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“It’s important for me to transgress. It’s important for me to be subversive,” says novelist, essayist and professor Sonora Jha (How to Raise a Feminist Son) during a video call to her home in Seattle, Washington. “For those of us on the margins, I think having our agency and transgressing like crazy will better everything.” 

The Laughter is subversive in its approach, form and content. As an authentic and nuanced character study, it demands that readers grapple with issues of race, sexuality, power, tradition and academia. It carefully and systematically explores how conflicts over privilege and control are enacted on our minds and bodies.

The story centers on Oliver Harding, a middle-aged white male English professor at a liberal arts college in Seattle. Oliver is a decorated academic whose personal and professional identity is wrapped up in the focus of his research, the early 20th-century British writer G.K. Chesterton. Divorced from his wife, his relationship with his daughter strained, Oliver turns his focus on Ruhaba Khan, a Muslim law professor at the university. Ruhaba is dealing with the reality of being a woman of color on a predominately white campus while building a relationship with Adil Alam, her nephew who recently emigrated from France after getting into some trouble.

Read our starred review of The Laughter.

Both Oliver and Ruhaba find themselves caught up in social upheaval on campus, as a multicultural student movement demanding progressive transformations draws ire of aging white faculty. This mixture of personal and political turmoil makes for a contemplative yet thrilling and ultimately devastating read.

While certainly a work of fiction, The Laughter pulls from Jha’s journalistic background, her experiences as a faculty member at Seattle University and her life as an American immigrant. (She grew up in Mumbai, India.) The seeds of the book were planted in 2016, after Jha learned that French towns were beginning to ban burkinis, swimwear that covers both the head and body to align with Muslim values. The bans appeared after a terrorist attack in Nice and reflected forced Muslim assimilation into French secular culture. This attempt to regulate Muslim identity prompted her to consider the visceral impact of both anti-Muslim conditioning and cultural marginalization in general, both central themes in The Laughter. “I definitely wanted to build a story around them. And I kept visualizing this image of this boy watching his mother being asked to take off her hijab,” she says. 

Book jacket image for The Laughter by Sonora Jha

Jha explains that Oliver is the type of man who obsessively fights for control, both in his personal life and in society at large. He’s seemingly at odds with himself, and due to his own personal failings, he lives a lonely life. Despite this, he exhibits an intense sense of entitlement and a need for authority over both Ruhaba and the on-campus protests.

Men like Oliver, says Jha, “are all around us. They’re in academia. They’re our friends. I have felt that sense of control [from them], especially the moments in which they feel like they are losing that control or handing it over to someone else. This happens even if they were encouraging you all along. I’ve had experiences where mentors of mine, when I finally came into my power, were like, ‘Wait, you’re supposed to be grateful. You’re supposed to take up just enough space as I give to you.’ . . . It’s almost like they will mentor you and give you just enough, but they want to still be in charge.”

“It was creepy that this voice already existed and is the literary voice in my imagination.”

A reader could wonder how Jha, a woman of Indian descent, was able to provide such a richly authentic first-person portrayal of a privileged middle-aged white man. She notes that she first attempted to write the novel in third person, but almost in an instinctive way, the first-person voice began to take over her writing. She believes that it emerged, forcefully, out of a lifetime of engaging with Western literature. 

“This white male voice is so dominant in my imagination because this is who we read when I was growing up in India,” she says. “It was creepy that this voice already existed and is the literary voice in my imagination.” To further capture the voice, she immersed herself in the white male literary canon. “As the rest of the world was starting to read more women of color, I was reading the likes of John Updike and Saul Bellow,” she quips. 

From Oliver’s perspective, we witness his insidious exoticization, shown most prominently through his sexual attraction to Ruhaba and his suspicions of Adil. Oliver fixes his sexual gaze on the parts of Ruhaba’s appearance that are nonwhite; he has both a figurative and literal fetish for her Indian-ness. At the same time, he responds to her nonphysical differences with confusion and disgust. Similarly, Oliver perceives Adil’s identity as a dangerous “otherness” that needs to be surveilled, tested and controlled. 

Jha explains that this two-faced response is a common conflict that immigrants face in their interpersonal relationships. “You have to be exotic enough for me to fetishize you, but not so much that it’s a whole other thing that I have to deal with,” she says. “I will provide for you, and I will protect you from your own kind who are not good for you, but to be in my protection, you have to be a little bit more like me.”

 “That’s the part of me that is maybe reflected in Ruhaba, that I exist on the fringes of every sense of community.”

Despite Oliver’s control over the narrative, Ruhaba emerges as a deeply complicated character full of internal conflicts. As a Muslim immigrant woman, she exhibits a seemingly naive hope about the possibilities of American life that’s at odds with the fetishizing, distrust and exclusion that is enacted upon her. She also wears a hijab despite her complicated feelings about her Muslim heritage.

Sonora Jha headshot, credit Josiane Faubert
Author Sonora Jha

“For immigrant women, I think there’s the excitement of coming to a place that promises all kinds of freedoms, but there’s also the pressure to conform to a certain sort of cultural performance, because we need community,” Jha says. “That’s the part of me that is maybe reflected in Ruhaba, that I exist on the fringes of every sense of community. We crave belonging and community, but we don’t want it to be prescribed for us. So Ruhaba’s relationship with the hijab is a way to control her own appearance and her own relationships with people, on campus or otherwise.”

Adil is also a beautifully crafted character who exhibits a level of complexity that we rarely see in depictions of young men of color. A teenage boy who is as sensitive as he is intelligent, Adil is willing to be open about his hopes and his fears. At the same time, his urge to protect is what upends his life on multiple occasions. In the spirit of How to Raise a Feminist Son, Jha uses Adil’s character to explore and challenge constructions of masculinity. “When can we tell our boys that you don’t have to connect with this toxic masculinity of protector and provider?” Jha asks. “I wanted Adil to have that tenderness, and even a refusal of that kind of masculinity.” 

“When can we tell our boys that you don’t have to connect with this toxic masculinity of protector and provider?”

The college campus is very much a character in the novel as well. It is a force with its own nuances and actions, and competing groups of social actors seek to harness this energy to execute their own visions of the future. Political dialogue is often reduced to simply right versus left, but Jha’s depiction of campus life complicates this, showing how political conflicts are often rooted in issues of power and privilege. Innovative graduate students are attempting to transform the campus into a more inclusive and progressive space. Meanwhile, white middle-aged tenured professors, who once considered themselves progressive, are actively resisting this change. This results in a series of microaggressions and racist commentaries that undermine the college’s purported liberalism.

“I think what’s happening with white folks in academia is a sense of displacement, the worry that fun can be had without them, that there’s a lot of brilliance that is ‘not of my kind,’” Jha says. “BIPOC folks and other folks are redefining culture. So we keep hearing these white academics say, ‘We worked hard’ or ‘There are more restrictions for us’ or ‘We played by the rules,’ because any kind of displacement is going to cause discomfort, even in the life of the mind.”

“Decenter the white male narrative and the white imagination on our campuses, and it can only enrich things and make us more comfortable.”

Despite the rampant personal and political turmoil, The Laughter is not a nihilistic story, due to a throughline of hope from the student body. They channel a transformative energy. “I advise the newspaper on my campus, and the kids truly believe in something, and they truly care about change,” Jha says. The novel’s students display unapologetic ideological independence and an unflinching courage to stand up for themselves, which means sometimes standing against faculty and administration. 

To BIPOC people working in academia and other white-dominated spaces, Jha offers a sharp final word of advice: “Find your own people and have your own agency, and let’s see what [we] do,” she says. “Decenter the white male narrative and the white imagination on our campuses, and it can only enrich things and make us more comfortable.”

Photos of Sonora Jha by Josiane Faubert.

The author of How to Raise a Feminist Son sharpens the campus obsession novel into a brilliant indictment of exoticization.
Sonora Jha headshot, credit Josiane Faubert

In A Flag for Juneteenth, Kim Taylor tells the story of Huldah, a Black girl who lives with her enslaved family on a plantation in Texas. It’s June 1865, and tomorrow is Huldah’s 10th birthday—but it’s also the day that Huldah will witness the historic reading of the proclamation that President Abraham Lincoln has freed all enslaved people. A self-taught textile artist, Taylor’s illustrations for the book are exquisitely detailed quilts that fill the story with a spirit of joy and freedom.

Tell us about Huldah and what’s happening in her life at the beginning of your book.
Huldah is a mature, curious, insightful little girl. She has the very grown-up responsibility of caring for her baby sister while her parents work on the plantation. We meet Huldah the day before her 10th birthday, which falls on a Sunday. Sundays during this time were a day for rest and reconnecting with family and community. Huldah’s mom baked Huldah’s favorite, tea cakes, for her upcoming birthday, a luxury she may not have had time for during the week.

What did you research to write this book?
I devoured everything I could read about Juneteenth, but that was only the beginning! I was curious about what life was like for enslaved people when they were not working and how they connected with their immediate and extended families. I was very interested in understanding how they built a sense of community despite such oppressive circumstances. 

I Googled, listened to podcasts and read books about that time. I also looked at pictures of enslaved people, which helped me to imagine their personalities and lives. One picture of a little girl that I found on the Library of Congress website seemed to embody the spirit of my Huldah, and I kept her image in mind as I developed the character.

Many of the characters’ names in the story are symbolic. Will you tell us about some of these names and what they represent?
I wanted my main character’s name to be unusual, a name that would be new to my readers. I envisioned this character to be a prophet, one who could bear witness to the announcement of the end of slavery as a legal institution and could also foretell of a future free of bondage. I Googled biblical female prophets and an image of a beautiful Black woman appeared on my screen. Her name was Huldah. As soon as I saw her, I knew that this would be the name of my main character. 

“I remember telling a friend that I felt as though Huldah had become like a daughter to me. I felt a deep connection to her character.”

Eve, the name of Huldah’s baby sister, is also biblical. It is derived from a Hebrew word meaning “to breathe” or “to live.” In my story, Eve is an infant. She will have the opportunity to live her life without the legal burden of enslavement. 

One other character in my story has a name. Mr. Menard is the oldest man on the plantation. He has the last name of Michel B. Menard, the founder of Galveston, Texas, where my story takes place. I thought that it was important to demonstrate that enslaved people were often given the last names of their enslavers to erase any connection to their own family lineage.  

You’ve said that each of your quilts feels as though it is created “through [you], rather than by [you]” and that you feel a “deep connection with [your] ancestors during the creative process.” What was the journey of writing this book and creating its quilted illustrations like for you?
I felt that I was being guided in some way while writing and creating the illustrations for this book. I saved the pictures that I discovered during my research and looked at them often when writing, trying to connect in some way. 

I fell in love with Huldah very early on. Because the people in this book have no faces, I had to figure out how to give Huldah depth and to showcase her personality in other ways. I also needed to make her consistent and recognizable in every illustration. That is no easy task when working with fabric on such a small scale! I remember telling a friend that I felt as though Huldah had become like a daughter to me. I felt a deep connection to her character. 

The illustrations took a little over a year to create. It was an enormous undertaking and very emotional. When I was finished with all of the illustrations, I was amazed that I had actually achieved it! I don’t think that I could have done it if I did not know on some level that my ancestors were watching over me and guiding me throughout this journey.

Tell us about your quilting journey and how you began to make story quilts.
When I was young, I loved to color, paint and lose myself in arts and crafts projects. I liked to make clothes for my dolls using my mother’s scarves. When I was about 8 or 9 years old, I discovered my mother’s Singer sewing machine, and I wanted to learn to use it. My mom didn’t sew but encouraged me to try it out. I taught myself how to work it and began trying to make clothes for my dolls. Throughout my childhood, I used art as a vehicle to relax or to create something that I needed, such as pillows or simple paintings for a new apartment. 

“I love exploring different colors and texture combinations when I am just beginning a new quilt. There are so many different possibilities!”

It wasn’t until I discovered story quilting that I began to use art as a vehicle to process deep emotion. When Barack Obama was elected to be our 44th president, I had feelings that I found difficult to verbally express. I wanted to create something to mark the historic event but felt it important to use an art form that had some connection to my ancestors. I thought about my West African ancestors and how women there are master weavers and textile artists. I thought about enslaved African and African American women and how they used quilting not only to keep their families warm but also to tell stories about family memories and ancestral history. I decided to try my hand at this art form and fell in love immediately. 

How has your artistic process changed or evolved since you began quilting?
At the beginning of my journey, I worried about making mistakes but quickly came to the realization that art quilting is very forgiving. Many things that I saw as mistakes enhanced my pieces and made them more visually interesting. 

I decided early on that I would teach myself something new for each quilt. I researched techniques online and bought many books about art quilting to help me to learn the basics. I have become a better artist over the years because of this decision. I am more mindful now about fabric color and texture and how they work together to set the mood of a piece. It’s all been trial and error though. I did not go to art school, so it’s been a wondrous learning journey!

What is your favorite part of the process of creating a quilt?
I love exploring different colors and texture combinations when I am just beginning a new quilt. There are so many different possibilities! There is no need to commit to anything in that early planning stage because nothing is sewn down yet. I am free to move fabrics around and discover what feels right for that unique piece.

“I felt it was critical to highlight the beauty and resilience of African and African American people during their enslavement, as well as to showcase the importance of strong family and community ties.”

I would love to hear about how you composed these illustrations. How did you choose the fabrics? Do any of them have special significance?
When planning the illustrations, I tried to keep the text in mind and made decisions about what aspects needed to be enhanced. For example, the first page describes tea cakes, a traditional cookie that enslaved people made using simple pantry ingredients. I thought it was important to help readers visualize a tea cake, so I set out to create them using one of the brown fabrics from my stash that had some color variations. Tea cakes were not fancy, but they were delicious and smelled amazing, so I used hand-embroidered lettering to show the movement of the scent wafting through the air. Embroidery was the new thing I taught myself for this project. 

I chose fabrics that I felt would have matched the period. Nothing flashy or too modern. I did want to depict a difference in how my characters were dressed before and after the announcement about freedom. Some of the clothing was inspired by my love of African fabric and styles. 

What is your favorite illustration in the book?
I love them all for one reason or another, but my favorite is the illustration of Huldah high up in her favorite tree, catching a sunbeam. It is such a visually stunning illustration. I love how big the sun is in comparison to Huldah. She bravely faces the sun head-on, taking some of its strength and wisdom back home with her in her little jar. In my imagination, the sun represents life and freedom, and that jar is her heart. I fell in love with nature at a very young age, camping every summer in New York’s Bear Mountain and the Catskills. Nature always felt so big to me, yet I was never overwhelmed by it. Instead, I always felt at home and peaceful, just like Huldah.

What aspect of A Flag for Juneteenth are you most proud of?
I am very proud to tell the story of Juneteenth in a way that I hope will encourage children to want to learn more about this historic event. I felt it was critical to highlight the beauty and resilience of African and African American people during their enslavement, as well as to showcase the importance of strong family and community ties. I am also incredibly proud to have illustrated this book with an art form that was used by my ancestors to tell their own stories.

Read our starred review of Kim Taylor’s ‘A Flag for Juneteenth.’

Photo of Kim Taylor courtesy of Erskine Isaac for Ivisionphoto.

The author-illustrator of A Flag for Juneteenth, a picture book illustrated with quilted artwork, describes feeling guided by her ancestors as she created her extraordinary first book.

When Tessa Bailey’s Bellinger Sisters (It Happened One Summer and Hook, Line, and Sinker) duology went megaviral on TikTok, readers everywhere learned what romance fans had known for years: If you want rom-com hijinks and a high heat level, there is no one better than Bailey. Her latest book, Secretly Yours, is a steamy opposites-attract love story that will only increase her legion of admirers.

Secretly Yours is the start to a new duology, A Vine Mess. Can you tell us a little bit about this new book and the overall setting for the series?
The setting is Napa! After writing a series in the misty Pacific Northwest, I was in the mood for a sun-drenched vineyard. In this duology, we’re going to find love for the Vos siblings; they are heirs to a vineyard that is influential and respected but has perhaps seen better days. Julian Vos, a regimented history professor, is my first victim in Secretly Yours. He begins receiving mysterious love letters at the same exact time that he begins falling for his gardener, Hallie, a free spirit who flouts convention and comes with a trio of slobbery dogs. Julian is fiercely attracted to Hallie. Even though he is positive they could never work as a couple, he can’t stop fabricating reasons to see her. 

Since wine and vineyards feature prominently, did you do any research on winemaking or vineyard upkeep?
Yes, I drank a lot of wine as my main form of research and found it very educational. I also watched a lot of documentaries on winemaking. The process is a lot more complicated than I could have imagined. There is no set method or recipe for wine. It is a constantly evolving art form, especially with new technology. If I learned anything from the eight documentaries I binged, it’s that grapes are extremely temperamental, vintners are more like scientists and I just want to drink the wine. There are a lot of great vineyards within driving distance of where I live on Long Island, New York, and they served as inspiration for my Napa setting.  

“I drank a lot of wine as my main form of research and found it very educational.”

Hallie and Julian are total opposites in a grumpy-meets-sunshine sort of way: Hallie is bubbly and upbeat, while Julian is more on the stuffy side. What do you enjoy about writing an opposites-attract romance? Do you have an ultimate favorite trope to write?
I cannot seem to quit opposites-attract romances. There is something very satisfying about two extremely different personality types finding common ground. There are so many opportunities for them to teach each other new perspectives on everyday life and really unlock something momentous in each other. For instance, in Secretly Yours, Hallie has an organic, unplanned approach to flower placement. Julian wants rows and structure, but when he sees Hallie’s finished product, he acknowledges that the lack of structure is what makes the garden beautiful and interesting.

My favorite trope to write is enemies to lovers, but the storyline must be very specific for me to fall in love enough to write a book of that nature. It’s important to me that, while the hero might be an “enemy” at first, he actually has a soft, Tootsie Roll center when it comes to the heroine. 

At times, Julian and Hallie’s diverging personalities create conflict between them. How did you balance making these two people so different while still giving them a workable path toward happily ever after?
I really think it goes back to perspective. Julian has this rigid, almost unrealistic schedule. Every moment of the day is accounted for. Due to some past trauma, he believes the careful life balance he has created in order to preserve his mental health will collapse if he doesn’t adhere to his strict daily plans. But he learns through observing Hallie (and constantly having his schedule interrupted by her and the pooches) that everything doesn’t collapse if his plans get derailed.

On the opposite end, Hallie learns that a little structure won’t kill her. It’s really rewarding to take characters on a journey that allows them to see the world differently and learn something about their own resilience. 

Book jacket image for Secretly Yours by Tessa Bailey

Why did you decide to have Julian receive physical love letters rather than “wrong number” texts or anonymous social media messages?
I took the old-school route because physical letters are more classically romantic and felt more appropriate for this particular series. Letters are a Big Gesture. They would be more of a surprise to receive than a direct message on social media, and have a little more gravity to them. If someone took the time to write words on actual paper and send them to me, in my opinion, those words would carry a lot of weight. 

While Secretly Yours has funny moments and great banter, Julian and Hallie are also dealing with serious things. Julian has anxiety and experiences panic attacks, while Hallie is grieving the death of her grandmother. How do you keep a romance from feeling too light or too dark?
This is the challenge going into a modern romantic comedy. Readers expect there to be high stakes on the road to happily ever after. We don’t need the path to be easy, simply because the book has humorous situations or a humorous tone. A lot of us deal with the heavier aspects of life by laughing or creating levity. So that is my balancing act—making sure there is depth to the characters and their struggles, while also making sure the champagne bubble, fizzy feeling of romance is on the page. I can usually feel when I need a more poignant scene or if the story needs a break from carrying a heavy emotional load. It’s just a sixth sense. Time for a food fight!

For those who may be picking up a Tessa Bailey book for the first time, what can they expect? What’s the recipe for a Bailey romance? 
Heat, humor and heart. In one of my books, a reader can expect lovable, relatable characters who are usually at a transition point in their lives—such a coincidence that they happen to meet their love interest at the same time! Expect to laugh and potentially even get a little misty during the quieter moments. Perhaps most notably, expect open-door love scenes. Like, way the heck open. 

Read our review of ‘Secretly Yours’ by Tessa Bailey.

As someone who has read many a Bailey romance, I know things can get pretty steamy. Where would you rate this one on a scale of 1 to 10?
I usually put my books around a 7, but it’s all a matter of perspective. Some will say 10! Others will say 5. A lot of readers lately come to my books having been fooled by the cute, illustrated cover into expecting a closed-door rom-com, but there will always, always be ample steam in my books. I love experiencing the more intimate moments with my characters and putting them in those vulnerable scenes on the page. Their walls come down and they connect on a physical level . . . and afterward, something usually goes wrong. Like one of them gets a job offer in Milwaukee. Mwahaha. Romance writers are evil at their cores. 

What can we expect in book two, Unfortunately Yours? Who will be the main couple?
In the second book of the Vine Mess duet, we get Natalie Vos and August Cates’ love story. This book owns a massive chunk of my heart—there was just some extra magic sprinkled into it. I can now say definitively that I’ve written my favorite hero of all time. It’s enemies to lovers, marriage of convenience and forced proximity. All the banter. A prank war. And a pesky cat. We meet Natalie and August in Secretly Yours, so I hope readers will be excited for their book.

What have you been reading lately? What books should readers have on their radar?
The last book I read was Before I Let Go by Kennedy Ryan, and it blew me away. It’s a second-chance romance between a divorced couple. They have older kids and a business together, so there are a lot of fraught interactions and high stakes. It’s mature and riveting and feels oh, so real. The tension, emotional and sexual, is top-notch. I highly, highly recommend it. Kennedy knocked it out of the park.

Photo of Tessa Bailey by Nisha Ver Halen.

The bestselling author’s Secretly Yours is the perfect blend of sweet and steamy.
Tessa Bailey headshot

Jane Harper’s debut novel, The Dry, immediately cemented her as one of mystery’s brightest stars and her thoughtful sleuth, Aaron Falk, as one of the genre’s most beloved characters. Exiles, Aaron’s third and final case, will be published on January 31, and to mark its release, we asked Harper a few questions about her bookstore bucket list and most cherished library memories.

What are your bookstore rituals? For example, where do you go first in a store?
I am entirely at the booksellers’ mercy! I’m a complete sucker for recommendations and hot bestsellers, so put whatever you want on that most prominent display table right at the front entrance—super niche, highly commercial, everything in between—and I guarantee I’ll be tempted. 

Tell us about your favorite library from when you were a child.
School libraries were always a real sanctuary for me. Anytime things got a little tough, anything from heated playground politics to bad weather, the library was always somewhere quiet and peaceful to go and just get away from it all for a while.

While researching your books, has there ever been a librarian or bookseller who was especially helpful?
One of my favorite librarians is a woman called Monica who works at the lovely Albert Park Library in Melbourne, Australia. Her help has been less in the name of research and more in the name of keeping my sanity while I’m writing, because she runs the most fantastic storytime sessions for toddlers. While I’m writing, it’s really hard to get quality time with my young children, so my 3-year-old son and I will go to Monica’s session every week. I love the sessions because they create early positive memories around books and reading for my little boy, and he loves them because they’re really fun and end with some parachute games. I recently discovered Monica has a side hustle in stand-up comedy, which doesn’t surprise me at all: If she can keep the attention of 30 toddlers, she can keep the attention of anyone.

Read our starred review of ‘Exiles’ by Jane Harper.

Do you have a favorite bookstore or library from literature?
The one that immediately comes to mind is the Hogwarts Library, complete with the tantalizing Restricted Section.

Do you have a “bucket list” of bookstores and libraries you’d love to visit but haven’t yet? What’s on it?
I haven’t, but that’s a great idea! I just looked up a list of the world’s most beautiful libraries and was gratified to see Melbourne’s own State Library Victoria included. I’ve been there many times, and it is indeed gorgeous.

What’s the last thing you checked out from your library or bought at your local bookstore?
Every week after library storytime, my son and I return an armful of kids’ books and replace them with a fresh stack. For my own shelf, I spontaneously borrowed a book by Australian author Wendy Harmer called Friends Like These because there was a line on the second page that caught my eye and made me laugh.

How is your own personal library organized?
I find size order quite soothing to look at. I’m not overly strict about it, but I tend to put taller books at the outer edges of the shelves, tapering down to paperbacks in the center. Library books and copies of my own novels live on their own shelves, but I still like to group them by size where possible.

Bookstore cats or bookstore dogs?
Our family has two very cute cats of our own—Zoe and Gingernut—so I’ll choose cats out of solidarity, although all pets are welcome.

What is your ideal bookstore-browsing snack?
Oh my goodness, absolutely nothing! I’m way too paranoid of smudges and spillages to snack around books I don’t own. Wait until I get them home, and then everything’s fair game.

Photo of Jane Harper by Eugene Hyland.

The bestselling author of the Aaron Falk mysteries, which will conclude with Exiles, reveals her library habits and how she organizes her personal shelves.
Jane Harper author photo

During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cathleen Schine sat lounging in her glorious, sweet-smelling Los Angeles garden, feeling miserably stuck. She knew she wanted to write about Jewish German exiles in Hollywood during World War II but feared that a strictly historical novel might become “a pit of phony insertions of detail,” a quagmire-ridden quest for historical accuracy.

Make no mistake, Schine’s novels are always fine-tuned, fascinating and funny. She’s been compared to Nora Ephron and Jane Austen. Her books include Alice in Bed, about a suburban teenager with a mysterious disease (inspired by Schine’s own strange illness as a young woman), and more recently, The Grammarians, about identical twin girls obsessed with language and battling for custody of their family dictionary.

Thankfully, revelation struck and opened the creative floodgates Schine needed to pen her latest novel, Kϋnstlers in Paradise. Speaking by phone, she recalls, “I was sitting there with my notebook closed and the cap on my pen, staring at all this beautiful jasmine, unable to go anywhere or do anything. And I thought, ‘This is a kind of exile, too, because I’m sitting here in all this beauty, and all my friends are back in New York, locked in, terrified.’” Her friends’ parents were dying, and Schine’s own mother, in her 90s, was also housebound, sick and, as it turns out, nearing the end of her life. “At that moment,” the author says, “New York was a horrible, terrifying nightmare, and here I was in this beautiful garden, basically in paradise.” 

The result of Schine’s magical moment is a multigenerational family drama about exile, guilt, aging, storytelling and love, all told with a hefty helping of humor. Ninety-three-year-old Mamie Kϋnstler has lived in Venice Beach, California, since emigrating as a girl from Vienna, Austria, in 1939 with her parents and grandfather. After Mamie fractures her wrist, her grandson Julian, a wannabe screenwriter who can no longer afford his rent in New York City, arrives to help out. 

Then COVID-19 strikes, and Julian is less than thrilled to find himself quarantined with his grandmother, her housekeeper and a Saint Bernard named Prince Jan. Julian might not love it, but readers absolutely will. Imagine, for instance: “Julian and his grandmother were stretched out in two chaise longues, side by side like an old couple by a Miami pool.” 

Eventually, however, Julian finds himself intrigued and even transformed by Mamie’s marvelous tales of Vienna and old Hollywood. Their time together reads like a love letter to not only Los Angeles but also the relationship between grandparent and grandchild—a theme further echoed in Mamie’s tender relationship with her own grandfather. 

Schine initially became intrigued by these Hollywood exiles (many of whom called themselves émigrés, she explains, “as if they weren’t ‘regular’ immigrants like the Russian Jews”) after reading a biography about composer and socialite Alma Mahler, and another about actor, screenwriter and activist Salka Viertel. Schine even named Mamie after Viertel; both women share the given name “Salomea.” Viertel appears in the novel, along with many other well-known figures, including writers Aldous Huxley and Thomas Mann; composer Arnold Schoenberg, who teaches Mamie to play tennis; and actor Greta Garbo, who is a major character.

“I just became obsessed with these people,” Schine admits. “I read a million memoirs of the period. And by a million, I mean a million.” She wondered what it would be like to be a high-cultured person who suddenly found themselves in LA in 1939, a time when the city was culturally barren in comparison to, say, Vienna. “They came over here and had to exist in this beautiful place while their world was being completely destroyed, and that whole notion really captured my imagination,” Schine says.

“I read a million memoirs of the period. And by a million, I mean a million.”

Although Kϋnstlers in Paradise is far from autobiographical (Schine says her own immigrant ancestors were far less “exalted” than these characters), she notes that “almost all of my older women characters are modeled to some extent on my mother, and also my grandmother,” both of whom had great senses of humor. Like Schine’s mother did, Mamie dyes her hair “a much brighter red than nature could have provided,” although Schine notes that Mamie is still “really very much her own person.”

In contrast to Mamie’s swift development, Schine says, “It took a long time for Julian . . . to become a real character, not just a name that I kept putting in so that Mamie could say something. . . . I wanted him to be in some ways innocent and in some ways entitled. He hasn’t really done anything with his life yet, but on the other hand, he isn’t a complete narcissistic dumbbell. He’s just a kid. Getting that right was very difficult.” 

Like Julian, Schine was just getting to know Los Angeles during the pandemic—even though she’s lived there for over 10 years. COVID-19 put a stop to Schine’s monthly visits to New York City to see her mother, giving her more time in LA “to walk around and get accustomed to the neighborhood and the way the light changes and the seasons, which exist, but they’re so different,” she says. “I was a real New York snob.” She had lived in New York for decades, raising her two sons there with New Yorker film critic David Denby. After their divorce, she moved to California with her wife, filmmaker Janet Meyers. “I realized that the part of New York that I had come to love the most was Central Park,” she says, “and I thought, ‘If New York for you is Central Park, then you could live in Los Angeles.’ I just got to the point where I wanted a quiet, peaceful place to live.”

Another trait that Schine shares with Julian is the fact that her own career emerged, shall we say, slowly. She enrolled at Sarah Lawrence College, hoping to become a poet. “I’d never been to a place like that, where everyone was dressed in such a fabulous, interesting way and was so smart and charismatic. And I thought, ‘I am not letting these people read my poems. Are you kidding?’” She quickly transferred to Barnard College, changed her major to medieval studies and then went to graduate school at the University of Chicago, only to become “a failed medievalist.” Next, she landed a job at The Village Voice with help from her mother’s best friend, who later encouraged Schine to transform one of her articles into a novel. 

During this time, Schine felt like “a depressed lump,” living with her mother and sleeping on top of her bed so that when her mother walked in, “I could just sit up and the bed was made.” She eventually began writing a novel secretly, “pretending like I was making a shoe,” which allowed her to avoid the “baggage that it had to be the great American novel.”

Looking back, Schine recognizes that her success was “a combination of great luck, connections and, I have to think, some talent. When that happens, and the luck is there, it’s amazing.” In contrast to writers who begin with outlines, Schine experiences her own writing process like “being en plein air in a city, strolling through your book, observing things as you go.” She tends to structure a novel after most of it has been written; in the case of Kϋnstlers in Paradise, because it is full of Mamie’s stories, it ended up being “about stories and what they mean, and where they fit into your own life—and into the lives of the people you tell them to. And how stories change, and also change people.”

Schine has previously said that she doesn’t want to write her own life story, but today she says, “You know what? I think I want to, actually.” However, as she begins to discuss the genre, she quickly backtracks. “It’s funny. I want to write a memoir, but I don’t really want it to be very personal,” she says. “Somehow writing about myself seems so self-indulgent without the protection of a novel to make it more interesting and, in some ways, more real for other people. On the other hand, I love reading memoirs. Go figure.”

Photo of Schine by Karen Tapia.

Kϋnstlers in Paradise chronicles a grandmother and grandson facing COVID-19 lockdown together. Hilarity ensues, as well as revelations.
Cathleen Schine author photo

Artist and critic Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy was a New York Times bestseller and a critical favorite. The 2019 book considered the ways we spend our attention in a world full of technologies vying for (and profiting from) that attention. Now Odell returns with Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock, a provocative examination of efficiency culture that encourages readers to rethink their relationships with time. 

Odell was inspired to write the book after hearing from readers who enjoyed How to Do Nothing but struggled to incorporate their new thinking into their busy lives. “That feedback became generative,” she says during a call to her home in Oakland, California. “I started to think, if it’s true that we don’t have enough time, how did we get here? And why? Why do we think of time as scarce? What is the difference between, for example, someone who feels like they don’t have any time and someone who really doesn’t have any time?”.

Read our starred review of ‘Saving Time’ by Jenny Odell.

Saving Time began with two inspirations that came together in a surprising way. First, Rick Prelinger of the Prelinger Library, a privately funded public research library in San Francisco, told Odell that she needed to read E.P. Thompson’s 1967 work, “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism.” “It’s an early building block for thinking about the relationship of time to capitalism,” she says, and how the Industrial Revolution required workers to be more disciplined with their time in order to maximize profits. The second inspiration was Odell’s burgeoning interest in geology, which also shows up in the book’s cover art. “I spend a lot of time in the mountains, and that’s obviously a very different way of thinking about time,” she says. Mountains offer a way of zooming out on modern life by contemplating layers of earth forming, colliding and eroding over millions of years. “Saving Time is about these two ways of looking at time.”

The natural world is of central importance to Odell’s work, and her careful study of nature feels refreshing. For example, birds played a key role in How to Do Nothing, and they remain important in Saving Time. “I don’t think birds entered my work until I was writing the original How to Do Nothing talk,” she says, referencing a keynote address she gave at an art and technology festival in 2017, which later appeared in the book. “It was unexpected; I was doing a lot of that thinking in the [Morcom] Rose Garden, which has a lot of birds, and I started to see parallels between the natural world and things that happen with attention and information.” 

That municipal rose garden in Oakland is an example Odell gives of a noncommercial leisure space, a “third space” where people can gather outside of work and home, preferably without spending money. It’s where Odell spends much of her time, and in Saving Time, she complicates her feelings toward the park and its troubled history. “I still find it utopian, even though when it was built, it would have been a de facto white space because of redlining,” she says. “But the current-day rose garden gives me hope for what places like this could be.” Places where people can spend time, gathering or sitting in quiet observation, without working or buying something. Places where people can be.

I read Saving Time at the end of 2022, just as people were posting their ambitions for 2023. I share this with Odell, mentioning how clarifying it was to read about Frederick Winslow Taylor, a 19th-century “efficiency bro” (as she calls the modern generation of productivity influencers) who advocated for carefully breaking down actions into small, trackable components, at the same time I was feeling tempted to write an extensive list of resolutions.

“It’s seductive,” Odell says when I ask her about why we love seeing Taylorist statistics like the number of steps tracked by a Fitbit. (Taylor himself counted his steps and timed his own activities.) “For a user who wants to have a sense of control in their life, it’s really seductive. It offers self-understanding. You’ll be able to see yourself at a glance and make changes accordingly.” But this data also leads us to try and make each moment as productive as possible.

“After you read [Saving Time] . . . the world feels filled with curiosity rather than dread.”

So then, what do we do? “The only way to counter this desire is to ask why you’re doing something and if you want to be doing it,” is Odell’s advice. This requires a level of mindfulness that most of us struggle to attain. But Saving Time is not a screed, and Odell has no interest in scolding her readers, nor depressing them with grim truths about modern capitalism. Instead she offers hope. “I walk around a lot with a pair of binoculars and a jeweler’s loupe,” she says. “Sometimes when I’m hanging out with a friend, I’ll give them the loupe. At first they say, ‘Okay, why do you have this?’ And then they’ll look at something, and every single time they say, ‘I had no idea it looked like this. It’s incredible.’ And then they want to look at everything with the loupe.”

“Unfortunately for a lot of adults, the last time they remember that feeling of discovery was childhood,” Odell continues. “That’s what motivates my work. I want the end of Saving Time to be the beginning. After you read it, you have to go back outside and look at everything with a new lens, and now everything looks different. And hopefully it looks different because the reader has a new relationship to reality, and the world feels filled with curiosity rather than dread.” 

I can attest to the sense of discovery offered by Saving Time. In Odell’s work, observation, both inward and outward, is sacred. Here, she proves that there are new ways to think about time and productivity, that we don’t have to always feel like time is hopelessly scarce. Saving Time presents a new vision, both through a jeweler’s loupe and a pair of binoculars, of what a better world could look like.

Headshot of Jenny Odell by Chani Bockwinkel

The bestselling author of How to Do Nothing returns with a brilliant, hopeful critique of our obsession with efficiency.

Anyone embarking on a boat-based vacation should not expect to encounter Shannon Chakraborty on the lido deck. It’s not that she has anything against shuffleboard, per se; it’s more of a self-preservational instinct. “The idea of open ocean terrifies me,” the bestselling fantasy author explained in a call from her home in New Jersey. “I joke with my family that I will never go on a cruise. I love the water, but I have enough fear and respect for it that I never want to be out of sight of land.”

Fortunately for her fans—all around the world, as her work has been published in more than a dozen languages—Chakraborty’s imagination is not so landlocked. In The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi, her inventive and exhilarating start to a new historical fantasy trilogy, the author enters full pirate mode. Her titular protagonist is a seasoned 12th-century sea captain who’s lured out of self-imposed retirement by an offer she can neither resist nor refuse. 

Amina left home at age 16 and was at sea for 15 years, becoming one of the most notorious pirates in the Indian Ocean. But after her daughter, Marjana, was born, Amina left her criminal activities behind, choosing instead to hunker down in her family’s mountainous home in southern Arabia, surrounded by jungle that protects them from prying eyes but close enough to the coast to hear the sea.

” . . . you can love your children, they are the center of your world . . . but you can still want more.”

Staying in one place for 10 years has stirred up a discomfiting swirl of emotions in Amina. The time with her daughter is precious, as is the knowledge that staying away from the ocean has kept them safe. But Amina also misses the freedom of doing whatever she desired, surrounded by her crew, a loyal and talented found family that understood and reveled in the thrill of never knowing where they’d end up next. 

Thus, Amina is particularly primed to accept an unexpected offer from Salima, the uber-wealthy mother of Amina’s former crewman Asif. Asif’s daughter has been kidnapped, and if Amina can figure out who captured her and bring her home, the reward money means Amina will never again have to worry about providing for her family. And, most enticingly, it’s a chance for Amina to achieve one last impossible victory, which could boost her legacy from well known and slightly infamous to unquestionably legendary.

Amina’s powerful combination of fierce maternal instinct and undeniable ambition was top of mind for Chakraborty as she embarked on her new literary adventure, which began mere months after she concluded her beloved Daevabad trilogy with 2020’s The Empire of Gold

Book jacket image for The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi by Shannon Chakraborty

When Chakraborty began writing The City of Brass, the first book in the trilogy, “I never actually imagined I would be a published author,” she says. “I had slight hopes, but I was [writing] mostly to keep my sanity.” She was caring for her newborn daughter and working full time while her husband contended with a demanding medical residency. “I wrote as enjoyment so I could play in the historical worlds I loved,” she says, having always wanted to pursue a graduate degree in medieval history. And then, she says with a laugh, “when the books went to auction, I was like, okay, I guess I do this now!”

Although she was an established and acclaimed author by the time the COVID-19 pandemic began, Chakraborty was consumed by uncertainty when virtual schooling took over her home life. “I think we can kind of forget the doom of that first six months of the pandemic,” she says. “I just assumed I was never going to have time to write again. And it almost felt selfish; my husband was treating COVID patients and my daughter was having an incredibly difficult time.” 

But then, she says, “I pushed into that, because I wanted to write about parenthood and motherhood and talk about the points where you can love your children, they are the center of your world . . . but you can still want more. And it’s not selfish to want that.”

The thought of other mothers experiencing the same feelings led to the creation of Amina, a woman who deeply loves her daughter but is also proud of her decades of experience as a ship’s captain and the accompanying wide range of skills she’s developed, from prevailing in hand-to-hand combat to diffusing crew quarrels to navigating stormy seas. “I wanted to write a story for us,” Chakraborty says of her fellow mothers, “and talk about how that [struggle] is something that has always happened.”

“Adventure doesn’t stop when you’re 22 years old . . .”

Chakraborty also drew on her abiding affinity for the ancient past. “My love of history has always come before my love of fantasy,” she says. “I was one of those strange kids reading up on the Titanic at 9 years old.” That zeal for research has helped Chakraborty immerse herself and her readers in fabulous and fantastical new worlds. The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi’s Indian Ocean setting is rife with danger and intrigue, peopled with memorable characters, crackling magic and supernatural creatures. “I always found the idea of these littoral oceanic societies fascinating,” Chakraborty says. “We look for land-based empires and trade routes, and we don’t really look at the ways that oceans and seas connect people. . . . You see a lot of shared cultures and storytelling, and you find very similar stories in India that you then find in Yemen and in East Africa.”

One of those common elements, per her extensive research, was a pervasive belief in the supernatural. “Magic was just considered real,” she says. “It was accepted by a majority of the population.” Chakraborty knows that this concept “could be difficult for modern readers to understand, but if you’re going to write about the past you’ve got to write about where people were coming from.”

Chakraborty is constantly thinking about the disparity between historical reality and the false impressions people draw from what is taught in school or gleaned from popular culture. “Not everybody is privileged to go to college and take undergraduate and graduate courses on history, so a lot of what we understand of the past is very much determined by fictional presentations of it,” she says. “And when we have discussions of the medieval world in particular, especially in the West, we often have this very grim, dark idea that Europe was [completely] white, we talk about the Dark Ages when everything was miserable for women . . . but you have to peel back and say, well, where did those ideas come from? What work are we highlighting?”

The author provides suggestions for further reading on her website, hoping to stimulate such questions in pursuit of a more critical discourse. “By being able to show my receipts and my historical work,” Chakraborty says, “I’m [encouraging] my readers to look at the past a little differently.”

Read our starred review of ‘The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi’ by Shannon Chakraborty.

Another shift in perspective that Chakraborty is passionate about is her certainty that fantasy has room for exciting, inspiring stories about women who are no longer in their 20s. She says, “Adventure doesn’t stop when you’re 22 years old, and so much fantasy is focused on this extremely narrow age range. . . . But you still don’t know what you’re doing at 40 or 50, you still make mistakes, you’re still trying to have fun and take care of your family.” 

“I also feel like life experiences do matter and time does matter,” Chakraborty adds. “It would be completely unfathomable to me that Amina’s crew would be able to work on this mystery if they hadn’t been at sea and sailing and learning and thieving and poisoning and researching for the past 20 or 30 years. You need those talents, and they take time.”

Having a middle-aged woman as a protagonist also allowed Chakraborty to explore complex themes of faith and growth. “I wanted to write a story about a character who deals with struggle and hardship in a way that comes back to her faith,” she says. “Amina is a devout Muslim, but she’s also someone who is very open about the ways she has failed, particularly in her early life. She’s a pirate, she’s a criminal, she was a thief and murderer, and she’s still coming back to religion and to God in ways that I felt we don’t have a lot of stories about—people who fail and then find their faith later in life.” 

“As someone who is religious myself,” she adds, “it speaks to an idea of mercy and compassion about God and about faith that I don’t think we see enough or talk about enough.”

Readers curious about how this new series will diverge from Chakraborty’s previous books will be interested to know that “whereas the Daevabad trilogy was told from the point of view of magical creatures, this book is very much from the point of view of the humans who have to deal with them.” She also says that “there are lots of Easter eggs, and a character from Daevabad does show up.” 

After all, Chakraborty says with the sort of enthusiasm that any bibliophile will recognize, “All of history is a story. It’s how we understand the world, how we understand the past, how we put facts together, how we describe anything. Everything is story. . . . I think it’s probably one of the most profoundly human things we engage in.”

Picture of Shannon Chakraborty by Melissa C. Beckman.

The author of the bestselling Daevabad trilogy returns with a rip-roaring fantasy adventure starring a 12th-century pirate captain.
Shannon Chakraborty headshot

Although Leta McCollough Seletzky wasn’t born until eight years after the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., she has always been haunted by the photo of that tragic night—one of the most recognizable images of the 20th century. And no wonder, since in it, her then 23-year-old father, Marrell “Mac” McCullough, can be seen kneeling beside Dr. King on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, holding a towel over the civil rights leader’s wounded face, trying to staunch the bleeding. Several other people stand nearby, pointing toward a spot in the distance.

“In my mind,” Seletzky says, “those were accusatory fingers. I felt a sense of blame, that on some level, those fingers were pointing at me or [at my father].” The lawyer-turned-memoirist and California resident spoke by phone about her fascinating debut, The Kneeling Man: My Father’s Life as a Black Spy Who Witnessed the Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. This “black-and-white image of horror” was something Seletzky’s family rarely discussed, despite her father’s presence in it. His work had always been shrouded in secrecy and silence, and in many ways, the fact that he eventually opened up about it is nothing short of a miracle.

Read our starred review of ‘The Kneeling Man’ by Leta McCollough Seletzky.

Seletzky’s parents separated when she was 3 and later divorced. In high school, she learned from a newspaper article that her father, who by then lived elsewhere and worked for the CIA, had been an undercover officer for the Memphis Police Department at the time of King’s assassination, tasked with infiltrating and keeping tabs on a group of young Black activists called the Invaders. “The revelation felt like a body blow,” she writes. Had her dad’s work spying on the Invaders been similar to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s tactics for harassing and controlling the Black Panthers, she wondered? Despite her curiosity and concern, Seletzky didn’t inquire about Mac’s role until 2010, after the birth of her second son. “One of the main reasons I thought it was so important to tell this story,” she says, “was so [my sons] would not be left wondering or feeling that sense of silence and dread.”

When Seletzky eventually asked her father about that night, he responded with a 17-page document. However, Seletzky was so saddened by his description of growing up in poverty in Jim Crow Mississippi that she stopped reading after three pages, putting his account away for five years. Finally, in 2015, she read to the end of the letter. After that, she plunged into years of writing, research, Freedom of Information Act requests, interviews and, most importantly, collaboration with her father. The resulting book provides an account not only of the amazing trajectory of her father’s life but also of her own reconciliation with his mysterious past as a Black man spying on a Black Power activist group for the police.

“One of the main reasons I thought it was so important to tell this story was so [my sons] would not be left wondering or feeling that sense of silence and dread.”

Book jacket image for The Kneeling Man by Leta McCollough Seletzky

While writing The Keeling Man, Seletzky and her father visited King’s assassination site together, and she also facilitated a 2017 meeting between her father and Andrew Young, an early leader in the civil rights movement who was also present the night King was murdered. “It felt like walking into history,” Seletzky says. “I mean, not only were we meeting with Andrew Young, but we were at his house. It was something I’ll never forget.” One of the most endearing moments of their encounter was Young’s recollection of Dr. King playfully swatting him with one of the Lorraine Motel’s pillows just hours before his assassination. “He was a hero, but he was a human being,” Seletzky says. “I feel like sometimes this gets lost when we lionize people.”

Seletzky also interviewed numerous members of the Invaders, the activist group her father was spying on, and was surprised by their warm welcome. “They were not upset,” she says. “They were not angry.” In fact, she’s come to think of one of the group’s leaders “as family.”

On the night of King’s assassination, Mac and several Invaders had just returned from a shopping trip with one of Dr. King’s aides, who invited them to dinner. As they walked from Mac’s car toward the motel, shots rang out, and Mac, who had been in the Army, sprinted up the stairs to the balcony. “He was trying to save Dr. King’s life, and he ran into the zone of danger to try to do that,” Seletzky says. Although federal investigators never raised concerns about Mac’s presence that night, he was eventually questioned and called to testify at a Select Committee on Assassinations in 1978. He was even warned that the attorney of James Earl Ray, the convicted killer, might stand up and accuse Mac of assassinating King. “Sometimes I think about what it would feel like if you had tried to save someone’s life and instead you were painted as having been a wrongdoer,” Seletzky says.

“When Seletzky let her mom read the final draft, she told her daughter, ‘Leta, I didn’t know 75% of what is in this book.’”

But the toughest part of Seletzky’s writing process was writing about herself. “It was difficult to weave my story through the magnitude of his,” she says. “I felt that it really should just be all Mac, but at the same time, I feel this story is more than that.” Three memoirs were particularly helpful as she figured out how to walk that line: James McBride’s The Color of Water, Sarah Broom’s The Yellow House and Edward Ball’s Slaves in the Family.

Ultimately, Seletzky is thrilled that writing this book brought her closer to her father. “I am in awe of him,” she says, “and the way he allowed his experiences to mold him into who he is.” She was also pleased by her mother’s response to The Kneeling Man. Her mother was a reporter in Memphis for many years, and when Seletzky let her mom read the final draft, she told her daughter, “Leta, I didn’t know 75% of what is in this book.” “I was shocked,” Seletzky says, “because she was born and raised in Memphis, and she was married to my dad for several years.”

When Seletzky asked her father what he wanted people to understand about his life and choices, he responded, “What I want them to understand is exactly what you wrote in that book.” That, Seletzky says, was perhaps her proudest moment. “At that point, I said to myself, ‘OK, well, the book is a success no matter what.’”

Author headshot of Leta McCollough Seletzky by Gretchen Adams

It took nearly 35 years for the debut author to ask her father why he was present on the night of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. The Kneeling Man now reveals the full story.
Leta McCollough Seletzky author photo

It’s been six years since Victor LaValle published his acclaimed modern fairy tale, The Changeling. Now the author returns with another fantastical story that could only take place in America. Set in 1914 Montana, Lone Women follows Black homesteader Adelaide Henry, who, after the mysterious death of her parents, flees her home in California with only an extremely heavy, firmly locked steamer trunk in tow.

Montana is nearly a character in and of itself in Lone Women—both the initial, utopian vision of it in Adelaide’s imagination and its stark, harsh reality. What drew you to Montana, and especially to its winters?
This whole book began with a work of nonfiction called Montana Women Homesteaders: A Field of One’s Own, edited by Dr. Sarah Carter. I came across the book after I did a reading at the University of Montana. I bought a book of local history because I wanted to better understand some aspect of the place I’d just been.

The book is a great overview of the women who traveled to Montana to homestead land at the start of the 20th century. I’d never known they existed! Even more surprising? When I found out this phenomenon wasn’t only reserved for white women. There were some Black women homesteaders. There were a few Latina women, too. There was a good-sized Chinese population in the state at the time, but they were not legally allowed to homestead because of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first law to make any kind of immigration to America “illegal.” Before that, anyone who could make it here was welcome. This was all fascinating, so I only dove into more and more of this history. At first I was reading simply to educate myself, but eventually I realized I was doing research for a novel.

“A woman like Adelaide . . . is usually edited out of the official history.”

The historical details in the book, from what it was like to stake a claim to the growth of opera in the American West, make it feel incredibly concrete. What was your research process like?
As I say, it all began with Dr. Carter’s book, but after that I went on a tear, following my curiosity. I read books by homesteading women (their journals) and histories of homesteading across the state. I read a great deal about the Black experience in the West, a history I admit—sadly—I knew very little about. I spent a few years just reading and making notes. Altogether, I’m sure only about a quarter of what I learned made it into my novel. I wanted it to be enough that the world felt concrete but not so much that the reader was pulled out of the story. It’s my hope that I found the right balance.

The maxim that history is simple but the past is complex appears multiple times in Lone Women. How did this idea influence the way you created Adelaide’s story?
That phrase, that idea, came to me at some point in my research experience. There was so much I thought I understood about this place and time, but the more I read, the more I understood the past simply couldn’t be summarized by the kinds of texts we’re given in, say, high school or in our popular entertainment. History has to make choices of some kind, right? You can’t include everything. But what gets left out, and why? That’s what I really wanted to get at. A woman like Adelaide—and the other lone women at the heart of my novel—is usually edited out of the official history. The gift of being a novelist is that I can, in my small way, write them back in.

Why do you think the Henrys chose to keep their burden rather than be rid of it?
I wanted to tackle this question in the most honest way I could. Why does any family accept the burdens placed on them? To take a step back, I wondered how and why a family decides that something, or someone, is a burden rather than a gift. I know there are families that split apart and never speak to one another again, but my own experience is that family pushes and pulls at one another; we grow weary but we are also bound by history and love. In this sense, I imagined the Henrys were like so many of us.

Read our starred review of ‘Lone Women’ by Victor LaValle.

The Mudges, a family Adelaide encounters multiple times in Montana, are at once irredeemable and intensely compelling. Did you have any particular inspiration for that family?
The Mudges were inspired by some particularly awful neighbors we had when I was a teenager growing up in Queens, New York. I knew them as a general nuisance, but I was a teenager so I didn’t pay them too much mind. They were a particular problem for my mother though, because she had to deal with all the ways the mother of that family made life harder for my mom. They have become a bit of a family legend: the worst neighbors we have ever known. Their name has become shorthand between my mother, sister and I whenever we want to explain a particularly awful person we encounter. I poured all that feeling into the Mudges because, with time, I realized those neighbors may have been terrible, but they sure were memorable.

In recent years, your oeuvre has expanded to include comic books. How is your process different as you move from medium to medium? How does it stay the same?
At heart, I’m trying to tell stories that tackle ideas that matter to me at the time I’m writing them. My hope is that my concerns are, at least in part, concerns that others have as well. My comics tackle questions of climate change and police brutality, just as my novels wrestle with questions of history, of love and guilt. The biggest difference is that my words in the comics are accompanied by brilliant and beautiful artwork. At the very least, even if you hate the writing, the images will give you something to love.

Lone Women is in many ways a very intimate book, and it feels claustrophobic despite its vast Montana landscape. Was that juxtaposition something that was present from the beginning? What did that contrast reveal for you as a writer? 
I’m glad this feeling came through. I hoped the reader would experience the landscape as a grand and open arena, but, of course, Adelaide is trapped no matter where she goes. Adelaide is stuck inside her family history, and her role within that history, and whether she’s in Montana or California or even on the moon, she’ll stay stuck until she faces the truths of her history with all honesty. It’s only then that she might have the chance to breathe deep and inhale new, fresher air.

Photo of Victor LaValle by Teddy Wolff.

The author’s Western horror novel follows Adelaide Henry, a Black homesteader who keeps a terrible secret locked in a steamer trunk.
Victor LaValle headshot

In 1740, a ship called the Wager departed from England to pursue a Spanish galleon filled with treasure. However, before the crew could accomplish their mission, they wrecked on an island off the coast of Patagonia. What happened next—from the men’s harrowing survival to the unexpected fallout once they returned to England—is expertly told by National Book Award finalist and Edgar Award winner David Grann in The Wager.

Your previous books have dealt with a range of historical eras and subjects. What first sparked your curiosity about this story of a British naval expedition in the mid-18th century?
I came across an 18th-century eyewitness account of the expedition by John Byron, who had been a 16-year-old midshipman on the Wager when the voyage began. Though the account was written in archaic English, and the lettering was faded and hard to decipher, it instantly sparked my curiosity. Here was one of the most extraordinary sagas I had ever heard of: a crew battling typhoons, tidal waves and scurvy; a shipwreck on a desolate island off the Chilean coast of Patagonia, where the castaways slowly descended into a real-life Lord of the Flies, with warring factions, murders, mutiny and cannibalism.

And that was only part of the saga. Byron and several other survivors, after completing extraordinary castaway voyages, made it back to England. (By then, Byron was 22.) They were summoned to face a court-martial for their alleged misdeeds and feared they would be hanged. In the hopes of saving their own lives, they all offered their own wildly conflicting versions of what had happened, and this unleashed another kind of war: a war over the truth. There were competing narratives, planted disinformation and allegations of “fake news.” So even though the story took place in the 1740s, it struck me as a parable for our own turbulent times. And if all this wasn’t enough to spark my curiosity, John Byron became the grandfather of the poet Lord Byron, whose work was influenced by what he called “my grand-dad’s ‘Narrative.’”

Read our starred review of ‘The Wager’ by David Grann.

Your descriptions of what it was like to be on a British man-of-war or stranded on a desolate island are so specific and vivid. What kind of research enabled you to write with this level of detail and intimacy?
I was amazed that, even after more than two and half centuries had passed, there was still a trove of firsthand documents about the calamitous expedition. They included not only washed-out logbooks but also moldering correspondence, diaries and muster books. Many of these records had somehow survived tempests, cannon battles and shipwreck. I was also able to draw on court-martial transcripts, Admiralty reports, contemporaneous newspaper accounts, sea ballads and drawings made by members of the expedition. All of these sources of information, as well as the vivid sea narratives published by many of the survivors, hopefully help to bring this gripping history to life.

You personally took a journey to the site of the shipwreck that stranded the crew of the Wager off the coast of South America. How did that experience enhance the telling of this story?
After a couple of years of doing the kind of research most suited to my physical abilities—that is, combing through archives—I feared that I could never fully grasp what the castaways had experienced unless I visited the place now known as Wager Island. At Chiloé, an island off the coast of Chile, I hired a captain with a small boat to guide me to Wager Island, which is about 350 miles to the south and situated in the Gulf of Sorrows—or, as some prefer to call it, the Gulf of Pain. After several days of winding through the sheltered channels of Patagonia, we entered the open Pacific Ocean, where I had at least a glimpse of the terrifying seas that had wrecked the Wager. We were caught in a storm, engulfed by mountainous waves, and our boat was tossed about so violently that I had to hunker down on the floor; otherwise, I might have been thrown and broken a limb. Thankfully, the captain was extremely capable and led us safely to Wager Island. We anchored for the night and at dawn climbed in an inflatable boat and went ashore.

The island remains a place of wild desolation—mountainous, rain-drenched, freezing, wind-swept and utterly barren. Unlike the castaways, who had only scraps of clothing, I was bundled up in a winter coat with gloves and a wool hat. Yet I was still bone cold. Near the area where the castaways had built their encampment, we found some stalks of celery, like the kind they had eaten. But there was virtually no other nourishment. At last, I grasped why one British officer had called the island a place where “the soul of man dies in him.”

“Even though the story took place in the 1740s, it struck me as a parable for our own turbulent times.”

Book jacket image for The Wager by David Grann

Many of the scenes in The Wager have a novelistic immediacy. What are some of the techniques you used to bring those scenes to life while hewing to the facts as you discovered them?
The most important technique, I think, was simply the narrative structure. The book shifts among the competing perspectives of three people onboard the Wager: the captain, David Cheap; the gunner, John Bulkeley; and the midshipman, John Byron. Because of all the underlying research materials, I tried my best to let the reader see and feel history unfolding through their eyes.

Speaking of novels, you note that the story of the Wager influenced well-known writers such as Herman Melville and Patrick O’Brian. How did that play out?
Occasionally, a great teller of sea tales would be drawn to the saga of the Wager. In his 1850 novel White-Jacket, Melville notes that the “remarkable and most interesting narratives” of the castaways’ suffering make for fine reading on “a boisterous March night, with the casement rattling in your ear, and the chimney-stacks blowing down upon the pavement, bubbling with rain-drops.” In 1959, O’Brian published The Unknown Shore, a novel inspired by the Wager disaster, which provided a template for his subsequent masterful series set during the Napoleonic Wars. And it wasn’t only novelists who studied the reports of the expedition; so did philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire, as well as the scientist Charles Darwin.

In an author’s note, you write, “I’ve tried to present all sides, leaving it to you to render the ultimate verdict—history’s judgment.” In the chapters that follow, you remain scrupulous about allowing readers to decide for themselves what happened on this ill-fated mission. What made you decide to take that approach?
I thought it was the most honest and transparent way of documenting the murky truth. Each survivor from the expedition was shading or eliding the facts, hoping to emerge as the hero of the story and avoid being hanged. Whereas one officer might only admit that he had “proceeded to extremities,” another witness would disclose, in his own account, how that officer had actually shot a seaman right in the head. By considering each competing account, readers can hopefully discern how the historical record was being manipulated, and see the past in a fresh light.

“At last, I grasped why one British officer had called the island a place where ‘the soul of man dies in him.’”

You describe great heroism and real depravity, along with a range of other character traits, exhibited by the crew of the Wager. What does this story tell us about how human beings succeed or fail in the face of extreme hardship?
The story illuminates the contradictory impulses of people under duress. When the castaways worked together, they improved their chances of survival, building an outpost on the island with shelters and irrigation systems. But many of the men eventually succumbed to their own desperate self-interest and became pitted viciously against one another, which only fueled their destruction. The unpredictable nature of humans, including the good and the bad, was what surprised me most while researching and writing this book.

Near the end of the book, you write, “Empires preserve their power with the stories that they tell, but just as critical are the stories they don’t—the dark silences they impose, the pages they tear out.” What does the story of the Wager say specifically about empires and colonialism?
The history of the Wager underscores the ravaging nature of imperialism and colonialism. British authorities seemed to recognize that the scandalous Wager affair threatened to undercut the central claim used to justify the ruthless expansion of the empire: that its civilization was somehow superior. The Wager’s officers and crew, these supposed apostles of the Enlightenment, had descended into a Hobbesian state of depravity, behaving more like brutes than gentlemen. Some of those in power thus tried to put forward their own versions of events and rewrite history. 

I think the Wager affair also shows how some people’s stories are erased from the history books. Unlike many of the survivors, one man named John Duck, who was a free Black seaman on the Wager, could never share his testimony. After enduring the shipwreck and a long castaway voyage, he was kidnapped and sold into slavery. There is no record of his fate. His story is one of the many that can never be told.

“The Wager’s officers and crew, these supposed apostles of the Enlightenment, had descended into a Hobbesian state of depravity, behaving more like brutes than gentlemen.”

Congratulations on the release of Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of your book Killers of the Flower Moon this May. There are reports that Scorsese has also optioned The Wager for a movie. Can you discuss that?
Scorsese and his team worked with such care in adapting Killers of the Flower Moon; they worked closely with members of the Osage Nation to faithfully render this important part of history. And so I’m honored that Scorsese has decided to team up again with Leonardo DiCaprio to develop the story of The Wager

What can you tell us about your next project?
Well, I am looking now for a new book subject, so please send any ideas!

Headshot of David Grann by Michael Lionstar

In the bestselling author’s latest narrative nonfiction masterpiece, he revives an 18th-century tale of shipwreck, mutiny, murder and “fake news.”

Héctor Tobar has been busy. On a Zoom call to his home in California, he tells me that his new book, Our Migrant Souls: A Meditation on Race and the Meanings and Myths of “Latino,” is an “attempt to summarize 30 years of learning, reading about race in the United States and the Latino experience, and trying to understand Latino as a category in the lens of U.S. race history.” This is a pretty serious undertaking—but no one is better suited to lead the charge than Tobar, whose book surveys the Latinx community’s diverse relationships to migration, empire, identity and kinship.

Tobar is a veteran Latino author, writing on par with other modern masters such as Ada Limon and Valeria Luiselli. One of his most significant contributions to not just Latino literature but literature as a whole is Deep Down Dark (2014), which tells the true story of 33 Chilean miners who were trapped underground for 69 days. Writing that book taught Tobar a vital lesson: “If I really wanted to create a work that would capture the fullness of their experience, I had to think about their full experience,” he says, “about working people and the ambitions in their lives, their hopes and dreams for their children, their affairs, the complications in their lives, the dysfunction, the glories. It makes for a much more satisfying read.” This lesson has influenced his writing philosophy ever since, especially in Our Migrant Souls, which makes significant strides toward documenting the fullness of Latinx experiences.

Read our starred review of ‘Our Migrant Souls’ by Héctor Tobar.

When I ask Tobar about the necessary steps to redefine Latino, he lays out his mission. To start, he says, we can “open up critical spaces to Latino writers [who are] trying to create work that will push Latino letters.” But in order to do that, we have to get past the stereotypes. Nowadays, readers and literary professionals see Latino as a marketing concept more than anything, Tobar says—largely because “our literary and cultural production is mediated through New York and American publishing.” But he thinks Latinx people can reclaim the meaning of Latino by unwrapping its history and asserting a new definition: “Latino is an alliance among peoples.”

When he says this, it’s a revelation: a whole continent-and-a-half of people, united under one word. How has such a large collection of people’s existences gone this long without serious examination? Tobar reminds me that there has been a long history of struggle leading up to this moment. “We fought for the idea that the experience of our people was worthy of intellectual inquiry,” he says. “The system that has produced these [prejudiced] ideas is ill. It is sick and inflicting harm upon us, and we need to change it; we need new ideas.”

“We fought for the idea that the experience of our people was worthy of intellectual inquiry.”

Book jacket image for Our Migrant Souls by Hector Tobar

This is why Tobar’s novels always feature working-class intellectuals, such as the housekeeper in The Barbarian Nurseries. Rather than rooting his narratives in harmful ideas and stereotypes, he roots them in the experiences of real people, the kind he says you can find anywhere and everywhere in this country. He knows this is true from his years working as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, when he would walk the streets and talk to people, learning about them and hearing their stories. The latter part of Our Migrant Souls is based on a similar approach: using a road trip across the United States to highlight the mestizo (mixed) nature of this nation, showing through testimonies and anecdotes how ingrained Latinx people are in the culture. 

We can trace this mixture back to the beginning of humanity’s story, to migration. “Migration is a constant in human history,” Tobar says. In the book, he reflects on his own family’s migrations, not just to the United States but throughout Guatemala. There have been “unending permutations of migrants in my life,” he says. This is true of all Americans, no matter our ethnic backgrounds. But Latinx people are disproportionately vilified for migrating, which is why Tobar maintains that “U.S. immigration policy is a collective humiliation of the Latino people.” Whether through detention centers, fear mongering or simply forcing people to walk through the dangerous, vast desert, a whole population of people is being erased. “[U.S. Customs and Border Protection] will use any tool at its disposal,” Tobar says. “It’s a really cowardly situation.”

“Almost any facet of human experience is going to frustrate an attempt to put a label on it.”

This is why Tobar’s mission is so important: If Latinx people cannot redefine Latino in order to use it to our advantage, it will continue to be used to categorize and hurt us. When I ask him how we can defy labels, he tells me, “Think about Guatemalan. What does that mean? Every ethnicity is a pan ethnicity! If you look at any label, you will find a whole sort of quantum mechanics of people crashing into each other. . . . All of us are the constant mixing of entanglements.”

Tobar believes “this fad, this mania of applying labels on ourselves, is really counterproductive, cruel, anti-human and unintelligent. Almost any facet of human experience is going to frustrate an attempt to put a label on it.” It might seem paradoxical, then, to write about Latinx people and Latinidad (i.e., the diaspora of Latinx peoples), but Tobar doesn’t think so. “There’s many different ways of approaching the truth, and there’s many different truths,” he tells me.

“That’s true,” I say, and we laugh.

Author headshot of Héctor Tobar by Patrice Normand/Agence Opale

With Our Migrant Souls, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author documents the fullness of Latinx experiences.

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