Maximum Shelf: in the words of Richard Powers

Following Monday’s review of Bewilderment, here’s Richard Powers: ‘Homesick for a Place They Never Knew.’


Richard Powers’s novels include The Echo Maker (winner of the National Book Award for Fiction, 2006) and The Overstory (Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 2019). His work often explores the connections between human lives, the natural world, science and technology. He has received a MacArthur Fellowship, a Lannan Literary Award and the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Historical Fiction, among many others, and he has taught at Stanford University and the University of Illinois. Bewilderment (coming from Norton on September 21) is his 13th novel.

Powers wrote a special “Note from the Author” for the advanced reader copies of Bewilderment that explores the meaning of his novel’s title and inspiration, reprinted here.

A Note from the Author

Richard Powers (photo: Dean D. Dixon)

I read the classic “Flowers for Algernon” in sixth grade, when I was eleven years old. Written the year I was born, the story lit up my imagination and settled into that permanent place children reserve for those fables that capture the mystery of life.

In my early sixties, when I came across an account of a remarkable new therapeutic technique called decoded neurofeedback, Daniel Keyes’s story returned to me, every bit as vivid as it had been half a century earlier. “Algernon” told of a cognitively challenged man who is granted intelligence far beyond ordinary human limits. Decoded neurofeedback raised the prospect of a similar fable. Suppose researchers perfected an empathy machine that could greatly magnify emotional intelligence? What might we humans learn to become?

Children possess enormous emotional intelligence, but adult illogic can defeat it. While finishing my previous novel, The Overstory, I kept reading accounts of the toll our growing environmental catastrophe is taking on the young. A new word, solastalgia, seemed to take hold overnight. I began to see how we were raising a generation of troubled kids born homesick for a place they never knew. And we adults were relying more and more on a single response for treating the epidemic ravaging our children’s mental health: medication.

All children are natural scientists. At the same time, they’re also pantheists who know that God is crawling over every inch of the backyard. I had a fierce niece who loved butterflies, and for a long time couldn’t stop drawing them. I had a deeply affectionate nephew who talked to “critters,” but who flew into violent rages at the stupidity of humans. The little girl managed to grow into an accomplished and mostly happy young adult. The little boy did not. Could another kind of emotional therapy have made a difference?

Bewilderment was, in part, my way of remembering those two, along with so many other troubled children whom I loved without being able to reassure. The reward of writing this story lay in the daily chance to recover my own childhood joy in the endless replenishment of the living world. The word bewilder means to perplex or confuse. But in its origin, it also means to head back into wildness. A childlike love for our wild, entangled home is the only thing large enough to cure what is wrong with us. As Thoreau puts it, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”

Copyright (c) 2021 by Richard Powers. Bewilderment to be published by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. September 21, 2021.


This author’s note originally ran on August 23, 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.

Cleaning the Gold by Karin Slaughter and Lee Child

Another quickie from Reacher, somewhere in the short story/novella range, this time from Lee Child working with Karin Slaughter, who I’ve never read but obviously I know the name. An introductory Authors’ Note tells us that the authors have been friends for decades, and that their contributions to this story are merged “so you won’t necessarily know who wrote what.” Cleaning the Gold involves the head-to-head meeting of the authors’ respective serial stars: Will Trent of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and Jack Reacher, retired Army MP. The former is new to me, but I like him.

In a nutshell, and with a mild spoiler, both these men are sent undercover to the United States Bullion Depository at Fort Knox, for different reasons. Reacher’s there to catch somebody on the inside, in a crime I won’t name here. Trent is there to catch Reacher. They both have to do some figuring-out, and they have to figure each other out, too.

Like “The Christmas Scorpion,” this is a satisfying enough short story, but not a perfect one – neither Child nor the Slaughter/Child team is on par with Hemingway or du Maupassant in terms of the deft, poetic turn of masterful short fiction. It’s fine. Both leads get cute and pithy lines and the scenes that convey their characters; there is a fight scene or two. In close third person, chapters alternate their points of view, and it’s fun to see each man from his counterpoint’s perspective. There are a few layers of mystery, which is always neat, but it might be a hair ambitious for a story of this length (listed at 144 pages, but only about 100 of that is Cleaning the Gold; the rest is a preview of a then-forthcoming novel by Slaughter). It ends with an loose thread that is not entirely typical of Child’s work; he’ll leave an opening for the next installment, but not an actual loose end. I wasn’t crazy about that in the finish; I think we could have used a bit more closure, which might have helped with the neatness of the short-story-as-genre. And I do think the story would have tolerated losing that last layer of mystery.

I faltered on the very first page, too, with two details that felt very atypical of Child/Reacher. (Despite the authors’ assurances, I did feel that I could tell who was who, at least here.) I cannot imagine Reacher ever noting that “the temperature outside had already passed the boiling point” unless it were literally true, which (Google tells me) has never been recorded on earth. He’s pretty pedantic like that. Then, Will “watched a bead of perspiration drop from his nose and roll across the floor.” Something about the bead of sweat, itself, as a bead, rolling across the floor bothers me, in terms of physics. (Reading Reacher makes me extra pedantic, too?) On the other hand, a judicious number of jokes (two) about the place being “guarded like Fort Knox” went over well with this reader. And a single reference to Tom Cruise and the most unbelievable scenes in action movies, which I am reading as a joke about his (problematic) role as Reacher in two films to date, went over very well.

Maybe not my favorite thing ever by Child, but a perfectly nice way to spend a little time on my front steps with a beer and a little dog.

Also, the teaser of Slaughter’s next Will Trent novel, The Last Widow, is good.


Rating: 7 gold bars, obviously.

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.

“These Precious Days” by Ann Patchett

From the January 2021 issue of Harper’s Magazine, sent to me by the infallible Liz, a transcendent essay by Ann Patchett. Now, I’m not sure if this is for real or how stable it is, but at least for now this link will let you read it for free, which you definitely should do. And it’s worth whatever they want you to pay for it, in any case.

“These Precious Days” is a lengthy essay, but it is riveting at every point. I had to put it down and walk away just to give my mind and my emotions a break, and to stretch it out – it is that strong and beautiful an experience. And it was hard to figure out where to take that break, because it wants to flow right through from start to finish.

There is a story running through this piece, and it is a story of a friendship, formed and forged during extraordinary times. As Patchett reminds us, she is a novelist, with a real interest in how stories are structured, where they begin and where they end. So it is with purpose that she gives us the story’s chosen beginning: it’s almost bedtime, Patchett has just finished a novel, and she needs something short to read before bed. From the umpteen books that naturally surround Ann Patchett, she chooses a collection of short stories by Tom Hanks. She is surprised to find it “a very good book,” and this sets her off on a journey where she gets to know Tom Hanks a little, interviews him for a television show, meets his assistant, sees him a few more times. This leads to Tom Hanks narrating the audiobook of The Dutch House, among other things. I’m not going to say any more about what happens. Trust me, you won’t be able to walk away from this one (unless you force yourself to do so with great effort, as I did, mostly for the pleasure of returning to it).

One thing I love about this essay is how it performs as a braided essay, barely. Patchett stays in a single narrative for the most part, telling the story of the developing friendship in the extraordinary times. After her introductory story about Tom Hanks (who is not the new friend, but reappears occasionally), she stays in this main thread so much of the time, and tells it so beautifully (and it is such an absorbing story) that I forget about the other thread – that there is a meta-thread in this essay about story, and about the shape and the shaping of this story. Those few and brief moments when she reminds us of the other topic are all the more effective for their scarcity. We are reminded that the narrator’s character is a novelist, and that the need she feels to shape narrative can’t be divorced from the life she’s living, where she has a dear new friend who is in danger. It’s extremely skillful writing, and I loved several facets of it: that weaving of threads (just barely, just a touch of one for seasoning in the main dish), the expertly paced storytelling, the appreciation for so-called coincidence, the delightful characters (of whom the author’s husband is a secondary example, but one I really liked), and the self-aware voice of Patchett herself. I’m left with the impression that Patchett is like Tom Hanks in a way (or my impression of Tom Hanks): despite being famous, they’re both also very decent and nice, more than one might expect. She’s allowed us intimately in here in a way that I think will appeal to many readers as it did to me.

Now’s a good time for me to confess that I’ve read none of Patchett’s fiction. (I think I’ve read a column or two, within the world of her bookstore advocacy.) I know her by reputation as a fine novelist and an important advocate of independent bookstores. I can now see that she is absolutely gifted and I need to read more of her work.

I can’t remember the last time an essay so bewitched and transported me. I insist you seek this one out. Thanks a million times as usual, Liz. (How’d I do?)

movie: Hemingway (2021)

Obviously I was interested in the new documentary from PBS titled simply Hemingway, and appearing in three episodes totaling just shy of six hours. I’ve read a dozen or so Hemingway biographies and almost all of his fiction and nonfiction, much of it repeatedly. Let’s say I’m a fairly serious Hem scholar for an amateur. But it’s also been a few years. This counted therefore as a good check-in and test of my continuing interest.

I think Ken Burns and Lynn Novick and their team did a good job with the nuance and contradictions, the good and the bad, of this intriguing man, his life and his work. This doc isn’t just about his writing or about the man, but both at once, back and forth, because they’re inextricable. Hem was a truly extraordinary talent, a genius; he was also a bully and a jerk in many ways; he could also, apparently, be a lovely person some of the time. He had an unfortunate tendency to be cruelest to those who most helped him. He profoundly and undeniably changed writing in the English language. He was a very ill man late in his life, in terms of his mental health. And that life was full to brimming of wildly improbable stories (two plane crashes in a row?). He was larger than life, by several measures, and so it’s a hard life to write about. And it’s easy to say (because it’s true) that he was the genius, or the asshole; but it’s harder to say that he was many contradictory things at once. This production handles it very well, in my opinion.

Hemingway constructed his myth, to a large degree, and he made the mistake that all mythmakers do: he thought that he could control it. And there comes a time that you can’t anymore. It’s taken on a life of its own. It became very exhausting to be Hemingway, the Hemingway that the public thought, and let’s face it, when he was in the public he was always in the public eye. And people expected Hemingway to be Hemingway.

–Michael Katakis

The film is packed with still images of Hemingway and the characters surrounding him; his original works; and (more limited) archival footage. It relies heavily on his own work. And it includes interviews with other writers (Tim O’Brien, Abraham Verghese, Mary Karr, Edna O’Brien, Mario Vargas Llosa, Tobias Wolff); Hem’s middle son, Patrick; John McCain (a surprise, but he made some meaningful contributions); and biographers and scholars including Mary Dearborn, Paul Hendrickson, and Michael Katakis, manager of Hemingway’s literary estate.

Even in six hours of close study, I was left feeling like this was an abridgement – and of course it is, when so many (different) biographies have been written, which would take much longer than six hours to take in. That’s the Hemingway nerd talking. It’s impressive what they do accomplish in this time (which of course would be plenty for most viewers). It gives a very thorough introduction to a complicated life. I think the only new-to-me information I noticed was the extent to which the Kansas City Star‘s style sheet prescribed what we think of as the Hemingway style: short, declarative sentences, few adjectives. I loved spending time again with the four women who married this man. They’re so different from each other, fascinating, and strong characters themselves.

He weighs about 200 pounds, and he is even better than those photographs. The effect upon women is such that they want to go right out and get him, and bring him home, stuffed.

–Dorothy Parker

In the end I found this a nicely balanced representation, which shares my view that Hem was both superlatively talented and also deeply, awfully flawed. His work and his life fascinate me no less than ever, and that’s really saying something. I do recommend this documentary, which you can stream online for free here.


Rating: 8 strings above the toilet.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Shawna Kay Rodenberg

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


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

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

Shawna Kay Rodenberg

(photo: Joshua Lucca)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

author interview: Katherine Seligman

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


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

What event or person inspired this story?

photo by Penni Gladstone

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

How are journalism and novel-writing alike and different?

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

What makes a good protagonist?

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

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

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

Did you do research specifically for this novel?

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

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

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

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

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


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

in memoriam: Sharon Kay Penman

I was sad this morning to read that we have lost Sharon Kay Penman, one of my favorite authors of deeply researched historical fiction, who published her first book the year I was born. She died last Friday at age 75. Thank you to Shelf Awareness for this obit note. I’ve reviewed five of her books here, and read a handful more, and I’m just grateful that there are more of her books I hadn’t gotten to yet – and they’re big, fat ones, too. But I’m sorry she won’t be writing any more. Thank you, Ms. Penman, for The Reckoning in particular. It has helped to shape this blog, and my appreciation for the blurry middle space between fiction and nonfiction, where I often live.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Erin French

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


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

photo: Erin Little

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

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

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

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

Was it cathartic?

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

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

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

What are you cooking this week?

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

What are you working on next?

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


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

Maximum Shelf author interview: Anna North

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


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

How much research do your books require?

photo: Jenny Zhang

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

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

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

Why reproduction as the central issue?

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

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

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

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

What makes a captivating protagonist?

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

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

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

Is there anything new you’re working on?

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


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

%d bloggers like this: