Maximum Shelf author interview: Claire North

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


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

How do you reimagine something so familiar?

photo credit: Siobhan Watts

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

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

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

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

What inspired Hera’s voice?

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

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

You call yourself a fantasy writer.

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

How was Ithaca different?

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

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


This interview originally ran on June 22, 2022 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Tom Perrotta

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


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

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

photo: Beowulf Sheehan

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

How do you explain that prescience?

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

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

Did you always know Tracy would be back?

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

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

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

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


This interview originally ran on March 22, 2022 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun.

author interview: Juneau Black

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


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

Why the pen name?

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

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

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

What’s the origin story?

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

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

How do two people together write a novel?

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

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

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

SN: No idea.

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

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

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

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

And they’re publishing all three books!

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

What are the challenges of animal characters versus human ones?

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

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

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

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

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

What do you love about the world of Shady Hollow?

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

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

SN: It’ll be handled.


This review originally ran in the January 28, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

Well-Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves, ed. by Glory Edim

This is a lovely collection of a wide range of voices and experiences, refreshing and bracing and joyful and gloriously various. Glory Edim is the founder of the Well-Read Black Girl book club (and later, the same-titled online community and conference), and here she has solicited and collected essays by Black women about their reading lives and the literary voices where they found identity and inspiration. This means lots of different things, and that’s the beauty of this book, I think. I loved that the authors of these essays ranged so wildly, as do their lived and literary experiences and the books and writers that they highlight – I confess, Roald Dahl wasn’t one I’d expected, but aren’t surprises fun? Between essays appear reading lists, naturally: the book club’s selections; classic novels by Black women; books on Black feminism; sci-fi, fantasy, plays, and poetry by Black women; books about Black girlhood and friendship. An appendix also lists all the books in this book. If there’s one thing about readers, we do tend to like a list of books.

The contributors’ list is star-studded: N. K. Jemisin, Rebecca Walker, Jesmyn Ward (), Jacqueline Woodson, Tayari Jones, Lynn Nottage, and many more. Veronica Chambers’ essay “Why I Keep Coming Back to Jamaica” I will definitely be using in my Short Fiction class this spring to discuss representation, what it means and why it matters. Woodson writes, “It’s difficult to be a reader and not be a writer,” and I like that as an encapsulation of the intersection of the two pursuits that I feel helps to define this book. There are no readers without writers and no writers without readers. Jesmyn Ward writes, “I never found the book that allowed me entry, granted me succor in story, and a home after the last page until I wrote my own.” That’s about empowerment, also a key point of this collection. Jemisin writes,

In the future, as in the present, as in the past, black people will build many new worlds.

This is true. I will make it so. And you will help me.

And why haven’t I read any more Jemisin since The City We Became impressed me so much?? (I just checked – there still isn’t a second book in that trilogy. But I now have The Fifth Season coming to me from my local bookstore.)

Much to love here in celebrating Black women as readers and as writers, and recognition of how far we’ve come, never ignoring how far we have yet to go in terms of representation and opportunities. And plenty of fodder for our to-be-read lists. I’m thrilled I found Well-Read Black Girl.


Rating: 8 library books.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Julia May Jonas

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


photo: Adam Sternbergh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you think of your protagonist as an unreliable narrator?

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

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

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

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

What is your favorite part of this delightfully discomfiting narrator?

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

What are you working on next?

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


This interview originally ran on October 18, 2021 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Xochitl Gonzalez

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


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

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

Xochitl Gonzalez (photo: Mayra Castillo)

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

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

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

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

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

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

What makes Olga so magnetic, do you think?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m so excited about this novel, Xochitl.

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


This interview originally ran on September 15, 2021 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun.

Maximum Shelf: 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?)

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