Maximum Shelf: House of Cotton by Monica Brashears

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 4, 2023.


Monica Brashears’s House of Cotton is an engrossing coming-of-age novel about ghosts, mothers and the struggle to survive. It is also a novel of the lingering challenges of race and class. Brashears’s prose style is sharp and incisive, and the entrancing, distinctive voice of her protagonist is by turns weary, sardonic and yearning. A haunting story and unusual perspective make this a memorable and thought-provoking debut.

Magnolia Brown is 19 years old when her grandmother, Mama Brown, dies. Her absent mother struggles with substance abuse and an abusive partner, so that leaves Magnolia more or less alone in the world, fending off a lecherous landlord (who is also deacon at her grandmother’s church) and struggling to get by. She works the night shift at a Knoxville, Tenn., gas station, where she tries to care for Cigarette Sammy, the muttering man who goes through the trash outside (“the only other Black person I see on this side of town”), between one-and-done encounters executed by her Tinder persona, Carolina Nettle. It’s a tenuous living, and she misses Mama Brown terribly. One night “a whistling man with blood-smeared hands” walks into the gas station. “Hearing a man whistle when he walks in a place he don’t own ain’t natural. Like finding a chipped tooth on concrete. An omen.” When he returns from the bathroom after cleaning his hands, she sees the man is polished, manicured, smooth-talking, wearing good cologne. Cotton offers Magnolia a modeling job, but she’s wary; Magnolia knows omens. But she’s also broke, and quite possibly pregnant.

At the address he gives her, Magnolia finds the Weeping Willow Parlor, a funeral home run by Cotton and his gleefully friendly, drunk Aunt Eden. The pair is eccentric: Cotton needs to constantly finger a piece of pocketed twine to remain calm; Eden is something of an alcoholic and firmly does not believe in ghosts. They are wealthy, and culturally foreign to Magnolia.

Cotton and Eden Productions offers Magnolia a most unusual modeling job: they provide families with lost or missing loved ones a final contact, a side business something like a séance. With Eden’s uncanny funeral-home makeup skills and Magnolia’s amateur acting, Magnolia will play the part of the dead. She’s used to pretending; it has long been her coping mechanism: “When I get this way, when I feel like kudzu is wrapped tight around my ribcage and I’m bleeding a bright heat, I like to slip inside my head.” She slides smoothly into Cotton and Eden’s world and their comfortable, decadent habits: cocktails at all hours, joyriding in the hearse. She moves into the funeral home, lets Eden apply pale body paint to allow her to become missing white women and men, and begins saving her money. The ghost of Mama Brown checks in with Magnolia: knowing, comforting, but judging as well. Reading a letter Mama Brown left her, Magnolia knows “[S]he ain’t left me. I ain’t seen her, but she sits by me. Unseen but real as humidity.” Soon the ghost will be seen as well.

Magnolia’s life becomes split. At the Weeping Willow, she lives in ease and has money to spare, but feels estranged from the very different world Cotton and Eden come from. The relationship is transactional, and she’s always acting, even when the makeup is off. And then there is Mama Brown’s home, where the garden (the place Magnolia still meets her Tinder dates) grows out of control. By tending the needs of the rich white folks who help support her, Magnolia has literally let her own house get out of order. Her caretaking of Cigarette Sammy has become disrupted. Cotton’s requests get weirder and weirder, and Mama Brown’s ghost expresses concerns about Magnolia’s choices, which have affected Mama Brown in the afterlife. The worldly and otherworldly pressures mount.

Set in the grand Weeping Willow Parlor, complete with secret passageways and haunted by Magnolia’s much-loved but literally disintegrating grandmother, House of Cotton pits traditional gothic elements (the haunted castle, women in distress, death and decay) against contemporary questions about race and class and the persistent legacy of slavery. It shares the genre’s sense of suspense and foreboding, but Magnolia’s struggles are very realistic. Her first-person narration brings an immediacy to the events, and an intimacy that’s advanced by her frank voice and turns of phrase. On its face, this is an intriguing ghost story with a compelling, beleaguered protagonist. In its layers, there is much more at stake.

“I am a tattered quilt of all the women before me. I am a broken puzzle,” Magnolia states, but she is clearly a survivor as well. Despite her many fears, she is somehow fearless in pursuing the truest version of herself. Brashears excels in strong characters and deeply felt emotions, and in a robust sense of place: Knoxville shines as both urban and cultural setting and in the details of its natural world. Brashears offers a fresh new perspective on Appalachia and the American South, and Magnolia’s rich voice will echo with readers long after the pages are closed.


Rating: 7 missing fingernails.

Come back Monday for my interview with Brashears.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Costanza Casati

Following Monday’s review of Clytemnestra, here’s Costanza Casati: ‘Now Is the Time to Retell Their Stories.’


Costanza Casati (photo: Arianna Genghini)

Costanza Casati was born in Texas and has lived in Italy and the U.K. Before moving to London, she attended a classical liceo in Italy, where she studied ancient Greek and ancient Greek literature for five years. She is a graduate of the Warwick Writing MA program and currently works as a freelance journalist and screenwriter. Her debut novel, Clytemnestra (Sourcebooks Landmark, March 7, 2023), is a striking retelling of the story of Greek myth’s queen of Mycenae and murderer of Agamemnon.

Why Clytemnestra? What made her story the one you needed to tell?

So many reasons! She is powerful, clever, fierce, obstinate. In the ancient texts, she comes across as a truly unforgettable character: she is feared and respected for the power she holds and, most of all, she doesn’t let the men around her belittle her. And then there are all the myths surrounding her, which I wanted to explore from her perspective. Clytemnestra is connected to some of the most fascinating characters from the myth: she is sister to Helen, cousin of Penelope, lover to Aegisthus, daughter of Leda.

Even her very first mention, which is in the Odyssey, is such an unforgettable one. When Odysseus meets Agamemnon in the Underworld, they speak of their wives, Penelope and Clytemnestra, and Agamemnon says, “Happy Odysseus, what a fine, faithful wife you won! The immortal gods will lift a glorious song in praise of self-possessed Penelope./ A far cry from the daughter of Tyndareus, Clytemnestra/ the song men sing of her will ring with loathing./ She brands with a foul name the breed of womankind.”

Cast as a murderess and the archetypally “bad wife” for centuries, Clytemnestra is actually an incredibly modern character: a powerful woman who refuses to know her place. Once you know her story, her entire story, you can’t help falling in love with her.

Did writing this novel involve research on top of your academic background?

There are two kinds of research I like to do. There is the more practical, specific kind, which I do in parallel with writing a scene–Which towels did they use? Was soap a thing? Which frescoes were common in Mycenae? What did a typical meal look like in Sparta?–and then there is the “cultural” research, which you must do before writing a novel, and which, in my opinion, is essential for writing historical/mythical fiction. It was very important for me to truly live inside my characters’ heads, experience the world through their eyes. So, for instance, a more broad, “cultural” research question would involve things such as: How was guilt perceived in Mycenaean Greece? Did the Greeks fear death? How were women treated in Sparta? Did forgiveness exist for these people? Those are things that must be woven seamlessly into the narrative, but they also must be clear to a contemporary reader. That balance, between re-creating the way in which ancient people thought, and making it accessible to contemporary readers, is the most important thing for me.

It feels like modern retellings of the Greek myths are a genre of their own. Do you have any favorites?

There are so many! The first retellings I fell in love with are The Song of Achilles and The Children of Jocasta. Both take extremely famous characters from the myth–Achilles and Oedipus–and tell their story from the perspectives of lesser-known figures: the shy Patroclus in Miller’s novel and Oedipus’ wife and daughter in Haynes’s book. What I love the most about Miller’s and Haynes’s writing is the way in which they re-create the mindset of Ancient Greece: concealing impeccable research behind smooth and lyrical prose.

Other favorites of mine include Ariadne, The Silence of the Girls and Circe.

Which characters are yours?

Some of the characters are my own creations: Clytemnestra’s guard in Mycenae, Leon, and her faithful servant, Aileen. The elders obviously feature in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon but as a chorus, while I gave them names and more specific motives. Then a character that is mine entirely is Cynisca. To write her, I drew on a woman who truly existed (though many years later, and with no connections to Clytemnestra’s story): the Spartan woman famous for being the first to win at the Olympic games in 392 BC.

Then there are Timandra, Clytemnestra’s sister, and Tantalus, Clytemnestra’s first husband, who exist in the sources, but just as passing names. Timandra is mentioned in fragments by poets Stesichorus and Hesiod. They say that Timandra was unfaithful to her husband, just like her sisters, because of a sin their father Tyndareus had committed when forgetting to sacrifice to Aphrodite. I found these fragments incredibly fascinating and wanted to explore Timandra further.

Tantalus of Maeonia (or Lydia) was another character I was drawn to because he is so important to Clytemnestra’s story. His name appears in Euripides’s Iphigenia in Aulis.

What was the writing process like?

One of the things I loved the most about writing Clytemnestra was bringing to life a female character who is ambitious and loyal, powerful and beloved. I fell in love with this character 10 years ago and wanted others to fall in love with her too. Clytemnestra has been portrayed as an adulteress, a jealous, power-hungry ruler and murderess for centuries, so I really enjoyed playing with these stereotypes and peeling them away to show the woman under them.

One of the hardest parts (which was also incredibly fascinating) was writing the more well-known characters from the myth in a way that felt both fresh and true to the sources. Helen and Odysseus, for instance, are incredibly famous, but I felt like I needed to write them in a way that felt familiar but also unexpected. The same challenge obviously came with the plot. For the people who know the myth, they already know how Clytemnestra’s story plays out, so how do you make it interesting and surprising? I tried to bring to light elements and details that were already hidden in the sources and play with them a little bit. Finally, one of the things I loved the most while writing was exploring Clytemnestra’s family dynamics.

Is this a feminist retelling?

I would absolutely call this a feminist retelling. “Feminist” because I wanted to write the story of a woman who took part in the action, whose narrative is as epic as the ones of the men and heroes. Besides, Clytemnestra isn’t the only powerful woman in my novel: it was essential to me that I wrote a story with a cast of female characters that were clever and complex, flawed and unforgettable.

The women of the Greek myths are incredibly heroic–think Alcestis, Antigone, Ariadne, Circe–and yet throughout the centuries they have been burdened with cultural and ethical codes that make them helpless victims, or, in the case of Clytemnestra and Helen, misogynist archetypes: murderesses and lustful whores. Now is the time to retell their stories.


This interview originally ran on November 15, 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: Clytemnestra by Costanza Casati

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 November 15, 2022.


“Kings are brilliant / mighty / godlike // Queens are deadly / shameless / accursed.” Such has been the literary fate of Clytemnestra–adulteress, wife and murderer of Agamemnon in the Ancient Greek canon. Costanza Casati’s debut, Clytemnestra, is a dynamic retelling of the story of the much-maligned Spartan princess, sister of Helen, queen of Mycenae, mother of Iphigenia, Electra and Orestes (and others). Aeschylus, Homer and Euripides generally portray Clytemnestra in a negative light, but Casati’s reframing–from her title character’s point of view–emphasizes the difficult circumstances that challenged a strong-willed woman in a time and place that did not reward such a quality. Clytemnestra is a masterpiece of justified rage on the protagonist’s part, and a subtly subversive revision of a story many readers know from a different perspective. She will be called ruthless, merciless, “cruel queen and unfaithful wife,” but viewed from another angle, Clytemnestra fights honorably for her own well-being and for that of the people she loves.

The events of Clytemnestra’s life are not much rearranged here. As a princess in the Spartan court, she is trained as a warrior and huntress, surrounded by violence and death even in her privilege to sit in the megaron with her father, King Tyndareus, where they hear the villagers’ requests. This upbringing emphasizes martial training, physical skill, obedience and the ability to suffer. Her first marriage, to Tantalus, was for love and was a meeting of minds, but it ended in murder and betrayal, and with a forced second marriage to the Mycenaean king, Agamemnon, whose brother Menelaus in parallel marries Helen. Clytemnestra’s later lover, the traitor Aegisthus, is a complicated, enigmatic character in his own right. This proud queen, treated as a pawn in political power struggles, wrestles to keep her dignity in the Mycenaean court under the brutalities of her husband, but never loses her sense of herself as a warrior and a survivor. The events of this novel close where Aeschylus’s Agamemnon opens, thereby gifting a complex backstory to a woman often portrayed as villain.

Clytemnestra dips its toes as well into the stories of the queen’s famous family members: her brothers Castor and Polydeuces, boxers and horsebreakers; her sister, Helen, whose legendary beauty led to the Trojan War; her mother, Leda, who was seduced by Zeus in the form of a swan (or was she raped?). Her children include Tantalus’s unnamed infant son; Iphigenia, sacrificed at Aulis to summon wind for the Greek ships on their way to Troy; and Electra and Orestes, whose stories expand only after these pages close. This Clytemnestra is very close and loyal to her siblings; family ties for better and for worse shape her decisions all her life, even at great distances. For instance, meeting a new face, she thinks of her siblings: “Helen would have charmed him with her beauty and subtle cleverness, softening him until he opened like a peach. Castor would have mocked him, pricked him with words like needles, until he talked.” Clytemnestra’s cousin is Penelope, eventually famous as Odysseus’s queen and faithful wife, in marked contrast to the Clytemnestra in traditional representations; here, again, the reader sees a new and complex side of a familiar character, as she is courted by the cunning Ithacan king.

The gods in this version are mere myth, not actors in real events; Clytemnestra, like her mother, is skeptical, even scornful of the gods and their followers. She understands that kings and not queens rule in her world, but she continues to demand the respect she deserves even when it’s unlikely she will get it, and consistently calls out the rapes and attempted rapes that often go unmarked in the courts and villages of both Sparta and Mycenae. This retelling is a deepening of Clytemnestra’s story and her character. Helen, her beloved sister, likewise grows more multifaceted in Casati’s nuanced novel, but the beautiful one is not gifted with physical prowess or the confidence of the fierier Clytemnestra: “Clytemnestra dances for herself; Helen dances for others.” Timandra, one of their younger sisters, is fierce like Clytemnestra, but with a different burden in their strict society. These female leads are glittering, glowering, admirable and sympathetic, and the result will reignite (or ignite) readers’ interest in the stories of ancient Greece and emphasize their relevance in any time.

Clytemnestra is a stunning, standout contribution to the growing genre of modern treatments of the Greek myths. Casati brings both a solid grounding in the canon and imaginative venturing into the inner workings of a woman who has long been famous but little understood. Her writing is gorgeously descriptive and emotive: “She thinks of those white flowers blooming against the rocks of the Ceadas. For years she wondered how they survived down there, among the corpses and darkness. But maybe this is how broken people keep living…. Outside the light is golden. It shines on them as if they were gods.” Casati’s Clytemnestra is modern in her staunch demands for dignity and respect, but believably rooted in ancient times. This is a necessary novel for fans of mythology, strong women, the pushing of boundaries and epic dramas of family, power and love.


Rating: 8 cuts.

Come back Friday for my interview with Casati.

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.

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