Gina Apostol Gets Meta

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

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Nadia Owusu on Processing Trauma

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

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

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

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

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

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

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

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Fiction Is Freedom: On Martin Amis

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

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Xiaolu Guo’s Search for a Perfect Home

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

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

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s Rising Star

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

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

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Ayad Akhtar’s Flesh and Blood

It’s ironic, as well as fitting, that Ayad Akhtar, the Pulitzer-winning playwright and author of 2012’s American Dervish, began writing his new novel in Italy. Homeland Elegies is narrated by a Pakistani American writer and chronicles, through the story of himself and his family, what Akhtar calls the “decay of our country over the last half-century.” It’s a book about America, in other words. But it’s also a story about alienation—about what he calls the “insider-outsider” experience of immigrants and first-generation citizens. And it took being halfway across the world, during a stay at the American Academy in Rome, for Akhtar to gain the perspective his story required.

“Donald Trump has been in office for just under a year,” Akhtar, 49, says of that time. “I got up one morning after reading a poem by Leopardi, which is entitled ‘To Italy.’ He’s addressing the Italian people. I thought to myself, ‘Would it be possible today to just address the American people? Would that even make sense? Could you even do something like that?’ ”
Homeland Elegies is Akhtar’s attempt to do just that. “The weight of politics in our country had coalesced and summoned a response out of me,” he says, speaking via Zoom from his house in a town south of Albany, New York, where he’s been waiting out the Covid-19 pandemic with his fiancée.
The novel, Akhtar’s first since American Dervish, consists of eight long but fast-moving chapters, as well as an overture and a coda. Eschewing linear chronology, the narrator, who shares many biographical details with Akhtar, including his last name, moves between past and present, documenting, among other things, his immigrant parents’ uneasy acclimation to the U.S., his own struggles and eventual success as a writer, and his involvement with a Muslim hedge fund titan whose respectable political objectives are overshadowed by his financial skullduggery.

Linking the chapters are several preoccupying themes: the double consciousness inherent in the minority experience, the contest between allegiances to one’s country and one’s culture, the strictures of identity, and the broken promises of America. The narrator finds himself suspended between his father, who embraces his adopted country with sometimes myopic optimism (and who supports Trump), and his mother, who views the U.S. as hypocritical and racist, and whose animus toward it drives her, at one point, to express something like sympathy for Osama bin Laden.
The narrator finds it impossible to escape fully his sense of his own difference. At one point, on seeing his reflection, he thinks, “My likeness in the mirror was a reminder of something about myself I always chose to forget, something never available to me except when confronted by my appearance: that though I didn’t feel ‘other’ in any meaningful way, I clearly appeared only that way—at least to myself.”
Readers of Akhtar’s previous work will be familiar with these themes. American Dervish focuses on a young boy growing up in suburban Milwaukee who struggles to reconcile his Muslim heritage and his American identity. A subsequent play, Disgraced, which won a Pulitzer in 2013, depicts a dinner party that gives rise to explosive conversations about Islamophobia.
Akhtar’s double identity as a novelist and playwright—he’s also made a film, The War Within, and has spent the past five years developing series for TV—is of a piece with his upbringing. “Hybridity is an important part of my consciousness,” he says. “That may have something to do with growing up Pakistani and being American. I’ve been toggling between various kinds of craft and various ways of thinking about story my whole life. It’s always felt organic to do that.”
Akhtar was born on Staten Island in 1970. In his early childhood, he moved with his parents, both doctors, to Milwaukee, where they lived first in the city and then in two suburbs, Brookfield and Elm Grove. (In Homeland Elegies, the narrator’s hometown is Elm Brook.) Akhtar graduated from Brown in 1993 with a degree in theater and, in 1997, matriculated at Columbia to pursue an MFA in film directing. But he believes pivoting between disciplines has been a boon, not a hindrance, to his artistic development. “Each of them has taught me how to do the other,” he says.
When Akhtar returned to fiction with Homeland Elegies, he did so with a desire to push the novel form. In its liberal use of the author’s own life, in its brazen blurring of the line between fiction and autobiography, the book seems destined to attract the du jour label “autofiction.” But Akhtar bristles at that term. “This, to me, feels much more like a literary attempt at reality serial television,” he says, “where the narrator is staging his own self, in the way that dramatic self-staging has become the dominant mode of discourse.”
By way of explanation, Akhtar invokes Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and the solipsism those platforms enable. He also notes that the America he writes about is presently governed by a former reality TV star given to acts of sensational self-staging. In a way, the book critiques its own mode of discourse. “I might be suggesting that narrative is not a very good way of knowing things,” Akhtar says. “And that part of our philosophical confusion in our crumbling republic may have to do with the fact that everyone has now become a storyteller.”
It also has to do, Akhtar believes, with money. In Homeland Elegies, as in his 2016 play Junk, he takes on greed, capitalism, and the grim fact that much of American life at all levels—corporate, educational, municipal, personal—is fueled by debt. Finance, he says, “is the great untold story. It’s really what drives so much of American life, in ways that people don’t understand.”
For the narrator’s father, the promise of America is inextricable from the promise of wealth. But over the course of the novel, his dreams of enrichment elude him, and he descends into gambling addiction and insolvency. “I knew it was always going to be about money,” Akhtar says of the book. “I knew it was going to be about my father’s relationship to money. I knew it was going to be about America as a kind of casino, where me and my dad are marks.”
By flirting with autobiography in the novel, Akhtar leaves unclear which of the narrator’s and his family’s disgraces are fictional. For Judy Clain, Akhtar’s editor at Little, Brown, this ambiguity is a source of the book’s strength. “I started out wanting to dissect the novel and find out what was truly autobiographical and what was not,” she says. “I concluded that it didn’t actually matter. The essence of the book, the form, the playfulness, the gray area is the reward.”
Akhtar sees his unflinching honesty as part of his artistic, and moral, purpose. “In writing this book,” he says, “I knew I was going to have to use my family, use my personal life, to the end of creating this particular portrait of our country. It had to be a work that really engaged, and also implicated, my own flesh and blood. And if I was going to subject my parents to the kind of portrayal that they end up having, especially my father, I knew I couldn’t spare myself.”

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Difficult but Essential: On Edward Ball

While reporting his sixth book, Life of a Klansman, Edward Ball put himself in a deeply uncomfortable position. He met three descendants of Black Creole men who were badly beaten at a massacre that killed 200 people in New Orleans in 1866. He says he had to explain to them that one of his ancestors was a member of a white militia in the city at the time and probably took part in the atrocities.
“It was stressful,” Ball says via Skype from his home in New Haven, Conn. “I had to share with this family that my people may have been part of the group that carried out a massacre in which some of their people were affected.”
Ball believes conversations like this are difficult but essential, and he has devoted much of his career to shining daylight on history many would rather forget. For his first book, 1998’s National Book Award–winning Slaves in the Family, he sought out and met the descendants of slaves from his ancestors’ South Carolina plantation.

Ball’s subsequent books, all works of narrative nonfiction, also tackle large historical subjects through the prism of individual actors. In The Inventor and the Tycoon, Ball displays the virtues and vices of the American West through the partnership of the murderer who invented motion pictures and the robber-baron who built the railroads. In Peninsula of Lies, he describes the life of an English writer who in 1967 underwent one of the early gender affirming surgeries.
With Life of a Klansman, Ball turns his attention back to his family history, examining his ancestors’ role in the rise of white supremacy in New Orleans after the Civil War. The book is centered on Constant Lecorgne, Ball’s great-great-grandfather—an unremarkable man who struggled professionally and financially in the shadow of more successful siblings and cousins. He was also a foot solider in the movement for white supremacy that followed Reconstruction and whose members were, up until the mid-1960s, venerated in public ceremonies and monuments.
As a child, Ball heard about Lecorgne, but the stories were swaddled in the gauze of family lore. In Life of a Klansman, he seeks to correct these apocryphal stories. “The kernel of the whole project is claiming white supremacy as mine and ours,” he explains.
Throughout the interview, Ball never refers to Lecorgne by name. Instead, he calls him “our Klansman”; his racist ancestors are “my people.” He clearly wants to claim this shameful legacy.
The son of an Episcopal minister, Ball grew up in the Deep South, moving around as his father took up new church posts every few years. Now, however, he speaks without any trace of a Southern accent. Instead, he has the clipped elocution of a New Englander.
When asked how his family feels about Life of a Klansman, Ball replies, “The poet Czeslaw Milosz has a funny observation that when a writer is born into a family, the family is lost. It’s condemned to exposure, embarrassment, and disclosure.”
And then Ball says, yes, he doubts his people are pleased about Life of a Klansman. “It depends on whom you ask. I don’t think anyone in our family really wants to have the story of our Klansmen aired.”
For much of his life, Ball didn’t care to go there either. For years, he tried to get as far from his roots as he could. At 17, he moved north for the first time to enroll in Brown University; after graduating, he moved to New York City to become a journalist. He didn’t start writing Slaves in the Family until he was in his mid-30s, after a family reunion at the former plantation got him thinking about the descendants of the slaves who worked the land. In 1998, when the book was published, numerous relatives opposed it, though since then many have said they understand why he wrote it.
Lecorgne’s lack of distinction has made him easier to evade. “There’s a kind of a disavowal: ‘We’re the good white people, and this particular man was an extremist,’ ” Ball says. “That’s actually a common response on the subject of the Ku Klux Klan in general for all of the United States. We project our worst antipathies onto the Klan. They are those people over there; those are the real racists.”
The project originated with the journals of Ball’s aunt Maud, Lecorgne’s granddaughter. In 2003, Ball inherited Maud’s notebooks, which told uplifting tales of people who migrated, married, and prospered. To Aunt Maud, Lecorgne was a redeemer who brought Louisiana back under the control of white people and protected family wealth. But there was a lot of silence in the pages—what exactly did his great-great-grandfather do?
Relying on public records and cultural artifacts, Ball builds a circumstantial narrative of Lecorgne’s life, deeds, and psyche in the book. Alexander Star, Ball’s editor at FSG, says that when he first read the manuscript, he was struck by how vividly Ball rendered the inner lives of Reconstruction-era Louisianans. “He has a rare gift for breathing palpable life into his characters—while remaining scrupulously faithful to the documentary record,” Star says.
Ball also keeps the historical narrative in a 21st-century context and makes clear he doesn’t think his family story is unique. By his estimate, 50% of white people have ancestors linked to the Ku Klux Klan, and even those who don’t are the beneficiaries of white supremacy—be it the work of militants in 1866 or police officers in 2020.
“White supremacy is the unacknowledged power wheel of our national life,” Ball says. “As the majority ethnic group, I think we get a lot of personal nourishment from this sense that we belong in command of others with our hands on the levers of power.”
But Ball does see hopeful signs—the many universities undertaking self-study about their relationship to slavery, and the New York Times’ 1619 Project, an unflinching history of slavery in the United States, and the strong and growing support of Black Lives Matter movement. “It’s a paradoxical time,” he says. “On the one hand we have white supremacy that’s reinvigorated, but we also have a vigorous countermovement. It’s undeniable that the countervoice will prevail, but it’s a rough time right now, isn’t it?”

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Telling Tales out of School with Jeff Hobbs

It’s early on a Wednesday morning, and Jeff Hobbs, bestselling author and stay-at-home dad, is sitting in the family room of his “old beater” house in Los Angeles, dressed in a gray Oregon Track T-shirt, talking about the art of juggling child-rearing and a writing career.
“I don’t know if Mr. Mom is an offensive term,” Hobbs says via Skype. “I guess it’s archaic, but I kind of am with my kids pretty much all the time.” Most days, he gets up at 4:30 a.m. to write at the family dining table, when, he says, it’s dark and cold and nobody is emailing.
That table is where Hobbs, 40, wrote Show Them You’re Good: A Portrait of Boys in the City of Angels the Year Before College. Out in August from Scribner, it covers about a year in the life of a group of senior boys at two Los Angeles schools as they navigate their social and academic lives and work toward a common goal: getting into college.
“I wanted to write about kids living through their senior year, as they apply to college and deal with that process and its outcomes, and all the nonsense in between,” Hobbs says. As for why he focused on boys: “I felt like the emotional lives of boys are minimized in what’s still a machismo culture.” He takes a beat and adds, “I also thought an adult male probing the emotional lives of teenage girls might not go over well with their parents.”

Hobbs is the author of two previous books: the 2007 novel The Tourists, about a man who seduces both halves of a couple (“I don’t recommend it,” he says of his debut), and the 2014 nonfiction book The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League. The latter explores race, class, economic disparity, and maleness—subjects that Hobbs revisits in Show Them You’re Good.
At the heart of Show Them You’re Good are four students, two from Beverly Hills High School and two from Ánimo Pat Brown Charter High School (which is in a neighborhood called Florence-Firestone, north of Compton). From Beverly Hills High, there’s Owen, the well-off son of Christopher Lloyd, co-creator of the TV show Modern Family, and Jon, a Chinese Jewish kid whose immigrant mother moved the family to a small apartment in Beverly Hills so that Jon could have access to a good school. From Ánimo Pat Brown, there’s Carlos, a son of undocumented workers who’s trying to secure Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals protection, and Tío, an aspiring engineer whose father is an alcoholic. “They’re all super cool,” Hobbs says of the boys, whom he followed from August 2016 to June 2017 and still stays in contact with.
Born and raised in Pennsylvania, Hobbs says his own high school experience was “pretty unremarkable”—he got good grades, he ran track—and that going back to high school to do research was in no way a return to the glory days. “I just felt old,” he says with a smirk.
Developing a rapport with his young subjects took some time. “I’m an awkward guy, so the first couple of meetings were stilted,” says Hobbs, who has a tendency to pause often when he talks, giving his speech a unique halting rhythm. Pretty soon, though, he was immersed in the teens’ daily dramas.
“I spent a lot of time in their homes, I went to family dinners, and to dances and proms,” Hobbs recalls. “I was running around Los Angeles a lot, and it’s weird to tell your kids that you won’t be home for Friday night dinner because you’re going to a Halloween dance at a high school in South L.A., but, you know, my kids know what I do.”
Hobbs’s kids, now ages six and 10, sometimes joined him on his expeditions. They played while he conducted interviews. “It happened frequently that year,” he says. “It worked out. I think it was nice for the boys to get a glimpse into my life, too.”
Show Them You’re Good shows its quartet of high schoolers striving to get good grades, filling out blizzards of college application and financial aid forms, and dealing with family issues, including a sick parent (Owen) and an unstable living situation (Tío). Readers get to root for them as they forge their futures.
“This is a book that crosses over cultures, class, and race, and that’s at the heart of what Jeff Hobbs is looking to bring to the world,” says Hobbs’s agent, David Black at the David Black Literary Agency.
Colin Harrison, Hobbs’s editor and the v-p and editor-in-chief of Scribner, adds, “Line by line, Jeff is just a lovely writer. He’s careful and slow in the making of prose, and it shows. The guy couldn’t write a bad sentence.”
Nonfiction writing didn’t always interest Hobbs. “I stumbled into it when my friend Rob Peace died,” he says. Peace was Hobbs’s roommate at Yale, and after the two graduated in 2002, Peace returned to his hometown in New Jersey and began selling drugs, which led to his 2011 murder by a drug dealer. Hobbs struggled to make sense of the tragedy and, at the suggestion of his wife, began writing a book about Peace. The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace became a bestseller. There are currently 250,000 copies in circulation, across print and e-book formats, according to Scribner, and the book is being adapted into a movie. Hobbs’s wife, Rebecca Hobbs, is a film and TV producer and is producing the film with Training Day director Antoine Fuqua.
“I always felt like this story needed to be told to help people walk in someone else’s shoes,” Rebecca says. “It explores this idea that in order to make it in America you have to leave behind what you came from, and how unacceptable that could be.”
Hobbs remains keenly interested in examining people’s lives and understanding their motives. His next book is about kids in juvenile halls and detention centers. “I’m not good at much, but I’m pretty good at asking questions,” he says. “And I’m really good at listening.”
As a bright morning light filters in through his living room window, Hobbs hears his kids rousing in the next room. It’s time to make breakfast and maybe chat with his daughter about the pet rats she wants to buy. (“I’m skeptical,” he says.) Then it’s a full day of dad duty. And the next morning, before the sun comes up, it’s back to writing.
“Talking to someone that no one has heard of, that isn’t famous, and somehow helping their story become part of a reader’s story—that’s pretty neat,” Hobbs says.
Bonus Link:
Jeff Hobbs in His Own Words

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.