Author interview: Michele Filgate

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


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

photo: Sylvie Rosokoff

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

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

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

How did it feel to publish such personal details?

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

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

How did the anthology happen?

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

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

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

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

Is this a book with a cause?

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Rating: 7 lies.

Lanny by Max Porter

This novel about family, the power of the woods and the creative spirit, centered on a special young boy, will charm any reader.

Following his decorated first novel, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, Max Porter again takes his reader into a weird and magical world with Lanny. Similarly short, lyric and mysterious, this touching story is partner but not sequel.

Lanny’s mum and dad have moved to a village not far from London, “fewer than fifty redbrick cottages, a pub, a church.” Lanny’s dad commutes into the city while his mum works on writing her murder thriller. Lanny goes to school and plays in the woods, singing, fairy-like and joyful; he is “young and ancient all at once, a mirror and a key,” “stinking of pine trees and other nice things.” He “says strange and wonderful things, mumblings, puzzling things for a child to say.” There is also an old man in the village named Pete, an artist who works with natural materials and was once famous in London. He describes himself as a “miserable solitary bastard” but is actually caring and sensitive; he becomes the closest friend Lanny’s family has in town.

And then there is Dead Papa Toothwort, a legend and an enigma, tied up in trees and leaves and related to the green men carved in old churches in this part of the world. When the book opens, he is waking “from his standing nap an acre wide.” As a force, it is unclear whether Dead Papa Toothwort is good or evil; he is associated with death as well as seasonal renewal. “He wants to kill things, so he sings… his grin takes a sticky hour.” “He loves it when a lamb gets stuck being born.” And he is obsessed with Lanny.

The whole village, in a way, revolves around Lanny–especially after misfortune strikes. His dad feels overwhelmed by his son’s specialness (“What or who is supposed to manage and regulate Lanny and his gifts? Oh f*ck, it’s us”); his needs are simpler, related to work, food and sex. The boy’s mum is closer to Lanny’s dreamworld, “the type of person who is that little bit more akin to the weather than most.” After agreeing to give him art lessons, Pete finds a surprising new friend in the young boy. The rest of the human population follows this preoccupation–and always there is Dead Papa Toothwort, listening.

What begins as a sweet revolution of three adult lives (mum, dad, Pete) around the boy turns sinister in the novel’s second of three parts; resolution comes in the third. Often a stream-of-consciousness style leaves the reader a bit off-kilter, but this is suited to Lanny’s dreamlike setting: trust in the story will be rewarded. Porter’s prose is undeniably gorgeous. “Mile-wide slabs of rain romp across the valley… palette-knife smears of bad weather rush past.” These elements in combination are every bit as imaginative, compelling and magical as Lanny himself.


This review originally ran in the April 25, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 mutterings.

How to Build a Boat: A Father, His Daughter, and the Unsailed Sea by Jonathan Gornall

A father ill-suited to DIY projects builds a boat for his daughter, and in the process writes a charming, heartfelt love letter to both boat and child.

Jonathan Gornall has been boat- and water-obsessed for many decades, but he is the first to admit that, as a longtime chair-bound freelance journalist, his DIY skills are nil. The idea of him building anything from scratch is unlikely. But Gornall is also giddy with joy at becoming a father again at age 58. As he seeks a project sufficient to show his new daughter his love and hope for her life, the idea feels natural, even obvious: he will build her a boat.

How to Build a Boat: A Father, His Daughter, and the Unsailed Sea is a love letter to that small child, Phoebe. It is a memoir of a life on and off of water and a study of the history, art and science of boatbuilding. Gornall is determined not only to build a seaworthy craft by hand and from scratch, he also feels that it must be clinker-built, the traditional type of planked wooden boat favored by the Vikings and early Anglo-Saxons, dating to the second century. Of course, he acknowledges, there is “no boatbuilding technique so respectably ancient, so historically resonant, so seductively beautiful, and so bloody difficult.” With his wife’s cautious support, Gornall sets himself a deadline: he will build Phoebe a boat within a year.

The pages of this book span slightly more than that year, following Gornall’s inspiration for his project through its conclusion, as well as revisiting the life that has led to this point. He considers his first sea voyage (in utero, with an unwed mother who consistently claims he’s ruined her life), his first experiences with boats (at boarding school) and his significant time on the ocean. Gornall has twice attempted to row across the Atlantic, with enormous press and personal pressure, and twice failed: these disappointments weigh heavily on the older man’s mind and contribute to the urgency to get this boating effort right. Along the way, he consults local boatbuilding experts in the historic tradition, as well as books in the canon: four authors he calls his League of Dead Experts.

Gornall’s tone is drily funny and always self-deprecating when it comes to the project at hand. His research, however, is as serious as his journalistic background would suggest. The writer’s love for style is evident: each chapter is headed by an epigraph, equally likely to come from one of the Dead Experts or from The Wind in the Willows or Winnie-the-Pooh. The result is a deeply moving intersection of the personal–Gornall’s absolute devotion to his daughter–with the practical. This is not quite a how-to manual, but readers with aspirations to fashion their own clinker-built boat would have a headstart upon reading. By the end, this self-described “soft-handed, deskbound modern man with few tools, limited practical abilities, and an ignominious record of DIY disaster” has achieved something truly remarkable, and possibly moved his reader to tears. If the boat is a gift to Phoebe, this book is another.


This review originally ran in the April 9, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 saws.

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!

Maximum Shelf: The Whisper Man by Alex 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 April 17, 2019.


Alex North’s The Whisper Man is an exemplary thriller, offering plenty of suspense, things that go bump in the night and complex psychological maneuverings that may–or may not–explain the good and the bad that is shared by fathers and sons.

As the novel opens, off-duty Detective Inspector Pete Willis wearily heads out to help search for a missing six-year-old boy. He doesn’t want to think about the similarities between this case and an old one that he still can’t forget. At the same time, Tom Kennedy, a successful novelist and deeply bereaved widower, is struggling to connect with his young son, Jake. A gifted but troubled child, Jake knows more about the world around him than seems natural. He tries to be good, quietly drawing by himself, but his pictures profoundly disturb Tom.

Detective Inspector Amanda Beck–a generation younger than Pete–wrestles with the case of the missing child, which does indeed turn out to be linked to the case that haunts the older detective. The serial killer, dubbed by the press “the Whisper Man,” appears to have returned, although he’s been in prison some 20 years; Pete was never able to pin down for certain whether there had been an accomplice. And now, there’s another child-snatcher whispering to his victims before he takes them. Kids repeat the rhyme on school playgrounds: “If you leave a door half open, soon you’ll hear the whispers spoken. If you play outside alone, soon you won’t be going home….”

Tom and Jake have just relocated to a new village to start over, after the loss of Jake’s mother. But it seems they’ve moved into a maelstrom of evil, like something out of one of Jake’s drawings. The tension and the action ratchet up as the distant past becomes very present again.

The Whisper Man is told from a number of different perspectives, chapter by chapter–Tom, Jake, Pete and the Whisper Man himself. They are occasionally joined by others, including up-and-coming DI Amanda Beck, who looks to Pete as a mentor; but the story centers on Jake, his father and their connection to the bad guy. Tom’s perspective is the only one written in first person, giving him a compelling narrator’s authority– appropriate, as he is the novelist of the bunch. These differing voices exhibit North’s adeptness with character, including the precocious child’s view of the world in Jake’s chapters. They also give the reader a chance to sleuth alongside the professionals. But North gives nothing away: even the most mystery-savvy reader will be gasping and page-turning to the very end.

North’s characters are multi-layered, deeply relatable while keenly entertaining as they reveal themselves. Pete struggles with alcoholism in a day-to-day battle that is both fraught and poignantly banal. A young man whose father didn’t love him focuses on the meaning of a meal prepared with or without care. One of Tom’s daily challenges involves taking Jake to school, where he waits for his son to look back over his shoulder or not, and where he worries about fitting in with the other parents (one of whom will become a significant side character). Each chapter in its turn, and each featured character, is so absorbing that the reader wishes to follow this lead and then that one–but the momentum of the plot is relentless. Characters that the reader has invested in are in danger, and the pages fly by. At nearly 400 pages, The Whisper Man is nonetheless a quick-reading, fast-paced novel.

The psychology is complex. There’s more than one bad guy, blurring into one another in the eyes of frustrated investigators Willis and Beck. And if The Whisper Man has a hero, or heroes, they are imperfect, each occasionally thinking themself the villain. Whether it surfaces as evil or good intentions, there is a strong theme throughout of the connections between fathers and sons: what is passed down, and what role free will has to play.

In the end, The Whisper Man has all the hallmarks of a great murder-mystery thriller: suspense, the battle between good and evil, surprise twists and turns, fresh takes on classic detective characters and sympathetic civilians. But more than that, North offers nuance and questions about human agency. For all the darkness in this novel about serial killers and trauma, there is a sweet strain of filial love and creativity, and even a note of redemption.


Rating: 8 circles.

Come back Friday for my interview with North.

Galley Love of the Week: Right After the Weather by Carol Anshaw

Be among the first to read Right After the Weather by Carol Anshaw, a Shelf Awareness Galley Love of the Week. Presented on Mondays, GLOW selects books that have not yet been discovered by booksellers and librarians, identifying the ones that will be important hand-selling titles in a future season.

Carol Anshaw’s Right After the Weather is, as her editor, Trish Todd, writes, “a real literary event”: taut pacing, delightful and delightfully weird characters, and a mighty shock inflicted upon its readers midway through. Protagonist Cate barely makes ends meet as a set designer waiting to make it big; surrounded by eccentric friends and lovers, she will capture your heart, and just maybe, keep it all together. Todd says, “Anshaw is a master of characterization, and I love meeting her flawed but recognizable and lovable characters. Her books are short, but they are like snapshots of an entire zeitgeist.” Hilarity, pathos, loads of quirks and a wry, behind-the-scenes look at the theater combine for an unforgettable experience.

Galley Love of the Week, or GLOW, is a feature from Shelf Awareness. This edition ran here.