Maximum Shelf author interview: Kawai Strong Washburn

Following Friday’s review of Sharks in the Time of Saviors, here’s Kawai Strong Washburn: That Isn’t the Way the World Works.


Kawai Strong Washburn was born and raised on the Hamakua coast of Hawai’i. His short fiction has appeared in McSweeney’s, Electric Literature and The Best American Nonrequired Reading, among others. He has received scholarships from the Tin House and Bread Loaf writers’ workshops and has worked in software and as a climate policy advocate. He lives in Minnesota with his wife and daughters. Sharks in the Time of Saviors (MCD/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, March 3, 2020) is his first novel.

How does a story with multiple protagonists come to be?

photo: Crystal Liepa

I think a lot of writers gravitate toward what they love, and I love books in which you get to think into multiple consciousnesses. You get to expand your initial impressions. And it’s possible to do this with a third-person perspective, but it can feel less rich, or it can move me less that way.

I knew early on that it was going to be about a family, and I really wanted to dive into each person and challenge myself to create characters that would have perspectives that were nothing like mine. With all the different family dynamics involved, pushed in different directions, each has their own blind spots and their desires and their failures. It was a challenge, but one I wanted to try, because I felt it made for a richer experience as a reader, and so I wanted that as a writer as well.

How do you handle the storytelling challenge of shifting points of view?

For me it is very hard, partly because none of them are based on me. I read a section a few years ago, that was excerpted in Electric Literature, in which Dean hits his mother. Somebody came up to me after I read that and said, oh, you’re so brave to write about having hit your mother! And I said, this is not my life! None of these characters are me, or my family. They’re not based on anyone I know. With Dean, the challenge was to write a character who would have tried to beat me up in high school. If I encountered him in most walks of life, he would feel like an antagonist. Is there a way that I can write this character and understand what makes him tick with a sense of empathy but without letting him off the hook for his faults? Create this whole character who has problems and stupidities and issues with anger management, but in a way that challenges me to think about how he might justify his feelings to himself.

I love language. I really love it when writers take risks with language and render a new way of speaking and thinking that I haven’t experienced before. It takes me to a new place. I wanted to do that with the characters as well, and so in addition to creating these different psyches, I then had to create a different language for each, so that they each felt like a different consciousness. There were so many revisions to get sentences right. Given a thought that might be the same for Kaui and Dean, how would that feeling play itself out in different sentences? What would their voices feel like in their head? It was a ton of work. It was awful. I would never do it again. If I’d known at the time what a challenge I was setting for myself, I probably would have been like, no. But once I was in there, that was the work that was before me.

So this is not autobiographical.

I share very little with the characters. All the locations where all the scenes happen are places I have been. I could draw on my own experiences in those places to describe the smells and the ambient details. And there are times when I indirectly brought in observations that I had, as someone from Hawai’i moving [to the mainland], the cultural dissonance. Observationally I drew upon that, but there are almost no experiences in the book that I drew from my personal life directly. Having lived and grown up in Honaka’a, I experienced the place long enough that I had an innate sense of the culture and how most people think and feel and act.

I wrote a first novel that will never see the light of day. I think that that’s where I got the classically autobiographical elements out. In this book, in any moment when I felt like a character was doing something that I would have done, or when I winced at their decision-making or their biases or their thoughts or feelings because those were not thoughts or feelings I would have, or they made me uncomfortable, I would push toward those things and away from things that felt like me, in a conscious attempt to move away from the autobiographical.

What aspects of the book required research?

When you come from what is traditionally an underrepresented perspective and an underrepresented place, you carry this burden of authenticity that some writers don’t have to grapple with as much. When I wrote earlier in my career, I didn’t write about Hawai’i, partly because I was scared that it would be autobiographical. Or there was an expectation that because I’m from Hawai’i I should write about Hawai’i. But also I was scared, because there wasn’t a lot of literature out there based in Hawai’i, that I would fail to present the sort of universal feeling or experience of people from the island.

I spent a lot of time doing research into the mythology and native Hawai’ian religion that I had passing knowledge of, being born and raised there. You remember those things, but not fully or accurately enough to be a cultural ambassador. So I went back and spent a lot of time researching Hawai’ian culture and folklore and knowledge and history, because I had just enough incomplete knowledge to be dangerous if I just wrote from what I knew.

Do you have a favorite character?

I do. I don’t know if you’re supposed to say that, it’s like a kid. But I really enjoyed Kaui.

I see the novel as a kind of metaphor for the Big Man theory of history. All the great inventions, the important moments in the collective history of this country, are almost always filtered through the lens of a particular actor, usually a man. That’s what Nainoa came to represent to me, the Big Man theory of the events early in their lives. Particularly Malia is really invested in the idea of Nainoa as some sort of savior. He’s going to be this special, important Big Man. As I was working through revisions, Kaui became the answer to that. I believe that most positive change that has happened in the world has come about because of collective action and a lot of small, simple sacrifices in ways that no one ever sees or celebrates. The right person happens to be in the right place at the right time and gets on the apex of that groundswell, and they’re the one that gets the credit for it. Kaui embodied an answer to that. She’s back in Hawai’i and she has to learn to accept that she’s made mistakes, but the way forward is to reconnect with her family and the land. She has to give up a sense of complete individuality, something that Nainoa was reaching for incorrectly, that was placed on him as a burden. He’s supposed to be something so big that he can fix everything. And to me, Kaui’s reckoning in the latter third of the book is a sort of answer, that that isn’t the way the world works.

I really like the idea of having her be an engineer, having her build things with her hands and be a very physically grounded character, as a woman. I don’t think women necessarily get rendered in literature and in pop culture in a way that I kept wishing they would. I tried to not direct my gaze too much at the body. The way some male writers talk about female bodies can be really creepy and gross. When I was writing Kaui, I wanted her to not be some idealized femme fatale. She was living in a body that was strong and that she was comfortable in. She didn’t have anything to do with beauty or the standard female values that are upheld in a lot of pop culture. She was more driven by friction and velocity and fear, and a lot of things that don’t get associated with female characters. It became a lot of fun and that’s one of the reasons I enjoy her as a character.

What are you working on next?

I’ve started another novel. It has to do with climate change, has some elements of reincarnation, it spans around 200 years, there’s a band of female pirates: it’s cool. I’m enjoying it. It tries to blend a couple of genres, and celebrate both the internality of the human experience and the things I love about plot.


This interview originally ran on March 4, 2020 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun.

Maximum Shelf: Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn

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 4, 2020.


Kawai Strong Washburn’s entrancing first novel, Sharks in the Time of Saviors, spans years and crosses over to the mainland and back again, following the Flores family–Malia and her husband, Augie; their sons, Dean and Nainoa; their daughter, Kaui–and the myths and gods of Hawai’i.

In Honoka’a in 1995, Malia remembers, “The kingdom of Hawai’i had long been broken–the hot rain forests and breathing green reefs crushed under the haole commerce of beach resorts, skyscrapers–and that was when the land had begun calling.” She addresses one of her children: “When I close my eyes we’re all still alive…” and she thinks back to the night “when your father and I were naked in his pickup truck, Waipi’o Valley, and we witnessed the night marchers.”

The night marchers are the first sign of magic in a story that plays with the concept throughout. What is magic and what is imagination; what is myth and what truth; which are the forces for good? Where does modern medicine meet the inexplicable, and what alchemy results?

When middle child Nainoa (“Noa”) is seven years old, he falls overboard in the waters off Kona and is surrounded by sharks. But instead of attacking, they carry him carefully back to the boat unharmed. This event is hailed as legend, a miracle, mark of the gods; in the years that follow, Noa’s strangeness will help to bring his family partly out of the economic depression brought on by the fall of the sugarcane industry, but his gifts are dubious and unreliable. His siblings have talents of their own to offer, but are alienated by the obvious specialness of Noa, the chosen one.

The novel’s perspective shifts, chapter by chapter, from Malia’s to each of her children; Augie’s voice will be heard only at the very end of this astonishing debut. Noa’s chapters are precise and observant, Kaui’s and Dean’s variously disgruntled and colorful and more vernacular, Malia’s reveal a close attention to larger meanings. Washburn’s prose style shifts with these voices, but throughout he showcases lush description and stark contrasts. In Kaui’s voice, “We set our toes and fingertips on razored bits of stone and slipped ourselves into the veined cracks of sheer walls of limestone or granite or basalt, all of it ceilinged by a thunder-brained sky.”

All three children travel to the mainland in search of education and opportunity. In Spokane, basketball star Dean has earned a full scholarship but grapples with the pressures of school and sport. In San Diego, Kaui discovers drugs and free climbing and falls in love with a woman who does not want what Kaui wants. After Stanford, Noa moves to Portland, where he saves lives as an EMT. He has a good partner and loves her daughter, but still struggles with his gift. Perhaps his lifesaving ability is not what it seems. Despite the family’s constant focus on Noa, the chapters that cover their separate lives offer refreshing views of Kaui and Dean, who are intriguing, flawed, engaging characters unto themselves. Their parents may center on Noa, but the novel resists doing so.

Amid various crises, each adult child will cycle back to the islands they call home. Noa, as always, leads the way, but Dean and Kaui have roles to fulfill within the family and on the islands, too. Their parents’ needs are both burden and gift. Malia continues to question the apparent favor bestowed upon her middle child: “If you were more of the gods than of us–if you were something new, if you were supposed to remake the islands, if you were all the old kings moving through the body of one small boy–then of course I could not be the one to guide you to your full potential. My time as a mother was the same as those last gasping breaths of the owl.” Each character is torn by the need to belong to a place and a people, the need to rescue and be rescued, to persist.

Sharks in the Time of Saviors is a gorgeous, rich, multifaceted novel. As it shifts between the mindsets of Malia and her three children, it poses questions behind their stories, interrogates joy and love and faith and loss, rage and redemption, the price and reward of returning home. This is a story about a small number of central characters and their often sad and painful daily lives, and also about more universal struggles. It’s about past, present and future Hawai’i, including the racial tensions between native Hawai’ians and the haoles that have changed their world so much. It’s about family, hope and risk.

Memorable characters, richly evoked settings, heartbreaking realism and alluring myth combine in a magical, expertly plotted, completely absorbing novel. Washburn takes his readers into a world that is both known and entirely new.


Rating: 8 owl feathers.

Come back Monday for my interview with Kawai.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Anna Solomon

Following Monday’s review of The Book of V., here’s Anna Solomon: Make an Absence into a Presence.


Anna Solomon is the author of Leaving Lucy Pear and The Little Bride. She is a two-time winner of the Pushcart Prize, and her short fiction and essays have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, One Story, Ploughshares and Slate. She is coeditor, with Eleanor Henderson, of Labor Day: True Birth Stories by Today’s Best Women Writers. Solomon was born and raised in Gloucester, Mass., and lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children. Her new novel is The Book of V. (Holt, May 5, 2020).

(photo: Willy Somma)

What makes for a compelling protagonist?

A compelling protagonist is someone whose wants and desires and needs are in conflict in some way with the realities of her life. What draws me in as both a reader and as a writer is the tension that exists between the longing and the reality. I also want my protagonists to be inwardly multifarious, ambivalent in what they want. I’m interested in seeing the characters that I read and write struggle not just to get what they want but to figure out what they want.

Was one of these three women the starting point?

When I write a novel, it’s almost impossible for me to remember where I began. But really, Vashti was the beginning. In a lot of ways the three women who hold the book’s core for most of it–Lily, Vee and Esther–were not really where it began. It began with this banished ancient Persian queen, Vashti, who I always wondered about. I wanted to figure out how to make her absence into a presence. So it began with a question about her, but in terms of the characters forming, I’m pretty sure I began with Vivian Barr (also known in the book as Vee), who is my Vashti.

Do you have a favorite character, or one with whom you especially identify?

The answer to each of those questions is different. Certainly, in terms of her relationship to my own life, and the contours of our lives, I identify most obviously with Lily. She is the mother of two in Brooklyn, which is where I live as a mother of two. Our lives are really different from each other: Lily has given up her work, where I have not. But in a lot of ways, writing Lily felt like taking many of my own impulses and questions and exaggerating them to the hilt.

She’s like alternate-reality you.

Kind of, yeah, like what would have happened if I had stopped working? What would that do to me, if I had not held onto the part of me that creates and is out in the world as an adult and a professional and an artist?

As for which I like the most or enjoyed writing the most, the one who was the most fun was Vivian Barr, in part because I got to write her in two very different parts of her life. Writing Vivian both as a young woman and as an older woman, and watching her both evolve and not evolve, was really thrilling for me as a writer. In some ways, I found her development came most easily to me.

How long does it take you to write a novel? You said you don’t always remember the beginning!

That’s also hard to identify by the end! In part because there are so many different stages to writing a novel. And, at least in my experience so far, in the middle of writing a novel I have another one come out in the world. And so I take time away to go introduce that book to the world, and then I come back to it. But I think it’s fair to say that this novel took me three to four years to write and research and edit and rewrite, and all the rest.

I feel as if this book was created perhaps a little more efficiently than my first two, and that’s probably because I did not have a baby while in the middle of writing it. It’s the first book I did not have a baby while in the middle of writing.

That makes a difference, huh?

Yeah! Who knew! (We all knew.)

Your three novels each center on women chafing against limitations of their eras and cultures. How have these projects differed from one another?

When I began dreaming up this book I knew what I wanted to do was much more ambitious structurally than what I had done before. The first book, The Little Bride, featured one protagonist, one clear arc from beginning to end. In Leaving Lucy Pear, I broadened the cast of characters, and there was certainly more complexity in terms of time, but there was still a kind of unified arc to the book. And in this book what I set out to do was thread together three very distinct narratives that were happening in completely different time periods–in fact over the course of 2,500 years. And that was a huge challenge, but I loved the work of orchestrating it. It felt musical, which is why I say orchestration, and it also felt architectural. I really enjoy structure. And I think in a lot of ways this book came to be through its structure as much as through the story. In many ways the structure and the story happened symbiotically. And playing with the structure, kind of seeing how I could move the chapters from one to the next, and the way these women’s stories would overlap and eventually converge in the way that I wanted them to–that was really the great challenge of this book. I really, really enjoyed doing it and I learned a lot about my capabilities as a writer as I did it.

As I wrote it, the big fear was “Can I do this? Will I be able to pull it off?” And of course, there was a lot of work that I did in revision and rewriting to smooth out and fine tune those linkages. But it did feel, once I got going with it, like it came together pretty naturally.

How much research went into this project? Do you enjoy that part?

Yes! I did enjoy it. I do love research. There was a lot of it involved, in terms of understanding the conversations that have come before me around the Book of Esther in particular, and also in terms of getting a hold on the 1970s in Washington, D.C., and in Massachusetts (where I grew up). One of the things that surprised me is how little is actually known, both about how the Book of Esther came to be, but also what it might have been like to live in Persia in 462 B.C.E. I really enjoyed the license that that gave me to really just play. That license is part of what encouraged me to go in certain directions.

One of my favorite parts of research, always, is contacting people. Reaching out beyond the Internet and books and finding people who already know a lot about what I’m writing about, and are almost always eager and generous with their expertise. Everybody from a nonprofit international development expert who can talk about what’s going on in that world today, to my rabbi, and a guy who does shellfish work in Rhode Island and knew all about which shellfish might have been eaten in the 1970s and which wouldn’t. I really enjoy that part of the process.


This interview originally ran on January 29, 2020 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun.

Maximum Shelf: The Book of V. by Anna Solomon

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 January 29, 2020.


The Book of V. by Pushcart Prize-winner Anna Solomon (The Little Bride; Leaving Lucy Pear) explores the lives of three women, apparently unconnected yet increasingly intertwined as the pages turn. The braided result is moving, surprising, so touchingly detailed and authentic as to seem more real than life.

In biblical times, a king of Persia takes a second wife. Solomon’s epigraph comes from Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s The Woman’s Bible: “I have always regretted that the historian allowed Vashti to drop out of sight so suddenly.” This first wife simply disappeared: “No one knows. She’s gone.” Solomon takes steps to correct the oversight of Vashti, but she is more concerned with the second wife–Esther, a Jewish orphan girl, chosen by the king as his replacement queen against her wishes.

Esther, meant to be homely and invisible, tried to shrink from the spotlight but somehow charmed the king despite herself. She casts a long shadow here, telling her own story–how she resisted the role of queen, and later used it to save her people–and then influencing several lives that come later.

Lily and her family live in Brooklyn in 2016. Lily gave up her academic career to stay home with her children: two girls who keep asking her to read the Esther book to them, even though she is thoroughly sick of it. Her husband works as deputy director of programs for Rwanda at a major humanitarian aid organization. It’s not that Lily misses academia, but she’s a little dissatisfied with the life she traded it in for. She is also a second wife.

And then there is Vivian, wife of a senator from Rhode Island in the 1970s. Vee is the daughter of a senator’s wife who was the daughter of a governor’s wife. In D.C., she is torn between the women in her consciousness-raising group–“with their circle-talk and their red wine and unmade faces”–and the other senators’ wives: “They are dazzling, these wives of politicians and company presidents, these tigresses who openly dislike and disagree with each other.” Vee is a little of each–and a little contrarian, driven to thwart both.

The title, The Book of V., refers to Vee, to Vashti and surely, to a part of the female anatomy. “This is what the women’s group women insist on calling it. Vagina, [Vee] thinks dutifully, though the word disgusts her.” Solomon shows a careful attention to words. “A blowhard, Esther called him, perhaps not with that word but with another that meant the same in that time and place.” Her writing is lovely, incandescent; paradoxically, it has that ability that fine writing often has to disappear into the background, so that readers seem to hear the characters directly without a writer’s mediation at all.

Readers follow Esther as she is thrown into a pageant (in several senses of the word) against her will, by an uncle who hopes she will solve problems bigger than herself, problems that have been plaguing the Jewish camp outside the city walls. Vee challenges her husband’s authority repeatedly, finally disobeying him in the same way that, legend has it, got Vashti banished or killed. Lily struggles with an attraction to another woman’s husband, just as her mother takes ill.

Chapters alternate among the perspectives of these three women. Individually stunning, their stories also intersect and meet in unforeseen ways. Though each takes center stage in turn, it requires all three to form the complete picture. They illuminate each other. The women’s relationships with men are very much at issue: Esther’s unkind king and his more powerful minister; Lily’s essentially good but somewhat boring husband; and Vee’s rather sadistic senator. They are joined by other male characters, sex symbols and brothers and abusers. But relationships between women are privileged. The Bechdel test–the idea that a book (1) should have at least two women in it, who (2) who talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man–is easily passed. Esther, Lily and Vee are joined by many interesting women: one of the maidens forced alongside Esther to compete for the king’s favor; Lily’s inscrutable mother; an old friend of Vee’s; a fellow Brooklyn mom who makes suspicious attempts to befriend Lily.

Each story is gripping in itself, and to balance them in alternation is a trick; it is to Solomon’s credit that the reader moves so smoothly among them, always sorry to step away but eager to return to the next woman, so that the pages fly by with unusual momentum. For a novel to offer such delightfully realized characters as well as such taut pacing is a fine accomplishment. The interweaving of the women’s lives is cleverly done, hinted at early on (as with references to Vee’s senator as royalty, or Lily’s daughters’ interest in Esther) with a light hand, and then growing as past secrets come to light.

With tense, deft plotting, memorable characters and writing that glows with each sentence, The Book of V. is a striking effort that will leave readers long inhabiting the worlds of Vee, Lily and Esther.


Rating: 8 zipper pulls.

Come back Wednesday for my interview with Anna Solomon.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Jennifer Finney Boylan

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


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

photo: Dan Haar

What inspired this book?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does this book have a moral or a lesson?

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

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


This interview originally ran on January 22, 2020 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun.

Maximum Shelf: Good Boy: My Life in Seven Dogs by Jennifer Finney Boylan

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 January 22, 2020.


Jennifer Finney Boylan tells her life story with both sweetness and fierceness in Good Boy: My Life in Seven Dogs. A coming-of-age story, a tale of finding and owning of self, and an elegy to a series of delightful and frustrating mutts, this is an occasionally heartbreaking but ultimately feel-good memoir about life and love.

Boylan’s 2003 memoir, She’s Not There, about her trans experience, was the first bestselling book by a transgender American author. Good Boy differs in several particulars: for one, there are dogs. “This is a book about dogs: the love we have for them, and the way that love helps us understand the people we have been.” It follows the path of Boylan’s life, from a confused and troubled boyhood through various teen and young adult phases, to dating and marriage, and finally to the decision to transition and the recent happy years as wife and mother to two young adults. Through these years and epochs, seven dogs in particular helped Boylan mark time and observe change, and learn to love.

First came Playboy, “a resentful hoodlum who loved no one except my father.” He chases and attacks motorcycles and is happy to raise a leg or squat indoors. “My father thought this was kind of funny, but then he was never the person who had to clean it up.” (That person was Boylan’s mother, and she would continue the unenviable task of cleaning up for several dog lifetimes to come.)

Then there was Penny, aka Sausage. What eventually turned out to be a thyroid problem caused this Dalmatian puppy to grow enormously fat, but the young Boylan (at this point known as Jimmy) carries her around “like an unusually heavy rag doll.” Boylan loves her, despite the dog’s indifference. “I figured, if I kept being sweet to Penny all the time, eventually her heart would open, and she would love me as I loved her. No one told me this is never how it works.”

Matt the Mutt humps everything and everyone, human and non, and knocks people down as they enter the house. Despite being neutered, Matt has lots of sex with Sausage, while James–now in college–mostly avoids it, even though he has opportunities with female classmates.

Next comes Brown, whose perfectly plain (if descriptive) name the Boylans hoped would match a personality boringly normal and sane, as none of their dogs had been to date. But all Brown wants to do is eat her own paws, and so she must spend her days in the Cone of Shame, meant to protect her from herself. “Was Brown not so unlike me, driven to the ends of the earth simply because she could not quite do the thing that she was destined to do?”

Alongside the lives of these dogs, young Boylan wrestles with deeply hidden anxieties–about how well he belongs in “his” body, in an all-boys school, in the world he’s been assigned. James’s mother is a martyr to dog poop, and his father battles cancer. On his deathbed, Boylan Sr. tells his son, “Be the man.” That, of course, is the task James most struggles with.

Boylan describes herself as a gender immigrant, as having a life divided into more or less equal thirds: boyhood, manhood, womanhood. (Boylan makes clear that while some trans people would not use such terms, she does see the earlier parts of her life as belonging to a person others perceived as a boy and, later, a man.) Good Boy is in part a contemplation of these themes: What does it mean to be a man? Is it tied to one’s ability to change the oil in the car, build things, woo women?

In adulthood, Boylan meets the woman she will marry, and they receive from their best man and childhood friend a dog that he can no longer care for. Alex is Boylan’s “guardian angel” and a “unique scholar,” apparently the first well-behaved dog to belong to a Boylan, but one who never gets over the loss of his first owner.

Happily married James adopts a “golden retriever” puppy that turns out to be anything but. This vaguely yellow mutt, Lucy, serves as witness to the beginnings of Boylan’s transition, finding herself and becoming Jenny. Initially distressed by the sight of her owner in dress, heels and wig, Lucy eventually counsels Jenny (in imagined dialogue) that, rather than losing everything, “Some things you will keep.”

Finally, Ranger is the dog of Boylan’s happy, settled life, a loyal black lab with a troublesome inability to avoid porcupines. In these later years, the author reflects on how well her conservative mother had handled her coming out, and Boylan herself must consider how to be the best mother she can be when one of her own children has news to share. Happily, well-adjusted Ranger is there to counsel the whole family as Boylan’s children grow up.

The mature woman who has penned Good Boy has much to reflect upon and lessons to share, many of them couched in the lives of good (and troubled) dogs. “There’d been this puppy I’d loved when I was eleven, but in time I’d turned my back on her, thrown my dog out of bed because her gelatinous sadness was a merciless chain tying me to the person I no longer wished to be.” Boylan’s dogs have taught her about love, and how its unconditional nature flows between humans and dogs. Good Boy is a story, first and foremost, about love, its many forms and the many directions in which we point it and receive it, and about how certain details, like gender, really matter very little in the end. If you have a family–and a dog–that love you, that’s the vital thing.


Rating: 6 cello suites.

Come back Wednesday for my interview with Jennifer Boylan.

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!

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