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.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Jennifer Finney Boylan

Following Monday’s review of Good Boy, here’s Jennifer Boylan: We’re Here to Love Each Other.


Novelist, memoirist and short story writer Jennifer Finney Boylan is also a nationally known advocate for human rights. She is the inaugural Anna Quindlen Writer in Residence at Barnard College of Columbia University, and her column “Men and Women” appears on the op/ed page of the New York Times. Her 2003 memoir, She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders, was the first bestselling work by a transgender American. From 2011 to 2018 she served on the board of directors of GLAAD and also provided counsel for the TV series Transparent and I Am Cait. She lives in New York City and in Belgrade Lakes, Maine, with her wife, Deedie. They have a son, Sean, and a daughter, Zai. Boylan’s memoir Good Boy: My Life in Seven Dogs, will be published by Celadon Books on April 21, 2020.

photo: Dan Haar

What inspired this book?

I think a lot of people, when they’re a little older, look back at their lives and wonder, how did I get here? It can be a challenge to connect who you’ve become with who you’ve been, for a transgender person like me. And yet it’s not a dilemma that’s unique to transgender people. I think we all seek to connect our pasts and our presents. When I look back, one of the constants in my life would be the dogs that I’ve had. And each of those dogs represents a particular phase of my life. There’s the dog I had in boyhood, there’s the dog I had when I was a nascent hippie, when I was a college boy, and then a young hipster, and a boyfriend and a husband and a father… it occurred to me it would be an interesting way to connect present to past, to talk about the dogs who were a constant over a very complex life.

How was writing Good Boy different from writing She’s Not There, more than 15 years ago?

With She’s Not There, it was all very new to me. Whereas at this point in my life, I’ve lived a third of my life as a woman, almost 20 years. She’s Not There is very much a book about transition. Good Boy in some ways is a book about dogs, but also about masculinity. About boyhood and manhood. It strikes me that a woman in late middle age who had a boyhood has a unique insight on what that experience was like. I have to be careful with this metaphor, because I don’t want to be insensitive, but I sometimes think that being a transgender person has something in common with immigration. I wasn’t born here in the land of women, but I do have my green card. I look back on boyhood and masculinity in the kind of way that my great-grandfather looked back on Ireland: a place remembered well but also a place you’re glad to have escaped from.

I’m able now to celebrate some of the joys of that life. It was a life I was delighted to escape, and I feel so lucky to have landed where I am. She’s Not There was a book of trouble–I was trying to solve a lot of problems over the course of my life with that book. I think I’m able to take a more generous look at masculinity, now that it’s so far in the past.

There is both pain and humor in your story. How do you balance those elements in storytelling?

I’ve always thought those two things come from the same well. Some of my favorite writing is the kind where you’re laughing one minute and in another you’re overwhelmed by a sense of sadness. American humor is funny–we think of humor as the lesser art form compared to tragedy. When was the last time that the winner of the Best Picture Oscar was a comedy? Was it Annie Hall, in ’76, ’77? The humor of fart jokes and frat boys is one thing, but the humor that comes from a life of trouble and absurdity is a much deeper form. I think that kind of writing and the literature of sadness comes from a very similar place.

It seems you and your family have sorted out the rules about sharing personal information. How do you negotiate that?

Well, I don’t know if we have it figured out. There are times when I just feel very sorry for them all, being stuck with me. One of the things that you learn in this book is that my older child came out as transgender a couple years ago, and that completely floored me. That’s not a story in which I come off very well, quite frankly. There are ways in which my own initial response to my child coming out as trans was not as generous as was my Republican evangelical Christian mother’s response to my coming out as trans 20 years before.

In the past I’ve written a lot about my children, and I’m sorry to say I think sometimes I’ve used the stories of their success in the world as kind of a way of proving to people that I am not that bad a person after all. And perhaps, in previous works, I might have waved that flag a little too vigorously. I did have my older child read the book. I had my wife read the book, to make sure everybody was okay with everything. But you still worry. I hope in the end that the people that I love and that love me have some respect for what I’m trying to do as a storyteller, and trust that what I’m doing essentially is done with love. My mother used to say, “It’s just as easy to tell nice stories. Why don’t you tell some nice stories instead?” I think if it were just as easy to tell nice stories I probably would. But the drive wheel of story is conflict. A true story that has conflict in it is going to be about people who at least at times are at loggerheads. You hope in the end that you show how people come to an understanding of themselves and each other, but it’s often a qualified resolution, and not everything being tied up neatly with a bow. There are some things that never get resolved.

Does this book have a moral or a lesson?

I think we all know that if we’re here for any reason at all, it’s to love one another. And yet it turns out that loving each other is not easy, and a lot of the time it’s something that we’re not good at. For men in particular, expressing love can be really difficult. For women, too, but my memory of masculinity is that a lot of serious things, and love not least, had to be expressed ironically or through understatement or through these long pregnant silences. And what dogs do is give us a way to express the love that’s in our hearts in a way that we don’t have to feel ashamed of. You can see the most serious, somber person in the world, and then they get a dog in their arms and suddenly they’re blubbering all over the place and kissing Bingo on the head. If there’s a message, it’s that we all should share the love that’s in our hearts, and if you find that difficult, get a dog.

A lot of times in this book, you’ll see a moment where I’m really messed up. My father is dying upstairs, or I’m out in the woods trying to figure out how am I ever going to get through transition, or I’m wondering how am I going to be a good parent to my daughter. And at those moments, the dogs are there. Lucy and Ranger and Brown. And they put their heads in your lap and you understand that you’re not alone. The message that they have for us is not that complex. Most dogs are not deep thinkers (unlike cats–cats are philosophers). Most dogs kind of know one thing. And that is that we’re here to love each other, and also maybe that it’s always good to have a snack.


This interview originally ran on January 22, 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.

Tara Westover at West Virginia University

Last month, I traveled with a small group of English faculty, English majors, and Honors College students from the little town where I live and teach, up to Morgantown and West Virginia University. My department chair organized several activities around the memoir Educated, by Tara Westover. She got us books at a discount; we set a couple of book club meetings; and she got us tickets to see Westover speak at WVU.

It was a perfectly pleasant evening, driving up at dusk and gathering for dinner (at a most strange pseudo-Mexican joint), and then over to the university, which was an experience for those of us from a college of about 1500 students: the ballroom seats several hundred, and was located in a building that reminded me more of the big universities I come from. After a notably awkward introduction, Tara Westover came on.

At this point I had read about half her book, as directed for the book club meeting later that week. So I was familiar with part of her story (and I knew how it finished, at least in broadest terms). Westover was raised in Idaho by fundamentalist Mormons. She did not go to school or see a doctor. At seventeen, she followed in the footsteps of an older brother and self-studied for the ACT, then went off to Brigham Young University in Utah – her first time in a classroom. It was here that she was exposed for the first time to many concepts we take for granted, including (in a memorable example) the Holocaust.

I thought we were attending a reading, but instead Westover spoke about her thoughts on education. She was quite informal and off-the-cuff, although as the talk proceeded I decided it was more practiced than I’d originally thought. (Which is fine.) She retold her story, as in the book, for the benefit of those who hadn’t read it (and in slightly different terms). She spoke of education as having value in broadening our perspectives, and helping us see multiple points of view. This feels like an obvious and simple observation, on some level; but it was a revelation, to think of someone having to learn this in early adulthood from such a limited perspective as she had growing up. I also found very useful one thing she said, about how young people – like my freshman students – can tend to overemphasize the events of their lives (or so it appears to us, a few years older), because their perspectives are so different: if you’re 18, a year is an awfully long time, as a percentage of your lived experience. Whereas it’s a bit easier, if you’re 40, to see how little that test failed or boyfriend lost really matters in the long run. We can tend to say patronizingly that kids that age don’t know what love is (or whatever), but it’s just that their perspective is quite different. We could reframe things. In the same way, she talked about the shape of the narrative arc, and how you can’t see your own arc if you’re still on top of the damned thing; you can’t see where the narrative arc peaks, where the climax is, until it closes. I’m going to try to use these ideas when talking to my freshmen students next semester – about narratives, no less!

Westover’s experiences make her a compelling figure for the college student to consider, especially the first-generation student, as many of mine are. Her talk was often interesting (her story is quite sensational, for one thing), and inspirational. I’m glad we made the trip.

My review of Educated will be up on Monday.

author interview: Matthew Ferrence, in Still: The Journal

Following my review of Matt’s Appalachia North, here is the interview we conducted, also published at Still: The Journal in their Fall 2019 issue.

Julia Kastner: You write about Sean Prentiss’s book, Finding Abbey: “He also journeys into himself, something I doubt he understood at the beginning of his project, even if it lies at the center of his book.” Did you understand, at the beginning of your project, what journey you were on?

Matthew Ferrence: The short answer is no.

The longer answer has to do with the process of publication itself…

Please click over to read the full interview. Thanks again to Still for publishing this work!

author interview: Jeannie Vanasco

Jeannie Vanasco is the author of the memoirs The Glass Eye and Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl (both published by Tin House Books). Her work has appeared in the Believer, the New York Times Modern Love column, Tin House and elsewhere. She lives in Baltimore, Md., and is an assistant professor at Towson University.

Both your books give the impression that you leave it all on the page, that Jeannie Vanasco the person is the same as the character.

photo: Theresa Kell

A lot of memoirists talk about the character on the page as a persona. It’s something I talk with my students about. It can be helpful to see oneself as a character. The idea is that people are capable of change, so the person who writes the book two, five years later might be very different from the character who experienced these events. With The Glass Eye, the meta sections were where I felt the distance between the writer and the character narrowed. I wanted that immediacy. With this book, I feel like more of my personality came through, maybe because there aren’t isolated meta sections. The moments where we’re inside my head run throughout the narrative. With The Glass Eye, I was sectioning off narratives and scenes, and then present-tense craft sections preceded each chapter.

I don’t see the character on the page in this book as being different from who I am. Obviously it was deliberately crafted, and edited, and I wanted it to have that feel of immediacy, as if it were occurring in real time (and a lot of it was). But I think there was less of a persona with this book. And that’s what was so scary about writing it.

Even without considering the subject matter, that does sound scary.

Absolutely. I approached it as an interesting intellectual exercise: I will examine the nuances of the language surrounding sexual assault. I went in with that very craft-y mindset, and then as I was working on it, I would be out somewhere and suddenly start crying. What’s going on with me? I think it was because I was pushing away the emotions, intellectualizing. This book became a lot more emotional than I thought it would.

But it did give me control over the narrative, to see Mark as a character on the page. I came to see him as three different characters: the very close friend he’d been, and then the 19-year-old boy who carried me down into his basement room and raped me, and then the 34-year-old who felt, it seemed, remorse for what he did. What I realized in working on it is I wanted so badly to see the 34-year-old Mark and the teenaged Mark I’d been friends with as the same. And the guy who committed that act–he was a character, not the Mark I’m in conversation with. Having that craft perspective helped me work on it. But then I would have to remember that this happened to a real person, not a character. It happened to me. I think that’s what made the book so difficult. Trying to have mastery over the material and then also being able to let go. To recognize that this is a messy thing that I’m writing about. It’s difficult to find that balance between the writing of the book and the living of it.

What impact has writing the book had upon your mental health?

I think writing the book was therapeutic. It’s interesting because as a student of nonfiction writing, I was told this is not therapy, what we’re doing, it’s not therapeutic, as if it makes something not artistic to even think about it in those terms. I do think this gave me some, maybe not resolution, but what happened doesn’t obsess me the way it did. I used to have nightmares. I definitely feel like I can talk about it in a way that I didn’t think I could before.

Part of the reason I wanted to talk to Mark is that women are so rarely believed. I wanted him on record. Because when I was on tour for The Glass Eye, I was occasionally asked, “How do you know that what happened really happened?” Because I write about psychosis. That became a little frustrating. I understand where the question was coming from, but I was feeling very much dismissed as a narrator. Part of the reason for the meta-ness in that first book is to show that I get that concern; but are any of us really reliable narrators? So I wanted to preempt that, because if I have him on record then hopefully I won’t get those questions, how do you know it happened this way, because I’d have him admitting to it. I’m sure there will be some questions that may be upsetting, but I’m not sure they’ll be questions I haven’t already asked myself.

There is that self-referential quality, that meta-ness, to both your books.

For so long I was afraid to tell. Thinking of the balance between showing and telling, I knew that telling was important. I feel that to just show can lead to a tonally cold narrative. You need some of that intimacy of telling. The meta-ness helped me feel more comfortable outside of writing scenes. This is such a difficult subject, and I didn’t even know all my thoughts and feelings. I really need to think on the page.

With nonfiction, I think sometimes people are resistant to that self-referential meta-layering. I think of meta-ness as just telling. Because unless you’re doing something really experimental, you’re not trying to pull one over on the reader, trying to get the reader to forget that you exist. So it doesn’t seem to be really risky with nonfiction, because of course the reader knows I’m working on this book. To pretend that that process isn’t a part of writing this book seems artificial.

The Glass Eye arose out of a promise to write a book. So writing the book seemed relevant to the plot. And with this book, the book’s very existence was a huge part of reaching out to Mark. And so that meta-ness made sense. There were other ways I could have done it, but it would have felt artificial to me to try to avoid acknowledging the existence of the book. So I think given the starting points of both these books, it made sense to weave in the process of writing them.

Women seem the most obvious readers of this book, but it feels like one men need. What audience do you have in mind?

I would love it if men and boys would read this book. With The Glass Eye, the readers I would most often hear from were women in their early 20s who would tell me, “I love The Bell Jar and Girl, Interrupted and this book,” and I was like, okay. Twenty-something sensitive bookish women undergraduates? That’s my audience. But I am hoping this reaches a male audience. Recently I was on a plane going to a book festival, and I was seated next to this couple. And he saw that I had a pen and a notebook open and he said “Oh, are you a poet? You’re staring off very thoughtfully!” And I said, “No, I write nonfiction.” And I thought, I know the perfect way to shut down this conversation. I’ll tell him about the second book. And he got really engaged–they both did. We were talking, they were asking me questions, and then at some point he said [referring to his partner], “She’s really into #metoo.” And he’s not? It’s interesting. I think some men see themselves as outside thinking about the #metoo movement or feminism, that they don’t fully see themselves as playing an active role. So I’m hoping that men will read this and think about the way they should be more active. To think about their own past experiences, and looking the other way when a friend of theirs makes a sexist joke. As if these things don’t matter.

%d bloggers like this: