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In the first few days of January 2019, I was teaching at a residency on an island off the coast of Connecticut. My husband, our two kids and I had driven from Florida to New York on Christmas Day for me to make the gig. Both my husband’s and my families are from Florida, and until recently, my relationship to the holiday has always been beach and warmth and early morning swims. I was both relieved and very sad to be back up north after a week in Florida.

It was freezing on the island, and I was staying in a monastery with faulty heating, small rooms with lumpy beds, crosses on the walls and a shared bathroom down the hall. I went for long pre-dawn runs and taught most of the day. I love teaching but find it draining—the very necessary task of consistently showing up for students, trying to make the workshop space engaging and rigorous, nurturing and safe. 

I had taught at this residency before, and I’d always needed long stretches alone in my room at night, so in November I’d bought myself Ninth Street Women by Mary Gabriel as a birthday gift. For those who haven’t read it (and you should, immediately), it’s the story of abstract expressionist painters Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler, brilliant artists all, living and working in New York at a thrilling, complicated time (before, during and after World War II), being ground down by poverty during the Great Depression and then later, for some, achieving unfathomable wealth and fame.

“I was looking around for someone to tell me how to be, what to do to make things better, but there was no one there, no rituals or practices or authority figures that I believed in anymore.”

I’d become obsessed with going to see visual art a few years prior, not least because I felt completely ill-equipped to understand it. I loved the feeling of walking through a museum and letting the art pull me toward it. Often, I’d go with a friend who also writes, and we’d walk a long time after, talking about what we’d just seen, about what and how it had acted on us.

Going home to Florida always leaves me sad and anxious for all the ways I have failed to love or show up for my family, for all the parts of that place that I love and hate and miss. Ninth Street Women was solace in the face of that—intimacy, much needed company. Gabriel refers to each woman by her first name, and their lives constantly intermingle and overlap. It felt gossipy and thrilling, the texture of competition, sex, money, art, ambition, class disparities and marital spats. I came to crave it, sitting at dinner with my colleagues and my students, FaceTiming with my kids and pretending the connection had gone out. I thought and dreamt about these women, was both inside of them and watching them—a voyeur, constantly shifting my investments and alliances, thrilled and angry and sad on their behalfs. 

Once I left the island, I went back to New York in search of their work, and a new layer was added to this experience: I couldn’t find a good amount of it. I got angry, and so sad, thinking of all that work, which the various museums owned but mostly kept warehoused instead of on display. 

That same trip, I’d been thinking about anger. I’d just finished writing Want, a novel shot through with the fury that had been building in me for a long time. But by the time I read about those women, I was beginning to see the limits to the power of my anger. At first, it had felt so much more active than the sadness I had felt before that, but actually, I realized, it had come to feel just as ineffectual.

It’s difficult to pinpoint how and where novels start, what we pull from our lives and pasts and interests as we build them. I had also, the past few years, been telling stories to my kids on our walks to and from their school. I often asked them to help me start the story, to carry the plot through when I lost steam. Their most consistent bit of advice: kill the mom, because it immediately makes the book more dangerous. (I tried not to take this personally.) 

I’d been thinking about broken systems, too, not just the social safety net, our broken politics, but also the way I felt constantly, embarrassingly, like I was looking around for someone to tell me how to be, what to do to make things better, but there was no one there, no rituals or practices or authority figures that I believed in anymore. In this same vein, I’d been thinking about art and what it was worth, how often I was late for pickup or missed a work email because I was standing there, transfixed by a piece of art, for reasons I could never quite explain. How broke artists (and I) always were. 

From all of this thinking and living emerged the main components of Flight: the holiday, the utility (or not) of art, talk of money, the search for another side to anger, a dead mom creating new pressures and a sense of no one knowing what to do. And from the women in Ninth Street Women, a sense of overlapping and conflicting wants and needs, a deep and desperate desire to do good, underpinned with the terror that you don’t know how. 

Also from Ninth Street Women: I wanted to make a book that felt as it had to me that week on that freezing island, up all night in that lumpy bed: lush and immersive, gossipy and deeply felt. The way it gave me something good and solid felt like sustenance, pleasure, relief.  

How do the fragments of an author’s life coalesce into a book? Lynn Steger Strong reveals the real-life artists and sharp twists of emotion that helped to spark her third novel, Flight.
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In 2019, Ann Mah published an article in the New York Times about 20-year-old Jacqueline Bouvier’s year in Paris as a college junior. As Mah traced Jacqueline’s days up and down the streets of Paris and into its museums and cafes, she revealed a new side of both the American icon and the postwar city. The article was the inspiration for Jacqueline in Paris, Mah’s novel about this formative year.

Mah shares a closer look at the process of fictionalizing this story—and the incredible moment when Jacqueline’s own voice began to come through.

A couple of years ago in Paris, I walked by a stately art nouveau building in the 16th arrondissement. On the wall hung a plaque that proclaimed: “Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis née Lee-Bouvier (1929–1994), widow of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 35th president of the United States of America, lived in this building as a student from 1949 to 1950.” It stopped me in my tracks.

By this point I’d lived in Paris off and on for a few years, and I had a pretty good sense of the famous Americans who had lived in and loved the City of Light—but I hadn’t realized they included the former first lady. As I gazed at the apartment building, which was large and elegant, with a limestone facade that blended seamlessly with its neighbors, I tried to imagine her as a student, 20 years old, pushing open the heavy wooden front door, buying a newspaper at the corner kiosk, dashing down the steps of the metro. Suddenly I was overcome with a desire to know more about this young woman who had decided to study in France only five years after World War II. What had drawn her to Paris? With whom—and how—did she live? And how had her junior year abroad affected the rest of her life, if at all?  

I began writing a travel article, retracing Jacqueline’s footsteps in Paris. At the library, I checked out a stack of biographies, scouring them for details about her year abroad, which were few and far between. I re-created some of her adventures: sipping cocktails at the Ritz Bar, riding horses in the Bois de Boulogne and visiting Reid Hall, the Parisian center of American study abroad since the 1920s. 

“The bright, adventurous young woman I had gleaned through snippets had her own voice, and in this novel I have tried to let her speak.”

I interviewed Jacqueline’s French host sister, Claude du Granrut, who spoke of the bitter cold of the winter of 1950, describing the earmuffs, scarves and sweaters they wore at home to keep warm. Their rambling apartment lacked heat: “It was broken,” she said. “Jacqueline put on gloves to study. I remember her always being covered up.” She told me that she and Jacqueline never spoke a word of English together, which I found especially touching, because it illustrated how deeply Jacqueline cared about learning the French language. 

In du Granrut’s memoir, Le piano et le violoncelle, I read more about her mother (and Jacqueline’s host mother), the Comtesse de Renty. She and her husband had been Resistance spies during the war; in the final days before the liberation of Paris, they were captured and sent to concentration camps, where her husband died. The war left her widowed and impoverished, with two daughters and a grandson to support, and as a result she had taken in boarders, including Jacqueline and two other girls studying abroad through Smith College. 

Piecing together these details of Jacqueline’s time in France felt both thrilling and painstaking. And yet my original questions about her still lingered. It occurred to me that the story of Jacqueline’s junior year abroad in Paris reached far beyond the scope of a travel article. How could I learn more? Famously guarded, Jacqueline did not grant many interviews, and most of her personal letters remain private. As a result, her story has largely been told through the memories and observations of others. But the bright, adventurous young woman I had gleaned through snippets had her own voice, and in this novel I have tried to let her speak.

At first I heard her voice like a whisper, perhaps her famous little half-whisper. But after listening to the French radio interviews she gave as first lady—in which she spoke fluent French with clear precision—I realized she must have deployed that girlish tone as a guise, a protective cloak. Perhaps such subterfuge was necessary for a young woman of her milieu, one socially poised but financially precarious, dependent on her looks, charm and ability to please. Her self-assured voice in French challenged the caricature of Mrs. John F. Kennedy and allowed me to glimpse a quick, clever side of her. I couldn’t forget it, and in the end it guided me, even in moments of doubt and frustration, until Jacqueline seemed to be talking to me directly. 

Much of this book was written during the early days of the pandemic, which meant I couldn’t visit France—my family and I barely left home—but every afternoon I retreated to my car, which was parked in the underground garage of my apartment building, opened my laptop and traveled to Paris. I tagged along with Jacqueline to museums and jazz nightclubs, country chateaux and cafes, and on long brisk walks through narrow cobblestone streets, until history started coming to life on the page and in my senses. I smelled the heavy smoke of her cigarettes, swallowed the icy brine of a raw oyster at Christmas, soaked up the delicate warmth of an early spring day in the Jardin du Luxembourg. I wept with her, too, when she left Paris and came to accept that she would never live there again.

Yes, Jacqueline left France in the end. I don’t think that’s a spoiler, right? Most of us are familiar with the triumph and tragedy of the rest of her life, playing out as it did upon a global stage and recorded in history. But it was her year in Paris, the academic year of 1949 to 1950, that she called ‘the high point in my life,’ and it has been an honor and a privilege to accompany her there and allow her voice to guide this story. I don’t pretend to know the woman who was Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, but I do feel a kinship with the 20-year-old American student in Paris named Jacqueline—and she is young, and happy, and carefree.

Walk the streets of postwar Paris with travel writer and novelist Ann Mah, whose new book reveals a transformative year in the life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
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The titular character of Mazey Eddings’ Lizzie Blake’s Best Mistake is dealing with some very rom-com-appropriate problems—namely, that her two-night stand with a hot Australian guy resulted in an unexpected pregnancy, and she’s now trying to platonically cohabitate with him. But alongside all the tropey hijinks, Lizzie also gains a better understanding of and more acceptance for her attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. As Eddings explains in this essay, that combination of rom-com fizz and a neurodiverse perspective is central to what she hopes her books can achieve.

Getting my ADHD diagnosis was like receiving a key to a door I’d been trying my whole life to unlock. On the other side was an expansive horizon of endless possibilities. I finally had words and a framework and tools to understand how my brain operates: why my thoughts do loop-the-loops when I’m supposed to be focusing, why my mind deep dives into special interests or makes me avoid certain tasks. It felt so indescribably good to finally understand that I wasn’t lazy or undisciplined or reckless, as neurotypical society so often branded me, but was instead wired in a way that is worth celebrating. 

And after seeing myself in this new diagnosis, I was hungry to see myself reflected in fiction too. 

Unfortunately, people with neurodivergencies are often represented in stories that focus on their trauma or hardships. We rarely see these characters experiencing unfettered joy or having desires, sex, love; so many amazing human experiences aren’t explored through the unique lens of neurodivergence. ADHD, in particular, is a condition often represented from a male-centric, adolescent point of view. Even in nonfiction, ADHD is often written about by neurotypical people with an undertone of what ADHD-ers can do to conform and make life “easier” for the neurotypicals in their life, as though the ADHD neurotype is something to be ashamed of or is a burden to others. 

It’s not. 

It’s wonderful and challenging and unique and nuanced, and something we need to talk more about in a positive light to destigmatize it. 

Read our review of ‘Lizzie Blake’s Best Mistake’ by Mazey Eddings.

Lizzie Blake’s Best Mistake, my sophomore novel set in the same world as my debut, A Brush With Love, features a woman in her late 20s dealing with ADHD and the general chaos of adulthood. Lizzy is messy. Impulsive. Clever. Wonderful. I love her deeply. But she’s been raised (as many neurodiverse people are) with the narrative that her disability is a burden to others and something that must be leashed instead of reveled in. She navigates workplaces and relationships and the world at large while being constantly reminded that these systems and places weren’t designed to accommodate the way her brain works.

This isn’t a novel about how Lizzie “overcomes” her disability. It’s a story about how Lizzie accepts her disability, unlearns the internalized ableism attached to it and honors her diagnosis and her beautiful brain, finding comfort in her wonderful bits and her frustrating ones. It’s a story of breaking away from people and systems that tell us we need to reconfigure ourselves to fit. It’s a love letter to neurodiverse people and the found families that not only accommodate us but celebrate us, giving us the support to unabashedly thrive because we all deserve to exist in spaces that are excited to welcome us.  

Writing about neurodiverse characters means the story won’t be relatable to every reader. The pacing of neurodiverse love stories won’t always match what we see with neurotypical relationships, and we need to get comfortable with that fact! People who are neurodiverse often experience trust, connection and intimacy at different speeds than neurotypicals, and it’s important to honor that. It’s time to lean into special interests and disorganized thoughts. It’s time to talk about living with sensory issues and varied processing, to put on the page what makes the world more accessible so everyone can thrive.

Every brain is beautiful. Every brain is worthy of profound love and supportive friendships and, above all, the happiest of endings.

Photo of Mazey Eddings by Ben Eisdorfer.

The author of Lizzie Blake’s Best Mistake shares why neurodiverse romances are so important.
Behind the Book by

Pura Belpré Honor author Celia C. Peréz’s Tumble is the story of Addie Ramirez, who discovers that the biological father she’s never met is part of a family of legendary professional wrestlers. It’s a complex, emotional novel about loss, self-discovery and belonging—and a warmhearted ode to the art of professional wrestling. 

Here, Pérez offers a peek into her childhood diaries, where she chronicled her love of wrestling and began a writing practice that hinted at the storyteller she would one day become.

When I was in middle school, I owned one of those faux-leather-bound diaries, the kind of item that comes to mind when you think of a 1980s childhood. It had a blue cover with One Year Diary in gold script and a little clasp that locked with a tiny key. The lock and key, a thin piece of metal, gave the illusion that the book could not easily be pried open, that you could really keep snooping siblings from reading your most personal thoughts.

According to 1986 me, reading was one of my two favorite things. I was into mysteries, teen romance series like Sweet Valley High and the novels of S.E. Hinton. (Yes, one could love the Wakefield twins and Ponyboy Curtis.) Still, it came as a surprise to adult me to discover that there was a time in my life when there was something I loved even more than reading. But there, in the entry for the second day in January, I declared my true love: watching professional wrestling.

My 1986 diary is a time machine of cultural references. There are mentions of the Chicago Bears’ Super Bowl win, the Challenger explosion, the opening of Al Capone’s vault, the royal wedding of Andrew and Fergie. Prince, Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, Wham and Duran Duran, as well as Simon Le Bon’s post-Duran Duran band, Arcadia, all make appearances. And there’s wrestling. A lot of wrestling.

Occasionally, I wrote about typical adolescent things like unrequited crushes and too much homework, but I didn’t devote much space on the already limited pages to nonwrestling matters. The only mention of my birthday was squeezed in as a postscript—literally, “P.S. Today is my birthday”—at the bottom of the corresponding page, an afterthought to the more important event that was happening on May 28: wrestling at the Coconut Grove Exhibition Center! 

“Perhaps I recognized that at the core of all the brawling was the thing I loved most: story.”

I wrote about WrestleMania II and The Wrestling Album, the record of songs performed by WWF stars that was released at the end of 1985 and included such classics as Junkyard Dog’s “Grab Them Cakes.” I detailed my viewing schedule: every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., and then at 7, 10 and 11 in the evening and on Sunday nights at 8. Apparently, out of desperation, I even watched “Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling.”

By the end of the year, I was watching more than eight hours of wrestling every weekend. I watched anything that aired on our cableless TV, from Vince McMahon’s WWF (now the WWE) to the smaller productions coming out of different areas, or territories, of the country. On weekends in Miami, you could still watch Championship Wrestling from Florida, World Class Championship Wrestling from Texas, NWA Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling from North Carolina, and AWA wrestling from Minnesota. In one entry, I even mention a new wrestling show called G.L.O.W.

At the time, the WWF was eating through territories like Pac-Man inhaling dots. Despite its popularity and ubiquitous presence, the WWF was my least favorite of the hourlong shows I watched every weekend. It was the junky cereal in my wrestling diet. 

While the smaller territories didn’t have the same flashiness or production quality as the WWF, there was something about them that appealed to me. They felt real in a way the WWF did not. Their rings felt less a stage for actors than a space for real people to settle scores. Wrestlers seemed more like everyday people. Among these were the Von Erichs, who were my favorites. (Yes, I was a member of the Von Erich Fan Club.) The villainous heels, wrestlers like Kevin Sullivan and Abdullah the Butcher, were less clownish and truly terrifying. There also seemed to be a lot more blood in the territory matches.

My childhood diary also reminded me that I kept several “wrestling notebooks,” though these have sadly been lost to time. I didn’t just fill these notebooks with profiles of wrestlers and recaps of matches; I also wrote stories in them. It wasn’t until I was an adult, long after I’d stopped watching wrestling, that I learned that the world of wrestling had its own storytellers, the “bookers” who created storylines. In hindsight, perhaps I recognized that at the core of all the brawling was the thing I loved most: story. 

“We go along for the ride with the hope of a satisfying ending for the hero and for all of us.”

Wrestling is reminiscent of other forms of storytelling I’d grown up enjoying—namely, mythology and telenovelas. All three have a larger-than-life quality. There are secrets, betrayals, vengeance, tragedies and triumphs. The line between good and bad is at once clearly drawn and also sometimes nebulous. At times we find ourselves sympathizing with the heels, especially when we get a glimpse of their humanity. There are families—and where there are families, there is drama. There is always a hero who takes us on their journey in search of something that is missing: home, a championship belt, an origin story. There is always a villain who poses obstacles. We go along for the ride with the hope of a satisfying ending for the hero and for all of us.

Tumble, my third novel for young readers, was inspired by these storytelling forms that were such significant parts of my childhood. It’s a story about wrestling and about family. It’s a story about grappling with the scary feelings that come with growing up. It’s about hidden identities, origin stories and traveling between worlds. It’s a story about a hero, a girl named Adela Ramirez, who is tasked with finding the courage and wisdom to make her own choices and who invites readers to join her on the journey.

Read our starred review of ‘Tumble.’

Author photo of Celia C. Pérez courtesy of Celia C. Pérez.

The acclaimed author reveals how the inspiration for her new middle grade novel came from an unlikely source.
Behind the Book by

I knew you’d want more of me after you heard my story! How could you not once you learned that you live in a galaxy as utterly charming as myself? But I’ll admit that I didn’t expect you to crave more of my wit so soon. I am still getting used to human time scales, operating in months and years instead of millennia. Moiya, on the other hand, has been chomping at the bit to share my book, The Milky Way: An Autobiography of Our Galaxy, with the world. Her mortality makes her impatient, her youth even more so.

Anyway, I have been asked to give you a peek into my process for creating my autobiography. Apparently you still have questions about how a galaxy could “land a book deal,” as you say.

The truth is that navigating your human publishing system is nowhere near as difficult as some of your writers make it seem—at least, not if you’re a celebrity. And if you’ve read the book, you know that, historically speaking, I’m humanity’s biggest superstar. For a VIG (very important galaxy) like me, publishing a book was just a matter of finding the right human to do all the stuff I didn’t want to do. You know, all the tedious typing and fact-checking, the fretting over money and legal deals across your ephemeral borders . . . the disgusting human busywork. That’s where Moiya came in. I was much more excited to solve the puzzle of how to sculpt my story into a shape that your fleshy brains could comprehend.

Read our starred review of ‘The Milky Way’ by Moiya McTier.

Talking about myself was the easy part. I’ve been regaling my peers with tales of my fabulous achievements and galactarian good deeds for longer than your puny planet has existed. (How do you think Draco, the Leos and all my other dwarf galaxy neighbors learned to make stars? They don’t have the gas to spare on trial and error, so I taught them what I knew.) But I didn’t expect it to be so difficult to limit myself to your human level of knowledge and understanding of the universe. Every time I got into the groove of telling my story, I ran bulge-first into a dead end of human ignorance. I promised myself I wouldn’t tell you anything your scientists didn’t already know, but that rules out all of the most exciting stuff! Instead, I was confined to the simplest concepts, like one of your preschool teachers trying to explain the color purple to a creature who only knows about red and blue. I had to use small words and speak slowly.

It was especially onerous to hold back on the parts about dark matter and particle physics, but in the end, I kept my promise. And I still managed to deliver a work that is as entertaining as it is enlightening. Larry never should have doubted me, but that just means I’ll get to brag more when the time comes.

Speaking of Larry, whom you might know by its formal galaxy name, Large Magellanic Cloud—one tough decision I faced while penning my autobiography was how much to tell you about galactic society. I wanted to tell you enough that you’d understand my place in the large-scale structure, but I didn’t want to betray my fellow galaxies’ trust by giving away too much of our business—especially Andromeda, who is too proud to forgive such revealing offenses. And so you are left with scrappy tidbits about galactic gossipmongering, eons-old grievances and vague social norms. The book contains next to none of our language! Not that I’d possibly be able to convey it in a writing system you’d recognize. Oh well, the story was supposed to be about me anyway, and I gave you plenty of that.

“Historically speaking, I’m humanity’s biggest superstar.”

The Milky Way
Astrophotography of the Milky Way galaxy. Silhouette of mountains. Stars, nebula and stardust at night.

I also gave you plenty of you in the book, via anecdotes plucked from your short human history. It was Moiya’s idea to let you be a part of the story. She said you had earned it with your scientific victories, but I think it’s also because your fleeting human attention spans perk up whenever you hear about yourself. Vanity has always been something we have in common, your kind and I.

Moiya was more helpful in this whole process than I expected of a human. She added a valuable . . . empathetic perspective, let’s say, and softened some of the sharper edges of my judgment of humanity by explaining your more frustrating quirks. (What do you mean you have to shut your body down for a third of each day?) So I was lucky to find a human like Moiya who met all of my transcriber criteria.

Whoever channeled my story had to be one of those precious few astronomers who had dedicated their lives to studying me, someone who already knew the basics so I could skip to the good parts. But they also had to be open to the possibility of accepting my narrative without making too many changes. And then I found her! Your Dr. Moiya McTier, who knew me by way of both math and myth, is an insatiably curious scientist who had been waiting most of her life for the sky to talk back. And she just happened to be well positioned—honing her communication skills in that Big Sleepless Apple of yours—to break into the publishing industry.

“Vanity has always been something we have in common, your kind and I.”

A literary agent found her after one of her public talks. He seemed to both of us like a nice and smart enough fellow, and together they crafted a proposal to write the Milky Way’s autobiography. Editors, of course, couldn’t resist such a juicy project, and we had our choice of publishing companies. I told Moiya to pick her favorite since she would be the one dealing with them. And the rest, as you humans say, is history.

The book is static like history can be, too. The stories we galaxies share across the cosmic web are remolded whenever there’s something to change or add. Your human books are crude physical objects, stuck in the time that they were written. That’s normally fine, but your science progresses so quickly that there have already been breakthroughs announced since Moiya turned in the final draft of the book.

For example, you finally snapped a picture with your Earth-size telescope of the event horizon of Sarge, my supermassive black hole, a full five years after the data were collected. Typical stubborn Sarge. Besides that, your astronomers recently discovered their 5,000th exoplanet, saw the first eye-opening images from the James Webb Space Telescope, found a new type of star with odd pulsing patterns and learned a whole lot about the planets in your stellar backyard. Keep up the pace, humans. I don’t want to get bored again.

You know, the Fornax galaxy thought humans were too simple to relate to my story. It thought you would shun what I said because you couldn’t understand it. That’s an insult to you and to my storytelling abilities! Thank you, dear readers, for the (small) part you played in helping me prove it wrong.

Author photo of Moiya McTier by Mindy Tucker

How did an ancient galaxy pen its own autobiography? The Milky Way explains in this Behind the Book essay, as dictated to Dr. McTier.
Behind the Book by

In The Half Life of Valery K, the titular Soviet scientist is released from a Siberian prison and transported to a town called City 40, which seems to be absolutely suffused with unhealthy levels of radiation. The most frightening thing? As Natasha Pulley reveals, towns like City 40 really did exist.

In the 1960s, across the Soviet Union, there were cities without real names. Instead, they had numbers that corresponded to P.O. boxes in towns miles away: Semipalatinsk 21, Chelyabinsk 40. Sometimes, even more ominously, they had code names like the Installation, the Terminal and the Lake. These cities did not appear on maps, the people who lived there couldn’t leave—many couldn’t even contact relatives on the outside—and they absolutely could not discuss what went on there.

These places were atomgrads: secret cities that hid the Soviet nuclear program.

It sounds like the plot of a Bond novel, but this system was actually an answer to the biggest problem the Soviet Union ever faced: how to keep the Americans from doing to Moscow what had been done to Hiroshima. The Soviet Union had a formidable nuclear arsenal, but the atomgrads made it so that very few people knew where all the parts were, how they fit together—or what the consequences would be if someone tried a hot war instead of a cold one.

 “The truth is so bizarre that it doesn’t sound like it can be right . . .”

I didn’t know about any of this until recently; I just stumbled over it. When the TV show “Chernobyl” came out a couple of years ago, I loved it so much I read Serhii Plokhy’s brilliant Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe for background. In it, he mentioned something that nearly knocked me off my chair. One of the reasons the scientists at Chernobyl had some idea about what to do when the plant’s nuclear reactor melted down was that this had happened before, at a place called Ozersk. Plokhy didn’t say anything else about it in his book, so I started looking into it.

Ozersk is a code name, derived from the Russian word ozero, which just means “lake.” Its other name is Chelyabinsk 40, meaning City 40. It was—and still is—part of that network of secret atomgrads. In the ’60s, City 40’s speciality was producing weapons-grade plutonium.

Late in 1957, something happened in City 40. We still don’t know exactly what. But we do know that thousands of kilometers of land around City 40 were irradiated. We also know that hundreds of people in a city 90 kilometers away were admitted to the hospital with radiation sickness. If people that far away were that sick, the amount of radiation released must have been enormous.

But unlike Chernobyl, hardly anyone in the West has heard of City 40, even today. In fact, when Soviet scientist Zhores Medvedev broke the news of it to the Western press in the 1970s, nobody believed him. A lot of Western scientists outright rubbished what he said. Nobody could accept that there had been a major nuclear disaster that stayed secret. But it did.

Read our starred review of ‘The Half Life of Valery K’ by Natasha Pulley.

After I read Medvedev’s book about the disaster, and saw the declassified CIA documents he attached to it, I started writing. I started learning Russian and looking at archive footage and poking through the website for Rosatom, Russia’s current nuclear agency, which has plenty of information about City 40. I did a course on nuclear physics so I could actually understand the documents I was finding. The picture that emerged was so strange it could have been from a comic book, and I think that’s partly how it stayed secret. The truth is so bizarre that it doesn’t sound like it can be right: hundreds of thousands of people exposed to radiation and radioactive land that remains dangerous today; widespread health problems even now because of it; and at the heart of it, a facility called Mayak—the Lighthouse—that actually produced the polonium that killed Alexander Litvinenko, a prominent critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, in 2006.

All this led to The Half Life of Valery K, which is about a scientist sent to work at City 40 in 1963, and what happens when he starts staring too hard at its secrets.

Photo of Natasha Pulley © Jamie Drew.

In the 1960s, the Soviet Union covered up a Chernobyl-level nuclear disaster. Natasha Pulley's new thriller, The Half Life of Valery K, reveals the truth.
Behind the Book by

I get excited by stupid animals. That is to say, animals that most people consider “stupid,” such as insects or chickens. Once, during a safari trip in South Africa, I shouted for the driver to stop the vehicle so I could get out to chase after a dung beetle. While the other tourists looked on with pity and confusion, I snapped a million pictures of the beetle with tears of joy in my eyes.

I’m simply fascinated by the lives of dung beetles. Or hermit crabs. Or chickens. I am fascinated with how they behave and what this means about the way they think. I am a cognitive scientist by trade, and my main study animal is the dolphin, perhaps one of the most intelligent nonhuman animals on the planet. And yet it’s the unintelligent ones that have truly captured my heart.

Read our starred review of ‘If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal’ by Justin Gregg.

Usually when a scientist studying animals writes a book meant to get the public excited about animal cognition, they focus on all the ways in which animals think and act like humans. I could have written about, for example, how New Caledonian crows are able to create complex tools out of twigs to help them fish insects out of a log. Then I could have framed this fact as “crows are able to make tools just like humans.” This idea of an animal doing something humanlike is inherently appealing. So the obvious approach would have been for me to write a book regaling readers with examples of complex humanlike (or crowlike) behavior in simple animals—such as how dung beetles use the Milky Way to navigate the African plains.

But I didn’t want to do that. I wanted people to get excited about dung beetles for their unintelligence, not their intelligence.

It wasn’t until I had a conversation with my editor, Pronoy Sarkar, that I finally figured out how to do this, and the idea for If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal took shape. It isn’t a book about animal intelligence, per se—or even about animal unintelligence. It’s really more about human stupidity. In it, I call into question the base assumption that human intelligence—our capacity for science and engineering that stems from cognition that is particularly sophisticated and unique to our species—is a good thing. Instead of trying to elevate “stupid” animals by showing how they can think intelligently, I show that thinking intelligently in a humanlike way might actually be a crappy biological solution. Evolutionarily speaking, human intelligence might actually be stupid.

“Evolutionarily speaking, human intelligence might actually be stupid.”

Looking at everything happening in the world today—the conflict in Ukraine and the threat of nuclear war, or the climate emergency, or the deepening political division in many Western democracies—I am honestly concerned about the future of our species. Plenty of pundits are predicting with alarming certainty that the human species is teetering on the brink of extinction—not because of any external forces, such as comets or plagues, but because we are extincting ourselves through carbon emissions and advanced forms of holocaust-inducing warfare. Through things that are, in other words, products of our complex, intelligent way of thinking.

This is precisely why I am asking people to reevaluate the goodness of human intelligence and consider that dung beetles and chickens might in fact be better designed for life on this planet than we are.

I didn’t write this book because I think humans are idiots. We are not. We are exceptional in many beautiful ways and a wonder of evolution when viewed from some angles. But from other angles, the human mind is dangerous—capable of both worrying about and bringing about its own extinction. I wrote If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal not to bash humans but to inspire people to widen their love of the animal kingdom. I want people to walk into their garden and marvel at the creatures in it precisely because they aren’t as smart as us.

“Dung beetles and chickens might in fact be better designed for life on this planet than we are.”

And yes, I also want people to understand that even the traditionally “stupid” animals aren’t actually stupid. Bees and wasps, for example, are far more cognitively complex than most people realize. They have consciousness, emotions and basic math skills. They can problem solve and use tools. They have individual personalities and can recognize faces. They have a lot of the cognitive skills that we used to believe belonged solely to Homo sapiens. But so what? It’s not necessarily a good thing to think like a human. In fact, the simplicity of how insects think makes them far more wondrous.

I really hope people take that lesson to heart and are kinder to the creatures around them. All creatures just want to live a pleasure-filled life for the brief moments that we exist on this planet. Fortunately, you don’t need intelligence to experience joy. And if there’s anything we need more of on this planet right now, it’s joy.

Cognitive scientist Justin Gregg extols the virtues of not-so-bright animals.
Behind the Book by

The voracious interest that created an entire industry devoted to the lives of famous people, where the public treats celebrities as if they were our royalty. The courtship, engagement and wedding of Harry and Meghan. Cardi B’s cover shoot for Harper’s Bazaar. In particular, the picture of Cardi in a Vera Wang ballgown running away from a castle, a bejeweled Jimmy Choo heel spotlighted in the frame.

These were the sparks that led to American Royalty and the idea of a British prince falling in love with an American rapper. 

“There’s a tendency to portray [Black women] as strong, tough and incapable of being vulnerable, but that depiction comes at a cost to our humanity.”

I knew people would see the Harry and Meghan connection, but making my heroine, Dani, a rapper instead of an actor shaped it into a different story with its own avenues for me to explore. Meghan is very fair-skinned, with a white father and an African American mother, and she still had to face overt racism from the British tabloids. (Remember that headline, “Harry’s girl is (almost) straight outta Compton”?) What if the woman in question were Black with a darker complexion? More famous? And a rapper? How would those attributes change her treatment and people’s feelings about her possible addition to a historic institution?

Both Harry and my hero, Jameson, have difficult relationships with the press that are linked to the death of a parent, but unlike Harry, Jameson has been sheltered and allowed to hide away from a society that, by virtue of his birth, felt entitled to him. How would he handle being forced back into the spotlight, and falling for an American entertainer like Dani, who’d built her career cultivating a larger-than-life public persona and who’d need to stay in said spotlight for her own professional purposes?

Once the characters evolved from their initial inspirations, I began crafting my story. I always imagined Dani and Jameson’s happily ever after would look different from Harry and Meghan’s by virtue of the issues that are important to me and the topics I chose to address. But I never could’ve anticipated the bombshell game changer that was the Oprah interview! It didn’t necessarily change what I was writing, but it created an immediate response to any naysayers who may not have wanted their royal romances tainted with the notion of racism. The reactions, conversations and issues raised in my story, although entirely fictional, would now feel plausible, given what we were learning.  

Read our review of ‘American Royalty’ by Tracey Livesay.

So, I was free to challenge the assumption that in relationships between royals and commoners, the nonroyal was the lucky one. By crafting the royal family as a group of people who seem more like a corporation than a family, it’s clear Jameson is the fortunate one in this equation. He manages to find someone to truly love him, not because he’s a prince but in spite of it. 

While writing, I delved into privilege, appropriation and unconscious bias in the entertainment industry to highlight the aggressions—macro, micro or otherwise—that affect Black female entertainers. Finally, I also took the opportunity to highlight intentional caring for Black women. In fiction, there’s a tendency to portray us as strong, tough and incapable of being vulnerable, but that depiction comes at a cost to our humanity. Dani is powerful, independent and resilient, but I also show her being cherished, treasured and protected by a prince who could have his pick of partners. And he chooses her.

There were so many topics I wanted to explore; the challenge was in determining how to narrow my focus. Because at the end of the day, American Royalty is a romance, and I didn’t want to lose sight of that. It’s lush, fun, sexy and joyful, and it chronicles the journey of two people who aren’t perfect but who, improbably, are perfect for each other.

Photo of Tracey Livesay by Jontell Vanessa Photography.

Tracey Livesay explains how the love story of Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex served as the jumping-off point for her latest romance.
Behind the Book by

Maya Deane’s childhood obsession with the Iliad led her to the secret history of trans-feminine people in the ancient world and, ultimately, to reimagining Achilles in her debut, Wrath Goddess Sing.

I have not always been drawn to the Iliad—only since I was 6 years old. I asked my father to read me something that wasn’t for children, and he, a linguist with a classical bent, picked the Iliad, because I might as well start at the beginning.

I now know, of course, that the Iliad is not the beginning (neither is Gilgamesh), but I fell headlong into the epic, obsessed with Athena and thus obsessed with Achilles, whom Athena protects from herself—that is, from Achilles’ own rash behavior and emotional decisions—at every turn.

You’ll notice I call Homer’s Achilles “herself,” too. Achilles was the first question mark for me, the first sign that something about the story of the Iliad didn’t quite add up.

As I grew older, I learned the myth of Achilles on Skyros, also called Achilles among the maidens. The outlines of the story are simple: Thetis hides Achilles on Skyros, disguised as a girl; Odysseus and Diomedes go to find the warrior and instead find young women; they find the true Achilles by offering all the girls swords, and only the disguised boy wants one.

This story struck me as ridiculous. First, as I suspected at the time and have since confirmed, everybody likes swords. Second, who would actually fall for that ruse?

In spite of these questions, the myth would not leave my mind. But every version of it I encountered seemed wrong, from first-century poet Statius’ unfinished Achilleid onward. In Statius’ version, Achilles literally changes into a woman to “invade women’s spaces” and rape the Skyrian princess—a grotesquely transmisogynist version of the story.

Read our review of ‘Wrath Goddess Sing’ by Maya Deane.

Despite being little-known to the general public, the story of Achilles among the maidens has been so popular in art that, for the last 2,000 years, the character has frequently been portrayed as a woman in paintings and sculptures. From mosaic floors in classical Greece to oil paintings from the Italian Renaissance to the statue gardens of Versailles, Achilles is a woman warrior, beautiful and armed to the teeth.

Haunted by the myths, I learned more and more of the deep and scattered history of trans women, a palimpsest erased and whitewashed over and over again by colonizers from the conquistadors to the Victorians. Trans-feminine people existed in every society and culture and time, from the lamentation singers of Inanna in ancient Sumer to the priestesses of Athirat in Canaan to the gallae of Kybele and the castrated worshippers of Diana of Ephesus to the mystery cults of Aphrodite Ourania and the enarees of the ancient Scythian steppe. Everywhere, women like me had been buried under layers of history. Victorian museums literally kept collections of nude statues of trans women hidden from sight, loath to destroy antiquities but unwilling to reveal us to the world.

All of this distilled into a single question: What if Achilles were like me?

And when I asked that question, a long-buried possibility was at last revealed. If you want to read that history, you’ll find it in Wrath Goddess Sing.

Photo of Maya Deane by nlcrosta.

Achilles as a woman is just the tip of the iceberg. Author Maya Deane reveals the secret history of trans women in the ancient world.
Behind the Book by

Literature has always had the power to create realities around itself. Indeed, this ability has been one of fiction’s obsessions over centuries. As different literary devices come in and out of style throughout history, one of them has remained relevant for at least a couple of millennia: the framed narrative. We are all familiar with this form of storytelling, which can be found in works as dissimilar as the Odyssey, the One Thousand and One Nights, the Decameron and Ethan Frome. For expediency’s sake, here’s a made-up example:

The express train had been streaking through the stormy night for hours, which is why it was curious that the man who came into my compartment was shivering and soaked to the bone. He took the seat opposite mine, wiped his face, and, after struggling to light a wet cigarette, started to speak in a whisper that grew louder as he warmed up:

This, of course, is followed by the story that explains how the man came to hop on board a fast-moving train in the middle of the night. But that’s not quite relevant right now. The most important part of this example is that final colon. This is the graphic boundary between two different planes of reality—and what a beautiful coincidence it is that the colon should resemble a hinge! Of course, not all framed narratives feature this punctuation mark (although a lot of them do: Borges, a master of the framed tale, often uses them just like this), but it provides a helpful way of seeing how these two levels interact. On this side of the colon, what passes for the real world; on the other side, the realm of storytelling. 

“We understand the world through stories. Is it that surprising, then, that their texture, slant and tone should condition what we perceive to be true?”

Part of why this is such a successful device has to do with the geography of the text. The frame is quite literally closer to you, the reader, than the story it contains. And it’s this physical closeness to reality (to the person holding the book) that makes the framing story more believable. Meanwhile, the framed story, by virtue of being removed, serves as a tacit reminder of that closeness. (Also, the soaked man’s tale may turn out to be outlandish, but wouldn’t that, by contrast, make the circumstances of the narrator in the compartment even more plausible and believable?) We experience this more acutely in those stories where we forget there was a frame, only to, in the final chapter, return to it. After the soaked man’s account of his adventures, we find ourselves, once again, in the safety of the compartment. The feeling upon returning to the frame—and this is quite telling—can resemble that of waking up from a dream. We are back in “the real world.” In short, framed stories create a gradation of reality. And in this scale, the frame is the closest we can get to the referential world. 

Hernan Diaz
Hernan Diaz

Yet when we read Don Quixote, Frankenstein or Wuthering Heights, we think of the knight-errant fighting windmills, of the creature seeking revenge on its creator, of the mercurial antihero roaming the Yorkshire moors. These are the characters and events that immediately come to mind. However, this is not what these novels are, strictly speaking, about. Don Quixote is about a person reading a translation of an Arabic manuscript. Frankenstein is about a sea captain writing letters to his sister. Wuthering Heights is about a housekeeper talking by the fire as she does her needlework. This is all that happens in these novels—on this side of the colon. The fact that we tend to forget these scenes containing the stories shows how effective these frames are at mimicking “the real thing.” Because it is always there, reality can afford to be taken for granted, disregarded and even forgotten. 

These stories (about the mad knight, the friendless monster, the haunted lover) have severed their ties to the referential world. They are quite literally surrounded by fiction (the tales about the translator, the captain, the servant). Their context is no longer life but literature. This, of course, enhances the verisimilitude and lifelikeness of the novels—because literature is no longer trying to copy anything outside itself.

Framed narratives show us something important about the way in which we understand the world through fiction. If a proper context can be created around a story, it will stand a much better chance of being believed, since the parameters of truthfulness have been established beforehand. The referent for this sort of fiction is another fiction. And it is we, in the end, who have been framed.

Don Quixote is about a person reading a translation of an Arabic manuscript. Frankenstein is about a sea captain writing letters to his sister. Wuthering Heights is about a housekeeper talking by the fire as she does her needlework.”

These were some of the thoughts behind my latest novel, Trust. What is the relationship between literature and reality? To what extent is our everyday life a framed narrative? And what are the stories that frame our quotidian experience? 

I became interested in how many historical accounts regularly reveal themselves to be, at least to some extent, fabrications—narratives distorted for political gain. Still, these fictions have a direct impact on our lives. Although we know that with some regularity they will be questioned, transformed and even debunked, a great part of our identity is defined by these stories. 

Another of these public fictions is money. It’s an all-encompassing illusion with all-too-real effects. There’s nothing material or tangible that links a dollar bill to the value it represents (and in this, money resembles language). Its value is the result of a long series of conventions. It’s make-believe. All money is, at heart, play money. And all of us have gathered, voluntarily or not, around the board.

Trust, then, explores the very material consequences fiction can have. The book is made up of four different “documents”—a novel-within-the novel, two memoirs and a diary—and the reader is enlisted as a textual detective in order to come up with a possible version of the truth behind these stories. Part of this quest will challenge the contracts we enter into when we engage with narratives of any kind—literary, historical, political, financial. More than asking itself how literature imitates life, Trust interrogates how the stories we tell shape the world around them. We understand the world through stories. Is it that surprising, then, that their texture, slant and tone should condition what we perceive to be true? 

I wouldn’t say that Trust, as a whole, is a framed narrative in a traditional sense. But each layer in the novel creates a reality for the others. It’s hard to reveal more without giving too much away. Let’s just say, expanding the little example I made up at the beginning of this essay, that once the soaked man is done with his story, neither his listener nor the reader will be so sure about that train’s destination.

Read our starred review of Trust by Hernan Diaz.

Photos of Hernan Diaz by Pascal Perich.

Pulitzer Prize finalist Hernan Diaz, author of Trust, investigates the joys and mysteries of the framed narrative.
Behind the Book by

She wears impractically high heels, no matter where she goes. 

She’s always on a treadmill or a stationary bike, barking orders at her long-suffering assistant via her AirPods. 

When she gets off the elevator, she hurls her jacket out and expects someone to materialize and catch it—and place a perfectly heated latte in her hand at the same time.

She’s the archetypical Big City Woman, and I love her. Perhaps more importantly, I’m curious about her. Every time some new iteration of her shows up in a show or movie or book, I find myself wondering where she’s coming from, and when the last page ends or the credits roll, I wonder where she’s headed. 

That’s where Book Lovers—in its earliest draft, titled City Person—came from: my fascination not only with this kind of character and her potential origins but also with the way that stories tend to treat her. Like she’s someone else’s cautionary tale, a villain to be defeated, the foil to the small-town sweetheart the hero actually belongs with. 

“It takes all types, and no one type is any more or less worthy of love.”

In this last scenario, she’s often a symbol of the life the hero needs to leave behind. She’s an addendum to the high-pressure job that keeps him from answering his parents’ phone calls. The one calling to check on how his business trip is going and to hound him for taking so long when the mass firing he was supposed to conduct at the local toy factory should have been an in-and-out job.

She’s representative of the shallow, empty life he needs to break free from to take hold of his happy ending.

Don’t get me wrong: I love these kinds of transformational fish-out-of-water stories. 

I’m also a big believer in not taking one particular character’s journey as an indictment of a different kind of journey. Just because one guy decides to give up his high-powered job in the city to work at his new girlfriend’s small-town bakery doesn’t mean it’s for everyone. It takes all types, and no one type is any more or less worthy of love.

But what does it say if this one character, the high-strung Big City Woman, only ever shows up to act as another woman’s foil, to prove how worthy and good that other woman is by comparison?  

Read our review of ‘Book Lovers’ by Emily Henry.

Or if, when the Big City Woman finally gets her love story, it’s the same kind as the ones she’s been making cameos in for all these years? The kind where she leaves her life in the city, meets a man who’s her polar opposite and finds the true meaning of life on a charming Christmas tree farm. 

What does it say about the way we see women like this if they’re never allowed a love story unless it hinges on them giving up everything we find so compelling about them? 

That’s why I wrote Book Lovers. Not just because I thought it would be a blast to figure out what made this kind of woman tick but because I wanted to give her a different story, one where she wasn’t a foil or a villain or a cautionary tale but just another person, deserving of life-changing love and a happy ending—her version, not somebody else’s.

Photo of Emily Henry by Devyn Glista, St. Blanc Studios.

In her latest romance, Book Lovers, Emily Henry celebrates the much-maligned archetype of the urban career woman.

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