White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imaginationby Jess Row

This tough, serious essay collection considers whiteness in American fiction and culture, and the inextricableness of the two, with exhortations for change.

Jess Row (Your Face in Mine) takes on ambitious material with White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination. He points out a societal need for reparative writing, examining the role of imagination in real lives, both in “straight” fiction (novels, stories, films, plays) and, in a larger sense, “in which our collective life is a series of overlapping fictions, fantasies, dream states.” The first kind “reflects and sustains” the second, so that novels are never “just” novels, but rather serve to uphold institutions and ways of thinking that have consistently and systematically hurt nonwhite Americans. The title refers both to the real estate pattern of movement known as “white flight,” and also to flights of fancy, such as imagining that ignoring race and racism means they’ve gone away.

In seven essays, this book argues that imagination is as much part of the problem as real-world actions and prejudice. Its main concern is whiteness, in and out of fiction; when it examines specific marginalized groups, they tend to be African Americans and Native Americans. Row undertakes close readings of Marilynne Robinson, Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, Cormac McCarthy, Annie Dillard, Richard Ford and more: these white writers may be among his own past literary heroes, but they nonetheless come under scrutiny for the whiteness, or sheer emptiness, of the spaces they create. On the other hand, he examines James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Chang-rae Lee, Colson Whitehead, Amiri Baraka and Ta-Nehisi Coates for the examples they offer of more inclusive fictional spaces. Row consults music and films, as well.

In challenging ways of writing–even, for white writers, the choice to write at all–Row is careful to acknowledge that, as a white man, he can merely ask questions and grope for progress, rather than offer a solution. He also mines personal material, including his childhood in the Black Hills of South Dakota, land that by treaty belongs to the Lakota and is illegally occupied by white people (like Row’s own family).

This intelligent collection is often deeply engaged in realms of philosophy and literary theory; it approaches an academic writing style. Its subject matter may be discomfiting for white readers and writers, and readers less familiar with Wittgenstein, Derrida or Edward T. Hall’s theory of proxemics will likely find this book challenging. There is something for every reader, however, in the message that fiction not only reflects but acts upon real life, and that each of us is obliged to act for justice, in reading and writing as in life.


This review originally ran in the July 2, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 references.

author interview: Tim Mason

Following my review of The Darwin Affair, here’s Tim Mason: You Have to Bring the Stage to Them.


Tim Mason‘s plays have been produced in New York City and around the world. He has received the Kennedy Center Award, the Hollywood Drama-Logue Award, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and a Rockefeller Foundation grant. In addition to his dramatic plays, he wrote the book for Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical, which ran for two seasons on Broadway and tours nationally every year. He is the author of the young adult novel The Last Synapsid (2009). The Darwin Affair, out now from Algonquin Books, is his first adult novel.

photo credit: David Kelley


What about this history captured your imagination?

It began with Dickens, really: my love of Dickens, perhaps his best novel, Bleak House, and the character, the Detective Inspector named Bucket. I always thought, wouldn’t it be fun to write something with Bucket as the lead character instead of just a member of the supporting cast? And when I found that Dickens quite likely based Inspector Bucket on a real London policeman, Charles Field, I felt at liberty to use that fellow, or my version of him, as my lead character. It began with Dickens, and with my father’s love of the works of Charles Darwin.

How important, to you, is historical accuracy in fiction?

I worked very hard to be as accurate as possible, given that it’s a work of fiction. I tried to insert my fiction in the interstices between one historical event and the next. I had some good luck: when I first began work on the notion of the novel back in 2009, I was having dinner with a friend, a British expatriate in New York. And she said, well, if you’re doing anything Victorian, you should be in touch with my friend in London, Jane Hill. I e-mailed this perfect stranger and she, within days, was looking over my first 80 pages and correcting my Victorian. She was a great help throughout. At one point she turned over her house in north London to me while she was traveling abroad, and I used that as a base for research. I had an old friend in Oxford, an archeologist, and he and his wife were able to unlock a door for me at the University Museum, where the famous Wilberforce-Huxley debate on evolution took place. It is no longer open to the public, but I got to scope it out for myself and try to duplicate it in my book.

Also, in 2012, I think that was the year, the diaries of Queen Victoria, which had been transcribed and digitized, were briefly put online and open to the public. That was just a godsend; it was incredible. I had Queen Victoria’s own day-to-day accounting of her time, and the trip with her husband, Albert, to his homeland of Coburg in Germany, including the very real, very serious carriage accident that Albert suffered where he was thrown from a carriage and injured. I saw that as a green light to my fiction. It really happened; my version of it didn’t, but I squeezed my fiction onto historical fact.

Did you enjoy the research process?

I enjoyed it very much. Discovering sources like those I’ve mentioned, and a couple of others–I had a lot of good luck. At a certain point I feel you can’t write until you shut the history book. Otherwise you’ll go on forever researching and, you know, this is not a documentary; this is a work of fiction. I have to be willing to get some things wrong. I do my best to study up on the area I’m pursuing, and then I metaphorically shut the book and don’t look at it while I’m writing. That’s my process. Otherwise I find I’m paralyzed; I couldn’t actually begin the fiction until I looked away from the history.

What do you love so much about Bucket?

For me the Charles Field that I made was attractive. Dickens’s Bucket is also very attractive. He’s probably one of the first-ever police detectives in fiction. Very adept, very sagacious. He’s able to spot character on sight and come to snap judgments that prove to be accurate. I felt he also had quite a lot of moral ambiguity. He does a terrible trick to the poor character of Tom–Tom who’s all alone, a miserable poverty-stricken street boy. So he’s very warm and engaging, and you love him, and then he’s also capable of underhanded dealing. I thought he was very human.

When I came to write my version of Inspector Field, I realized he’s only superficially like Dickens’s Bucket. He has certain patterns of speech that are like Bucket, and he’s sort of a burly middle-aged man and he loves his wife, as Dickens’s Bucket did; but he’s a nicer guy. He has a terrible temper–that’s his biggest failing. But I could embrace him wholeheartedly, even with his temper and his sense of his own limitations. I think that’s very attractive to me. He’s not the omniscient detective. He’s not anything like Hercule Poirot. He’s just groping in the dark and so frustrated because he feels he makes one mistake after another. That feels more like my life.

How was writing a novel for adults different from your past writing experience?

I began experimenting in prose fiction some years ago, around 2000, when a story occurred to me that simply couldn’t be told on the stage. A play can span time, and travel in time theatrically, but this story wanted something different. That’s how my middle school novel, The Last Synapsid, began, and that was just such a slog. I just had to write and write and overwrite. My first draft was over 450 pages long! It took me a long time. I eventually cut 100 pages before Random House bought it and published it, but it was a great education. I could do things in novel form that I can’t do on the stage.

The literature of the stage is pure economy. Action is dialogue. Action isn’t, he goes to the bar and makes a cocktail and returns to the dinner table. Action is what happens from one line of dialogue to the next between one character and another, constant shifting of the balance of power. That makes the dynamic of a play. Well, in a novel, you’ve got the reader, who isn’t looking at the stage but looking into his or her own imagination, and you have to bring the stage to them. And it’s a lot of work, a lot of wonderful work.

What are you working on next?

What I’m working on involves Inspector Field five years before the events of The Darwin Affair, and seven years after. Both a prequel and a sequel. But this one I don’t want to take four years to write!


This interview originally ran in the June 21, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

in memoriam: Toni Morrison

If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.

You wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.

If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the the one to write it.

Something that is loved is never lost.

(I am still working on this one.)

We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.

hemingWay of the Day: on the writing tool

It has been too many years now since I reveled in Hemingway who I so love, and therefore since I posted a hemingWay of the Day. I blame graduate school, among other things. Lately I’m trying to read a few short stories here and there, and so of course I’ve got The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway nearby.

In the preface to section 1, “The First Forty-Nine,” Hem writes,

In going where you have to go, and doing what you have to do, and seeing what you have to see, you dull and blunt the instrument you write with. But I would rather have it bent and dull and know I had to put it on the grindstone again and hammer it into shape and put a whetstone to it, and know that I had something to write about, than to have it bright and shining and nothing to say, or smooth and well-oiled in the closet, but unused.

This is such a powerful statement, and one that I’ve thought of often in reference to other aspects of life: money, for example; energy; youth; my degenerating knees. The bicycle one hangs on the wall and keeps pristine and never rides, seems to me a waste. I had not thought about life and experience dulling one’s writing tool; and I had not necessarily thought of that tool being reconditionable in these terms. I needed this thought right now. Thank you, Papa.

Author interview: Michele Filgate

Following my review of What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About, here’s Michele Filgate: One of the Most Important Things Writing Can Do.


Michele Filgate is a contributing editor at Literary Hub and a former board member of the National Book Critics Circle. She teaches creative nonfiction for the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, Catapult and Stanford Continuing Studies, and is the founder of the Red Ink literary series. Filgate is an M.F.A. student at New York University, where she is the recipient of the Stein Fellowship. What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About: Fifteen Writers Break the Silence is available from Simon & Schuster.

photo: Sylvie Rosokoff

You spent more than a decade working on the essay for Longreads that was the seed for this book.

I started writing this essay when I was an undergraduate at the University of New Hampshire, and I really thought I was writing about my stepfather abusing me. It took me many years to realize that what I was actually trying to write about was the fracture that abuse caused in my relationship with my mother. When you experience something traumatic, it can take many years to unpack. I finally had this breakthrough that the piece was really about my mother. I went to the Tin House summer workshop one year, where I studied with Jo Ann Beard, who is one of my biggest influences as a writer. Her instruction and my classmates in that workshop really helped me figure out how to put this piece together and how to make it work.

The essay came out in Longreads in October 2017, right when the Weinstein story broke and the #metoo movement took off. It was kind of wild to have the most painful thing I’ve ever written published right at a moment in our culture when we were revealing these stories that people had kept hidden for so long. It was a relief to feel like I was not alone.

How did it feel to publish such personal details?

It was terrifying at first. I did not tell my mom about the essay because our relationship was already so complicated. I didn’t want to hurt my mom; that was never my intention. And people who read the essay have told me they can read the love and longing, more than anger. It’s not about anger. It’s about wanting to have a relationship with my mom that I don’t have.

It was really scary to release this story that I’d been carrying with me for so many years in print. I felt nauseated, terrified, sad, anxious, all of those negative emotions… but as I kept hearing from strangers who read the piece–who had similar stories to tell–a funny thing happened. I started to feel a sense of relief, of unburdening myself. By putting this story out there I was able to help other people feel less alone, which I think is one of the most important things writing can do.

How did the anthology happen?

So many people responded to the title of my essay, “What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About,” that it just felt right to put together an anthology. Everyone–no matter how close they are with their mother, or if they’ve never even met their mother, or their mother is no longer alive–has something that they can’t talk about with their mother. I’d already been thinking of doing an anthology. Because of the essay going viral and having the response it did–it was shared by Lidia Yuknavitch, Anne Lamott, Rebecca Solnit, so many writers I admire on social media–I felt like, okay, there’s momentum here. I think this is a book.

Before I got a book deal, I reached out to writers I admire and asked them if they’d be willing to contribute original essays. Everything I’ve been doing in my career so far has led up to this point. I was an indy bookseller for many years; I ran events at RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth, N.H., McNally Jackson in Manhattan and Community Bookstore in Brooklyn; and then, after I left bookselling, I joined the board of the National Book Critics Circle. I’ve been a voracious reader and literary citizen for many years, and I have my own literary series, Red Ink, that’s dedicated to women writers. This was the kind of work I’d already been doing, making these connections, and so it was wonderful to be able to put together a book featuring so many writers I really respect.

What did you learn in the process of collecting, editing and organizing these essays?

It felt like such a privilege to be able to work with some of my favorite writers. I learned that this topic is not an easy one for anyone. Some writers I’d originally signed up for the book had to drop out. And some people realized they weren’t ready to write about their moms. It made me feel less alone, because this is a sensitive topic for so many people. That was kind of eye-opening to me. I’m not the only one who finds this a tricky thing to do. It was interesting to me that it’s even tricky for people who are close with their mothers. How do you capture someone you are so close to, and make it interesting for other people?

Is this a book with a cause?

Definitely, yes. If this can inspire people to have conversations with their moms that they haven’t been able to have, then I will feel like this book is worth it. And it’s already happened with one of the contributors in this book. Nayomi Munaweera wrote a piece about growing up with a mentally ill mother, and she sent it to her mom, and told her it was going to be coming out in a book. Her mother wrote back such a wonderful e-mail that we ended up including it as the postscript. So after her essay in the book is this really beautiful e-mail from her mom that demonstrates her love and how proud she is of Nayomi for writing this piece.

That right there is the cause for this book: breaking the silence, as the subtitle suggests. Silence can be toxic. I think this book will help a lot of people learn how to have those conversations in their own lives, or feel less alone.


This interview originally ran in the May 3, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984 by Dorian Lynskey

This funny, wise, well-researched study sits at the intersection of biography of Orwell’s life, literary criticism of 1984 and social commentary on literature’s role in life.

Dorian Lynskey (33 Revolutions Per Minute) takes a close look at an ubiquitous classic with The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984. The novel was a sensation and a controversy when it was published in 1949; again as the year 1984 approached and passed; again in recent years, and at every time in between. Lynskey sets out to examine its ancestry in utopian and dystopian literatures, in Orwell’s experiences during the Spanish Civil War and wartime Great Britain, and the political and cultural responses it’s drawn.

Lynskey spends much time contextualizing outside material: he devotes whole chapters to the literary works of Edward Bellamy, H.G. Wells and Yevgeny Zamyatin. Orwell’s service in the Spanish Civil War, his relationships with other writers and his personal and professional history necessarily figure as background material in Part One of The Ministry of Truth.

Part Two covers the world’s reaction to 1984, all the way through the election of the Unites States’ 45th president. In 1984, the novel surfaced not only in documentaries and articles, but also in a comedy sketch by Steve Martin and Jeff Goldblum, in carpet advertisements, on Cheers and in Charlie Brown–Lynskey writes that it “had mutated from a novel into a meme.” He refers to Margaret Atwood, Rebecca Solnit, Neil Postman and Orwell’s son, Richard Blair. He covers some of the books’ various interpretations: Atwood features as the “most prominent advocate” of the Appendix Theory, which asserts that 1984‘s Appendix, covering Newspeak from a date apparently far beyond 1984, “is a text within the world of the novel, with an unidentified author,” thereby offering a decisive reading.

This wide-ranging and thorough study requires a careful and patient reader. Even one familiar with both Orwell’s work and early communist and socialist histories will need to read closely. Lynskey offers his own appendix: a chapter-by-chapter précis of 1984, which is recommended for everyone. The requisite attention will be well rewarded, as The Ministry of Truth is not only enthralling and research-rich, but often laugh-out-loud funny. When 1984‘s American publishers wrote to J. Edgar Hoover hoping for a back-cover endorsement, Lynskey writes, “Hoover declined the request and instead opened a file on Orwell.” Lynskey’s voice is impassioned and self-aware, and he has an eye for the absurd (as any student of Orwell’s should).

Among Lynskey’s conclusions is that 1984 is “a vessel into which anyone could pour their own version of the future.” Too often it has been mistaken for a prophecy (and critics then argue about how successful it has been in that regard), rather than understood as Orwell intended: to offer a possible future as motivation to work against that possibility. Lynskey argues that such persistent and diverse misreadings are possible because the novel leaves room to become essentially whatever the reader wants it to be, or most fears. This is part of why 1984 remains as forceful and compelling as ever. The Ministry of Truth is a necessary guide.


This review originally ran in the May 3, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 lies.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Alex North

Following Wednesday’s review of The Whisper Man, here’s Alex North: The Heart of the Book Starts Beating.


Alex North was born in Leeds, where he now lives with his wife and son. He studied Philosophy at Leeds University, and prior to becoming a writer he worked there in their sociology department.

Chapter by chapter, your characters take turns holding center stage. Was it complicated to manage so many points of view? Is there a strategy for writing this way?

I think the structure is just what this story demanded. Although the characters do come together as the book progresses, they start off in different places, and they each have their own storyline to follow until they do. Tom is clearly the main character, and we follow the majority of the book from inside his head, but there is a surrounding cast whose stories gradually begin to dovetail with his, until all of them are inextricably linked by the end.

I don’t think it’s necessarily any more complicated to write than a more straightforward single narrative. You do have to keep track of things very carefully, though, and you certainly don’t want one strand of the story to overshadow another. In an ideal world, a reader will finish a chapter that focuses on one specific character completely desperate to find out what happens to them next–but equally eager to pick up on things from another character’s perspective in the meantime and see what happens there.

It’s a balancing act, but I do like stories that use this technique. For one thing, if it’s done well, it can drive you through the book. For another, it can sometimes become quite claustrophobic for me if I’m trapped in a single character’s head for the entire story. But most of all, I think it’s interesting when these characters eventually collide and interact with each other. Writing from different perspectives allows you to see things from different angles, because the characters will understand and interpret the same event in their own unique ways. We all do that in real life. And I think it helps to bring nuance and ambiguity to the story, with the truth being revealed through a combination of viewpoints.

Fathers’ impact on their sons forms a central theme of the book. Was that intended, or did it arise as the story unfolded?

It was intended to an extent. To begin with, all I knew was that I wanted to write about a father left alone to care for his son, and finding it difficult. But there was a moment, shortly after moving into our new house, when my own son briefly mentioned that he was playing with “the boy in the floor”–which obviously gave me a bit of a chill! Thankfully, that didn’t last, but at that point I knew the little boy in my story would have imaginary friends, and that some of them might turn out to be quite sinister and disturbing. The book unfolded from there.

But the background theme of fathers and sons definitely expanded the more I wrote. It was on my mind the whole time, and so I found different connections emerging as I went. It felt a lot like things appearing through the mist: the more you write, the more the events in the book begin to link to each other, suggesting other connections, and so on. I was writing about fathers and sons from the beginning, but it took a first draft of the book before I discovered all the different ways that theme fed into the story.

What are your favorite parts of writing a novel like this?

Writing a novel is a marathon rather than a sprint, and I think you have to accept that there will be good and bad days–and far more of the latter–but I’ve learned that you have to go through all those bad days to get to the good ones. As is so often the case, half the battle is showing up.

But while I’ve enjoyed the handful of days when the writing has flowed, there’s also immense pleasure to be had in the ones when you had to drag yourself to the keyboard… and something just clicks. It’s enough to keep you trying the next day and then the next. Which of course is what you have to do.

For The Whisper Man, the moments I most enjoyed were towards the end, when all the connections began to make sense to me and the book finally came together. It’s easy to say what my favorite scene to write was, but also a bit of a spoiler. Speaking carefully, it involves a conversation between a little boy and a little girl. While there was still a whole load of writing and rewriting to do afterwards, that was the moment where I felt like I’d found the heart of the book and felt it start beating.

Can you give us any hints about your next novel?

I’m really superstitious when it comes to talking about work in progress. For one thing, I think it robs you of the impetus to write the book itself but, more importantly, my books tend to change all the way up to the wire. I have to try to write the story to figure out what I should have written all along, which means my final draft can be very different from my first. I write slowly to begin with, and then frenetically in the last month or so. But one thing I can say is that the next one is another very dark psychological thriller with creepy undertones. If The Whisper Man made it difficult to fall asleep, my hope is that the next one will make you very scared indeed of what might happen when you do.


This interview originally ran on April 17, 2019 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: