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Our past is who we are, even when it’s forgotten.

In Gateway to the Moon, award-winning novelist Mary Morris draws a map straight from the terror of the Spanish Inquisition to stagnant lives in a dirt-poor New Mexico village, half a millennium later.

In 1492, Luis de Torre flees Spain to avoid torture and imprisonment at the hands of fanatical priests. Abandoning his family, he signs on as the personal interpreter of Christopher Columbus, who is sailing west in search of another route to the riches of the Indies. The mission fails, but Luis becomes the first of his bloodline to set foot in the New World. The book follows Luis’ descendants over the centuries as oppression propels them out of Spain, through Mexico and finally north to the remote town of Entrada de la Luna.

Five hundred years after Luis’ journey, the mostly Spanish-Catholic down-and-out town is unremarkable, yet it has its quirks. Why do the families light candles on Friday night? Why doesn’t anyone eat pork? Fifteen-year-old Miguel Torres, who shares a trailer with his mother, just knows that’s the way it’s always been. Miguel, a juvenile-detention alum, likes to spend his nights on a hill at the old cemetery, staring up at the sky through a homemade telescope. Miguel has little interest in the earthbound, and it’s no wonder. His mother is an exhausted woman, old before her time, and his father is an alcoholic who spray-paints pictures on cars for money. Miguel dreams of two things: discovering new moons and escaping his dying village. His hero is his Aunt Elena, a talented dancer who fled the desert for New York when she was 17.

But Aunt Elena harbors a dark, violent secret. And when tragic circumstances force her to return, both her past and that of the town’s is laid bare, and lives—especially Miguel’s—will never be the same.

Morris writes with a relaxed eloquence, shifting easily through characters. Gateway to the Moon is an entertaining, thoughtful read that raises a relevant question: Appearances aside, just how different are we?

In Gateway to the Moon, award-winning novelist Mary Morris draws a map straight from the terror of the Spanish Inquisition to stagnant lives in a dirt-poor New Mexico village, half a millennium later.

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The Scots didn’t invent stubbornness, but they perfected it, raised it to a high art where irresistible force and immovable object are sometimes locked like two neutron stars in a perilous dance. So it is with American immigrant Johnny MacKinnon and his Scottish son, Corran, in Laura Lee Smith’s second novel, The Ice House.

The elder MacKinnon is the COO of Bold City Ice in Jacksonville; his son is a recovering heroin addict and oil rig worker living near Loch Lomond. And while an actual ocean separates father and son, a more treacherous emotional ocean—strewn with a fair bit of ice—separates the two as well. On top of that, Johnny’s business is facing a potential bankruptcy due to a suspicious industrial accident, and he has been diagnosed with what might either be a benign cyst or a life-threatening tumor in his brain. Against his wife’s wishes and his doctor’s advice, MacKinnon decides to hit the road to the auld sod in order to—make amends? Find closure with his estranged son? Elicit a long-overdue apology? All of the above?

As the famous Scots poet Robert Burns noted, the best-laid schemes . . . well, you know. Not only were MacKinnon’s plans far from the best laid to begin with, but he’s also left his wife (who is the firm’s CEO) across the sea with a full slate of emotional, legal and financial calamities of her own. What could possibly go wrong?

Smith has a flair for creating three-dimensional characters who are flawed and heroic in the small ways that most of us are, and while her literary milieu is more chamber music than symphony, she is able to rivet the reader for more than 400 pages, which is no wee accomplishment.

 

Thane Tierney lives in Inglewood, California, and is descended from Scots who once lived on the Isle of Muck in the Inner Hebrides.

The Scots didn’t invent stubbornness, but they perfected it, raised it to a high art where irresistible force and immovable object are sometimes locked like two neutron stars in a perilous dance. So it is with American immigrant Johnny MacKinnon and his Scottish son, Corran, in Laura Lee Smith’s second novel, The Ice House.

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Abel Campbell is the patriarch of a mightily dysfunctional yet close-knit Midwestern family, “the sun around which their lesser planets circled, the god they hoped to please.”

A retired attorney and judge, Abel presides over his mild and devout wife, Hattie, and their grown children: Doro (successful college dean who stoically wears the mantle of oldest living child with a whiff of martyrdom), Jesse (farmer and alcoholic in recovery), Gideon (wanderer not in recovery), ClairBell (divorced mom with a secret addiction to painkillers) and Billy (underemployed masseuse with a not-so-secret addiction to anything he can ingest).

Abel and Hattie’s eldest son, Nick, died 40 years before after a lifetime of health issues, and it’s clear their youngest, Billy, is next. Diagnosed with AIDS in his 20s, Billy “endured his fate with a shifting array of denial, humility, gallows humor, despair and hope, but from time to time things could get dicey, for in addition to his precarious health he was an addict. Painkillers, black tar, methadone, drink—any substance at hand. Cough syrup, cigarettes, codeine, cocaine. On a lean day even candy.”

The story begins with a family dinner, the most Norman Rockwellian of scenes: All except Gideon are gathered around the Campbell table in Amicus, Kansas, to celebrate Abel’s birthday. When Billy passes out face-first in his serving of cake, it sets in motion a series of clumsy interventions and accusations that threaten to fracture the family.

A National Book Award finalist for The River Beyond the World, Janet Peery is a masterful, poetic storyteller with a sharp eye for details that draw the reader into any scene. The Exact Nature of Our Wrongs is a heartbreakingly spot-on portrait of the ways families support and enable each other. It’s also a timely depiction of the ravages of opioid addiction on average American families, in a time when our nation faces a worsening crisis.

Abel Campbell is the patriarch of a mightily dysfunctional yet close-knit Midwestern family, “the sun around which their lesser planets circled, the god they hoped to please.”

Ah, the ’60s. Girls with flowers in their hair. Quaaludes and Dexedrine. Free love and Jefferson Airplane. And finally, of course, murder. Murder by Charles Manson and his minions, the murder of MLK. Or the murder in Ron Rash’s chilling novel, The Risen. The slippery slope from liberty to catastrophe has seldom been so well depicted.

In North Carolina, adolescent brothers Eugene and Bill come across a mermaid-like young woman swimming. Hailing from Florida, Ligeia wants to introduce them to grooviness. Soon she seduces the virginal Eugene and presses him to raid her grandfather’s pill stash. Then she goes missing. Five decades later, local authorities exhume her and rule her death a homicide.

The novel thus becomes the community’s quest to determine the killer. Eugene by now is an alcoholic and a failure. But older brother Bill remains married and has a medical practice. Rash manipulates the reader’s prejudices about the likely culprit. Is it the hapless wastrel or the pillar of the community, trained to cut throats?

“Four things can destroy the world,” wrote Cormac McCarthy in Blood Meridian. “Three of them are women, whiskey and money.” The Risen attempts to corroborate this. Ligeia gets Eugene started on alcohol, is careless about sex, and presses him for money. The two boys’ vulnerability to this is plausible. Ligeia is less rounded; she seems a throwaway understudy for Eve.

Yet Rash holds your attention and keeps you guessing. By its end, the novel stands as a parable for the freewheeling ’60s and its backlash. In Ligeia’s murder, we see writ small the murders at Kent State and countless others.

On another level, the novel is a story of how we all lose the dangerous paradise of innocence. It is also a fine portrait of rural North Carolina at a time when it was still remote. Written in simple prose, it is bound to have a wide audience—even among readers for whom the 1960s feel as distant as the Civil War.

 

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

Ah, the ’60s. Girls with flowers in their hair. Quaaludes and Dexedrine. Free love and Jefferson Airplane. And finally, of course, murder. Murder by Charles Manson and his minions, the murder of MLK. Or the murder in Ron Rash’s chilling novel, The Risen. The slippery slope from liberty to catastrophe has seldom been so well depicted.
Interview by

We’re all one step away from disaster, and Australian author Liane Moriarty knows it. One day, the sun is shining and you’re attending a backyard barbecue with friends and neighbors; two months later, it’s pouring rain and you can’t stop blaming yourself for what happened on that last sunny day.

So what did happen in that backyard? To say would shatter the considerable suspense of Truly Madly Guilty. But we can reveal that it involved a child, and that it was so troubling that Clementine is taking breaks from practicing for a crucial audition (she’s a cellist) to give talks with the sobering title “One Ordinary Day” at suburban libraries around Sydney.

Even Moriarty (whose first name is pronounced Lee-ann, if you’re wondering) has trouble talking about this one. “With my other books, I’ve been able to tell the whole story of how I was inspired to write it, but in this case it will give away far too much,” she says during a call to her home in Sydney. “So all I’m able to say is that something happened at a barbecue, and I went home with the idea for this book.”

The good thing about a Moriarty novel is that even if there’s one plot development you can’t discuss, there are plenty of others to choose from. Like Kate Atkinson, Moriarty is a master at taking several seemingly disparate plot threads and weaving them all together with a bang at the end. Also like Atkinson’s novels, Moriarty’s work is difficult to classify.

“If I am at a party and—well, I don’t say this, usually my husband will show off for me and say, ‘My wife’s an author’—but then, the first question is, what sort of books do you write. It’s a reasonable question, but I struggle with how to describe them. I tend to say something like ‘family drama,’ but I’ve never found exactly the right description for them,” Moriarty says. “I love it when other people describe them for me. I don’t think you can see your own books.”

Call them what you will, it’s plain to see that Moriarty has hit a sweet spot for readers. Her stories are full of twists and drama, but they are grounded enough in middle-class reality to elicit a frisson of “it could happen to you,” and they feature flawed but relatable characters. In her first bestseller, The Husband’s Secret, Moriarty followed the repercussions of a long-ago murder on a community and explored trust within a marriage; in Big Little Lies, she took on spousal abuse, bullying and the parenting wars. Truly Madly Guilty touches on growing up with neglectful parents, negotiating a lifelong friendship and finding a balance between career and family life. But mostly, it deals with guilt and the way it affects relationships, especially the central relationship between childhood friends Clementine and Erika. 

Now in their 30s, the two women became friends as children, thanks to the prodding of Clementine’s mother, Pam, who saw that the withdrawn and awkward Erika needed a friend. Soon Erika was an honorary member of the family, to Clementine’s chagrin. 

“I was really interested in that because I had just been reading a lot about how people in difficult family circumstances end up sort of couchsurfing,” says Moriarty. “They’re not officially fostered or adopted, but they end up becoming part of another family, which is a wonderful thing, but then I also started to think about what happens if one of the family feels a bit resentful about that.”

The popular, beautiful Clementine does feel a bit resentful of Erika, but she feels guilty for this after she realizes why Erika needs a sanctuary: Her mother, Sylvia, is a hoarder. Over the decades, Clementine has maintained her relationship with Erika, though they’re still polar opposites. Erika is godmother to Clementine and her husband Sam’s oldest daughter; she has a successful accounting career and is married to the sweet and serious Oliver, who also had a difficult childhood. But Clementine continues to have complicated feelings about Erika, who, she says, “wasn’t evil or cruel or stupid, she was simply annoying. . . . It was like she was allergic to her.” 

Obviously, Moriarty doesn’t pull punches in writing about the intricacies of friendship, marriage and family. In Truly Madly Guilty, she expands her range to dive more deeply into the minds of her male characters, something she says readers have requested. “I made a conscious decision to explore [men] more, but perhaps that criticism was in the back of my head,” she says. Moriarty says she had the most fun writing Vid, the Slovenian neighbor who hosts the barbecue. His boisterous demeanor makes it hard for even his wife to realize how hard he was hit by the events that happened that afternoon. 

But there are also lighter moments. Early in the book, Sam tries to help Clementine practice for her cello audition by setting up a mock audition in the family’s living room; his well-meaning gesture goes hilariously wrong thanks to 2-year-old Ruby and her constant companion, Whisk (yes, an actual kitchen whisk that sleeps next to Ruby, in a tissue-paper-lined box).

Balancing a creative life with family is something Moriarty, the mother of two young children, can identify with. “I have no experience as a musician, but if you’re working toward an audition, you really need to give all of yourself, which is the way I tend to feel just toward the end of the book. I want to be writing all the time, and I don’t want to be distracted.” 

Luckily, the success of Moriarty’s writing has allowed her family some flexibility. “My husband is Mr. Mom: He’s a full-time stay-at-home dad. So my life is beautifully balanced, and I feel very lucky,” she says.

Moriarty never re-reads her own books after writing them (“eating something other people have cooked for you just tastes better”), but she has enjoyed the process of seeing them translated on screen. Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman optioned Big Little Lies soon after it was published. Both actors are starring in the limited series, which has completed filming and will air on HBO in 2017. 

“I went along to see the filming and because there are all these beautiful, talented people looking wonderful, and David E. Kelley has written a script based on my book, that feels quite different to me. I got to see Nicole Kidman and Alexander Skarsgård in a scene. Because they were doing it so well, I was thinking to myself, oh, that’s quite good, I hope that part was mine and not David E. Kelley’s.”

For those wondering if we’ll get to hear Witherspoon attempt an Australian accent, the answer is (sadly) no: Kelley’s adaptation is set in Monterey, California. “They’ve made it all American,” Moriarty laughs. “But the school parenting experience seems to be universal. I think there are a lot of similarities between California and Sydney, so I’m quite happy with that.”

Big Little Lies was the first of Moriarty’s novels to debut at number one on the New York Times bestseller list—and the first time a book by an Australian had debuted in the top spot. “We’ve looked hard! Obviously other Australian authors have gotten to number one, but no one else has debuted at number one,” she says. 

Surprisingly, her success in America came before she was a bestseller in Australia. “It was my lovely American readers who broke me out. I had a nice group of Australian readers, very loyal readers, who like to point out now that they were with me from the beginning,” she says. 

More readers have come to Moriarty with every book; Truly Madly Guilty is lucky number seven. We predict there will soon be many more readers buzzing about that barbecue.

 

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

We’re all one step away from disaster, and Australian author Liane Moriarty knows it. One day, the sun is shining and you’re attending a backyard barbecue with friends and neighbors; two months later, it’s pouring rain and you can’t stop blaming yourself for what happened on that last sunny day.
Interview by

For her second novel, acclaimed writer Abby Geni dives into the complex relationship between siblings and how trauma impacts family bonds. Geni discusses her inspiration for The Wildlands and what it’s like setting out to write another novel after a successful debut, The Lightkeepers.

You write so vividly about Oklahoma, a place where “the heat baked the air into paste.” Why did you choose to set The Wildlands there?
My husband grew up in Oklahoma, and his family still lives there. By contrast, I’ve spent most of my life in Chicago, so my travels to Oklahoma always felt a little otherworldly. There’s something magical and harsh and untamable about the landscape. From my first visit there, I knew I wanted to write about it.

I also think Oklahoma often gets overlooked as a modern literary setting in favor of Texas. Texas is a big place with a big personality, and Oklahoma is sometimes viewed as a smaller, lesser version of the same thing. But Oklahoma is very much its own place, with its own climate and culture and life. It captured my imagination.

How much was your highly acclaimed debut novel, The Lightkeepers, on your mind as you wrote The Wildlands?
The Lightkeepers wasn’t on my mind so much as it has become a part of my DNA and is with me at all times. I think that’s true for many writers—each story infuses itself into your psyche, and each story informs everything else you write.

In some ways, my second novel is quite different from my first. The Lightkeepers is a slow-boiling murder mystery with an unreliable loner protagonist and an eerie island setting. The Wildlands, on the other hand, is a fast-moving literary thriller about a deeply connected family living in landlocked Oklahoma.

I learned so much in writing The Lightkeepers, but I didn’t want to use the same blueprint for my second novel. As much as possible, I hope that each new book I write will be its own experience, its own entity.

How do you balance teaching writing with preserving time for your own fiction?
Writing comes first. I mean that literally—I write at the beginning of the day, when my mind is fresh and clear. Later, when my writing mojo is all used up for the day, I read student manuscripts and prepare lesson plans. By then, I’m either blissed out after a good writing session and excited to dive in to my students’ work, or frustrated from a bad writing session and eager to focus on something, anything, else.

Also, I’ve never been someone who writes every day. Anyone who says, “Real writers should write every day” is just making up arbitrary rules. I write four or five days out of the week, then take two or three days off. My days off from writing are great for editing other people’s work or preparing for upcoming classes.

How has teaching influenced your own writing?
Teaching makes me a better writer. Writing happens in isolation, and one downside of that solitude is that you rarely have a chance to talk about the process of your work with anyone. You’re in a room alone, in silence, figuring out how to revise a tricky passage or hone your point of view or deepen your characters. Your insights are instinctive and half-formed because they’re never articulated aloud.

Teaching makes you articulate those things aloud. It makes you think in words. As I figure out how to explain something to my students, I come to understand it better. And of course, my students are brilliant and full of insights of their own.

The connection between humans and nature is a prevalent theme throughout your work. What do you enjoy about exploring that theme?
Part of my interest in that theme is happiness—nothing brings me more joy than working in my garden, walking my dog, interacting with nature in any way. And I love to learn. I never outgrew that schoolkid wonder at a new idea, a new word, a new book. Nature is infinitely complex. I’ll never be done learning about the natural world, and that learning brings me joy, too—reading about fungi, watching a documentary about rodents, memorizing the constellations.

But another part of my interest in that theme is fear. Our planet is at a tipping point. We’re in the middle of the sixth mass extinction of all life on earth. The climate is changing and changing and changing. All of it is caused by humans. If we don’t find a balance—if we don’t re-evaluate our relationship with the natural world—we’ll cause irreparable harm to our unique, inimitable home and our own species.

Which books are on your must-read list right now?
As a working mom with a young child, I do most of my reading via audiobook, since that way I can “read” while I’m picking up my kid from school or doing laundry or walking the dog. Next in my queue are Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, Atlas of a Lost World by Craig Childs and Stiff by Mary Roach. All research for my future writing!

What types of book are you drawn to? Which genres do you tend to avoid?
Sadly, I tend to avoid reading fiction, since I find that other people’s stories bleed into my own work in counterproductive ways. I love fiction, I write fiction, but very rarely am I in a headspace that allows me to read fiction.

So I read a huge amount of nonfiction. I’m always doing research for upcoming projects. I love biology, physics, geology, psychology—any kind of scientific lens I can use to see the world differently and hone my understanding of it.

What are you working on next?
A novel! That’s all I can say now. I’m incredibly private about my work, even by writer standards. But it’s going to be a novel, and I think it’s going to be good.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Wildlands.

Author photo by Dan Kelleghan.

For her second novel, acclaimed writer Abby Geni dives into the complex relationship between siblings and how trauma impacts family bonds. Geni discusses her inspiration for The Wildlands and what it’s like setting out to write another novel after a successful debut, The Lightkeepers.

Interview by

In Ask Again, Yes, her third novel, Mary Beth Keane tells a wise and searching story of two families who are neighbors in the suburbs north of New York City. Over the course of 40 years, the families are riven by a mother’s violent act and brought back together through the enduring bonds that link two of their children. The author touches on profound questions of contemporary family life.

Could you tell me about the seeds of thought and feeling from which this novel grew? What interests led you to the story you would eventually tell in Ask Again, Yes?
I had an idea for another historical novel, and I thought I was working on that, but the issues I was facing in daily life, either at home or vis-à-vis my friends and family, kept interjecting, so I put that novel aside and went with this one. It was as if I turned 40 and everyone around me suddenly went a little nuts, so I started writing as a way of finding my way through the things I was having to face on a daily basis anyway. The fictional town in this novel is based on the town where I grew up (and where I currently live, once again), and the themes of family estrangement, mental illness and even violence are based on people in my life. Like Kate and Peter, who are the central love relationship in the book, I met my husband when I was very young (I was 14). We lived in neighboring towns instead of neighboring houses. Like Peter, my husband was estranged from his mother and father for many years. We thought when we were married we were putting an end to one story and starting one of our own, and in some ways that was true, but that old story has followed us and had a much greater impact on our married life than I ever imagined it would.

I’m also curious about the book’s title. Did it leap to mind immediately, or did you struggle to find it? What does the title signify to you?
It didn’t leap to mind immediately, but I didn’t struggle either. I like to title things early because titles help me focus. I knew I wanted to end the book on a note of optimism. I knew that these characters would go through a world of heartache, but the whole point, for me, was to say that life, love, whatever—it’s all worth it. But at the same time I wanted the book to be honest. And I wanted it to be totally unsentimental.

Reading is a key part of my process, and I usually begin my writing day with reading something I’ve already read, something really good. It helps me transition away from the chaos of domestic life to writing, which has to be quiet (the opposite of our usual weekday mornings around here). Molly Bloom’s soliloquy from Ulysses was one of the things I turned to many of those writing mornings. By the end of Ulysses we know that Molly and Leopold’s relationship has become petty and cynical, but in that chapter, when she reflects back on their beginning, the reader can see that there’s real love there, and that the beginning still matters.

Your previous novels feature Irish immigrant characters. Here, two of your main characters are also immigrants from Ireland. What is it about the Irish immigrant experience that interests you so much?
All immigrant stories interest me. The notion of the American dream is something I’ve been thinking about my entire life. It’s not fashionable, especially now, and it’s certainly far more difficult for some immigrants than it is for others, but I still believe in it. I write Irish characters, I suppose, because my parents are Irish-born, so it’s the immigrant story I feel most comfortable writing about. Half my family stayed in Ireland, and half ended up in the United States. I spent my childhood either planning a next visit to Ireland to see my aunts and first cousins, or hearing about Ireland constantly. But as much as I knew that I was supposed to love and feel connected to Ireland, it always confused me a little. Ireland is so often recalled with such warm, sentimental feelings—think of the songs!—and yet so many stories of “home,” especially in the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, were truly brutal. There’s a reason so many people left.

I remember one particular Thanksgiving at my aunt’s house here in New York. Angela’s Ashes had come out that year, and there was a heated argument about it. I was a sophomore in college, and it was the first book I read about Ireland that didn’t seem washed with fiddle music and clinking glasses. It was truly, brutally honest. I loved it. Most of my aunts and uncles of McCourt’s generation were deeply upset by it, but I remember realizing that no one was denying that what McCourt wrote was true. They were just upset that he wrote about it. Some things should never be spoken, and that, in a nutshell, is the Irish character. I think I’ve been trying to buck that my whole life.

In your acknowledgments, you thank NYPD officers “who answered what were probably very dumb questions without flinching or rolling their eyes.” What were two or three key things you learned from them that helped shape your narrative?
I can’t identify two or three things. I needed to know everything! Things that I couldn’t look up anywhere. When a patrolman gets dressed, in what order does he or she clip things to the belt? What parts of a uniform are uncomfortable? What did people gossip about at the station house? What’s allowed while on patrol? What’s not allowed but snuck in anyway? Can an officer on duty get a cup of coffee? A sandwich? Did they talk about their spouses with each other? Their children? Affairs? Or are some subjects untouchable?

I wasn’t interested in particular cases (which was confusing to some of the cops I spoke with, as they all LOVE talking about their craziest cases). I was only interested in how they felt in different moments and how those feelings might be surprising. Were they actually nervous when they appeared confident? Eager? Afraid? Proud? Getting cops to talk about feelings takes a while, but one big thing I learned was that they carry really deep guilt when things go wrong. At least the good cops do.

Four of your characters at one point or another work in the police department. Yet the novel is far from a police procedural; it’s more about their lives away from work. Why did you decide to tell the story in this way?
Police work is really interesting to me for a lot of reasons, but I was never interested in writing about cops on the job. We’ve all seen that, haven’t we? I spent my early ’20s watching “Law & Order,” and any scenes I wrote of cops on the job felt like a “Law & Order” episode to me. Plus, the book was always meant to be about love, what these cops are like at home, how they might carry what they see and do on the job into their domestic lives, how the job shapes them as men.

While your character Anne apparently performs well as a nurse, she is pretty clearly mentally unbalanced from early in the novel. This raises a lot of questions, such as: How could people around her—her husband particularly—do nothing until things got clearly out of hand?
From what I’ve seen and read, the way things go for Anne is not uncommon. Denial is a strong feeling, and we’re all guilty of sinking into that feeling at times. When we hear cases of extreme mental illness we think, well, if my loved one were like that I would have done something. But we only ever hear the ends of stories. When we’re in the middle of it, I think we often fail to recognize something for what it really is.

I also read case after case of people who were able to keep their debilitating mental illnesses private for a remarkably long time. Our work lives are sort of a performance, aren’t they? Most people have a role, they play it, they go home. And at home, the people there might not want to face the thing that’s happening. I think Anne’s trajectory isn’t all that uncommon. Isn’t this why we’re all fascinated and shocked when otherwise normal-seeming people commit heinous acts?

One of the great pleasures of the novel is your depiction of the growing bond—a lifelong bond, it turns out—between the neighboring children Kate and Peter. Where did that come from? Were there similar loving friendships in your childhood circle of friends?
I met my husband at 14, and we started dating at 15. We got engaged when I was 25. We literally grew up together. I’m still close with a lot of my childhood friends, many of whom I’ve known since first grade. There’s something magical to me about being friends with someone now who I knew as a child. It’s as if we know each other’s most essential selves, and so when we accept each other for who we are, we really know what we’re talking about. In a lot of cases in my own life, people may look and appear like confident, competent adults, but I still see the child in there, and some of those basic fears and insecurities are the same now as they were back in grade school.

The story you tell here spans four decades. I have to say that it is masterful. But I wonder what led you to tell in a comparatively brief novel a story that covers so much time?
I wish I knew! Thank you for describing it as a brief novel. At 400 pages I often worry it will be considered too long. I didn’t know at the outset that this novel would cover so much time. I wanted to write about a mother and a son reuniting, and about forgiveness after a trauma and childhood love, but I didn’t know the shape the story would take for a long time. Structural problems emerged quickly. In order to appreciate the forgiveness that takes place for these characters in the present day, the reader would have to know the past. I didn’t want to bog the book down in backstory, so I couldn’t begin with Kate and Peter married. I couldn’t begin with the two of them in crisis and then pull from the past to enrich it. I had to write my way there. So I divided the book into sections and made each part speak only for itself. And the more I committed to that, the more it made sense. It’s not as if anything we do is in service to any other (future) part of life. Mostly we’re acting for now. The problem with THAT was that each section meant a myriad of possible rabbit holes I had to resist traveling. For example, I couldn’t have Francis or Anne think TOO MUCH about the old country, because then it would quickly become a sentimental Irish immigration novel. I couldn’t show Peter and Kate TOO MUCH in the mundane early marriage years because although it was important for these two in particular to have ho-hum years (like every other couple), it would bore the reader. So I was constantly overwriting and then cutting way back to keep the book on track.

The book has its share of sorrow and loneliness, but it is redeemed by love and forgiveness. I’d like to know your thoughts about forgiveness.
This is complicated for me. Forgiveness is good and healthy and right. We all know that. But what does it mean? If there’s trauma in a family, does that mean forgiveness will lead to Christmases and birthdays together? I don’t think so, personally. I think it only means finding peace, somehow, and moving on, but there are people in my life who disagree with me. I forgive when I believe someone is sorry for something, when I see someone is struggling or has regrets. I think I’m capable of forgiving almost anything if a person cops to the thing they’ve done, and I always try to call myself on my own mistakes in the same spirit. But there are people who create narratives for themselves in order to see their own participation in a mistake as justifiable, and it’s hard for me to forgive a person like that.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Ask Again, Yes.

Author photo by Nina Subin

In Ask Again, Yes, her third novel, Mary Beth Keane tells a wise and searching story of two families who are neighbors in the suburbs north of New York City. Over the course of 40 years, the families are riven by a mother’s violent act and brought back together through the enduring bonds that link two of their children. The author touches on profound questions of contemporary family life.

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Do you visit bookstores differently now that you own your own bookstore, Books Are Magic?
I pay attention to different things—how things are organized, what kind of tote bag they make, what sales software they use. It’s all nerdy, I’m afraid.

What are your bookstore rituals? Where do you go first in a store?
I tend to do a lap first, to see what’s what and to get a feel of the place. Then I usually go to the S section in fiction, just to see if my babies are there.

Do you have a favorite bookstore or library from literature?
Right now I’m reading the Harry Potter books with my 6-year-old, and so the Hogwarts library is in the front of my mind. Now those books are magic.

While researching your books, has there ever been a librarian or bookseller who was especially helpful?
Ha, yes! My first novel, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, covered a whole lot of time—1920 to 1980—and I did a lot of research at the Margaret Herrick Library in Los Angeles, where the librarians were patient angels and helped me find everything I needed and didn’t laugh at me when it was clear that I didn’t even know where to start.

Tell us about your favorite library from when you were a child.
The library in Westport, Connecticut, sold me a copy of Miss Piggy’s Guide to Life from their annual book sale when I really needed it as a large, blond kid. The library that I think is the most terrific, though, even though it isn’t even close to where I live, is the main branch of the Nashville Public Library, which has a truly magnificent children’s program, and which I treasured more than I can say when my family and I spent a few months there when my first child was brand-new.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of All Adults Here.


Do you have a “bucket list” of bookstores and libraries you’d love to visit but haven’t yet? What’s on it?
South America seems to have some truly magnificent bookstores and libraries. Instagram is always showing me ones with gorgeous staircases. Closer to home, there are lots on my bucket list—stalwarts like Square Books, Changing Hands and Left Bank Books, and newer stores like Wild Rumpus, Literati and White Whale. The list gets longer every year!

How is your own personal library organized?
The massive bookshelf in our living room used to be big enough to have everything alphabetized, and now it’s not, and books spill over in every direction. The books in my bedroom are in no order whatsoever, except that the closer they are to my pillow, the sooner I plan to read them.

Bookstore cats or bookstore dogs?
Although in general I am a cat person, I tend to think that dogs are better behaved hosts in bookstores.

What is your ideal bookstore-browsing snack?
Our bookstore runs on candy. It shouldn’t, but it does.

 

Author photo © Melanie Dunea

Emma Straub—author, bookstore owner and all-around beloved human—shares a glimpse of her life in the stacks.
Interview by

There’s no cell service at the tiny Vermont house where author Sue Miller and her husband spend their summers, so she’s crossed the Connecticut River and is sitting on a leafy street in Hanover, New Hampshire, for our phone call to discuss her breathtaking new novel, Monogamy. She hopes no one comes along with a loud lawn mower while we’re trying to talk.

“For a lot of writers and photographers, there’s something temperamentally that makes you more comfortable at a slight distance.”

I remind her that we spoke back in 2003, just before the publication of her memoir, The Story of My Father. The experience of writing that book, she tells me, was the wellspring of Monogamy. “As I wrote that book about my father, I came slowly to understand him differently and to understand myself differently,” Miller says. “I felt I was in communication with him in some sense or another and was changed by him. My ideas about him changed as I discovered things as I worked through the book. I wanted that to happen to someone in the marriage in this book.”

In Monogamy, after a long, full, mostly happy life together, Annie’s husband, Graham, dies unexpectedly one night in bed beside her. Graham, a bookseller in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was a large, charismatic, needy man with a big “appetite for people, for music, for food.” And for Annie. At first she is numbed by his death, but soon she is alienated from him and from her grief when she discovers that he’d had a recent affair.

“I wanted her, for some reason, to retreat from the marriage after the death of her spouse,” Miller says, “and then find a way, just through life experiences, odd things that happened to her, in sequence somehow, to rediscover him and rethink who she was and who he was. But to come to understand all this not through grieving.”


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of Monogamy.


At the time of Graham’s death, Annie is preparing a local show of her latest photographs. Miller describes Annie as “quite a good photographer, but not great, not famous. Maybe she could have been better. I don’t know,” suggesting how independently her characters come to live in her imagination.

“I was interested in having her be a bit like me,” Miller says. “I thought of photography and the distance you spend from the things, mostly from other people, that you’re taking pictures of. That way of looking at life has some parallels to a writer, who is always looking and always using other people’s lives and thinking, oh, that would be good. I could use that. I think for a lot of writers and photographers, there’s something temperamentally that makes you more comfortable at a slight distance.”

MonogamyWhile doing research for Monogamy, Miller spent a lot of time with a friend who is a professional photographer, talking about cameras and picture taking. In the six years it took Miller to write the novel, she read widely about photographers like Diane Arbus, Nan Goldin, William Eggleston, Sally Mann and others, and she saw their exhibitions when they came to her hometowns of Cambridge and Boston.

“I think my interest started with Sally Mann, when she created such a stink with photographs of her children,” Miller says. She notes how Mann’s focus and interests have changed throughout her life. Like Mann, “Annie doesn’t have a singular vision she’s working with,” Miller says. “She changes. She moves around in terms of what she’s interested in taking pictures of, what she sticks with and then moves off from. I think more women photographers do that than men. It seemed to me when I was looking at men’s photographs that they didn’t change much over the arc of their photographic life, whereas with women, there’s this strange richness in what they are doing. I think that’s from their lives being so chopped up in some ways.”

In a certain way, this is true of Miller’s own writing career. “The first couple of books I wrote were about children in families, younger children,” she says. “Then I moved on from that, doing things dealing with adults.”

Maybe this observation helps explain an underlying theory of process Miller seems to have. The emotional beauty of Monogamy arises from the impact of her characters’ interactions on one another, and how their memories of those interactions and of other events shape, shift and reshape.

“Back when I was doing a psych course, we would do sociograms, where you draw a circle and put people around the edge of the circle,” Miller says. “Then you take one person and have something happen to them or have them act in some way, and you draw lines to who is affected by that. Then you would see how their responses affect other people in the circle. You end up with a sort of spiderweb of crisscrossing lines of connection. I think that is, in a way, what this book is like.”

Indeed it is. In Monogamy, what a wonderful web Sue Miller weaves.

Sue Miller and I spoke back in 2003, just before the publication of her memoir, The Story of My Father. The experience of writing that book, she tells me, was the wellspring of Monogamy. “As I wrote that book about my father, I came slowly to understand him differently and to understand myself differently.”
Review by

Simon Han’s debut novel scrutinizes the American dream through the Chengs, who have recently emigrated from China. The family settles in a suburb of Dallas, Texas, where Patty works in semiconductors and Liang is a photographer. Their son, Jack, spends the first six years of his life in China, where his grandparents raise him until his parents are ready for him to join them in the United States. His sister, Annabel, is born in the U.S., and her relationship to China is abstract, as she has never been there but speaks Mandarin at home.

Things aren’t going particularly well with 5-year-old Annabel. At school, she’s practicing manipulation on a friend, and other parents are leery of her. When she begins sleepwalking, Jack deems himself her protector.

In Nights When Nothing Happened, Han explores all that can get lost in the spaces between people. A fateful Thanksgiving Day serves as the crux of the story, but the tale spans much further than that, back to the mysterious death of Liang’s mother when he was an infant, which has haunted him his whole life. While the book is driven more by characterization than by plot, Han delivers the few pivotal moments with such skill that they are jaw-droppers.

Han displays incredible range as a novelist, oscillating between honest, almost tangibly real scenes, opaque dreams and refractive memories. He portrays Annabel’s and Jack’s points of view with remarkable integrity, while Liang and Patty are both heartbreaking and heartwarming, doing their absolute best for their children while grappling with their pasts.

Han’s prose is vivid yet restrained, and his characters are multidimensional and alive. Emotionally resonant and packed with nuance, this is an exemplary debut novel.

Simon Han’s prose is vivid yet restrained, and his characters are multidimensional and alive. Emotionally resonant and packed with nuance, this is an exemplary debut novel.

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