruguay after being exiled from Argentina. She died when De Robertis was seven, at a time when there were dictatorships in both countries.
“I thought about what it would be like if I could go back in time and tell her that the seeds of positive transformation for her country were alive in that very time, in one of those devastating prisons, in the form of revolutionary Tupamaros guerrillas who would one day rise up and carry the nation to a more progressive era,” De Robertis says.
“And I wondered, what can that desire of mine to reach back in time to my grandmother in her despair, what can that tell me about the seeds that are around us right now, in this era in the United States, where we are looking openly at the ways in which hostility and danger and xenophobia and racism are part of the fabric of our society?”
De Robertis envisioned The President and the Frog as “a love letter to anyone who’s ever felt despair,” she says, “or anyone who looks at climate change, or the spike in open racism, or just the difficulty of navigating daily life in our world.” As her protagonist slowly comes to understand the stories he needs to tell, not only to keep himself alive, but to make himself whole again, De Robertis offers a powerful reminder that narrative—writing it, reading it, engaging with it—is a healing act.
“There’s a way in which writing is a way of opening space to be able to fully breathe,” she says, “and hopefully to make room for other people through story, in a way that’s larger than myself.”
The President and the Frog seems at first disarmingly simple compared to De Robertis’s previous sweeping historical epics, which include her 2009 debut, the international bestseller The Invisible Mountain. That novel, a finalist for a California Book Award and International Latino Book Award, is a multigenerational story about three Uruguayan women and the history of Uruguay itself, and has been translated into 17 languages.
In 2012, she released Perla; inspired by a true story from Argentinean history; it follows a young woman who has a disturbing realization about her origins. De Robertis’s next book was 2015’s The Gods of Tango, a Stonewall Book Award winner, about a woman who must disguise herself as a man to play in a tango band in Buenos Aires in the early 20th century. Then, in 2019, she released Cantoras, which won a Reading Women Award and a Stonewall Book Award.
“I would say, for at least three of my four prior novels, I was painting on a very large canvas. Mural painting was one of my guiding metaphors for navigating the novel process, and then for this book, I really wanted to explore portraiture,” she says.
Even a narrow lens, however, can reveal much, and through the back-and-forth of the president’s conversations with the reporter and memories from his time on the verge of giving up entirely while imprisoned, De Robertis digs into the meaning of home and country, what humans need to survive, and what matters most in a life.
De Robertis is also a translator of Latin American and Spanish literature, the editor of the 2017 anthology Radical Hope: Letters of Love and Dissent in Dangerous Times, and a teacher of creative writing at San Francisco State University. As a child, she moved from England to Switzerland to Los Angeles as her father, the scientist Edward De Robertis, built his career. Coming to the U.S. when she was 10, “from other countries that were not my country of origin,” she says, “I had this feeling and experience of having a country inside my skin that wasn’t outside my skin.”
She went on to attend the University of California, Los Angeles, and moved to the Bay Area in 1997. “I bounced around between San Francisco and Berkeley, following the lower rents at the time, working at different activist jobs, and as a substitute teacher. And then I had this very formative experience in my mid-20s when I was about to marry a woman, the love of my life, with whom I’ve had these two children, and my parents disowned me. One of the things that they said was that I couldn’t be Uruguayan anymore, because I was gay. Because I didn’t exist in their country.
“When I was younger, back when I was writing that first novel, I thought I’d never feel at home anywhere in the world. I thought belonging was just something that would never be fully possible for me,” De Robertis says. “But I’ve built a life in the Bay Area with my wife and kids and with chosen family, and a community that we have forged where there is room for all of us. Because there’s enough openness and possibility for families like mine.”
De Robertis has two siblings, a brother and a sister, whom she remains in touch with; she’s also in contact with other relatives in South America. But she remains estranged from her parents. That rift has, in a way, clarified her mission: “It’s been such an enormous part of what’s shaped the themes that are urgent to me, and the way that I think about love and family and possibility, and the way we anchor ourselves in the world.”

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Freedom On Her Mind

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Poet, critic, writer, and MacArthur fellow Maggie Nelson says she knew she was “biting off quite a bit” when she decided to write about freedom. The idea for her 10th book, On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint, publishing in September with Graywolf, began when she was working on 2011’s The Art of Cruelty. “Writing that book,” she recalls, “I noticed that if you focused on the sibling or cousin concept, the first thought of cruelty’s opposite would be kindness. “But once I started to think about cruelty as being compressed space or choices, humiliation or violence, its opposite seemed to be freedom. Then I became interested in writing about it. There’s no more vexed word, with all the things freedom means to different people.”
Nelson is excited about On Freedom, her first book since the pivotal and successful The Argonauts, which won the 2015 NBCC award in criticism. The intro to On Freedom, she says, “swoops through the four spheres I wanted to write about in a concrete and contemporary way: art, sex, drugs, and climate. As a writer, I don’t feign interest in things that don’t move me, and these four are important to me.”
She goes on to explain that art is a natural fit: she’s taught art and writes about art. She calls art, along with sexual freedom, her “most native ground.” Her chapter on drugs is “more niche, esoteric, but as a sober person I’m interested in substance abuse—the idea of being enslaved, enthralled.” And climate “is what’s on everyone’s mind. This took the longest to write, because I read a lot about it.”
Ethan Nosowsky, Graywolf’s editorial director, was a big fan of Nelson for years.
“Maggie and I were in touch after she’d been awarded a fellowship from the Creative Capital Foundation, where I was a consultant for some years,” he tells me. “She’s a writer who published a bunch of books and writes in a critical mode that’s also lyrical. The Argonauts caught both, and at Graywolf, we really got the book. We understood it, knew how to publish it, pitch it, talk about it. It’s a conversation about gender and family that came at the right moment.”
Nosowsky and Graywolf publisher Fiona McCrae knew about On Freedom when Nelson and her agent, Janklow & Nesbit partner PJ Mark, attended Graywolf’s 45th anniversary gala in September 2019 in Minneapolis, where Nelson was a featured author. “The Argonauts did really well for us, and we really wanted to publish Maggie’s next book,” Nosowsky says. “We had a lovely conversation, during which Fiona and I made a case for Graywolf acquiring the next book whenever Maggie was done with it, when Maggie pulled a copy of On Freedom out of this big bag she was carrying!”
Graywolf, Nosowsky adds, “made it clear that we would stretch to make a competitive offer. This book is a contribution to the cultural conversation. Maggie takes the loftiest ideas and tethers them to the ground; she makes important things legible and there’s warmth to her writing. Also, she doesn’t come to answers but poses questions. The book is full of thinking and feeling. She’s appreciative of human messiness: a 21st-century intellectual.”
A two-book, North American rights deal was announced in January 2020, for what Nosowsky calls “a very substantial advance for Graywolf.” (The second title will be a collection of essays.)
Mark has been Nelson’s agent for 15 years, since The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial, about the murder of her aunt. He and Nelson are in sync on the new book. “Maggie and I speak the same language,” he says. “She’s been writing this book since 2015; I knew she was trying to untie the knots of freedom.”
The manuscript was finished in fall 2019, but Mark was seeing pieces as early as 2016 and they were discussing it. “Maggie,” he says, “is extraordinary. She’s a broad thinker; for her thinking is an ethical act. She gathers sources and unpacks them and wrestles with the world in a way that most writers cannot. Instead of a hot take, she pulls across fields and genres to make something new. Every book invents something new.”
Mark tells me that there were only conversations with Graywolf. “Maggie was happy with the publishing relationship. She’s been published by both large and small publishers and found an amazing collaboration with Graywolf. It made sense to stay with them.”
On Freedom sold to Jonathan Cape in the U.K. in a major deal and will publish there simultaneously with the U.S. release in September. To date, the book has been sold in 18 other foreign territories. The plan, Mark says, is to take it to the 2021 London Book Fair in June.
“The practice of freedom—i.e., the morning after, and the morning after that—is what, if we’re lucky, takes up most of our waking lives,” Nelson writes in her intro. “This book is about that experiment unending.”


This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Fifty Years Later, a New Novel Emerges

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Wole Soyinka’s literary and activist careers are as marvelous and impressive as his full name, Akinwande Oluwole Babatunde Soyinka, which Pantheon executive editor Erroll McDonald told me to look up. The winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize for Literature, Soyinka is coming out with his first novel in almost 50 years, Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth.
A biting satire that looks at corruption in an imaginary contemporary Nigeria, Chronicles is also an intriguing and droll whodunit. The mystery unfolds around someone trying to stop Duyole Pitan-Payne, a prominent Nigerian and a Yoruba royal, from taking an important post at the United Nations in New York City. Meanwhile, Pitan-Payne’s childhood friend, Dr. Menka, confides that body parts are being stolen from his hospital to be used in rituals. Who is involved and why come together in a brilliant story that takes on politics, class, corruption, and religion from the very first chapters, and that highlights Soyinka’s lush, elegant language:

“That the nation known as the giant of Africa was credited with harbouring the Happiest People in the World was no longer news. What remained confusing was how such recognition came to be earned and, by universal consent, deserved. Aspiring nations needed to be rescued from their state of envious aspiration, a malaise that induced doomed efforts to snatch the crown from their head. The wisdom of elders counsels that it is more dignified to acknowledge a champion where indisputable, thereafter take one’s place behind its leadership, than to carp and wiggle in frustration. When we encounter an elephant, let us admit that we have seen the lord of the forest.”

And this description of a woman: “May I just say that she was like the blending of the kola nuts in the tray she balanced on her head…. I look that skin, and is like God take the red kola and mix it a little with the yellow-white kola nut, and you get a complexion for which even an angel will sell one of his wings, I swear.”
The playwright, poet, essayist, memoirist, novelist, and film writer tells me via Zoom from Nigeria that he did not write this novel “suddenly,” noting, “These ideas have appeared in all my work, my theater, my poems, but I decided they needed an extensive prose treatment.” It took many years; he says he needed “time out of it—time away to write about my country. I had to wait until it was ready.”
Theater, Soyinka tells me, is where he is most at home—“both my work and [plays by] others. I love all of it.” His first major play, The Swamp Dwellers, was written in 1958, when he was 24.
Soyinka calls the Covid-19 pandemic “the nasty icing on the cake” that provided so much time to work. Before the pandemic, he had “carved out spaces,” spending 10 days in a little village in Senegal on the sea and then in Ghana at a residency. The actual writing of the book took close to 12 months, he says, working in a “white heat.” He cites the “trials of computers, losing text, computer crashes,” adding, “I was outside and by myself, and then Covid happened and lockdown.”
I ask Soyinka why he’s framed this book as a mystery. “Secretly,” he says, “I always wanted to write a whodunit. This is a confession! I would come across ideas and think, this would make a good mystery. It was always lurking in my mind, so this book was an opportunity to inject a bit of mystery.”
Soyinka sent the first draft of Chronicles to three friends—writers—to ask if it was worth pursuing. “One friend I chose because he’s crazy,” he says. “I told him, ‘I am sending it to you because you are mad.’ ” The other two, he adds, are sane. He also sent it to McDonald.
“I wondered if I had forgotten how to write a novel that was intelligent and intelligible,” Soyinka recalls. “I asked Erroll, ‘Frankly, tell me how you feel,’ and he wrote back enthusiastically.”
McDonald tells me that when Soyinka contacted him to say he had written a novel, he was “thrilled to reconnect and thrilled with the book.” He hadn’t spoken to Soyinka in many years. He says the last time he saw Soyinka was eight or nine years ago at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard. “I heard someone behind me call out ‘Shadow’—my nickname—and there was Wole.”
McDonald’s first book with Soyinka was his 1981 memoir, Ake: The Years of Childhood. Five years later, Soyinka won the Nobel Prize, and he invited McDonald to attend the ceremony as a guest.
“It was my first time,” McDonald says (he went again with Toni Morrison in 1993). “And it was life changing.”
McDonald calls Chronicles Soyinka’s magnum opus. “It’s culturally rooted and scathing in its attitude toward elites, the hoi polloi, everyone,” he says. “Wole is rambunctious; he has such spirit, such linguistic facility.”
The final draft came to McDonald from agent Melanie Jackson, who has represented Soyinka since the early 1990s. She says she heard of the new novel the week before Labor Day 2020 and submitted it in September. “It was a competitive situation that Pantheon won,” she adds.
When I ask how McDonald won it, she’s succinct: “Because Erroll McDonald is great.” The deal for North American and audio was made a few weeks after submission. Pantheon will publish Chronicles in the U.S. in September, and Bloomsbury will release it simultaneously in the U.K. Foreign rights to date have been sold in eight other territories.
Soyinka was a political prisoner in Nigeria in the 1960s and went into exile in 1971. He returned in 1975 and left again in 1994 for exile in the U.S. He was sentenced to death in absentia during the rule of Gen. Sani Abacha. He tells me that exile “has never set well,” calling it a “political sabbatical.” He says he “dealt with the pangs with annoyance and anger—anger that I had to leave in the first place. I didn’t feel pathos, but mostly anger, and when I came back [in 1998, after Abacha’s death], I thought, I hope nothing ever takes me out again.”
About publicity plans, Soyinka is clear: “I’m a minimalist when it comes to hard work. I wish others would take over. My main purpose has been achieved. I’m throwing the baby into the lap of others and wish it good luck!”

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Anthony Doerr’s Libraries of Wonder

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Do you remember reading a mammoth mesmerizing book that transported you to other worlds and times so that all you cared about was turning the next page? If so, I give you another one: Anthony Doerr’s new novel, Cloud Cuckoo Land (Scribner), and I hope you have a comfy chair.
Doerr’s follow-up to his 2014 megaselling, Pulitzer Prize–winning All the Light You Cannot See is an immersive, ambitious epic with three major story lines, moving between 1453 Constantinople, an Idaho library in the present, and a spaceship decades into the future hurtling toward a new planet. The connecting piece is an ancient text, written by the Greek author Diogenes about Aethon, who wants to become a bird so he can fly to the paradise of Cloud Cuckoo Land.
Nan Graham, Doerr’s editor, says this about the book: “Tony soars over his own incredibly high bar.” She talks about the author’s empathy for his characters: “The three different sets of characters are so moving. You love them, one after another you fall in love with them.”
Early on, Cloud Cuckoo Land introduces Konstance, a young girl alone on an interstellar spaceship in the future. And in 15th-century Constantinople, under attack from Ottoman armies, another young girl, Anna, talks to Omeir, who is born with a “split that divides his upper lip from his gum all the way to the base of his nose,” on the other side of the city’s walls. At a library under siege in present-day Idaho, we meet Seymour, a socially conscious teenager whose T-shirt reads “I LIKE BIG BOOKS,” and Zeno, the achy old man who has devoted himself to translating the story of Aethon.
The book, Doerr says, is “a love letter to libraries and books—the book is dedicated to librarians. I thought about how to dramatize the power of books. Each character falls in love with this text as it moves through history, and each becomes a steward for the text.” Doerr also emphasizes the book culture of Constantinople, where copies were preserved and survived over generations. He tells me he got into books as a boy because of the library. “The library was practically a babysitter. You could leave yourself and enter worlds. It’s such a rich life when you get to be a reader. Books can give you multiple lives.”
It was when he won the Rome Prize and lived at the American Academy in Rome for a year with his family—documented in the 2007 memoir Four Seasons in Rome—that Doerr started thinking about walls, inspired by dinner conversations with a scholar at the academy who was researching walls as art. “I had never lived in a city that big or that old,” he says of Rome. “I started looking at the defensive walls around Rome, thinking about walls and tyrants. I saw pictures of the insane walls around Constantinople.”
Doerr describes them in Cloud Cuckoo: “Theodosius the Second began constructing these walls, four miles of them, to connect with the eight miles of sea walls the city already had. The Theodosian walls had an outer wall, two meters thick and nine high, and an inner one, five meters thick and twelve high—who can guess how many bodies were broken in their construction?”
And there’s the theme of technology that runs through Doerr’s work. “New technology is revolutionary,” he says. “All the Light was about radio and how Hitler used radio during World War II; until gunpowder was invented, walls were the preeminent defense.”
Doerr began working on Cloud Cuckoo in 2014, “but it was just notes. I started concentrating in 2015 and ironically we get this president talking about walls!”
Graham has been with Doerr from the beginning, ever since agent Wendy Weil sent the first book, a collection of short stories, The Shell Collector, which Scribner published in 2002. Graham says she remembers “dithering for three months” with her editorial assistant Gillian Blake (now publisher of Crown) about whether or not to buy the book. She paid little, and the book was a success; “11,000 copies in hardcover,” she tells me, adding, “I’ve been there for all of them.”
All the Light was Doerr’s first book represented by Amanda “Binky” Urban at ICM Partners. “Wendy Weil was my original agent,” he says. “It was very sad when she died.” Urban reached out months later with an email and Doerr went to her offices in New York City. “It was amazing,” he recalls, “to see the shelves with all my favorite writers. Binky saw Cloud Cuckoo first and Nan got it May 31, 2020.”
Graham says, “We’ve had maybe four meals over the last seven years in which he tells me something. I knew about the girl and the boy on either side of the wall, and then he said he was going into the future and I thought, what?”
Doerr doesn’t sell a book until it’s done. “I always finish a book before submitting it,” he says. “I’m too anxious to write a book that has a monetary value on it. When I write the whole idea of capitalism, New York—all of it falls away and what I do is solve the puzzle of my work.” He says Konstance was an early character and the one he was most nervous about, “because readers had to imagine space and the future.”
Graham lauds Doerr’s “range of humanity and his attempt to find reasonable hope,” noting, “Doerr so speaks to this moment of the need for compassion. He’s what we need now. I can’t gush enough.” She acquired North American and audio rights to Cloud Cuckoo Land, and it will be published September 28 simultaneously in the U.K. with 4th Estate. To date, rights have been sold in 18 other territories .
Doerr writes in a letter of introduction to the book, “I tried to pour all of my love for our astonishing, green, wounded world into this novel…. Primarily this is a book about our planet—in itself a vast library—and the stories that connect us.”
As for me, I don’t anticipate joining Konstance in space and I’m not planning a visit to Idaho, but you can bet I’m going to take a good look at those walls next time I’m in Istanbul!

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Katie Kitamura Is Incapable of a Hot Take

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Katie Kitamura’s new novel, Intimacies— out in July from Riverhead—is an elegant and gripping story about a female interpreter who is thrust into one of the International Criminal Court’s high-profile cases. The impetus for the book, Kitamura says, was the 2009 trial of Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president, who was eventually found guilty of aiding and abetting war crimes and crimes against humanity. “He was grandiose and monstrous, but so compelling,” she recalls, speaking via Zoom from her apartment in New York City. “I knew there was something there for me in fictional terms.”
The case also, unexpectedly, made Kitamura think about language, as the courtroom’s translator for Taylor was ever present. “I was fascinated by the act of interpretation,” she says. “The incredible mutability of language, the fact that it’s so pliable, and that wonderful language can be perverted.”
Kitamura’s other sources of inspiration are more literary and include Marguerite Duras, Javier Marias, and Patricia Highsmith. She cites the elliptical intensity of Duras and Marias and adds that “Highsmith is a master—her work takes the thriller narrative into territory that’s entirely psychological.”

Kitamura’s 2009 debut, The Longshot, won critical acclaim, and her third novel, A Separation, is now being adapted into a film. She says she finds she’s attracted to genre elements. Some of her novels start as mysteries or thrillers, but she’s more interested in how the characters respond to the escalating events around them than she is in conventional plot structures. “It’s not about who did it—it’s about what happens as a result,” she explains.
Kitamura began writing Intimacies, which will be her fourth novel, in 2019, several years after Taylor’s first trial. She has since realized that it takes this long for her to commit to a book. Its subject needs to have “haunted” her, she says.
As part of her research, Kitamura visited the International Criminal Court in 2016 to watch the trial of Laurent Gbagbo, the former president of the Ivory Coast, who was charged with crimes against humanity. There, she saw a number of Ivorians who continued to express support for him, despite the terrible accusations he faced.
Intimacies is not just concerned with the lives of those in the courtroom, though; it’s also a love story. The unnamed narrator has moved to the Hague from New York City to work as an interpreter for the court. She has begun making friends and has fallen for a man named Adriaan, who is recently separated from his wife. The narrator prides herself on her adaptability and worldliness—she has lived in many countries and speaks several languages—and at first seems to flourish.
But things start to fall apart. A stranger tells the narrator worrying information about Adriaan’s marriage at a party. She is assigned a role as an interpreter for the former dictator of an unnamed African country who is standing trial, and the case proves to be demanding. In a disquieting twist, the stranger from the party is revealed to be a member of the dictator’s defense team. Adriaan travels to Portugal to get a divorce and fails to keep in touch. The narrator becomes preoccupied with her friend’s brother, who was badly assaulted in a street crime. Amid the growing uncertainty, it seems as if the dictator is the only person in her life who has any regard for her, though his apparent esteem may be influenced by his need for her to express his words and thoughts.
Kitamura says she derived satisfaction from the interpreter losing her grip on her life. “I like that I put her in tricky places,” she adds. “I was interested in her being destabilized—to make her question her judgment. She is so invested in the idea of her own competence, her neutrality as a translator. I am always interested in uncertainty, and characters who don’t know. Over the last four or five years, we’ve been conditioned to polarity, to absolutes. A novel is not good at that. I’m incapable of a hot take. It takes me 10 years to figure out what I think. I’ve just learned to resign myself to the fact that I’m never going to be dynamic like that.”
As a lecturer in New York University, Kitamura is very attuned to the challenges presented by contemporary culture and our shifting certainties. “I think a lot of young writers that I love are writing in very complex ways about ambiguity,” she says. She also feels that teaching has made her a better editor and writer.
On the editing front, Kitamura also has help outside the classroom: her husband, the writer Hari Kunzru, is always her first reader. Their writing styles are different, she says, but there is nobody she trusts more.
Kitamura sees writing as part of her journey to better understand things. “I need to write,” she says. “It’s become my way of thinking about the world.”
Bonus Link:
A Year in Reading: Katie Kitamura

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Brandon Taylor’s Constellations of Stories

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Rising literary star Brandon Taylor is terrifically prolific. He wrote his debut novel, Real Life, which was shortlisted for last year’s Booker Prize, before starting his MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2017, along with an early draft of Filthy Animals, a collection publishing next moth from Riverhead. Since then, he’s sold a second novel and another collection to Riverhead, and written two more books—a story collection and a Southern gothic novel.

“I’m not Joyce Carol Oates,” Taylor says via Zoom from his Iowa City apartment. “I just don’t have a life. All I do is write all day.” He claims he owes his intense and fruitful work habits to his years, before Iowa, in a doctoral program for biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “Science grad school destroyed any sense of work-life balance or the ability to sleep. It’s not hard if you just shirk all your responsibilities and do the thing.”
After the Iowa program, the novelist Garth Greenwell, a friend of Taylor’s, noticed he could write quickly and encouraged him to “live by his pen,” prompting him to build a name for himself with a steady output of essays.
Taylor’s big laugh, bright eyes, and wide smile balance a sturdy and serious composure. He speaks confidently and thoughtfully, using his outstretched hands to hold an idea or a detail, sometimes sending it off with a flick of the fingers—such as when he mentions how stories would come in and out over different drafts of his linked collection as they evolved. The noon light cuts through the mini blinds on the windows surrounding him in the apartment. He wears a black fleece vest and baseball cap, along with a black-and-white-striped, long-sleeved tee, a casual complement to the striped sweater worn in his author photo.
Taylor has had a long journey to becoming a writer, marked by hard work from the beginning. He grew up on a farm in rural Prattville, Ala. His parents, who met as kids while living across the road from one another in Prattville, both come from big families. “I was related to everyone around me for like dozens of miles in any particular direction,” he says. There was hunting and fishing with his brother and cousins, and he absorbed a range of skills, such as learning how to fix cars and tractors. “I always think of it as my family was preparing me for one kind of life. And that’s just not the life I live now.”
Taylor was also responsible for reading the family’s bills and medications (their “admin and clerical work,” as he calls it now), since his parents were mostly illiterate. “Reading wasn’t a big thing in my family,” he says. “We were country people.”
As an undergraduate at Auburn University, Taylor majored in chemistry, but writing was always a big interest, and he received encouragement from his “lit nerd” friends. He looks back fondly on college—he says it was when he began to befriend other Black people interested in creative pursuits and find a sense of community. After a bookseller at an Auburn Books-a-Million told him that the store didn’t stock books by Black writers because it was a “family store,” he felt especially driven, he recalls. “I went home and wrote my first real short story in a furious rage. I was like, how dare you tell me you’re not going to stock this in a family store?”
Taylor’s interest in writing initially took a backseat to his interest in science, as the 15- to 18-hour days in the lab left little time for anything else. But the itch to write was still there, and he wasn’t happy without doing it. At a Lambda retreat in 2015, he met novelist Justin Torres, whose encouragement began to help him see that he could confidently change course. He began publishing stories, and by the end of 2016 he had his first draft of Real Life, which he dashed off in five weeks.
Real Life follows Wallace, a Black gay biochemistry student clearly modeled on Taylor, who navigates microagressions from his friends and racist double standards in the lab, where he suspects someone sabotaged his work. Taylor says when he wrote it, “I felt like I was floundering in science for reasons related to how my advisor chose to encourage me.” At that point, he chose writing over science. When told that some people read Real Life as a metaphor for writing school, he laughs and says, “No, it was literally just about being a scientist. It was in fact a metaphor for science school, unfortunately.”
Also during that pre-Iowa burst, Taylor wrote the first draft of Filthy Animals, which is mainly set in Madison. The result, which has been extensively rewritten (he significantly revised one story just a week before this conversation took place), pushes further on his interest in uncomfortable situations.
Taylor’s agent, Meredith Kaffel Simonoff, calls him a “master of wrenching moments” that are often sparked by fraught interactions between people. Referring to the stories in Filthy Animals, she says these moments “arrive each time on the page like a subtle and ravishing detonation.”
After reading the first pass, Taylor says he felt he had more to do on a story called “What Made Them Made You,” about a North Carolina family. Many of the book’s stories had already been published, and Taylor says his editor, Cal Morgan, asked, “Why are you blowing them up?”
When asked about the revision process, Morgan says, “There is a kind of reality that sets in the first time you see a book typeset, that makes you ask different questions of it and respond to different things within it. He’s aware of harmonics under the surface that even I, after having read the book seven or eight times, hadn’t picked up on, but that amounted to small challenges he wanted to set himself.”
Explaining how he approaches building out a linked collection, Taylor says he’s “always thinking in constellations of stories. I don’t write a story until I have a sense of how it fits into a larger manuscript.”
The opener, “Potluck,” traces the collection’s constellation. In it, Taylor commits to peeling away the awkwardness, insecurity, and uncertainty that often delineate interactions with strangers. Lionel, a Black gay man, is treading back out into the world after extensive psychiatric care following a suicide attempt. He used to be in a graduate program for math. Now he works as a test proctor. At a dinner party, he trades glances with Charles, a dancer, who is there with this girlfriend, Sophie. After the exchange of looks, the two men chat.
As the story progresses, exploring the points of view of Charles and Sophie, it comes to light that the two are in an open relationship. In later stories, the couple’s arrangement seems to bother Sophie less than Charles, and when she encourages Charles to sleep with Lionel, it leads to complications among the trio.
While the characters don’t always take the best care of each other—parents disapprove of their children’s sexuality or career choices, and feelings are selfishly trampled upon—Taylor always treats them considerately, eschewing judgment for understanding.
This quality, Morgan says, is at the root of Taylor’s powers. “There’s not a touch or a word in his stories that is casual,” he adds. “Everything is so intently meaningful that we feel the need to take them as seriously as he does.”
Bonus Link:
A Year in Reading: Brandon Taylor

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

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.