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: Ithaca by Claire North

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on June 22, 2022.


Claire North (The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August; The Pursuit of William Abbey) offers a new take on a familiar tale with Ithaca, a richly imagined, thought-provoking novel of Penelope’s trials during the Trojan War and its aftermath. The forgotten or misrepresented women and goddesses of ancient Greece bring joy, sorrow, humor and wit.

A lengthy space of time falls between The Iliad‘s story of the Trojan War’s conclusion and The Odyssey‘s story of Odysseus’s protracted homecoming. On the island of Ithaca while its king, Odysseus, is absent, Penelope, his queen, rules uncertainly, beset by unruly suitors wishing to become king, and the hopes and ambitions of her son, Telemachus, an infant when his father went to war and a young adult by the time he returns. Into this gap comes Ithaca, which follows the challenges faced by Penelope and the other women–queens, wives, mothers, goddesses, slaves–who surround her and fight their own often overlooked battles.

The Homeric myths are well-known and familiar territories for many readers and indeed many writers, who have reimagined and retold these stories in abundance. But despite the richness of such retellings, Penelope remains an enigma, and North’s contribution to the genre is unique and welcome. While the Ithacan queen is in some respects its protagonist, Ithaca is narrated by the goddess Hera, wife (and sister) to Zeus, and frequently represented as bitter, jealous and vengeful. Hera’s interest in Penelope is self-serving: as the goddess of women, wives, queens and motherhood, she resents the ways in which Penelope is disregarded by her male counselors, her absent husband, her suitors and her son. While Hera’s stepdaughter, Athena, is chiefly concerned with the hero Odysseus, Hera is entirely here for the women. In fact, it is not Penelope whose fate concerns her first: “No one ever said the gods did not have favourites, and it is Clytemnestra I love best, my queen above all, the one who would be free.”

Clytemnestra’s crime of husband-murder is reframed by the recounted sins of Agamemnon, and when the murderess-queen hides on Ithaca, readers are reminded that she and Penelope are cousins. Next arrive Orestes and Elektra, who seek to avenge their father’s death; Orestes is near-mute and disengaged, while his sister is a magnetic, powerful force, barely remembering that she must at least seem to defer to the will of a man: “aware that she has been perhaps a little too forceful… [she] adds, ‘My brother will issue his commands shortly.’ ” Clever Penelope is more practiced at the trick of subtly sliding her wise points into conversations while seeming to demur. Telemachus is a bit silly, a boy hoping to be a man. Odysseus is entirely off-screen, “groan[ing] in the nymph’s pearly bed.” Both Artemis and Athena make appearances, annoying their stepmother with their own agendas.

Penelope is of course harassed by the unwelcome suitors who place the queen in a sort of stalemate, as she can neither accept their offers of marriage (both because Odysseus may still be living, and because to accept one would be to provoke the others quite possibly to war) nor send them away (because of the culturally sacred host’s obligation). In this version, Penelope is additionally beset by pirates attacking her island nation–pirates dressed as Illyrians but wielding the short swords of Greeks. There seems to be intrigue afoot, offering a whodunit mystery subplot for Penelope and her subtle female counselors (in contrast to her blustering male ones) to investigate. Women warriors lurk in the shadows of this Ithaca. And North does not forget the maids, who are also slaves, and also in some cases Trojans: “Death to all the Greeks,” one of them repeatedly mutters under her breath. The maids are frequently bedmates of the suitors; but to what end, and with what choice in the matter?

Thus is Ithaca the story not only of Penelope, Hera and other queens and goddesses, but of less famed women as well, down to the teenaged village huntress who opens these pages. Hera is quick to remind her audience that the stories that get passed down are written by poets, whose narratives may be purchased, and who rarely notice the contributions of women: “That girl is not remembered now”; “No poet will ever do her homage.” “Freedom only increased the efficacy of her work, though there is not a single poet in all of Greece who would dare breathe of such an outcome.” Hera’s voice is humorous, whimsical, imperious, frequently scornful. But she is also surprisingly easily cowed by the other Olympians, knowing that Zeus holds power over her. “I was a queen of women once, before my husband bound me with chains and made me a queen of wives.” While this story is on its face about Penelope, Clytemnestra, Elektra and the rest, Hera is an engrossing and masterful character in her narration.

North’s prose is clever, funny and as wise as Penelope herself, with an eye for pleasing images as well as deeper meanings. In her capable hands, this ancient landscape is both fresh and timely. Ithaca is the first in a trilogy, and having come to know this three-dimensional Penelope, North’s readers will eagerly await the next two installments.


Rating: 8 dreams.

Come back Monday for my interview with North.

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.

Maximum Shelf: Tracy Flick Can’t Win by Tom Perrotta

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on March 22, 2022.


Tracy Flick, the ambitious but unlucky protagonist of Tom Perrotta’s 1998 novel Election (and the 1999 movie adaptation starring Reese Witherspoon), is back and still striving in Tracy Flick Can’t Win. Familiarity with Election can’t hurt, but isn’t necessary to follow this next installment. Perrotta (The Leftovers; Little Children) serves up his signature black comedy and shrewd wit in an expertly paced novel of great cleverness and charm. The title character is now 40-ish and working as assistant principal at Green Meadow High School, in a shabby-idyllic New Jersey suburb. Life hasn’t turned out as Tracy had hoped. She left law school to care for her beloved mother, whose death 10 years ago still leaves a gaping hole. Instead of being a high-powered attorney on a rocket-like political trajectory, she serves as the hardworking second-in-command at an unremarkable public school whose football team disappoints everyone in town (except Tracy, who couldn’t care less). Then Principal Jack Weede announces his pending retirement, and it might finally be Tracy’s time to shine. But of course, nothing’s ever easy.

Kyle Dorfman, one of the town’s most successful alumni (he got rich off a virtual pet app) returns with the idea of putting together a Green Meadow High School Hall of Fame. He is also the new school board president, and therefore someone Tracy needs in her corner, but it’s not clear where his loyalties really lie (aside from with Kyle). The first meeting of the Hall of Fame selection committee immediately turns sour: the obvious candidate turns out to be a former star quarterback, and Tracy’s seen this routine before.

Tracy Flick Can’t Win is timely. It opens with a review of the #metoo era and headlines filled with “one powerful man after another toppled from his pedestal, exposed as a sexual predator,” which gives Tracy unpleasant memories of high school: “It was ancient history, a brief misguided affair–that’s the wrong word, I know, but it’s the one I’ve always used–with my sophomore English teacher, a few regrettable weeks of my teenage life.” Tracy sees the world changing around her but hasn’t entirely figured out her own version of it yet.

This adult Tracy Flick is vulnerable, socially awkward, frustrated and disillusioned. “My mother had been wrong: fame wasn’t a reward for your hard work. It was a lottery, pure dumb luck, and it didn’t matter anyway, not in the long run.” She’s still ambitious but worried it may be too late for her; she’s been passed over for promotions, and not completing law school still smarts. Her romantic life becomes needlessly complicated when her supposed catch of a surgeon boyfriend turns clingy. Baking a cake for her daughter’s 11th birthday gives her a chance to reflect on their mother-daughter relationship, which disappoints her, by contrast to her very close bond with her own late mother. The maturing Tracy has taken up a meditation practice for her blood pressure, and is working to navigate the nuances and challenges of a life less sparkly and more complicated than the one she’d intended to lead.

One of Perrotta’s talents is obviously forming character. Tracy is delightfully complex; Principal Weede has secrets of his own, and a touching vulnerability as well as some less admirable qualities. Kyle is not well liked, but his attempts to compensate offer comic opportunities. The aging star quarterback nominated for the Hall of Fame, Vito Falcone, is now a recovering alcoholic working on making amends, his process by turns pitiful and hilarious. And the high school’s much-loved, longtime front desk lady, Diane, is perhaps the novel’s most rewarding surprise.

Chapters shift in perspective, mainly between Tracy Flick, Jack Weede and Kyle Dorfman, whose first-person voices are joined by those of the two students who serve on the selection committee. (It’s déjà vu for Tracy when these are an overachieving but under-recognized girl and an affable but less impressive boy who’d beaten her out for Student Council president.) Third-person chapters feature a few other characters, like Vito Falcone and Front Desk Diane. In contrast to Tracy’s justified bitterness, we get other perspectives: “The truth is, we’re all prisoners of our historical context. Anybody who says morality is absolute, that right and wrong don’t change over time, you know what? They just haven’t lived long enough.” These points of view paint Green Meadow–and Tracy–in different lights, and allow Perrotta’s comedic zings to shine. Tracy Flick Can’t Win is many things: of-the-moment cultural criticism, a darkly comic drama of human relationships in suburbia, a moving sendup and a novel of racing momentum. By its end, Tracy is headed either for the triumph she’s been seeking since she was a high school student, or a meltdown the likes of which Green Meadow has never seen–or maybe both.

Perrotta’s classic combination of insight, humor and empathy is perhaps perfected in Tracy Flick Can’t Win. This novel has something for both the reader with a gimlet eye on the real world and the reader seeking an escape from it.


Rating: 7 bigger and better things.

Come back Friday for my interview with Perrotta.

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: Vladímír by Julia May Jonas

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on October 18, 2021.


Julia May Jonas’s Vladímír is a compelling debut, discomfiting and riveting, and timely in its themes. With dark humor, pathos and sly references to art and literature, this smart, edgy novel challenges assumptions and forces fresh perspectives.

In small-town upstate New York, an unnamed narrator teaches English at a small college. She lives an easy enough life, reading, writing, teaching, exuding “Big Mom Energy” and enjoying the admiration of her students, whose earnest eagerness for improving the world she appreciates. Then a scandal erupts: her husband, John, chair of the English Department, is revealed to have had sexual relationships with a number of his former students. The narrator herself is quick to point out that these all took place before such relationships were explicitly forbidden. She and John had always had an understanding about their extramarital activities. She is surprised to find that her colleagues and students disapprove not only of John but of the narrator as well, and finds herself increasingly resentful: of John, of the academic machine, of her students and of herself.

Into this upheaval comes Vladimir Vladinski, newly hired junior professor and up-and-coming experimental novelist. Vladimir is 20 years or so the narrator’s junior, sexy, flirtatious and married. The narrator is quickly captivated, then obsessed. A two-time novelist with generally disappointing reviews, she has largely turned to literary criticism and book reviews, but now feels inspired to write fiction again. For the first time she feels the work flowing from her effortlessly, and credits Vladimir as her muse. “There was a burning in my body, an extra level of excitement keeping part of me fed and running that required no sustenance. It was longing for the love of Vladimir.” She writes, masturbates and surreptitiously follows Vladimir one day and her beleaguered husband the next, and then even Vladimir’s wife–beautiful, traumatized, a masterful writer herself. Sexual, romantic, literary and workplace jealousies overlap. Things fall apart: John’s hearing (people keep calling it a trial) at the college looms as their already distant and fractured relationship continues to crumble. Their adult daughter moves back home, in dual personal and professional crises of her own, which throws the narrator into new light as a mother. She neglects her work, becoming increasingly reckless until, consumed by her fantasies, she finally commits a shocking act that precipitates a life-changing event for all involved.

That this narrator is a 58-year-old woman is significant, and provides opportunities to consider issues of gender, age, societal and literary expectations and subversions. Her troubled body image provides an undertone from the very first pages, with near-constant references to weight control and her evening skin care regimen. “I prefer to conceal my neck,” she confides, as she compulsively grooms and criticizes her body before each meeting with Vladimir. “A man could always make me feel worse than anything a woman could ever say to me,” she reflects, as she struggles to align her own sexual revolution with the values of her students. Vladímír questions gender and generational tensions, and the intersection of art and morality within the bubble of academia. In the family, household and larger social realms, it addresses every permutation of human relationship and the relationship between power and desire, while also carrying a strong thread of disturbed body image and issues around aging. In other words, this novel is as varied and harried as life.

As a novel so rooted in English departmental affairs should be, Vladímír is also jam-packed with literary references. Vladimir is compared to Jay Gatsby. “Enraged at my vapidity,” the narrator laments, “I forced myself to sit down and read several articles in the latest issue of the New York Review of Books.” Insisting she’s not jealous or bitter about her own novels’ failure to impress, she notes however that “Margaret Atwood wrote exciting books that practically lived inside of a uterus.” Vladimir’s wife says of her own mental health struggles, that her story is “like Nurse Ratched, like Girl, Interrupted, like The Bell F**king Jar.”

Jonas’s narrator has a strong, assured voice, incisively thinking through her decisions and the surrounding issues while simultaneously–and with self-awareness–mucking up her life. The narrator and the novel take on any number of thorny topics. Were the college students who slept with John seizing agency and free love in an empowered, feminist stance? Or were they taken advantage of by an older man with the power structure on his side? What are the pros and cons of an open marriage? Is our cultural hang-up about intergenerational affairs perhaps a little overblown? Some of these questions and perspectives are decidedly uncomfortable, but Jonas consistently pushes those edges, leaning always away from easy answers and toward nuance. Vladímír‘s central characters are rarely likable but they are always captivating; this story harnesses formidable momentum to pull readers through even its most uncomfortable moments. It is a rare victory in a novel to wrestle with such prickly issues and yet be as entertaining as this. Jonas’s prose is clear, forceful and unflinching, and highly sensual: food, drink and sex are ever-present and frankly, complexly evoked.

The narrator writes of Vladimir’s own debut: “The book was funny, clear, awake, vivid. The prose was spare but the voice was not sacrificed in his exact word choice. It felt both like life and beyond life.” The same comments might be made of Vladímír, a clear-eyed treatment of academia and the human condition.


Rating: 7 caipirinhas.

Come back Friday for my interview with Jonas.

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: Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on September 15, 2021.


Xochitl Gonzalez’s Olga Dies Dreaming is a scintillating, eye-opening story of family, legacies, and political and individual struggles, set in contemporary New York City and Puerto Rico. Readers will be entirely captured by Olga and her family, friends and associates as this spellbinding narrative twists, turns and unfolds over the years and miles. Gonzalez’s stunning first novel feels far more expansive than its not-quite-400 pages.

Olga Isabel Acevedo, Brooklyn-born child of Puerto Rican parents, is an ambitious, status-conscious wedding planner to New York City’s upper echelon. “Using a traditional American metric for measuring success,” she is winning: she left the family home for a fancy New England college, has her own business and enjoys a certain amount of fame via glossy magazine and television appearances. She has a large, close-knit family still based in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, but with several holes in it: her loving and beloved father, once a proud political activist and member of the Young Lords, now dead from drug addiction and AIDS; her late grandmother who raised her; and most troublingly, Olga’s mother, Blanca, a militant radical who left the family when Olga was not quite 13. “Achieving liberation will require sacrifice,” Blanca wrote to her young daughter. Olga’s involuntary sacrifice in service of Puerto Rican liberation was to give up her mother to the cause.

Crucially, Olga still has her older brother, Prieto, with whom she is very close. If Olga is a star as wedding planner to Manhattan’s upper crust, Prieto is a supernova, the handsome, popular young congressman representing their neighborhood in Washington: “He wasn’t quite code-switching so much as he managed, miraculously, to speak several languages simultaneously, creating a linguistic creole of hip-hop, academia, contemporary slang and high-level policy points that made Olga marvel…. Olga herself had never learned this linguistic mezcla that her brother had perfected; this ability to be all facets of herself at once. She always had to choose which Olga she would be in any given situation, in any given moment.”

However well her career is going, Olga feels a void. Blanca writes to her frequently (via go-betweens, from an undisclosed location) to excoriate Olga for pursuing the meaningless, superficial goals of white society rather than working toward liberation for la raza. Prieto, apparently fighting the good fight (if only, their mother writes to him in turn, from inside a broken system), has his own demons and secrets as well.

The plot of Olga Dies Dreaming sees several delicate balances begin to upset. Olga’s surface-level achievements show cracks as she questions what she’s actually working toward. She meets a man she may truly like, which exposes a weakness: her people skills, so polished at work, don’t hold up to a situation with real stakes. Prieto’s carefully maintained façade falters, one of his secret insecurities threatened. When Puerto Rico is gutted by the one-two punch of Hurricanes Irma and then Maria, Olga takes a few hits herself. Can she navigate a romantic relationship? Will her brother withstand the latest storm in his private life–and is their bond up to the challenge? Perhaps most significantly: what does Olga have to gain–or lose–if her long-absent mother chooses these turbulent times to make a reappearance?

The masterful Olga Dies Dreaming roams far and wide, encompassing the most obnoxiously petty, overindulged weddings of the 1% and the dire straits of rural Puerto Ricans lacking clean drinking water, food or electricity. Such range could get unwieldy in less capable hands, but Gonzalez has a firm grasp of her plot threads. With lively, clever prose and adept political commentary, this novel asks questions about race and assimilation, about government corruption and capitalism, about gentrification and family duty. Olga, Prieto, their aunts and uncles and cousins, Olga’s work associates, casual sexual partners and her new bae: likeable, appalling and everything in between, these characters sparkle with authentic detail. While this is Olga’s story, the point of view does sometimes shift to offer Prieto’s perspective and a few others. Readers (uncomfortably) get inside the head of a deeply unpleasant man of great privilege, for example–aptly named Dick–as well as that of our heroine. Gonzalez is also expert with setting, as her novel travels from the peculiarly organized hoarder apartment of Olga’s love interest to an impressively high-tech rebel compound in the Puerto Rican jungle, an opulent Easthampton beach house and more.

From Blanca’s mysterious and blistering missives come political and ideological rhetoric and intellectual challenges. Olga was named for Olga Garriga, activist for Puerto Rican nationalism, but also hanging over her is the story of Olga from poet Pedro Pietri’s “Puerto Rican Obituary,” who “died waiting dreaming and hating.” These are the extreme options she’s been offered: Blanca’s rigid revolutionary ideal or the unattainable, swank American dream. Instead, in the end, Olga must chart her own path to a third option, one where she might finally find peace.

This novel positively glitters with truth, wit, humor, pathos, trauma, love and pain. Gonzalez’s narrative operates with consummate skill on the level of the individual, the family and the political system. There is much to learn and ponder here about colonialism, corruption and policy. And on a more personal level, Olga casts a spell that will linger with readers long after these pages are closed. Olga Dies Dreaming is simply unforgettable.


Rating: 10 songs.

Come back Monday for my interview with Gonzalez.

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.

Maximum Shelf: Bewilderment by Richard Powers

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on August 23, 2021.


Bewilderment by Pulitzer Prize-winner Richard Powers (The Echo Maker; Orfeo; The Overstory) is a novel of great pain and empathy. Focusing on a nuclear family but also concerned with ecological collapse and the possibilities of distant space, this is a heart-wrenching story with an important message to convey.

Theo Byrne is an astrobiologist: he writes programs to explore, hypothetically, distant planets that may host life. His work is at the nexus of science, coding and imagination. But readers meet him first in a still more important role: that of single parent to Robin, who is just turning nine. Robin is a special child: artistic, caring, intelligent. “So far the votes are two Asperger’s, one probable OCD, and one possible ADHD,” but Theo resolutely resists the push to medicate him. Bewilderment begins with father and son in the Smoky Mountains on a camping trip, intended as alternative therapy following yet another outburst at school. It helps Robin immensely, but the larger world awaits. “The cars, the asphalt, the sign listing all the regulations: after a night in the woods, the trailhead parking lot felt like death. I did my best not to show Robin. He was probably protecting me, too.” Robin will not tolerate lies. But how can Theo tell the truth about just how vicious our world really is?

Theo’s wife, Robin’s mother, is absent. Aly was a tireless animal rights lawyer-activist, fierce and indomitable and loving; both man and boy are daily devastated by her loss, which readers slowly piece together: a car accident, swerving to avoid an opossum. “I didn’t know how to be a parent. Most of what I did, I remembered from what she used to do.” The novel is told in Theo’s first-person voice, in constant interaction with Robin; but Aly is ever present, too, as a voice in Theo’s head and to whom he turns for advice. On leaving the Smokies, he appeals to her: “We’re fine together, in the woods. But I’m afraid to take him home.”

Indeed, back in Madison, Wisc., Robin struggles at school and Theo, trying to care for him, falls behind at work. Planetary exploration and the sciences in general are underfunded and under attack by a government administration that blusters and crows on social media. Theo’s research partner refers to Robin as “the boy.” The school pushes harder to medicate him. Many evenings, Theo and Robin travel together in imagination to distant, dreamed-up planets that just might support life. These interludes are gorgeously rendered demonstrations of love and inventiveness. But the real world continues to rattle.

Another colleague makes an unusual offer. Decoded Neurofeedback, or DecNef, allows patients, or “trainees,” to mimic the moods of “target” subjects using real-time, AI-mediated feedback: emotional training via carefully monitored neural states. At nine, Robin is an unusually young subject, but he also has a unique opportunity. Before her death, his mother Aly allowed her own neural activity to be recorded. Now the precocious, troubled, earnest Robin has access to her mental state.

Theo and Robin share an appreciation for the Daniel Keyes story “Flowers for Algernon,” and its implications are not lost in Robin’s own unprecedented experience. Theo continues to agonize over his parenting, life on Earth and life in the beyond: “Decoded Neurofeedback was changing [Robin], as surely as Ritalin would have. But then, everything on Earth was changing him.” Robin sees enormous improvement in his ability to handle his rages and his blues, enjoying learning widely about the natural world, with a switch to home-schooling. He shows an uncanny harmony with and knowledge of his mother’s mind, enough to unnerve his father. But there will come a reckoning. Theo and Robin live in a recognizable version of the contemporary United States, beset by climate disasters, political upheaval and hate, wildfires, ignorance. Even as Robin makes his way as an increasingly well-adjusted young activist, bad news bombards their family from all sides, until disaster strikes. Bewilderment circles back to the Smoky Mountains for a gut-wrenching finish in the same place where it began. “From behind us, upstream, the future flowed over our backs into the sun-spattered past.”

Powers deserves his reputation as a consummately talented writer. His careful, lyrical prose conveys precisely the intended emotion and tone at the right time, and weaves meanings and significances in complex layers. This superlative novel invites readers to meditate on the natural world, human and animal rights, the potentialities of deep space, the role of science and technology in human societies, the challenges of modern childhood and more. “Maybe humanity was a nine-year-old, not yet grown up, not a little kid anymore. Seemingly in control, but always on the verge of rage.” Robin is a delightful character, a bright, sincere, intense child, lovable and challenging. Theo is deeply sympathetic in his dual tendencies toward far-thinking astrobiology and the care of his child (“They share a lot, astronomy and childhood”), and in his fear that he will fail his son. Powers pulls no punches: he portrays a brutal world that will damage Robin, Theo and all humanity in profound and irreparable ways. Bewilderment is a beautifully told story, but one that hurts, too.


Rating: 8 opossums.

Come back Friday for a follow-up in Powers’s own words.

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