Searching for Clues: The Millions Interviews Lynne Kaufman


I’ve always been fascinated by intelligent women who subjugate themselves to the egos of their male partners. The now infamous marriage of writer and critic Elizabeth Hardwick to poet Robert Lowell is often interpreted as one such tale of subjugation, a complicated relationship that defies easy explanation.

In her slim, new novel, Divine Madness, Lynne Kaufman explores Hardwick and Lowell’s tumultuous relationship in spare prose. Kaufman is first and foremost an award-winning playwright, and before Divine Madness was a novel, she wrote a play under the same title that was performed on Zoom during the pandemic. “I’ve written dozens of plays, and none of them have tempted me to transform them into novels,” says Kaufman. “Lowell’s and Hardwick’s relationship is so against the tide of feminism, but what pushes against the expected is interesting to me.”

But with his bipolar swings and overspilling emotions, Lowell dominated the stage—or, rather, the screen—while Hardwick remained a secondary and somewhat vaguely outlined character. To remedy the imbalance of the play, Kaufman’s novel adopts Hardwick’s point of view, exploring the myriad motivations that led Hardwick, an extraordinary essayist and cofounder of the New York Review of Books, to stay with Lowell despite his betrayals, infidelities, and volatility.

Kaufman’s novel, unlike her play, leaps two decades into the past, when Hardwick was 33 years old and first became intimate with Lowell at Yaddo, the literary colony. It’s a critical scene, one that seems to provide at least an early explanation for the longevity of their relationship. Their connection is instant: “The talk is far more lasting, varied, and thrilling than the sex,” writes Kaufman, inhabiting Hardwick. “I am in love with his mind. The mind that creates the brilliant poems I devour.”

The rest of their story is told using an episodic structure, reminiscent of Hardwick’s novel, Sleepless Nights. Time is often compressed. The first seven years are presented in one chapter. Then another seven years are compressed in one chapter, and soon they are 40. In some ways, the structure of Divine Madness mirrors Hardwick’s life, which was constantly disrupted by Lowell’s bipolar episodes that required yearly hospitalizations. Yet Kaufman avoids reducing Hardwick to a martyr, or a victim of sexist domination.

Many of Kaufman’s playwriting instincts followed her into the novel. “I don’t like describing things,” she says. “I like brevity, compression, flashes of things. I know what a chair looks like. I don’t care what kind of chair it is. I’m impatient. I’m drawn to incisive, tight writing, writing in which you can’t miss a sentence. It’s how I write my plays.” Yet she doesn’t lean too heavily on dialogue, taking full advantage of her new form to explore Hardwick’s interior monologue—her thoughts, ideas, writing habits, philosophies. Which is to say, the woman beyond the marriage.

To research the play, and later the novel—both of which were written prior to the publication of Cathy Curtis’s biography of Hardwick, A Splendid Intelligence—Kaufman read as many of Hardwick’s essays, short stories, and novels as she could, and often quotes her directly in Divine Madness. And throughout, she attempts to mimic Hardwick’s now iconic voice: “I write an essay for Harpers,” she writes, ventriloquizing Hardwick,
‘The Decline of Book Reviewing,’ creates a great stir. Although the fates of authors and publishers depend on book reviews, no one has thought of reviewing the reviewers. So it’s a first, and I don’t spare any feelings. Not even the august New York Times or Herald Tribune escape my scorn. I call the reading of the Sunday morning book reviews a dismal experience, a mush of concession. Sweet, bland praise. A universal, lobotomized accommodation.
But repeatedly, the book returns to Lowell, or Cal—as in “Caligula, the cruel and deranged Roman emperor,” explains Hardwick’s friend, Mary McCarthy. “Cal for Caliban, the spawn of a monster.” When he meets Caroline Blackwood and doesn’t return to New York, Hardwick understands this is not his usual fling. After seven months of back and forth, she files for divorce. Then a year later, he asks if she wants to see his new collection of poems. She’s heard through the rumor mill that it’s autobiographical, confessional. When The Dolphin is finally published, Hardwick is devastated to see that Lowell has excerpted Hardwick’s letters to him, sometimes even rewriting them for his own purposes.

In the end, after Lowell leaves Blackwood, Hardwick takes him back. How? Why? “What I miss most is married life,” Kaufman’s Hardwick writes. “Having a partner. Having a family. Shared meals. Shared talk. Shared money. Shared space. And having Cal read his poems to me. That I am the first person to hear those thoughts. To feel his eyes fixed on my face, hungrily awaiting my approval.”

Kaufman isn’t done with these two literary figures. She’s working on another play, longer, more complex. “I’m not ready to leave it somehow,” she says. “They are brilliant, complex, conflicted, driven, and ever so human. I keep looking at pictures of Hardwick and Lowell together, searching for clues. I keep reading their letters, listening to their hearts’ revelations. This is very unusual for me.” As she did in her novel, Kaufman, steeped in the world of Lowell and Hardwick, is sure to abide by one of Hardwick’s credos, as she does in this novel: “The great difficulty is making a point, making a difference—with words.”

The Lighter Side of Dan Chaon


With his fourth novel and sixth book, Sleepwalk, Dan Chaon wants to show he can be lighter of heart and not just depressive. Chaon’s work is notably dark (and acclaimed—his books regularly appear on best books lists and have been nominated for many prizes, including the National Book Award). His previous novel, the chilling and bestselling Ill Will, had, he says, “death, and a lot of grief and self-deception, which is why, for Sleepwalk, I wrote about a mercenary who engages in human trafficking!”
With Sleepwalk, Chaon says he was inspired by his biological father, whom he met when he was 30. (Chaon is now 56.) “I was thinking about his voice,” he says. “He was a real character with a distinct way of talking. He had a Big Lebowski accent with some corn pone added, a weird mix that I’d never heard before. We had a complicated relationship, but he was significant in my life.”
In Sleepwalk, Will Bear, the middle-aged protagonist, is living under the radar, microdosing LSD dissolved in vodka as he drives around the country with Flip, a 60-pound pit bull mix, in The Guiding Star, his custom-built motor home. Bear does all sorts of sketchy jobs for a nefarious organization, keeps a bucket of burner phones in the front seat, and operates under several aliases.

Will Bear is classic Chaon: “I have to keep myself clean—that’s one of my main selling points,” he says in the novel. “I don’t officially exist. I don’t have an address or a social security number or a credit rating, I’ve never had an email, or a Facebook page, or a Wi-Fi connected phone. I’m a blank Scrabble piece, and that’s not easy to find these days.”
But Bear also has real empathy. In one particularly sticky situation, Bear “shoots the big one in the forehead and he drops like a horse,” Chaon writes. “The one with the flashlight draws his gun and I shoot him in the arm and then in the eye and he falls too. It saddens me immediately. I wish I could have worked it out differently.”
Everything’s copacetic in Bear’s world, until he relents and finally picks up one of his ringing phones to hear the voice of a young woman claiming he could be her biological father from a long-ago sperm bank donation. The plot gets complicated from there.
“I got into this book and fell in love with the situation and an alternative America that’s not so different from America today,” Chaon says. “Also, Sleepwalk is a driving novel, and I drive a lot. I was constantly looking for details on the road. So there’s personal experience in the book and stuff from the news. I had a dystopian idea in the beginning, and in the end the dystopia caught up with me.”
Chaon grew up in a Nebraska town of 30. “There wasn’t a lot to do,” he says. “I started sending out stories when I was 14. I wrote a lot of letters. I had so much time.” He even wrote a symphony and sent it to the New York Philharmonic.
The letters, it turned out, were a path to his future. One story went to Reginald Gibbons at Northwestern University’s TriQuarterly magazine. Gibbons didn’t want the story, but he suggested Chaon apply to Northwestern (which he did), and they began a correspondence.
Chaon’s other pen pal was Ray Bradbury. They wrote all through Chaon’s high school days. “I actually met him years later at the L.A. Festival of the Book,” he says. “He was the one who encouraged me to send my stories out.”
Chaon’s agent, Renee Zuckerbrot at Massie & McQuilkin, had long admired his work, and when she met him at a festival in Paris he mentioned he might be looking for new representation. She signed him in 2016. “Dan has this universe and keeps adding to it,” she says. “He’s grounded; he always delivers, always meets his deadlines. I wish I could clone him.”
In March 2017 she saw a few paragraphs of Sleepwalk, and at the end of that month she sent out one page of the book with a 25-page submission letter about Chaon, with descriptions of each of his books. “It was a calculated risk,” she says, but it resulted in a two-day “spirited auction” with six bidders.
Ballantine, Chaon’s longtime publisher, participated, but the two-book deal for North American rights and audio went to Holt for what Zuckerbrot says was a very high six figures.
Holt editor Caroline Zancan says, “I’ve been pinching myself at my good fortune.” She became Chaon’s editor in September 2020 (Michael Signorelli was the acquiring editor). “I was there when the auction happened,” she recalls. “Everyone in-house said, ‘Yes, we have to have it.’ ”
Zancan says that Chaon hadn’t finished Sleepwalk when she took it over. “It’s a literary book, but it’s also a page-turner, and I was tearing through it. When I got him on the phone, all I wanted to know was, how does it end? I had to wait four months.” She adds, “Everything we love about Dan’s writing is there, but the book is funny. He’s confronting the evils of our time, but there’s a joy and a lightness. He doesn’t bog you down with them.”
An editor’s job is twofold, Zancan believes: the inward work is to make the book as good as it can be, and the outward work is to get it into as many hands as possible to make it a success. “I’ve been overjoyed at the response,” she says. “His fans are everywhere. I’m getting blurbs right after I ask for them, which isn’t always the case.”
The take on Chaon is that his warmth and accessibility come through in his writing. As Zuckerbrot says, “He’s the real deal.” Not so far off from Will Bear—minus the murder and mayhem.

This post was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Ada Limón and the Poetry of Rebellion


Ada Limón was always going to be an artist. “I love the idea of making things, creating things, performing things,” she says via Zoom from her home in Lexington, Ky., where she’s lived for the past decade with her husband, Lucas Marquardt, a horse racing reporter. Her office’s door is closed until the relentless pawing of their ancient cat (“I think we’ve figured out she’s 21”) forces her to hop up and let the animal in. “My undergraduate degree is in drama, and for a long time, I thought that my career would either be on the stage or behind the stage, in some way. I was also a dance minor. I was very much the person who was into all the performing arts. It wasn’t until my junior year, when I was not allowed to take any more performing arts electives, because I had taken them all, that I took my first poetry class. And from the minute I took it, I was like, I’m in love with this. This is exactly what I wanted to do.”
That class was providence, as Limón, 46, is now one of America’s preeminent poets, and her prominence is only growing—as is her prolificacy. Last September, Milkweed Editions, Limón’s longtime publisher, announced a three-book deal with her brokered by Rob McQuilkin at Massie & McQuilkin. The titles acquired include Beast: An Anthology of Animal Poems, which Limón will edit, and which is set to be released in 2024; a volume of new and selected poems due in 2025; and The Hurting Kind, her latest, which will hit shelves in May.

Previously, Limón had published five collections, the last three of them with Milkweed. Two of those titles attracted the attention of nearly all of the country’s major literary awards bodies. In 2015, her collection Bright Dead Things was a finalist for the National Book Award for poetry, while her following book, The Carrying, won the 2018 National Book Critics Circle Award and was shortlisted for the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award in 2019. Both of those books received widespread acclaim. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called The Carrying “gorgeous, thought-provoking,” and a “fearless collection.” And last year, Limón was tapped to host The Slowdown podcast, a collaboration between American Public Media and the Poetry Foundation, for its third season, succeeding U.S. poet laureate Tracy K. Smith.
It’s not just the artistic establishment that has embraced Limón’s work. The two aforementioned collections have sold more than 55,000 print copies combined, according to NPD BookScan—a remarkable feat in a literary form long considered a commercial black hole. Perhaps Limón herself would ascribe her books’ success to a resurgence in appreciation for the form. “For all its faults, I think that social media has actually done one wonderful thing for poetry…and in many, many ways allow for poetry to become completely accessible to anyone,” she told CNN last October. “It is an amazing time to be alive in the world of poetry.”
But Daniel Slager, Limón’s editor and Milkweed’s publisher and CEO, sees Limón’s success as an extension of her particular gift. “In the poetry world, the whole notion of being approachable or readable can be a curse,” he says, “because it’s often thought to be antithetical to sophistication artistically—a stupid dichotomy, really, although at times there’s something to it. But she just transcends that, in such a beautiful way, with so much integrity. Poets’ poets love her, and people who don’t read that much poetry love her. I think that’s so remarkable.” Also remarkable, Slager notes, is that her next book is, to his mind, her best yet: “It’s not that common for writers that each book is better, but that’s been the case with Ada.”
The Hurting Kind exhibits all of the lyrical and thematic hallmarks of Limón’s poetry: deft narrative, elegant poetic structure, and attunement with and appreciation for the natural world. The book is separated into four sections, each named after one of the seasons of the year, and showcases its author’s deep understanding and questioning both of the nature of human interconnectedness, and of loss. Still, the book represents, in some sense, a break from Limón’s prior work—or at least the narrative around it.
“One of the things that happened with The Carrying, which is totally understandable, was that it had a lot of narrative around it—it had a tagline,” Limón says. While that book dealt plainly with her struggles with vertigo and with conceiving a child, she did not think that the pain those poems conveyed would dominate its critical reception so decidedly. “‘A woman struggling with infertility’—every review started with that,” she recalls. “I think that part of the joy of making this book was finding out what it is to push against some of that, to write with a kind of abandon, without pinpointing a specific narrative of a life that can be summed up.”
In that light, The Hurting Kind’s first poem, “Give Me This,” could be seen almost as a mission statement. Her recent work, she explains, is “urgently set on speaking from the me that is both the speaker and the author.” “Give Me This” does just that, with the speaker describing an experience of Limón’s watching a groundhog “waddle-thieving my tomatoes still/ green in the morning’s shade” and “taking such pleasure in the watery bites.” The poem asks, “Why am I not allowed delight?”—a question likely relatable to anyone reading poetry in a world enduring a global pandemic and facing heightened global strife and an ever-worsening climate disaster.
McQuilkin, Limón’s agent, found that sentiment particularly powerful when he first read the collection, in spring 2021. “I remember getting very excited about what role the book could play out there, in these times, that are in so many ways bleak,” he says. “Somehow, things feel a little less bleak when you’re reading Ada, because she finds the contours of what is real, and beautiful, even when things are not perfect or complete.”
In the end, the speaker of “Give Me This” allows herself that delight, becoming one, in a way, with the intruding rodent:

I watch the groundhog more closely and a sound escapes
me, a small spasm of joy I did not imagine
when I woke. She is a funny creature and earnest,
and she is doing what she can to survive.

The poem is “a little, tiny rebellion,” Limón explains. “It’s like, ‘I’m gonna watch this freakin’ groundhog and I’m not going to tell you my thoughts on suffering’—even though, of course, this book is full of joy and grief both, and life.”
It is a rebellion, too, against lyric poetry’s more lachrymose tendencies, which Limón admits are easy to lean into. “I always tell my students that one of the hardest poems to write is a happy poem,” she says. “Try to write a contented poem and see what happens. It’s really, really hard! But what is it to represent life as a whole thing, as opposed to an easy or fixed narrative?”
The book’s rebellions are multifold. Another is in its poems of family. “I remember sitting with some older poets in the summer of 2001, and they were telling me that I couldn’t write all these family poems—that I couldn’t have grandmother poems, and I couldn’t have grandfather poems, and brother poems,” Limón says. “‘It’s too juvenile,’ they said. ‘It’s too tender.’ So I denied myself that, because I was told that that wasn’t what you were supposed to do. But so much of who I am, as a person, is in honor and in service of my relationships. And with this book, I was like, You know what? I’m 45, and I get to write whatever poems I want. And what I want to write are poems that say the word grandmother 1,000 times.”
Here, they practically do. One section of the book’s title poem concludes: “…my grandmother,/ (yes, I said it, grandmother, grandmother) leans to me and says,/ ‘Now teach me poetry.’”

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Welcome to the Future: On Jennifer Egan’s ‘The Candy House’


“I knew in Goon Squad that Bix would invent social media,” Jennifer Egan says of her character Bix Bouton, who returns from her Pulitzer Prize–winning A Visit from the Goon Squad to take up a central role in her new novel, The Candy House, coming April 5 from Scribner. “When I know something the reader doesn’t know, I know there’s a future story,” she tells me.
The Candy House begins in 2010 with Bix wandering the New York City streets, afraid he will never have a new idea, when he sees a flyer on a lamppost about a discussion group in an apartment near Columbia University following a lecture by anthropologist Miranda Kline. It was Kline’s theories of algorithms explaining trust and influence among members of a Brazilian tribe that Bix adapted to become a very rich and famous tech mogul.
At the meeting, he hears about a scientific experiment to externalize animal consciousness, and 10 years later, Bix has created Own Your Unconscious, a technology that allows users to access the memories of others if they’re willing to share their own. This innovation that develops into a major movement has its detractors, and soon countermovements arise: the “eluders,” who advocate privacy, and the “proxies,” who impersonate them.
Egan presents a group of characters whose lives intersect over generations and tells their stories in a grab bag of forms and styles: letters, tweets, texts, emails. The chapter “Lulu the Spy, 2032” (tweaked from Egan’s story “Black Box,” released in 2012 in a series of tweets and then published in The New Yorker) is a list of mental images: “A woman holding a thrashing baby in one arm may have trouble aiming a firearm with the other.” And, “If you’re lucky, this will buy you time to flee the house.”
Lulu is a character who appeared in Goon Squad as a child; in Candy House she is in her 20s on an espionage mission in the year 2032, somewhere in the Mediterranean.
The sheer imagination, adventure, and majesty of Egan’s writing is impossible to quantify. Quantifying human experience is what Egan says she is circling in Candy House. “We can quantify human experience but where does individuality fit in?” she asks. “We are predictable creatures, yet there’s a marvelous unknowability about us. For all this information, we can’t accurately predict anything. Events still take us by surprise. The paradox is that we know everything.”
Egan admits that, for a couple of years after Goon Squad, which was published by Knopf in 2010, she didn’t write. “I saw the success of Goon Squad as a window of opportunity,” she says, “that was unlikely to happen again.” (It was unlikely to not happen again, I say to myself.) She adds that she decided, “My job now is to ride the wave.”

In 2012, Egan was working simultaneously on Manhattan Beach and Candy House. “I had two rough drafts, writing five pages every day, just writing unconsciously,” she says. “When I realized I had to focus, I chose Manhattan Beach.”
She got back to Candy House in 2017. “I was gathering ideas, making lists,” she says, “trying to draw borders around a certain set of ideas. Why not an epistolary chapter? And I was still interested in the people in Goon Squad.” The big conundrum, she recalls, was, “I didn’t want this to be another Goon Squad. I had to tell a different story in a different way so it would feel like more rather than less.”
Egan thought that if she “couldn’t meet her objective,” she would just write a short piece, but she “began to feel a bigger story,” she says. “What we invent is so extraordinary. We dream literary creations, transform them into symbolic texts. To me that’s what fiction writing is.”
“Fiction” she continues, “is a collective dream life of the culture that makes it. It gives us what nothing else can. My job is to turn raw material into literature. I like to take characters from the natural world and stylize them, like Lulu, to turn the natural world into stylized storytelling.”
After Manhattan Beach, Egan worked exclusively on Candy House, handing in the manuscript in fall 2020. “I use a lot of readers,” she says. (Candy House is dedicated to her writing group.) “I don’t trust myself enough; I like the rigor of the feedback. It forces me to push to do the very best I can.”
Egan says she is surprised at how optimistic Candy House reads. “The fate of the characters from Good Squad—they didn’t turn out so bad. There’s a terror of where we are going, but I ended up writing a book that reminded me of how ingenious humans are. We can do it. Look how fast we came up with a Covid vaccine. Human beings can pull off a lot. The question is, will we?”
Scribner publisher Nan Graham, who became Egan’s editor with Manhattan Beach, concurs: “On top of imagining a frightening future, her characters have such love; between parents and children, brothers and sisters, spouses. It makes you feel equipped to face the future,” Graham says. “There’s a solace in this book. She humanizes the terror of the future so you can bear it. She’s dazzlingly intellectual in terms of imagination and she’s also empathic.”
Graham unabashedly calls Egan “a genius” and “a noble citizen of the literary world,” noting, “We often equate experimental with difficult, but this book is 100 precent accessible. Jenny pushes the forms of fiction, but ultimately she’s a storyteller.”

Graham has known Egan for more than 30 years. “We have very close friends in common,” she says, adding that when Egan and Siddhartha Mukherjee (The Emperor of All Maladies) both won Pulitzers in 2011, they were “twinned” at many award events. “They even had a joint party that spring,” Graham tells me. “There was a real bonding of the three of us.”
ICM Partners literary agent Amanda “Binky” Urban moved Egan to Scribner with Manhattan Beach in a 2012 two-book deal for North American rights. There was no auction. “We knew about this second book,” Graham says. “Jennifer called it a ‘sibling book’ to Goon Squad. Minor characters in Goon Squad moved center stage; main characters became peripheral.”
“She’s at the top of her game,” Graham says. “She believes in the intelligence of the reader. She challenges you, but engages you. And the book is funny—laugh out loud in places.”
Graham wraps up our conversation with a threat: “You’d better have me saying an intelligent quote about this book,” she says, adding, “Jenny is one of the three most important writers of our time.”
Who are the other two? I want to know. But Nan’s not telling.
Bonus Links:
Novelist-of-the-Future: A Profile of Jennifer Egan
Ah, The Children: Jennifer Egan’s ‘A Visit From the Goon Squad’
A Year in Reading 2011: Jennifer Egan
A Year in Reading 2009: Jennifer Egan

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Lan Samantha Chang Channels Dostoyevsky in Her Latest Novel


Lan Samantha Chang, director of the prestigious University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, is an avid knitter. “I can’t stop knitting—I think it must be part of my creative process, just moving my hands,” the 56-year-old says over Zoom from Berlin, where she’s finishing a fellowship at the American Academy.
In fact, while working on her latest novel, The Family Chao, which took 12 years, Chang says she “knitted at least a hundred small items.” She adds, “I also folded hours and hours of origami. I took lots of walks. I think better when I’m not sitting still. These activities helped me to incubate the complete change in style, voice, and form that went into The Family Chao.”
In the novel, Leo, the Chao family patriarch and owner of a decades-old Chinese restaurant in the mostly white community of Haven, Wis., is found dead, and his three sons are confronted with their varying roles in what turns out to be his murder. For Chang, it all began with the characters: “a family in the Midwest with a troubled parental relationship… I don’t know how to describe the father character in my book—a larger-than-life sort of tyrannical patriarch who was somewhat funny.”
At the same time, in the back of Chang’s mind was Dostoyevsky. A student she’d taught at Harvard had inspired her to look at The Brothers Karamazov again. (She’d attempted to read it in high school and failed.) “I was just blown away,” she says. “There are so many things about Dostoyevsky that go out of the box in terms of what people like to think of as crafted writing today. It was a huge pleasure to encounter characters who spent pages and pages on raving monologues, characters who used a lot of exclamation points, characters who were barely able to keep their anxiety or their shame or whatever issues they had under control, characters who were engaging in page after page of fights with each other. And then to add on top of that a patricide and a trial, and this kind of wonderful sort of upside-down feeling that the book takes you into—it just was such a work of audacity and brilliance.”
Chang’s project became clear: to undertake an homage to The Brothers Karamazov, weaving in her own experiences as a second-generation Chinese American, as well as questions of what assimilation, and being an immigrant, truly mean after living in a place long enough to have ghosts there. Each of the three sons struggles to confront the truth about what happened to his father, and one of them becomes a public scapegoat; at the trial that ensues, they and other members of their tight-knit Chinese American community are faced with a new sense of how they are viewed by their white neighbors and, more broadly, by the country where they have lived for so long.
“I do think that some of these characters sort of learn to understand themselves better within the context of the world they live in during the course of the novel,” Chang says. “And part of growing up for them is to see these things, accept them, and continue to live a life here in this country.”
The Family Chao is Chang’s fourth book and third novel. Her first novel was 2004’s Inheritance, in which two Chinese sisters who’ve promised never to leave each other are torn apart by the Japanese invasion of China during World War II. It was followed by 2010’s All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost, about two poets at a renowned writing school and the price of ambition.
Throughout her career, Chang says, she’s juggled writing with teaching (and everything else), “digging out time to go off and focus on a book, where I could spend a whole day just thinking about it.” When discouraged, she adds, “I would have to think, ‘Come on, Sam, what would you tell one of your students at this moment?’ Either let it sit for a while and come back to it or keep going, or get to the end first and then see what you have.”
With The Family Chao, she not only channeled Dostoyevsky but also tapped into certain internalized beliefs, surprising even herself: “There were people, teachers, who have really strict ideas about what they think fiction should be like and what is ‘good,’ and a lot of these rules don’t really apply once you start to leave a certain realm of realism,” she says. “I had to be flexible with rules that I learned as a writer in order to finish this, and I’m okay with it. Actually, I think it was so much fun that I’m sort of loathe to go back to them.”
Chang is the first woman, and the first Asian American, to hold the position of director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. All students now receive full tuition and a stipend, which had been one of her goals when she started at the program in 2006. There’s also far more diversity: “Aesthetically, the work that people are doing is more diverse, and the people themselves are more culturally diverse and racially diverse,” she says. “We’re trying to create a space where writing is at the heart of things—not people’s particular level of fame, writing career progress, et cetera—because it all comes from the writing itself, the work. We’re trying to give people a time in their lives where they don’t have to think about these other things, ideally.”
But teaching isn’t the only thing that has kept Chang away from her writing of late. While the ideas for The Family Chao were gestating, she had a child. “I have never been a very fast writer, so it was a challenge,” she admits.
Here, perhaps, the teacher in Chang comes out, as she takes a moment to ponder her process, and the result. “I think that finishing the book with my schedule being as it is, is probably the major accomplishment of my middle age,” she says. “Also, I enjoy the book. I like the book, you know? So that I’m happy about.”

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

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.