Sarah Manguso Takes a Novel Approach


Sarah Manguso’s books reflect an ongoing processing of thoughts, themes, and experiences. Ongoingness, published in 2015 and composed of aphoristic short paragraphs (many just a sentence long), describes her habit of keeping diaries. Most of her works, she says, don’t look like books until she’s nearly done with them.
Manguso began with poetry (2002’s The Captain Lands in Paradise, 2006’s Siste Viator), then collaborated with Dave Eggers and Deb Olin Unferth on a volume of short stories, 2007’s One Hundred and Forty Five Stories in a Small Box. Her work earned her the Rome Prize that year, and in 2008 she published The Two Kinds of Decay, a well-received memoir about dealing with a rare autoimmune sickness, which established her fragmented prose style.

With 2012’s The Guardians, a fractured work of nonfiction, she explored the circumstances around her friend’s suicide. After that, she received support from a Guggenheim fellowship and continued teaching at various universities, having worked as an adjunct at Columbia, among other schools.
Manguso, 47, is seated in her kitchen in Los Angeles, where she moved several years ago from Brooklyn. She is wearing her hair straight in a medium bob with rectangular framed glasses. A gray tabby cat is underfoot, and she’s surrounded by a series of original Jenny Holzer prints from the artist’s Truisms series.
She acquired the prints in the late 1990s, when she was living in a small apartment in Brooklyn, where they took up all the wall space. Now, in her bright, airy house, they’ve got more room to breathe. “They’ve just been around me ever since,” she says. “I think of them as this mantle of language that keeps me well and safe.”

The Truisms are just there in the background, Manguso explains; she doesn’t think about what they say. It may not be the content that’s important, but the pithy form of Holzer’s messages—which consist of all-caps black text on white backgrounds and which were ubiquitous on New York City streets in the 1970s and ’80s—provides an obvious clue to the formation of Manguso’s style. Holzer: “Decadence Can Be An End In Itself.” Manguso, from 2018’s micro-essay collection 300 Arguments: “Sometimes ill-informed choices have good outcomes.”
Manguso’s latest, Very Cold People (Hogarth, Feb. 2022), follows a girl named Ruth as she comes of age in 1980s Massachusetts, in a town built in the colonial era. The project didn’t start as fiction. For decades, she had wanted to write her “Boston book,” she says, about the whiteness, class differences, and intergenerational trauma that were prevalent in the 400-year-old town she grew up in outside of Boston.
She imagined the book would be nonfiction, but, she says, “it turned out that memoir wasn’t a large enough form to contain everything.” Ruth is not Manguso, and though Ruth is deeply perceptive about her family members, friends, and neighbors, there’s no indication that she will become a writer. Rather than tell her own story, Manguso uses Ruth to convey a painful series of stories about how she, her family, and her friends are impacted by the town in various ways.
“So,” Manguso says, “despite the fact that I’ve spent my entire career saying I would never write a novel, that I had no interest in writing a novel, I realized this was the form I needed.”
PJ Mark, Manguso’s agent at Janklow & Nesbit, says his client “had already mastered precision in her nonfiction,” so, in a way, “fiction seemed inevitable.” Mark thinks the form gives her “a freedom to explore characters and plot with ferocity.”
Manguso left Massachusetts in her early 20s, and it took just as many years of being away for her to write Very Cold People. Though she spent over a decade in Brooklyn, she credits her contrasting new surroundings in Southern California with giving her the perspective she needed.
She calls her hometown an “active palimpsest—a lot messier and more scribbly and complex than L.A.,” noting that people in the Northeast are much more class conscious than those in California. In Massachusetts in particular, Manguso says, class seems a more present force. Social classes that had been determined in the 17th century remained at the forefront of peoples’ minds in the 1980s, when she was growing up. “That was something really important that I wanted to write about,” she says.
The societal forces operating in Very Cold People’s fictional town of Waitsfield are determined by heritage, with founding families whose members trace their roots to the Mayflower voyage at the top of the pecking order, even if they don’t have any money. Living in houses that have passed through their families for hundreds of years, they enjoy a status that can’t be bought, which keeps Ruth and her Italian father and Jewish mother feeling hopelessly lesser than.
When Ruth is a young girl, her mother develops a habit of clipping photos of strangers in the newspaper’s wedding notices and sticking them on the fridge. Her anxiety about class status prompts her to look down on some relatives and ingratiate herself with others. When Ruth is a teenager, her family moves into a new house in a tonier part of town where a woman from the colonial Cabot family once lived. However, because the house was built in the early 20th century, Ruth’s parents don’t achieve the social status the move presumably should have brought.
Meanwhile, Ruth waits until she’s old enough to get out. The name of the town, Waitsfield, is a clear metaphor for the condition she’s frequently subjected to. “A kid in the ’80s would have the skill of being able to wait with nothing to do, nothing to read, no friend to text,” Manguso says, remembering her own experience as a Gen-X kid. As a writer in the age of screens, she developed an “opposite skill, which is to keep the information away.”
Among the subjects of Ruth’s interest is the pervasive instances of sexual assault that surround her. One friend’s bedroom is frequented by the girl’s father. Another friend’s brother tickles her after her showers until her towel falls off. Another friend sleeps with a tennis coach. After Ruth’s gym teacher gropes her, she reflects, “I understood that it was wrong, but, after my first thought, which was that maybe this is normal, I found it sweet. I knew that, on some level, he liked me.”
By the end of the narrative, serious mental health episodes and tragic circumstances befall most of the girls. “Everything is based on the fact that all the girls in Waitsfield are going to be touched, molested, raped, abused, neglected, and just, you know, in many cases destroyed,” Manguso says.
The style of Very Cold People is subtle, marked by the accrual of short essayistic paragraphs separated by empty lines. The dark material is alternately conveyed with understatement and frank facts, but there’s always a sense that Manguso gives great care to Ruth, and to the reader, by bringing clarity and honesty to her protagonist’s observations. It’s bold and distinctive, like her past work, which hasn’t always been appreciated by gatekeepers. (When Ongoingness was out for submission, one editor suggested she forego publishers and, instead, publish it on a mom blog.)
Manguso says she’s lucky to have people on her side who help turn her work into a “marketable product.”
Mark notes that Manguso’s writing “commands—demands—attention.” He thinks she “always knows exactly the kind of book she wants to construct and why, and what she wants to say.”
Manguso says her success has freed her from “having to do a lot of other jobs,” aside from her current job teaching at Antioch University Los Angeles. Her smile widens and a line from Holzer can be glimpsed in the frame behind her head: “You don’t know what’s what until you support yourself.”

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

At Home with Gish Jen


The characters of Thank You, Mr. Nixon, Gish Jen’s expansive new collection of superconnected short stories, are restless. They leave China for America and return, leave America for China and return, traveling between the two countries and cultures as if through a revolving door. Jen, like the second-generation Americans in her book, understands what it is to be “hybrid,” and the inherent tension that requires her characters to engage in frequent acts of translation—linguistic, cultural, and generational—whether they wish to or not.
Born on Long Island in 1955, Jen says she came of age “at the height of multiculturalism, when I was supposed to be writing about my Chinese roots.” But growing up in Scarsdale, N.Y., she learned more Yiddish than Chinese—an experience she mined for her very funny second novel, 1996’s Mona in the Promised Land, about a Chinese girl converting to Judaism.
“Once that was published, many people were convinced that I must be Jewish,” Jen says over Zoom from an office at Harvard, her alma mater, where she’s a visiting professor in English. “So much so that I began to feel positively lapsed in the fall, when I failed to observe the High Holy Days.”
Since she first began publishing short stories in the 1980s (many selected for the Best American series), Jen has had a reputation for writing vivid, smart, often humorous portrayals of second-generation Chinese Americans. She has long been interested in, and has lectured and written about, hybridity, most recently in her 2017 nonfiction book, The Girl at the Baggage Claim: Explaining the East-West Culture Gap.
Thank You, Mr. Nixon could itself be called hybrid: 11 stories threaded so carefully together that they become as interdependent as they are independent, almost novelistic. Jen calls the connectivity a “very complicated network.”
In one sense the book is simple: the stories run chronologically, beginning with the title tale, a letter sent from heaven to hell. In it, a dead Chinese woman thanks the disgraced American president for what he unleashed on his 1972 trip to China. This missive sets the book’s dramas and concerns in motion (the symbiosis of capitalism and communism, for one), and introduces the two families—the Hsus and the Koos—whose various ties give the book its novelistic breadth.
“With stories, there’s a suggestion that there’s so much more than what we see on the page,” Jen says. “We catch a glimpse here, a glimpse there, we see they’re connected, but whoa, there’s a big, big, big thing underwater that will probably take another century to understand.”
That leviathan is China’s role in the world. There’s the country Jen herself experienced as a “foreign expert” in 1981, teaching English to coal-mining institute students who’d never seen a refrigerator—and the country that became, one generation later, an economic and geopolitical powerhouse.
“Who could have seen the meteoric rise?” Jen says, still awed by the change. “I don’t think the Chinese even saw it.” Her stories trace that rise—what she calls, “this kind of low-grade rumbling beneath the lives” of her characters.
By choosing to include in this book “Duncan in China” (from her previous collection, Who’s Irish, published in 1999), Jen makes the Hsu family a lodestar, their presence seen or felt in every tale. (Second-generation Chinese-American brothers Duncan and Arnie Hsu move with particular fluidity between the U.S. and China.)
“Frankly, today, I was not going to be able to write a new story about that period that captured it as well as my old story did,” Jen explains. “I was there. The material looks so different in this context. Now we understand that it was just one step in this huge process.”
In these stories, globalization is both poignant and hilarious. Readers of Who’s Irish will recall hapless young Duncan’s exploits as a foreign expert, clashing with his watchful boss and spending more time showing off his bathroom than teaching English. When he falls for an older student, a report is written and she vanishes, only to surprise him later with an offering that changes his life. The full impact of her gesture isn’t felt until several stories later, in “Amaryllis,” about a single, middle-aged, mixed-race, second-generation Chinese American woman working for the Koos in Manhattan and caring for Duncan Hsu’s aging father in east Brooklyn. Mr. Hsu’s nomadic children and grandchildren have largely abandoned him. Lonely Amaryllis wants a connection but only finds it when she stops looking.
Amaryllis is only four in the collection’s long and powerful second story, “It’s the Great Wall!” She’s left with her Caribbean Sephardic Jewish grandparents while her parents take her Chinese grandmother, Opal, to China for the first time since she immigrated to America decades ago. As part of an organized group of mostly Western tourists, Opal tires of translating for the struggling guide, but her understanding of the guide’s “heart” helps her navigate the People’s Republic in ways the others, including her own daughter, cannot. This makes possible a clandestine reunion with the family Opal left behind, an unexpected turn that takes the story in a crushingly poignant direction.
The Hsus and Koos are intricately entwined in “Rothko, Rothko,” wherein Rich Lee, a broke creative writing teacher with a novel in a drawer hopes to profit from the forgeries of a talented Chinese artist, despite warnings from his lawyer wife, Arabella.
In “No More Maybe,” the story that follows, Arabella is now representing a Chinese family whose visa status has lapsed; this tale, set during the Trump years, vividly evokes the rising anxiety of undocumented immigrants in America.
And in the long, extremely funny “Gratitude,” a former student of Rich’s, Bobby Koo, tries to maintain the (8,000-mile) distance she’s put between her and her parents. Unhappy with their “number one daughter” ghosting them, the Koos outsmart her: they plan to buy her apartment through a proxy (Duncan Hsu’s brother, Arnie), fly from Hong Kong to America, and surprise her at the closing. The reunion does not play out as they’d hoped.
“I felt a responsibility to get the details right,” Jen says of the book, and many of the stories contain vivid details of a China that no longer exists; she pulled from extensive notes taken on a family trip in 1979 and her foreign-expert stint two years later. “I was there,” Jen says again. “I was a witness, and I take that seriously.”
Her command of detail makes Thank You, Mr. Nixon authentic and engrossing; her vision makes it unique and vital. “I’ve been writing all these stories in this changing world that involve mainland immigrants—stories that 30 years earlier wouldn’t have been possible,” Jen says. “Because there were no immigrants. They wouldn’t have been here—much less in law school.”
She throws up her hands and laughs. “I am very, very, very lucky that my career has coincided with these changes.”

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Jay Caspian Kang Wants to Provoke You


Jay Caspian Kang has been working as a journalist for more than 10 years now, but he still thinks of himself as a novelist. “I haven’t really written fiction in a long time,” he says; the idea of writing fiction “terrifies” him. Nonetheless, for Kang, bringing a novelist’s eye to interior experience is what he thinks makes writing fun. “And I am very much of the sensibility that writers should enjoy writing.”
So it was with a nod toward fiction that he went into his heavily researched and reported new work of nonfiction, The Loneliest Americans—out in October from Crown. Though each chapter could be seen as a stand-alone essay or article, Kang, who is speaking from his basement office in his Berkeley, Calif., home, doesn’t view the book as a collection. (He says, bluntly: “I would never read a book of essays.”) Instead, he approached the work as a “novel” in which he, the central character, is navigating what it means to be Asian American today. Each chapter’s ideas are built upon in the next.
Kang finished writing Loneliest during the pandemic, at a time when its central premise—that Asian American assimilation makes for the lonely experience of not knowing whether you’re more “white” or “person of color”—was being challenged as hate crimes against Asian people skyrocketed.
In the first months of lockdown, he wasn’t sleeping more than a few hours a night and found himself wondering whether he should move his family to Korea, where his parents were born, but no longer live. He quickly decided against it, citing how difficult it would be for his Jewish wife and their young daughter to assimilate. “It also occurred to me that most of the people who were being attacked were working-class people, people who didn’t really speak English, people who might be undocumented. People who work in the sex worker industry and have very, very shallow foundations here in the United States,” he says. In his writing, Kang argues that any Asian American rights movement needs to address these less privileged people first, rather than focusing on more “elite” problems like Hollywood representation.
“Our current politics really is rooted in questions of microaggressions,” Kang says. “Asian people citing white people asking questions like, ‘Why does your lunch look like that?’ or, ‘Where are you really from?’ Or, you know, the experience of being mistaken for a delivery boy,” he says, rolling his eyes. Looking younger than his 41 years, he has an air of mischief about him.
“Should we actually have Asian American politics based on the feelings of an upwardly ascendant, upper-middle class?” Kang asks. “People like, for example, me, who live in the Berkeley Hills and complain about traffic? My life is fine. It’s great.”
In The Loneliest Americans, Kang asks this same question from multiple angles as he gets to know Asian men’s rights activists who troll Asian women for marrying white men; covers protests against police violence and explores the historical tension between Black and Asian communities; learns about the overlap between the Jewish American and Asian American immigrant experiences; and examines his own economic privilege, wondering if the term people of color has become little more than a class signifier for those educated enough to know it.
“By mimicking the language of the Black struggle in America, we hope to become legible as a comrade, a fellow traveler, or a ‘person of color.’ There’s an implicit apology to this sort of pleading: ‘We know we don’t have it as bad as you, but we also aren’t white and need a way to talk about it,’ ” Kang writes in the book. He continues: “The loneliness comes from the realization that nobody, whether white or Black, really cares if we succeed in creating these identities.”
Kang makes many other bold statements throughout the work, sometimes intended to inspire debate. “There are still only two races in America: Black and white,” he writes. “Everyone else is part of a demographic group headed in one direction or the other.” His writing is meant to provoke and to make the reader a little uncomfortable.
Kang welcomes any potential controversy; in fact, he thrives on it. He also expects blowback to The Loneliest Americans from Asian Americans, and he’s fine with that. “I hope that people get mad at parts of it,” he says. “I hope there’s some criticism of the book, even bad reviews of the book. It was written as a way to start a lot of arguments that I think need to be out there. And I’m okay with being criticized. Some books by minorities are kind of, like, patted on the head, and people say, ‘Good job, you spoke your truth.’ If that happens, I’ll be extremely disappointed. I would rather have the book panned.”
Kang, who has worked at Vice and currently writes for both The New Yorker and The New York Times, is acutely aware of the media and publishing landscape he’s a part of. (In the book, he quips that his writing is primarily read by “lawyers on planes, other journalists.”) He knows The Loneliest Americans is coming out during what could be called “a moment” in Asian American publishing. In the past few years especially, several books about the Asian American experience have gained notoriety—Minor Feelings, Interior Chinatown, and Crying in H Mart, just to name a few.
“A new readiness, or level of awareness, appears to be asserting itself in facets of the story of how Asians are overlooked, agglomerated, and otherwise diminished and misunderstood in, or by, the American consciousness,” Kang’s agent, Jim Rutman, says. “And the origins of that story appear to be poorly understood and far too infrequently appreciated. If American readers are more ready to finally think and read about how the frustrations and struggles of Asians in America manifest, then I suppose that counts as progress, and I hope that Jay’s book will help expand and fill out the pursuit of questions we should have been asking all along.”
Indeed, Kang has been asking these questions for years—not just in his reporting and essays, but also in his 2012 debut novel, The Dead Do Not Improve, which follows a character modeled on the Korean American Virginia Tech shooter.
“When I wrote that novel,” Kang says, “I was thinking through the ways in which I might have seen myself in that guy, and also the ways in which doing so was dangerous, because at some level, he’s just a psychopath, you know? I’d think, ‘Why am I reading his writings? He’s totally incoherent, why am I watching his videos, where he just rants and rants? And why do I have to see myself in this guy?’ It’d be a lot easier if I was just like, ‘what a horrible tragedy.’ And so that question was what the first book was.” Now, with The Loneliest Americans, he says he’s delivered his “nonfiction way of executing those ideas.” He continues: “The formative experiences of so many Asian American men’s lives is a feeling of sexual rejection. And it’s a very difficult thing to talk about.”
Luckily for readers, Kang thrives when he’s tackling very difficult things to talk about. This is where his writing soars; the more personal and uncomfortable he gets, the more provocative the result.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Amitava Kumar on Fiction, Truth, and Fake News


Amitava Kumar tends to talk about his forthcoming novel, A Time Outside This Time, as if he’s still in the process of writing it. He says he’s “going to” try to achieve certain effects with it. He says “I will” adopt certain narrative strategies. He poses provisional questions: “What form do I give,” he asks, to the story he wants to tell?
It’s a curious tic but, given the novel’s subject matter, it’s not surprising. A Time Outside This Time, set primarily in the first half of 2020, is about the global proliferation of fake news and the writer’s obligation to combat it. Rather than examine the vagaries of our moment from a retrospective distance, the novel allows itself to be shaped by them, navigating events—the Covid-19 pandemic, the Black Lives Matter protests, the last breaths of the Trump presidency—as they unfold. No wonder Kumar describes his novel as if he’s still writing it: the story he’s telling is still happening.
“I’m going to put down the news,” Kumar says via Zoom from a hotel room in Sewanee, Tenn., where he’s teaching a class at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. “I will put everything down as it is occurring—there will be an immediacy—but also I’m doing something that is artistic, or cunning.”
The book’s protagonist is a writer much like Kumar who is at work on a novel much like A Time Outside This Time. When readers first encounter the narrator, Satya, he’s staying at an artist’s retreat in what appears to be Lake Como, Italy, near a mansion owned by George and Amal Clooney. (The Clooneys’ Lake Como house is becoming something of a fixture of the literary landscape. It also figured briefly in Ayad Akhtar’s 2020 novel Homeland Elegies.) Satya describes his work in progress as a “report from the world of #fakenews”—a book “made up entirely of rumors. A compilation of fatal falsehoods.”
What follows is a pastiche of memoir, journalism, and diaristic note taking. Satya thinks back to his childhood in India, recounts two reporting assignments during which he was fed deceptions, and, in a long chapter of numbered fragments, gathers anecdotes and ephemera about literature, history, and political misinformation, juxtaposing images, quotes, and tweets from @realDonaldTrump.
Satya’s goal, he says, is to “slow-jam” the news (a phrase taken from a recurring segment on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon). By lingering on current events and framing them in surprising contexts, he aims to “perform the news so that it reveals its inner self.”
“Why,” Satya asks, “must one slow-jam the news? Because all that is new will become normal with astonishing speed.”
With this multimodal approach, Kumar, 58, feels he’s landed on his literary form. But it took him a while to find it. He began his career in academia, arriving in the U.S. from India in the late 1980s to pursue a master’s in English at Syracuse University. After completing a PhD in comp lit at the University of Minnesota, he held teaching posts at the University of Florida, Penn State, and elsewhere.
But Kumar found the language of scholarship constricting. “I was generating writing that had the consistency of freshly mixed cement,” he says. “I wanted to do something more inventive.”
Kumar’s bibliography is, like A Time Outside This Time, a mix of reportage, cultural criticism, and fiction. His books include Passport Photos, a genre-blending investigation of postcolonialism and migration; Husband of a Fanatic, an autobiographical reflection on Hindu-Muslim relations in India; and A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb—partly an account of two suspected terrorists and partly a study of 9/11’s effect on art and culture.
Kumar’s breakout novel, Immigrant, Montana, published in 2018, laid the groundwork for A Time Outside This Time; it too intersperses its narrative with essayistic digressions. The New Yorker called the book, somewhat perplexingly, a “nonfiction novel” and compared it to the work of autofiction eminences Ben Lerner and Sheila Heti.
Kumar isn’t quite comfortable with the term autofiction. (Novelists charged with writing it tend not to be.) “What is usually presented as autofiction is narrowly a story of the self,” he says. “I wanted to mess with that idea. I’m not someone who is describing getting up from this table, making tea, going into the bathroom, coming out, making a call to my wife.”
Though Satya does provide reports from the interior—about his fitful work on his manuscript, his conversations with his fellow artists in residence, his reading of Orwell’s 1984, and his life with his wife and child—his focus for the most part is on the avalanche of fake news engulfing the U.S. and India. As Covid-19 runs rampant, Trump minimizes the crisis and then touts the benefits of hydroxychloroquine. In India, rumors spread that the virus can be detected by satellites or eradicated by candles, and baseless accusations lead to the lynchings of Muslim men. In an afterword, Kumar cites Trump’s claim that he won the 2020 election “by a lot.” He need not spell out what that lie led to.
Satya’s question is how fiction can counteract fake news. Both, after all, are deviations from the truth. His answer is that fiction seeks to expand the mind while fake news seeks to shrink it. “Unlike literary fiction,” he says, “what we call fake news most deeply conforms to a popular prejudice. It is formulaic, often sentimental, and has about it a quality of sickening repetitiveness.”
Kumar elaborates. “The state is a writer of bad fiction,” he says. Its heroes and villains, he adds, tend to be what E.M. Forster called “flat” rather than “round” characters. “They would be shut down in a fiction workshop. My fiction must be more protean, more imaginative, more accurate than what the state produces.”
Having grown up in India and written about that country extensively, Kumar observed the effects of mass deception and demagoguery before the rise of Trump. “The sun rises earlier in India every day,” he says. “What happens in America is going to follow exactly what happens there.”
While his form is fiction and his subject is fake news, there’s nothing imaginary, for Kumar, about the consequences of misinformation—of mob mentality and media subservience and historical erasures and revisions. At one point during this conversation, he picks up the galley of his book and reads aloud a passage:
“You notice one fine day that all the signs on the road have changed. Your town has a new name. Dogs have grown fat on flesh torn from corpses lining the street where you grew up. The beautiful tree outside your window is dead, has been dead for a long time, and has, in fact, just now burst into flames.”
“None of this, unfortunately,” Kumar says, “comes from my imagination.”
Bonus Links:
Amitava Kumar, Collector of Writerly Advice Distilled Into One Line
Geopolitics and Sex, Geography and Desire: On Amitava Kumar’s ‘Immigrant, Montana’

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Living on the Margins with Ruth Ozeki


For several months after Ruth Ozeki’s father died in 1998, she began hearing his voice calling her name. She’d be typing or folding the laundry, and she’d turn to look for him. He wasn’t there. “It was startling whenever it happened,” she recalls, “and also comforting.” It was painful, as well.

“I’d remember he was dead and feel a rush of sadness, like I was losing him again,” says Ozeki, 65, speaking over Zoom from her home in Northampton, Mass.

This haunting experience offered the germ of the idea for Ozeki’s fourth novel, The Book of Form and Emptiness—out in late September from Viking. It follows Benny, a mixed-race teenager who begins to hear voices after his Japanese father dies. At first he hears the voice of his dead father. Then he begins to hear the emotions of material objects—a table leg, a pair of scissors. Then he begins hearing from a book, which helps narrate this heartbreaking coming-of-age story.

The novel is told through a captivating conversation in itself. Benny talks to the book in some chapters; in others, the book talks back to him, often offering advice to a young man muddling through his teenage years.

“I can’t think of many other writers who are such magical storytellers,” says Paul Slovak, an executive editor at Viking, who read an early draft of The Book of Form and Emptiness two years ago. (Ozeki sold it on a six-page proposal in 2015.) Slovak, who edited the novel, is particularly impressed by its structure. “I love working with writers who want to find new ways of telling stories,” he says, adding that this book is “somehow playful and deeply serious.”

Playful and serious are two words that also describe Ozeki herself. She often speaks of her work in a lighthearted way. “Books don’t come to me quickly,” she jokes, referring to the eight-year gap since she published her widely beloved third novel, A Tale for the Time Being, another bildungsroman. It was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

According to Slovak, A Tale for the Time Being has sold more than 300,000 copies. It’s also been praised as “exquisite” (the Los Angeles Times), “intellectually provocative” (the Washington Post), and “masterfully woven” (O, the Oprah Magazine). It centers on a 16-year-old Japanese girl who plans to kill herself after being bullied, but before she does so, she begins to document her great grandmother’s life.

“It touched a nerve with young readers,” Slovak says, adding that it’s been chosen by many colleges as suggested reading for freshmen.

The tour for A Tale for the Time Being also inspired aspects of The Book of Form and Emptiness. At an Ann Arbor, Mich., book signing, Ozeki found herself explaining to an audience that her stories often come to her in voices. Characters talk to her in her head, and a book slowly forms. Unexpectedly, a man stood and shared that his son also heard voices but found it distressing rather than welcome. This led Ozeki to consider the intersection between what we identify as madness and creativity. She remembered this man and his son as she began to craft Benny and research the phenomenon of hearing voices.

Ozeki already knew writers often heard people talking in their minds; some authors go so far as reporting entire conversations they have with those they’re writing about. She believes it makes for the magic of dialogue, and it’s something she experiences regularly. “There’s always a whole cast of characters carrying on inside my head,” she says, her cheery meditative spirit evident as she sits in her sunny, sparsely decorated home office. She’s also a Zen Buddhist priest and radiates calm in conversation.

Some discoveries in Ozeki’s research fascinated her. She discovered that, though hearing voices is often pathologized as a form of schizophrenia, it’s also an experience that’s been reported by such historical figures as Joan of Arc, Freud, and Gandhi. “The more I learned about voice hearing,” Ozeki says, “the more I realized how many people hear voices but are never diagnosed with anything.” This, she adds, gave her a desire to “widen our appreciation of neurodiversity.”

But in the novel, Benny doesn’t see anything magical about his situation. He’s deeply disturbed by it, sometimes slamming his palms over his ears to make the voices around him stop. If objects have feelings, Ozeki shows us, they’re not always happy ones.

For Benny, the voices become too much, and at one point in the novel he winds up institutionalized. This painful (yet entertaining) section was inspired by Ozeki’s own experience living in a psychiatric ward after she developed severe anxiety at boarding school as a teenager. “It was like finding myself in a prison,” she says of those years.

After he’s released, Benny takes refuge from the voices by spending hours, sometimes entire days, in the public library. This, also, was inspired by Ozeki’s own biography. She spent hours in the library as a child and then worked in her college library. She recalls time spent deep in the stacks, stringing together book titles into “found poetry” and sketching out characters for future novels. “I don’t think I was a very efficient worker,” she says with a laugh. And yet, libraries have always been a “place of powerful magic” for her.

Carole DeSanti, Ozeki’s longtime editor who left Viking before she finished her draft of The Book of Form and Emptiness, says she’s watched Ozeki grow with each novel she’s published, noting that the biggest leap came with her last one. Still, it’s her originality that continues to draw readers to her work. “Her voice is lively and immediate, funny, global, and radical,” DeSanti says.

Ozeki began her storytelling career as a filmmaker. After working on a string of B movies and Japanese commercials in the 1980s, she maxed out two credit cards to finance her own movies in the ’90s—one of which, the documentary Halving the Bones, went to Sundance.

She credits those years with helping her learn how to keep a plot moving. “It’s like my mind is a camera, and when I write a scene, I’m visualizing the angle of the shot, and the framing, and the movement,” she says. “Is it a wide establishing shot, or an extreme close-up? Is the camera tracking the action, or are the shots locked off and static?”

Feeling overwhelmed with her struggling finances as a filmmaker, Ozeki began writing a novel, hoping the sale of the book would help her pay her way out of credit card debt. It wound up launching a new career. Her debut, My Year of Meats, was published by Viking in 1998; it follows a Japanese American documentary filmmaker hired by the American beef lobby to make promotional TV shows for the Japanese market. In 2003 Viking released All Over Creation, a story about a teenage runaway returning home as an adult to her estranged parents.

When asked her why many of her characters seem to exist on the periphery of society, Ozeki doesn’t hesitate. “It’s directly reflective of my experience growing up,” she says. She’s the daughter of a white father and Japanese mother, and she explains that when she was young, a Japanese girl could be pretty and polite, good at math and music, but not loud or obnoxious or rebellious. When she lived in Japan after college, she realized she was entitled to be all of those things—similar to the way her character, Benny, begins to accept all of the different sides of himself, even the voice hearing.

According to Ozeki, her life has always been lived on the margins. “But the margins can be a wonderful place,” she says. “The view is always better from the outside.”

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

The Venom of Snakes: On Diane Williams

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“No writer’s life is pain free,” Diane Williams says early one morning while discussing her forthcoming book of stories, How High?—That High. “Marketing aside, just doing the work is so punishing. It’s an athletic ordeal on every level.”
Williams is speaking via Zoom from her apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where she writes six days a week. She is bathed in light from a window with a view and framed by bookshelves and an art collection (twice profiled in the Paris Review). Paintings and prints share space with sculptures and a crimson plague doctor mask Williams calls “terrifying.” Every piece is personal and tells a story, and she enjoys telling them.
The mask she found in Stockholm, at Drottningholm Palace theater, one of the oldest opera houses in the world. “Sadly, some of the artwork I live with every day gets tamed—loses spirit,” she says. “But not this mask, and its strength provides strength for me.”
The 34 short stories of How High?—That High, Williams’s 10th work of fiction, reveal an artist who, at 75, shows no hint of being tamed. But a common subject for Williams—pleasure—may be more complicated now than it was in her earlier books. The first story, “Upper Loop,” begins with, “I am trying to think if there’s any reason for having fun anymore on any level?” In another, “O Fortuna, Velut Luna,” a character considers “the upcoming loss of all kinds of pleasure.”
When asked if placing pleasure in a fretful context signals something new, Williams laughs. “Pleasure is really important,” she says. “I’m all for it!”
Both on the page and in person, Williams likes complications, contradictions, and conundrums, so she goes on: “And I’m very concerned about pleasure—I hope it’s a good sign. There have been periods in my life where I’ve struggled with sadness, with regret, with shame, with a lot of very burdensome feelings. I must say I’m happier now, which comes as a big surprise. I think that joyfulness is so precious when it occurs that it’s worthy of study in a way that I probably haven’t felt interested in or capable of doing before now.”
Pressed to explain what may have driven this shift, Williams resists.
Readers familiar with her work will recognize this reluctance to explain. Williams has been called a minimalist but, like the iceberg’s tip, beneath what is visible lies immense hidden depths. From her time in the ’80s studying with Gordon Lish (editor, most famously, of Raymond Carver), she learned how to make language strange again, and to leave ample room for the reader.
Williams can chronicle the whole messy business of living and falling in and out of love and falling ill and dying with an electrifying economy. “If you’re not telling the reader what to think every moment,” she says, “they need to take the experience and make something of it, rather than be limited by the limitations of the writer.” She snakes an arm around an imaginary body and pulls her in, explaining that “the writer’s primary assignment” is to hold the reader’s attention, from a story’s title to its terminus.

Some of the pieces in How High?—That High, such as “A Type of Vertigo” and “Popping,” are vivid portraits in miniature, and tornado-like in the way that Williams bears down to reveal only a moment or two in a fully imagined life. The effect leaves her characters and readers stunned. In 12 slim paragraphs, “Popping” contains decades of shared illness and care and still turns on the sly amusement of a kitchen appliance “considered by many to be the greatest toaster ever made.” Some stories are interrogative: a character in “Finished Being” tries to make sense of why a “solid square of cement-hued cement” has drawn her respect. Some entries, such as “Harriet Mounce,” feel like memories or regrets of something or someone lost. Metafiction at times breeches the surface. Existential inquiries appear, as in “What Is Given with Pleasure and Received with Admiration?” whose central character “is drawn forward—but by what?”
Uncertainty has attended Williams’s work since her first book of stories was published 31 years ago. From then—1990’s This Is About the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time, and Fate—to 2018’s The Collected Stories of Diane Williams, a 784-page compendium that she calls “the very big book,” much effort has been made by critics and interviewers to attempt to define what exactly this writer is doing with her pens and Mead notebooks.
She’s been called “avant-garde” and “experimental,” a word she dislikes. In an introduction to the very big book, author Ben Marcus writes that “most of us are doomed to hunt for sense” in the stories we read, but Williams’s stories “show us how little we can know.” Her stories “defy logic” and “thumb their nose at conventional sense,” he notes, “or even unconventional sense.”
The stories hum with their own mad logic, prizing “the enigma and the uncanny,” in Marcus’s words, above narrative. In composing a story, Williams says that her focus is on the “call-and-response tension” from one sentence to the next and the “acoustical maneuvers that keep it all together.” She compares the work to creating a concerto, with her goal being to produce fiction that has “the characteristics of great music.” Her stories demand such an active engagement that they are almost collaborative. To take How High?—That High onto a subway or beach is to risk missing your stop, or a coming tsunami.
Asked about her writing process, Williams explains, “It’s just words. As simple as, ‘Now we’re going to go.’ Or ‘Do we have to?’ Or ‘I don’t have it.’ Just putting down language so that I can see my handwriting.” Then she circles what stands out on the page and numbers the circles in search of “logic and momentum.” Then she types it, prints it, and gets to work, composing so many drafts that the story’s folder can be “a foot high,” she says. She keeps these folders near.
“It’s easy for writers to romanticize what they’ve done when they feel they’ve done something great, and think ‘I can’t do it again,’ because they can’t remember the labor it took,” Williams says. “It’s not magic.”
After 30 years of work, some writers grow lazy; Williams has grown more potent, like the venom of certain snakes.
When asked if stories come more easily now than they used to, Williams explodes with laughter. “No,” she says. “Oh no. No no no no no. They don’t come easily. No.”
She repeats something she says she heard about practice from an editor at Noon (the literary journal Williams founded with Christine Schutt 21 years ago): “You sit and you do it—that’s art. And that’s my only relation to it. I just have to do it. Because to anticipate it and to have an idea of how it will be is hopeless. I’m not congested with ideas or schemes of any kind. Or inspiration. It’s really just going to the clay and making something.”
Williams extends and works her fingers in the air in front of her. “That’s all I have.”
Bonus Links:
People Are Strange: Diane Williams’s ‘Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty’
A Year in Reading: Diane Williams

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Joshua Ferris Writes a Work of Hope


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


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


“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


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.