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It’s rare for a novelist to read their own audiobook. Most authors who step up to the mic are recording nonfiction, with fiction audiobooks typically being performed by a voice actor or full cast. But Booker Prize finalist Mohsin Hamid possesses transportive powers as an audiobook narrator, and with new recordings of his first two novels, Moth Smoke and The Reluctant Fundamentalist (4.5 hours), he has now narrated all five of his books.

Told in a first-person monologue by a Pakistani man named Changez to an unnamed American at a cafe in Lahore not long after 9/11, The Reluctant Fundamentalist makes for an especially powerful listening experience as, over the course of one evening, a sense of dread builds and demands a reckoning. For his first ever interview on his work as a narrator, Hamid took a video call at his home in Pakistan to discuss this “one-man play.”

When writing The Reluctant Fundamentalist, how much did you think about what it would be like to step into the role of author-narrator-character?
I sort of wrote all of my books as audiobooks. I didn’t realize this until years later, but I really do think of literature or fiction as something we absorb through our aural circuitry more than our visual circuitry. Many of us read books with our eyes—some people read with their fingers or with their ears, as with audiobooks—but so many of us grew up reading with our eyes, so it’s a very visual experience, and the way things look should be important. But I tend to feel that the circuitry involved is still very much the circuitry of sound and language and rhythm and cadence. 

One of the formative moments for me as a writer was taking a creative writing workshop with Toni Morrison back in 1993 spring in college. . . . And one thing she did in her class is that she would read our work aloud back to us. She could make a Corn Flakes box sound like poetry. She was the greatest reader I ever encountered, and when she would read . . . I thought, “Wow, I can really write! I’ve got it!” 

She said things like, “You want to keep your reader a sort of half-heartbeat ahead of the action, so that what comes next can be a surprise, but it should feel like it was inevitable.” . . . One of the ways we do that in cinema, for example, is through the soundtrack, which suggests movements and motions and directions even while the visuals are doing something else. In written fiction, cadence and sound and rhythm can begin to establish these sorts of movements and directions, so that you have the chance of this feeling of inevitability.

“I’d always imagined it as this almost stage story, and suddenly I was on this stage, and it felt oddly like coming full circle.”

The Reluctant Fundamentalist wasn’t originally conceived as a 9/11 novel. You finished its first draft prior to that day, but as the world changed, so did your book. Now we have the opportunity to revisit your 9/11 novel with the gift of hindsight. What do you think is its place in our current reading environment?
It’s hard for me to answer that. I remember once being at this literary festival in Mantua, Italy. And as I say this, I should make clear that my life is not spent at literary festivals in Mantua, Italy. It was as exotic for me to be there as it is to say it to you now, but there I was under some clock tower in the open air, the stars above us, and Russell Banks was there. . . . I knew that a book of his had come out recently, and I had asked him if he was happy with how it had done and, you know, the usual chitchat you try to make with some literary icon when you’re this young kid who’s written a book or two. And he said something that stuck with me. 

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

He said, “You know, it’s too soon to say. . .  . It’s not until about 10 years after a book comes out that you begin to have a sense of what it’s doing. And the reasons why people are still reading it 10 years on are probably what you actually did. That’s what people got from it.” This is the kind of thing you go to literary festivals for, so that some much more experienced writer can unload this wisdom on you. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is now 15 years old, so it’s past the Russell Banks 10-year law, and I think people still seem to be reading it.

I wrote that book very much with the idea of the reader as a kind of character. Not that the novel is addressed to you, necessarily, but the book is a kind of half novel. We never hear half of the story; we never hear Changez’s interlocutor really say anything. Even more than most novels—or all novels, by virtue of being pieces of ink printed on paper that require a transmutation by the reader that makes them come alive—this book, because so much of it is missing, [forces the reader] to try and restabilize this narrative. The book was intended as a way for the reader to encounter how they feel about the story. What are the instincts that it provokes in them? What are their inclinations? Who do you think is threatening whom? Why? And it leads you, in a sense, to a position that isn’t quite resolved, and so you have to figure out either how to resolve it or what that unresolved state makes you feel. And I think it still does that, I imagine. 

The form of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which is this dramatic monologue, is really akin to a one-man play. So in doing an audiobook, I was performing that one-man play. I’d always imagined it as this almost stage story, and suddenly I was on this stage, and it felt oddly like coming full circle.

Read our starred review of The Reluctant Fundamentalist audiobook.

That dramatic monologue is so effective as an audiobook. The listener is called upon in a very different way than with other novels. We feel like we’re being addressed.
That’s good to hear. It is a very direct form of address. It has to be. And in that book in particular, voice is so important because Changez, we learn, is ostensibly Muslim. But he doesn’t pray, he drinks, he has sex, he doesn’t quote the Quran or think about the doings of the Prophet. . . . His Islam appears to be a sort of tribal [affiliation]. It’s sort of “these are my people, I belong to something,” much more than it is an operating system, you know, like MacOS.

Some people might imagine that Islam has a kind of . . . rigidity or formality, that it has a kind of, you know, menace. I think these sorts of perceptions that many people do have about Islam—who are not Muslims or don’t know very many Muslims, particularly in that post-9/11 environment—the novel doesn’t give those attributes to Changez, but it does use a voice that can invoke those attributes. So you can end up believing things about this guy, not because he thinks in a certain way or even does anything, but just because it sounds like he might. 

And so the reading of that book was very interesting and actually fun because Changez speaks in this very formal, kind of anachronistic way, and that formality is also a distancing, and it builds to what feels like a kind of menace because, you know, so often we assume that a more colloquial, friendly form of address is not threatening, but Changez’s quite formal address [makes us wonder,] “Why is he keeping me at a distance? What does he intend to do to me? What kind of person speaks in this way? Why does he think like this?” 

I used to talk about The Reluctant Fundamentalist as a thriller in which nothing really happens. And I think that sense of thrill comes from the fact that we are already frightened of each other. There’s a preexisting thrill in the reader—whether it’s a reader who sympathizes with Changez and is frightened of the American, or sympathizes with the American and is frightened of Changez—and the novel tries to invoke within the reader a feeling of that discomfort that we were all encouraged to have in those years, that we belonged to these different groups and that we had to be in conflict.

And as audiobook listeners, we’re even more vulnerable to what the story wants to invoke in us. We’re passive receivers; we’re not even moving our eyes across the page.
Weirdly enough, it’s closer to the experience of Changez’s interlocutor in the book itself. The confined space of this conversation, where somebody is forced to listen to somebody else for hours, is more akin to an audiobook experience, where you’re sort of sitting there and this person is coming at you with their voice.

“I used to talk about The Reluctant Fundamentalist as a thriller in which nothing really happens. And I think that sense of thrill comes from the fact that we are already frightened of each other.”

Are you a frequent audiobook listener?
I tend to feel that the inbound-information-to-my-eyes thing is a little bit overloaded. Either I’m reading stuff online or I’m actually reading a book or I’m writing something, and then when I’m not, there’s a complex series of advertisements directed at me and my kids’ devices, and I think that I long to just have my eyes be free. And that’s when the idea of just listening to something becomes so attractive. My daughter does the exact same thing, but she listens to music for hours every day, and she’s dancing in her room by herself, and she has that relationship with music that teens and preteens sort of have had from time immemorial. It’s just ears. It’s ears and your body in space.

You know, I’m now reminded of this thing that Philip Gourevitch once said to me when he was editor of The Paris Review. He said, “It’s strange, but we get more short story submissions than we have subscribers.” . . . I feel a little bit like that, where I’ve recorded this handful of audiobooks these last few years, but how many have I listened to? I think I’m like the Paris Review submitter of audiobooks. I talk a good game, but I don’t really walk the walk as far as listening is concerned. So it’s a bit shameful, but anyway, I’m a writer, so I make the things. I don’t listen that much.

Photo of Mohsin Hamid by Jillian Edelstein

Fifteen years after its initial publication, The Reluctant Fundamentalist gets a haunting new audiobook recorded by its author.
Mohsin Hamid

Eliot Schrefer is a two-time National Book Award finalist best known for novels that explore the relationships between humans and animals. In Queer Ducks (and Other Animals): The Natural World of Animal Sexuality, Schrefer turns to nonfiction to present cutting-edge research on a plethora of same-sex animal behaviors, from male doodlebugs observed “doing the dirty” by German scientists in the 1830s, to trios of greylag geese that care for nests and raise fledglings with higher success rates than pairs. The book incorporates personal anecdotes from the author, comics by illustrator Jules Zuckerberg, Q&As with working scientists and plenty of humor to create an absorbing, enlightening and entertaining read.

What inspired you to make the leap to nonfiction?

I’m in the animal studies M.A. program at New York University, and part of that coursework has been reading the long tradition of writers who have dared to question the assumption that humans are the pinnacle of creation. My fiction has long explored what bonds us with the natural world, but I hadn’t really considered working on a piece of nonfiction that would do the same. Then I happened across the burgeoning research into same-sex sexual behavior in animals and realized how much a young Eliot would have loved to have heard about that. That’s when I knew I had to write Queer Ducks.

How did you arrive at the book’s unique blend of formats?

For my young readers, there’s a good chance that the only science writing they’ve encountered is in their textbooks. There’s such a healthy amount of science nonfiction for adults (like Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus or Helen MacDonald’s Vesper Flights) that allows the author to take some space on the page to give readers more of an intimate access point to the science, and I wanted to create a similar work for teens.

The comics were the idea of my editor, Ben Rosenthal. I loved it. I know how often kid-me flipped through a book before committing, and the comics are welcoming to readers who aren’t sure they want to commit to a whole book of nonfiction text that they haven’t been assigned in school.

Same-sex sexual behavior has been confirmed in more than 1,500 animal species. How did you begin to organize this breadth of scientific information?

I decided to focus on 10 representative animal species and to have each chapter tackle an important research question. The wrasse fish enabled me to look more generally at evolutionary explanations for sex change in animals, the Japanese macaques served as an introduction to feminist biology, the dolphins let us explore the question of whether sexual orientation is a relevant term for animals at all and so on.

”When I talk about ‘Queer Ducks’ in public, I go in thinking that I’ll just be rattling through really cool animal facts, but I wind up tearstruck.”

You examine many analogs for a wide swath of human gender identities and sexual orientations and behaviors, including asexuality, polyamory, intersexuality, gender fluidity and more. Why was it important to you to be so inclusive?

This was maybe the most freeing thing about my research: Thinking in terms of “gayness” sort of misses the point when it comes to the natural world. Without the need to self-identify, sexuality and sexual identity in animals can be really polymorphous. Only the rare animal could be said to have a persistent same-sex sexual orientation; instead it’s all a version of bisexuality. I didn’t have to look far to find analogs for all the various ways humans self-present, except for when it comes to the extreme binary identities of homosexuality and heterosexuality. Those seem to be human specialities.

You also include your own life experiences as a closeted queer teenager. These moments really anchor the book. How did you feel as you worked on these sections?

I’ve been watching “RuPaul’s Drag Race” for years, and my favorite moment each season is when the contestants speak directly to a photo of themselves as a baby, telling them the advice they most needed to hear. I had 11-year-old Eliot in my mind while I was writing Queer Ducks. I was terrified that someone would find out the feelings that had risen up inside me. I felt weird and unnatural.

I’m grown up now and doing fine, but the thought that I might be able to help another young person feel like they are a natural part of the world after all was a big part of my inspiration. When I talk about Queer Ducks in public, I go in thinking that I’ll just be rattling through really cool animal facts, but I wind up tearstruck.

Why was it important to you to include the voices and perspectives of the scientists and researchers you interview in the book?

I wanted to include a mix of identities as far as race and gender identity and sexuality, and also a mix of approaches to science. I spoke with a couple of field researchers, a science historian, a biologist and a primatologist. I wanted my young readers to learn about what these people were studying, but I also wanted them to see how science is done and the diversity in who “gets to” do science. We need all sorts of people in science. As one of my interviewees, Mounica Kota, put it: “We have great diversity of other beings, but if we have a very homogenous human voice speaking, that doesn’t make for a great conversation.”

“‘Queer Ducks’ makes a space to think about how expansive and diverse the natural world is, how many ways there are to love and to be.”

I laughed out loud a lot more than I expected to while reading Queer Ducks. What role does humor play in this book?

Lucky for me that you’re a fan of nerd humor! I think one of the risks with writing nonfiction is that a tonal sameness can set in. This can deaden a reader’s emotional responses, and humor is such a good way to shake things up. Your average high school student reads mostly dry or even reverential material about the natural world. But there’s room for non-seriousness in the natural world, too!

What do you think readers will be most surprised to learn about?

The cattle industry, which operates largely by artificial insemination, uses other males to get the bulls in the mood to ejaculate! It has done so for decades. Same-sex desire is part and parcel of one of the most typically macho fields of agriculture.

I think readers might also be surprised by the prevalence of three-bird nests in shorebirds. Polyamory is frequent among these birds, potentially as a way to have more guardians for the eggs and chicks.

Throughout the book, you often mention that it’s impossible to know what animals think about all this. If you could interview some members of one of the species in the book, which would you choose to talk to and why?

Ha! Love this question. I think I’d sit (or should I say float?) with a wrasse fish. They have a mostly female society, with one male at the top of the hierarchy. When that male dies, though, one of the females changes sex within an hour or two and assumes the patriarchal position.

I’d love to talk to a wrasse fish who transitioned. What did his body feel like while it was happening? Did he have any volition in it? How did the group know that she—this particular fish—would be the one to become male? Wrasse fish also swim into the jaws of moray eels to clean their teeth, so I’d be curious if this fish had any dentistry tips.

As you worked on this book that’s mostly about animals, what do you feel you learned about humans?

I think we underestimate how fixated our current cultural moment is on narrowly identifying sexuality. Homosexuality is a word and concept that didn’t exist before the second half of the 19th century. For the majority of human societies and for the vast majority of our history as a species, acts could be same-sex but there was no persistent identity attached to them. Without that need to define what a person is, someone would be much freer to have occasional same-sex sexual behavior—which is exactly what we see play out in species after species in the wild.

Read our starred review of ‘Queer Ducks (and Other Animals).’

You discuss a warning from biologist Marlene Zuk, who asserted that scientists should “avoid using animals to argue about human morality.” How did you work to do this throughout the book?

I love Zuk’s article, because she points out that we can’t cherry-pick our morality from the animal world—and that using animals as moral guides risks reducing them to metaphors. However, in Queer Ducks, I’m not trying to argue for human queerness from animals; instead I’m saying that humans aren’t alone in their queerness. That queer behaviors are part of the natural world. That much is irrefutable at this point.

In the book’s final chapter, you discuss possible reasons why much of the information in the book has remained largely unknown for decades, including unconscious or even intentional homophobia within the sciences, and you address readers who may feel that such information challenges “the natural order.” What would you say to an adult who thinks teens shouldn’t read this book?

Given the dishonest tactics that politicians are currently using to score points by smearing gay people, it’s worth repeating that sexuality is not something that can be locked out of your schools and your family. The feelings crop up within, and when a young person feels alone and unnatural because of who they are, it’s potentially deadly. Queer Ducks makes a space to think about how expansive and diverse the natural world is, how many ways there are to love and to be. Of course the majority of animal sex is heterosexual. No one’s trying to argue against that. But knowing that same-sex sexual behavior has its place in the natural world might save the life of a young person.


Author photo of Eliot Schrefer courtesy of Priya Patel.

Teens will see ducks and doodlebugs in a whole new way after reading Queer Ducks (and Other Animals).
Author photo of Eliot Schrefer

Dhonielle Clayton is a bestselling YA author, the chief operating officer of the nonprofit organization We Need Diverse Books and the founder of Cake Creative Kitchen, a multimedia development company. If Clayton’s talent has a ceiling, her first middle grade novel, The Marvellers, reveals that she hasn’t reached it yet. 

The Marvellers is the stuff that middle grade fantasy fans’ dreams are made of. The first book in a planned series, it’s the story of Ella Durand, the first Conjuror to attend the Arcanum Training Institute, a magical school that floats high in the clouds. Clayton spoke with BookPage about creating a fantastical world that balances playfulness and delight with analogs to real-life injustices, anchored by a protagonist certain to join the likes of Percy Jackson and Aru Shah in the hearts of middle grade fantasy readers.


The Marvellers is your first foray into middle grade. What was it like to create a story for this readership?

Middle grade fiction is my first love. I’m a former elementary and middle school librarian as well as a secondary school teacher, so those books have always had my heart and reminded me of why I love books. 

I feel so excited to get to write for a younger audience because I believe that this is the developmental time period when imaginations are cultivated and grown. I was surrounded by these readers in my library every day and they inspired me as I was creating the world of The Marvellers. I tried to reconnect with the middle grade reader I used to be, diving headfirst into all the magic and all the whimsy.

Can you give us a little introduction to Ella and where she’s at when we meet her?

Ella is an eternal optimist who is very invested in making friends and determined to contribute to her community. She is the young person I wish I had been at her age, but instead I was a grumpy, fussy sourpuss and a mildly reclusive kid—more like Harriet the Spy and Turtle Wexler of The Westing Game than anything else. If I could’ve been left to my own devices rather than having to deal with the community, I would’ve gladly curled up with a book and ignored everyone. 

But Ella is the ultimate lovebug and an extraordinary global citizen. If you don’t have friends, she’ll always offer you a branch of friendship. No matter the bad weather, she’s going to look for the sunshine.

Ella faces a huge challenge at the start of the book: She straddles two worlds and functions like a tiny bridge between them. The Marvellian world is uneasy about Conjuror integration into their cities and their school, because for over 300 years they’ve been afraid of how magic manifests in the Conjuror world. Conjure folk remain hurt by and suspicious of Marvellers, leaving many Conjurors torn about whether they should even share space with a group of people who have actively kept them out and ostracized them. 

Ella is caught in this emotional, political and social tangle, not unlike how my parents dealt with being the first generation of Black Americans to integrate segregated schools in the American South. Ella must be steadfast and actively hold onto her joy when so many wish to take it from her.

“I hope Ella’s struggle reminds young readers that there’s something marvelous about them, and the sooner they embrace that universal truth, the better.”

The way that characters treat Conjurers in the book parallels prejudices in our world, especially racism and anti-Blackness. Why was this important to you? How did you balance giving young readers of color a fantastical escape and also representing their own experiences with injustice?

The thematic question at the heart of The Marvellers and its universe is the conflict and tension between two groups of magical people. I wanted this complex and nuanced conflict to parallel anti-Black racism, especially anti-Black racism rooted in the deep-seated prejudice against descendants of the chattel slave trade system so as to include the disapora of trafficked West Africans. I wanted to use magic and fantasy to discuss how anti-Blackness isn’t superficial, but rather an insidious system that penetrates and poisons every aspect of a society, magical or real. 

However, this thematic subtext is all lingering just beneath a big story about a magic school. I was very conscious of the story’s balance, of making sure to tell the truth and confront the darker and more uncomfortable realities of queer and BIPOC kids in environments like these while also making sure those kids still just get to have a magical escape.

Each member of Marvellian society has a unique magical talent known as a Marvel, and Ella spends much of the book wondering where her own talents fit in. What would you say to young readers who are trying to discover or embrace what makes them special?

I hope Ella’s struggle reminds young readers that there’s something marvelous about them, and the sooner they embrace that universal truth, the better. My grandmother told me that it only mattered what I liked and how I felt about myself, and everything else was nonsense and not my business. I hope young readers can be excited about what makes them unique, because the magic system of this world celebrates that.

“Creating the setting of the Arcanum Institute was the most fun I’ve had while working on a book because I got to add in all the things I wish I’d had at a real school, as both a student and a teacher.”

The Arcanum Training Institute teaches students from all over the world. How did you research the various magical traditions that readers will see represented?

I did a ton of research to build the world of The Marvellers, from spending time in libraries, to traveling, to working with cultural experts from all around the world. It was important to me that all children could find their place in this universe and have the ability to self-insert and imagine themselves as a young Marveller headed to study in the skies or as a Conjuror trying to make their way. 

I kept an entire notebook of research about global cultures and theorized what their marvels might be based on their unique folkloric traditions as well as their customs, food and history. I hope that through the series, I’ll be able to learn more and continue to add more inclusivity to this big world.

The world of the novel is bursting with quirks and amazing details. Can you tell us about developing this complex setting? What aspects or elements were the most fun? Were there any challenges you had to solve along the way?

Creating the setting of the Arcanum Institute was the most fun I’ve had while working on a book because I got to add in all the things I wish I’d had at a real school, as both a student and a teacher. The first step was to make a complex map, laying out where everything was and its purpose, plus infusing it all with magic and wonder. 

I had the most fun while creating the Paragon Towers and the Dining Hall. I wanted each tower to be a feast for the imagination and embody a particular sensory category in unexpected ways. The Taste Tower would be filled with delicious things to taste and the Sound Tower would display every instrument you could think of and have amazing sound labs. The Dining Hall was a place where I could just have fun, play with food and ensure that the diversity of the student body was reflected in the menus and magical food trucks. 

I’m wrestling with my biggest challenge now, because the Arcanum Institute never looks the same way twice, so as I work on the sequel, I have to start redoing my map and changing up the look of the school.

“My grandmother told me that it only mattered what I liked and how I felt about myself, and everything else was nonsense and not my business.”

Speaking of the Dining Hall, The Marvellers contains so many imaginative descriptions of food, from dancing dumplings to flying hummingbird cakes. Why is food such an important part of the magic of this world? What’s the most magical thing you’ve ever eaten? What’s the most magical thing you’d like to eat, but haven’t yet (or maybe can’t, because of the laws of this universe)?

I believe that food is a connector between groups of people, and I wanted to use food in this magical universe to bring people together and showcase how diverse and wonderful it could be. I was a kid who was afraid of a lot of different foods, so I wanted to animate the food in a way that might encourage a young reader to seek out cuisines from different cultures and expand their taste buds. 

The food I grew up eating, made by Black American women from North Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi, felt magical to me. Comfort is magic, and that’s what the food I ate growing up gave me. However, when I first had Jamaican food and food from New Orleans, it felt magical because of flavor combinations I’d never experienced before.

If the laws of the universe could bend to my will, I’d actually want to try all of the different kinds of jollof rice and have a real-life jumping jollof rice competition like the one in the book.

The Marvellers beautifully showcases the joy of learning alongside and from people who are different from yourself. What writers whose genre or category is different from yours have you learned a lot from? What about creators in other fields, like artists or musicians?

If you pay close attention to the text of The Marvellers, I’ve included many Easter egg names of people whose work has had a fundamental impact on me as a writer. I included them as literary love letters to these people (but also to make them laugh and feel seen). 

As for some writers outside of my current publishing categories who have taught me a lot, I’d have to say Jesmyn Ward, Kiese Laymon, Donald Quist and Robert Jones Jr. on the adult literary side. Their work is teaching me a lot about line-level work and a deep resistance to the white gaze in modern work.

I’m also very influenced by music and musicians and their ability to be storytellers in a different format. I love what Beyoncé has done with both visual and musical mediums. I watch her as a creator who constantly and consistently understands the assignment to continually challenge her medium, which showcases the depth of her creativity.

Read our review of ‘The Marvellers.’


Author photo of Dhonielle Clayton courtesy of Jess Andree.

The Arcanum Training Institute, where students master fantastical abilities as they float high above the clouds, is the setting of bestselling author Dhonielle Clayton’s first middle grade novel, The Marvellers. Take a peek at some of the wonders that await as Clayton reveals her inspirations, Easter eggs and more.
Author photo of Dhonielle Clayton

If you’re a Jane Austen fan, chances are you’ve always wanted to see your favorite couples from her various novels interact with one another. (Indeed, reams of fan fiction have been written on this very topic.) But what if you could do that and watch them deal with a murderer in their midst? In Claudia Gray’s The Murder of Mr. Wickham, the titular cad is killed during a house party at George and Emma Knightley’s estate. It’s up to Catherine and Henry Tilney’s daughter, Juliet, and Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam Darcy’s son, Jonathan, to catch the culprit. We talked to Gray about revisiting Austen’s most beloved characters in their married lives and why George Wickham was her first and only choice for her novel’s victim. 

What is your favorite Jane Austen novel?
Pride and Prejudice: the answer everyone gives, probably, and for very good reasons. Name another novel written more than 200 years ago that still gets read regularly, by nonacademics, purely for pleasure. I don’t think there is one, at least not in the English language. That said, I truly love all her novels, and the one that perhaps intrigues me the most is Mansfield Park. The one that moves me the most is Persuasion. And I have to stop now, because you didn’t ask for a treatise about my feelings regarding all six novels. 

“I imagined the book I wanted to read, which then became the book I wanted to write.”

What made you want to write a mystery set in Austen’s world?
It was reading Death Comes to Pemberley and . . . not digging it. I love P.D. James, so my anticipation for the book was sky-high. It comes out, I get it, and I discover that the murder victim in that book is (SPOILER ALERT) Denny, a minor character in Pride and Prejudice. My first thought was: Who cares who killed Denny? None of the beloved characters were suspects, as I had assumed they would be. So I had this big crash of disappointment that had less to do with the quality of James’ writing (which is, of course, superb) and more to do with my assumptions. I imagined the book I wanted to read, which then became the book I wanted to write. 

How did you create and then navigate the conflicts between the members of each couple?
For the most part, the conflicts the couples face call upon issues they dealt with before they married, but in new ways. Darcy and Elizabeth are burdened with grief, but that grief is worsened by Darcy’s refusal to reveal his emotions. Emma’s been chastised by Knightley for her meddling, so how does she react when he feels obliged to intervene in someone else’s life? Colonel Brandon and Marianne have yet to work out how much his past will determine their future, and so on. They’re all the same people they were during courtship, and though they’re older and wiser, they can still fall prey to subtler versions of their previous mistakes. 

“The most fun to write [was] Elizabeth Darcy, of course . . .”

How did you stay true to Austen’s voice?
I’m tremendously flattered that the voice rang true to you. I didn’t mimic period style exactly, but I tried to let that be the guide as much as possible—which involved a ton of rereading Austen’s work, some reading of other Regency-era novels, reading some of the Austen family letters and watching my favorite adaptations. 

Which character was the most fun to write? Were there any who were surprisingly challenging?
The most fun to write were Elizabeth Darcy, of course, and Marianne, as well as the new characters of Jonathan Darcy and Juliet Tilney. Most challenging was Fanny from Mansfield Park: Her personality is naturally timid, her moods fragile, her responses often passive. She is the antithesis of what we look for in a main character in modern fiction, and yet Fanny is capable of great courage when she knows herself to be right. So making her both true to her depiction in Mansfield Park and engaging to readers today was definitely a challenge. 

What made you decide to make neurodivergence a part of Jonathan Darcy’s character?
Honestly, that emerged from the writing process itself. At first, my only goal was for Jonathan to be more Darcy than Darcy. But as I dug into the story, I had to ask what might be driving that. Once I recognized that Jonathan might be neurodivergent, it opened up so many interesting questions about how he would navigate the Regency world. I did a lot of reading and research in the hopes that he would feel authentic on the page. 

One point that was important for me to remember, though, was that neither Jonathan nor his parents—nor anyone else in the novel—will ever think of him as neurodivergent. That’s not a frame of reference any of them would have; that’s not how he would be understood in that era. 

Read our review of ‘The Murder of Mr. Wickham’ by Claudia Gray.

What led you to decide on Mr. Wickham being the murder victim? Were there other contenders?
Wickham was the first and only candidate I considered. The victim had to be someone whom many, many people would have a motive to kill, and who incites quite as much fury as Mr. Wickham? 

Will we see Juliet and Jonathan again in future books?
I’m so glad you enjoyed them! It can be difficult to set new characters among known ones, but Juliet and Jonathan proved a delight to write. Rest assured, they’ll team up again.

 

Photo of Claudia Gray by Stephanie Knapp.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a good dinner party must be in want of a murder. In this case, it's The Murder of Mr. Wickham, the dastardly villain of Pride and Prejudice, which was bound to happen, according to author Claudia Gray.
Claudia Gray author photo

Michelle Huneven is a Whiting Award-winning writer who studied at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop as well as a James Beard Award-winning food journalist who spent time at the Methodist Claremont School of Theology. She leverages all this in her fifth novel, Search, which follows a food writer named Dana and her fellow members of a Unitarian Universalist congregation through the process of searching for a new minister. Huneven, who now teaches writing at the University of California, Los Angeles, answered our questions about the spiritual inquiries and delectable recipes of her latest novel.


Dana’s committee experience in Search has the ring of truth to it. How much of it comes from your personal history, and how did your experiences differ?
I was on a church search committee—if only for an assistant minister—and that is where I got the idea for Search. My writer’s antennae first quivered when I read the applications, which were full of personal narratives (Describe a mistake you’ve made in ministry and what you did about it. . . . Tell about your call to ministry). The applicants were so varied and so self-revealing—whether they meant to be or not. 

Unlike Dana’s committee, we were an affable, tame group and quickly agreed on an applicant who seemed highly qualified. But someone had “heard something” about the applicant, so we did another round of reference-checking. I interviewed a reference who affirmed the applicant’s talents but also disclosed a pattern of ethical lapses too troubling to overlook. Even as I was shocked and disappointed by these revelations, a light went off: The vetting process had been like detective work. Uncovering the discrepancy between how a person self-presented and who they really were . . . now that seemed the stuff of novels.

Although my church search committee experience was congenial, I began collecting stories of other search committees (in both churches and academia) where factions, feuds and intractability flourished. It soon occurred to me that this intimate, small form of democracy was like a fractal of what was happening on the national level: the divisiveness and spleen, the dearth of middle ground.

“The vetting process had been like detective work. Uncovering the discrepancy between how a person self-presented and who they really were . . . now that seemed the stuff of novels.”

Why did you choose a Unitarian Universalist church as a backdrop for Search?
I am a UU, and that’s the denomination and church life that I know. We are known for being articulate, skeptical, contentious, open-minded and socially progressive. We follow no dogma or doctrine and embrace spiritual wisdom from all traditions; our congregations include Jewish people, Christians, Pagans, Buddhists, atheists and many others. Social action is a major form of spiritual practice. Many of us would describe ourselves with that now-popular phrase, “spiritual not religious,” which is the fastest growing category of religious affiliation in the country. 


Read our review of ‘Search’ by Michelle Huneven.


How did your time at the Methodist Claremont School of Theology influence this book? Did you, like Dana, ever consider the ministry as a vocation?
In my 30s, I’d been supporting myself as a restaurant critic while trying to write a novel. I’d been working on that novel for more years than I’m willing to admit, and I was not getting anywhere. Like Dana, I yearned to do something more strenuous and meaningful with my life than write about what I put in my mouth. 

The minister at my church was literary, erudite, funny and wide-ranging in his interests, and I thought I might like to do what he did. (Ministry and novel writing are among the few careers for generalists.) Also, I loved the sermon as a literary form almost as much as I loved the novel. So, off to seminary I went. Although the Claremont School of Theology was Methodist-affiliated, students from 31 denominations attended, including an African denomination of one. My study partner was a nun.

I loved every minute of my time there—the classes, the reading, the papers and preaching, the conversations, my colleagues, and professors. But about a year and a half in, as I sat in my Backgrounds of Contemporary Theology course, it came to me what I’d been doing wrong with the novel I’d been trying to write for so many years: I’d been starting it in the wrong place! 

When school got out for the year, I went back to work on the old project, and by the fall, I was so deep into it, I put off finishing my divinity degree—and indeed, I never did complete it. I did, however, finish the novel, which was Round Rock. My second novel, Jamesland, was my first “church” novel, and Search, my fifth novel, is my second “church” novel. They share a character, and both make use of my seminary experience and, I hope, justify it. In Search, Dana actually gets my seminary years and, like me, never finishes. Like Dana, I have never lost my interest in ministers and ministry.

“Ministry and novel writing are among the few careers for generalists.”

Search

Why did you decide to include recipes with the book? And how did you decide which recipes to include?
When I won a James Beard Award years ago, it was for the category “Feature Writing With Recipes.” The “With Recipes” clause always made me laugh. It seemed like both a pulled punch and the promise of a little bonus. That is, some might see the category as a lighter, perhaps slightly frivolous form of feature writing, while others might consider the recipes as a bonus, like a crackerjack prize. At any rate, the idea of a Novel “With Recipes” has also always amused and appealed to me. 

Some recipes—like chicken fiesta and the whole wheat chocolate chip cookies—I knew I would include from the start, while other recipes made themselves known as the characters cooked and carried their dishes into committee meetings. 

I had a lot of fun testing the recipes to get them right. How many fresh coconuts did I hurl on our concrete patio for the buko pie? Many! Enough to become an expert coconut cracker. And friends still speak reverently of the lamb nihari feast we held outside under heaters during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now that’s an interesting recipe—it’s not difficult, except that you must get out (and use) every single spice in your cabinet.

What link(s) do you find (or draw) between food and spirituality?
My husband, who is Jewish, likes to say, “Where two or more are gathered, food is served.” Eating together, breaking bread, communion, picnicking, coffee hour—here is where generosity, nourishment, conversation, conviviality and community occur, and connection is made. Food connects us to a vast web of labor and resources, not to mention growing cycles and the seasons. If you ever need a sense of “the interconnected web of which we are all a part,” consider how that cup of tea or apple or slice of bread reached your lips. 

“Eating together, breaking bread, communion, picnicking, coffee hour—here is where generosity, nourishment, conversation, conviviality and community occur, and connection is made.”

Dana comes out squarely in favor of whole wheat chocolate chip cookies. And you? Do you prefer yours crunchy, chewy or cake-y?
Oh, I really do love those whole wheat chocolate chip cookies from Kim Boyce’s whole grain cookbook, Good to the Grain. Someone called them “adult cookies,” and maybe they are. They are certainly burly cookies. (I gave the recipe to a friend who had two adult sons living with her during the pandemic, and they nicknamed the cookies “The Burly Mofos.”)  I admit, I use fancy muscovado for the brown sugar and excellent chocolate, so they are especially good. They are crunchy AND chewy, with all the buttery, grainy pleasures of whole wheat toast, plus some serious chocolate action. 

But then, I’m a person who halves the sugar in most recipes and craves the bitterness in dark chocolate, marmalade and radicchio. Regular Tollhouse chocolate chip cookies are way too sweet and insubstantial for me, though of course I can’t stop mindlessly eating them once I start—they’re designed for that.

What do you hope readers will take away from Search?
Gosh. Ideally? A few hours of literary pleasure. And some choice recipes!

Photo of Michelle Huneven by Courtney Gregg.

The award-winning author’s fifth novel, Search, pairs delectable recipes with a church committee’s quest to find a new minister.
Michelle Huneven

Malaysian author Hanna Alkaf’s Queen of the Tiles combines two irresistible elements: wordplay and murder. It’s the story of Najwa, a Scrabble whiz whose best friend, Trina, collapsed mid-game during the Word Warrior Weekend tournament a year ago. As Najwa continues to deal with her grief, she competes in her first tournament since Trina’s death, where she discovers that her friend may have been murdered—and the killer could be sitting on the other side of the Scrabble board. 

What initially sparked your interest in writing about Scrabble and the competitive Scrabble community?

I love Scrabble. Malaysia has a thriving, active Scrabble community, and as a teen, my older brother had been part of it. I remember many weekends spent ferrying him back and forth from our house to the Parkroyal Hotel in downtown Kuala Lumpur, where meets were usually held. Naturally, I ended up representing my school at a few competitions when I was in my teens as well. The strategies employed by top Scrabble players have always fascinated me, and when you combine that with my love of wordplay, Agatha Christie mysteries and teen angst, well, that’s how Queen of the Tiles was born.

The Scrabble competition in Queen of the Tiles is suspenseful and incredibly detailed. How did you research that aspect of the book? What did you learn that surprised you?

I watched many hours of Scrabble competitions, documentaries and interviews, read as much and as widely as I could on strategy and gameplay, and mapped out moves on a Scrabble board that I kept by my desk throughout the entire process. 

I am now a repository of absolutely fascinating and utterly useless Scrabble trivia. For instance, the highest scoring Scrabble word ever was played by Karl Khoshnaw in 1982: caziques, for 392 points. But Dan Stock from Ohio worked out that, in theory, the highest scoring Scrabble word possible is oxyphenbutazone, which, if the stars somehow align and all conditions on the board are just as they need to be, can get you a ridiculous 1,778 points. Yes, I am very fun at parties.

“Mysteries work best when readers can play along.”

At the beginning of each chapter, you feature a word with its definition and Scrabble point value. Did you already have words in mind for this when you began writing?

I kept a Google Doc called WORD LIST, and every time I came across a word and definition that I thought I could work into the plot—whether for the words at the beginning of each chapter, tournament scenes or Najwa’s own internal monologues—I’d note it down. 

Sometimes I needed something specific, like, “Oh, for this chapter, I need an obscure word that means ‘enemy.’” I’d open Thesaurus.com, plug the word in and find the most obscure but still relevant synonym. Then I’d cross-check it with an online Scrabble word checker to make sure it was valid and read what the official definition and point value would be. 

Najwa’s internal dialogue was harder to work through. She floats from word to word depending on the definition or how that word is tied to her memories or her analysis of other people. It’s a tricky thing to pull off, and every time I did it felt like a tiny miracle.

One of my favorite such moments happens early on in the book. Najwa’s thought process takes her from the word arenite (a sedimentary clastic rock) to clastic (composed of fragments) to fragment (to break into pieces), and that’s how she feels right in that moment: like she’s falling apart. 

The tournament aspect of the novel is thrilling on its own, but Queen of the Tiles also contains a murder mystery! Do you enjoy reading mysteries? What was challenging about plotting one yourself?

I grew up raiding my older sister’s collection of Agatha Christie novels and still go back to them as comfort reads—particularly the Poirot books. Yes, you read that right: I read murder mysteries for comfort. 

The most challenging part of it all was laying down the breadcrumbs. It’s easy to say this big reveal needs to happen in this chapter, or this plot twist goes here, but if you don’t show a logical path to get there, then you’re not really earning it. Mysteries work best when readers can play along; they’re most fun when you can go back and realize the clues were there waiting for you, and you just didn’t realize at the time that they were clues at all. 

“If [Najwa] feels real to readers, then I’m grateful, because the emotions were all too real to me.”

Najwa has developed an obsession with Trina’s Instagram account, and social media plays a vital role in the story. Why was it important to you to include this in the book? 

Trina was a social media star; she had a large following and we catch glimpses of how obsessed she was with maintaining a certain image for her public. But the more we get to know Trina, the more we see how much more depth and darkness lie behind the facade. 

And it isn’t just Trina. In all instances where we see social media use in Queen of the Tiles—and we see it a lot—there’s always the underlying question of what we present to the world versus who we really are. How much is being shown, and how much is being hidden? How do you evaluate what is real when you don’t know how much is being shared and how much has been withheld?

In her grief after Trina’s death, Najwa experiences memory issues, intrusive thoughts and more. Your portrait of Najwa is so real and raw. What was it like for you to craft this moving depiction of loss and healing?

I did some research on therapy and coping mechanisms for loss, grief and PTSD, but to be honest, writing Najwa was difficult not because I couldn’t understand what she was feeling, but because I understood it too well. I mined my own memories and emotions and buried shards of my own remembered grief in Najwa; if she feels real to readers, then I’m grateful, because the emotions were all too real to me.

I loved how often Najwa refers to her therapist when she talks about what she’s been going through. Why was it important to you to include therapy as part of Najwa’s experiences and to depict her openly relying on its lessons?

In Malaysia, we’re still working on destigmatizing mental illness and therapy. I really wanted to show a Malay Muslim teen struggling with her mental health and the ways in which she reaches out, gets help, develops coping mechanisms and puts those tools in practice—all things that I think we need to work on normalizing.

Read our starred review of Hanna Alkaf’s ’Queen of the Tiles.’

You recently tweeted, “I cannot tell you what it means to me to see a hijabi on the cover of a book that has absolutely nothing to do with Muslim pain or oppression. A book where she just gets to play Scrabble and solve a mystery and be a teenage girl.” That’s such a powerful statement. What do you hope Najwa and her story might mean for teen readers?

All too often, Muslims and hijabis have to perform our pain in order for our stories to be taken seriously. And those stories are important and necessary. But they’re not all we are. The Muslim experience is varied and colorful; we contain multitudes. We should have stories that showcase all of that! Our pain and our joy and our fears and our loves and our friendships—the sum of our lives and not just one aspect of it.

What do you think draws us to word games like Scrabble, crossword puzzles or, recently, Wordle and makes us want to play them time and again?

I can only really speak for myself, but in my case, I am endlessly fascinated by language and the way that the smallest changes in letters, word choice, tone, inflection or emphasis can entirely change the message we’re trying to get across. My dedication in this book reads simply, “This one’s for the word nerds.” I might as well have said, “This one is for me.”


Author photo of Hanna Alkaf courtesy of Azalia Suhaimi.

Hanna Alkaf’s new YA novel is a murder mystery set in the cutthroat world of competitive Scrabble.
Author photo of Hanna Alkaf

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