Trisha Ping

Launching a first novel is an uncertain thing. Which signal the beginnings of a successful career? Which are flashes in the pan? It’s often hard to tell.

With these 25 debuts, however, there was no doubt. These authors astonished right out of the gate with strong storytelling prowess and memorable voices. Read on for our list of the best debuts from the century’s first decade: 2000-2009.


whiteteethWhite Teeth by Zadie Smith (2000)

Perhaps the defining debut of the 2000s, Smith’s multicultural portrait of London life perfectly captured The Way We Live Now. While totally specific in its jump-off-the-page characters and true-to-life setting, it manages to have a universal feel as well—this could be your family. This is the sort of ambitious, accomplished debut that it’s impossible to ignore, and Smith has gone on to prove her talent with three more very different but equally accomplished novels.


 

everythingisillumEverything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer (2000)

“This best-selling novel is the work of a whiz-kid,” says our review—which about sums things up. Imaginative, quirky and humorous, the novel also tackles the Jewish diaspora and the effect of the past on the present, ideas that Foer continued to explore in his second bestseller, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

 


yearofwondersYear of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks (2001)

Though she’s now one of the leading voices in historical fiction, back in 2001 Brooks was best known for her prize-winning work as a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. She broke through the fiction barrier with a bang to tell this story of a small English village that goes into quarantine when the black plague is discovered within its boundaries.

 


enemywomenEnemy Women by Paulette Jiles (2002)

Prize-winning poet Jiles takes on a little-known slice of American history: the imprisonment of women during the Civil War. After being unjustly accused of spying, 18-year-old Adair is taken from her family home in the Ozarks to the St. Louis jail. With the help of a sympathetic Union soldier—who promises to find her once his duty is over—she manages to escape and embarks on a harrowing trek home. Jiles excels at depicting the horrors of a land and people ravaged by war, and her strong and spirited heroine is one readers will root for.

 


threejunesThree Junes by Julia Glass (2002)

An old-fashioned family drama, Glass’ fiction debut is told in three parts, a triptych that gives a full picture of the complicated bonds within the McLeod family—parents Paul and Maureen, their oldest son Fenno and their twin sons David and Dennis. Brilliantly rendered, full of characters who feel like people you know, this is a polished, perfect first book.

 


lovelybonesThe Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (2002)

The brutal, violent death suffered by Sebold’s narrator in the opening chapter sets the tone for this bold and visceral first novel. Susie Salmon is just 14 when she goes missing on the way home from school. Though her own life is over, she continues to watch the struggles of her family from heaven as they attempt to discover what happened to their beloved little girl.

 


leavingatlantaLeaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones (2002)

Jones’ debut is a sensitively written coming-of-age story, set against the backdrop of Atlanta’s African-American neighborhoods in 1979, where black children were being murdered by an infamous serial killer. This historical drama serves to deepen Jones’ careful exploration of the dangers of growing up—and especially, the dangers of growing up black.

 


 

namesakeThe Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri (2003)

In her first novel, Lahiri continued to showcase the elegant, deceptively simple writing that marked her Pulitzer Prize-winning story collection, expanding her scope to tell the story of Gogol Ganguli, the American-born son of Ashoke Ganguli, who arrives in Massachusetts from India in the late 1960s as an engineering student, and Ashima, Ashoke’s wife through an arranged marriage.

 


kiterunnerThe Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (2003)

Hosseini was a practicing physician in California when he wrote The Kite Runner, a surprise hit that illuminated Afghanistan’s tortured history through the powerful story of two boys. The novel sold more than 10 million copies in the U.S., and Hosseini has since published two other bestsellers.

 

 


knownworldbhc

The Known World by Edward P. Jones (2003)

This “staggeringly accomplished” first novel takes as its premise a surprising piece of history: Some free blacks did, in fact, own slaves themselves. Jones takes a clear-eyed look at this morally complicated time through his complex characters, including Henry Townsend, whose own parents worked for years to buy his freedom only to see him enslave others, and Jim Skiffington, a local sheriff who is personally against slavery but must uphold the laws of 1850s Virginia.

 


curiousincidentThe Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon (2003)

Christopher Boone is 15, and something of an autistic savant. Yet his ability to name every prime number doesn’t help him parse the emotional turmoil of his home life. When he embarks on a mission to find out who stabbed his neighbor’s dog with a gardening fork, Christopher—who narrates the story in an inimitable voice—ends up stumbling on a much greater mystery.

 


jonathanstrangeJonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke (2004)

Who would have thought that an 800-page book starring two magicians could become a major bestseller? Though Clarke’s epic, Dickensian tale set in an alternate 1806 England might have come in on Harry Potter’s coattails, it had a style all its own. As magicians Strange and Norrell—the first in possession of abundant natural, effortless but undirected talent, and the second something of a scholarly pedant—attempt to bring magic back to England, Clarke brings magic back to the world of literary fiction. Fans of The Night Circus and The Golem and the Jinni—you’re welcome.

 


shadowofthewindThe Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (2004)

We readers love our books about books, and Ruiz Zafon’s first adult novel—also a bestseller in his native Spain—is one of the best ever written. A twisty, Gothic tale that contains a story-within-a-story, it features a mythical “Cemetery of Forgotten Books,” a reclusive author and a Barcelona that is still reeling from the Spanish Civil War. Part noir, part coming-of-age story and part mystery, this is 100% page-turner.

 


 

godsinalabamagods in Alabama by Joshilyn Jackson (2005)

The somewhat staid world of Southern fiction got a jump-start when Jackson appeared on the scene. Though it targets themes of redemption, family bonds and the weight of the past, Jackson’s writing deals honestly with the South’s complicated past, possesses nary a jot of nostalgia and is anything but treacly. Her debut showcases all of the above and adds a saucy, strong heroine to boot.

 


preppbPrep by Curtis Sittenfeld (2005)

Novels set in prep school are a dime a dozen, which makes the fact that Prep stood out from the crowd an even more impressive feat. As middle-class, Midwestern girl Lee learns to swim among the sharks at her upscale boarding school, Sittenfeld perfectly captures all the pain and drama of growing up, making for a solid, perceptive debut.

 


The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield coverThe Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield (2006)

Starring a bookish young heroine who gets drawn into a Gothic mystery involving a reclusive female writer, this dark horse debut took bestseller lists by storm upon publication and has been a perennial hit with book clubs ever since. Setterfield, who taught French before becoming a published writer, took her time coming out with a follow up, releasing her second novel nearly 8 years later.

 


specialtopicsSpecial Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl (2006)

Voice is a big part of what marks a debut as special, and the hyper-literate, exuberant, creative voice of Marisha Pessl was one that readers could love or love to hate—but not ignore. This ambitious coming-of-age novel is also a suspenseful mystery, a story of adolescence and a touching portrayal of the father/daughter relationship. Pessl’s long-awaited second novel, Night Film, was released in 2013.

 


thenwecameThen We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris (2007)

Narrating a novel in the second-person plural is a risky choice—especially when it’s also your first book. But Ferris pulls it off with aplomb in Then We Came to the End, a high-wire act of a novel that takes a collection of office archetypes—the go-getters, the slackers, the petty tyrants—and brings them vividly to life. Written in just 14 weeks, this vibrant and lively story marked Ferris as a true writer to watch.

 


lostcityradioLost City Radio by Daniel Alarcón (2007)

The turbulent political history of South America is not often plumbed for fiction, but Alarcón does this complicated subject justice—and tells a moving tale besides—in his lyrical debut, set in an unnamed South American country. “This book is about telling the stories that people didn’t want to hear before, that were inconvenient to hear,” he told us in an interview. Alarcón’s second novel, At Night, was published in 2013.

 


briefwondrous4The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz (2007)

Díaz’s first novel, which had been anticipated for nearly a decade, stars an overweight nerd who couldn’t be more different from Yunior, the womanizing antihero introduced in Díaz’s celebrated story collection, Drown. Yet the two share a talent for falling in love, and as Díaz recounts Oscar’s journey in that inimitable voice, readers fall in love as well.

 


intthewoodsIn the Woods by Tana French (2007)

Occupying the narrow territory between suspense and literary fiction, French’s debut is a psychologically acute, harrowing police procedural. As Dublin detective Rob Ryan and his partner and best friend Cassie Maddox investigate a 12-year-old girl’s murder, Rob finds that the case stirs up a childhood trauma he can no longer ignore.

 


monsterstempletonThe Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff (2008)

Quirky and bold, Lauren Groff’s debut is both the story of an individual—Willie Upton, who has been told that her father isn’t the person she thought he was—and a town: Templeton, in upstate New York. As Willie pores over Templeton history in order to discover who her father is, readers are treated to the colorful histories of its varied residents. Told in several voices, including that of the area lake monster, this is a lively and compelling first novel.

 


girlwiththedragonThe Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (2008)

One of the signs of a successful novel is its ability to spawn imitators—and we’re still feeling the impact of Stieg Larsson’s hard-boiled Swedish thriller starring a heroine who, to put it mildly, doesn’t take crap from anyone. Sadly, Larsson died before seeing his novels published, but his legacy lives on in the flood of Scandinavian thrillers and kick-ass heroines that swamp bookshelves worldwide.

 


cuttingforstonehcCutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese (2009)

Like Khaled Hosseini, Verghese trained as a doctor before turning to fiction, and his first novel stars twin siblings who both practice medicine. Marion becomes an excellent if unheralded surgeon, but Shiva, with no formal medical training, becomes a pioneer in fistula repair, a skill desperately needed in Ethiopia. As this epic tale unwinds across continents, the conflicts between the two very different brothers are juxtaposed with the larger crises in the outside world.

 


americanrustAmerican Rust by Philipp Meyer (2009)

Set in Pennsylvania, in the heart of the Rust Belt, this literary debut portrays a disappearing small-town, blue-collar America with clear-eyed perception. Best friends Isaac and Poe had planned to escape their dying hometown of Buell for college. But when these dreams are crushed, both must try to salvage their futures. Meyer, whose second novel, The Son, was published in 2013, writes with authority, and his work has been compared to American greats like McCarthy and Faulkner.

Launching a first novel is an uncertain thing. Which signal the beginnings of a successful career? Which are flashes in the pan? It’s often hard to tell. With these 25 debuts, however, there was no doubt. These authors astonished right out of the gate with strong storytelling prowess and memorable voices. Read on for our […]

Five decades into an almost singularly successful career, Stephen King goes in an intriguing new direction with Billy Summers. Though this novel includes many classic King touchstones—revenge, a writer hero, unlikely friendships, trauma, justice—its dedication to realism and intense, almost meditative focus on the titular main character make it a standout among his works.

As the novel opens, 44-year-old military sniper-turned-assassin Billy Summers is reluctantly agreeing to take on one last job. Though he only kills bad people (he considers himself “a garbageman with a gun”), Billy is tired of the isolation and violence his chosen career entails, as well as of the dull, incurious persona he puts on to deflect the attention of the dangerous people who hire him. The payday for this final assignment is astronomical, and the target undeniably deserves his fate, but what really convinces Billy to take on the job is the cover: He’ll have to pose as a writer who’s renting space in an office building to complete his first novel.

The criminals who hired Billy find this cover story to be ironic due to Billy’s “dumb self” mask, but Billy, who secretly reveres Émile Zola and Tim O’Brien, is attracted to the idea of putting his own story on paper. As Billy begins to write about his traumatic childhood, his cover becomes increasingly real to him. But even as he sinks into his identity as “Dave,” the guileless would-be great American novelist who beats the pants off his neighbors at Monopoly and grabs drinks with a woman who works in his office building, he begins to sense that there’s more to this job than he’s being told. And of course, the hit is only the beginning of the action.

The poignant beats in this early portion of Billy Summers will be familiar to readers of 11/23/63, which also features a main character with a hidden mission who becomes a part of a community even as he deceives the people around him. But given that this novel is about a hit man, the violence kicks in quickly and continues through most of the book. King’s trademark skill with suspense and action is on display in several thrilling set pieces, including the breathlessly paced original hit, but this novel also stretches his literary ambitions. Much of Billy’s autofiction appears on the page in a book within a book that gives readers a deeper understanding of its main character. And while Billy shifts between personas and dons physical disguises with aplomb, his internal self comes more clearly into focus as he writes about his experiences and interrogates the stories he’s been telling himself about his past—and about himself. Billy might kill only bad people, but he’s still a killer. Can a person who ends the lives of others ever be considered good? 

Misery, The Dark Half, Lisey’s Story and The Shining all feature writers as characters, but their craft was either incidental or corrosive. In Billy Summers, the art of creating fiction is portrayed as an empowering force. By taking control of our stories, King suggests, we can begin to heal, find hope and even discover a truth that is more profound than reality. These resonant ideas provide a somber counterpoint to the action in this contemplative thriller.

 

Five decades into an almost singularly successful career, Stephen King goes in an intriguing new direction with Billy Summers. Though this novel includes many classic King touchstones—revenge, a writer hero, unlikely friendships, trauma, justice—its dedication to realism and intense, almost meditative focus on the titular main character make it a standout among his works. As […]

We know authors and agents, publishers and printers, libraries and bookstores—but there’s one company responsible for bringing just about every book you’ve ever read into your life, and you may not even know it exists. In The Family Business, author and journalist Keel Hunt charts the history and contributions of Ingram Content Group, a little-known, family-owned business based in Tennessee that has shaped the publishing world for 50 years. We asked Hunt a few questions about Ingram, its role in the industry and its vision for the future.

Ingram's role in the publishing business is relatively invisible to the general reader. What gaps does Ingram fill for publishers, libraries and retailers?
Basically, Ingram helps publishers, bookstores and libraries by providing essential services that enable publishers to do business in all their modern markets. For many years, Ingram performed a classic middleman function as a distributor of print books, but today, executives at Ingram prefer to describe their job in terms of getting content to its destination—that is, from the publishers who curate and own the content of books to entities that provide it to consumers. This frees up publishers to do their most essential work: finding great content.

"Ingram could and usually did take the longer view and give sustained commitment to unusual or unconventional ideas that might have been unworkable in the short term." 

How did Ingram’s origin as a family business shape its growth and affect its success? 
Because it has been a private, family-owned enterprise, Ingram Book Company (later renamed Ingram Content Group) was freed from many of the onerous short-term horizons that typically constrain public companies—such as the expectations (by shareholders and analysts) to show incremental profit each and every quarter. Ingram could and usually did take the longer view and give sustained commitment to unusual or unconventional ideas that might have been unworkable in the short term. 

Sometimes it’s easy for readers to forget the business machine that lies behind the art of literature. What do you think readers should know about Ingram?
That it has always been a family-owned business, and it grew from a handful of employees to one of the largest media businesses in the world. That its innovations have carried not only Ingram but also the publishers, bookstores and libraries it serves into the new digital age. That Ingram has always taken almost a “partner” approach to each of these critical sectors. Over its 50-year history, key landscape-shifting innovations by Ingram have helped publishers and booksellers alike strengthen their own service models and their profitability.

What are some of those innovations, and how have they shaped the publishing world?
One of the first examples was Ingram’s early application of microfiche technology, which was revolutionary for retail booksellers. Later, Ingram’s development of its Lightning Source model for print-on-demand saved book publishers millions of dollars in inventory costs, adding to recaptured sales and making for faster sales fulfillment and better profitability for publishers and bookstores.

The shift to digital publishing was a real adjustment for everyone involved in the book business. How did Ingram approach this challenge?
In the 1990s, there was much fear and dread in the book industry that the printed book might go away because of digital book technology. But the theorized “death of the printed book” didn’t happen, partly because of Ingram’s innovations in that period and after. These involved business risk and smart thinking. One of my favorite lines in The Family Business is current CEO John Ingram’s early observation that the future was not going to mean “either/or”—as to whether print or digital books would carry the day—but instead it would become an “either/and” world, with both digital and print formats available to serve consumer needs and preferences.

You have written two books about Tennessee politics and have worked as a columnist and reporter. How did that work inform this book? 
Ever since my earliest days as a news reporter, I have loved to write about truly original characters and how they navigated tough situations. That’s certainly been the case with my two previous books about politics and government (Coup and Crossing the Aisle). Some of the best stories in our culture—take Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs or Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Too Big to Fail—are about choices that business leaders have made in their own environments. The Family Business has all these ingredients. It shares the untold stories of one of the world’s most private companies and one of the most important media businesses.

Why did you want to record and share the story of the Ingram family and the Ingram Content Group?
I feel it’s important, now more than ever, for as many people as possible to understand how our world works, and particularly what I call the “leadership examples” from innovators throughout history. From Johannes Gutenberg to Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, and from Bill Gates and Steve Jobs to the Ingrams, innovators have materially helped our world to climb higher and human ingenuity to reach further.

If you could only use three words to describe Ingram, what would they be? 
My three words would be the “family of families.” There are many Ingram associates today whose mothers or fathers (or both) were connected to the business, too. Some have met their spouses there. 

Also, the Ingrams themselves have always honored the role rank-and-file associates play in the company’s overall success. Founder Bronson Ingram insisted on that over his career. He always stressed that the line employees were materially contributing to the company’s success in business. He meant it, and John Ingram believes it, too.

For example: When Ingram Micro was taken public in 1996, at $18 per share, the share price climbed by 15% in just two months. Many Ingram employees—from the telephone sales office to the book warehouse to Ingram Barge towboat crew members—shared in the rewards of that profitable event.

You spoke to dozens of people while researching this book. Does a particular interview or story stand out to you? 
There were several, of course, that stand out over my two years of research. Possibly the most revealing was my first interview outside the Ingram family. I drove to Bradenton, Florida, to talk with Harry Hoffman, who was the first president of Ingram Book Company. After college Harry worked for the FBI (he was sworn in by J. Edgar Hoover himself) and later went on to great success in business. He eventually left Ingram to become CEO of the Waldenbooks chain of mall bookstores. He is still a beloved figure among Ingram old-timers. On the afternoon of my visit, Harry, at 90, was charming and answered my every question.

That interview was also a reminder to “do the interview now” when the idea first occurs to you. Harry died in May 2020, at age 92.

If there’s one thing your book proves, it’s that Ingram has always been a forward-thinking company. What are they doing today that will affect the reader experience in the future?
I suspect only a few people know how Ingram helped our nation—and the world—to navigate day to day through the COVID-19 pandemic. You’ve never heard Ingram people brag about any of this, but you can read about it in the book. Looking further ahead, it will be fun to see what comes next from this innovative business, and how it will serve our culture and the world.

Author photo © Marsha Hunt.

We asked author and journalist Keel Hunt a few questions about Ingram Content Group, a little-known, family-owned business based in Tennessee that has shaped the publishing world for 50 years.

Alix E. Harrow follows up her engaging debut, The Ten Thousand Doors of January, with a sprawling saga that adds magic to history. The Once and Future Witches binds fairy-tale elements with the history of the women’s suffrage movement, and is a tribute to women’s stories in all their complexity. Harrow discusses her new book, her place in the literary world and the power and challenges of feminine archetypes.

The Once and Future Witches is structured very differently from your debut. It’s much longer, has three main characters and arguably enough story to extend across multiple books. How did you plan the book’s structure?
I would like to officially blame human history for the length of this book. The pitch—suffragists, but witches—sounded so slick and obvious, but the actual history of the suffrage movement spans several centuries and at least two continents. If you broaden your definition of suffrage to include the vastness of women’s struggles for political rights and social power, it gets bigger; if you add the history of witchcraft and folklore, you have five books and a spinoff series.

I tried very hard to whittle it down. The first draft was rushed and claustrophobic; it felt like a mattress somehow shoved into a pillowcase. My edit letter was full of questions and tangents and sentences that began with let us see _____. During the rewrite, I pictured myself slashing the seams of the pillowcase: I added backstories and side characters and entire folktales. I also accidentally (or at least subconsciously) turned off the word count on Scrivener, for which I would like to apologize to my agent.

“I wrote the first draft of this book with a newborn strapped to my chest and my first gray hairs frazzling around my face, feeling simultaneously old and young and neither.”

You do a marvelous job of weaving witchcraft into the real history of the women’s suffrage movement, in all its complexity (including infighting over strategy and the reluctance to include nonwhite women). Likewise, the way you imagine race having an effect on witchcraft is grounded in the African American experience. Can you talk about these and other ways your experience as an academic and an instructor of African and African American history influenced this book?
Witchcraft is a fantasy of power. It’s most often envisioned as a gendered, feminist power fantasy, and it is, but you just can’t think about power in American history without thinking about race. That’s all I ever hoped my students left the classroom with, really—the sense that race is not a regrettable footnote to the American story; it is the American story.

The suffrage movement is one of the starkest places to see this. It’s told as a triumphal march toward victory, but whose victory? We say we won the vote in 1920, but who is we? If you were a Chinese American woman, you couldn’t vote until 1943. If you were a black woman in the South, you couldn’t really vote until 1965. If you’re a woman convicted of a felony in Kentucky, you still can’t vote today.

So I decided the existence of witching would change a lot about late 19th-century America, but not everything. It might exaggerate their victories. It might bridge the gap between what they had and what they needed. It might even reach across the lines between race and class—but it wouldn’t erase them.

Your writing has an old-fashioned feel that reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, E. Nesbit’s Psammead books and classic fairy tales, none of which were afraid to deal with the darker side of magic. The Once and Future Witches also recalls Naomi Alderman’s The Power in its exploration of challenging the male-female power dynamic. What books influenced you as a writer, and how do you think of your work’s place in the literary world?
This book is definitely what happens when a dreamy wistful kid grows up on fairy tales and classic children’s literature, encounters reality and spends the rest of her life grumpy about it. It’s the anger of someone who doesn’t believe in magic but wants to, who wishes for a world much better than the one she has. I don’t know where (or if!) my work fits in the literary world, but it’s surely somewhere in the vast space between Nesbit and Alderman, caught between fairy tales and fury.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of The Once and Future Witches.


Science fiction and fantasy is experiencing a critical and creative revival lately. To what do you attribute this? What draws you to the genre as a writer and reader?
It’s hard for me to imagine discovering sci-fi and fantasy—how do you discover the house you were born in? I grew up surrounded by Anne McCaffrey and C.J. Cherryh and Lois McMaster Bujold, Margaret Atwood and Octavia E. Butler, Nicola Griffith and Jane Yolen. I expected my houses to be haunted and my skies filled with dragons. It was mostly escapism for me as a kid, but the older I got, the more I saw the way fantasy revealed reality just as often as it obscured it. The best speculative fiction seemed to function both as a mirror, to show you the truth, and a door, to let you run from it. So I don’t know if the genre is having a revival or just a recognition of long-running excellence, but I’m thrilled either way.

The Once and Future WitchesThe three female archetypes—Crone, Mother, Maiden—are pivotal to this story. They relate to the three Eastwood sisters and are relevant in other ways that shall remain unspoiled here! What did you take from historical portrayals? How do these archetypes still influence how women are seen today?
Intellectually, I hate the Maiden/Mother/Crone triad. It’s a rigid framework that reduces a woman’s identity and significance to the state of her uterus. It’s garbage. And yet, I feel the pull of it as a mythos. I like threes. I’m vulnerable to tradition. I wrote the first draft of this book with a newborn strapped to my chest and my first gray hairs frazzling around my face, feeling simultaneously old and young and neither. So I wanted to find a way to keep the power of feminine archetypes while getting rid of their simplicity, their cruelty. I wanted those words to matter exactly as much as we want them to, and not a bit more.

What do you most admire about each Eastwood sister?
It’s funny—in the beginning, I thought I loved them for their obvious strengths? Bella’s brains, Agnes’ independence, Juniper’s recklessness. But in the end I think I liked them more for the moments when they acted against their natures for the sake of others: when Bella took stupid risks, when Agnes needed others, when Juniper learned caution. It’s the sort of maturation I’m still waiting for in my own self.

Stories of female anger have a particular resonance these days. As one of your characters says, “History is a circle.” What similarities do you see between the suffrage movement and modern political movements?
Not enough and too many. Sometimes I see the better side of it—millions of women flooding the streets in the largest demonstration in American history. The survivors who lead the #MeToo movement. Elizabeth Warren, persisting nevertheless, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in her white suit, an iron-jawed angel for the new century. But I also see the old failures and divides, especially along class and race lines: white women mourning the pay gap but failing to acknowledge that Latinas make 30% less than white women; cis women turning their backs on trans women; rich women advising poor women to simply “lean in.”

In those times I remember the 1913 women’s march on Washington, when Ida B. Wells was asked to march at the back so as not to offend the white southern participants, and I hope to god history doesn’t repeat itself.

Do you have a favorite book about witches?
We live in such a rich moment of witch books! I’ve recently loved Alexis Henderson’s The Year of the Witching and Molly Ostertag’s graphic novel The Witch Boy. But the witch book I’ve read the most is almost certainly Julia Donaldson’s Room on the Broom.

What are you working on next?
I have a Sleeping Beauty novella coming out from Tor.com next year! The pitch was “I want to Spider-Verse a fairy tale,” which is a real thing that professional publishers let me do. It’s a bunch of Sleeping Beauties colliding into one another’s storylines, trying to bust out.

 

Author photo © Nick Stiner.

Alix E. Harrow adds magic to history with her complex new novel, The Once and Future Witches. Here she discusses her new book, her place in the literary world and the power of feminine archetypes.

Is it possible to compose a satisfying sequel to a novel that’s become a modern classic? That’s a challenge in itself, but the difficulty goes up exponentially if said novel has also been turned into a blockbuster TV series. 

In her sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), which outlined a near future in which women’s freedom had been completely curtailed, celebrated Canadian writer Margaret Atwood leaps these hurdles with Olympian ease. The Testaments is a crowd-pleasing page turner. Atwood leans in to the attractions of both her original novel, with its Scheherazade-style narration, and the TV series, with its resistance-minded heroine. 

The Testaments is told in the first person by three narrators, allowing for a more panoramic view of Gilead than the cloistered Handmaid Offred could provide. The voice that flows with the most relish from Atwood’s pen, and that will be the most familiar to readers, is the Machiavellian Aunt Lydia. In Gilead’s patriarchal society, which categorizes women according to their function (Handmaids, for example, exist solely to bear children), Aunts are responsible for enforcing these roles. As a privileged member of an oppressed class, Aunt Lydia makes every decision with maintaining her status in mind. 

The other two narrators are young girls: one raised within Gilead’s walls by a powerful Commander and his wife, and the other raised in Canada as the child of Mayday resistance operatives. As their stories unfold, it becomes clear that the power to bring Gilead down may be in their hands. 

If a book must be groundbreaking to be a true classic, The Testaments can’t be ranked alongside its predecessor. Today, the divide between genre and literary fiction is more porous, and dystopian fiction is an established genre—in large part thanks to novels like The Handmaid’s Tale. But just as The Handmaid’s Tale was a response to the backlash against the women’s movements of the 1970s, The Testaments is equally of its time, drawing from contemporary politics in ways that resonate. Atwood remains a keen chronicler of power and the way status (or lack thereof) affects how it is leveraged, and seeing her explore that issue in Gilead once again is a pleasure.

Is it possible to compose a satisfying sequel to a novel that’s become a modern classic? That’s a challenge in itself, but the difficulty goes up exponentially if said novel has also been turned into a blockbuster TV series.  In her sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), which outlined a near future in which women’s […]

Valeria Luiselli, author of The Story of My Teeth and Lost Children Archive, discusses storytelling, road trips, creating realistic characters and the “beautiful machine” of fiction.

Your novels don’t follow typical rules of storytelling and structure, but they’re also different from each other. Lost Children Archive is told in vignette-like chunks, with photos and other nontraditional media mixed in. Does the story determine the structure and tone of a book for you?
The story, as it grows, always determines the structure of my books. And vice versa. I see story and form as two tightly interwoven components of a book which need to grow together organically. I don’t ever have a prefixed plan when I begin a book. All I have is a bunch of intuitions and questions. In some cases, like The Story of My Teeth, I pay more attention to procedure itself as generative of form and content. (In that book, the procedure was weekly installments of a story, delivered to factory workers, and both the form and the story derived directly from that.) 

In Lost Children Archive, procedure was less of a thing. Or rather, it was completely at the service of the story. And the procedure basically boiled down to collecting—collecting notes, scraps, photos, books, audio, anything. This novel implied so much collecting that at some point I decided to get archival boxes and reproduce the fictional family’s archive in them. (I still have those boxes in a closet and feel somehow that I can’t open them or move them. As if they didn’t belong to me.) 

"I don’t ever have a prefixed plan when I begin a book. All I have is a bunch of intuitions and questions."

I had a particularly good time with the Polaroids—taking the photos, of course, but then picking which ones could go into the text, arranging them and thinking of the narrative they themselves told on their own. And especially thinking about the way they would interact with the text and in what kind of creative tension they would be inserted there.

Your descriptions of the places and landscapes along the drive from New York to the Southwest are so vivid. Is this a drive you’ve taken yourself?
Kind of. But that’s probably not relevant to the novel or its possible interpretations.

Without giving too much away, there’s a section told from the point of view of a child who’s separated from his parents and navigating the desert alone. The child is much less apprehensive about this than the adult reader! Was it hard to put yourself in the mindset of a 10-year-old and see this kind of journey as an adventure?
Well, I guess that imagining what a particular person (not a generic 10-year-old or 90-year-old) might do in a given situation is my job. I don’t know how to do anything else. I don’t even know how to cook properly. But I spend all my time thinking about what my characters would do or think or say. Now, to be honest, I had a lot of help in this novel. I had help from a little army of children in my family. I’d spend long whiles asking them all sorts of questions. I’d ask them what they would do if they were lost, what they would fear the most, what would make them feel safe. I’ve also spent many hours talking to kids who migrate alone to the U.S. I interviewed undocumented children in court between 2014 and 2015 and now give a creative writing workshop in an immigration detention center for minors. So I spend a lot of time around children and am always trying to understand how they look at the world, how they try to make sense of it and how they interiorize it through narratives.

On the trip, your narrator observes, “The more I listen to the stories he tells about this country’s past, the more it seems like he’s talking about the present.” As someone who has lived in many different countries, do you feel that the past has a stronger echo in the U.S.?
Not particularly. I think the past is always present, everywhere. And it comes back to haunt us when we try to ignore it or shut it off. In every community or country, there are wounds—historical wounds—that remain wide open because society as a whole hasn’t properly addressed them enough. I certainly think that the U.S. has not yet done what it takes to address the violence inflicted (then and now) on indigenous and other minority communities.

"In every community or country, there are wounds—historical wounds—that remain wide open because society as a whole hasn’t properly addressed them enough."

Lord of the Flies is one of many literary touchstones in this book; the family reads it on the road. The mother pushes back against Golding’s view of human nature as war, saying “that’s not necessarily the only idea about human nature.” Do you agree with her, or do you take something closer to Golding’s view?
That’s a very good question. I studied Philosophy at UNAM (the National Autonomous University of Mexico) and specialized in political philosophy. Basically, that means that for a long while I understood these issues through the somewhat artificially neat-and-tidy lens of ideas such as the social contract and teleology, etc. I’m not sure that any of those things explain the baffling chaos we live in today. I don’t think there is any such thing as “human nature” either. That idea presupposes that there is something before it actually exists—that we are one way or the other before actually manifesting any traits that suggest that way of being.

There’s a somewhat sinister encounter the family has with a man who is suspicious of them because of their non-U.S. origins—until they profess to be writing a Western. This felt like such a parallel to the immigrant experience: If you swallow our myths, we’ll accept you. It’s also a reminder of how travel can be a frightening experience for anyone who doesn’t look “American.” How do you see this encounter?
Yes, “if you swallow our myths we’ll accept you.” I like that way of putting it. It’s all respectability politics, right? Always having to demonstrate that, despite being Mexican, or despite being black or despite being a perceived minority of any kind, you will comply with dominant ideologies, values and practices.

This novel touches on serious issues: the genocide and displacement of Native Americans, and of course the current-day internment of asylum-seekers, including children. What role do you think fiction has to play in addressing issues like these?
Fiction brings together things that might usually be seen as disconnected—it suggests parallels and comparisons by juxtaposition rather than by explicitly relating things. But storytelling is also quite simply the way we come to know the world and the communities where we live and form a nexus with them. Between your mind and mine, the only connection is these words—and the way we make meaning with them. Fiction is like a machine for producing meaning. A beautiful machine. More like an old, noble beast.

As a bilingual writer, what is your writing and translation process like? Do you write in English or Spanish?
I write in both, dream in both, breathe in both. When I begin writing a book, I usually take notes in both for a long while—sometimes for a year or so—until one day I’m able to find the right language, the right tone, the exact voice I need.

What five things would you say are necessary for a successful road trip?
Not that I’m an expert in successful road trips, but . . .

– good music & books
– good company . . .  or no company
– the exact balance of silence and conversation
– no fixed plans
– a medium to document things that force you to look/listen/think differently

Children being held in detention at the border has become a national news item in the last year, but many readers might not realize it’s been going on for much longer than that. What would you suggest to readers who want to do or learn more about this issue?
I think that self-education on these matters is a responsibility we all have towards each other, especially in times like these. But not only in times of crisis. Committing time every day to educating ourselves on issues that are usually ignored or only brushed over in mainstream media is, I think, the only chance we stand against increasingly xenophobic governments that cater only to the economic and political elite, against social media authoritarianism, and against the increasing power of private companies.

What are you working on next?
I’m doing research on mass incarceration and immigration detention. But I’m still in very early stages of the process, just taking notes, reading a lot, thinking. (Still in two languages!) I have no idea what will come of it and am not in a hurry.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Lost Children Archive.

Author photo by Diego Berruecos-Gatopardo

Valeria Luiselli, author of The Story of My Teeth and Lost Children Archive, discusses storytelling, child characters and the “beautiful machine” of fiction.

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