All Behind the Book essays

Behind the Book by

When Sandro and Bash connect at a party before the beginning of their senior year of high school, they’re surprised by an honest, genuine friendship that grows into something deeper. The Long Run is a frank, funny and beautifully written story about two South Jersey boys finding happiness and hope in the unlikeliest of places: each other. In this original essay, author James Acker reflects on the personal experiences that did—and didn’t—inspire his first book.

I’m 10 and I’m freezing. I’m sitting on top of the rotted wooden playhouse in the biggest tree in Gavin’s backyard. He’s already jumped and the rope’s been returned to me and he’s screaming: Jump! Jump! I jumped, you jump! That was the rule! And I know I’ll be fine because Gavin is fine but he’s always been luckier than me. Jump! Jump! You’ll regret it if you don’t! But I know I won’t jump because I know other ways down. I’ve got something to prove, but it’s not worth the broken ankle. Jump! Don’t you wanna say you did?

I’m 13 and I’m freezing. I’m wandering around an abandoned house on Main Street with boys I won’t be friends with much longer. The house is old and no one’s lived there for years and it was easy enough to break into. I know we shouldn’t be there, but something keeps me wandering. Jump! Jump! You’ll regret it if you don’t! RJ finds a kid’s growth chart inside the closet of what must’ve been a child’s bedroom. It’s in crayon and faded and she only grew to 4 and a half feet. I decide it’s the saddest thing I’ve ever seen and RJ puts his foot through it. The boys tear the house apart, and today, I am one of the boys. I want to destroy. Jump! Jump! I want the story. Don’t you wanna say you did?

I’m 16 and I’m freezing. I’m in my driveway at 3 in the morning, throwing out bedsheets because my wrestling diet has gotten away from me again. I remind myself that shame is part of growing up. I remind myself that all of this will be useful to me one day. I remind myself that new bedsheets will cost more than new laxatives, and I remind myself that Steph from bio said I was looking real sexy lately. Jump! And if I keep looking sexy and I keep making weight, maybe I’ll start making better memories. I’ll finally start enjoying myself. My high school experience. My childhood. Jump, James! If I leave with the right memories, I’ll have done my job. You’ll regret it if you don’t! If I leave with the right stories, this will all have been worth it. Don’t you wanna say you did?

It’s hard not to think that I’m only writing coming-of-age stories because I don’t like my own. My childhood felt like “Supermarket Sweep”: Fill your shopping cart with whatever you can find. Experience what you can while you can. You’ll sort through it all after time runs out. Jump. I’ve spent a lot of my 20s sorting out my shopping cart. My debut novel is dropping right before I turn 30, and I’ve begun to wonder if my stories are all that interesting. Did I receive store-brand trauma? Was there anything unique in all that crying? Should I have stopped my sweep and considered what I was grabbing before moving on to the next aisle?

“As an adult, I can look at my childhood with a warm, detached fondness. But if I could speak to myself at that age again, I would ask him to live in the moment. Not for the moment.”

The Long Run began as an attempt at capturing what my life felt like in high school. The desire to get this story out had been a long time coming, and I expected all the right anecdotes to present themselves in a polite single-file line. I’d spent a childhood collecting these memories. Where else were they supposed to go? The sweep was over. The buzzer had rung. Now was the time to prove that it had all been worth it. The stories meant something, so why was I staring at an empty page? Every idea for a chapter stayed a bullet point. None of my anecdotes would fill in their blanks. I had nothing.

So I wrote something else. I couldn’t write a memoir, so I wrote what could have happened. I used everything in my shopping cart, everyone I’d met and everything I did, and I wrote a different story. A familiar story. I filled my little New Jersey suburb with different boys in familiar houses. Different names with familiar struggles. I wrote about kids I wished I’d been friends with. Parties I wish I hadn’t skipped, meals I wish I’d eaten, conversations I wish I’d had. And if I couldn’t put myself on the page, I’d split that angry, crying boy into Sandro and Bash. Two parts of myself that never agreed. A lover and a fighter. An asshole and a crybaby. I wrote the love story I never got between two boys I always knew. If I couldn’t agree on my story, I could at least tell theirs.

As an adult, I can look at my childhood with a warm, detached fondness. But if I could speak to myself at that age again, I would ask him to live in the moment. Not for the moment. That kid did so much just for the story, just to say he’d done it, and today I’m left with shreds. Wonderful shreds, but incomplete stories. Sparks of a feeling, never the full picture. 

Writing The Long Run felt like filling in those blanks. Connecting the dots between those snapshots of childhood. A morning on a rooftop. A night in a driveway. Flashbulbs of memories, finally put down to paper. It felt like a lifetime of collection finally coming together. Even if some memories didn’t make the cut, those moments still mattered. They were still useful. Every story mattered. And I’ll spend the rest of my career as a writer trying to put them all together.

Read our starred review of James Acker’s ‘The Long Run.’

Author photo of James Acker courtesy of Bernadette Bridges.

The debut author set out to write a memoir, but when his high school experiences refused to coalesce into prose, he had to find a new way to tell his story.
Behind the Book by

My friend writes a book. It’s a utopian work of speculative fiction, clever and imaginative and hopeful—a brilliant blend of art and activism. I bring flowers to her book launch and find a seat near the back of the cozy community garden where we’re gathered. Even before the reading starts, the space is abuzz with conversations about the worlds in her book and the limitations and radical possibilities of our current world. The evening feels magical. Fairy lights twinkle and apartment buildings tower above. 

As the event planners set up the stage, I turn to the person sitting next to me—one of the few people I don’t know here—and introduce myself, excited to talk to someone new during the social scarcity of the COVID-19 pandemic. This person is easy to converse with: They tell me about their recent move to the city to start an MFA program and the angry activist nonfiction they write. I am intrigued; I love angry activist nonfiction. I promise to introduce them to some of my activist-writer friends, give them suggestions of bookstores to check out and places to write. I want to know so much more about the project they’re working on, and I’ve gotten through only a tenth of my questions when they say, “What about you, Lamya? You seem like a writer. What do you write?” 

I freeze. 

I, too, wrote a book. A memoir: a retelling of stories from the Quran as queer, brown, immigrant narratives, interspersed with stories from my queer, brown, immigrant life—a book I hope is both art and activism. But I don’t know how to answer my new friend’s question because I wrote under a pseudonym. 

Read our starred review of ‘Hijab Butch Blues’ by Lamya H.

I wrote anonymously for many reasons, most of which are predictable and boring. Privacy. Safety. That I’m not out to my family. That my writing—in which I talk about God as nonbinary, the queerness of Musa’s (Moses’) miracles, Maryam (the Virgin Mary) as not liking men—could be considered controversial. That I’m complicating prophetic figures who are important in a lot of religions, writing about them as flawed, as making mistakes. I’m speculating about their sexualities, not for the sake of provocation but because these prophets feel like my friends—beautiful and messy and real—and their journeys have helped me figure out how to live. That it’s scary to anger people with power; it’s scary to be Googleable. That I want to write in complicated ways about Islam and still keep going to my mosque. That I want to write in complicated ways about the Islamophobia of queer communities and still be invited to potlucks and spoken word readings. 

I wrote a book so open and honest that it was only possible for me to write under a pseudonym, but what I didn’t anticipate was the grief I would feel, even though I don’t regret my decision. Grief like in this moment at the book launch, unable to speak about my book with my new friend. Grief in a broader sense, too: the limitations my anonymity places on my ability to use the book as a starting point to create intentional spaces and communities. After opening night for a play called Coming Out Muslim 10 years ago, I joined a space created by the artists for queer Muslims to connect, which led me to find the chosen family and organizing community that I still participate in and am infinitely grateful for. My book won’t be able to do that for others in the same way. 

“It’s scary to anger people with power; it’s scary to be Googleable.”

And there are smaller pangs of grief, too: the loss of specificity in my book when critiquing certain spaces for homophobia or racism, which inadvertently ends up protecting these spaces; not being able to share my book with the myriad folks who helped me learn how to write at writing retreats and workshops; not being able to thank my friends by name in the acknowledgments. 

But my choice to write anonymously hasn’t stopped me from experiencing the joys of my book starting to go out into the world. A few weeks ago, someone whose name sounded familiar commented on my Instagram. It turns out she had written a beautiful essay some years ago that was foundational in teaching me to use stories and vignettes to talk about bigger concepts such as racism and homophobia, an essay that I had annotated and read over and over. I sent her an advanced copy of my book in gratitude, and it felt exciting to connect virtually, despite the anonymity. Another person emailed me about doing an event about racism against South Asians in the Arab country I grew up in, and they said I can present with my camera turned off, that her organization will do whatever needs to be done to protect my privacy. It’s a reminder that I don’t owe using my real name to anyone. I don’t owe my face being on the jacket cover. I’m allowed to write on my own terms. It’s possible to stay safe while still using my book as a tool for connection and conversation. 

“What I didn’t anticipate was the grief I would feel, even though I don’t regret my decision.”

At my friend’s book launch, in the moment before I respond to my neighbor’s question about my own writing, I think of that joy, that sense of connection. I think about how I can selectively choose to invite people in, that my writing anonymously is also an act—however small—of wanting to make the world a better place. My new friend is waiting for my answer. I take a deep breath. 

“I do write,” I say. “We should get coffee sometime. I’d love to tell you about my work.”

Headshot of Lamya H by Lia Clay for the Queer Art Community Portrait Project

Lamya H, the author of Hijab Butch Blues, reflects on what was gained and what was lost by writing her debut memoir under a pseudonym.
Behind the Book by

Maddie Hathaway grew up on the Renaissance faire circuit, living in an RV and attending school online. After her mom’s death from cancer, Maddie has been looking forward to returning to Stormsworth, her mom’s favorite faire. But Stormsworth’s new owners are making big changes, and their son, Arthur, thinks Maddie should play the role of the faire’s princess, though Maddie is certain she won’t be a good fit for the part—or its costume. The Renaissance of Gwen Hathaway is a whimsical but grounded portrait of grieving, healing and falling in love against a truly magical backdrop. 

I’m asked why I write YA during almost every panel, Q&A or interaction with readers. 

The nice answer is that I love writing coming-of-age stories. There’s something so poetic and timeless about teetering on the point of decision, of having your whole life change. I don’t think that feeling of potential energy as you stand at the top of a slope, looking downward and wondering if you will soar or land in a crumpled heap or both, ever really goes away. For me, attempting to lasso that feeling and pin it to the page is a thrill and a challenge I’ll never tire of. 

That’s the nice answer. The truer answer is far less pretty.

I write for teenagers because somewhere in my nearly 31-year-old muscles and sinew and suspiciously achy knees I’m still 16, my back against the wall of a funeral home chapel as I’m told over and over again that I’ll bounce back, that I’ll heal because I’m young. Like grief cares about age.

I’m still angry about that moment. If I think about it too deeply, my chest feels like a cauldron, bubbling and swirling as I stir in over a decade of hindsight, a dash of lessons learned and a heaping spoonful of indignation, well aged. I suppose writing YA novels is my way of reaching my hand back to myself and anyone else who was ever disqualified from the ultramarathon of grief under penalty of youth. 

So it’s no surprise that my third novel, The Renaissance of Gwen Hathaway, fits neatly into the Ashley Schumacher Literary Canon of Teenage Disgruntlement Concerning Grief. Over the course of the book, my main character, Maddie “Gwen” Hathaway, mourns the death of her mother and the departure of her best friend from the Renaissance faire circuit (and therefore from Maddie’s immediate vicinity), as well as the complete redesign of the faire that Maddie’s mother loved most—a place where Maddie hoped to find closure but instead finds compounded grief.

I should also mention that Maddie is fat. Like me. Like so many of my family members, of my friends, of my world. This is important. 

I’ve tackled different kinds of grief in my writing. Mostly I’ve explored the grief of losing people, because that’s the one that aches the sharpest for me, but like Maddie tells her love interest, Arthur, on the night they meet, “I don’t think grief has to mean death. I think there are lots of different types of grief.”

I used to grieve my body. Not in the acute way that a death is grieved, but in the way of the dull ache I’d feel when I couldn’t find my size in the trendy brand-name stores everyone wore in high school, or when the drill-team teacher chastised me for eating more pizza at lunch: “Remember, girls, Spandex never forgives or forgets.” Sometimes it seemed like the world was not built for me. Well-meaning adults would offer obtuse platitudes. You’ll grow out of it, they’d say, or it’s just baby fat, or—the most witless of all—oh, honey, you’re not fat!

Spoiler alert: I did not, in fact, grow out of it. But I did grow into it. My own skin. My life. My body.

I learned that a lot of social conditioning went into how I felt growing up, that a lot of companies and nameless, faceless Wall Street gods stood to benefit if they could keep me in the shame cycle of buying products to turn myself into the ideal that they put on billboards and magazines. I gave Maddie a dose of that too, in the form of faire posters that advertise with clip-art images of thin princesses and muscular knights. I felt compelled to give Arthur the same insecurities, but reversed, so while Maddie wishes that she could take up less space, Arthur, who is insecure about being so thin, wishes to take up more.

When I was growing up, I never felt more understood or seen than I did in the pages of books. Not just because I was a voracious reader but because, when I was reading, I could be anybody—or, more specifically, anybody could be me. Any vaguely described character could look like me, and I would superimpose my own body onto theirs, rounding out thighs and chests and stomachs until I was the one running through enchanted forests or falling in love or saving the village from a dragon.

My dedication for this book reads, in part, “To anyone who hasn’t felt at home in their skin: I hope this story helps you lay out a rug, place a frame, hang up your coat, and stay awhile. Ad astra per aspera.” Through adversity to the stars.

I don’t grieve my body anymore, but I think I will forever carry the grief that I once did. Maddie is lots of things. She’s brave, observant, a great friend, someone who tries to tame the world and make it kinder for herself and for others. She is also fat. No superimposition or apologies necessary. My hope for Maddie and Arthur’s story is that it can be an oasis for those who are still struggling to see the beauty and validity of their own bodies, those who have not made it to their stars—yet.

Read our review of Ashley Schumacher’s ‘The Renaissance of Gwen Hathaway.’

Author photo of Ashley Schumacher courtesy of Hannah Meyers.

The author of The Renaissance of Gwen Hathaway explains why she hopes her new novel will be an oasis for readers “struggling to see the beauty and validity of their own bodies.”
Behind the Book by

Oliver Darkshire’s debut memoir, Once Upon a Tome, gives readers a behind-the-scenes tour of one of the oldest bookstores in the world—including its (possibly) haunted bric-a-brac, resolutely old-fashioned booksellers and dangerously towering stacks. In this Behind the Book essay, Darkshire tells the surprisingly modern story of how his book came to be.

I never intended to write a book. I was, in fact, against it for a number of reasons. Firstly, I was an apprentice rare book dealer, and I had no wish to add “author” to my list of impoverished career choices. It rather felt like adding insult to preexisting injury. Secondly, I’d become accustomed to the strange ways of the shop and had developed a form of Stockholm syndrome in which the daily parade of peculiarities and cryptids seemed almost normal to me. I’d deluded myself into considering my life somewhat prosaic, even as I yelled at a 70-year-old man to get down from the top shelf at once and he threw (mercifully poorly aimed) almanacs in my general direction. 

Lastly, and most importantly, if you get involved in the world of rare bookselling, you very quickly dive below the pristine, genteel surface into the dark underbelly. In the shadows of the collecting world, the habit cheerily referred to as “bibliomania” thrives in the damp and dark. Once one is lost to the urge of buying and collecting books, there really is no way back up the slippery slope to the daylight. It starts with a simple purchase of something nostalgic, and it ends when your body is found centuries later submerged in a tomblike ocean of first editions and literary ephemera. I often liken being in the business of antiquarian books to running a casino or dealing in illicit substances: You may sell to customers all you like, but you never sample the merchandise. My conscience could handle being involved in hawking books, as I could still muster some shred of denial as to the extent of my participation in organized crime, but the act of writing a book seemed like a step too far.

Read our starred review of ‘Once Upon a Tome’ by Oliver Darkshire.

It was the Twitter account that started this whole mess, vanity being the sin that leads to all such downfalls. As a bookstore, Henry Sotheran Ltd on Sackville Street in London has kept a low profile since the late 20th century. It’s been through phases of popularity and desolation since 1761 when it was founded, but it was enjoying a few decades of peace and quiet when I ruined everything. Thinking myself very clever, and with the confidence of the young, I decided I might “help” by taking on some of the social media. I also thought it might be nice to have a place to vent about the odd things that happened at the shop—though I did have to move a stuffed owl out of the way so I had enough room on my desk to plug in a mobile phone among the stacks of reference books my colleagues assured me were vitally necessary, and which I never found reason to open. 

It didn’t take long before a few stories that I leaked onto the internet—such as a thread about a singular and ill-fated visit from a Health and Safety inspector—threw the account into the public gaze, and it accelerated into the kind of popularity (or perhaps notoriety) an antiquarian bookseller dreads. Very soon my life was a frenzy of managing “likes,” which didn’t seem to mean anyone liked anything, “retweets,” which sounded like a hate crime, and direct messages, which were very confusing because Sotherans was still in the process of adjusting to the phenomenon of email (a dark art to be sure, but business is business). People would wander into the store asking for the person who “does the tweets,” and my quiet life was over. Pandora’s box was open, and it could not be closed again.

“It starts with a simple purchase of something nostalgic, and it ends when your body is found centuries later submerged in a tomblike ocean of first editions and literary ephemera.”

I don’t know if anyone in our musty old bookstore really knew what to make of our ever-increasing internet popularity. The notion of a “meme” was soundly ridiculed as inconsequential until I made a passing reference to my love of a tuna sandwich online, which took on a life of its own in the minds of our followers and eventually culminated in people sending us cans of tuna in the mail. My colleagues held the internet in the same esteem as a bucket of vipers: a situationally useful catalyst for change, if one is in particularly dire circumstances, but not something to be handled irresponsibly. As our following grew larger and more prominent, I found myself telling more and more of our tales and traditions to the wider public, who devoured them insatiably. A suspicious gourd? Tell us more, Oliver. A secret cellar in a forgotten basement? Give us pictures. 

One day, as I brushed dust off a case to try and get a peek inside (I was hunting for a copy of “The Iliad,” which it eventually turned out had been sold years earlier), the phone trilled in the self-satisfied way it always does when it interrupts you in the middle of something important. Sighing, I picked up the wretched device to see that I had a message from someone claiming to be a literary agent. He thought Sotherans would make a great topic for a book. Now, I wasn’t born yesterday, so I accused him of being a fraud and went back to my book hunting, satisfied with a job well done. Alas, he proved quite persistent. More messages appeared. Would I be interested in lunch? This was the fatal blow, as I can be lured almost anywhere with the promise of a tuna sandwich. 

Two years later, here I sit with a copy of Once Upon a Tome: The Misadventures of a Rare Bookseller in hand. The stuffed owl looks at me reproachfully. I cover it with a tablecloth.

Headshot of Oliver Darkshire by Joshua Williams

When a rare book dealer took over a 262-year-old bookstore’s Twitter account, he got a lot more than he bargained for.
Behind the Book by

Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn’s eponymous new imprint gets off to a roaring start with acclaimed poet and editor Margot Douaihy’s debut mystery, Scorched Grace. Set in New Orleans, Scorched Grace follows Sister Holiday, a former punk rocker who investigates an arson spree that threatens her community. The endlessly fascinating character represents everything Douaihy loves about hard-boiled mysteries—and how they can move forward into a more complex and diverse future.

Mysteries are my enduring passions—and vital instruments of expression. As a closeted queer woman growing up in the scrappy city of Scranton, Pennsylvania, I made myself small. Searching for headstrong characters in books and on TV felt much safer than getting to know myself.

I tore through detective stories and I watched every PBS “Mystery!” program. Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple and Sherlock Holmes were my North Stars—their certainty and ratiocination soothed me. Jessica Fletcher introduced me to the American cozy mystery and the fine art of meddling! But Raymond Chandler’s private investigator Philip Marlowe was my favorite fictional sleuth. 

Chandler’s devil-may-care brio and unsentimental yet poetic barbs were my playground. The voice-driven experience and gritty tone of his hard-boiled mysteries seduced me. My favorite PI characters bent the law when needed, collapsing the binary of criminality and justice. I hated Marlowe’s misogyny and dangerous stereotyping, but I was inspired by the opportunities for subtextual engagement. This thematic richness married with the pulse-pounding thrill of a murder mystery was too delicious to ignore. I turned my lifelong interests in mysteries, queer theory and nuanced female characterization into a creative praxis. The result is Sister Holiday, the unexpected sleuth and sardonic narrator of Scorched Grace.

In a reversal of the wiseguy archetype, my hard-nosed, hard-boiled sleuth is a 33-year-old, tatted-up nun who, as she tries to smoke out an arsonist, interrogates herself and her own imbricated identities. Sister Holiday is a budding detective who will one day take permanent vows with the Sisters of the Sublime Blood. If that seems like a wild dialectic, it should. Genre is a stable yet fluid space that invites the new into the familiar.

Read our starred review of ‘Scorched Grace’ by Margot Douaihy.

In The Long Goodbye, PI Marlowe describes himself as “a lone wolf, unmarried, getting middle-aged, and not rich. . . . I like liquor and women and chess and a few other things.” Sister Holiday is also a lone wolf, of a kind; an out queer woman when she lived in Brooklyn, she has since taken a provisional vow of celibacy as a novice nun in her New Orleans convent. But she still considers herself to be “extremely gay.” Sister Holiday is devout and unapologetically punk and queer. The more diversity we can bring to genre, the better. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie observed, there is real danger in the illusion of a “single story.” 

In her trenchant Crime Reads essay “The Unspoken Criminality of the Female PI,” Emily Edwards observes how canonical femmes of early PI stories “were fatales or Fridays, honeytraps or helpers. Rarely the sleuth in charge.” In my contribution to the genre, I wanted to join other feminist PI writers by giving Sister Holiday both decision-making agency and magnetism, with high camp and dark humor adding contours. She leverages her alterity and viewpoint to make surprising syntheses, connect disparate clues and take unconventional approaches.

A transgressive character needs transgressive interiority and exteriority. I used the cadence of prayers and song lyrics to blur clues, observations and memories in Sister Holiday’s narration. This let me seed red herrings and (re)direct the reader’s attention, fundamental elements of sleight of hand. With Holiday’s gold tooth and concealed tattoos, I tried to present the protagonist as a mysterious text herself, a code to be deciphered. My goal was to write a character that surprises herself and the reader, keeping everyone guessing until the very end.

Picture of Margot Douaihy by Chattman Photography.

Margot Douaihy reveals how she created Sister Holiday, the queer, crime-solving nun at the center of her debut mystery, Scorched Grace.
Behind the Book by

A tale of dragons and queens that sprawls across an entire world (and over several hundred pages), The Priory of the Orange Tree has become a modern fantasy classic in the eight years since its release. It was originally billed as a standalone novel, so fans were surprised and thrilled when Samantha Shannon announced not only that she was writing a prequel, A Day of Fallen Night, but also that even more books were to follow. In this essay, Shannon explains how the next installment in the Roots of Chaos series came to be.

When I started The Priory of the Orange Tree in 2015, I intended for it to be a standalone novel. Ever since I was young, I had dreamed of dragons—and from the start of my life as an author, I knew I wanted to write about them. It was just a question of when, and how. In 2015, I had my chance. 

That year, I submitted the first draft of The Song Rising, the third installment in my ongoing Bone Season septology. My editor was taking an unusually long time to get back to me, which left me without a project to work on. I would later discover that this was because I hadn’t quite hit the mark with the draft: The Song Rising would require a comprehensive overhaul (and remains the most troublesome book of my career to date). Unable to move on to the fourth installment until I knew the rough shape of the third, I had a window of opportunity to work on a book about dragons.  

I had never meant to write anything but the Bone Season series until all seven books were finished. I wanted to get each installment to my readers as swiftly as possible. Yet as I considered my situation, I realized that if I spent too long using just one voice and living in just one world, my craft could begin to stagnate. As a writer, I consider it crucial to push myself out of my comfort zone every once in a while, to ensure I can adapt and grow. For the sake of both the series and my own ability, I needed to branch out. 

“Ever since I was young, I had dreamed of dragons . . .”

I decided to return to third person—the perspective I had always used in my teens, before the protagonist of The Bone Season took me by surprise with her voice—and to take my first steps into a new subgenre: high fantasy. By doing this, I hoped to strengthen my creative muscles and cultivate a more lyrical and mature writing style, which I could then use to develop my protagonist’s voice in the Bone Season books. 

Between tough rounds of edits on The Song Rising, I worked on the manuscript of The Priory of the Orange. It soon ballooned in scope. Fitting an epic journey into the space of a single novel was a challenge, but I was resolved to do it. By the time it was done, I had built multiple countries, an enormous cast of characters and a backstory that stretched back for centuries. And I knew this world had more stories to tell. 

I was still determined not to commit to another long series. Ten years into writing the Bone books, I’m still in love with the story and characters, and I have to weigh my schedule carefully each time I consider working on something else. Despite my best efforts, writing Priory and its prequel, A Day of Fallen Night, has caused significant delays in the Bone Season series. I feel a great deal of guilt because of this, and it has, understandably, frustrated some of my long-term readers. At the same time, I can’t regret the dragon books. The Mask Falling, the fourth and most recent Bone Season installment, is by far the strongest—my favorite book of my career. I firmly believe this was because Priory improved my writing, as I suspected it would. Working on Priory was an alchemical process, allowing me to unlock another stage in the lifelong process of being a writer. 

When I decided to write another book in the world of Priory, I did it with a clear vision. My aim with the Roots of Chaos cycle is to write a series primarily made up of standalone novels. They will work together to tell an intergenerational story that spans thousands of years, but each may also be read as a self-contained story, hopefully in any order. This means readers aren’t left waiting for the story to continue—each book is its own adventure. 

Read our starred review of ‘A Day of Fallen Night’ by Samantha Shannon.

A Day of Fallen Night begins five centuries before Priory and covers the period known as the Grief of Ages, or Great Sorrow—a devastating war between wyrms and humankind. When I wrote the first book, I mentioned this period frequently and thought that exploring it further would be useful for demonstrating the magical imbalance that forms the bedrock of the series. During this era, siden (one of the two branches of magic, associated with flame and earth) spun out of control, birthing the fire-breathing wyrms. Showing this era would also allow me to explore parts of the world I had never managed to reach in the first book, such as the beautiful Queendom of Sepul and the snowbound North. 

I knew it was a gamble to start afresh with a new cast. Many readers have told me they connected with the characters in the first book. I initially worried that they might only want to see this world through those characters’ eyes—that even I might not be able to imagine it without them. By the end, however, I loved the new cast even more than the first. I can only hope they grow on readers, too.

Photo of Samantha Shannon by Louise Haywood Schiefer.

A Day of Fallen Night reveals the origins of the conflict between humans and wyrms—and blazes a trail for what’s to come.
Behind the Book by

The books I’ve written so far began almost accidentally. Not the day-to-day, year-to-year accumulation of words—no accidents there. But the inciting moment or the controlling idea that ended up as the buttress for the whole contraption was unplanned, and usually came from me just playing around with words. With Big Fish, I was passing the time taking care of my baby son and writing brief modern myths while he napped, and after a couple of years, I discovered I had enough of them to make a book. The Kings and Queens of Roam, a long and complicated story about two sisters, two men, blindness and revenge, began as a couple of pages about an abandoned town in the middle of nowhere. Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician was drawn from a character in a discarded screenplay.

This Isn’t Going to End Well, my first nonfiction book, followed this same script but in a different way. The accident didn’t come in the form of an unforeseen inspiration but in the accidental discovery of my brother-in-law’s journals, 10 years after he died. They were hidden in the back of a closet beneath the stairs of my sister Holly’s home, covered in dust and protected by a herd of camel crickets. My brother-in-law, the writer and artist William Nealy, died in 2001 by what the death certificate described as an “intra-oral gunshot wound.” Then in 2011, his wife, my sister Holly, died herself of what seemed like a dozen different things, including diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and grief. My remaining two sisters, my wife and I were cleaning out her house when I found the journals. There were about 15 of them, and they dated from 1977, when William was 25 years old. I put them all in a glass-doored bookcase in the hallway outside of my office and finished the novel I’d been working on, Extraordinary Adventures.

Read our starred review of ‘This Isn’t Going to End Well’ by Daniel Wallace.

Two years passed before I took them out of the bookcase. It took me that long to parse through all the incumbent taboos, the ethical considerations and my own desires. Were they mine to read? Did I even want to read his journals, and if I did, why? What did I think I’d get out of that? William’s suicide was, like all suicides, the kind of tragedy that changes the course of many lives; even after 13 years, it felt fresh. And though he’d left three long suicide notes, two to Holly and one to his mother, they somehow felt insufficient to explain what at the time I saw as the ultimate betrayal of my sister, of me, of everyone who loved or knew him. I was mad at him for killing himself and stayed that way for a long time. But eventually I dove in, was mesmerized from the very first page and knew almost immediately that I would be writing about this, about him—that William’s story would become a book. To a person with a hammer, everything looks like a nail; to a person with a word processor, everything is a story.

But this was a bit of a leap. I’d never written a book of nonfiction before, had never wanted to, had no idea how to go about it. Even so, I thought, all writing is hard; how much harder could it be?

As I discovered over the next five years, very hard. Very. Very. Very hard.

Each book presents its own challenges, its own problems to solve. You would think that with practice a writer could skate from book to book without breaking a sweat. But nothing about writing has gotten easier for me, and each book has taken longer than the last to finish. So I was ready for a learning curve. But writing nonfiction asked me not just to write differently but to become a different kind of writer.

“To a person with a hammer, everything looks like a nail; to a person with a word processor, everything is a story.”

I was drawn to becoming a fiction writer in the first place because of the freedom of that form. In a novel I’m constrained by logic and time and character, but I’m in charge of the constraints; I make up the rules I am then expected to follow. In writing a so-called true story, you enter a world that’s already been created, telling a story that has already happened and maybe already been told. A novel is a story only one person (the novelist) has access to; a story about an actual person is a story dozens, maybe hundreds of people know at least a small part of. If you knew my brother-in-law, or my sister, or me, you are in some tangential way a part of the story; you have feelings about it, about him. This meant that in order to write the book, I actually had to leave my office and talk to people. I had to interview them. I recorded conversations and quoted from them or used them as “background.” Suddenly it was as if I were collaborating with a small village.

This turned out to be more fun than I thought it would be. I was able to see old friends and meet new ones, and as a reporter, I got to ask them questions a civilian could never get away with.

On a craft level, I didn’t know how to create a scene from my own life that’s as compelling as one I could make up, with all the bells and whistles of inventive possibility. Is imagination possible in this ready-made world I was writing about?

Yes—kind of. It’s not really imagination, though. Writing nonfiction is closer to reimagination, where you’re calling forth a memory and giving it life on the page. Memories half a century old are dim, fragile and fleeting. You have to pin them down the best you can and take a long look at them, editing them for meaning and clarity and supplying supporting details (what the room looked like, what the weather was like that day, what you were wearing) that might be, at best, stabs in the dark.

“Writing nonfiction asked me not just to write differently but to become a different kind of writer.”

But the hardest part of this project was writing a book about people I knew and loved. There was so much I wanted to say about them! So many stories. The first few drafts of this book were twice as long as the final version ended up being, which is not unique for early drafts. But each time I had to cut a scene, I felt like I was cutting out a part of their lives, and I believed (and still believe) that without all these stories the reader wouldn’t get to know them for who they were. The story, for instance, of William hunting down the man who stole the motor off my mother’s pool filter, or how he tried to save a man’s life at the drugstore. And what about the time Edgar (William’s best friend who died in 1993) was robbed and tied to a chair in a hotel room, left there until he was discovered by the staff eight hours later? The time Holly wrote a song about our father and rented a recording studio to record it? And so many other cool things. I could write another book about them, I think. And maybe I will.

This Isn’t Going to End Well isn’t “drawn from life,” the way my novels are; it’s full of people who actually existed, same as you and me. In this book I’m not trying to create or imagine a life, I’m trying to reconstruct one. I think I’m also trying to resurrect my sister, my brother-in-law, their best friend—a risky enterprise (see: “The Monkey’s Paw”). In this book I share details from their lives that would embarrass them, were they here, and, in some cases, get them into a lot of trouble. But they’re not embarrassed or in trouble because that’s one of the pluses of not being alive. Which is the real difference between this book and all the others I’ve written, and the most stubborn of facts I can’t deny or get around: Their deaths are what made it possible.

Headshot of Daniel Wallace by Mallory Cash

The acclaimed novelist wondered how hard writing a memoir could really be. As it turned out: very, very, very hard.
Behind the Book by

The main character of Some Desperate Glory, Emily Tesh’s debut novel, is a vicious, ambitious teenage girl brought up in an isolated community of humans intent on avenging the destruction of Earth. Kyr is anything but “likable”—and, according to Tesh, that’s the point.

A few years ago, I had an idea for a novella. I thought of it as something squarely in my comfort zone: a cute little queer romance between two very different people, one of them Large and the other Chatty. (If you have read my Greenhollow Duology, cute queer romance novellas about Large Gruff Type x Chatty Weirdo is about as precisely my style as it is possible for a story to be.) The fun part of this one would be the setting—in space!—and actually, perhaps there could be a cute alien involved? And I’d just been rewatching “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” which contains one of my favorite villain-to-awkward-teammate arcs of all time, so could I maybe do a Zuko thing?

I wrote one scene: the protagonist reenacting the death of the Earth, racing against time to save a doomed world, sacrificing their own life and still failing. It’s still the opening scene of the book, almost unchanged from that rapid first draft. But after I got 500 words into my cute little romance, I thought: This isn’t cute. This isn’t little. And this would be better if it were about the Zuko-esque character’s awful sister.

“Girls don’t get to be shitheads. And if they are, they don’t get any sympathy.”

I’d spent years mostly writing stories with male protagonists. But I changed all the pronouns in my opening scene, and suddenly I had a monstrous, cruel, ambitious, abused, horrendously angry beast of a character: Kyr. She began as an echo of Azula, a major antagonist in “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” who unlike her brother, Zuko, never gets a redemption arc or a second chance.

Kyr is awful. She really, truly sucks. I found that being subtle about it didn’t work; we have expectations about teenage girl characters, words like “relatable” and “likable.” Male characters are allowed to be complex, difficult, morally gray, even outright shitheads and still get sympathetic antihero arcs. But female characters aren’t supposed to behave that way. Girls don’t get to be shitheads. And if they are, they don’t get any sympathy.

I didn’t want anyone to mistake Kyr for “relatable” and “likable.” If you want to write a villain redemption arc, you have to start with a villain.

Read our review of ‘Some Desperate Glory’ by Emily Tesh.

Kyr is the villain. The monster girl, the unlovable and unworthy. I remember writing an early scene in which she mercilessly bullies a small child in a glowing triumph of self-righteous arseholery and thinking, is this clear enough? Will they even let me do this? Do I have to tone her down? I was a long way outside my creative comfort zone. But you can feel it, as a writer, when the thematic underpinnings are locking into place: justice or vengeance, heroism or self-destruction, the past or the future. Kyr proves in that original opening scene that she can do what every lovable teen protagonist has to do sooner or later: sacrifice herself to save the world. I had to spend the whole book turning her inside out, remaking her, undoing her, until she finally found a way to do the opposite: sacrifice her cruel and narrow and hateful world in order to save herself.

Picture of Emily Tesh by Nicola Sanders Photography.

In Emily Tesh’s ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’-inspired debut, Some Desperate Glory, a teenage girl realizes her community is a militaristic cult.
Behind the Book by

Claire Forrest’s first YA novel, the effervescent and emotional Where You See Yourself, follows its protagonist, Effie Galanos, through her final year of high school. As a wheelchair user, Effie has been treated as an “obstacle” by her school, and she hopes that things will be different at a prestigious, big-city college. To get there, she’ll have to find the courage to speak up about what she wants—and what she needs. In this essay, Forrest recalls her own commencement ceremony and offers some advice for this year’s graduating seniors.  

The year is 2009, and I sit wearing a bright purple polyester gown at my high school graduation. One of my classmates delivers the commencement speech, something about how grades aren’t the be-all and end-all of life. I try to take it in, because this is the moment, right? Everything I feel, every decision I make from here on out, feels vitally important.

When I remember my high school graduation now, I think about how the district chose a venue that wasn’t accessible to everyone. One of my classmates and I had been told that sitting in the cushioned auditorium seats, with our wheelchairs in the aisle next to us, would be a fire hazard. Instead, we were assigned seating across the room, away from our peers, and we weren’t allowed to march in procession with our class. We decided to go against what we had been told and, choosing to miss the ceremony’s opening remarks, rolled through back hallways and down the aisle like we should have been allowed. There was no pomp and circumstance for us.

At the time, though? I pushed that down. This was my graduation day, and just once, I wanted to be “normal.” It took many years of unlearning what society taught me to realize that being disabled is normal. The long process of learning that I can hold “disabled” and “normal” in both hands is what led me to write Where You See Yourself.

And so, with all due respect to our class speaker, although I agree that grades don’t define you, I wish that day that I could have told myself some other things instead.

Adults all around me said that college would be “the best years of your life.” I would have told myself that there would be no singular best years of my life. Every year has had its own mix of joy, heartbreak, challenges, memories and uncertainty. I would tell myself to make the most of my next four years, but that they won’t define me.

“The long process of learning that I can hold ‘disabled’ and ‘normal’ in both hands is what led me to write ‘Where You See Yourself.'”

Instead of focusing on my fear of moving away from dear friends, I’d tell myself to focus on the fact that I hadn’t yet met everyone who was going to love me. I will never be done making friends. There are so many inside jokes yet to be made, so many hourslong phone calls to be had.

I wish I’d known that those friendships would ebb and flow. That I would learn how to bless and release those relationships that have particular seasons that run their course, and that’s OK. I would advise myself to see things not just from my side but from my friends’ viewpoints as well. Like Effie and Harper, the best friends in my book, I would need to learn how to humble myself and apologize to those I love dearly when I was in the wrong. I also would need to learn how to express my needs so that those friendships could continue to grow and to change.

When it comes to being disabled—yeah, that thing I was pushing deep down in my pursuit of “normal”—I would have told myself that the people who love me would do the wrong thing sometimes, or wouldn’t speak up when I wished they had. There would be times I’d wish I would’ve spoken up for myself, too. Advocacy of any kind involves making mistakes. I would cringe. I would learn. I would do better next time.

I wish I’d known that a college professor would say the word ableism in class one day, and it would be the first time I’d ever hear of it. Later, when I’d Google it in my dorm room, it would crack my heart open in a way nothing ever had before. Learning about that would be the key to unlearning so many things in my life.

I wish someone had told me that being in a wheelchair doesn’t make me undateable. I wish someone told me that being dateable doesn’t define my worth.

I would tell myself that I was not, in fact, starting on the singular path to the rest of my life. I would always be pivoting, and for as many times as I’d start over—in my jobs, my relationships, the stories I’ve left unfinished—none of those new starts would wipe my slate clean. I would never be starting from scratch. I would learn as much from every wrong turn as I would from every right one.

I would tell myself that as much as I want to leave high school in the rearview mirror, my memories and feelings about that time would have a way of popping up again, much like how the songs from Taylor Swift’s Fearless album that I blasted through my headphones as a teen would get remastered and remixed when I was in my 30s. That I would start to think about how what we were told about fire hazards at graduation, and all the other inaccessibility issues throughout my schooling, really was just plain wrong. I would wish I knew then what I know now, and to address those complicated feelings, I would start to write a book. I might have been done with high school, but high school wouldn’t be done with me.

I wish I could have told myself all of this that day as I sat in the aisle in that hideous purple gown. I’m also glad I knew none of it.

So to readers embarking on their life after high school, I’ll say this: When it comes down to it, all you can do to figure out the rest of your life is to start. Your future is before you—everything, all of it. Go write your first page. But do so with the comfort of knowing you can always, always revise it.

Read our review of Claire Forrest’s ‘Where You See Yourself.’

The debut YA author reflects on what she wishes she could have told herself on her high school graduation day—and what she’d say to the class of 2023.
Behind the Book by

I approach a book as if it were a body. An object not only to shape through words but also to bring to life—activate!—using a collection of tools that go beyond hammer and nail. Though this method can apply to any project, it has felt more urgent to me in fiction that tackles the past as a subject; how do I convince readers that a distant time is not a grainy photograph but is fleshy and real? I feel a pressing responsibility to bring characters out of the realm of the theoretical and place them in moving forms—and, through careful research, to turn the framework of their narrative into a body too. 

“A book’s body should be lovely, should move with vigor and should be convincing down to its beating heart, its sturdy bones.”

First the skeleton: Who were these people, what was their philosophy about faith and love and sin, how did their culture conceive of itself? This demands highbrow research, the investment in archives and thick history texts. Then the muscles: What pushes these people through space? What are the events ordering their lives, the goals driving them, the particular bends of their relationships? Historical studies help here too, but we begin to drift toward areas the internet excels at. (“What happened on this date in 891?”) Finally the skin, the hair, the eyes. What did this world look like? Here the internet with its gift for trivia takes over (“how to tie a toga”; “recipe for 18th-century cornbread”; “minerals used in Renaissance paint”). By the end of this construction process, a book’s body should be lovely, should move with vigor and should be convincing down to its beating heart, its sturdy bones. 

Having written several historical novels, I thought I had a pretty good feel for this research strategy. I knew what to read, where to turn. But then I decided to write a novel about plants. What lessons could I carry over to a field in which I was a neophyte? How could I build the bones, the muscle and the skin not for a young woman but for a violet? I structured The Weeds as a botanical flora, using 19th-century botanist Richard Deakin’s list of plants growing in the Roman Colosseum (420 species!) as a framework to tell a story. Each entry describes a plant while pushing the human narrators along their arcs; each entry shows how flower and human intersect. The point of The Weeds is that women and unwanted plants have an uncomfortable amount in common, so I set out with the same approach: to find first the highbrow, foundational sources that would give me a holistic sense of this kingdom of flora to which I had devoted a narrative. 

Sensitive fern from The Weeds, credit Kathy Schermer-Gramm

Onoclea sensibilis, sensitive fern

What is the philosophy of a flower? The closest I came to an answer was in the research room of the New York Botanical Garden’s library, where an archivist laid out the lusciously illustrated floras of past centuries. These folios, composed in Latin or French or Italian, were as large as atlases; exotic flowers bloomed on vellum. I handled a first edition of Deakin’s Flora of the Colosseum of Rome and paged through Giorgio Bonelli’s massive 18th-century Hortus Romanus, Antonio Sebastiani’s 1815 catalog of the Colosseum and Domenico Panaroli’s fragile 1643 flora. The illustrations ranged from simple black engravings to full watercolors of a grapevine’s brown tuberous roots, the crimson berries of a butcher’s broom, hot-pink caper blossoms. One might think an illustration of a plant, unlike a photograph, can only be an approximation; it’s not true, one might say. But consider Rembrandt’s self-portrait at age 53; how much more do those blue-gray lines creasing the artist’s eyebrows tell us about his stance than a photograph would? Art, I must remember as I turn the heavy pages of the flora, can evoke something much rounder than fact. From the dusty manuscripts, I gleaned that even the mildest plants explode in beauty, and they demand a painstaking attention from their human witnesses. 

How do you put the characters of plants in motion? I had some gardening knowledge inherited from my mother, a basic sense of what plants grow best in sun, which weeds taste good, how to make a snapdragon talk. But many of the plants in Deakin’s flora were unfamiliar to me, and what Deakin was interested in—their botanical structure but also their medical uses and mythological meanings—were subjects I too needed to understand. More importantly, I was using the essence of each species as a springboard for a narrative moment. The unusual umbels of a candytuft, shaped like a rabbit’s paw prints, trigger a memory of a narrator’s childhood bunny. The worldwide antipathy toward chickweed prompts a narrator to consider the abuse suffered by women in academia. Where could I learn these details about flowers? As a historian, I told my students to look beyond Wikipedia. As a novelist searching for the muscles of a book, Wikipedia was my lodestone. There I discovered the Grand Duke of Wurttemberg’s 1671 edict against grass pea flour; the presence of a 1,600-year-old olive tree on a Croatian island; the particular osmotic pressure at which a squirting cucumber can eject its seeds. (On the equally democratic and chaotic YouTube, you can find erotic videos of this phenomenon in slow-mo.) Wikipedia is in some ways a flora unto itself: scientific, cultural, idiosyncratic. A page on Bellis perennis, the common daisy, includes sections on its botanical description, etymology, distribution, cultivation, uses and the fact that Daisy is “a nickname for girls named Margaret.” These are the muscles that begin sending the plants into my story-world, into action. 

Queen Anne's lace from The Weeds, credit Kathy Schermer-Gramm

Daucus carota, Queen Anne’s lace

How do you put a final, sensory skin on vegetation? What does a plant really look like, beyond its pinnate leaves and hollow stems? This research turned out to be internal, spiritual, and it took me to my own childhood memories in my mother’s wild garden. I saw her clambering roses as houses that could hide my body; her pansies were the faces of friends; the wild oxalis dotting the lawn was a sour snack. Everything in her garden taught me that plants were vibrantly alive—neither remote nor static but endlessly growing, always responsive to my young imagination. They filled my world with scent and color and taste, but they also needed my tending: My mother paid me a penny for every spent bloom I cut. So I had no fear when it came to writing a book dominated by plants; I had long ago seen how they could become characters in their own right. 

Still, I believed writing about weeds would demand a new research strategy—that what I had learned as a trained historian would fall short. (Would I need a doctorate in botany too?) But a novel is still a novel; a book still requires a body. And from 17th-century watercolors to 21st-century internet encyclopedias to my own tactile attachment to an elm’s raspy leaf, the material was already at hand. I merely had to foreground these plants not as decor but as protagonists. They too needed bones, muscles, the beautiful yellow eyes at the center of forget-me-nots. Like any element of fiction, they needed to come alive.

Photo of Katy Simpson Smith by Elise L. Smith. Illustrations from The Weeds by Kathy Schermer-Gramm. Used with permission from FSG.

In the latest novel from acclaimed, bestselling author Katy Simpson Smith, two women in different time periods are tasked with cataloging the plants that grow in the Roman Colosseum. But how can unnoticed little weeds hold up the weight of a story?
Behind the Book by

People often ask, “When did you know you were going to be a writer? When did you decide?”

I have many answers to this question, because being a writer is a way of moving through the world, a way of seeing, of hearing and, I’ve learned, believing. When I was last asked this question, in relation to my novel, this is what came to mind:

There are bodies swaying. Air thick with exalting. An organ punches chords into the walls and into us. A pastor is conducting an energy that everyone in the space can feel, even me. He isn’t speaking English, but he is working with sound more than logic. There are women who wear handwoven cloth around their heads. They shake, electric with the Holy Spirit. I am with my mom. I am young enough that my head reaches her solar plexus. Soon I’ll be able to look down and see the crown of her head, but then and forever, I will look up to her. 

“We are all chaotic systems, like the weather, and any particular offering an artist presents is one of many possible storms.”

She begins to speak in Tongues. Syllables of a language that has no book sing from her. She is Ghanaian, and since I don’t speak Twi or Fante, this is yet another language she has access to that seems to have missed me. Something I can’t grasp, though not for trying. I watch as the language of God flows through her and the people around her. I feel the energy all around me. I see it lifting others from their folding chairs, compelling them to dance, to erupt with praise. 

Though I can feel the energy around me, I am siloed off. Somehow disconnected. I feel like a spectator in an Olympic arena. There is a great championship being won, but I am only watching. I want more than anything to believe in anything the way they all believe in that space. I want the spirit to fill me to language. I want to have a faith that can power me through all things. What I feel is proximity but very little of the thing itself. I want to be filled to the brim with what fills my mother, everyone in the space. What I am as I stand, the only still thing in the room, is lonely. 

There in that room of thriving souls is where I learned to want to believe in something totally, which is a way of saying “being a writer.”

“We as a society can do better than making those who do harm suffer.”

More recently, when asked how I came to be the writer of this book, Chain-Gang All-Stars, I thought of another time, a time with my father.

In his life he was a lawyer. Again, as a Ghanaian, there were many people whom I called Uncle or Aunti who knew him as “Lawyer.” It was a title, a position. More than a job. When I imagine him, he is wearing a suit. 

I was barely tall enough to look straight at my father’s waist without craning my neck when he came home to our apartment at this time. That day he’d begun in earnest to prepare a trial he’d been thinking about for a while. He was a defense attorney, something I’d known, though it was rare that he’d speak about the specifics of any one case. That day he was talkative. I viewed him as a paragon of Truth and Power, and so I was excited, elated to listen. He said he had a difficult case and that his client had committed murder. I remember how he looked, looking at me. Searching, close. I sunk further into our couch. I remember knowing even then to hide the colossal disappointment I felt. Murder equaled “bad guy,” and so by my child logic, my father was a villain or, at best, an accessory to one. A henchman. 

I said how I felt in the nicest way I could summon. “Why are you helping somebody bad? Someone that would do that.”  

And he said, “It is not that simple.” He said more after that, but there was a world-reframing kind of truth in just those few words. And this new novel is a direct extension of that reframing. He said to me as a child that “it is not that simple,” and our justice system currently is genocidal in its simplicity. This book calls to question that approach. In that moment when my father told me who he was defending and began to tell me why, he gifted me a curiosity toward nuance, which is another way of saying “being a writer.”

Chain-Gang All-Stars is my “debut” novel, but it’s a debut in the sense that it is the first novel-length story I am presenting to the world with the force of the publishing industry behind it. But when I think about how it came to be, and when I’m asked, “When did you know you could write a novel?” I think about my actual first novel. A book that will never come out. A book I wrote over 10 years ago, working daily through the summer on a Lenovo netbook in an apartment we would soon be evicted from. I thought that book would change my family’s life. I thought by force of will I’d be able to create something special. I thought it would heal the sicknesses that ailed my parents in swells over the years, I thought it would remove the pressures that had rendered such difficulty into their lives. I worked on it with the focus of someone fighting for their life. It was not good. And though that book will never come out, it was then that I learned to weave a great energy into a practice. Taking massive desire and placing it into actions with consistency is discipline. Nothing physical came of the book. We still got evicted. Maladies would still reign over us. But also everything came of it. It taught me what it felt like to finish a project. It taught me what it was to nurture discipline over days and months and years. And that, being a careful nurturer of discipline, is another way of saying “being a writer.”

“What if compassion were the rule that governed us above all things?”

It has been many years (seven) in the making, this new “debut” novel, and I’ve been thinking a lot about what people have asked me and what I ask myself. What do I think makes someone a writer? What do I think allowed me to write this new novel and why? I think we all have our own answer because art is born of each of our particular essences. We are all chaotic systems, like the weather, and any particular offering an artist presents is one of many possible storms. But for me, when I think about Chain-Gang All-Stars, I think about what happens when I write toward faith. I started the book hoping I was an abolitionist, believing deeply that we as a society can do better than making those who do harm suffer. Now that the book is done, now that I’ve done the research, now that I’ve considered the question of what it means to be a compassionate society, I know I am an abolitionist. It was a trust fall into faith. It required me to allow my curiosity and desire for nuance to move me through the world. The idea that “it is not that simple” is a simple lighthouse I am still following. Because it’s not that simple, but also it could be. What if compassion were the rule that governed us above all things? 

When I think about how this book came to be, I think about the other books that have already come and those yet to come. I think about what can be forged from a willingness to excavate those questions that linger in my chest. I think of how finding the discipline to do that work, to accept that questions may be answered by more questions, is my answer. I’ve discovered myself writing this book. Learning more about the world through it has given me something real to believe in. And someone with something real to believe in is another way of saying “being a writer.”

Photo of Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah by Alex M. Philip.

Read more: Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah is one of our 2023 Writers to Watch.

With his 2018 story collection, Friday Black, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah set the world of literary fiction alight. His first novel, a bold evisceration of America’s for-profit prison system, stokes the flames.

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