All Interviews

In The Ministry of Time, an unnamed narrator serves as “bridge” (read: guide and guardian) to Victorian polar explorer Graham Gore, who’s been transported from his doomed mission to present-day London. From there, what at first seems to be a fish-out-of-water comedy unfolds into a meditation on the lure of bureaucracy, an exploration of both the liberation and trauma of Graham and his fellow “expats,” and an unexpected love story between Graham and the bridge.

If you were a bridge, what type of person would you want your charge to be?
Someone like Arthur Reginald-Smyth, the expat from the First World War—quiet, kind, sincerely interested in the world around him. The alternative would be to commit myself to the stress and anxiety of a really difficult, badly adjusted expat for the humor. Oh, you’re trying to kill the television because you think it’s full of demons? OK then. Make sure you put the ax back when you’re done.

Why did you choose for your main character, the bridge, to remain nameless?
There’s a hierarchy of names in the book. The bridge never names herself to herself, because she is herself, and doesn’t need to: She sees herself as the still, universal point of the turning narrative. The expats, whom she monitors, studies and obsesses over, she names in full: Graham Gore, Margaret Kemble, Arthur Reginald-Smyth, etc. People like Simellia, Adela and Quentin are major enough “characters” in her narrative for her to name, but she doesn’t name them “in full” as she does the expats, because she doesn’t imagine them in the same level of detail (which—no spoilers—is a major mistake on her part). Then there are people referred to by their jobs, like the Secretary and the Brigadier, who are not even people to her, but functions of institutions—another telling example of how she views the world and authority.

Early on, the bridge thinks about paperwork and the safety it provides, whether that’s for an immigrant or just for someone with a great deal of social anxiety. Do you see a connection between this sentiment and the way the bridge connects with the Ministry and bureaucracy?
Definitely. The bridge is fixated on the idea of control, and excessive documentation, choosing and fixing a narrative, is one way she maintains this. Though she would never admit this—would probably consider it a sign of character weakness—she has had to deal with the inherited trauma of a profound and terrifying lack of control, and it has made her obsessive about always having control, stability, protection. The specific way she has channelled this is into a fondness for bureaucracy, and a certain moral blind spot about the methods one might use to maintain control over a situation or a person.

“Time travel, in this world, isn’t a matter of cutting a door in space-time and stepping into another era; there are grisly consequences.”

Of all of the members of the Erebus and the Terror, why did you choose Graham Gore?
Our eyes met across a crowded Wikipedia page . . . I was watching “The Terror,” a 2018 show about the Franklin expedition, and I was trying to keep track of who was who in each episode by checking the fan wiki. Graham Gore appears in the first two episodes and I was intrigued by his name, so I looked him up. That was really all it took. I loved the pen portrait drawn by his commander, James Fitzjames: “a man of great stability of character, a very good officer, and the sweetest of tempers.” Who could resist?!

Book jacket image for The Ministry of Time by Kaliane Bradley

Every polar exploration aficionado has their favorites. Other than your charming re-creation of Graham Gore, who are yours?
My other polar exploration favorite is a wretched man named Robert McClure, who was eventually knighted and became a vice admiral. He is briefly mentioned in my book by Graham, who (historically) knew him and sailed with him. I couldn’t have made McClure a romantic lead. He was a severe, bullying officer who once gave his cook 48 lashes for swearing. But I find him fascinating, because his private letters and expedition diaries also reveal him to be a lonely, yearning, rather funny man who was fond of animals and suffered terrible stomachaches. I could write a whole novel about him, though the tone would be very different.

The other expats, especially Maggie and Arthur, absolutely stole my heart. Were these characters based on real figures as well, or more general research about their time periods?
The other expats are all entirely fictional! For Maggie and Arthur, I chose the Great Plague of London and the First World War because these events occupy such a major place in the British collective imagination. Given that one of the things I was keen to explore in the book is the way that history, as a narrative construct, informs national and personal identity, I wanted to offer them as representatives from British history who in fact completely break from stereotype and expectation.

Any scene involving Maggie took the longest to write because I wanted to get her language right. I’m particularly proud of “pizzle-headed doorknob.”

What is your favorite piece of research that did (or didn’t) make it into the book?
I extrapolated a lot about Graham’s personality from Robert McClure’s 1836–7 diary. They sailed together as part of an earlier Arctic expedition (which was successful, in that it came back with most of its crew alive). One of my favorite discoveries was that Graham—then 26—kept himself occupied by growing peas in coal dust. When they were harvested, he gave them to a sailor who was dying of scurvy in a sick bay. According to McClure, the poor fellow enjoyed them very much. There’s also the story of Graham cross-dressing . . . but I’ll save that for another time.

How did you decide on the way that time travel works within your world? When did the image of a door between times come to you?
For me, the core part of the time-door is not the doorframe, which is just a receptacle, but the actual machine that catches and funnels time. Though it isn’t seen until very late in the book, the reader knows by that time that it has been repeatedly mistaken for a weapon—and indeed, every time it’s turned on, something awful happens to someone. Time travel, in this world, isn’t a matter of cutting a door in space-time and stepping into another era; there are grisly consequences for using it. The machine is a technology, a tool, that can be violently exploited, like gunpowder or the split atom.

“If you want to be a good immigrant—whether from another country or another era—to what extent should you allow yourself to be exploited by your host state?”

I was so taken with the concepts of “hereness” and “thereness” with the expats, and the implication that surveillance systems could only pick them up depending on how moored they were within their new time period. Can you talk about where this idea came from?
Thank you! I was inspired by a beautiful and important book, Time Lived, Without Its Flow by Denise Riley, which was written in the aftermath of the death of Riley’s son. It is an extended meditation on the ways that grief can take you out of the normative flow of time, so you exist in a different, frozen version of time to the people around you—there, not here. I was also thinking about the idea of a lost home that exists only in memory or stories, like Victorian Britain or pre-Khmer Rouge Cambodia. Even when those places are no longer “here,” they are always just “there,” in retelling, just out of reach.

As with the time-door, the physiological consequences of time travel, of choosing to be “here” or “there” and so visible or invisible to modern surveillance technology, can also be exploited. Imagine a spy who can be invisible on CCTV! If you want to be a good immigrant—whether from another country or another era—to what extent should you allow yourself to be exploited by your host state? As Y-Dang Troeung says in her memoir, Landbridge, the question asked of refugees is never “Are you grateful?” but “How grateful are you?”

Food is such a vital part of how Gore attempts to relate to his bridge. What drew you to food (and cigarettes) as a way to build the connection between them?
Almost every meal cooked by Graham in the book is one that my fiancé has cooked for me or that I’ve cooked for him. (I also stole some of my fiancé’s jokes for Graham, such as calling electric scooters “a coward’s vehicle.”) They are meals that remind me of what it feels like to be in love. Rather less romantically, The Ministry of Time started as a silly piece of wish fulfillment, to bring my favorite polar explorer into the present day, and among other wishes I would like to fulfill, I would really really really really really really REALLY like to have a cigarette. Imagine being a Victorian and getting to chain-smoke all day without knowing about the consequences. Dreamy.

Read our starred review of ‘The Ministry of Time’ by Kaliane Bradley.

Photo of Kaliane Bradley © Robin-Christian.

In the debut author’s dazzling The Ministry of Time, Victorian explorer Graham Gore is transported to modern-day London.

Names often play a pivotal role in stories—and like many aspects of fiction, their importance is reflected in the real world. The novels of award-winning young adult author Darcie Little Badger draw on the power of names: In Elatsoe, Little Badger’s 2020 debut, the titular character carries the name of a legendary ancestor. Little Badger’s new novel (and prequel to Elatsoe) employs the same convention: Sheine Lende, which translates to “sunflower,” is both the title and the Lipan name of Shane, the book’s protagonist.

Little Badger explains that, in her Lipan Apache tribe, “names were given to a person when they’d grown up enough that their personality and other aspects of them had developed, so it’s a coming of age thing. I got my name after I graduated high school.”

Sheine Lende tells the story of 17-year-old Shane, a Lipan Apache girl in 1970s Texas. Including the diacritical marks that indicate pronunciation, Shane’s Lipan name is spelled Sheiné lénde, but the marks were omitted for the official title. When considered in the context of the story, this difference illuminates much of what Little Badger explores in the novel about names, language and the erasure of native peoples.

“I wanted Shane to be named after a sunflower, and there were a couple of different ways that we could have spelled it. We eventually settled on Sheiné lénde,” she says. “Then I learned from my editor that apparently, the system that’s used to distribute books to booksellers, etc.—it’s really not set up to take diacritical marks. Unfortunately, that means that we had to take off the diacritical marks in the title. It was interesting, because part of the book is Shane learning how to say her name. So it was sad that we couldn’t have the faithful pronunciation indicated in the title itself. But throughout the book, you see the diacritical marks are there. That’s the way it should be,” Little Badger says, as she explains the correct pronunciation (phonetically, it’s close to SHAY-neh LEN-day).

“The Lipan language is currently in a revitalization process,” Little Badger explains. “Lots of people are working on trying to not just fill in holes in our language, but to teach the next generations how to speak it.”

“With Shane,” Little Badger continues, “she does feel embarrassed that she can’t really pronounce her own name. It’s almost like she can’t wrap her head around who she really is. And that makes her wonder, ‘Maybe that’s not me.’ It was important for me to highlight that.”

Shane lives with her mother, Lorenza, and her little brother, Marcos. The family has spent the last several years rebuilding their lives after a devastating flood took their home, community and worst of all, Shane’s father and paternal grandparents.

Now, living far from “la rancheria de los Lipanes,” the community in which they used to live that was composed mostly of Lipan households, Lorenza and Shane scrape by however they can. Lorenza, who is a gifted tracker, offers search and rescue services to local families. Along with their two well-trained hounds, Lorenza and Shane also have the help of a powerful secret weapon: the ghost of their dog Nellie, brought back through their ancestral gift.

To Shane, her mother is the truest rock Shane has had since the flood. But when Lorenza accidentally steps into a wild fairy ring and vanishes while looking for a pair of missing siblings, Shane’s entire world turns upside down. The ensuing search for her mother forces Shane onto her own turbulent path of reconnection to her people, her family and herself.

Sheine Lende, with its animal ghosts, fairies, vampires and other mythological figures, is firmly rooted in genre fiction. But each fantastical element is anchored by very real and historic truths. Even in a magical version of the world, natural disasters are as unavoidable as carnivorous river monsters, and Shane and Lorenza feel they must hide their sacred abilities as they navigate systems of oppression augmented by the dominance of white European magic systems.

“The cool thing about writing fantasy is that you can use a lot of different tools to present what you want to say about the world,” Little Badger says. “For example, I studied invasive plant species in the United States when I was in college, and they’re called ‘invasive’ because they cause ecological and/or economic damage to the environment that they’re growing in. So I was like, ‘Well, these fairy rings and fae people in the world of Elatsoe and Sheine Lende are extradimensional, so it’s almost like they’re being introduced to Earth. What if there are unintended consequences and they start to spread like an invasive plant?’”

The actions we take, often to our own benefit, and sometimes even with noble intentions, could potentially cause negative impacts that carry over into the future.

The role of the fairy rings and their environmental impact in the story contribute to a larger metaphor for collective responsibility and environmental stewardship. Though fairy rings are  magical, it’s easy to draw parallels to real world stories of environmental destruction on Indigenous land, such as the heavily protested Dakota Access Pipeline construction at Standing Rock, or the similarly problematic Keystone Pipeline.

Little Badger hints at the importance of collective responsibility early on in the novel, when Shane’s mother comes down with the flu while on a mission. Despite needing help, she stops Shane from using a flare gun because there’s a risk of it starting a fire in the area, which has recently experienced a drought: “She’s thinking of other people in a wider context, but also there’s this acknowledgement that the land we live on is going to be the land that grandchildren and great-grandchildren live on. There’s one Earth. And the actions we take, often to our own benefit, and sometimes even with noble intentions, could potentially cause negative impacts that carry over into the future.”

“It’s especially hard,” she continues, “because a lot of times, it’s not just individual decisions. It’s the decisions made by corporations or by entire countries. It can make someone feel small and overwhelmed when they’re like, ‘Okay, well, I recycle all the time and I do all these things. And it’s just not enough.’ But I do think that, collectively, if we can move to a place where we take future generations and people who aren’t like us into greater consideration—that’s what Lorenza was trying to teach Shane—it’s always a positive thing.”

Little Badger’s unique approach to genre fiction has been described as Indigenous futurism, an artistic movement considers the histories of Native peoples and uses the past to inform reimagined or recontextualized stories and futures. Throughout Sheine Lende, Little Badger uses fantastical devices to create a fun house mirror reflection of her tribe’s experiences.

The Lipan Apache are not a federally recognized tribe, and there is no Lipan reservation. Search engines offer contradictory information about the tribe. Links to the tribe’s official website and history are brought up next to an article from the Oklahoma Historical Society, which speaks of the tribe in past tense, and claims “little of their culture remains.”

“That’s . . . definitely not true,” Little Badger says. “That’s a choice. It ties into the erasure that Sheiné lénde shows.” Little Badger explains that before the Republic of Texas acquired statehood, “there was a ‘treaty of peace and perpetual friendship’ that Texas made with us. But then Texas became a state. Government officials did talk about potentially making a reservation for the Lipan Apache outside of the state of Texas, but unfortunately—well, they would consider us defiant, but we just couldn’t be rounded up. We couldn’t be captured. So they decided to do an elimination extermination campaign instead.”

By the late 1870s, Congress had made it illegal for any Indians to exist freely in Texas. Without a reservation, the Lipan Apache were among the Native peoples who suffered from this lack of recognition. “Until around 2021, we had no tribal land, so essentially we’d always be one disaster or unpaid bill away from losing our homes and having to start over somewhere else in Texas. I’ve heard people call us ‘disenfranchised natives,’” Little Badger says, referring to the fact that Native groups without tribal recognition from the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs lack rights given by the federal government.

“With Sheine Lende, so much of it is about that struggle to survive on land that has been, according to the United States government, taken away from you, on which you don’t even exist,” Little Badger adds. Towards the end of the novel, Shane enters the land of the dead, “almost like she is drawn to the thought that she belongs with the dead.” While a physical concept in Sheine Lende, the underworld also “represents Shane’s mental health and the way she sees herself and her people.” This fever dream sees Shane wandering through enchanted deserts that transition into prehistoric tundras. She encounters strange and terrifying beauty, confronting extinction and memory.

“It’s her struggling against that urge to give into despair and remain there with the dead, which eventually she overcomes by thinking of her family out there waiting for her—and a hope for the future, that those who remain need her to be with them and she needs to be with the living for herself,” Little Badger says. “It’s my meditation on what it means to be a disenfranchised native who is so erased by the law, by the military, by history, by books, by everyone outside of your community.”

Ultimately, “Shane finds strength by looking within herself and her community.” It’s this final sentiment of turning toward living, hope and the people who need you and nourish you, that most fully embodies “futurism,” and it’s where Shane embodies her namesake. At the end of Sheine Lende, her family’s grief has not been magically healed, and the ripple effects of colonialism are far from being calmed. But on the book’s final page, there is a note: “This is not the end.” In that message, there is a fervent reminder of hope, if only one remembers to turn, like a sunflower, toward the light.


The author discusses how the strange and beautiful world of Sheine Lende, the prequel to Elatsoe, reflect the experiences of her Lipan Apache tribe.
Book jacket image for Sheine Lende by Darcie Little Badger

When biologist and writer Aarathi Prasad learned that a piece of fabric woven from threads produced by a Mediterranean mollusk called Pinna nobilis had been found outside Budapest in a tomb of a woman mummified in the style of the ancient Egyptians, she got on a plane.

The museum holding the remains and most of the documentation of the discovery had been destroyed in a Nazi bombing during the 1940s, but she was undeterred. “I called the museum,” says Prasad, “and asked, Is there any chance you have anything? They said, Yes, yes, come and see. . . . My daughter asked, ‘Are you some kind of spy?’ I landed in Budapest and went directly to the museum. It was closed. They let me into the basement. [The mummified woman] was wrapped in hemp, very well preserved, they said. But did you find any silk? [I asked.] They said yes, when the sarcophagus was opened there was very fine fabric covering her. But it disappeared as soon as the lid was lifted.”

The unusual, hermaphroditic Pinna nobilis mollusks anchor themselves to rocks using distinct, transparent threads that spawned a regional weaving culture likely dating back to before the Phoenicians. The mollusks themselves had been a robust part of local diets until human-induced sea warming resulted in massive die-offs and imposed harvesting limits. That’s just one example in hundreds of fascinating facts and stories Prasad relates in her illuminating Silk: A World History, a book born out of her own obsessive pursuit of knowledge. “I have heard it said that scientific study can take away a sense of wonder because science reduces a miraculous organism into mere mechanical parts,” she writes. “I have never found that to be true. Perhaps I find miracles in mechanisms.”

“Traditional science books often feel like textbooks. Human stories bring them alive.”

Prasad devotes much of the lively middle of her book to the biology, culture and elusive history of Pinna nobilis silk, seeking to resolve how long people have been weaving mollusk silk fabric. “It’s so intriguing,” she says. “Chances are this fabric was widely used around the Mediterranean. It existed. Then for a while no one knew it existed, and now we are trying to prove it existed. In the meantime, the animals these threads come from are critically endangered because of human activities. There’s a big metaphor about life somewhere in that.”

Normally Prasad’s research is not so dramatic. She is now an honorary researcher at University College London, and her current project is as a geneticist on archaeological digs in Rome and Pompeii. She raised her daughter, Tara, now in her early 20s, as a single parent while holding down academic and research jobs. Employment and parenting meant she usually worked on Silk and her two previous books, one on Indian medicine and the other on how science is altering conception, in the early mornings and late evenings. Tara has traveled with her on many research forays, to India and “into different, difficult situations,” Prasad says with a hint of pride, “so that she now tells people trying to advise her on her studies, ‘Oh, I’ve never let school get in the way of my education.’” Tara has also dismissed her mother’s experimental efforts to grow silkworms herself. “They poop a lot,” Prasad admits. “My daughter was disgusted.”

Prasad’s interest in silk arose first “through science, through the application of silk in regenerative medicine, creating new parts for the heart or applying it to rebuilding the body in a more organic, less invasive way.” Her book profiles the contemporary scientists working at the cutting edge of bioengineering animals like goats (so far unsuccessfully) to produce silk with the strength of a strand of a spider’s web, or experimenting with ways to incorporate silk into biomedicine or even as alternatives to plastics. “I was surprised in talking to these scientists to discover that they found the environmental impact more interesting than the surgical or biological applications,” Prasad says. “Because to them it’s a material that could and should be applied to planetary sustainability.”

That outlook is the almost polar opposite of the attitudes of many of the Western scientists Prasad profiles in the opening section of Silk. Curious, eccentric and sometimes obsessed, these were men (and some women) of their times: the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. As such, their interests reflected a colonizer’s point of view.

“European science has actually been quite extractive,” says Prasad. “So I fell down this rabbit hole of colonial history. I learned this from my India book [In the Bonesetter’s Waiting Room] as well. Countries colonized by the British and the French had their own systems of knowledge cut off. The British asked their military men and doctors to do etymology on the side. They said, essentially, go out and find the coal, go find the trees, go find the animals and plants. That’s how they made their money. There was a lot of abusive behavior, not even mentioning slavery. And how would scientists from Europe know about plants and animals in another country? By speaking to local people. But it is impossible to know who those people were because they were never named.”

Prasad’s awareness of cultural appropriation and the dismissal of Indigenous expertise percolates through the book, adding voltage to her depiction of the pursuit of knowledge about silkworms. The most common silkworm, Bombyx mori, was at the center of global trade. “The fact that it was bred for so long in homes and factories specifically for its silken cocoons,” Prasad writes, “made this caterpillar so docile, prevalent, and immobile that it would also become the focus of intense scientific study.” As described in magnificent detail here, Bombyx mori would become one of the first insects to be analyzed in precise anatomical detail in the 17th century by Marcello Malpighi. Silkworm studies also led an early researcher to propose a germ theory of disease before Louis Pasteur’s widely known discoveries. Later researchers would discover that the patterns on silk moths and other moths absorb sound energy from predatory bats using echolocation to hunt. The moths mimic the sound waves, allowing them to create a cloak against detection.

“I was astonished to find so many women who were natural historians. Why has hardly anyone ever heard of them?”

“Traditional science books often feel like textbooks. Human stories bring them alive,” Prasad says, explaining her decision to nest the science in her early chapters within miniature biographies of the researchers and their cultures. “I grew up in the Caribbean and came to England as a teenager. I loved history but I had to choose at some point between history and science, and I chose science. In England I learned about the Normandy landings in the Second World War—not that there were Indians and Africans fighting in the war. Just the European perspective. Whereas in Trinidad, I learned about slavery and the Aztecs and all of these cultures that weren’t ours. Sometimes we have to educate ourselves because what we’re taught in schools is not necessarily going to give us the full story.”

She adds, “In writing the book, I was astonished to find so many women who were natural historians. Why has hardly anyone ever heard of them? Their work was used but rarely acknowledged.”

Prasad found one of these women, Maria Sibylla Merian, particularly captivating. A 17th-century Dutch illustrator and naturalist, her drawings were used by Linneaus to classify more than 100 species. But her observations were often dismissed by male scientists. “She got on a ship and sailed with her daughter across the Atlantic,” Prasad says. “She was the first person to go to study nature as a scientist. Other people went for other reasons. Darwin went as a doctor. She went for science and nothing else. . . . She was a single mother too, and she wanted to see with her own eyes.”

Read our starred review of ‘Silk’ by Aarathi Prasad.

Photo of Aarathi Prasad by Tara Lumley-Savile.

Driven by obsession, Prasad records what silk can teach us about medicine, culture and scientific discovery itself.

In The Burning Girl and The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud mesmerized readers with her psychologically astute character portrayals. This Strange Eventful History, her much anticipated sixth novel, draws from the stories of generations of Messud’s own French Algerian family and their reckoning with their position in colonial history.

“I’d been preparing all my life to write this book”: Read our starred review of This Strange Eventful History.

While This Strange Eventful History is a work of fiction, in the afterword, you note that your characters’ “movements hew closely to those of [your] own family.” Would you say more about the process of composing a novel inspired by your family history? Was your experience writing this book different from previous novels?

This novel is more ambitious in scale than anything I’d attempted previously—it spans seven decades and five continents. The places that the characters live at various times in the novel aren’t random—they’re the places where members of my family lived, at the times in which they lived there. The novel is shaped, then, by basic facts; and in some cases by historical incidents. I did a lot of research, in particular for the first half of the book—a good bit involving family documents, but also lots of plain old historical research.

The novel follows three generations of the Cassar family, beginning in Algeria as its colonizer France fell to the Nazis in 1940 and ending in Connecticut in 2010. What impelled you to explore this longer arc of family history?

In his retirement, my devoutly Catholic French grandfather wrote for my sister and me a family memoir about the years before and during the Second World War (covering 1928-1946). He called it “Everything that we believed in”—because he wanted to try to convey to us, his granddaughters, whose secular North American upbringing was so far from his own, what their lives had been like. I’ve realized, over the past decade or so, that the world in which I grew up—the world of the late 20th century, shaped by the postwar years that preceded it—has vanished. In order to explain to people of my kids’ age what it was like—what we believed in, and what our parents believed in—I needed to write a novel that began with the Second World War. Because that cataclysm, of course, determined everything that followed.

Would you tell us about your choice of the novel’s title?

The title is a line from near the end of Jaques’ famous soliloquy, “All the world’s a stage,” in Shakespeare’s As You Like It: “Last scene of all, / That ends this strange eventful history, / Is second childishness and mere oblivion; / Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” The novel is framed around François’ life—from the age of almost 9 until his death, over seven decades (“and one man in his time plays many parts, / His acts being seven ages”). I chose the title both because it refers to that speech (which is reflected in the novel’s form) and because the shape of François’ life, and of the lives of his family members, are, to me at least, strange and eventful, without being grand or important.

“In order to explain to people of my kids’ age what [the world in which I grew up] was like—what we believed in, and what our parents believed in—I needed to write a novel that began with the Second World War.”

The Cassars’ unhappiness seems to be linked both to a scandalous secret and to being out of sync with history writ large. In your view, what is the relationship of your characters’ lives to larger forces of history?

The Cassars’ unhappiness both is and isn’t linked to a scandalous secret; each member of the family has their own relation to that secret, and for some it’s not unhappy at all—quite the opposite, indeed! I hoped to convey that events are simply themselves, and how we understand them makes all the difference. If you’re devoutly religious, for example, something will look a certain way, and if you’re not, it looks different. The same of course goes for any of our beliefs.

The family is perhaps not so much out of sync with history as simply at the mercy of it. In this case, the family are French colonials in Algeria, and must make their lives elsewhere when Algerian independence comes. Again, each family member has a different reaction to that situation: Gaston and Lucienne put their faith in God, as he says, “like the birds on the breeze”; François creates a life far from France and never speaks of the past; while Denise shapes her life’s narrative around what she experiences as loss. This, I think, reflects the broader reality that each of us is always at the mercy of history’s great events—consider our lives just in the past few years, my goodness!—and that the only thing we have any control over (and sometimes precious little control at that) is how we understand and contend with our challenges.

Uprooted by war and the collapse of French colonialism, the Cassars move frequently, from Algeria to Massachusetts to Argentina, Australia, Canada and France. Your depictions of these places are vivid and precise. What kind of research did you do in composing the novel? How much arises from memory and how much from invention?

I did a lot of research—and I was fortunate to have a lot of help. This is the first time in my life that I’ve worked with research assistants. Over the many years that I worked on the novel, several amazing people helped me discover all kinds of things: political and military history about France, World War II and Algeria, but also what Amherst College was like in the early 1950s; what CEI, the business school outside Geneva, and its environs looked like; and about the man who ran it from the beginning—a great idealist. I’m very grateful to these brilliant helpers. I read lots of published books, of course, as well as my grandfather’s memoir (which is close to 1500 pages handwritten) and many family letters, spanning decades. For example, while I don’t have any letters my dad wrote when studying at Amherst, I have all the letters that his family wrote to him from Algeria. It was an amazing experience to unfold the onionskin sheets and know that nobody had read these pages since my dad tore open each letter, probably while walking out of the campus post office, back in 1953, and then stuffed them back in the envelope—reading them, time collapsed.

Chloe, the youngest Cassar, is the only character to narrate in the first person. From childhood, Chloe sees herself as a guardian to her family and a storyteller. She is curious, sometimes to the point of being nosy. She aspires to be a writer. Do you feel a particular kinship with Chloe?

Yes, I’d be lying if I didn’t confess to a certain kinship with the character of Chloe—of course, that’s partly why her sections are in the first person. But they’re also in the first person because the understanding is that she’s the speaker in the prologue, and that she’s writing the book, as it were. I wanted the novel to reflect in some way her evolution, along with the narrative’s, from more traditional third person storytelling to increasing interiority and subjectivity. Hopefully that’s something the reader can feel in the changing rhythms of the prose as well as in the voice.

“Events are simply themselves, and how we understand them makes all the difference.”

Your novel contains some of the most beautiful sentences I have recently read. They are long, elaborate, stately and often inward-dwelling in a way that feels deliberate. Could you tell us about your choice of sentence structure?

Thank you so much—I’m so glad you liked the sentences. I don’t know that it’s so much a choice as almost a sense that the sentences come through me—I hear them in my head, their rhythms, like music. I can feel when a word is off, or the syntax. I have an innate feeling of the shape of a sentence—of each sentence, and of how they sit together as well as each on its own. For me that’s a big part of what writing is—the music of the language, interwoven with meaning. They’re inseparable.

At what point do you share drafts of your work in progress, and with whom?

Historically I’ve shared work earlier, but this time around, I simply had my head down, mostly. I’d written about 100 pages over several years and couldn’t find the space to do it properly while teaching full time, so I took an unpaid leave to write the rest of the book. That meant I had a bit less than eight months and no time to loiter. I write by hand, on graph paper, pretty small, and nobody can really read my manuscripts, or not without effort. So I had to type it into the computer before anyone could read anything. My husband is my first reader, and eventually he read parts of it, and then ultimately the whole thing. Luckily for me, we know each other well at this point; he’s great at being a cheerleader at the right moments, and then offering real criticism when that’s what’s called for.

What were the biggest challenges and satisfactions of writing This Strange Eventful History?

That’s a good question—I think they are linked, in fact. As I mentioned, the scale of this novel is bigger than anything I’d written before; finding a form that would enable me to take on such a long stretch of history, while still exploring the characters’ interiority and while not having the book collapse under its own weight—that was for me a central challenge. I can honestly say that I’d been preparing all my life to write this book, and I couldn’t have managed it earlier, for all sorts of reasons. So there’s real satisfaction simply in having got the book written, at last!

Claire Messud author photo © Lucian Wood.

The acclaimed author's latest family saga follows the French Algerian Cassars, who find themselves bit players in the global shifts following WWII.

In Someone You Can Build a Nest In, John Wiswell takes a fractured fairy-tale setup—What’s the monster’s side of the story?—and cracks it open, using the love story of Shesheshen and Homily, a kind woman from a monster-hunting family, to launch a rollicking exploration of queerness and asexuality, disability and how society shapes what is monstrous, in addition to a whole heap of dysfunctional family relations.   

Your unique take on a shape-shifting monster—in this case, a sentient blob who must actively and constantly work to form limbs and organs—is charming and innovative. What drew you to a shape-shifting main character?
Feeling like a blob that has to perform and pass as human is a regular feeling for me, as it is for many other disabled people. There have been so many times when I’ve fought with my body to make it walk correctly, or let me socialize in a normal way. Sometimes I feel like an outsider among healthy people. Shesheshen’s shape-shifting nature started there.

But she also started with Homily. Before there was a book, there was the idea of the two of them, and their series of miscommunications that leads them to both fall in love and hunt each other. The central humor is Shesheshen trying so hard to pass for human, and then she finds love in the one person who mistook her for someone worthy of love when she wasn’t trying. It speaks to how caring Homily is, which is the spark for their relationship. Shesheshen goes to great lengths to hide her blob nature from her girlfriend, while trying to figure out how to break the truth.

After writing a few scenes of that, I was in love with Shesheshen’s nature. She couldn’t be anything other than a shape-shifter who built her own DIY body out of chains and discarded bones. And how fun was it, as a disabled writer, to have a monster who treated bones as assistive devices?

“Family leaves its mark on us, even if it’s by absence.”

Shesheshen’s best friend is a bear named Blueberry. Tell us about her.
As soon as Blueberry waddled onto the page, I knew she was here to stay! Despite her reputation, Shesheshen can coexist with other creatures, and Blueberry is proof of that. Early on, I wondered what sort of critter Shesheshen might keep as a pet, as she’s not exactly an orange cat person. Her destined buddy was a huge predator. There are implications (that I don’t want to spoil) about where Shesheshen got her favorite set of false teeth, that point to how the two of them met.

Blueberry also reflects a truth about predators: They aren’t inherently monstrous. Most bears would rather eat your garbage than eat you. It was nice to shed a little sympathy on a real animal that often gets vilified, alongside the mythological Shesheshen. Wouldn’t you give Blueberry a hug? I mean, if she wasn’t too hungry?

Shesheshen never knew her mother. Homily has a complicated relationship with her abusive mother, who Shesheshen wants to eat “for the common good.” You pay tribute to your mother in your acknowledgements. Mothers, including stepmothers and the consumption by and of mothers, are a huge throughline in fantasy and horror stemming all the way back to fairy tales. Why do you think that is?
Family leaves its mark on us, even if it’s by absence. So Shesheshen lives under the image she has of her mother, that great apex predator who went down swinging. Homily has a very different family, like you mentioned. Several readers have compared them to a fairy-tale couple, in the Brothers Grimm sense of the phrase. When you think about the Grimms’ fairy tales, family is often the cause of the dramatic conflicts. Some father ditches his kids in the woods to starve, so that he won’t. A single parent needs somebody else to help look after their child, and so they beseech god, the devil and death itself to be godfather. We all feel that profound emotional charge of connection with our loved ones, or the ones who should love us and don’t. They can make us question what we really are. So from fairy tales and legends up through contemporary fantasy, you often see that charge explored. And, in my favorite stories, we see the effects of that charge on us explored. How do we deal with what our families made us into? Do we decide to stay that way?

Someone You Can Build a Nest In by John Wiswell book jacket

Neither Homily nor Shesheshen are interested in sex, but between Laurent’s love of threats and Epigram’s various lovers, the presence of kink and sex still play a role in the lore of this world. What was it like to develop a visceral yet asexual sapphic relationship while still creating an actively sexual, queer setting?
Shesheshen is less of a sexual creature than she thought she was, because she grew up with beliefs about what she had to be. Her feelings for Homily challenge her ideas of what she wants in life. That’s an existential problem for her, but a familiar one. Many asexual people (myself included) grow up expecting to want to participate with the same drive as those around us, and then get woefully disoriented. We aren’t what the world convinced us we were. So where do we fit? Do we belong in our world? Stories can help us understand that we belong everywhere. One reason readers love Shesheshen is she refuses to give in. If the narratives are wrong, she’ll grab them and change them herself. Especially if it means helping someone she loves.

That said, I tried to write a world with robust queerness. Just because my main characters are asexual-curious doesn’t mean allosexual people don’t exist or have meaningful struggles. We meet parents, couples and people with fetishes. It is a little fun to see Shesheshen look down on some of them the very same way they look down on “poor, confused” asexual people. Shesheshen is an opinionated monster. And good for her!

Someone You Can Build a Nest In takes place on an isthmus, an in-between place, and many of the struggles of the book are reflected in not just the in-between nature of its setting but the in-between nature of its characters, torn between what they should be and what they want to be. What drew you to working with such a setting? What are some of your favorite parts of the strange little world you have built?
You caught that! Yes, it was deliberate to have a monster at odds with what the locals let her be, contrasted with a small town that lives at the behest of these enormous outside forces, all living out their life-and-death context on a small strip of land that is tiny compared to the empires outside its borders. Their whole struggle with each other is minor in the eyes of the L’Étatters, Engmars and Wulfyres. The isthmus never participated in the historic war of outside powers, yet because they are at the mercy of those countries, their whole history shaped by it.

I love a great epic fantasy about a clash of cultures, like Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty and C.L. Clark’s The Unbroken and The Faithless. But not everybody affected by a war is fighting it, or is even part of the nations involved. We don’t hear enough stories of people stuck in between powers. It felt right to show the fallout of these terrifying forces that could, on any single wrong day, destroy the isthmus. It’s another kind of estrangement. One that Shesheshen has taken very personally.

I’d love some edition of the book to someday include a whole map of this world, to show just how tiny and vulnerable Shesheshen’s whole world is. The isthmus would be tiny! And, nevertheless, at the center.

“Stories can help us understand that we belong everywhere.”

Homily’s family believes they are cursed by a local monster, but Shesheshen disputes that, mostly as she doesn’t remember cursing anybody. Do you think curses are cosmically real or things we create ourselves?
Are you suggesting I’m under a curse right now? Please tell me a phantom isn’t hovering overhead. What’s fascinating to me about omens and curses and spells is how they make us question what our actions mean. Did I do this on purpose? Is it a habit, or addiction? Is an outside source influencing me in ways I don’t understand? Those are eternal questions, whether you were a ninth-century hermit, or somebody who can’t stop checking their phone because your apps have trained you.

So now this family thinks they’re being killed off by Shesheshen. And Shesheshen thinks she’s innocent of casting the curse on them, but she isn’t exactly innocent in some of their demises, is she? Maybe there’s more going on than she thinks. When somebody accuses you from out of nowhere, it’s natural to wonder where they got this idea. Especially if that idea threatens you.

In your acknowledgements, you pay tribute to the monsters and villains that you grew up rooting for. Queerness and monstrosity, as well as disability and monstrosity, have been tied together in fiction in a way that both communities have embraced rather than rejected. What draws you to the monstrous, and why do you think our communities are drawn to them?
Let me start here: Monsters are often the character a story says we don’t have to sympathize with. The characters that are said to be evil for evil’s sake. They are supposed to have no depth. But the moment you find monsters interesting, you question: What depth might they have that a storyteller might deny is there? What is it like to live as this creature? Those questions always wake up the part of me that wants to run to the keyboard and find out.

Back before I became disabled, and before I knew I was queer, I still loved monsters. There’s a fascination with what scares us, especially when what scares us is a person. What’s it like to live as Dracula? Not for one book, but for centuries of that existence? If you can be a monster, then you’ll be the one doing violence. And many of us are taught this corrosive lie that if you are the one doing violence, then you’ll be safe.

Then you grow up, and you realize how many of our fantastical monsters are coded to be like so-called “undesirable” people. The cloying line between zombies and the fear of unwashed masses of outsiders. How many monstrous body parts look like “disfigured” people, and that such stories basically validate the irrational disgust for people who just look different. That vampires were coded as queer to some extent because audiences would fear them more and saw queer people as predators. Just the cultural tonnage of media saying mentally ill people are monsters who must be killed for your own safety is crushing, especially if you’ve ever known a mentally ill person and what they have to survive just to live a life.

So at some point you say to yourself, “If all of these stories say I’m a monster because I’m chronically ill, or because I’m queer, or I’m the wrong religion? Then I’m going to be a monster and proud.” The draw is adopting these fictional critters into our real psyches. Making them avatars of refusing to conform. Because werewolves aren’t the only ones uncomfortable in their skin.

Read our starred review of ‘Someone You Can Build a Nest In’ by John Wiswell.

Up until now, you’ve been working in the realm of short stories, having won a Nebula Award and been published in Tordotcom, Apex, Uncanny and, honestly, nearly every established genre fiction magazine. What drew you to writing a novel-length work? What are some of the biggest differences between writing short stories and writing a novel?
I’ve actually been writing novels since before I started blogging in 2007. Novels just take longer! I fell in love with writing because it lets me explore the wholeness of characters. To do justice to a story that captures who they are. Some characters are simpler, or have shorter journeys to express themselves. Others, like Shesheshen and Homily, require a lot of gory room to get their truth out. That’s honestly the big difference between writing shorts and novels for me, too: How much does a character need to share with us in order to be heard?

Which means going forward I want to write more novels, but also more shorts. Characters come in all sizes. And I love meeting new characters.

How has genre fiction changed since you first began sharing snippets of your writing on your website back in 2007?
Oh, wow. Since the mid-2000s? You’re talking about A Song of Ice and Fire growing into a global phenomenon, and “grimdark” going from a pejorative term to thousands of people’s favorite thing to read. The boom of young adult dystopias. BIPOC creators getting way more equity—the breakouts of modern greats like Ken Liu, N.K. Jemisin, Fonda Lee, Shannon Chakraborty, P. Djeli Clark, C.L. Polk, Shelley Parker-Chan, Tasha Suri and so on. LGBTQ+ authors and characters appearing far more frequently.

If I had to simplify it to my own experience? Back when I started writing, I wouldn’t have expected a short story like “Open House on Haunted Hill” or a novel like Someone You Can Build a Nest In to be publishable. It felt like the only place for disabled characters was as an object of pity or as a grotesque villain. Now, did I want to read stories like these back then? Badly. Desperately. But I wouldn’t have even tried to write them, because I would have been sure they weren’t allowed. What’s changed is many brave authors and editors and agents, and readers and critics, have demanded better. Feeling like more people would give me the time of day if I was myself. You can’t get a greater gift than that. I try to pass it on, when I can.

Ultimately the greatest change, from flash fiction all the way to multibook series, is that more kinds of stories are getting published. More perspectives are getting shared. Horizons broaden. It makes me glad to be alive and writing now, among so many great peers.

Photo of John Wiswell by Nicholas Sabin.

Meet Shesheshen, a carnivorous shape-shifting blob who might eat her girlfriend’s mom. She’s the best.
John Wiswell author photo

She’s penned the upcoming film adaptation of Emily Henry’s beloved rom-com People We Meet on Vacation. She’s set to write and direct the movie version of another beloved Henry rom-com, Beach Read. But first, Yulin Kuang is going to release her own romance, How to End a Love Story, a sharp, poignant love story between Helen and Grant, two screenwriters linked by a terrible accident that happened when they were in high school. 

You’ve been working in Los Angeles as a screenwriter and director for years. How did you approach the shift from storytelling for the screen to storytelling for the page?
I wrote this book at a time when almost everything else I was working on was an adaptation of something, and I wanted to see if I had anything original left within me. I meant to write myself an original feature script to direct, but it was October and NaNoWriMo [National Novel Writing Month] was in the air. 

I used to write fan fiction (you’d have to go pretty far back to find it, two decades minimum) and I studied creative writing at Carnegie Mellon, so writing this book felt a bit like stepping into an alternate timeline where I picked books instead of TV/movies after graduation. 

From a craft perspective, I approached writing this novel as if I was directing the movie in the reader’s mind. The note I kept getting from my editor, Carrie Feron, was “What does it smell like?”—which I never think about in screenwriting! I ended up giving myself a diary exercise for a month where I’d spend a few lines describing the scents of places I’d been throughout the day.

“. . . you can’t write 90K+ words without putting something of yourself on the page.”

The story starts when Helen is reunited with Grant after joining the writers room for the TV adaptation of her young adult novels. Did any real-life experiences of your own inspire those moments? 
I created a short film called “I Ship It,” which turned into a web series, which then turned into a TV show that the CW canceled after airing two episodes in 2019. (You can now watch the show on the CBC Gem app in Canada and nowhere else. Looking back on that experience, I think I had a lot of ideas and passion, and not a lot of control over my instrument, as my piano teacher might say.

I was an incredibly young showrunner and I definitely felt such imposter syndrome throughout the process, which Helen feels too, in the book. I hired a number two, Ann Lewis Hamilton, who was much more experienced than me: She had worked on shows I loved growing up like “One Tree Hill” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” and she taught me a lot in terms of expectations in the writers room. I also developed a 27 Dresses pilot for ABC Studios with Aline Brosh McKenna, and I learned so much from her about how to interpret notes from producers and how to pitch a project and myself to a studio.

These are just two of the many, very smart women who’ve helped me in my career; I feel like I poured every bit of good advice I’ve received since graduation into this book. It felt less like inspiration from real life and more like a feverish scribbling down of all the industry wisdom I’d managed to acquire by 2021, lest I forget it the next time someone asked.

Now that you’re an author yourself, will you approach future adaptations differently?
I’m currently working on an adaptation of Emily Henry’s Beach Read, which is about two authors who decide to switch genres for a summer. I’ve been joking with my producer Karina Rahardja that I’m a method director, and I had to go write a novel so I could understand these characters better. 

The main thing I’ve learned in the process is that it’s so very, very vulnerable to write a book! So if anything, I’m approaching any authors I potentially adapt in the future with the firsthand understanding that you can’t write 90K+ words without putting something of yourself on the page.

Book jacket image for How to End a Love Story by Yulin Kuang

Grant tries to find a character in Helen’s book he identifies with (he thinks he’s a “Bellamy, with a Phoebe rising”). Which character in the book do you most identify with? What characters from your other projects have you found pieces of yourself in?
I gave Helen all my insecurities and ambitions from when I was 18, and then asked myself how all those qualities would have aged if I’d lived the alternate timeline where I moved to New York after graduation and became a novelist instead of a screenwriter.

I didn’t particularly like myself back then, so the most compelling part of writing Helen was staring into that black mirror reflecting back the parts of me I’ve actively tried to grow away from, and to see what could have happened if I’d grown into them instead.

I gave Grant every attractive quality I’ve ever coveted as a working screenwriter; mainly, that he’s “good in a room,” which is something I really struggled with in the beginning, as an inside child who grew up extremely online and matured into a classic introvert. But my reps tell me “good in a room” is how I am described after general meetings, which is of course nice to hear!

In my other projects, I’m partial to Ella in “I Ship It” (the TV series) and the titular Irene of “Irene Lee, Girl Detective” (a short film on my YouTube channel that I’m still quite proud of). I love hungry, ambitious, obsessive women.

Do you really think that second kisses are a bigger deal than the first kiss? Why?
I’m pretty sure I wrote that line because of a specific plotline in “Dawson’s Creek,” season three episode 19 (one of the greatest episodes of television possibly ever???) with Joey and Pacey, where they had already kissed in an earlier episode, but the second kiss was what made it A Thing.

So maybe yes, as a viewer of How to End a Love Story’s fictional television program, second kisses are a bigger deal than first kisses!

But in real life, your mileage may vary.

“I love hungry, ambitious, obsessive women.”

Helen and Grant are linked through a tragedy that occurred when they were teenagers. Was that why you made Helen a successful YA writer?
I wanted to write someone who was a little mentally stuck in her senior year of high school, but was chafing against it as she was trying to grow as a person and an artist. YA felt like a natural fit for that journey, in the context of this story.

I have a much younger sister; the age gap between us is 14 years. I definitely felt some pressure to be a good role model for my sister, and I was very consciously avoiding themes that might feel too “adult” in my work for a long time as a result. 

If you watch any of my vlogs on my YouTube channel from the 2010s (haha please don’t), I think it’s very clear I’m speaking primarily to a YA audience on early BookTube, while also fully embracing the twee Tumblr culture of the era which manifested in me and my work as, how should we describe it . . . a pretty and sexless aesthetic? Does that feel accurate? I was so horny and so repressed, and the YA of it all definitely played a role: It meant I could talk about romance and fandom without worrying that my mother would die of shame or my sister couldn’t watch my vlogs or read the books I was recommending.

Anyway, I eventually got over that, and so did Helen.

Great novels don’t necessarily result in great movies. What do you think a book needs in order to translate well to the screen?
A good screenwriter and a great premise.

Read our starred review of ‘How to End a Love Story’ by Yulin Kuang.

What is it about Emily Henry’s work that you connect to? What is the easiest part of translating it to the screen, and what is the hardest part?
I’ve spent so much time trying to claw my way into the mind of Emily Henry, I sometimes wonder if she senses it. Emily, can you hear me right now?!

In seriousness, I first connected with Emily’s work because we both appear to be obsessed with romance, ’90s rom-coms and art with a meta component. I told Sarah MacLean all this when we first met over lunch, and she looked at me like I had missed something obvious, then said, “And grief, clearly.” I wonder if all writers writing after the pandemic are a little obsessed with grief, though.

The easiest part: Emily’s dialogue adapts like butter. The hardest part is finding visually compelling ways to show all that lovely interiority onscreen.

What’s next for you? Do you think you’ll stick with novels or go back to the screen? 
I have two more novels due in this book deal, so I will be chained to my laptop trying to squeeze blood from rocks for another 200K-ish words.

In the meantime, I have a couple projects in various stages of development on the screen side—one adaptation, one original. I like to be creatively nimble.

Photo of Yulin Kuang by Sela Shiloni.

The writer and director behind the upcoming adaptations of Beach Read and People We Meet on Vacation is staking her own claim to romance greatness.
Yulin Kuang headshot

British writer Faridah Abiké-Iyimidé knows architecture is a significant part of what makes boarding school novels so compelling. Readers long to read about unsettling towers, rumor-filled halls and hidden entrances leading to dangerous secrets—and they’ll find all these at Alfred Nobel Academy, the elite and foreboding boarding school that forms the setting of Abiké-Iyimidé’s sophomore young adult novel, Where Sleeping Girls Lie.

Abiké-Iyimidé has long held a fascination with old buildings. “Schools in the U.K. are very strange, because even if your school is literally one of the worst in the country, it might just happen to be also in a castle,” she says, on a Zoom call from her home in London. “My school is now shut down because of how bad it was. People were failing all the time, the teachers weren’t great.”

Despite this, her school’s stunning campus, which was built several centuries ago, provided inspiration for Where Sleeping Girls Lie. In the basement was the school shop, where students could buy uniforms and supplies. “I would always notice random doors there,” Abiké-Iyimidé recalls. One day, she found out that the doors led to tunnels from one of the World Wars, which the nuns (she attended a Catholic school, but is Muslim) would walk through to get to the town center. Abiké-Iyimidé wondered how anyone could be sure that there wasn’t someone hiding in the tunnels all the time.

Later, Abiké-Iyimidé attended the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, founded in 1495. There, she was able to walk through picturesque halls “built at a time I can’t even conceive of in my head” as well as observe superstitions and traditions of the kind that lend a distinct, fascinating atmosphere to the dark academia subgenre. “I love when a specific institution has its own code like, ‘On Fridays, we do this.’ When I got to university, I was told . . . if you walk on the grass, you will fail your final year. I remember seeing someone just jump on the grass because they didn’t believe it. I always wanted to check in with them to see what happened in the end.”

Tradition is key at Alfred Nobel Academy, a boarding school where students wear stiff uniforms that resemble “funeral attire” and get sorted into eight houses. “I’ve always grown up wanting to go to [boarding school]. Never could convince my mom to go and enroll me or anything,” Abiké-Iyimidé says. “With Where Sleeping Girls Lie, it’s almost like my fantasy of experiencing boarding school, while bad things are happening in the background. I want readers to feel like they want to attend this school. Obviously, not during this timeline. Because it’s a terrible timeline.”

Indeed, misfortune strikes almost as soon as protagonist Sade Hussein steps foot on Alfred Nobel’s campus, and not just because the school matron is snippy over the fact that the death of Sade’s father led her to show up four weeks late. Sade is befriended quickly by her new roommate and house sister, Elizabeth Wang, who is kind but seems distracted. Then Elizabeth goes missing, a mystery no one seems invested in solving—except Sade and Elizabeth’s best friend, pink-haired Baz. In her struggle to unearth the intricate circumstances behind Elizabeth’s disappearance, Sade finds herself surrounded by a captivating cast that includes three “popular for being pretty” girls nicknamed the “Unholy Trinity,” as well the boys of Hawking House, where infamous parties take place. Every one of these characters, whether friendly or hostile, carries their own secrets.

Part of the appeal of a school setting, according to Abiké-Iyimidé, is that “it’s a rare time in your life where your friends and community are always there. The idea of not having to go home—you can literally live with your friends—just sounds like the dream.”

Growing up, Abiké-Iyimidé was a fan of shows featuring boarding schools like “Zoey 101” and “House of Anubis,” which “make you feel like you can get away with a lot of things because adults feel less present in your life.” Such circumstances are ripe for “found families built from being forced to get to know people intimately and live with them.”

“The stories I’ve enjoyed growing up are the ones where I fall in love with the characters,”  Abiké-Iyimidé says. Even when writing thrillers, she takes care “to stand still sometimes and . . . look at these people as human beings—their interactions, the things they’re interested in and the things that make them who they are.”

Abiké-Iyimidé’s debut novel, Ace of Spades, was an international bestseller, and won the 2022 NAACP Image Award Winner for Outstanding Literary Work in the Youth/Teens category—all of which is made even more remarkable by the fact that Abiké-Iyimidé wrote the young adult thriller when she was 19. “Now I’m 25. . . . I’ve got a fully developed prefrontal cortex and everything.” Although she’s proud of her debut, “I’m definitely not the same person. I always kind of joke that the person that wrote Ace of Spades is kind of dead.”

With my second book, I really wanted to do a lot more character work and take the time to make sure that the story felt like a place that was lived in.”

“Every author struggles with the fear of messing up your sophomore novel,” Abiké-Iyimidé says. When writing Where Sleeping Girls Lie, “I wanted to play with mixed media and interesting formats.” Where Sleeping Girls Lie pieces together standard narration, flashbacks, interview transcripts, diary snippets and more. She created tension through “playing with structure” and “having the reader be . . . only allowed in through these small windows of time.”

“Making the reader not trust you or the narrator is very exciting,” she says. But Abiké-Iyimidé also had concerns beyond successfully crafting a thrilling mystery:  “With my second book, I really wanted to do a lot more character work and take the time to make sure that the story felt like a place that was lived in.”

Like Where Sleeping Girls Lie, Ace of Spades, which took place at the similarly prestigious Niveus Private Academy, explores institutional discrimination. “When I was writing Ace of Spades, I had a lot less hope,” she says. “Even though I see the world as a lot more bleak now, I think that hope is almost what I need in order to feel happy and to feel like I can continue talking about these things. So I think Where Sleeping Girls Lie is a lot more hopeful than Ace of Spades, just because my perspective has had to shift in order to survive.”

“Since I was young, I loved reading about political issues, particularly those that I would relate to as a Black Muslim woman. . . . I’ve always been interested in discussions around feminism.” When Abiké-Iyimidé started attending university, the #MeToo story broke in Hollywood. “There was a [similar] thing happening in the UK across different universities as well, where we were seeing a lot of kind of gentleman’s group chats being unearthed,” she says.

Abiké-Iyimidé was particularly interested in the passive participants: those who only silently participated or solely commented. Having attended an all-girls secondary school, university was the first time where Abiké-Iyimidé made a lot of male friends. She was taken aback by some of the things they would tell her. “They were like, ‘Oh, my friend did this awful thing, but you know, I look down on him for that.’ But you know, you’re still getting drinks with him every night and hanging out and essentially cosigning his behavior by being in community with him.”

In Where Sleeping Girls Lie, Abiké-Iyimidé wanted to highlight how such individuals are still indirectly linked to the wrongs their peers commit, despite seeming “nice” or not actively participating. “Even though there is the more monstrous kind of man represented in the story, I want the quieter, [but still] complicit people to also be spotlighted.”

“I really love writing unlikable Black girls, and I hope to get to write them forever.”

This principle of applying a fresh perspective carries over to her female characters as well. She finds the mean girl archetype to be “deceptively simple.” “There’s more going on under the surface with the mean girl,” Abiké-Iyimidé says. Specifically, “I really love writing Black girls as mean because I think oftentimes we are depicted as mean anyway. Or people portray us or receive us as being mean.”

“I really love writing unlikable Black girls, and I hope to get to write them forever,” she says. “Rather than trying to prove to an imaginary white reader that we’re not awful people, I lean into it even more. I’m like, ‘Yeah, we’re awful, actually. And you know, you should love us anyway.’” Having previously explored this in Ace of Spades with main character Chiamaka, who struggles with fitting in at her predominantly white institution, Abiké-Iyimidé continues in Where Sleeping Girls Lie to dissect “the idea of Black women having to strive to be the very best in order to get like, you know, even a small amount of recognition for their talents—and how that might develop into someone being very hard. And very not nice, or not appearing nice.” In Abiké-Iyimidé’s novels, Black “mean girls”—as well as characters of other races—often grapple with complex aspects of marginalization, sexuality and victimhood.

Another, more lighthearted common thread throughout Abiké-Iyimidé’s books is the reliable presence of a little animal character. Ace of Spades featured a cat named Bullshit who became a fan favorite, and Abiké-Iyimidé “thinks that I will always have those kinds of characters in my stories,” because she enjoys the “moments of levity” they provide.

But truthfully? “I am actually so afraid of animals in real life,” Abiké-Iyimidé says. It’s another way in which she’s “living out fantasies through my stories. . . .  I’m just so, so scared of them.”

Worry not, readers: As proof of Abiké-Iyimidé’s authorial powers, a very cute guinea pig named Muffin appears throughout Where Sleeping Girls Lie.

Photo of Faridah Abiké-Iyimidé by Joy Olugboyega.

Following the massive success of her debut novel, Ace of Spades, the author plunges readers into the halls of an ominous boarding school in her sophomore offering.

Julia Alvarez’s work is inspired by what she feels is missing in the world: “I write very much to gaps on my bookshelf.” When Alvarez conceived her 1991 debut novel, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, “the few immigrant stories that were out there like [those] by Oscar Hijuelos, Piri Thomas and Edward Rivera” were all by male authors. That glaring lack spurred the Dominican American author to action. She thought deeply about what the immigrant experience was for women and how to depict it for her characters, even as, having moved from the Dominican Republic to the U.S. when she was 10, she was living a version of that reality herself.

Three decades later, Alvarez’s seventh novel, The Cemetery of Untold Stories, beautifully illuminates the experience of an artist’s twilight years. Writer Alma Cruz feels worn down by her cherished vocation, like she has “run out of stories and creative stamina.” When she inherits a piece of land in a poor barrio next to a town dump in her homeland of the Dominican Republic, she seizes the opportunity to push what torments her away. She decides to make “a cemetery for all her failed manuscripts, her rough drafts, her never fully realized characters and lay them to rest there.” What happens next is magical. Alma’s characters refuse to be discarded. Alvarez likens the events that ensue to a famous aphorism: “They tried to bury us; they did not know we were seeds.”

Instead of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, why not a portrait of the artist as an older woman?

If writing to fill the gaps on her shelf is how Alvarez makes sense of her work, with this novel, the hole Alvarez is trying to fill is the universal yet neglected topic of growing older yet remaining vital and productive as an artist and human being. As she so perfectly puts it, instead of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, why not a portrait of the artist as an older woman? Intrigued by the evolution involved in aging and what critic Constance Rooke called the Vollendungsroman—“a novel of completion” or “winding up” in contrast to a Bildungsroman— Alvarez uses the supernatural metaphor of a graveyard of stories to bring the issue of aging and art to life on the page. In the abstract, envisioning the creative process as a metaphorical haunting sounds wonderfully fanciful and inventive. From a reader’s experience, the effect is simply genius. Alvarez invites the reader to enter her novel as if they are at the gates of that island cemetery.

The choice to focus on an older artist comes from Alvarez’s soul and experience, but it’s also well-timed. As the large cohort of baby boomers grow older, this phase of life is increasingly salient. Despite the size and influence of the boomer generation, in books, as in much of American culture, the dominant preference for youth remains overwhelming. Alvarez calls out literature’s persistent ageism, which is resistant and slow to change. This bias manifests in a multitude of ways, but Alvarez particularly notes that older characters, especially older women, usually play supporting roles to the protagonist. “When older women do appear as characters, we’re their mothers and their abuelitas,” says Alvarez, a fact that the 73-year-old novelist finds discomfiting and unsatisfactory.

In The Cemetery of Untold Stories, Alvarez turns that marginalization on its head, putting older main character energy on every page. Conjuring a material metaphor of burial for the tangled psychological process of moving on from unfinished business proves a brilliant starting point. And for Alvarez, who began her writing life as a poet, putting ideas into metaphor is a necessary, vital process. “That’s what stories are,” Alvarez says. Her protagonist Alma wants to get beyond the “groomed lawns of once upon a time, she wants to break out of her life as a writer, but what is a life beyond narrative?” What Alma discovers is that “there is no life beyond narrative,” explains Alvarez. In this territory, Alvarez is also inspired by literary critic Edward Said, who wrote about the particular “late style” of older storytellers, which he characterized by a feeling of displacement, running out of time and being preoccupied with things that are unresolved—much in keeping with what Alma and her writer friend go through in The Cemetery of Untold Stories.

Read our starred review of The Cemetery of Untold Stories.

Alvarez has long been a professor of creative writing and literature at Middlebury College (now emeritus, but she’ll teach the occasional workshop for those lucky few students). Her writing is infused with lyricism and metaphor, but it’s also engrossing and accessible. It has the appeal of someone with great respect for the universality of storytelling and the oral tradition. The Dominican American writer is also bilingual, and that too shapes her style and expression. She remembers once being asked at a reading, “When are you going to start writing shorter sentences?” and wondering whether the questioner was right. But Alvarez now knows that what that reader considered flaws are part of what makes her style distinctive. “I’m writing my Spanish in English,” Alvarez says. “The structure is Spanish. The syntax, the floridness of it is the way I hear and understand and construct English. They’re all enmeshed.”

In conversation, Alvarez is an exuberant and fluid communicator of both ideas and process, yet she’s also clear that the transformation of ideas into stories isn’t easy. She likens this beautiful struggle of creation to exploring uncharted territory; there is no road map and no recipe. “When we talk, I have this abstraction, but really, when you’re writing, you’re sort of in the dark, you know, you’re discovering as you go along. You go down the wrong alley, and you have to start over.”

Finding a book that does something new and speaks to your experience is a revelation. Early in Alvarez’s career, these moments were so rare that the pleasure of recognition still resonates today; when she talks about them now it sounds as though she’s experiencing the awakening all over again. “I loved Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior because it was the first book that I read that was by a Chinese American woman, but it could well have been written by a Dominican woman,” says Alvarez. She remembers the first line as one “that I think any Latina of my generation could start her novel with.” The line is “‘You must not tell anyone,’ my mother said, ‘what I am about to tell you’”—then Hong tells the story. Alvarez related because her own mother taught her that family secrets were to be fiercely guarded. Though she respects her family, she has reveled in the freedom of transgressing that taboo throughout her working life.

Alvarez continues to take great pleasure in exposing and exploring life’s great truths in her fiction. Not teaching means more time for travel and for writing from wherever in the world she and her partner land in. As she proves in The Cemetery of Untold Stories, there’s nothing retiring about this phase of life.

Julia Alvarez author photo © Todd Balfour for Middlebury College.

In her enchanting seventh novel, Julia Alvarez explores the perspective of a writer in the late stages of her career.
Julia Alvarez © Todd Balfour for Middlebury College

At 40, Hanif Abdurraqib feels time’s passage. “Every hour that I live beyond what I anticipated my life to be feels like I’m just stealing time,” he says.

Abdurraqib has already left an indelible mark on America’s literary and cultural landscape. He is both prolific and diverse, successfully venturing into poetry, essay and music criticism. Whether he is writing about seminal hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest (Go Ahead in the Rain) or Black performance (National Book Award finalist A Little Devil in America), or such wide-ranging topics as the ’90s rom-com You’ve Got Mail, Bruce Springsteen and public displays of affection, the MacArthur fellow blends observation, analysis and memoir. His writing reveals our most fervent desires and heartbreaks, and at times, his own, such as the untimely deaths of his mother and some of his friends.

“I write in hopes that my larger world becomes a little less lonely,” the author says.

With There’s Always This Year: On Basketball and Ascension, Abdurraqib turns his singular pen toward asphalt courts in neighborhood parks and waxed hardwoods in 10,000-seat arenas. If you’re thinking, “Basketball isn’t my thing,” fear not. By exploring the cultural nuances of the sport, Abdurraqib uses it as a lens through which to grapple with grief and legacy, place and beauty, our struggles and our strivings.

“You grow a legacy and mythology through word of mouth, through storytelling.”

Like a basketball game, There’s Always This Year is structured in four quarters that count down from 12 minutes. Poetic intermissions and timeouts offer moments of pause, sometimes mid-sentence, and a pregame chapter serves as the book’s introduction. This ambitious approach could be a distraction in less gifted hands, but here, the form adds to the immersive nature of the book and the tension of a clock that will inevitably run out. But before it does, Abdurraqib shows us what it means to ascend, like a player who launches himself from the foul line, he writes, “his arm stretched straight up, heavenbound, the basketball, an offering to the sky, but only for a moment.”

There's Always This Year by Hanif Abdurraqib

“I wanted to reframe my relationship with the passage of time,” he says. “Ascension felt like a really great way to describe continually crawling towards and beyond these ages that I had not anticipated myself getting to.”

Abdurraqib homes in on the basketball culture of his native and predominantly Black East Columbus, Ohio, neighborhood. It features the stories of several local and regional basketball players, many of whom never made it to the NBA. He chronicles the careers of local stars like Kenny Gregory, who was welcomed home from games by a parade of kids who followed his car in praise; and Estaban Weaver, whose posters hung in the homes of Eastside Columbus kids “who idolized him then, who idolize him always.” People like Coach Bruce Howard, who led Abdurraqib’s high school’s team to its first title win and who “never forgot a face,” transcend time.

These are names you are unlikely to find in basketball history books, on an ESPN debate show or on basketball Twitter. In a world that only values those who reach mainstream-determined peaks, such figures get left out of the historical record. For Abdurraqib, this reflects a misunderstanding of the nature of basketball culture and the power of storytelling in Black communities.

“I think there is a real purpose in living a life where you build a mythology around yourself that carries through generations,” he says. “It passes through young people saying ‘I saw this thing that you would not believe. Can I tell you about this thing I saw that you would not believe?’ You grow a legacy and mythology through word of mouth, through storytelling.”

For Abdurraqib, the basketball culture of East Columbus was a convener that cut across social and economic lines to bring disparate players and fans into a shared space: “There was this real democratization of the space. Kenny Gregory and Michael Red were high-school All-Americans, but they are playing alongside a guy who’s like a second-string point guard for the high-school team. Everybody’s coming from somewhere different, but that’s the team.”

There’s Always This Year is also about the power of place and community. East Columbus figures heavily in the text—not just as the backdrop for activity, but as a living, breathing organism animated by intergenerational connections, shared worldviews and vital creative energy. “I’m grateful not only to be from the east side of Columbus, but to grow up at the time I grew up,” Abdurraqib says. “I grew up in a neighborhood that was definitely poor or working class. But it never felt that way from inside.”

Though concerned with ascension, this is also a story of rootedness. Abdurraqib’s examination of a local community eschews common narratives that suggest that success for Black people requires an escape from home. Staying, for those from East Columbus, means remaining connected to a culturally vibrant community. “I still live on the east side of Columbus,” Abdurraqib says. “I never wanted this feeling of exodus. I began to think really hard about what it is to not want to make it out and, through that not making it out, redefine staying as something beyond failure.”

Basketball icon LeBron James exemplifies this tension between home and ascension. Known as one of the GOATs of the sport, LeBron’s skilled physical and cerebral play has translated to several NBA championships, personal awards, incredible wealth and one of the most recognizable names in popular culture. Abdurraqib offers an intimate depiction of LeBron’s rise from nearby Akron, Ohio, to global stardom, one that reflects LeBron’s symbolic meaning for Black Ohioans. “I do have an unshakable affection for LeBron’s rise,” says the author. “There’s a miraculous nature to the way his shadow cast over the state that I love.”

Despite his cultural ascendancy, LeBron also stands out as one of the most polarizing figures in professional athletics. A significant body of fans either downplay his accomplishments or want to see him fail. “Not only are there people waiting for him to fail,” says Abdurraqib, “but people are waiting for him to fail in a very specific way that aligns with this kind of thirst for the downfall of the Black megastar. They want these tragic endings that serve as a kind of performance for white audiences who hunger for these kinds of failures.”

“I write in hopes that my larger world becomes a little less lonely.”

In the book, Abdurraqib effectively synthesizes stories that differ in nature, scale and time. He also carefully weaves in details from his own life, using it as a connecting force that affirms and complicates key themes. He shares private episodes of love and loss, his relationship with his father, his experience with the criminal justice system and a period of being unhoused. Through his very public vulnerability, Abdurraqib wants to disrupt our black-and-white moral sensibilities. “I think people enjoy a rehabilitative story of someone who did bad things once and now is in better and giving to the world,” he says. “I don’t think that, internally, I am a better person. I am a more resourced person than I was, but I don’t think I’m better. I wanted to write to upset this binary of bad person makes good. Instead, we should be asking, ‘What are we subjecting ‘good people’ to?’”

The clock does eventually run out. But in the end, There’s Always This Year transcends time. “We go on living,” Abdurraqib writes, “while a past version of ourselves remains locked, peacefully, in a euphoric dream.”

This book is a revelatory addition to Abdurraqib’s incredible body of work, which has touched many souls and reoriented worldviews over the past decade. His own ascendancy is remarkable. His creative drive and cultural impact are the products of a very personal and heartfelt intention. “I feel like my purpose for myself is to reframe this kind of world that a lot of people feel brutally isolated from, or a world that cannot translate people’s desire to be seen within it or be held within it or be loved or thought of within it,” he says.

“I just hope my work does other people kindness. I just hope it shrinks all of our aches and all of our absences and all of our hungers a bit more if it can.”

Read our starred review of ‘There’s Always This Year’ by Hanif Abdurraqib.

Hanif Abdurraqib author photo by Kendra Bryant.

The A Little Devil in America author turns his singular pen to basketball—and how the sport illustrates our struggles and strivings.
Hanif Abdurraqib

It’s common practice among many publishers to leave translators’ bylines off book covers—an act of erasure that reinforces the widely held belief that original texts are sacred and thus superior to any translation. Jennifer Croft, who is best known for her translations of Nobel Prize-winning Polish author Olga Tokarczuk’s books, is challenging readers and critics to rethink this flawed paradigm.

“Our contemporary notion of authority depends upon the existence—still—of a single trustworthy individual. In literature, this figure is the author, the inimitable person who chooses and disposes words,” Croft writes in “Superlichen,” an essay published in Orion Magazine in 2023. “In this mystical-commercial understanding of literature, translators are necessarily suspect. They adulterate the truth, making it impossible to trust. When translators are truly necessary, they’re ideally neither seen nor heard. That way we can tell ourselves that the Original has remained mostly unscathed on its journey into English.”

But books thrive in translation. They reach new readership, and in some cases, the quality of the original text can even improve. Croft, who won the International Booker Prize in 2018 for her translation of Tokarczuk’s Flights, urges readers to consider translation to be co-creation, a labor of interdependent individuals who are building a completely new work of art.

“The translator is the one who writes every single word of the book that you end up reading,” Croft says, speaking from her home in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on a late December morning—the kind of gray day that’s well suited to a discussion about her puckish, unnerving debut novel. “The writer is obviously the person who’s behind everything, which in a way, of course, is true. But I feel like people aren’t fully grasping the essentially, fundamentally collaborative nature, that [a translated work] is a co-authored book. So I really wanted to show that playing out in an exaggerated, humorous way.”

“What is a faithful translation? What is your duty to a text and a person and a vision and also a readership?”

The Extinction of Irena Rey, which earned Croft a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2022, is the story of eight translators who are initially introduced not by name but by their languages of translation (English, Spanish, Serbian, etc.). It’s 2017, and they have convened at the idyllic home of (fictional) world-renowned Polish author Irena Rey. Her house resides at the edge of the Bialowieza Forest, a primeval wood spanning the border of Poland and Belarus. Over the course of the next several weeks, they will translate her presumed magnum opus, Grey Eminence.

Translators aren’t always in contact with an author while translating, but Irena prefers to be highly involved in the process. The translators are forbidden from translating other authors—except two Polish poets widely considered untranslatable—and they must follow Irena’s many house rules, which include no drinking, no eating meat and so on. It is full isolation, full adoration, full commitment to Irena’s genius. But suddenly, Irena vanishes, and the translators are left reeling.

Having lost their moral center, the translators move en masse from room to room, from forest to pub and back to Irena’s house, wondering if Irena’s dead and completely freaking out. It’s such an ominous, claustrophobic setup that the reader would be forgiven for not realizing at first just how funny it all is. There’s a lot of shrieking and kissing and running around with a frantic narrative pace that resembles an old episode of “Scooby-Doo.”

During the gang’s search for clues, they come across some postcards, which only serve to further confuse them. “Postcards are like translation,” Croft says. “There’s the inherent hybrid and potential for clashes between the one side that has the picture and the other side that has the message.” There’s also the potentially troubling political significance of the type of imagery that is selected to represent a place, which can be stereotypical or limiting, “and then it may end up forcing the place to become more like the postcard.”

Croft explains that when postcards were first introduced in the 1860s, they were a revolutionary innovation that allowed more people to send mail, which previously had been a luxury exclusive to the upper classes. “[But the elite] were horrified by the idea that the hired help would be able to read their words,” she says. “I love looking at old postcards, because sometimes you can sense there’s a code happening or a private reference that you just cannot possibly understand.”

The implications of obscured, divided or layered interpretations run rampant in Croft’s novel, which opens with a preface titled “Warning: A Note from the Translator.” We learn that the book is a work of autofiction by Spanish (whose real name is Emi), subsequently translated by English (real name Alexis). Alexis’ translator’s note is dismissive, even derisive, and her footnotes are deliciously scathing. As a translator, she’s doing the unthinkable: sharing her true feelings about the book and even illuminating choices made in the translation process. (For example, when Emi refers to her own “pubis,” Alexis adds the footnote, “Here I have preserved her ridiculous word.”) Their feud renders the story’s perspective so canted, so untrustworthy, that we have no idea which version of events to believe.

“What we do enriches the cultural ecosystem, the linguistic ecosystem. The original text doesn’t even really matter that much.”

Even without quarreling co-authors, autofiction as a genre is a thorny bramble between memoir and fiction, memory and embellishment. The genre is particularly popular with French- and Spanish-language readers. Croft’s first book, Homesick, is a work of autofiction that she wrote in Argentine Spanish while living in Argentina, and it was only sold to an English-language publisher under the condition that it be published as a memoir, presumably because American readers aren’t as comfortable with the gray areas between truth and fiction.

“[Homesick] was kind of inspired by my childhood but [is] definitely not a factual account,” Croft says. “I think that frustration of always talking about what is true and what is not probably fed into the writing of [Irena Rey]. I think also I may have rebelled and made it even more outlandish. Obviously I’ve never fought a duel in a forest.”

The duel is only one of the many ludicrous outcomes of the translators’ search for Irena. It’s also, importantly, between two women: Emi and Alexis. “I actually wrote my PhD dissertation about duels in 20th-century fiction. I was so frustrated that I couldn’t find a single example of a women’s duel, or even a duel between a man and a woman,” Croft says. “A classic dueling premise is to fight over an ethical question. In this case, English and Spanish are fighting—well, at least Spanish believes that they’re fighting over the nature of truth, essentially. What is a faithful translation? What is your duty to a text and a person and a vision and also a readership? How do you truthfully or faithfully convey a sacred message to the world?”

The duel occurs in the Bialowieza Forest, which serves as a classic source of menace and myth. Forests exist in fiction to haunt us, and this one feeds off a history of violence, with corpses from World War II providing nutrients for a fungal network that subsequently feeds the trees and understory, which then feed the deer that feed the Polish villagers, and so on. In fact, the original title for the novel was Amadou, the name of a fungus that parasitically infects trees, serving as an essential decomposer in the forest, and which can also be used as both tinder and fabric.

“Obviously I’m an advocate for translation, and I love translators,” Croft says. “But I also wanted to think about the potentially darker side of translation in a lot of different ways, which goes hand-in-hand with thinking about the power of the translator.” However translation alters the original, or even betrays it, “what we do [as translators] enriches the cultural ecosystem, the linguistic ecosystem. The original text doesn’t even really matter that much. What matters is this potentially really lovely afterlife that [a work] can have, and all of the echoes and reverberations that it can have throughout that ecosystem.”

The concept of a literary afterlife opens us to seeing books as living, changeable works of art, in which language can die and be reborn in translation. Certainly by the end of The Extinction of Irena Rey, the structures that uphold notions like artistic celebrity and all-powerful genius have rotted through and collapsed, and from the remains, something new grows.

Read our starred review of The Extinction of Irena Rey.

Jennifer Croft author photo © Nathan Jeffers.

With her mischievous debut novel, The Extinction of Irena Rey, Jennifer Croft draws readers deep into a gnarled forest in which eight translators search desperately for their beloved, vanished author.
Jennifer Croft by Nathan Jeffers.

Shortly after 9/11, Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe’s great-grandmother, troubled by the state of the world, commissioned a symphony. A Coast Salish elder and Indigenous language activist, Vi taqʷšəblu Hilbert had no prior connection to classical music. Yet her belief that our broken world desperately needed healing resulted in “The Healing Heart of the First People of This Land,” which was performed by the Seattle Symphony in 2006. The work was built from the sacred “spirit song” of Chief Seattle, whose treaty with white colonizers resulted in the building of the city of Seattle on top of the ancestral estuaries and salt marshes of the Coast Salish people. Writer, poet and musician LaPointe believes that if her great-grandmother were alive today, she would say, “We need these healing songs again. We need to do something.”

Book jacket image for Thunder Song by Sasha LaPointeSasha LaPointe’s incandescent Thunder Song is shaped by Vi Hilbert’s life, work and legacy, as well as by the more complicated influence of Chief Seattle. LaPointe’s own connection to her hometown features in many of the essays collected in this volume: “I have this complicated relationship with Seattle,” the author tells BookPage, “[with] my experience of being enamored with the city and then realizing what it means to exist in [Chief Seattle’s] namesake city as a Coast Salish woman.”

While LaPointe’s 2022 memoir, Red Paint, focused more on her individual story of trauma and healing, Thunder Song turns her gaze outwards. “Out of the stormy sea of writing Red Paint, I felt better for the first time in many years,” she says. “But when it was all done, I washed up on the shore and looked around and was like, what is wrong with the world right now?” It was the summer of 2020, and among the Black Lives Matter protests, the severe wildfires in Washington state and the pandemic, LaPointe felt spurred to action: “None of this is good, none of this is right. The sky doesn’t look right. And I threw myself into examining these things I was deeply angry about and disturbed by.”

In the title essay, LaPointe considers Hilbert’s healing influence amid political chaos and Indigenous erasure. “There is this collective trauma and collective grief and collective anger,” she says. “And the thing that really grounded me emotionally was looking to all the amazing things that our grandmother did around that symphony.” Other essays in the book cover the colonial erasure of Indigenous identity, the loss of ancestral lands and the violence that has claimed the lives of thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Like her great-grandmother, LaPointe turns to music to alchemize grief and sorrow—in her case, the electrifying rage of punk.

“I threw myself into examining these things I was deeply angry about and disturbed by.”

In “Reservation Riot Grrrl,” LaPointe makes a pointed but ultimately loving critique of the whiteness of punk. Listening to Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna sing about assault and survival was a pivotal turning point for a young LaPointe, who left home at 14 to make her way to Seattle’s punk scene. “Finding that misfit chosen family absolutely saved my life,” she says. The Riot Grrrl movement in particular offered her strength and empowerment. But LaPointe grew to feel that her Native identity was “submerged” in the whiteness of the punk scene, a feeling brought to a head when two white punks questioned LaPointe for wearing the red paint of her Native ancestors while performing with her band. She writes that their assumption that she was not Native “rattled me to my core,” threatening her Indigenous identity in a venue meant to offer safe harbor for misfits of all kinds.

The concluding essay, “Kinships,” was one of the last essays that LaPointe wrote for this collection. “It really was the medicine that the collection needed and that I needed while writing it,” she says. “I was this charged ball of anxiety and anger and fear for the world, for our Indigenous people, for our sacred land.” As described in the essay, she learns that the antidote for these feelings is connection with other Indigenous writers and activists across the globe. She writes movingly of her friendship with Maori poet Tayi Tibble, with whom she bonds over the links between their canoe-based cultures, as well as through their shared work as emerging Native writers. With Julian Aguon, an Indigenous human rights lawyer and the author of 2022’s No Country for Eight-Spot Butterflies, she finds another important relationship, especially when he asks LaPointe to deliver a petition to save sacred Indigenous lands in South Africa from development by Amazon. In these kinships, LaPointe finds seeds of hope: “We can be connected across the globe as Indigenous people who are fighting for our land and fighting for water,” she says.

Also in “Kinships,” LaPointe found herself once again guided by her great-grandmother’s spirit. Hilbert spent time in Hawai‘i working with Indigenous language revitalization groups, and when LaPointe visits the islands with her partner, she finds herself coincidentally and profoundly retracing her elder’s footsteps. Indeed, both Red Paint and Thunder Song are powerfully animated by the “spirit songs” of LaPointe’s matrilineal line; her writing is both a celebration and continuation of the work of her foremothers, in a Native punk mode all her own.

“We can be connected across the globe as Indigenous people who are fighting for our land and fighting for water.”

When I asked LaPointe who she was writing for, she immediately thought about “14-year-old Sasha out on the rez who desperately needed this book.” The response to Red Paint from Native readers was particularly gratifying: “When I consider an audience, I think of the folks who have reached out to me from tribal communities saying that reading my book helped them in some way.” Although LaPointe is primarily focused on these readers “who motivate me and bring me to the page,” there’s a larger audience for LaPointe’s work as well. By transmitting the healing songs of her great-grandmother through her own creative work in prose and performance, LaPointe offers all readers a chance to acknowledge and be changed by Indigenous voices and values.

Photo of Sasha LaPoint by Bridget McGee Houchins

Read our starred review of ‘Thunder Song’ by Sasha LaPointe.

Sasha LaPointe’s memoir in essays, Thunder Song, continues the work of her foremothers, in a Native punk mode all her own.

Few YA series have garnered the level of devotion and praise achieved by Holly Black’s Folk of the Air series (FOTA), which followed Jude Duarte and her battle for power in Faerie. It’s no surprise that Black’s massive fan base rejoiced when the author released a spinoff duology, the Novels of Elfhame. Picking up right after the events of the first book, The Stolen Heir, The Prisoner’s Throne finds Suren, now queen of the Court of Teeth, and Oak Greenbriar, Jude’s brother and heir to the crown of Elfhame, on shifting soil, unsure of themselves and of each other.

While the first novel primarily followed Suren’s point of view, this time we get to be inside of Oak’s head. What was making this narrative switch like? Between the two characters, was one more challenging to write than the other?

It was definitely easier to write Oak’s point of view because I had made so many decisions in The Stolen Heir about his past and personality. It was hard to give both protagonists space, though. Even though we’re no longer in Suren’s point of view, we want to see how things play out for her. And there were some things about Oak’s past and point of view and certainly his powers that I needed to make more granular.

Did you have this spinoff in mind while you were writing any part of FOTA? If so, did planning for a spinoff impact the writing process of FOTA?

When I got to Queen of Nothing, I realized I wanted to write about Oak and Suren at some point in the future. I was intrigued by the way that Wren’s story both paralleled and contrasted with Jude’s. And I was interested in how much Jude sacrificed to make Oak’s life less traumatic than her own—and how despite all that, it still WAS traumatic. I wondered what it would be like to be Oak, doubly burdened by the trauma as well as the understanding that being “fine” was the only way to repay his family for what they’d done for him. I don’t think knowing that I wanted to revisit those characters changed the course of anything in the Folk of the Air books, but perhaps I did think of them a little more because of it.

What’s it been like to balance the telling of a brand new story alongside the incorporation of familiar, pre-existing elements from FOTA?

One of the reasons I wanted to start the duology with The Stolen Heir, and write from Wren’s point of view, was to give readers a chance to get to know Wren and Oak outside the characters they already have a connection with—Jude and Cardan in particular. I knew that we’d see people we knew from Elfhame both in the second book and in Oak’s memories. I hope that spending time getting to know Wren allows readers to care about everyone a lot in The Prisoner’s Throne.

One of the hardest things about having so many well-known characters in The Prisoner’s Throne is that they all needed to have room to be the clever and capable people we know them to be—which meant I needed to throw a lot of problems at them.

We meet Oak as a rambunctious but earnest child in the first series. Now, eight years later, he’s a teenager, scheming and wallowing and defying expectations in his own right. Was it difficult to transition to writing him as a teen? 

It was far more difficult than I expected to figure out who Oak was when he was older. I wanted him to have some of the chaos and whimsy of his younger self, but also to be a complicated, charming person who nonetheless reflected the violence into which he was born. I rewrote him in The Stolen Heir so many times that I am not sure anyone but me saw the final version, but now I can’t imagine him any other way.

A central theme of The Prisoner’s Throne is family: How much loyalty do we owe family? Who counts as family? And what is the role of violence in making or breaking a family? So—hypothetically, if one of your family members wronged another, could you still consider them a part of your family?

My grandmother used to say to me that the most important thing was that I never lie to her. Even if I did something terrible. Even if I murdered someone. That she would do whatever she needed to do to keep me safe, even if I was in the wrong—but I just couldn’t lie. I put that speech into a book at some point because it was so memorable to me. Honestly, it made me feel really loved. It’s definitely not how everyone looks at family and loyalty and values.

There are ways that members of my family—and everyone’s family—have wronged one another. We’re not perfect. I’ve wronged people. But there are also lines that if someone in my family crossed, I wouldn’t consider them family anymore. Despite my grandmother’s speech, I am sure that would have been true for her too. It’s so interesting in fiction to figure out just where that line is for each character.

One of the most enjoyable elements of your work is the riddles and tricks that the Fae tell each other. Do you have a favorite riddle that you’ve written?

Thank you! My favorite riddle—although not original to me—is one I used in Tithe: “What belongs to you, but others use it more than you do?” It’s a useful thing to write in a book, since the answer is, of course, your name.

In both the Folk of the Air and the Novels of Elfhame series, our protagonists begin as enemies and gradually warm up to each other. A famous quote from Cardan is “I have heard that for mortals, the feeling of falling in love is very like the feeling of fear.” What would you say is the secret to a compelling enemies-to-lovers romance?

I think there’s a narratively significant difference between enemies and people who don’t trust one another or who are even on opposite sides of a conflict. To me, the intensity of the personal hatred is what makes the enemies-to-lovers progression so compelling—along with, ideally, the surprise. We sort characters into particular roles in stories and that allows us to not necessarily consider a character to be a romantic possibility until, suddenly, they are. But to me, enemies to lovers is all about how an intensity of feeling blurs lines—and often obscures more complicated feelings, often about oneself as much as about the other person.

Although you’ve explored a multitude of fantastical concepts across your novels, Faerie is a lore you return to again and again, to the great delight of your readers. Will there be more novels or projects set in this realm in the future?

There will definitely be one more Elfhame novel—and what it’s about will be clear after getting to the end of The Prisoner’s Throne. After that, I’m less sure of the specifics, but I know there will be future books set in Faerie.

If you lived in Faerie, what kind of creature would you be, and why? Non-human answers only!

Possibly a phooka. I like the idea of transforming into different creatures and playing tricks on people. And the possibility of having horns.

Photo of Holly Black by Sharona Jacobs.

The beloved YA author discusses her hotly anticipated return to Elfhame.

After your very first novel receives a Newbery Honor and you go on to win two Newbery Medals; after you become a two-time finalist for the National Book Award; after several of your books are adapted for the big screen (not to mention a stage musical and an opera); after you’re named the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature; and after your work becomes so commercially successful that you sell more than 40 million copies of your books—after you achieve all of that, what mountains are left for you to climb?

If you’re Kate DiCamillo, the author of such widely adored classics of 21st-century children’s literature as Because of Winn-Dixie, The Tale of Despereaux and Flora & Ulysses, you write another excellent novel: Ferris. While many of DiCamillo’s earlier books feature young protagonists who must deal with the loss of a parent or caregiver through distance, divorce or death, Ferris is a story about a child “who has been loved from the minute that she arrived in the world.”

As we chat over Zoom, Ramona the dog snoozing in a chair next to her desk, DiCamillo reveals Ferris’ deeply personal roots. “My father passed away in November of 2019, and my best friend that I grew up with had her first grandchild on December 31 of 2019.” That date was also her father’s birthday. “I was estranged from my father,” she shares, characterizing their relationship as “very difficult.” As DiCamillo looked at photos of the new baby surrounded by parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, she wondered, “What happens if you write a story about a kid that is just so certain and safe” in her family’s love? “Is there a story in that?”

It turns out, there is.

Ferris follows its titular protagonist, Emma Phineas “Ferris” Wilkey, during the eventful summer before she enters fifth grade. She finds herself on the receiving end of an unfortunate new hairstyle from her Aunt Shirley, whose husband has moved out of their house and into Ferris’ family’s basement. Ferris’ father is convinced that raccoons have infested their attic. Her younger sister, the scene-stealing Pinky, has decided that she wants to be featured on a “wanted” poster and has attempted to achieve her goal through petty theft, an incident involving biting and a hilariously unsuccessful stickup at the local bank. Ferris’ best friend, Billy Jackson, keeps playing François Couperin’s “Mysterious Barricades” over and over on every piano he can find. And Ferris’ beloved grandmother, Charisse, has been diagnosed with congestive heart failure but seems more concerned with uncovering what a ghost might want—a ghost she insists has been appearing in her bedroom doorway.

It’s great that we’re meeting, but even if we never met, I would be there with you, because it’s not a story until it’s you and me, together.

That may sound like a lot for one novel to juggle, but DiCamillo balances it all with the ease of an expert orchestra conductor. She does it so well that some readers may be surprised to learn that DiCamillo describes the experience of creating a novel as an act of “writing behind my own back” and “always starting not knowing where I’m going to end up.”

Where Ferris ends up is a climactic dinner sequence straight out of a screwball comedy, in which every single one of the novel’s many narrative threads coalesces. Although it will have readers gasping with laughter, the seeds of the scene lie in more turbulent soil for DiCamillo. When she was growing up, the family table “was often a place of terror” because of her father. As she worked on the scene, DiCamillo says that she thought about the concept of “repetition compulsion, how you keep on doing something until it turns out differently.” Eventually, DiCamillo says that she realized, “Well, here we go, this is the same place I end up every time I write a story: everybody around the table, happy, safe and eating. It surprises me every time.”

DiCamillo hopes that, through her work as an author, she’s able to create spaces that feel this way for readers. “So much of good storytelling is leaving space for the reader.” When she meets children at book events, she tells them, “It’s great that we’re meeting, but even if we never met, I would be there with you, because it’s not a story until it’s you and me, together. That’s what makes it a story, is both of us being there.”

Perhaps this is why DiCamillo becomes visibly emotional when she discusses what it’s like to write against a backdrop of rising censorship and book bans in schools and libraries across the country. “If there is any hope for us,” she says, “it is in being able to see and feel for each other, and books are a vehicle for doing that. Stories help us see each other and help us see ourselves.” She even confesses that she can’t talk about this subject “without weeping, because I know from personal experience and I’ve seen it with other kids: The right book at the right time will save somebody’s life.”

It’s a transformative power that every reader has experienced, but a power that Ferris is only just beginning to understand. Throughout the novel, Ferris reflects on the words that her “vocabulary-obsessed” fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Mielk, taught her. (“All of life hinges on knowing the right word to use at the right time,” Mrs. Mielk claims.) As a child, DiCamillo found it incredibly difficult to learn to read and only succeeded thanks to her mother’s tireless efforts. “I knew that’s what I needed, were those words,” she explains. “What Ferris has—those words, that family, that table to sit around—that’s the way I want the reader to feel too. It’s like, you are invited here, to this place. Now look, you have all those words. You have this table. You have this family. You emerge feeling loved.”

Ferris’ grandmother, Charisse, often tells Ferris that “every good story is a love story.” With Ferris, DiCamillo has created a truly great story, and it’s brimming with love.

Photo of Kate DiCamillo by Dina Kantor.

Love is more abundant than ever before in Ferris, the acclaimed children’s author’s dazzling and hilarious new novel.

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