Trisha Ping

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Unlike most first-time authors, Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney didn’t start writing fiction until her mid 40s. But that’s not the only thing that makes Sweeney and her debut novel stand out.

As of press time, The Nest, which was published in March, has spent 13 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Ecco, which paid a seven-figure advance for the manuscript, has printed 275,000 copies and sold rights in 22 countries; meanwhile, the novel has been optioned for film with “Transparent” creator Jill Soloway (who is also a friend of Sweeney’s) as a producer. Clearly, this story of four adult siblings, who lose an anticipated inheritance thanks to their eldest brother’s big mistake, is resonating in a major way.

We asked Sweeney, who lives in Los Angeles, a few questions about her breakout debut. 

How did it feel to see your first novel hit the bestseller list?
Like everything else that’s happened in my life this year, it was a completely surreal experience. I think the morning I was at a hotel with my husband and the New York Times Book Review was delivered to us—the week my book was at number 2—along with room service breakfast was the most out-of-body moment. I’m still not sure I’ve processed the whole thing.

Early on, you considered going into publishing. How do you think your writing career would be different if you had? What do you think your years as a marketing copywriter brought to this book? 
The first question isn’t one I can really answer. I don’t look back and try to reimagine decades of my life on a different path—it’s too vertigo inducing. I also try to find value in my past decisions, even the ones that I quickly regretted or realized I had to undo. My years as a freelance writer were incredibly important because I grew into a very disciplined and focused worker. I understand that writing is a job, and you need to show up for work every day. I believe that some days are easier than others, but I don’t believe in waiting for inspiration to strike. 

Now that The Nest is in the hands of readers, have there been any reactions to it that surprised you?
I always described the book as being about family. It’s surprised me to hear it described by other people as a book about money. The plot centers on money, of course, but I don’t think it’s what the book is about, per se. We don’t talk a lot about money in this country—I think the book has given people the opportunity to talk about something that is important in everyone’s life but rarely discussed in public.

This book really delves into the relationships between adult siblings—the deep connection, but also the way that the family you create can sometimes be a point of conflict with the family you were born into. Why did writing about adult siblings appeal to you?
I grew up in a very Irish-Italian Catholic environment and almost everyone I grew up with had lots of brothers and sisters. I’m the oldest of four, and I always described our family as “small”—and it was small compared to most of my friends’ families. I’ve always been interested in sibling dynamics and how those relationships become more intense as everyone ages.

Again, from a plot perspective The Nest is about four adult siblings fighting over money, but I believe the book is really about the one thing we all inherit simply by being born: our place in a family narrative. We just become the youngest or the oldest and often are assigned other convenient labels—the smart one, the pretty one, the funny one—that may be rooted in truth but are still reductive and hard to shake off. 

I’m also interested in the idea that because you share DNA and a history with people, you will necessarily share values or a common vision for the future. Sometimes you will and sometimes you won’t and either way is okay!

The characters in The Nest are struggling with something we all have to face—to differing degrees depending on circumstances—but all of us, eventually, have to reconcile the story we inherit with the one we want to write for ourselves. It’s hard to claim your own desires and take responsibility for your own choices—and mistakes. The Nest is definitely a book about making mistakes and discovering who in your life will forgive you and help you when things are tough. 

Do you agree with Warren Buffet’s maxim that “a very rich person should leave his kids enough to do anything but not enough to do nothing”?
I am the worst financial adviser on Earth, but that sounds like a wise plan! I mainly believe that it’s a very complicated, personal decision and depends on the people involved.

You’ve lived on both coasts. How do you think attitudes about money and wealth are different in Los Angeles vs. New York City?
New York City is a much older city than Los Angeles and so it has layers of old money, which is a very particular and exclusive kind of club. Los Angeles money is newer and it’s a little flashier, but more inclusive. If you can pay, you belong! There’s plenty of that in New York City, too, but there is also plenty of the “who are your parents and grandparents and Yale or Harvard?” kind of exclusivity that doesn’t really exist in Los Angeles, a place where people can reinvent themselves week to week if they choose. 

What would you blow a huge inheritance on?
An apartment in New York City, and if there was any left over, a little place in Rome.

What are you working on next?
I hope I’m working on a new novel, but it’s a little too soon to tell.


This article was originally published in the August 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Unlike most first-time authors, Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney didn’t start writing fiction until her mid 40s. But that’s not the only thing that makes Sweeney and her debut novel stand out.
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How could a bright, beloved son become America's most infamous assassin? Historical novelist Jennifer Chiaverini, who has taken readers to the Civil War era in bestsellers like Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker and Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule, answers that question in her latest work, Fates and Traitors, which tells the story of John Wilkes Booth through the eyes of the four women who knew him best. Chiaverini, who lives in Madison, Wisconsin, answered a few questions about her book and its fascinating protagonist. 

Your book has the subtitle “A Novel of John Wilkes Booth,” but its told from the perspectives of four different women. What do the voices of the women in his life reveal about Booth that a straightforward story about him would not?
For me, one of the great joys of writing historical fiction is the opportunity to bring little-known or forgotten historical figures to the forefront of the story. Women and people of color, especially, have too often been relegated to the margins and footnotes, if they make it into the historical narrative at all. I love introducing readers to these courageous, extraordinary people and allowing readers to witness transformative events in our nation’s history through their eyes.

When I first began planning Fates and Traitors, I envisioned it as a first-person narrative from the perspective of Lucy Hale, the staunchly Unionist, abolitionist daughter of New Hampshire Senator John Parker Hale—and, according to some historians, John Wilkes Booth’s secret fiancée. As my research continued, I discovered that Lucy and Booth knew each other only very briefly, for less than a year before the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Also, because Booth concealed so many of his beliefs and activities from Lucy, her perspective was too limited for the novel I wanted to write. As I delved more deeply into Booth’s history, and especially after I learned that his dying words were for his mother, Mary Ann, and he had left his last written manifesto with his sister, Asia, I realized that telling the story from the perspectives of Mary Ann, Asia, Lucy and one of his co-conspirators, Mary Surratt, would allow me to offer a richer, more detailed understanding of who John Wilkes Booth was and how a bright, beloved son could have turned into the country’s most notorious assassin.

Did any of the four voices come more easily than the others? Which narrator did you most relate to?
All four women are fascinating characters and compelling narrators, but if I had to choose the one I would most like for a friend, I’d pick Lucy Hale. Her contemporaries described Lucy as charming, pretty, intelligent and very popular in social circles both in Washington, D.C., and in her hometown of Dover. She had a great sense of humor and a mischievous streak—which I enjoyed bringing out in Fates and Traitors—but she was also devoted to her family and worked tirelessly to support the Union cause by organizing fundraisers, sewing and knitting for the troops, and visiting wounded soldiers in military hospitals. And anyone who has ever fallen in love with someone who is completely wrong with them, only to find out too late that they’ve been deceived and betrayed, would find it hard not to sympathize with Lucy.

How did you research this novel?
Whenever I write historical fiction, I begin my research at the Wisconsin Historical Society library in my hometown of Madison. It’s a wonderful resource, an archive of marvelous depth and scope tended by knowledgeable, curious, enthusiastic librarians and scholars. In my research for Fates and Traitors, I also consulted numerous excellent online resources, including the archives of digitized historic newspapers at the Library of Congress,, Dave Taylor’s excellent blog, BoothieBarn: Discovering the Conspiracy, and websites for the Surratt House Museum, the Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site and the Junius Brutus Booth Society. Whenever I can, I also like to visit preserved historical sites that relate to the people and events I include in my novels, because that significantly enhances my understanding of a place and its people.

Was there anything you discovered about Booth in the course of your research that surprised you?
Before I began my research, I assumed that Booth came from a zealously Confederate family, like that of his fellow conspirator and Marylander, Mary Surratt. I was intrigued to discover that instead Booth had been raised in a rather progressive, egalitarian, abolitionist household, and that he was the only member of his immediate family who sympathized with the South. I could imagine his family’s increasing dismay, and in some cases outrage, as they watched the son and brother they loved turn his back on their most cherished values. They probably felt powerless to do anything about it, but I doubt they ever imagined that his new passions would drive him to such extremes of violence.

"I could imagine his family’s increasing dismay, and in some cases outrage, as they watched the son and brother they loved turn his back on their most cherished values."

Did writing this book change how you viewed him?
I understand Booth and his motivations better than before I wrote Fates and Traitors, but although I sympathize with the boy he was and the difficult circumstances he endured in his youth, nothing I learned about him justifies his actions on that fateful night at Ford’s Theatre. Make no mistake, Booth is not the hero of this novel. In my opinion, he’s not even a hero of the Confederacy. At the time of the assassination, there was absolutely no political or strategic advantage to be gained for the South by killing President Lincoln. Some of Booth’s associates tried to convince him of that, but he disregarded their warnings. He could have walked away at any time, but he chose murder. I don’t sympathize with that at all.

You first wrote about the Civil War in your Elm Creek Quilts series, and its an era youve touched on in several of your standalone historical novels. Why do you think it provides such a rich setting for fiction?
Civil War era was a tumultuous and transformative time for our nation, showing the best and worst of humanity in stark contrast. Looking back, we discover great moral failings alongside true heroism in the struggle for justice, equality, and freedom. My personal heroes are people who face adversity with moral courage and dignity, whose hunger for justice and compassion for others lead them to stand up for what is right even at great risk to themselves. My favorite characters to write about either possess similar qualities, or are given the opportunity to summon up these qualities and do what is right but fall short. What the Civil War says about our country—that we are capable of both great moral failings and tremendous goodness—resonates strongly even today, and as a creative person, I’m drawn to explore and try to understand that conflict.

Do you have a favorite Civil War novel, other than your own?
I’ve read and enjoyed too many to choose only one favorite, but one Civil War novel I particularly loved is Paulette Jiles’ Enemy Women, the haunting story of an 18-year-old Missouri woman who escapes from a Union prison and flees South in search of her family.

What are you working on next?
My next novel, Enchantress of Numbers, features Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace—the daughter of the renowned poet Lord Byron and an early 19th-century mathematician who is credited with writing the first computer program long before the first computer was ever built.

Author photo by Michael Chiaverini.

Historical novelist Jennifer Chiaverini has taken readers to the Civil War era in bestsellers like Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker and Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule. Fates and Traitors tells the story of the infamous assassin John Wilkes Booth through the voices of the four women who knew him best. Chiaverini answered a few questions about her book and its fascinating protagonist. 

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Katherine Arden conjures the spirit—and spirits—of medieval Russia in The Bear and the Nightingale, her enchanting fantasy debut. Motherless Vasya Petrovna grows up unfettered on her father’s rural estate, but once she reaches womanhood, she discovers that she has inherited the magical abilities that run through her mother’s line. As the uneasy balance between traditional pagan beliefs and the newly embraced Christianity wavers, Vasya finds herself on the front lines of a struggle to ensure the survival of her village.

Arden, who studied Russian language and literature, talked to us about the inspiration for her remarkable first novel, the harsh beauty of Russia’s winters and why she prefers the fairy tales of Pushkin to those of Perrault.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I read nonstop as a child, as most writers probably did, and my favorite part of the day was bedtime, because I would lie awake in the dark and make up stories. When I was in high school I wrote a fantasy novel with shapeshifting dragons and a sort-of-like-Iceland world of snow and volcanoes.

But I never seriously thought I am a writer or even I want to be a writer. Not the kind who writes books you find in a bookstore. I hadn’t made the connection between what I did in my own head for fun and the work of others that I read.

In college I didn’t do any creative writing at all. I studied foreign languages, wrote earnest essays and wanted to be a diplomat. But after I got my degree, I realized I was burnt out and I didn’t want to race into a career right away. So I moved to Hawaii to work on a farm. It was supposed to just be for a few months while I gathered steam and figured my life out. But I got bored on the farm, and as a remedy against boredom I decided to write a book.

I discovered that really enjoyed the writing process. I started thinking, well, I could do this with my life. Might as well try.  So I promised myself that I would finish my novel and at least try to get it published. Getting a book published is hard, and it took a lot of work to get there and there were setbacks along the way. But I just found myself getting more and more determined as the process went on.

I would say there was no moment that definitively told me I wanted to be a writer, rather a series of decisions and outcomes and realizations that cumulatively made me realize that was what I wanted to do with my life.

You weave in so many creatures from Russian folklore—a few of which are unique to the culture (I’d never heard of a domovoi!). How did you research these legends?
I took a course in college as part of my Russian degree, ambitiously titled “The Russian Mind.” This class started us off in Slavic prehistory and took us through more than a thousand years’ worth of events, ideas, and pieces of literature that shaped the thinking and the culture of the Russia we know today.

Early in the class, we studied Slavic folklore, including household spirits like the domovoi. We also examined the notion that Slavic paganism never really disappeared from the Russian countryside after the arrival of Christianity; rather they coexisted, with some friction, for centuries. I was fascinated by the tensions inherent in such a system, as well as the notion of a complicated magical world interacting so subtly with the real one. I decided that I wanted to explore these notions in the context of a novel. I did my research, as one does, in libraries and online. I have also amassed a small library of obscure academic texts on such topics as medieval Russian sexual mores, magical practices and farming implements.

"Slavic paganism never really disappeared from the Russian countryside after the arrival of Christianity; rather they coexisted, with some friction, for centuries. I was fascinated by the tensions inherent in such a system."

Were there any creatures you wish you had been able to include?
Wow, there are so many characters from folklore that I wanted to include but couldn’t! Some of them will make an appearance in future novels. There is a guardian spirit for everything in Russian folklore. The domovoi guards the house; the dvorovoi guards the dooryard. The bannik guards the bathhouse, the Ovinnik, the threshing-house. Their areas of influence are almost absurdly specific. And each creature has a certain appearance and personality, and people must do certain things to placate them.

Do you see big differences between Russian folklore and that of Western Europe?
Yes, there are marked differences between Western European and Russian fairy tales. To me the most interesting difference is between the recurring main characters of these two fairy-tale traditions. For example, the classic hero of Russian fairy tales is Ivan the Fool. He is not a muscular and martial figure like the heroic kings, princes and woodcutters that feature in Western European fairy tales. Rather, he is usually of ordinary birth, lazy and good-natured, and he gets by on his wits and native innocence.

For me, the heroines in Russian fairy tales absolutely outshine their Western counterparts, in terms of initiative, courage and interesting storylines. Vasilisa the Beautiful, for example, defeats the Baba Yaga with her cleverness and the help of her mother’s blessing. Marya Morevna is a warrior queen. Even Baba Yaga, the prototypical villain, is a powerful woman, who is sometimes wicked but always wise. For that reason, especially, I prefer the fairy tales of Pushkin or Afanasyev to those of say, Perrault, which value passivity in girls (Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, etc).

"The heroines in Russian fairy tales absolutely outshine their Western counterparts, in terms of initiative, courage and interesting storylines."

Vasya is a truly compelling heroine. She is strong enough to embrace her differences, but she still reads as a woman of her time. How did you maintain that balance?
How does any writer maintain balance? Scene by scene and moment by moment. I brought my own modern biases, and understandings to this historical period that I was trying to write about, but also allowed my ideas and beliefs to be shaped by my best guesses about the attitudes of the time. There was a constant friction between what I wanted my main character to do, and what I believed she would be able to do, given the era, and I hope some of the tension made its way into the storytelling.

As is often the case in fairy tales, the introduction of a stepmother brings conflict to the Petrovich family. Yet the reader ends up having a great amount of sympathy for Anna. How do you feel about this character?
Anna was one of the first characters that really came into focus for me, and it is often really interesting to get readers’ reactions on her. Some people feel sympathy for her, some hate her wholeheartedly. I personally fall into the former category. I think she is a person wholly trapped in a world that allows her no choices, and she is not a strong enough person to carve out happiness for herself in those circumstances.

“What makes the evil stepmother evil?” is perhaps an old or cliched question, but it was one I felt was important to ask and to answer, to give the story depth.

The Russian wilderness—and the Russian winters in particular—are vividly described in your novel. Can you talk a bit about that and how it affects your characters?
People living in the middle ages, in an environment as harsh as Northern Russia, were intimately acquainted with the weather. Their lives literally depended on it. In The Bear and the Nightingale, the weather is pretty much a character in and of itself, personified, in a way, by the various spirits that populate the novel. Every action and event in the book is some way tied to the land: heat, bitter cold, snowstorms, fires.

Also, I think my personal experiences of Russia (I lived in Moscow for a gap year after high school, and again my junior year of college) come through most in my descriptions of weather. The Russian weather has a quick and capricious quality that really captivated me, and the sky seems HUGE. If the natural world has a powerful presence even in modern Moscow, can you imagine what it was like for people living in the wilderness in the 14th century?

"If the natural world has a powerful presence even in modern Moscow, can you imagine what it was like for people living in the wilderness in the 14th century?"

Even though her family sometimes has a hard time understanding Vasya, there is so much love and loyalty in their relationships. What was your favorite relationship in the novel?
I really love the relationship Vasya has with her older brother Sasha and her younger brother Alyosha. I have a brother, and so those relationships were the easiest for me to write. I wanted their mutual affection to be a powerful driving force, even though they don’t always understand, or agree with, each other. I think that is how families function in the best sense, where love and loyalty wins out, even though no one is perfect.

The conflict between Christianity and the old traditions is a big part of this book. What do readers need to know about this period in Russian history?
I think it’s important to realize that this period of Russian history doesn’t have a lot of primary sources. Literacy was extremely low, and the few literate people lived in cities and were mostly clergy, concerned with copying Greek religious texts. Everything was built of wood, so architectural evidence is limited as well. It gives lovely scope to a writer, because you can do your research, align all your facts, step back and say, well, how do we know this didn’t happen?

But what we do know: at this time period (mid 14th century) Muscovy was rising rapidly, buoyed by a long collaboration with the Golden Horde, which had taken power in Russia about 200 years prior. At the time, the Horde was preoccupied by succession problems (Genghis Khan had a really absurd number of descendants), and the Grand Princes of Moscow were quietly expanding their territory and bringing lesser princes into the fold.

During this period, much of Muscovy’s conflict was with other Russian city-states (notably Tver), but Dmitrii Ivanovich (who is still a boy in The Bear and the Nightingale) is the first prince who will successfully oppose the Golden Horde and Mongol dominance in Russia.

You’ve lived in so many places! Where are you now, and how long do you plan to stay there?
I’m live in Vermont just at present, where I promised myself I would stay and not budge until I’d finished my second novel! I’ve done that now, and so I am eyeing the horizon a bit. You never know. Norway next, maybe? Bali? My absolute favorite thing about being a writer is that you can live wherever you want.

We hear this is the first in a series. What can you tell us about Vasya’s next adventure?
Her next adventure, The Girl in the Tower, is written already. It covers a much shorter time frame than The Bear and the Nightingale (two months instead of 16 years) and it takes place largely in the medieval city of Moscow. It features Vasya and also her two older siblings, Sasha and Olga, who were only briefly in the first book, along with new characters from Russian history and Slavic mythology. Some you may recognize, some you probably won’t.

RELATED CONTENT: Read our review of The Bear and the Nightingale.

Author photo © Deverie Crystal Photography.

Katherine Arden conjures the spirit—and spirits—of medieval Russia in The Bear and the Nightingale, her enchanting fantasy debut.

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New Yorker writer Elif Batuman puts an absurdist twist on the campus novel in a smart, funny and fresh fiction debut, which follows an endearingly awkward 18-year-old through her first year at Harvard and a summer studying abroad. As Selin makes friends, follows her academic calling and pursues her first crush via email in the pre-smartphone era of 1995, readers will be charmed by her vivid observations, unique voice and vulnerable heart. We asked Batuman a few questions about her somewhat autobiographical first novel.

Your first book was a collection of essays on Russian literature, and also took its title from Dostoyevsky. What appeals to you about Russian writers and how did that influence The Idiot?
Yes, my first book was a collection of interconnected comic essays about Russian literature called The Possessed. Later, I was trying to write a novel about someone like me, who had also written a collection of interconnected comic essays about Russian literature, only in her case, it was called The Idiot. I didn’t end up finishing that novel, but I got really attached to the idea of someone writing a somehow autobiographical book called The Idiot. Last year, I started revising an old novel I had abandoned some time ago, about the embarrassment of being young (and studying beginning Russian), and I realized The Idiot was the only possible title.

How is writing a novel different from writing nonfiction for you, from a process point of view (or is it)?
I know those are the two main categories in America today: Before you say anything else about a book, you have to say if it’s “fiction” or “nonfiction,” and everyone knows that novels are fiction, while memoirs and essays are nonfiction. For me, this particular division doesn’t feel natural or productive. I don’t consider fictionality to be a defining characteristic of the novel. In fact I think it’s not just wrong, but pointless and and tone-deaf to look at a group of texts that includes In Search of Lost Time and War and Peace, and say: “The great unifying feature of these texts is that the events they describe never happened.”

There wasn’t that much of a difference of process for me with writing The Idiot versus writing The Possessed. I did feel more free and comfortable writing The Idiot because I didn’t have to go on the record saying, “Every single thing that happened in this book is true.” In fact, I initially really wanted to write The Possessed as a novel, but was told that it could only be nonfiction, because nobody would ever read a whole novel that was just about a grad student studying Russian literature; the only possible way to get anyone to read a book about Russian literature grad school would be if it gave them the sense that they were actually also getting the educational bonus of learning something about Russian novels that they didn’t have time to read.

The assumption, to me weird and paradoxical, was that people would learn less about Russian novels from a novel about Russian novels, than from a nonfiction book about Russian novels. Still, maybe this assumption was right, because The Possessed made it onto the NYT bestseller list, which was a big surprise. Maybe that wouldn’t have happened if I had been able to play around with personal details and chronology and call it a novel, as I originally wanted.

As far as my own writing process goes, the biggest difference isn’t between fiction and nonfiction, but between reported and non-reported writing. I’ve been doing reported journalism for the New Yorker since 2006; this involves making recordings and taking notes and calling people on the phone and working with fact-checkers to make sure that there is some basic level of consensus between everyone mentioned in the story about the facts under discussion. In non-reported writing, I’m less interested in capturing objective truth than in communicating a subjective experience. That’s one reason I found it easier to write a “novel” than a “memoir”: I don’t want to have to vouch for the accuracy of what I’m saying, especially not about other people, and I’m not trying to make any objective truth claims, or change the historical record. I’m interested in getting a story that feels subjectively true to the reader, based on his or her experience of being alive.

"In non-reported writing, I’m less interested in capturing objective truth than in communicating a subjective experience."

Why did you set the novel in the mid-1990s? Do you think the college experience has changed significantly since?
Well, I went to college in the mid-1990s. I wanted to write about the feeling a lot of people had at that time, that history was over. The end of the Cold War (which seemed, when I was little, like an immutable part of the world) seemed like a sign or precursor of the total triumph of liberal democracy, of the end of racism and sexism and every kind of discrimination. Lots of people really thought that the rest of history was going to be a long staircase of technological improvement.

I do think the college experience has significantly changed since the 1990s. We had no cell phones or Wikipedia. Identity politics weren’t mainstream. Homosexuality was way less socially accepted. Acts and statements that we view as sexual harassment now, just were not considered harassment then; thinking too much about what was and wasn’t harassment (or rape) felt like being a time-wasting pedant, and a certain kind of ambitious young woman tended to internalize all kinds of slights in the name of open-mindedness, humanism, and the big picture, in a way that doesn’t happen so much anymore.

That said, I think there are many aspects of being 18 and leaving home for the first time that are very much the same now as they were in 1995, and will probably be the same in 2025, and weren’t all that different in 1845, which is why there have been and will continue to be so many novels about this time of life.

"I think there are many aspects of being 18 and leaving home for the first time that are very much the same now as they were in 1995, and will probably be the same in 2025, and weren’t all that different in 1845, which is why there have been and will continue to be so many novels about this time of life."

Is it safe to say that plot is a secondary concern in The Idiot? How did you think about plot while writing this book?
Well, in the first half of the book, plot actually was a concern—I thought a lot about pacing and momentum. In the second half, though, you’re right, plot was a secondary concern, or a non-concern, or really an anti-concern. One thing I wanted to get at in the second half of the book was the feeling of falling outside of plot. I think for all or many people there are times when one feels like a character in a book or movie, and everything that happens feels meaningful, picturesque, like it’s heading towards something; but it’s possible to lose that feeling, sometimes quite suddenly, and then for a time, sometimes quite a long time, life feels like just a list of occurrences or experiences with no order or meaning. Often that feeling of the loss of plot is attached to the loss of some person, who seems to have been the whole receptacle for that feeling. This loss can be devastating, especially for a young person. I wanted to communicate that devastating feeling, the feeling of free-fall, and the struggle to get back into plot again.

So much of this novel is about communicating with people and how hard it is. Selin knows two languages and is studying two more, but she still has difficulty expressing her feelings and communicating with others in a meaningful way. This is a struggle that all humans face—especially writers. How did you find your work and life experience informing this theme, or your decision to explore it?
You know, I really did study all those languages in college, and later I did a Ph.D. in comp lit, which took forever, and now I can read (and sort of speak) in seven languages—and it never really occurred to me, before you asked this question, that the motivation was rooted in the desire to communicate and to feel less alone. This now strikes me as pretty ironic, since many of the most alienating experiences in my life have involved trying to communicate in a foreign language.

Of course you’re right that literature comes from the struggle to communicate. Writers are often people who had lonely childhoods. When I was little, my parents worked really hard, I didn’t have siblings, and the rest of my family was in another country. Reading was what first made me realize that other people felt and experienced the same things that I did, things I thought nobody else knew about. It was the most wonderful feeling, a true gift. From an early age, the thing I most wanted was to become a writer and give that gift to other people.

When picking up a novel starring a college freshman, readers might expect drinking and sex. Not to spoil too much, but neither of these things figure significantly in The Idiot. Was that intentional?
Selin knows that drinking is supposed to be a big deal in college, and she can see that the other kids are obsessed with alcohol and how to get it. But personally, she’s just like: “How is it going to improve my actual life to be drunk right now.” She associates drinking with her parents, so it isn’t especially cool to her. That sense of inner feelings and personal history not matching up with social expectations or received stories is really basic to novels in general, and to the story I wanted to tell. It didn’t have to be drinking; but that was actually my own experience with alcohol in my first year of college, so that’s what I used to express that disjuncture. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say, that’s how I experienced and understood that disjuncture, so I just kept it that way in the book. Either way, I guess it’s both intentional and unintentional.

With sex, I guess I would say that sex is really important in The Idiot—it’s just that sometimes the important thing is people not ending up having sex. Sexual frustration is a famous engine for novelistic production—just look at Henry James.

Selin sees Ivan as more experienced and wise because he is older, but I had to wonder if he knew any more about the world than she did. How do you see that character? Is he a good guy?
I’m delighted and touched by this question. In a way it’s the point of the book. All the novel gives you is Selin’s subjective impressions, which you know don’t coincide 100% with objective reality (otherwise it wouldn’t be called The Idiot). So you’re right to question her judgment. It’s safe to assume that Ivan is less wise and more confused than he seems to Selin. After all, we know he seems old to her, but we also know he’s only 23.

Beyond that, though, I think the best answer to your question is in Proust, in the passage I used as the epigraph. It starts like this:

But the characteristic feature of the ridiculous age I was going through—awkward indeed but by no means infertile—is that we do not consult our intelligence and that the most trivial attributes of other people seem to us to form an inseparable part of their personality. In a world thronged with monsters and with gods, we know little peace of mind…

I vividly remember from my student years the feeling that “the most trivial attributes of other people” are actually fundamental aspects of their personality. Everything a professor/ authority figure/ love-object said seemed like a transparent reflection of that person’s fixed and unchanging policy, personality and intentions. By contrast, everything I said was provisional, cobbled together, in flux.

Gradually I came to realize that everyone experiences their subjectivity as being provisional and in flux, and that everyone assumes, at least at first, that other people are more coherent and fixed in their identities. However much we know that all people are human, we feel like “the world is thronged with monsters and with gods.” All other people seem to be either good or not good; all their actions seem to be adding up toward some intention or plan.

In other words: the fact that Ivan seems like both a god and a monster to Selin has more to do with her time of life than with what he’s really like.

I have to ask about the last line of the book! Selin is totally wrong, right? How do you feel about the ending?
You know, to answer this question I’m going to quote the rest of the epigraph from Proust:

There is hardly a single action we perform in that phase which we would not give anything, in later life, to be able to annul. Whereas what we ought to regret is that we no longer possess the spontaneity which made us perform them. In later life we look at things in a more practical way, in full conformity with the rest of society, but adolescence is the only period in which we learn anything.

So—yes, I think Selin is wrong, sort of; more accurately, she doesn’t see things the way she will later. At the end of The Idiot, things haven’t turned out in a way she expected, or wanted, or understood. She feels embarrassed, the way we all feel embarrassed about how things happened, about how we acted towards people and how people treated us in return, when we were in our teens. Later, I think that she will eventually realize how much she learned that year—maybe more than in any other period in her life.

In general, I think we don’t always recognize learning, because it feels more like losing something than like gaining something.

What are you working on next?
I’ve actually started working on another book about Selin. I’m also working on a book about Turkey.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Idiot.

New Yorker writer Elif Batuman puts an absurdist twist on the traditional campus novel in a smart and original fiction debut.
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Here’s something that may come as a surprise for fans of Paint It Black and the Oprah-approved White Oleander: Bestselling novelist Janet Fitch has a secret passion for Russia. It started back when the writer, 62, was attending junior high in Los Angeles and fell in love with Crime and Punishment, launching a deep dive into the waters of Russian literature.

“I’m a pretty intense person myself,” Fitch explains during a call to her home in Los Angeles, “and a lot of the literature we got as kids was pretty pallid—it didn’t suit me at all.” Opening Crime and Punishment, she says with a laugh, “was like, OK, here we are. This is my internal landscape.”

After decades of reading Russian literature and history and a few trips to the country, Fitch—who studied history at Reed College—has distilled that fascination into her first work of historical fiction, The Revolution of Marina M., an epic page-turner and part one of a two-volume tale set during the Russian Revolution. Ten years in the making, the novel snuck up on Fitch, who had originally planned to write about a Russian émigré living in 1920s Los Angeles. But it was impossible to tell the character’s story without flashing back to the past in Russia—interludes that, according to Fitch’s critique group, were the most interesting parts.

Soon, Fitch was making a full-on plunge into one of the most turbulent and confusing periods in Russian history, a place where few Western novelists have dared to tread, even after 100 years.

“The Revolution is a moving target,” Fitch says. “People can be good guys and bad guys, or they’re bad guys to start out with, then good guys. . . . It’s a far more sophisticated problem.”

Luckily for readers, Fitch has created a firecracker of a guide through the tangled years of revolution: the titular Marina. Born with the new century, Marina is just 16 when the first tremors of rebellion begin to penetrate her comfortable upper-class St. Petersburg home. As a passionate young poet, Marina finds her soul stirred by the calls for freedom and action.

“To be Marina, it was a joy,” Fitch says. “This is the first time I’ve written a character who wasn’t under the foot of events, but more equal to the events. She’s a far more fiery person than I’ve ever written before. A much braver person than I’ve ever written before. She’s much more of a real heroine than I’ve ever tried before.”

Like any real heroine, Marina must deal with some complicated relationships. She and her two best friends aren’t always on the same page when it comes to the idea of revolution: Mina, the daughter of Jewish academics, is more cautious, while Varvara, who lives in near poverty, is ready to burn it all down. Marina’s father is a government official, invested in keeping things as close to the status quo as possible; her mother is an aristocrat who refuses to even think about politics; and her sensitive younger brother is facing pressure to enlist. In the midst of all this, Marina is also dealing with a normal coming-of-age dilemma: her burgeoning sexuality. Should she wait for her childhood crush to come back from the front or throw in her lot with a passionate proletarian poet?

“She’s much more of a real heroine than I’ve ever tried before.”

Needless to say, this headstrong teenager doesn’t always handle these complexities well. “I’ve known fiery people,” Fitch says. “They’re glorious, they believe, they’re willing to stick their necks out, they’re willing to fall a long way, they make a mess—for themselves and others—but they live in a large way.” That spark makes Marina’s picaresque journey through this turbulent era a compelling one to follow, even if, at times, you might wish you could warn her about what’s to come.

“It’s the first book that I’ve written that has been very propulsive, as far as the events of the story,” Fitch says. “When you’re in the midst of a revolution, your life will be changed week by week by what happens in the external world. So it’s much more of an event-driven book.”

Fitch’s earlier novels, which she describes as “more interior,” were both bestsellers. Both have been adapted to film—White Oleander as a major feature and Paint It Black as an indie film, released in October via streaming services. But no matter how different The Revolution of Marina M. is to Fitch’s previous works, it has many of the hallmarks her readers have come to look for, including complex and dynamic female characters. Readers will come away with more understanding of the Revolution, but this is no history book.

“People living through history don’t know what’s going on at the top. We only see the effects on our lives. That’s what fiction does best. It’s showing us how it felt to be in those times, rather than what Lenin thought. The average person had no idea; they’re just trying to get some food, find work, decide between your two boyfriends,” she says with a laugh.

The events that sowed the seeds of the Russian Revolution—vast income inequality, a rise in populism, an unpopular leader, a lengthy and pointless war—might seem uncomfortably familiar to modern readers, and Fitch does see some parallels between world events in 1917 and 2017.

“We are living in a revolutionary period right now . . . not the cataclysm that the Russian Revolution was, but we’re living through a time of extreme change,” says Fitch. “Revolutions don’t stop, that’s the most important thing you can take away from The Revolution of Marina M. Once the wheel gets turning, it keeps turning. In Russia, it’s still turning.”


This article was originally published in the November 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

(Author photo by Cat Gwynn.)

After decades of reading Russian literature and history and a few trips to the country, Janet Fitch has distilled that fascination into her first work of historical fiction, The Revolution of Marina M., an epic page-turner and part one of a two-volume tale set during the Russian Revolution.

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Madeline Miller’s second novel, Circe, tells the story of a secondary character from Homer’s Odyssey, the classic Greek epic. After being exiled by her father for transforming a nymph into a sea monster out of jealousy, Circe hones her witchcraft on an isolated island. But chance encounters lead her to reconsider her past and seize control of her fate.

We asked Miller, who won the Orange Prize in 2012 for her first novel, The Song of Achilles, a few questions about the power of myth and the allure of immortality.

Your novels are tricky to pin down by genre. They take place in the past, but have elements of the supernatural. How do you think about your own work?
I think of my books as either literary adaptation or mythological realism. Or just plain old fiction! Genre is such a permeable and changeable thing—Homer is considered some of the most literary literature there is, but if the Odyssey came out today it would probably get shelved in fantasy.

Other than the Odyssey,​ what sources did you have for information about the legends surrounding Circe? Why did you choose to tell her story?
Circe has always been fascinating to me because of her power and mystery; we know she turns men to pigs, but why? To say that it’s because she’s evil by nature isn’t interesting—nor is it true. After she and Odysseus become lovers, she’s one of the most benevolent deities he meets, and I wanted to dig into the reasons behind all of that.

Circe’s also interesting because of the way she relates to so many other famous myths—she’s Helios’ daughter, the Minotaur and Medea’s aunt, Prometheus’ cousin and more. Finally, I loved that she’s the first witch in Western literature. She was born a goddess with little status or power, but finds a way to carve out an independent life for herself by literally inventing something new in the world. I wanted to tell the story of such an interesting and complex woman in her own words, rather than filtered through the male protagonist’s perspective.

In terms of sources, I used texts from all over the ancient world and a few from the more modern world as well. For Circe herself, I drew inspiration from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica, Vergil’s Aeneid, the lost epic Telegony (which survives only in summary) and myths of the Anatolian goddess Cybele. For other characters, I was inspired by the Iliad, of course, the tragedies (specifically the Oresteia, Medea and Philoctetes), Vergil’s Aeneid again, Tennyson’s Ulysses and Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. Alert readers may note a few small pieces of Shakespeare’s Ulysses in my Odysseus!

“I loved that she’s the first witch in Western literature. She was born a goddess with little status or power, but finds a way to carve out an independent life for herself by literally inventing something new in the world.”

Without giving too much away, Circe’s encounter with Odysseus pokes some holes in the heroic identity that he is given by Homer. Can you talk a little about what it was like to present Odysseus from a different perspective?
Odysseus was one of my favorite characters to write in The Song of Achilles, so I was excited for the chance to revisit him from a different character’s perspective, and at such a different stage of his life. Odysseus is one of the most storied heroes out there—he has been rewritten and reimagined thousands of times. He’s been pretty much everything: beloved trickster, scheming puppet-master, treacherous supervillain, pompous gasbag, wise philosopher among savages, petty bureaucrat, master artist, victim of the fates, courageous leader, cunning thug and on and on. So poking holes in his heroism is definitely a time-honored tradition, even in the ancient world! When we speak of heroes today, we use the term to mean people who have moral courage and integrity. The ancient world didn’t use the word the same way. Their heroes were bold and larger than life—with equally larger-than-life flaws (see Achilles, Agamemnon, etc.).

In the Odyssey, Odysseus beats his men when they argue with him, his greed often gets him in trouble, and it is his own boastfulness that brings the Cyclops’ wrath down on his head. In the Iliad, he ruthlessly kills enemy soldiers in their sleep, as well as a spy to whom he’s promised mercy. I think we’ve come to love Odysseus because he’s the “smart” one, because he’s suffered so much and because he deeply loves his wife and family. That’s all true to the myths, but so is the fact that he’s a violent, compulsive liar who’s cheated on his faithful wife at least twice. I was interested in how both of those perspectives might be true at once.

As for my own Odysseus, I have always seen pragmatism as one of his core traits. He believes that the world is a brutal and dishonorable place, and if you want to thrive you have to be willing to set aside the traditional ideas of honor and get your hands dirty. He’s definitely an ends-justify-the-means believer.

Despite the myriad goddesses in the pantheon, there’s a broad streak of misogyny that runs through classical mythology. What was life like for women in Greece at the time the Odyssey was being told?
This varied depending on location, time period and class, but the general answer is: not great. Women in the ancient Greek world were controlled by a man throughout their lives. As girls, they were under their father’s control, which then passed to their husband and finally to their son. Some of these fathers would of course have been more sympathetic to their daughters’ wishes than others, but even the most doting ones were still having the final say. A woman’s duty was clear: marry so as to provide her father with a good alliance, then produce good heirs for her husband.

Women in ancient Greece were often considered to be creatures of a lower order—bestial in their lust and appetites and untrustworthy, as opposed to intellectual and enlightened men. They were usually not taught to read or write. An exception to this were the hetairai—high-class prostitutes/escorts that have some similarities to geishas. These women were able to attend the fancy, all-male intellectual dinner parties called symposia. They were expected to be learned and artistic, able to discourse wittily on poetry and myth and display other artistic talents. But they were of course also sex workers with little social status, who would never have been allowed to marry one of the men they escorted.

Circe leads an isolated life but still manages to cross paths with some of mythology’s best known characters, like Hermes, Athena, Daedalus, Prometheus, Medea and the Minotaur. Was there a personality you were particularly eager to bring to life?
So many of these characters were fun to imagine, it is hard to pick just one! I loved writing Pasiphae, Circe’s sister. She’s outrageous and vicious—but she has reasons for her behavior. Daedalus, the master craftsman and artist, was another favorite. And perhaps most of all: Penelope, Odysseus’ loyal wife who is as brilliant as he, if not more so.

The Greek gods are immortal, but few use their eternal life spans to seek wisdom, choosing instead to be ruled by their passions and pursue pleasure. It’s almost like a state of eternal adolescence. Do you think mortality inspires us in some ways to become better people? Why or why not?
I think mortality and pain can inspire us to be better—our own struggles can teach us great empathy and give us the push to help others. But I think it can also go the other way—that people who have suffered want to make others suffer. Humanity is always double-edged, and it is all of our responsibilities to encourage our better natures.

Also, as a teacher of high school students, I’m going to defend adolescents! I would take a teenager running things over a Greek god ANY day. Teenagers have big emotions, but those emotions are often positive ones—a passion for experience and learning, a desire for justice and improving the world, and a knack for sweeping away the old cobwebbed compromises and hypocrisies of the generation before. Setting aside a few exceptions (Prometheus, Chiron, etc.), Greek gods don’t feel empathy and only care about themselves. In my mind, they are more like narcissists.

Humankind has long been drawn to myths and legends. What do you think they teach us, or reveal about humanity, that other forms of narrative can’t?
I think there is something in the outsize nature of myth that speaks to us. The dragons and monsters, the angry gods all allow us to work through powerful emotions. None of us has actually met a dragon, but I think most of us have had moments of extreme hope, terror and adrenaline that feel larger than life and need some kind of epic expression. Imagining ourselves into myths provides an outlet for that. Myths let us be the valiant, suffering, flawed and clever heroes of our own lives.

If you could have one supernatural power, what would it be?
Circe’s power to communicate with animals would definitely be up there. Can I have Achilles’ superspeed as well?

What is a typical writing day like for you?
My writing schedule has changed since The Song of Achilles. Back then, I was also teaching and directing plays full time, so I tended to binge-write on weekends, vacations or in the summers—I would do total immersion for days or weeks at a time, then take long breaks. Now I have two young children, which means that I don’t have those nonstop binges, but I do write every day. I usually start around 8:30 a.m. or so, jumping right into a new scene. Then I work on older scenes, then back to the new scenes. Somewhere in there I work out, or at the very least take a long walk. Movement is vital to my writing—I work through lots of writing problems while I’m working out. It’s a great time for my brain to chew over solutions.

What are you working on next?
Two projects are drawing my eye. One is a piece inspired by Vergil’s Aeneid (one of my favorite pieces of literature of all time), and the other is inspired by Shakespeare’s Tempest (Shakespeare is the other great intellectual love of my life). I have no idea which one is going to pull ahead first!

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Circe.

Photo credit Nina Subin

We asked Madeline Miller, who won the Orange Prize in 2012 for her first novel, The Song of Achilles, a few questions about the power of myth and the allure of immortality.
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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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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 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.
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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.

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