Maximum Shelf author interview: Shawna Kay Rodenberg

Following Friday’s review of Kin, here’s Shawna Kay Rodenberg: The Timing of Revelations.


Shawna Kay Rodenberg is originally from Seco, a tiny former coal camp near the headwaters of the Kentucky River in Letcher County, Kentucky. She is a mother, grandmother, community college English instructor and a registered nurse. Her poetry, essays and reviews have appeared in Consequence, Salon, the Village Voice, the Bennington Review, the Crab Creek Review, Kudz and Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel; she won a 2017 Rona Jaffe Writers’ Award in creative nonfiction. Rodenberg is also a vocalist; she and her husband, David, are collaborating on an album, a mix of original Americana, vintage country and traditional mountain songs. Her memoir, Kin, will be published by Bloomsbury on June 8.

Your story moves freely backward and forward in time. Why this format?

Shawna Kay Rodenberg

(photo: Joshua Lucca)

Kin was born, at least in part, from an obsession with the past, which is not to say I romanticize it, at least not anymore, but I definitely used to. My little niece, Norah, once walked into my house, looked around, and exclaimed, “I just love the way your house is full of past things!”–the best compliment I can imagine. I think maybe my love for past things has something to do with an early realization that they extend infinitely just as the future does, just in a less explored, and often darker, direction. I love uncovering family members who have died as much as I enjoy imagining future generations. No matter how much I research my family’s history, I can never get to the bottom of all the mysteries that inevitably crop up, begging to be solved, and I love a good mystery. I think I grew up, thanks to the elderly folks in my life, knowing there was a treasure trove of information to be found there, and that it was disappearing, or at least access to it was becoming more limited with each passing year. Families change, or at least the stories they tell about themselves do. Places change, too. Schoolhouses and family homes crumble and return to the earth, especially in places where money for maintenance is scarce.

As a very little girl, I began “saving” things–relics, photos, family recipes, perfume bottles, letters–and I never stopped. Ultimately, in writing Kin I came to understand that my story began long before I was born, and that telling it well would be an effort of preservation, of saving. What’s more, it seems to me that often when people write about Appalachia, they usually begin in the middle of our collective story–they analyze our responses to difficult experiences, without addressing the historical moments that led us to the places, both physical and spiritual, that we inhabit. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns against this in her TED Talk, “The Single Story,” and references the Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti, who said that “if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with, ‘secondly.’ Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story.” So often when people write about Appalachia, they begin with opiate addiction, for example, rather than the marked efforts of pharmaceutical companies to ship more narcotics into the region than can safely be used by the population that lives there. Or they talk about poverty without discussing the decimation of the region by underregulated mining practices and extractive American theologies. Or they talk about violence without talking about our history of conflict, conscription and PTSD. More than anything, Kin was an attempt to get as close to the beginning of my story as I could.

You’ve closed the story of your life before it quite catches up with the present. How do you choose the memoir’s scope?

I wrote the first 20 years for a couple reasons. First, because it seemed like a natural stopping point, since I was 20 when I married and left the mountains. But, more than that, I admit I often wish women would write longer, lavish, indulgent memoirs like their male counterparts, like Knausgaard, for example, do. I’ve been told that women tend to write shorter books and poems. Maybe this is solely pragmatic, because we are often busy, but I also think we tend to be more self-conscious about taking up space and wasting a reader’s time. I tried to give myself permission to slow down and tell an indulgent, sprawling story. The next book, which I am already thinking toward, will likely follow the next 20 or so years.

How do you navigate the emotional challenges of writing about difficult memories?

I think I struggled most with this aspect of writing Kin, and I relied heavily on many creature comforts and rituals (British mysteries, too many dessert coffees, miles-long walks in the woods) to carry me through the five-plus years it took to plumb the first years of my story. Even harder to manage than my own discomfort was my worry about the overlapping of my story with the stories of many beloved family members I knew might not appreciate me running my mouth. Privacy is important anywhere but particularly in small communities where there is no anonymity, nowhere to hide. In Evansville, Indiana, where I now live, I can go to the grocery without seeing a single person I know, but this isn’t true in the mountains. Even now, a couple decades since I’ve lived there, when I walk into the IGA in Fleming-Neon, people recognize me and call me by name, sometimes even by nicknames, and their conversations with me often include my parents and extended family members. I have worried myself to death about the responsibility of this, of telling the truth without becoming just another extractive, exploitative entity, especially since I no longer live there. Still, my story is my story, and I believe the entire world would benefit from more women, especially underrepresented rural women, telling the truth about our lives. It feels like navigating uncharted territory, though, and requires more courage than I thought I had.

You are also a poet. What does poetry bring to memoir, or vice versa?

I think it makes sound, the rhythm of a line, the timbre of language, paramount. I read this entire manuscript aloud many times, and not just for purposes of proofreading. I come from people who spin elaborate yarns whenever they get together, and it’s such an art, the telling, the timing of revelations, the tone of voice. Poetry is also by its very nature, because of the brevity of the form, about what isn’t being said, about the words that have been cut away, which tell their own story in tandem with the one that is actually being told. I think readers are smart enough to recognize this even if it’s happening on a subconscious level, that the story they’re being told is a fragment floating over unfathomable depths, and that those depths are part of the story as well.

Your acknowledgements express hope for more memoirs from rural-born women, with their “gorgeous, complicated voices.” What would you say to women in Appalachia and beyond about telling their stories?

That it’s the most important thing we can do, and that it’s worth every moment of doubt. When you’re a writer, the world becomes your family, and it desperately needs your voice.


This interview originally ran on February 17, 2021 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun.

author interview: Katherine Seligman

Following my review of At the Edge of the Haight, here’s Katherine Seligman: Strayed Lives.


Katherine Seligman has been a staff writer at the San Francisco Chronicle Magazine and a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner and USA Today. Her stories have appeared in Redbook, Life, Time, Al Jazeera America and the anthology Fresh Takes. She is a member of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto and loves working in clay. Her debut novel, At the Edge of the Haight, is the 10th winner of the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.

What event or person inspired this story?

photo by Penni Gladstone

One night my husband and I were driving home through Golden Gate Park and this man threw himself in front of our car, saying, “Help, don’t leave me.” We stopped and called the police. He was pointing, and they shone the light over there, and there was a body on the ground. My husband, who’s been an ER doctor, ran over to see if there was anything he could do, and what he saw was this kid gasping for his last breath. They arrested the man who’d stopped us, and nothing ever happened to him. Because there were two witnesses, and one was dead. I tried to find out what had happened, asking questions of people who had been living in the park, and I just wasn’t getting anywhere. One of the cops said to me, “We have no idea what happened, but neither of these guys was up to any good.” And I just started thinking about this kid who died, and what his life had been like. That was what started it off. I had always talked to people on the streets who were traveling through or living here, but I started doing it with a new purpose, and I just started writing.

How are journalism and novel-writing alike and different?

I started out writing fiction in college and a year or two after college, and then went into journalism because I really didn’t have any idea what I wanted to write about. I felt like I was manufacturing things. I continued as a journalist, but never gave up the idea of writing fiction. I wrote two novels before this that are still drafts, and when I got to this one, I felt like I had learned more. It just carried me through the process. I think the natural curiosity and the rhythm of having deadlines and sitting down and knowing that you have to write helped me. I did have a great desire to do it, and some background, but there are some land mines for journalists who write fiction. I can see them in my work, and in other works. You can enter into research rapture, and think everything is so interesting, when it’s not important.

What makes a good protagonist?

Someone who inhabits a world so completely that we believe it. It doesn’t always have to be somebody that you really like or trust, as we know–there are so many books where we completely doubt or dislike the protagonist. But there has to be some element of belief in what this character is doing, and the character has to be revealed in some way. There has to be something that is driving them, often some big discovery, something the reader learns about the protagonist.

What happens inside Maddy is often as important as what happens outside. Why?

I played with writing from a close third person, and from two and then three points of view, but I came around to the first person, inside her head, because I really wanted to show how someone could get into a situation like this. That someone you see on the street often isn’t so different from your own child, or your sister. I know people say that, but I actually believe that that’s true. I really wanted a first-person voice that felt like she was learning while she was going. She didn’t know everything. That’s someone who we could look at and find some level of understanding of what she was going through, because there are a lot of things about herself that she doesn’t know. She’s so hurt. She’s somebody who really wants to hide, which I think is a fairly common human trait. I think there are a lot of people who go through life with so many secrets, trying to hide.

Did you do research specifically for this novel?

I did a number of stories over the years on various homeless issues, and a couple about what was going on in my own neighborhood, raising children, and why we stayed in the Haight.

I went to the hospital and sat and watched people come in. I spent a lot of time in the courts. I went and watched the disposition of cases of homeless people who’d been arrested and listened to how they were treated. The police were very generous, talking to me from their perspective. I did additional research, but in a different way than I did as a journalist, more talking and absorbing. There were a couple of kids who were very generous in spending time with me, answering questions about what it felt like to be awakened at 4 and 5 in the morning when they were sleeping in the park. A lot of the things that happened in the book, not the specific plot but some of the details, are things that actually happened. This neighborhood is so full of color and life. You just never know when you’ll find somebody walking a chicken on a leash down the street. There was actually a young woman many years ago who had a rat that she kept in her sleeve, and she taught it–she’d give it a juice box and it would drink through the straw. She told me what went into training this rat, and it was great.

What message do you hope readers take away from this story?

I hope that people will realize that someone who you walk by has a very full life story, just as you do. I don’t mean it in any finger-shaking kind of way, but I believe that our lives are richer when we open our eyes to what’s around us. It doesn’t matter where you live. And I realize that some people feel threatened, and there are really complicated things going on out there on the street. We have to have basic respect for people who are living on our streets, and they have to have respect for the neighborhood. I hope people will open their eyes and realize there’s a person out there who might have a lot in common with you and your family. Just be open to that. And there are many people with drug and alcohol problems who can be violent, but for the most part they’re people whose lives have strayed from what we consider typical, and who find themselves on the street. In my neighborhood often there are travelers and seekers who are following something that they think is going to be magical.

I didn’t set out to write about homelessness per se; it was just this idea that you walk by people every day and you have no idea who they are, what they’re hiding, what their lives are like. I guess that’s what interests most novelists. I can just look across the street in somebody’s window and think, huh. What’s going on over there? And I think we all have that element of make-believe.


This review originally ran in the January 19, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Erin French

Following Monday’s review of Finding Freedom, here’s Erin French: Thinking of Each Chapter as a Dish.


Erin French is the owner and chef of The Lost Kitchen, a 40-seat restaurant in Freedom, Maine, that was named one of Time magazine’s World’s Greatest Places and one of “12 Restaurants Worth Traveling Across the World to Experience” by Bloomberg. Born and raised in Maine, French loves sharing her home region and its delicious heritage. French’s The Lost Kitchen Cookbook was nominated for a James Beard Foundation Award. Her memoir, Finding Freedom: A Cook’s Story; Remaking a Life from Scratch, will be published by Celadon in April 2021.

photo: Erin Little

How are the creative pursuits of cooking and writing similar, and different?

There were many times when writing this book that I told myself to bring it back to what I know. When I create a dish, I always take myself there in my mind, to taste it, to smell it, to think about every detail and how the dish makes me feel before I even make it, and long before I write it into a menu. I took my moments in the kitchen and used them to help me shape this book. I took time to think and go deep in my mind to taste all the details before I wrote them down on the page. Sometimes, to keep myself from getting overwhelmed, I tried to think of each chapter as a dish, that would eventually make up an entire menu. Bit by bit, ingredient by ingredient. The big difference? No dishes to wash!

When and how did you know you needed to write this book?

One of my editors once told me, “Your next book is always the one you feel burning inside of you.” Although I think my agent was baffled when I told her that I wasn’t pitching her another cookbook! I started to feel this one burning inside of me and knew I had to tell it. I knew I needed to reprocess my story to avoid burying it and to understand how it shaped my life. I also knew that in so many moments of my darkness I felt so utterly alone, and I hoped that if I shared this story maybe it would help others who experience their own moments of hell see the hope for getting through it and the beauty that can prevail.

Was it cathartic?

It was challenging going back to these dark days in such depth, but it empowered me that much more to live through them a second time. There were some unsettled moments that I finally put to rest through writing this book. It was the best therapy session with myself I’ve ever had.

You’ve shared so much of yourself in these pages. Do you hold anything back? How do you navigate the sharing of personal detail and trauma?

I poured it all out in the pages of this book. How do you tell your story of struggles to triumph without sharing the most vulnerable, darkest details of your days? I made one rule for myself while writing this: if it’s not my story, it’s not mine to tell. There are people in my life who have hurt me, and through it I recognized things they had been through in their own lives, reasons that shaped them into the person they became and maybe made them behave the way they did. But that’s their story to tell, not mine.

What are you cooking this week?

While the restaurant is closed, I’m cooking lots at home. Our freezer is stocked for winter and my dry goods pantry is ready for a winter at home. This week’s favorites were curried lentil soup while sitting in front of the fire; lamb chops marinated with rosemary and garlic; roasted squash with apples and maple syrup; and a classic apple crisp with a big scoop of vanilla ice cream!

What are you working on next?

Covid has me multitasking like a crazy woman right now. Adapting to our new world and trying to keep the restaurant alive keeps me moving. I’m neck deep in a construction project, building out individual private dining cabins in the woods here at the mill in Freedom, and simultaneously renovating my Airstream, which will serve as the mobile kitchen to serve the cabins. I’m also building out our first ever online makers market, which we are filling with beautiful Maine-made goods for the holidays. Oh! And planning for next season’s series of outdoor dinners we will be holding.


This interview originally ran on November 30, 2020 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Anna North

Following Monday’s review of Outlawed, here’s Anna North: Choices People Make.


Anna North is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and author of two previous novels, American Pacifica and The Life and Death of Sophie Stark. She’s served as writer and editor at Jezebel, Buzzfeed, Salon and the New York Times and is now a senior reporter at Vox. She lives in Brooklyn. North’s third novel, Outlawed, will be published by Bloomsbury on January 26, 2021.

How much research do your books require?

photo: Jenny Zhang

My first book is a dystopia, so I mostly made a lot of stuff up. For Sophie Stark, I did a fair amount of research about directing and female directors and how people put movies together. For this one, I went to Wyoming for a week, to the Willow Creek Ranch at Hole in the Wall, a working ranch on the site where the real gang lived. We drove through the valley and out to Hole in the Wall, and I took a bunch of photos. There’s a little western history museum in Casey, Wyo., [the nearest town] that had a lot of funny stuff, like little mannequins dressed up in period costumes. There’s a Fiddleback Ranch in the book, which is inspired by the Fiddleback cattle brand.

I researched the history of the real Hole in the Wall Gang, real “outlaws” (a funny and loaded term) and the history of what is now called the American West, but obviously had not been that for millennia before Europeans came there. I read up on the Arapahoe people living in Wyoming, and other Indigenous nations in the area, on Black cowboys and Black Americans in what is now the American West and on the history of the Americas in the 19th century.

A book called Lieutenant Nun informed my thinking on Outlawed. It’s a memoir by a person who lived as a man, had a lot of adventures and fights and appeared to seduce women–sort of a swashbuckling adventure story–and then, at the end, is revealed to have been assigned female at birth, and enters a convent and becomes a nun. It’s from the 15th century. I love this book. It’s a window into the forever-long history of gender. For cis-normative American culture, there’s this idea that gender has been very fixed and it’s just now becoming fluid, but that’s just not true.

Why reproduction as the central issue?

When I had the germ of this idea, I was with a friend, visiting a Shaker dwelling. Part of their religion was not having children. I was interested in writing about a separatist group that would live off in the woods together. The story morphed and changed a lot. When I focused on Ada, I thought of making her mother a midwife. I know a fair number of midwives; it was just in my mind. Early bits of the book went through a bunch of drafts as I was trying to figure out, what’s the alternative history element? What’s the focus of this society? This group is set off from society; what’s set them off? What is that group like, what are its rules, its norms? The idea of a society that’s obsessed with reproduction and that ostracizes women who are barren came late in the process. There were a bunch of planets orbiting around that needed a unifying theme: reproducing, not reproducing, different kinds of families, different kinds of groups, different kinds of isolation and togetherness. Ultimately the framework that worked for that was an alternate history. I didn’t want this to be a one-to-one stand-in for America today. I wanted to think about the choices that people make, how they are constrained, what our society might look like if things were different.

Is this a feminist narrative that found its shape as a western, or a western that became a feminist tale?

Sort of both. The story only took off for me when I realized it was a western. I was thinking about the Shakers, writing about this group of people who live together, separate in this particular way, and I had them in New Hampshire, which is where I visited the Shaker dwelling. I’ve lived in New York for 10 years now, but I’d grown up in California, and I’m just not as good at writing about the East Coast as I am at writing about the West. As soon as I thought, I’m going to put these characters with some red rocks, it felt better.

I was reading Lieutenant Nun at the time. She didn’t live in North America–she was traveling around Central America, I believe–but it’s a colonial story of this “frontier” (obviously a loaded term). I was also reading a lot of Krazy Kat, set I think in Arizona–there’s a lot of red rocks, and sheriffs. It’s also gender-bending. It plays with sexuality, and you’re not sure what gender Krazy Kat is–he switches pronouns a lot; there’s a great essay in the New Yorker about this. Same-sex attractions are talked about fairly openly. I started thinking about the West as a space of, sometimes, freedom around gender and sexuality. The western states were some of the first states to give women, mostly white women, the right to vote. This could be a space of freedom–and obviously it’s also a space of colonization and genocide and unfreedom. There were interesting interplays there. But I guess the short answer is it just only became a book when it became a western. Then things started to fall into place.

What makes a captivating protagonist?

I’ve always been interested in heroes. Traditionally, the hero is a male concept. The Odyssey, the Iliad: the heroes are male. I’m interested in recasting that as a female hero. I don’t know if Ada is exactly a hero–in some ways the Kid is more the hero of the book. It’s complicated, whether the Kid is likable or unlikable, heroic or unheroic. And maybe in a way I want the Kid to be both. Throughout my writing, I try to put someone in difficult circumstances and watch them rise to that occasion. That’s a kind of heroism, I think.

We learn and grow with Ada–she’s so curious.

I wanted to get across her inquisitiveness and desire for knowledge. I wanted to think in the book about knowledge and science as these double-edged swords. Ada puts a lot of stock in knowledge and in science, like this is what’s going to convince people to not stigmatize other people, and obviously it doesn’t always. I wanted to talk about instances where science has been used to really horrible ends. I wanted to explore that tension with her. But I sympathize with her. I also like to read books and learn things, so that was fun for me.

Is there anything new you’re working on?

The pandemic has changed what I’m interested in working on next. In some ways it’s made me crave speculative fiction more again, because I don’t know what realism or reality is going to look like day to day. If I want to work on a long-term project, it has to be one that’s not grounded in this reality, because I literally don’t know what this reality is. We’ll see–it’s going to depend on what things look like when I can get back to my desk.


This interview originally ran on September 16, 2020 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun.

author interview: Isabel Wilkerson

Following my review of Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, here’s Isabel Wilkerson: A Portal to Understanding.


Isabel Wilkerson won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing in 1994 for her work as Chicago bureau chief for the New York Times, and was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2016. Her first book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction, among many other awards. She has taught at Princeton, Emory and Boston Universities and has lectured widely. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents was published by Random House on August 11.

You very naturally and quickly inserted material related to the pandemic in this book. How do you handle that kind of lightness on your toes?

photo: Joe Henson

This book is so far-ranging: three continents, three cultures, the manifestations of the artificial hierarchies that caused so much tragedy in all three. The breadth and the scope of the research was just overwhelming. To build this story meant going into so many different aspects of life, to show how it affects all of us to one degree or another as we find ourselves entrapped in a caste system that we did not ask to be in. I was constantly adding, down to the wire. And then Covid-19 became an ever-present reality in the lives of Americans, and I had to figure out where it could go. It’s been an extraordinary experience, just from a publishing standpoint, to have everyone working on this book spread out all over, trying to put together something this complicated, in addition to all the other projects that anyone who was working on this book was doing. It’s a miracle. That it could come together at all is a testament to what can happen when people are dedicated and committed.

What’s interesting is that it was already in there, because the book opens with a pathogen, and that was just a prescient–almost a premonition. There’s something about how the mind works and intuition acts. A thesis of the book is that caste is so ever-present, an invisible powerful force in society and in all of our lives, that anything that happens somehow has a connection to caste.

This book involves such rich use of metaphor, in a serious piece of heavily researched nonfiction.

I think in metaphor. I’m primarily a narrative writer; narrative nonfiction is where I’m happiest, is the natural expression of my ideas. I find that I’m most at home in telling a story, and a metaphor is a story. It’s making that connection, it’s a way of reaching a reader through the most natural means that I know. I don’t know of any other way.

American caste is both a novel concept and an instantly recognizable one. How does this book tread new ground?

The Warmth of Other Suns is the story of six million African Americans fleeing the Jim Crow South for the north and west over the course of much of the 20th century. Some would describe that as the story of a response to what many people would call racism. However, that word does not appear in Warmth, not in the text. It might be in the title of an article that I refer to–that book has 100 pages of notes–but that’s not a term I use, because I don’t think that it’s sufficient to describe the phenomenon that undergirds interactions and structures of power in the United States. That doesn’t mean racism does not exist, but I did not feel that it was the most applicable or accurate way to describe what people were fleeing, or what they met in the places that they fled to.

This book is a continuation of the perspective I took with Warmth. I think that using the word caste requires us as Americans to think differently. It automatically expands our sense of what we think we know. It’s an uncommon word to apply to ourselves, so it gets you thinking in a way that words we’re accustomed to using can blur. Because it’s not a word that we’re accustomed to using, it’s not judgmental, doesn’t feel as if it’s an accusation, doesn’t automatically incite shame or blame or guilt. Not only is it accurate, but it is a portal to understanding. That’s how I connect with the word as a writer.

Historically speaking, caste has on occasion been applied to the United States. Charles Sumner had used the word; Martin Luther King had used the word. Where people have looked deeply at the structures that we have inherited throughout American history, they have often come back to this word. But there’s been nothing that dives deeply into what that actually means. This was an attempt to do that, and to go to the original caste system that would come to mind most readily, which would be India, and that of the short-lived, terrifying Third Reich, and the interconnectedness of those two and that of our own country.

Then there are the pillars, which I came to as a result of going deeply into the topic: what had been written before; the Laws of Manu, which is the code for the Indian caste system; the Nuremburg Laws; and, of course, the aspect of all this that I knew best, the Jim Crow laws in our own country. I researched them ever more deeply in order to emerge with what I have described as the eight pillars of caste.

I read scores of books from multiple cultures. I collated and pulled together the histories and the ways of enforcing these caste systems into a more easily digestible rendering in one place.

At what point did you see the book take shape?

This has been simmering within me for a long time. Warmth was a precursor. It’s about the Great Migration, but it’s really about freedom and how far people are willing to go to achieve it, and the caste system that they were forced to flee. That’s one reason why Warmth has remained so constant a presence in all the ups and downs we’ve seen since it came out. There’s still been a hunger for it that defies the presumed topics, because the topic is so much bigger than the Migration itself.

I heard a side note on the news about anthrax emerging from the permafrost in Siberia in July of 2016. I didn’t know what I might do, but I knew it was something. That was the beginning of this book. Who knew that by the time I would complete it, we would be in a global pandemic that would shut down humanity in its tracks. I didn’t know at that moment I would write a book about caste, but that was the beginning of an understanding that this was big. The planet was in peril, humanity was in peril, and this was a seemingly small example that didn’t get a lot of attention at the time, but it spoke to me strongly. Every passing month, every passing year after that, it became more urgent. It was a progression toward this book.

First the pandemic, and then the responses to George Floyd’s murder, mark this book’s entry to the world. It feels very timely, but also timeless.

Whenever I write, I seek to be timeless, and focus on the history. We keep seeing the repeat of the history that we’re not paying attention to or don’t know well enough. These events are shocking, but not surprising if you know the country’s history. I go back to one of the many metaphors in the book, the old house: I’m essentially coming in as the inspector of the building and saying, these are the weak points that need attention. If you know your house, then you know what is wrong with it and you will seek to fix those things. If you don’t know, you can’t fix them. If you have no interest in knowing, you absolutely are not going to be able to fix those things.

Without transcending the artificial boundaries between us, without seeing the humanity in one another, we will continue to hurt each other. What we’ve seen recently has been brewing and simmering for 400 years. It rises and it falls, accelerates and slows, but it always comes back, because we’re not dealing with the essential structures that have created the system we live in. Until those systems are addressed, it will continue.


This review originally ran in the August 4, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

author interview: Natasha Trethewey

Following my review of Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir, here’s Natasha Trethewey: The Lens of That Burning Question.


Natasha Trethewey is a former two-term United States Poet Laureate and the author of five collections of poetry. She is currently the Board of Trustees Professor of English at Northwestern University. In 2007, she won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for her collection Native Guard. Memorial Drive is her second book of creative nonfiction.

Is this the book you thought you were writing when you began the project?

photo: Nancy Crampton

Not at all. When I first said that I needed to do it, it was after I had begun to get a lot of press about me as a writer, after the Pulitzer and after being named U.S. Poet Laureate. Because of that, there were many newspaper stories or profiles in which my mother was mentioned as sort of an afterthought, the backstory. She was basically summed up in a line as this victim to whom this terrible thing had happened, and it really bothered me. I decided that if that tragedy was going to be part of the backstory that was recorded again and again, then I wanted to be the person to write her story, so she would not be simply reduced to a murdered woman. What I wanted to do was to show how important she was, her life, my time with her, her death, and my becoming who I am and becoming a writer. I thought one of the ways to do that was to tell the story of who she was, and I imagined it as more like a sort of biography of her. I would have researched her the way I have researched historical figures I wrote about in poems.

It didn’t work out that way. Instead, I think probably the moment that I looked at Shakespeare’s Sonnet 3, those lines I used–“Thou art thy mother’s glass, and she in thee/ Calls back the lovely April of her prime”–I knew that I was the biography, in many ways. That what she was able to make in me was one of the best records of who she was, and how remarkable and resilient she was.

How did you choose this title? Not person, action, relationship, but place–with obvious allusion to memory/memorializing.

You hit the nail on the head. As a writer I think one of my enduring projects is the drive toward memory and memorialization, and contending with the contentions and overlaps between personal memory and cultural or historical memory, what gets recorded and what gets left out of the record. So I knew that that was my project, because that’s what I was trying to do in Native Guard, that’s what I was trying to do in Domestic Work, is record part of my community, where I grew up in Mississippi, that was disappearing. These old people were dying, and it took me a long time to make that connection, that my mother had literally died on Memorial Drive in the shadow of the largest monument to the Confederacy. And that symbolically had something to do with my drive to memory and memorialization, and insisting that things that often get left out and forgotten are remembered.

It must have been painful in some ways to reenter this trauma. Was it worth it?

Oh, yeah. I mean, it was really difficult, and even now I find that having to talk about her and the book in this way keeps the grief that usually is farther away right up on the surface. So I’m living with it differently now than I usually do. But one of the things that I will never forget is when I first met Dan Halpern, who is my editor, and he had read just a few paragraphs of a scene that I had written when I was proposing the book, and he said to me that he fell in love with her just from that. And I thought, if that’s what can happen then, yeah, it’s worth it. She’ll be remembered. She’ll be known by people. And at least they’ll know what she meant to me. That’s a way of knowing her, too.

When you write a book like this, or in general: Do you write with an audience in mind, or for yourself first?

That’s an interesting question that I hadn’t thought about as related to this book. I think I might answer differently if I were thinking about poetry. Or maybe not. Because I was writing in response to what I told you about at the beginning, the newspaper articles that just recorded her as victim or murdered woman, I really was always having an audience in mind. Someone that I had to say oh, no, no, no–this is who she was, too. But at the same time, I think I must have been writing to myself, because of the things that I learned in the process. I knew many different things by the time I got to the end than when I started. I began to understand more things that I had willfully erased, things that were driving me internally on a subconscious level but that I hadn’t allowed myself to think about consciously. And so in that way, I was revealing myself to myself. Which is of course why for me that other epigraph comes in: “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” I didn’t know where I was headed.

And maybe that’s the problem in the question, because how could you ever not be writing for yourself?

Right, but it’s a good question, because it makes you think about the not competing, but the multitude of motivations for writing a book project like this.

How different is the writing of prose versus poetry?

On the most basic level, the silly level, it has always been harder for me to write more. I’ve always been better at writing less. Give me an assignment in a class to write a seven-page paper–somehow I’m not going to be able to get to that. Poems are so much smaller and more compressed; that just seems my natural inclination. But I think that I write prose like that. I imagine there was so much more that could have been in this book and part of this story, but it sort of crystallizes around one or two threads. For me it felt like a very long extended poem that had to do some of the things that I want a poem to do, as it moves, as it turns to certain motifs, certain images, certain words.

Turning to poetry–does a book like Native Guard begin as a project, where there’s a book idea and then it is filled with poems? Or do you write poems and then realize you have a book?

I almost always begin with a problem, some historical question that I want to ask myself, I want to ask the nation. I want to examine and explore from many different angles. When I am focused on something like that, it’s as if I could look at anything and it will somehow be filtered through the lens of that burning question that I’ve been asking myself.

When my students are worried about what they’re going to write about or whether the poems that they’re writing will somehow hold together, I talk to them about their obsessions, the things that we can’t get away from, that have an impact on how we see the world and the things in it. If you trust that, that’s what will come through in your poems, and your poems will hang together more than simply because you’re the person that wrote them. You’re the vision behind them.

What are you working on next?

This book took a lot out of me, and so I’m in a place of trying to fill back up. There are things that I’m interested in, so I’m reading. It has a lot to do with my home state, and cross-mapping memory and memorialization, with Confederate monuments, sites of lynchings, which sort of engrave white supremacy on the landscape. I know that’s what I’m thinking about, so I know that I won’t be able to look at a tree without thinking about it.


This review originally ran in the July 28, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Paul Beatty

Following Monday’s review of Cuyahoga, here’s Paul Beatty: History-Adjacent.


Pete Beatty is a Cleveland-area native. He has taught writing at Kent State University and the University of Alabama, and has worked for the University of Chicago Press, Bloomsbury, Open Road Media, Belt Publishing and other places, including a driving range behind a Dairy Queen and a liquor store in Chicago. He currently works at the University of Alabama Press and lives with his wife in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Cuyahoga, to be published by Scribner in October, is his first novel.

To what extent is this novel based on the true history of Ohio City and Cleveland?

For a novel that prominently features magical powers, it does have a pretty firm root in history. There is an Ohio City. It’s a neighborhood in Cleveland, and it was an independent city that rivaled with Cleveland. There was a bridge built between the cities, and they got in a nonsensical fight over where to put it and how many bridges to build. I’ve read all the newspapers I could get my hands on from the 1830s, and it doesn’t seem like it made any more sense then than it does now. There remains a rivalry in Cleveland between the east and the west side. It has elements of ethnicity, race, class and just plain old-fashioned… the narcissism of small differences. We’re 99.9% the same people, but we’re not exactly the same, so we’re going to hate each other because we’re next to each other.

The actual bridge war was a brawl on the bridge in the fall of 1837. I think one person got knocked down, and a cow was killed by an errant gunshot, and then the sheriff showed up and busted the fight up.

I was a history major, and prior to writing this novel almost everything I’d written was nonfiction. I was thinking the other day whether it’s fair to describe my book as a historical novel; it’s almost more history-adjacent, because of the fantastic elements. But that’s not to say that it doesn’t have real elements of history in it. In this moment, in 1837, people in northeastern Ohio–what was then the frontier–were dealing with a shift in identity from being frontierspeople to townspeople. There was a national economic crisis, and the region had its own economic crisis of there not being any money. The plot element of the hero not being able to get money for the heroic feats that he does–I sort of sublimated the Panic of 1837 into speculative fiction.

How did your background in editing and publishing help you write this novel–if it did?

The original version of this novel had no punctuation of any kind. Literally zero. No periods, no quotation marks, no apostrophes, nothing. It was almost written in verse; the lineation was a lot more distinct. Part of the motor of the book is that it runs at this constant mumbly speed–it was written in such a way as to be unpunctuated. I don’t recommend this–don’t write an entire book without punctuation just to see what happens.

As I was writing it, the version with no punctuation, I imagined it with an indie publisher or a university press or something. It was weirder. It had a lot of sharper edges. My editor brain did kick back in and I made it more accessible. I didn’t take out any of the themes, it just became a little less gnarly. There was a lot more barf and historically appropriate insensitivity that was taken out when I wanted to get into PG-13 as opposed to R.

Who came to you first, Big or Meed?

I was sitting in the Phoenix Coffee Shop in 2015 when the voice of Meed talking about his brother came into my head. At first I thought it was just a short story. I have this other novel I’ve been playing with forever, but this book just kind of took over. Meed has a very insistent voice. I’m always a little wary of writers talking about how their characters showed them the way, but now I know why people say that. It’s not entirely made up. Sometimes you latch onto something and it just goes.

That coffee shop is in Ohio City on Bridge Avenue, and it eventually becomes that same bridge.

Who’s your favorite character in this story?

Dog. I mean, he’s completely irredeemable. In earlier drafts of the book he was much more of a villain. He had an animosity toward any kind of change, any kind of better future. That ended up getting grafted into Meed. I realized that I was drawn to writing the story of how the things that have a potential for being destructive or vindictive or evil can happen inside a character, with the right sort of framing. Initially Dog was this scary villain, and he became much more a sort of sad angry grandpa who’s blowing stuff up because he wants the world to stop.

Stop changing? Or just stop?

I think he wants it to stop changing, but he isn’t entirely honest with himself about whether he wants it to stop changing or just end completely. He reminds me a little of Falstaff from Shakespeare, and that surfaces pretty explicitly. He’s the friend of the young central figure who’s set in his ways, and very charming, and whispering ideas in the ear of Meed that almost make sense, even though they’re not good ideas.

Meed’s voice is such a fascinating hodgepodge. How did you create and keep track of such a guy?

Even now I don’t know that I necessarily completely nailed the consistency of the character. And in a kind of backward way that makes me think I did succeed, because he feels human. He feels like somebody with a bundle of contradictions, who has a complicated relationship with his sibling, and I think we all have complicated relationships with our siblings. If we don’t have them, those complicated relationships bubble up inside us, with our parents or our friends. He obviously is familiar with scripture, with Shakespeare, with the Greek classics, the Iliad, the Odyssey–but his familiarity is almost naïve. It’s in his language and it’s part of his voice, and he doesn’t necessarily know his own resonances. But he can criticize himself: “I’m being really lazy comparing my brother to Jesus, or talking about Judas Escariot when I feel guilty.”

Meed’s voice, more than anything else I’ve ever written, was the product of equal parts inspiration and deliberate craft. I would be stuck for a while and then he’d just start talking. I’d be at the computer, like poking garbage with a stick, and then the Meed voice would tune in. It felt like a broadcast from my id or something. I listened to Johnny Cash reading the New Testament on audiobook, to get those cadences. I was single at the time, and my way of falling asleep was just to leave my phone with that audiobook playing in bed. I’d be listening to the Bible in the dark, and I’d fall asleep, and depending on whether I’d set the timer, I’d wake up and Johnny Cash would just be talking. So, somebody with a relatively thick Arkansas accent reading the Bible–that was sort of the metronome for the voice.


This interview originally ran on May 13, 2020 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun.

author interview: Paul Lisicky

Following my review of Later: My Life at the Edge of the World, here’s Paul Lisicky: Turning Up the Volume on the Everyday.


Paul Lisicky‘s work has appeared in the Atlantic, Conjunctions, the New York Times, Ploughshares, Tin House and many other publications. He was a 2016 Guggenheim Fellow, and has received awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the James Michener/Copernicus Society and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Mass., where he has served on the Writing Committee since 2000. He is the author of Lawnboy, Famous Builder, The Burning House, Unbuilt Projects, The Narrow Door: A Memoir of Friendship and Later: My Life at the Edge of the World, available now from Graywolf Press. Lisicky teaches in the MFA program at Rutgers University and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

How do you write a memoir about events nearly 30 years ago?

photo: Beowulf Sheehan

In many ways I’ve been writing this story over and over. At the center of my first two books is the prospect of AIDS and HIV. My third book is about characters who are dealing with an unnamed illness, the fourth is about dementia, and the fifth has cancer at the center of it. I think this material has been a part of my imagination for my entire adult life, and there came a point where it seemed crucial to get it to the page. I don’t think that those early years in Provincetown ever felt very far away to me. My friend Polly and I continue to talk about those events with regularity. Honestly, I think those days are firmer and more precise in my imagination than any other time before or since. If you asked me to write about Provincetown from 1996 onward, after protease inhibitors changed the landscape of AIDS for people who could afford them, my memories would be far more diffuse. But there was something about that window of time between 1991 and 1994 that continues to be sharp and bright and italicized to me. It’s so fascinating how memory works, and how much more is stored and alive in the imagination than you know.

How do you navigate writing about the lives of other people?

I don’t write about anyone who I don’t love very deeply, even though it might not always look like it. I’m drawn to people who are super vivid and complicated. I think it’s a sentence-by-sentence matter. If I’m aware of saying something that feels like it has more power over the subject than I should have, then I stop and process and think. There isn’t a simple answer, because largely it’s about paying attention to my intuition. It also involves showing the work to the people who appear in the pages. At least three of the people who appear in the book have seen the book and have vetted and approved everything I’ve written. It’s important to tell people, Look, I really love you. Some of the material here might be difficult, it might feel like it invades your privacy or puts down observations you don’t want to hear, but we can talk about that. It’s a matter of conversation first.

Is there a trick to writing beautifully about sad subject matter?

It’s not even something I think about. I could not write this book without folding in the landscape of Provincetown. Not just the topographical landscape, but the people on the streets, their interest in clothing, display, performance–all of that feels like it’s a part of this story. I think when one is writing about illness one is also writing about life. Life at the precipice can be super intense: it turns up the volume on the everyday. And that might be experienced as beauty by the reader, but as I’m writing I’m not terribly conscious of that quality.

It’s a book about surviving day to day, and how people take care of each other and check in on one another. And joy did not at all feel slight in those times. Joy was an aspect of participation, and those people in that community felt the need to draw life and joy and community out of one another. I think that’s one of the reasons why I felt compelled to write the book, because community and belonging got people through those times.

The book has a life of its own. I want to write something that feels more acute, more conscious than my usual everyday thinking mind. I’m trying to write something that teaches me as I write it.

How is writing your sixth book different from writing your first or second?

The first or second felt so tentative. I had no structural confidence. I didn’t know how to think about my work outside of the landscape of the individual sentences. And I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, but over the years I’ve developed some chops in terms of how to think about how one scene may dialogue with the scene after it. I’m aware of building a conversation from passage to passage over the book, developing a passage around an image or metaphor that might speak to one that follows. I feel I have much more structural confidence and much more awareness of the book, any book, as a whole. I’m as excited about the macro elements of putting a book together as I am the sentences.

I learned a lot from The Narrow Door, which couldn’t follow a linear structure. When I tried to write that book in a linear fashion, it simply didn’t work. It wasn’t able to hold the simultaneous stories that that fed one another in my imagination. I had to write that in a way that was faithful to how my mind moved. That was tremendously freeing and an educational experience. It was teaching me how it needed to be written.

Is this a timely book?

I hope it is. I’m still taken with the idea of community at the center of this book. I don’t feel like I’m in a world where community takes care of me the way it took care of me then. It was a world that instantly felt welcoming, and not too much. In a world before social media, faces and gestures and simple kindnesses did a lot to sustain life. Life has not been that way for me since, and I suspect it isn’t that way for most of us. Most of our casual interactions happen through social media, the world of online. I wanted to write a book that thought about what we don’t have right now. And that’s not in any way to idealize the world at the center of Later, because that’s a world that was under siege day by day–it would be wrong to sentimentalize that period and think about it with nostalgia, because those were rough, rough times. But they were also times of deep tenderness and affection and looking out for one another. I needed to examine that world and bring it to the page, and offer readers another possibility of living. What don’t we have in our lives right now, and what could we have if we were lucky enough to organize them around a participatory life?

What’s next?

I’m working on a book about my father, or fathers in general. He’s a vivid and complicated character–you got to see a little about him in Later–kind of scary and loving and completely unpredictable. Still thought of himself as young when he was 90 years old. He became more open, gentler, as he grew older, but not in a Pollyanna-ish way. A lot of life in that human. For a while that book was braided with Later but I realized that it needed a separate life. So I have a lot of material: it goes back to the structural question. I don’t right now know how to shape it. It needs some boundaries to give it some cohesiveness. I have some ideas about it, but I’m excited about the fact that I still don’t know, that I haven’t found its glue. I have a kind of faith that I might not have had with earlier books. Once I find out the answer to this simple question, it’s all just going to fall into place.


This review originally ran in the April 14, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


In case it’s not clear, this interview took place “before COVID,” and I think Paul’s answer to the question of timeliness, about community, offers an interesting glimpse into the near past, across this great new divide. I said just the other day that Paul’s perspectives have aged well in ways that not all writing has. In mere weeks, some of our writings and perspectives have come to sound silly, near-sighted, insipid, frivolous. I think Paul Lisicky’s wisdom holds fast in what Paul Kingsnorth calls the Great Strangeness.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Kawai Strong Washburn

Following Friday’s review of Sharks in the Time of Saviors, here’s Kawai Strong Washburn: That Isn’t the Way the World Works.


Kawai Strong Washburn was born and raised on the Hamakua coast of Hawai’i. His short fiction has appeared in McSweeney’s, Electric Literature and The Best American Nonrequired Reading, among others. He has received scholarships from the Tin House and Bread Loaf writers’ workshops and has worked in software and as a climate policy advocate. He lives in Minnesota with his wife and daughters. Sharks in the Time of Saviors (MCD/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, March 3, 2020) is his first novel.

How does a story with multiple protagonists come to be?

photo: Crystal Liepa

I think a lot of writers gravitate toward what they love, and I love books in which you get to think into multiple consciousnesses. You get to expand your initial impressions. And it’s possible to do this with a third-person perspective, but it can feel less rich, or it can move me less that way.

I knew early on that it was going to be about a family, and I really wanted to dive into each person and challenge myself to create characters that would have perspectives that were nothing like mine. With all the different family dynamics involved, pushed in different directions, each has their own blind spots and their desires and their failures. It was a challenge, but one I wanted to try, because I felt it made for a richer experience as a reader, and so I wanted that as a writer as well.

How do you handle the storytelling challenge of shifting points of view?

For me it is very hard, partly because none of them are based on me. I read a section a few years ago, that was excerpted in Electric Literature, in which Dean hits his mother. Somebody came up to me after I read that and said, oh, you’re so brave to write about having hit your mother! And I said, this is not my life! None of these characters are me, or my family. They’re not based on anyone I know. With Dean, the challenge was to write a character who would have tried to beat me up in high school. If I encountered him in most walks of life, he would feel like an antagonist. Is there a way that I can write this character and understand what makes him tick with a sense of empathy but without letting him off the hook for his faults? Create this whole character who has problems and stupidities and issues with anger management, but in a way that challenges me to think about how he might justify his feelings to himself.

I love language. I really love it when writers take risks with language and render a new way of speaking and thinking that I haven’t experienced before. It takes me to a new place. I wanted to do that with the characters as well, and so in addition to creating these different psyches, I then had to create a different language for each, so that they each felt like a different consciousness. There were so many revisions to get sentences right. Given a thought that might be the same for Kaui and Dean, how would that feeling play itself out in different sentences? What would their voices feel like in their head? It was a ton of work. It was awful. I would never do it again. If I’d known at the time what a challenge I was setting for myself, I probably would have been like, no. But once I was in there, that was the work that was before me.

So this is not autobiographical.

I share very little with the characters. All the locations where all the scenes happen are places I have been. I could draw on my own experiences in those places to describe the smells and the ambient details. And there are times when I indirectly brought in observations that I had, as someone from Hawai’i moving [to the mainland], the cultural dissonance. Observationally I drew upon that, but there are almost no experiences in the book that I drew from my personal life directly. Having lived and grown up in Honaka’a, I experienced the place long enough that I had an innate sense of the culture and how most people think and feel and act.

I wrote a first novel that will never see the light of day. I think that that’s where I got the classically autobiographical elements out. In this book, in any moment when I felt like a character was doing something that I would have done, or when I winced at their decision-making or their biases or their thoughts or feelings because those were not thoughts or feelings I would have, or they made me uncomfortable, I would push toward those things and away from things that felt like me, in a conscious attempt to move away from the autobiographical.

What aspects of the book required research?

When you come from what is traditionally an underrepresented perspective and an underrepresented place, you carry this burden of authenticity that some writers don’t have to grapple with as much. When I wrote earlier in my career, I didn’t write about Hawai’i, partly because I was scared that it would be autobiographical. Or there was an expectation that because I’m from Hawai’i I should write about Hawai’i. But also I was scared, because there wasn’t a lot of literature out there based in Hawai’i, that I would fail to present the sort of universal feeling or experience of people from the island.

I spent a lot of time doing research into the mythology and native Hawai’ian religion that I had passing knowledge of, being born and raised there. You remember those things, but not fully or accurately enough to be a cultural ambassador. So I went back and spent a lot of time researching Hawai’ian culture and folklore and knowledge and history, because I had just enough incomplete knowledge to be dangerous if I just wrote from what I knew.

Do you have a favorite character?

I do. I don’t know if you’re supposed to say that, it’s like a kid. But I really enjoyed Kaui.

I see the novel as a kind of metaphor for the Big Man theory of history. All the great inventions, the important moments in the collective history of this country, are almost always filtered through the lens of a particular actor, usually a man. That’s what Nainoa came to represent to me, the Big Man theory of the events early in their lives. Particularly Malia is really invested in the idea of Nainoa as some sort of savior. He’s going to be this special, important Big Man. As I was working through revisions, Kaui became the answer to that. I believe that most positive change that has happened in the world has come about because of collective action and a lot of small, simple sacrifices in ways that no one ever sees or celebrates. The right person happens to be in the right place at the right time and gets on the apex of that groundswell, and they’re the one that gets the credit for it. Kaui embodied an answer to that. She’s back in Hawai’i and she has to learn to accept that she’s made mistakes, but the way forward is to reconnect with her family and the land. She has to give up a sense of complete individuality, something that Nainoa was reaching for incorrectly, that was placed on him as a burden. He’s supposed to be something so big that he can fix everything. And to me, Kaui’s reckoning in the latter third of the book is a sort of answer, that that isn’t the way the world works.

I really like the idea of having her be an engineer, having her build things with her hands and be a very physically grounded character, as a woman. I don’t think women necessarily get rendered in literature and in pop culture in a way that I kept wishing they would. I tried to not direct my gaze too much at the body. The way some male writers talk about female bodies can be really creepy and gross. When I was writing Kaui, I wanted her to not be some idealized femme fatale. She was living in a body that was strong and that she was comfortable in. She didn’t have anything to do with beauty or the standard female values that are upheld in a lot of pop culture. She was more driven by friction and velocity and fear, and a lot of things that don’t get associated with female characters. It became a lot of fun and that’s one of the reasons I enjoy her as a character.

What are you working on next?

I’ve started another novel. It has to do with climate change, has some elements of reincarnation, it spans around 200 years, there’s a band of female pirates: it’s cool. I’m enjoying it. It tries to blend a couple of genres, and celebrate both the internality of the human experience and the things I love about plot.


This interview originally ran on March 4, 2020 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Anna Solomon

Following Monday’s review of The Book of V., here’s Anna Solomon: Make an Absence into a Presence.


Anna Solomon is the author of Leaving Lucy Pear and The Little Bride. She is a two-time winner of the Pushcart Prize, and her short fiction and essays have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, One Story, Ploughshares and Slate. She is coeditor, with Eleanor Henderson, of Labor Day: True Birth Stories by Today’s Best Women Writers. Solomon was born and raised in Gloucester, Mass., and lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children. Her new novel is The Book of V. (Holt, May 5, 2020).

(photo: Willy Somma)

What makes for a compelling protagonist?

A compelling protagonist is someone whose wants and desires and needs are in conflict in some way with the realities of her life. What draws me in as both a reader and as a writer is the tension that exists between the longing and the reality. I also want my protagonists to be inwardly multifarious, ambivalent in what they want. I’m interested in seeing the characters that I read and write struggle not just to get what they want but to figure out what they want.

Was one of these three women the starting point?

When I write a novel, it’s almost impossible for me to remember where I began. But really, Vashti was the beginning. In a lot of ways the three women who hold the book’s core for most of it–Lily, Vee and Esther–were not really where it began. It began with this banished ancient Persian queen, Vashti, who I always wondered about. I wanted to figure out how to make her absence into a presence. So it began with a question about her, but in terms of the characters forming, I’m pretty sure I began with Vivian Barr (also known in the book as Vee), who is my Vashti.

Do you have a favorite character, or one with whom you especially identify?

The answer to each of those questions is different. Certainly, in terms of her relationship to my own life, and the contours of our lives, I identify most obviously with Lily. She is the mother of two in Brooklyn, which is where I live as a mother of two. Our lives are really different from each other: Lily has given up her work, where I have not. But in a lot of ways, writing Lily felt like taking many of my own impulses and questions and exaggerating them to the hilt.

She’s like alternate-reality you.

Kind of, yeah, like what would have happened if I had stopped working? What would that do to me, if I had not held onto the part of me that creates and is out in the world as an adult and a professional and an artist?

As for which I like the most or enjoyed writing the most, the one who was the most fun was Vivian Barr, in part because I got to write her in two very different parts of her life. Writing Vivian both as a young woman and as an older woman, and watching her both evolve and not evolve, was really thrilling for me as a writer. In some ways, I found her development came most easily to me.

How long does it take you to write a novel? You said you don’t always remember the beginning!

That’s also hard to identify by the end! In part because there are so many different stages to writing a novel. And, at least in my experience so far, in the middle of writing a novel I have another one come out in the world. And so I take time away to go introduce that book to the world, and then I come back to it. But I think it’s fair to say that this novel took me three to four years to write and research and edit and rewrite, and all the rest.

I feel as if this book was created perhaps a little more efficiently than my first two, and that’s probably because I did not have a baby while in the middle of writing it. It’s the first book I did not have a baby while in the middle of writing.

That makes a difference, huh?

Yeah! Who knew! (We all knew.)

Your three novels each center on women chafing against limitations of their eras and cultures. How have these projects differed from one another?

When I began dreaming up this book I knew what I wanted to do was much more ambitious structurally than what I had done before. The first book, The Little Bride, featured one protagonist, one clear arc from beginning to end. In Leaving Lucy Pear, I broadened the cast of characters, and there was certainly more complexity in terms of time, but there was still a kind of unified arc to the book. And in this book what I set out to do was thread together three very distinct narratives that were happening in completely different time periods–in fact over the course of 2,500 years. And that was a huge challenge, but I loved the work of orchestrating it. It felt musical, which is why I say orchestration, and it also felt architectural. I really enjoy structure. And I think in a lot of ways this book came to be through its structure as much as through the story. In many ways the structure and the story happened symbiotically. And playing with the structure, kind of seeing how I could move the chapters from one to the next, and the way these women’s stories would overlap and eventually converge in the way that I wanted them to–that was really the great challenge of this book. I really, really enjoyed doing it and I learned a lot about my capabilities as a writer as I did it.

As I wrote it, the big fear was “Can I do this? Will I be able to pull it off?” And of course, there was a lot of work that I did in revision and rewriting to smooth out and fine tune those linkages. But it did feel, once I got going with it, like it came together pretty naturally.

How much research went into this project? Do you enjoy that part?

Yes! I did enjoy it. I do love research. There was a lot of it involved, in terms of understanding the conversations that have come before me around the Book of Esther in particular, and also in terms of getting a hold on the 1970s in Washington, D.C., and in Massachusetts (where I grew up). One of the things that surprised me is how little is actually known, both about how the Book of Esther came to be, but also what it might have been like to live in Persia in 462 B.C.E. I really enjoyed the license that that gave me to really just play. That license is part of what encouraged me to go in certain directions.

One of my favorite parts of research, always, is contacting people. Reaching out beyond the Internet and books and finding people who already know a lot about what I’m writing about, and are almost always eager and generous with their expertise. Everybody from a nonprofit international development expert who can talk about what’s going on in that world today, to my rabbi, and a guy who does shellfish work in Rhode Island and knew all about which shellfish might have been eaten in the 1970s and which wouldn’t. I really enjoy that part of the process.


This interview originally ran on January 29, 2020 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun.

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