Maximum Shelf author interview: Brando Skyhorse

Following Friday’s review of My Name Is Iris, here’s Brando Skyhorse: Life Under a Perpetual Dark Cloud of Fear.


Brando Skyhorse was born and raised in Echo Park, Calif., and has degrees from Stanford University and from the MFA Writing Program at UC Irvine. He is an associate professor of English at Indiana University in Bloomington. His debut novel, The Madonnas of Echo Park, received the 2011 PEN/Hemingway Award and the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Take This Man: A Memoir was named a Best Nonfiction Book of the Year by Kirkus. Skyhorse also co-edited the anthology We Wear the Mask: 15 True Stories of Passing in America. His dystopian novel My Name Is Iris will be published by Avid Reader Press on August 1, 2023.

Does a novel like this begin with story or character?

Brando Skyhorse (photo: Eric van den Brulle)

I tell my students: it always begins with character. But not this one. It actually started with an image. I think you can guess: it started with this wall, just kind of growing out of the ground. I was finishing up my last project, an anthology of original essays on ethnic and racial passing, and it was summer of 2016, and let’s just say there was a certain word that was getting bounced around, this relentless drumbeat. I started thinking about it. I remember talking to my agent, and she said that’s interesting, but seems kind of topical. When Clinton is elected president, who’s going to be there to buy it? And I said, I’m going to keep thinking about it.

The more I thought about it, the more I had questions. That word, wall–the most banal thing imaginable, became coded. It was a very specific kind of reference, and a relentless barrage. Where is this wall? Who is attached to it? What’s the situation? I said, I’ll finish this in a year. Because I didn’t start with character, but with an image, it took me another five years to figure out the specifics of character and situation. Iris is trying to take care of herself, to take care of her child. She has a community that she’s estranged from, and she’s doing the best she can. Once that part of the story got laid out–it’s about safety for her. Her American dream is safety. That’s it for her. And that’s something a lot of readers can relate to, I hope.

What is it that makes Iris a compelling protagonist?

Based upon the experiences Iris has had, she decided early on, I want to be safe above all. I want to protect myself and my family–that’s the trade-off that I’m making, and if that makes me brusque or unlikable, I’m rolling with it. But what does that leave for Iris in the life that she’s attempting to live? Has it been fulfilling; has it been satisfying? What kind of reckoning is afoot for her?

Once you get the totality of her situation, she becomes very easy to understand. I realize it’s a bit of an authorial risk to put this character out there and have her say the things that she says, and put up her own wall. She has lived a very structured and specific life. My family, my daughter, my household. Very intentional. The idea of what it means to be a woman of color at this time, in this place, at this part of American history, what’s that experience like? At least as I see it, there’s probably a sense of guardedness, apprehensiveness. I’m not sure what the next day is going to bring me so I have to be on guard. What’s out there waiting for me?

I didn’t want to turn it into a Twilight Zone episode where this is a character who is being punished because she’s bad. What’s her backstory? Where’s she from, what kind of life is she trying to live? I had to move that character development forward while at the same time pressing her from all sides. Every chapter, another bad thing happens. How to create a character who isn’t solely reactive? If it’s not the wall, it’s the bands; if it’s not the bands, it’s what’s going on with her family or with her daughter. She needs to take some control, some agency, but each time she does, there’s something else another step ahead of her. Thinking about the lived experience that all of us have had over the last few years, I think this book is what it was like for me.

And the technology. Oh look, it’s this cool little thing from Silicon Valley, and it’ll track how much garbage you throw away. And very suddenly it becomes this whole other thing altogether. We have a collective embracing of certain technologies, if we feel there’s going to be a benefit, and sometimes there’s a flipside, unintended or intended consequences. Iris has traded away an essential part of her identity for the convenience of being American. Her community has traded away the idea of citizenship because there’s a little thing that can tell them how many steps they take in a day. What does that mean for us? I don’t know. But I don’t know if it means anything good.

Are there heroes or villains in this story?

I don’t think so. If there’s a villain here, it’s just fear. It’s very simple. Fear leads to paranoia leads to a series of decisions… everybody in this universe in this novel is living under a perpetual dark cloud of fear.

Do you feel your readers need knowledge of Spanish to follow this novel?

My goal is not to confuse or alienate anybody. When you write a book, you’re trying to connect with as many readers as possible. What I ask myself is, what’s most important for this character in this situation? English, Spanish, switching back and forth? When she’s with her mom, at the house, having dinner… it flows freely, and I wanted to capture that. I wanted it to be correct for that experience.

So much of the conversational nature of this book was influenced heavily by my family. My biological father left me when I was three, and I found him in my 30s. I was accepted into this family I didn’t know, and all of a sudden, I had three sisters. When I hang out with them the conversation varies based on who I’m talking to, the context, what’s being discussed. My Spanish is not great, but I can get what’s being said if they speak really slowly, like to a child. Part of this is trying to mimic that experience for me. That sense of what would it be like to have a relationship with this language, which is important for communicating with your family, your community–lose it, and then work your way back. I hope that’s one of the themes in the book. Our main character goes through this journey–if I’ve done it correctly–with the Spanish language. If I’m going to take the readers on that journey it has to be correct.


This interview originally ran on May 10, 2023 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: S. A. Cosby

Following Friday’s review of All the Sinners Bleed, here’s S. A. Cosby: The Light in the End.


S.A. Cosby is an Anthony Award-winning writer from Southeastern Virginia. He is the author of My Darkest Prayer, Blacktop Wasteland and Razorblade Tears. His fourth novel, All the Sinners Bleed (Flatiron Books, June 6, 2023), introduces Sheriff Titus Crown, who has returned to his Southern hometown and is out to right some wrongs from the inside. When not writing, Cosby is an avid hiker and chess player.

Is Sheriff Titus Crown a hero?

S. A. Cosby

S. A. Cosby (Sam Sauter Photography)

He is, but like all heroes, he’s flawed. Flawless heroes are boring. It’s the reason they had to give Superman kryptonite. A perfect hero is aesthetically something to aspire to, but existentially it’s a bit of a dud. It makes the hero stronger that they’re able to overcome those flaws and still do the right thing.

How well does he fit the classic loner noir detective model?

He is a classic noir detective–even though he’s the elected sheriff, he has more in common with Philip Marlowe than with Wyatt Earp. But he has a strong support system that a lot of those classic heroes didn’t have. He has his dad, his brother–I really love their relationship–his girlfriend and some of his deputies. Even though he’s their boss, he does respect and lean on them. But at the end of the day, he is the lone man standing up for what’s right. He’s the one that has to face the devil, eventually, by himself, and that’s by design. I’m fascinated with what somebody does when they’re faced with a life-changing moment. How do they stand up? And it’s most interesting to me when they stand up in those moments alone. You know, character is what you do when no one is looking. I wanted to firmly put him in that situation.

How important is a character’s backstory?

Incredibly important. When I create characters, I do their full biographies, and a lot of the time none of that makes it into the book. I create long documents about their childhood, their past, their likes and dislikes, intrinsic quirks. Even things that will never be revealed completely still influence the character’s arc, their decisions, their decision-making process. You don’t need to know everything about Titus, but you need to know that the things that have happened to him have shaped him, have defined his morals and his idealism, and his small bit of nihilism.

Titus is part of that tradition of the lone wolf, but he’s also very much in the tradition of the local boy made good. Charon County is so much a part of who he is, whether he’s in the FBI or, now, the sheriff. There is a proprietary sense about him. He cares about this place, and he knows some of the people–most of the people–don’t particularly care for him because he’s the sheriff, but he still feels protective of this place. The roots of Charon are so deep in his psyche.

What makes for a compelling villain or protagonist?

Your protagonist is only as good as your villain. You need a villain that matches the protagonist in drive and intellectually, but also personality-wise. Eminem and Kid Rock were both coming up in Detroit at the same time as rappers, and people would ask him why he would never battle Kid Rock. And he said, because beating him wouldn’t have meant anything, because I don’t respect his skill. He didn’t see him as a worthy opponent. For Titus, I wanted the villain that he has to face to be a genuine threat, not just physically but intellectually, because I wanted his triumph to mean something.

When readers get to the end of the book, they’ll realize that Titus understands some of what the villain has gone through. That creates a pretty interesting dynamic, to show the differences between these two characters. There are elements in their background that are similar, but whereas Titus went the way of wanting to protect people and not giving in to the pain of his past, the villain chose another route.

How important is place to this narrative?

Place is important in all my stories, but I think it’s the most important aspect of this story. In my previous books I’ve written about place as a more general, macro idea. I’ve written about THE SOUTH, all capital letters, what that entails and what that means. I’ve spoken ad nauseum about how proud I am to be from the South but at the same time how much I recognize the flaws that are here. As an artist, I think it’s my duty to examine that. With this book I really wanted to delve into the micro of that, and what’s it’s like in a town like Charon, which has a deep history. It has this sort of mythic quality to it. The citizens experience it in totally different ways. The white citizens experience it differently than the Black citizens. The young citizens experience it differently than the older folks. This town can have a multiplicity of definitions based on who you are and what your background is. I think place gives the story its weight. Charon County is a secondary protagonist and antagonist in the book.

Is this a novel about race?

In Southern fiction four things will always come up: race, class, sex and religion. Those are the four pillars of Southern gothic fiction. All are represented to various degrees in All the Sinners Bleed. As an African American person, I’m always going to write about race, because race is always a part of the conversation for me. People ask, why do you have to bring up race? I didn’t bring it up. This country brought it up; my life brings it up. Race is important, because Titus is a Black man, the first Black sheriff in this town. But religion is also on the forefront, maybe even more so, because in the rural South, there is an incredible hypocrisy that comes up with religion. Small towns with 25, 30 churches talk about Christianity as a concept but not as a practice. Flannery O’Conner said she doesn’t believe the South is Christ-centered, but Christ-haunted. And I believe that’s emblematic of the hypocrisy of the modern Christian evangelical movement, that you purport to love your sisters and brothers in Christ, but you vote against helping people, you vote against empathy. You live in a world where you thump a Bible and worry about the lives of children, so to speak, but once those children are out of the womb you could not care less about them. I wanted to talk about all of that. Religion can be a hammer to break down doors or it can be a cudgel to beat you down, and I think it’s represented in both ways in the book.

Is it difficult or draining to write bleak stories? Or is there catharsis there?

It’s never as draining as you might think. I’m a pessimistic optimist; I write these bleak characters in these bleak situations, but my characters triumph in the end. Not without some difficulty, some wounds and some scars, but they triumph. I was raised Southern Baptist, and I have this Old Testament philosophy that “I’ve never seen the righteous forsaken,” to quote Titus’s father. I write these really dark, morally complex characters and situations because I want the good guys to win, because that doesn’t really happen in real life. If it’s going to happen anywhere, it should happen in my book; I’m the one writing it. So as dark as my characters and their situations can be, they come through with the light in the end.


This interview originally ran on February 13, 2023 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: Monica Brashears

Following Friday’s review of House of Cotton, here’s Monica Brashears: Feel the Life in the Ghosts.


Monica Brashears is an Affrilachian writer from Tennessee and a graduate of Syracuse University’s MFA program. Her work has appeared in Nashville Review, Split Lip magazine, Appalachian Review, the Masters Review and more. Her debut novel is House of Cotton (Flatiron Books, April 4, 2023), a novel about ghosts, mothers and the struggle to survive, set in Tennessee with its lingering challenges of race and class. Brashears lives in Syracuse, N.Y., where she is at work on her second novel.

What makes Magnolia a compelling protagonist?

photo credit: Beowulf Sheehan

The reason I love her so much, and why she’s my baby, is because of her willingness to create other worlds as a response to trauma. There’s such a tenderness there. It’s an act of hope, that the world can be velvet. It doesn’t have to be so harsh all the time. Even in moments when it’s the harshest, she has an ability to make it velvet, and I think that’s special.

To what do you attribute that ability in her?

That ability is both a method of survival and another sort of haunting. Magnolia’s imagined fairytales stem from coping strategies she turned to as a child and because she’s carried them into adulthood, her trauma still lives in that humor. Additionally, Mama Brown’s laughter and steady shelter taught Magnolia her definition of safety and, because of that, Mama Brown’s life is reflected in the way Magnolia jokes.

Was Magnolia the beginning of this novel coming to you?

House of Cotton began as a short story in undergrad, and it was plot driven. The characters were not-quite-formed-laughing-things. I had no intentions of returning to the story, but three years later, Magnolia returned. I only knew that she had an emotional cavity, and inside that cavity, she claimed there were geodes. Usually, for me, the plot comes first as a way to announce all the ways I’m fed up. But I don’t have anything to work with until the characters show me how and why their yearning stretches beyond their exhaustion.

Does writing a ghost like Mama Brown differ from writing a living character?

I tend to write a lot of ghosts because I was raised hearing these Appalachian folktales. I think I feel the life more in the ghosts in the first draft, because there’s an urgency there. They’re back–why are they back? What do they need? I kind of prefer writing ghosts, strangely.

Is this an allegory about slavery?

Not entirely. I think it’s very much rooted in the present. Although I do understand that reading, because the effects of slavery are in the present. It’s in the fabric of everything that’s happening now. And, of course, the title is House of Cotton, which kind of primes the reader.

How important is setting to this story? Could it happen anywhere else?

The basic plot could happen anywhere. But the setting, the love and the lust and the tenderness, is very much tied to the land–all the plants, the kudzu.

House Mountain is mentioned in the novel, and I move it around. It’s generally always in my writing, but I move it around Tennessee. Knoxville is also, I would say, an Appalachian city, but it doesn’t get viewed that way. The mountains are there. So I like to say hey, remember? Don’t forget! We’re in Appalachia.

What does it mean to be an Affrilachian writer?

I believe Frank X. Walker coined the term. I remember writing, and it was always about the mountains, in undergraduate workshops at the University of Tennessee. And then one day in a poetry workshop my senior year, just before I was getting ready to move to Syracuse for my MFA, I was called Affrilachian. And I was like, what do you mean? Can I claim that? I wasn’t literally living on a mountain, but I was at the feet of them, so I was always on them growing up. So it really felt like coming home in my writing. When people think Appalachia, I don’t think they often think about Black people inhabiting the mountains, so within the genre there’s kind of a pushback against that erasure. This is our land, too.

Is there a special challenge to writing something this strongly based in place while you are elsewhere?

I did write the novel in Syracuse. I carry home within me, always, and nurture that sense through familiar music or food. If anything, Syracuse winters helped me focus on the specifics of all I missed; the book’s infatuation with Tennessean summertime is yet another layer of yearning.

Has your MFA program changed how you work as a writer?

It definitely has. I love the community. When I first came here everyone was name-dropping all of these authors and I felt very out of place. But I took a class that was focused on Ulysses. We spent the entire semester reading Ulysses, and it was full of suffering, and it was bizarre, but I came out of that really uncomfortable semester having definitely improved in seeing all of these fun craft maneuvers available. Permission was gained. I’ve been exposed to so many texts and writers and traditions that otherwise I wouldn’t have, and it’s improved my craft and widened my love for literature.

What’s an example of a good craft maneuver you learned?

Approaching revision with an acknowledgement that a writer’s subconscious has the story figured out before the writer helped unlock the process for me. There’s a pleasure in finding hints within a story or novel and toying with them until I find their meaning. My hints usually present themselves as repetition. There’s an urgency that’s accidental and charming and indicative of strong emotion. But what am I really trying to say?

What can you tell us about your next novel?

It is a trailer park noir filled with jewels, and the fear of God, of course, and murder.

What’s your favorite thing about this novel?

I think Magnolia. I often think of her as my child. I was raised an older sibling, so I was kind of assigned motherhood occasionally, and she feels like a younger sibling or a child. Someone I hold close and within me and tend to love every day.


This interview originally ran on January 4, 2023 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: Costanza Casati

Following Monday’s review of Clytemnestra, here’s Costanza Casati: ‘Now Is the Time to Retell Their Stories.’


Costanza Casati (photo: Arianna Genghini)

Costanza Casati was born in Texas and has lived in Italy and the U.K. Before moving to London, she attended a classical liceo in Italy, where she studied ancient Greek and ancient Greek literature for five years. She is a graduate of the Warwick Writing MA program and currently works as a freelance journalist and screenwriter. Her debut novel, Clytemnestra (Sourcebooks Landmark, March 7, 2023), is a striking retelling of the story of Greek myth’s queen of Mycenae and murderer of Agamemnon.

Why Clytemnestra? What made her story the one you needed to tell?

So many reasons! She is powerful, clever, fierce, obstinate. In the ancient texts, she comes across as a truly unforgettable character: she is feared and respected for the power she holds and, most of all, she doesn’t let the men around her belittle her. And then there are all the myths surrounding her, which I wanted to explore from her perspective. Clytemnestra is connected to some of the most fascinating characters from the myth: she is sister to Helen, cousin of Penelope, lover to Aegisthus, daughter of Leda.

Even her very first mention, which is in the Odyssey, is such an unforgettable one. When Odysseus meets Agamemnon in the Underworld, they speak of their wives, Penelope and Clytemnestra, and Agamemnon says, “Happy Odysseus, what a fine, faithful wife you won! The immortal gods will lift a glorious song in praise of self-possessed Penelope./ A far cry from the daughter of Tyndareus, Clytemnestra/ the song men sing of her will ring with loathing./ She brands with a foul name the breed of womankind.”

Cast as a murderess and the archetypally “bad wife” for centuries, Clytemnestra is actually an incredibly modern character: a powerful woman who refuses to know her place. Once you know her story, her entire story, you can’t help falling in love with her.

Did writing this novel involve research on top of your academic background?

There are two kinds of research I like to do. There is the more practical, specific kind, which I do in parallel with writing a scene–Which towels did they use? Was soap a thing? Which frescoes were common in Mycenae? What did a typical meal look like in Sparta?–and then there is the “cultural” research, which you must do before writing a novel, and which, in my opinion, is essential for writing historical/mythical fiction. It was very important for me to truly live inside my characters’ heads, experience the world through their eyes. So, for instance, a more broad, “cultural” research question would involve things such as: How was guilt perceived in Mycenaean Greece? Did the Greeks fear death? How were women treated in Sparta? Did forgiveness exist for these people? Those are things that must be woven seamlessly into the narrative, but they also must be clear to a contemporary reader. That balance, between re-creating the way in which ancient people thought, and making it accessible to contemporary readers, is the most important thing for me.

It feels like modern retellings of the Greek myths are a genre of their own. Do you have any favorites?

There are so many! The first retellings I fell in love with are The Song of Achilles and The Children of Jocasta. Both take extremely famous characters from the myth–Achilles and Oedipus–and tell their story from the perspectives of lesser-known figures: the shy Patroclus in Miller’s novel and Oedipus’ wife and daughter in Haynes’s book. What I love the most about Miller’s and Haynes’s writing is the way in which they re-create the mindset of Ancient Greece: concealing impeccable research behind smooth and lyrical prose.

Other favorites of mine include Ariadne, The Silence of the Girls and Circe.

Which characters are yours?

Some of the characters are my own creations: Clytemnestra’s guard in Mycenae, Leon, and her faithful servant, Aileen. The elders obviously feature in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon but as a chorus, while I gave them names and more specific motives. Then a character that is mine entirely is Cynisca. To write her, I drew on a woman who truly existed (though many years later, and with no connections to Clytemnestra’s story): the Spartan woman famous for being the first to win at the Olympic games in 392 BC.

Then there are Timandra, Clytemnestra’s sister, and Tantalus, Clytemnestra’s first husband, who exist in the sources, but just as passing names. Timandra is mentioned in fragments by poets Stesichorus and Hesiod. They say that Timandra was unfaithful to her husband, just like her sisters, because of a sin their father Tyndareus had committed when forgetting to sacrifice to Aphrodite. I found these fragments incredibly fascinating and wanted to explore Timandra further.

Tantalus of Maeonia (or Lydia) was another character I was drawn to because he is so important to Clytemnestra’s story. His name appears in Euripides’s Iphigenia in Aulis.

What was the writing process like?

One of the things I loved the most about writing Clytemnestra was bringing to life a female character who is ambitious and loyal, powerful and beloved. I fell in love with this character 10 years ago and wanted others to fall in love with her too. Clytemnestra has been portrayed as an adulteress, a jealous, power-hungry ruler and murderess for centuries, so I really enjoyed playing with these stereotypes and peeling them away to show the woman under them.

One of the hardest parts (which was also incredibly fascinating) was writing the more well-known characters from the myth in a way that felt both fresh and true to the sources. Helen and Odysseus, for instance, are incredibly famous, but I felt like I needed to write them in a way that felt familiar but also unexpected. The same challenge obviously came with the plot. For the people who know the myth, they already know how Clytemnestra’s story plays out, so how do you make it interesting and surprising? I tried to bring to light elements and details that were already hidden in the sources and play with them a little bit. Finally, one of the things I loved the most while writing was exploring Clytemnestra’s family dynamics.

Is this a feminist retelling?

I would absolutely call this a feminist retelling. “Feminist” because I wanted to write the story of a woman who took part in the action, whose narrative is as epic as the ones of the men and heroes. Besides, Clytemnestra isn’t the only powerful woman in my novel: it was essential to me that I wrote a story with a cast of female characters that were clever and complex, flawed and unforgettable.

The women of the Greek myths are incredibly heroic–think Alcestis, Antigone, Ariadne, Circe–and yet throughout the centuries they have been burdened with cultural and ethical codes that make them helpless victims, or, in the case of Clytemnestra and Helen, misogynist archetypes: murderesses and lustful whores. Now is the time to retell their stories.


This interview originally ran on November 15, 2022 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: Claire North

Following Friday’s review of Ithaca, here’s Claire North: ‘Celebrate All Books as Much as Possible.’


Claire North is a pseudonym for Catherine Webb, who wrote her first novel at 14 years old. She also writes under the name Kate Griffin. North’s earlier novels include The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August; Touch; and The Pursuit of William Abbey. She lives in London. On September 6, 2022, Redhook will publish North’s novel Ithaca, which fills in the long expanse between the events of The Iliad and The Odyssey, while Odysseus is away and his queen, Penelope, is in charge.

How do you reimagine something so familiar?

photo credit: Siobhan Watts

It depends what you mean by reimagining–because Penelope’s story is not really told. In The Odyssey, there’s a lot of weeping and being sent to her room, and that’s kind of it. I’ve gone out of my way to stay not very close to the mainline Homeric narrative. I’m cherry-picking a world. In that sense it’s just like historical fiction: you cherry-pick a time and a place, and then you have a whale of a time with it. That’s my ambition, to have picked a “historical” bit that I find geopolitically fascinating, and to tell the story in that context, rather than to attempt to retell Homer.

Beyond The Iliad and The Odyssey, what kind of research did this project involve? Did you find other retellings helpful?

I read The Oresteia as well, because Orestes features a lot. I have not deliberately sought out other retellings. I think that potentially risks disrespect to your fellow writers, which sounds weird, but I think it’s quite easy to feed on other writers, whether [one means to] or not. When you enjoy something, it’s going to influence you. It is respectful to know what your fellow writers are doing, and make sure you’re not shitting on that thing, but at the same time your job is to tell something that is original and true to you.

I did read The Penelopiad, years and years ago, because… Margaret Atwood. And since writing the trilogy I have read Elektra by Jennifer Saint, which I quite enjoyed. I was relieved, though, to find out that we’re doing very different things. I was like, oh thank goodness. We’re all different.

What inspired Hera’s voice?

When I pitched this idea to my editor, I was like, I want to write a geopolitical drama, and she was like, are you aware this is a fantasy imprint? Bringing in the goddesses as narrators was a conscious attempt to engage with the mythology instead of just politics.

Throughout human history, in almost every culture, there will be a worshipped woman image, a mother earth, a fertility goddess, etc. And there is some evidence that Mycenean Greece did still worship the concept of this powerful woman. There’s an argument that the Homeric epics and that era of storytelling sees a shift in our narratives from powerful women to powerful men. After Homer, The Oresteia, you don’t really think of Greek myths, legends and indeed stories as being about women. You have your three archetypal females: Helen, the whore; Penelope, the chaste one who stayed behind; and Clytemnestra, the murderess. Those are the three female archetypes you’re left with. We stop telling stories about Ariadne and Medea; we shift power from the women to the men. I found that very interesting, the idea of taking away women’s power through storytelling. Hera was the right voice to narrate this story from that point of view. Someone you can imagine tens of thousands of years ago as this embodied figure of powerful womanhood, of motherhood, of earth, fertility, being twisted and turned over centuries of storytelling into a vindictive wife who’s just locked up at home.

You call yourself a fantasy writer.

Obviously I think genre is a lie. It’s a very useful lie, a useful algorithm which allows you to walk into a bookshop and I say, I enjoyed this so I might enjoy that. But on the other hand, if it allows you to say Margaret Atwood or David Mitchell or Mary Shelley doesn’t write science fiction, then I’ve got news for you. I’ve seen Douglas Adams shelved as literature! Guys! This is a lie! It’s a lie that is fueled to a certain extent by the language of academic criticism and of what genre is. That is finally starting to change, but it’s a long, slow road. So the reason I call myself a fantasy writer and a sci-fi writer is, there is pride to be had in that genre. It would be easy for me to say I write literature, but if you’ve written words in a book, then it’s literature. Challenging the exclusivity of that is important. I think we should celebrate all books as much as possible, and part of the way I feel I can contribute to that is by very proudly standing up and saying, hey, genre. It rocks.

How was Ithaca different?

Ithaca is my 23rd novel. This is going to sound dreadful, but I feel pretty confident in what I’m doing at this point (touch wood, spin five times). But also, I don’t want to just be repeating the same thing each time. I like being challenged and learning something new. I’m not a classicist. I have massive imposter syndrome. I reread The Iliad, The Odyssey and The Oresteia, and that’s kind of it. There’s this huge world of classical scholarship that I deliberately avoided. I’m speaking to a story about womanhood and power and politics for a modern audience in a modern way. But I am mortally terrified of having got it wrong and having offended the many excellent people who have dedicated their lives to the scholarship. Wading into something that has been so studied and so beloved by so many people for millennia, you don’t want to screw it up; but also you don’t want to be bound by the idea of something sacred. The sacred should always be questioned and challenged, because we’re an evolving culture and we have a job to look at how and why we keep telling these stories and what they reinforce.

Another challenge was integrating the geopolitical and the mythological. We have a queen who can’t say yes and she can’t say no to any marriage proposal. This is a familiar geopolitical situation for queens. But to weave in mythology, you have to ask the question: How do I ground this quite solid political story… and also there’s a minotaur?


This interview originally ran on June 22, 2022 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: Tom Perrotta

Following Monday’s review of Tracy Flick Can’t Win, here’s Tom Perrotta: ‘I Could Not Write It Any Other Way.’


Tom Perrotta is the bestselling author of 10 works of fiction, including Election and Little Children, both of which were made into critically acclaimed movies, and The Leftovers and Mrs. Fletcher, which were adapted into HBO series. His work has been translated into numerous languages. Perrotta grew up in New Jersey and lives outside Boston.

Do readers need to know Election to follow or to enjoy this novel?

photo: Beowulf Sheehan

I don’t think of it as a straightforward sequel. Tracy tells you all the facts that you absolutely need to know. The two books are in a dialog, and reading them together can tell you a lot about the intervening years, not just for Tracy but for the country as a whole. Election was a bit ahead of its time in its focus on the relationship that Tracy has with her teacher, disputed elections, the teacher who abuses his power–a lot of things that were undercurrents back then and now they’re mainstream discussions. The two books are bookends of all that social history.

How do you explain that prescience?

There are many reasons why Tracy has persisted as a character. Reese Witherspoon put her on the map with that amazing performance. But, weirdly, I think when I wrote that book–and maybe I’m wrong and somebody can give another example–but I think there weren’t novels about women politicians. (There were of course women politicians.) As a novelist I think I got in early on that. Then it became this memorable movie, and as a result, when journalists wanted to use an example in popular culture for a certain kind of woman politician, Tracy would come up. Over all those years she was compared to Hillary Clinton, to Sarah Palin, to Kirsten Gillibrand, Elise Stefanik; she just became a kind of catch-all for an ambitious woman. But the idea of an unapologetically ambitious woman–she’s young, but she has a goal, and she’s not afraid to express it. Her mother has raised her to pursue it. And that felt like something new in the world.

It felt like the culture wasn’t done with Tracy. I was really intrigued by a couple of high-profile essays kind of reckoning with her legacy–Rebecca Traister wrote one and A.O. Scott wrote another–seeing her in the light of #metoo, and realizing that the first wave of interpretations that saw Tracy as this kind of ego-monster came from a sexist lens. And suddenly this character was being interpreted from a whole new perspective. It was fascinating for me. When #metoo really came into being I was thinking about how I had portrayed Tracy in the first book, especially in relationship to her “affair” and her sense of her own sexual agency. I saw so many women in these stories who said “I had an affair with a teacher, and at the time I felt that it was my choice, it was all consensual… this was almost part of a feminist agenda, that I can pursue what I want. I see myself as an independent sexual agent in the world. Then 20-30 years later, wait a second, maybe the power imbalance was more complicated and nefarious than I believed.” And I wondered if Tracy would undergo a similar revision of her past. We all revise our pasts as we get older. We simplify, we turn it into a story that we can live with. And I think one of the things that #metoo did was it forced a lot of people to revisit their pasts and say, was that what I thought it was? Do I have a narrative that can accommodate it; was I deceiving myself? Tracy is reacting and I am reacting to an incident that happened, fictionally, 25 years ago or so, and looking at it in this new light, through this relatively fresh cultural lens.

Did you always know Tracy would be back?

No, and I’m glad that it took this long. Funny thing is, when I wrote Election, Tracy was not the central character. When I started, I knew that it was about Mr. M, and the way I conceived the book was a brother and sister running against each other for class president. Tracy was there as the favorite. That happens sometimes: you write a character that seems smallish, and they take on a kind of energy that you didn’t expect. And then Reese Witherspoon took that energy and ran with it. I felt like the culture took that character over, beyond the pages.

Writing this “sequel” was an accident, again. I started with the story of Vito Falcone. He also relates to #metoo: these formerly powerful male figures who had this sense of entitlement that was given to them in those past years, the football heroes. Now he’s coming back to his high school to be honored, but he himself is a wreck of a man. That was the idea, to examine the wreckage of toxic masculinity. But I kept wanting to write it in the style of Election, with multiple perspectives, short sections. And I really resisted. I thought, why am I quoting myself by stealing this form that I used back in the ’90s? It felt like I wasn’t letting the book have its own shape, but I could not write it any other way. I started to see Tracy Flick. Why does Tracy want to be part of this book? And once I understood–oh, she’s at this high school, she’s part of it, she’s horrified that they’re going to honor this guy, because he brings back all these triggering memories of her own high school, where guys like this outshone her when they had no right to. And that’s when I had the book. But I didn’t know it for some time, and I was very annoyed by my inability to understand why I wanted to write it this way. It was as if Tracy was raising her hand saying, put me in!

Is humor a gift you’re born with, or can the rest of us learn it?

This one puzzles me. When I write, I am funny, but when I’m being myself, I’m not so funny. I tend toward serious. It’s enabled by the freedom of writing. I feel like a lot of funny people are really quick, and I’m not so quick. I do have a highly developed sense of absurdity. The reason I resist the word satire is that it suggests that the writer and the audience are looking down on the characters, saying aren’t these people ridiculous? Aren’t they deeply flawed? We superior beings, we’re almost like gods looking down at the mortals. And I never feel that way. I always feel that my characters are as troubled as I am and trying as hard as I am. And I don’t want my audience to look down on the characters. I want them to feel, I have that burning ambition in me. Or I remember what it feels like, or what it’s like to make a bad mistake. That is really the level I want: to engage my characters as equals, as people who are struggling with some of the same things that I’m struggling with. And I hope my audience reads them in the same way, and that’s it. That can be very funny. People can be very funny in that they never live up to their ideals; they lie and they cheat but they want to be better. Our imperfections can be disappointing, can be troubling, but they can be very funny. I had a friend years ago who said he thought I was very Catholic, in the sense that I believed people are sinners, and I didn’t think it disqualified them from love. It’s an outlook.


This interview originally ran on March 22, 2022 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: Juneau Black

Following my review of Shady Hollow, here’s Juneau Black: ‘It’ll Be Handled.’


Juneau Black is the pen name of authors Jocelyn Cole and Sharon Nagel. They share a love of excellent bookshops, fine cheeses and good murders (in fictional form only). Though they grew up separately, if you ask either of them a question about their childhood, you are likely to get the same answer. Shady Hollow (out now from Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, originally published in 2015 by Hammer & Birch), is the first in their series by the same name; the next two installments will follow close on its heels: Cold Clay (March 2022) and Mirror Lake (April 2022).

Why the pen name?

Juneau Black, aka Jocelyn Cole (l.) and Sharon Nagel

Sharon Nagel: We were both booksellers for a long time, and the problem with two-author books is that they inevitably get shelved in the wrong place.

Jocelyn Cole: The pseudonym Juneau Black is a nod to Milwaukee and the bookstore where we both spent so much time. Juneau is Solomon Juneau, who is one of the founders of the city, and Black is Schwartz [in German, schwarz means black]–we both worked at Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops for years.

What’s the origin story?

SN: After Schwartz Bookshops closed and [its flagship store] became Boswell Books, on a slow night, we were pricing finger puppets. They were all these adorable little woodland creatures, and so we decided to give them names and occupations, and we said what if they lived here and did this, and so we wrote a story about them.

JC: And because NaNoWriMo was coming up, we had this idea: What if we just trade off days and see if we could get a novel out of it?

How do two people together write a novel?

JC: I imagine it’s different for every team. We were physically at the same bookshop and talking together every day for the first book, so we just sent a Word file back and forth. I would write 1,667 words, because that’s what NaNoWriMo suggests you do, send the file to Sharon, and then she’d write the next day and e-mail it back, until we had what very roughly approximated a draft of a novel.

SN: We seem to have the same snarky sense of humor, so it didn’t seem like two separate people. It melded pretty well.

JC: There was definitely an editing process after, to glue things together. But I think it speaks to the fact that we are on the same wavelength that when I go back now and read passages from Shady Hollow, I have no idea who wrote what.

SN: No idea.

JC: I do freelance editing, so that was already a little bit in my wheelhouse. I edited the first pass, but we did then hire an editor, to be an objective voice and be sure it was really clean.

And now you’re moving from an independent publisher [Hammer & Birch] to a traditional one.

SN: It’s a simple thing. All you have to do is work in bookstores for 10 years and meet people. No, actually we were very fortunate to have a wonderful publishing rep for Penguin Random House who I’ve known for many years, and one day he said, “Hey, I’d like to show your work to my bosses,” and we were like, “Ha, go ahead!” And fortunately for us they were interested.

JC: It’s been a pretty smooth process, because the books were already written and published. We weren’t on the hook to complete a novel after making a deal. It was just getting more polished, copyediting again for house style and cleaning up any last remaining edits. And beautiful new covers! It’s been really nice to see the difference between doing everything ourselves and having a team, which is just amazing.

And they’re publishing all three books!

JC: I think they were excited that they could see what was there already. They weren’t just buying an idea; they had read all three books and liked them.

What are the challenges of animal characters versus human ones?

SN: Not so much in the writing, because we’re fully invested in the idea of our animals. But when you handsell it to a person and try to explain what it is, you either get immediate enchantment or you get the look that says… I don’t want any part of this. Not everybody is really into it, but those that are, are heavily into it.

JC: A lot of people do assume it’s for kids, because it’s animals, which I understand, but on the other hand it’s also murder. They’re very anthropomorphic animals, so we’re writing them just as we would any character. You occasionally stumble over a word like handkerchief in draft–oh, they don’t have hands, they wouldn’t have that word. You realize certain terms are so human-centric; you have to work around that.

How did your bookseller careers help you write a successful novel?

SN: I think we can appreciate how important indie bookstores are to a writer’s journey. When booksellers love a book, they will sell it to anyone who will stand still long enough. Our biggest cheerleader is Daniel Goldin, the owner of Boswell Books, and we always said, if we just had Daniels all over the country… and now we sort of do. Daniel tirelessly promotes us and other writers–it’s what he does all the time, and he does it so well.

JC: It comes from our history of being booksellers and loving books. We’ve both been through library school. When you’re among books for so long, you can see what appeals to people, what takes off, what resonates. When I talk about the books, I often use the high-concept explanations: it’s like Knives Out meets Animal Crossing. It’s like Redwall meets Agatha Christie. We have all these references that people understand because they’re all book people.

What do you love about the world of Shady Hollow?

SN: I like the level of comfort in the surroundings. You feel at home; you know you can go down to Joe’s Mug and have a cup of coffee. The murders are there, and they matter, but they’re secondary to the characters and the atmosphere.

JC: The fact that it is animals kind of allows people to let go and just relax and enjoy it. You’re already accepting this level of fantasy and you can just roll with it. That’s very appealing to people, particularly in pandemic times, that there is this little world where the weather is usually beautiful; there’s always coffee. There’s an occasional murder, but it’s fine.

SN: It’ll be handled.


This review originally ran in the January 28, 2022 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: Julia May Jonas

Following Monday’s review of Vladímír, here’s Julia May Jonas: Upending Assumptions.


photo: Adam Sternbergh

Julia May Jonas holds an MFA in playwriting from Columbia University and lives in Brooklyn with her family; she teaches theater at Skidmore College. Her first novel, Vladímír, will be published by Avid Reader on February 1, 2022. Set on an insular college campus during the #metoo era, Vladímír is a sensual, thought-provoking novel about power and desire, gender, aging, art and much more.

Where did this narrator come from? What makes for a powerful protagonist?

The idea for this narrator came to me around 2018, when there was a slew of allegations against prominent men coming to public attention–and I was thinking about the wives of these men. I realized how many assumptions I had about these wives (that they were saintly and long-suffering, among other things) and how reductive my unexamined opinion of them was. So I wanted to explore, and perhaps upend, those assumptions.

I started working with this character inside of a play at first, which I ended up putting in a drawer–but the character of The Wife stayed with me. When the pandemic struck and I had a large theatrical project postponed, I decided to try and write prose–something that I had attempted many times but had always put aside when I would be called to work on a play. After I wrote the first chapter in this narrator’s voice, I knew I had a novel.

My narrator is a person who is undergoing immense changes, both internally and externally, passively and actively, spiritually and physically. I think a powerful protagonist is always going to be on the verge–someone who is in the process of transforming, in either subtle or (in the case of my narrator) drastic ways–and who is confronting that process of transformation.

How did you channel the perspective of a 58-year-old woman anxious about her aging? That’s a perspective we don’t frequently see handled in fiction.

Many months before I began working on the novel I had been thinking about desire, in all of the varied senses of the word. I’m the mother of two young children, which brings the process of aging more prominently to your attention (you start doing the math–when my daughter is this age, I’ll be this age, etc.). I realized I had this subconscious belief that as I grew older I would desire less, that my vanity would be cured, that I would achieve some sort of docile peace with my place in the world. And immediately I realized how wrong and maddening that idea was–I didn’t think my desire would fade, I didn’t expect my vanity would be cured, I doubted that some kind of peace would rain down on me from above. You don’t have to be 58 to notice all the negative stereotypes that are ascribed to women as they age–from sexual invisibility to being thought of as doddering or incompetent. I’m younger than my protagonist, but I occasionally feel a sense of chagrin when I mention my current age in certain circles (though I wish I didn’t). So, I wanted to explore a character who feels a real sense of rage about those stereotypes and expectations, especially given everything she’s going through. Perhaps if we had caught her at a different, more peaceful time, my narrator might have been more accepting of the aging process. But given everything that is happening to her when the novel takes place, the cruelty of aging as a woman in this society weighs heavily on her mind and plays very much into her actions.

Do you think of your protagonist as an unreliable narrator?

Only insofar as she is very rooted in her perspective, and every perspective has blind spots. I don’t believe she is trying to confuse the reader, or that she is deliberately untruthful–more that she sees things the way she does because of her background, upbringing, generation and experiences, which is probably very different from how someone else with a different background, upbringing, generation and experience may see it. Which is not to say she is right–but she doesn’t intend to mislead.

How does your background in playwriting inform your work as a novelist?

I imagine I’m more inclined to think in terms of scenes and events when I’m writing and using them as a container for the other pleasures of fiction (memory, digression, perspective, internal reactions, emotional insights–all that wonderful character development you can’t write out in a play). Plays are often about the spaces between the lines (or the scenes)–the unsaid, the skips and the jumps–and I think that informs how I move story forward.

I think playwriting also informs how I think about the rhythm–both in the prose style (As Virginia Woolf says: “Style is a very simple matter: it is all rhythm”) and in the structure–of a book from start to finish. A good play is an exercise in sustained energy (getting the audience to sit happily in their seat for 90 minutes or more). As a novelist, I want to get deeply into a character, to be truthful, to be a good bedside companion, but I also want to maintain an energy that makes a reader want to turn the page. And, of course, being a playwright helps with dialogue, because I’ve spent quite a lot of time thinking about how people talk, the emotion behind it, what they say, and what they leave out.

What is your favorite part of this delightfully discomfiting narrator?

She was such a pleasure to spend time with, so it’s hard to choose. I loved writing her digressions–whether they be about her past, her role as a mother, her opinions about her students, her thoughts on meal preparation, or her insights about her colleagues. I appreciate that wrongly or rightly, amid all her insecurity and anger, she acts. She’s flawed–she can be harsh, myopic, selfish, judgmental, impulsive (among other things)–but she also has moments of real self-awareness. She’s able to examine her own mind and explore how she might be falling short. I enjoyed writing about a woman, no longer young, who is still exploring her relationship to ambition. And lastly, the fact that she is an English professor allowed me to make many references and allusions to other works of literature that are dear to me while still staying true to her voice.

What are you working on next?

I had a production of a five-play cycle I have written that was supposed to premiere in the fall of 2020. It has now been delayed to the spring of 2023, so development and planning for that production continues, which will be interesting given my now very long interruption from working in the theater. And I am very happily working on my second novel.


This interview originally ran on October 18, 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.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Xochitl Gonzalez

Following Friday’s review of Olga Dies Dreaming, here’s Xochitl Gonzalez: Essential Characteristics.


Xochitl Gonzalez was an entrepreneur and consultant for nearly 15 years before earning her MFA from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was an Iowa Arts Fellow and recipient of the Michener-Copernicus Prize in Fiction. She won the 2019 Disquiet Literary Prize and her work has been published in Ninth Letter, Joyland magazine, Vogue and The Cut. She serves on the board of the Lower East Side Girls Club. A native Brooklynite and proud public school graduate, Gonzalez received her B.A. in Fine Arts from Brown University, and lives in Brooklyn with her dog, Hectah Lavoe.

You beautifully handle an immense amount of content–personal, family/community and geopolitical. How do you keep all those threads straight?

Xochitl Gonzalez (photo: Mayra Castillo)

From a conceptual standpoint, something that really frustrates me about the political situation in our country and in the world is that, for my friends of color, things feel very personal. The personal is political for lots of us. It’s not just a news story. The genesis of this topic is that I had been planning to go with my friends to Puerto Rico for my 40th birthday, and the whole trip got canceled because my birthday fell between Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

In terms of the technical, the answer is that I was a really good wedding planner. You can’t really lose threads–like, wait, I never called the band back! Gut instinct, we should pick this up again, you forgot about this thing.

To be super technical, part of the divinity of this project: I got to Iowa when I was halfway through the first draft, and Sam Chang was doing a novel workshop. She showed us how she’d outlined points of tension in The Brothers Karamazov. (Her new novel, The Family Chao, is somewhat of an interpretation of that book.) I went back and I did that: wrote every point of tension, and I broke down every chapter and if I felt that I’d dropped a thread, or it had gone on too long since you’d heard a note of it, I went back in revision and cleaned that up.

Olga is certainly at the center of this story, but she’s not the only one. Why switch perspectives?

That was really important to me, and I got a lot of pushback originally. If you really want to be nutty about it, Pink-Floyd-listen-to-the-album-backwards type of thing, every character represents a different political point of view. I don’t want to bog us down, because you don’t have to get that to enjoy the novel. I needed to have Prieto’s point of view because I felt it was important to see the different ways that people can experience their Latinidad and their Puerto Ricanness, and relate to a place that they are extended from. Within a family, I’m always so fascinated by the different ways that a trauma can be experienced by someone four years older, or younger. And of course, [since he’s] a queer man, I wanted his perspective voiced. I think it’s an important perspective in our community.

Dick is representative of America’s role in Puerto Rico, which is passive ambivalence. In his mind he’s just kind of doing what he wants. He’s just moving through the world, looking out for his objective, not actively seeking harm but just not considering the byproduct, right? It’s an exploitative relationship that he has with Olga. I thought it was important to voice that.

What makes Olga so magnetic, do you think?

She is so flawed but keeps trying. She fails but keeps trying. And she’s got humor.

I was thinking about all the characters that kept me company when I was young. Esperanza in The House on Mango Street, Franny Nolan in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Anne in Anne of Green Gables, all these plucky young women. When I got to be a certain age I had nobody to turn to, and I was like, what happened to Esperanza? I wish I knew. I imagined what qualities that person would have to have. She would have to be ambitious and have a sense of humor to weather the circumstances, the uncharted territory. And strength, because she’s headed places that nobody’s been to and nobody can warn her about, and every step she gets a little further from home, right? That humor, and her resilience–that’s one of the essential characteristics of Puerto Rico. She’s lived so much and just keeps going, with humor. Like a lot of us, a lot of her life, she hasn’t been self-actualized. And this discovery of power is one of the beautiful things about being an American: we actually have some say.

Your various settings share such detail, and such love for these places.

I am a rooted Brooklynite, but I love both places. My Puerto Rico got better on revision. During my winter break my first year of Iowa, I went down and stayed in a one-room Airbnb with a roof deck in San Juan and I wrote out in the sun. I wrote day and night. I walked and I went on trips, and that helped me get it more detailed. I watched a lot of videos of the hurricane and did a lot of visual research.

For Brooklyn, it’s in my soul. I bleed. I had to correct the record. I’ve been reading Brooklyn so much the last couple of decades, and I understood that Brooklyn, because I’ve gentrified myself, right? I know that that exists. But I needed people to see my Brooklyn, the Brooklyn that’s being taken away by gentrification. I wanted to write it tenderly because I feel tender about it. I hadn’t been back home, because of the pandemic, for months, and when I came back I was counting the places that had been torn down. There’s a sense of it fading away, and I felt angry, and I wanted to preserve it with love. I wanted people to see that place that is rooted in working-class families and the rhythms of that kind of life. I wanted to pay homage to that before it changes even more.

Is this a novel with a message to convey, or a novel of individual human stories? Or are those false categories?

I feel polemic writing reverse-engineers a story around a message. It’s the difference between having an agenda versus an organic unfurling of story.

Elizabeth Bowen has an amazing essay on novels, and essentially it says the character is the root. Character makes plot inevitable. I knew who Olga was. I wanted to talk about a Latina woman with some agency and some power but that still is trying to walk in the world with some difficulty, and I knew I wanted to make people give a bit of a sh*t about Puerto Rico. We should care that we have a colony, and because you’re born happenstance one place you have fewer rights than somebody born a three-hour flight away. That should upset us, as people, as Americans. So, character makes plot inevitable. When they hit the circumstance, they can only act in one particular way. This is a book about characters that were specifically chosen to have the background they have because I wanted to discuss what was of interest to me–governance and the experience of Latinx people in the States and in the diaspora. So it’s a bit of both, but it’s designed to be about characters, and they’re engaging around this time, and I picked that point of time to make this all of concern to me. But I didn’t know in the beginning how it would all play out.

I’m so excited about this novel, Xochitl.

It’s very touching that it’s resonated with people who are so different from me and my life experiences, and that’s the beauty of art, right? You take the stuff that happens in life and you turn it into this other stuff that people can appreciate. It’s a powerful thing, really.


This interview originally ran on September 15, 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.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Tracey Lange

Following Monday’s review of We Are the Brennans, here’s Tracey Lange: Family Loyalty.


Born in the Bronx and raised in Manhattan, Tracey Lange comes from a large Irish family. She graduated from the University of New Mexico, then, with her husband, owned and operated a behavioral healthcare company. Lange lives in Bend, Ore., with her husband, two sons and their German shepherd. Her captivating debut novel, We Are the Brennans, will be published by Celadon Books on August 3, 2021.

Did this family come to you whole, or did it begin with Sunday?

(photo: Natalie Stephenson)

It started with Sunday, really, and with the idea of someone coming back into the family fold after being gone for years. And then all the questions started, like, why did she leave? What’s going on? Why’d she come back? And it just went from there. I pictured a big-ish family; but she was the one I started with.

Or, really, it started with the situation. I wasn’t even sure if this would be a male or a female character at first, it was just the idea of someone coming back into the family. And then the more I sat on it, it just started to present itself. It’s the situation I landed on first.

Is Sunday your favorite, or the one you feel closest to?

That’s a tough one! I suppose I relate a lot to her in some ways, but I also relate to Denny, I love Kale, I love Jackie! Jackie was fun. I would have liked to actually spend more time with him. It’s hard to say, but I guess when I think of who I relate to the most, it would be Sunday.

What do you feel makes the Brennans so compelling?

It’s just that idea of family and what it means to them. That’s what fascinated me. Because every family works so differently, and it gets passed down through generations, and it changes as it goes. Part of that is my own experience: I have a huge family, and a lot of them are in Ireland–they’re spread out, really, but we try to stay in touch. And we’ve got our messes and dysfunction, too, but at the end of the day I feel like I could knock on any of those doors and be welcome, or if they needed something, I’d do anything I could to help. There’s just this loyalty that I see with the Brennans, which is why they’re able to work through this stuff and ultimately forgive each other and come together. It just starts with family and what it means to them.

There’s a real sense of magnetism in this family center, an alchemy.

That’s what I was going for. My dad was one of 15–he has this huge family in Ireland, and that’s how I felt whenever I’d spend time there. They were just such a special clan unto themselves, and it was very cool to be part of that and around it. I’m sure that helped influence what I was going for here.

Is West Manor based on a place you know?

In terms of location and size and the flavor of the place, it’s largely based on Briarcliff Manor in Westchester. But I felt like I needed to change it up a little bit. I couldn’t call it Briarcliff Manor. That’s where I pictured it; it’s loosely based there. I grew up mostly in the city, but I spent a lot of time in Westchester, Long Island, that whole part of New York, and I felt like I had a good feel for that kind of town and that environment, and who would be attracted to living there and what they would be looking for. I didn’t grow up in that town, it was more the city for me, but I had a sense of that place.

Influences have come in from my family members. Mickey’s history is a lot of my dad’s history, coming in from Ireland and working in construction, but my dad was not a member of the IRA or anything like that.

How do you manage the task of switching between points of view? Is that an organizational challenge, or one of voice?

I worried a little bit about distinguishing between each voice, because it was a lot. And of course I got a lot of warnings, you know, oh, that’s a lot of points of view, it could be distracting or throw people off. But for this story it helped me put it together. It gave me a structure. Moving immediately to that next point of view was helpful. Sunday’s the protagonist, but it’s about this family, and they all have secrets. And this was a great way to get in on those secrets without the other characters knowing. So at least in this story, it felt like that worked, because it is so much about the dynamics between all these people.

It might have been Hemingway who is credited with saying you should stop writing each day right before you want to, so you know where to start when you pick back up…

That’s a good idea. I should do that more. Then I wouldn’t procrastinate when it came time to sit back down.

What are you working on next? Will we get to check back in on the Brennans?

I’m not closed off to that idea. I’ve thought a little bit about where they might go, but I haven’t started that project. I do love visiting them–whenever I have to make another pass with the book it’s so fun to get in there with them again.

I’m well into my next project now, which is another messy family drama, but quite different in terms of what they’re dealing with and the dynamics. That’s what fascinates me, what I read a lot of and what I love to write about, is family dramas.

You’ll never run out of material!

Yeah. No kidding.


This interview originally ran on May 12, 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.

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