American Academy of Arts and Letters honors 19 writers, including Haigh, Spiotta, Sinclair

   

Jennifer Haigh                                  Safiya Sinclair               Dana Spiotta 

 

The American Academy of Arts and Letters announced today the names of 19 writers who will receive the 2017 awards in literature, which will be presented in New York City at the Academy’s annual Ceremonial in May.  The literature prizes, totaling $265,000, honor both established and emerging writers of fiction, nonfiction, drama, and poetry.  The Academy’s 250 members propose candidates, and a rotating committee of writers selects winners.  This year’s award committee members were John Guare (chairman), Thomas McGuane, Anne Tyler, Rosanna Warren, and Joy Williams.

Recipients include novelists Jennifer Haigh (Heat and Light, Baker Towers, News from Heaven) and Dana Spiotta (Innocents and Others, Stone Arabia) and poets Kathleen Graber (The Eternal City, Correspondence) and Safiya Sinclair (Cannibal).

Haigh and Graber received Arts and Letters Awards in Literature, which honor “exceptional accomplishment in any genre” and come with a $10,000 prize.

Spiotta received the John Updike Award ($20,000), which is “given biennially to a writer in mid-career whose work has demonstrated consistent excellence.” Spiotta’s Innocents and Others is a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award in Fiction, which will be announced on April 21.

Sinclair was chosen for the Addison M. Metcalf Award ($10,000), which is “given to a young writer of fiction, nonfiction, drama, or poetry.” The Jamaican-born poet, currently a PhD candidate in literature and creative writing at the University of Southern California, is a 2016 Whiting Award winner, and her debut collection, Cannibal, won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry.

Work by the winners will be featured in the 2017 Exhibition of Work by Newly Elected Members and Recipients of Honors and Awards, which will be on view in the Academy’s galleries from May 18 to June 11.

Summer Fiction Preview: A Dozen Books Worth Your Valuable Time

Memorial Day weekend is considered the unofficial start of summer. And that means not only can you now wear white pants, but you’ve finally got some time to do all that reading you’ve been looking forward to. And publishers always “cooperate” by releasing a passel of must-read novels and story collections between May and August. Because there are so many books worth sharing, I’ve split this preview into two parts. Part 1 covers May 31 to June 28. Look for Part 2, covering July 5 to September 13, soon!


May 31

Modern Lovers

Emma Straub — Modern Lovers (Riverhead)

In “The River,” Bruce Springsteen asked, “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?” Straub catches up with the former members of a band as they build their family lives in Brooklyn, and suggests that there might be a third answer to that question: that some youthful enthusiasms remain beating quietly beneath the surface, to be revived later, when they’re truly needed.

June

Miranda Beverly-Whittemore — June (Crown)

MBW has mastered the smartly written melodrama, perfect for summer reading. In June, a young woman named Cassie is bereft following the death of her grandmother, the June of the title, who had raised her. But then Cassie learns that she is the heir to the fortune of aging Hollywood star Jack Montgomery. How can that be? Did he know June? When the star’s daughters dispute the will and show up in Cassie’s small Ohio town, they all learn the sinister truth about Jack and June, and face the consequences of a past they could never have imagined.


June 7

 

Homegoing

Yaa Gyasi — Homegoing (Knopf)

Some books have pre-publication buzz and some books have Big Buzz. Homegoing is the latter, one of the Big Books of Summer, generated in part by the auction that led to a seven-figure advance for Gyasi’s debut novel. The novel begins with two half-sisters in 18th century Ghana, one of whom is married to a British colonizer, the other sold into slavery. Their wildly divergent paths create the real attraction of Homegoing: the novel’s structure, which follows several descendants of the sisters up through the 21st century, exploring the rippling effects of family, history, slavery, and racism. It’s an ambitious and auspicious debut from an author we’ll no doubt be hearing a great deal from.

Goodnight, Beautiful Women

Anna Noyes — Goodnight, Beautiful Women (Grove Press)

Noyes’s collection offers a set of interconnected stories about women of all stripes, struggling to make their lives work in the midst of economic, family, and social challenges in Maine and elsewhere in New England. The characters move in and out of each other’s stories, the way we do in the real world, with effects both salutary and harmful.

Marrow Island

Alexis M. Smith — Marrow Island (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Smith blew me away with her slim but potent debut novel, Glaciers, in 2013. This time she expands her scope beyond the life of one quiet young woman in Portland. Lucie Bowen grew up on Marrow Island in the Puget Sound, until she and her mother were forced to flee to the mainland following an earthquake and oil refinery explosion that killed her father. Now, 20 years later, her best friend from her island youth writes to tell her that the island is inhabitable and is being repopulated by what she calls the “Colony.” When Lucie returns to visit, she soon develops serious misgivings about the colony and its leader, a former nun with an ambitious plan. As with Glaciers, Smith’s writing sparkles even in this dark story.


June 14

Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty

Ramona Ausubel — Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty (Riverhead)

Ausubel made a big impression with her distinctive vision in her debut novel about the Holocaust,  No One is Here Except All of Us, and her sophomore collection of surreal stories, A Guide to Being Born (think Karen Russell). She returns with the story of a privileged family in the mid-1970s who are confronted with a massive financial setback. The parents go their separate ways and their three children hunker down and try to cope with their changed and parentless world.

The Girls

Emma Cline — The Girls (Random House)

Cline’s first novel is also generating a lot of talk. A shy 14-year-old girl becomes friends with an older, charismatic girl and her mysterious friends. They soon suck her into the secret world of a cult living in the nearby hills. The parallels to Charles Manson’s “family” are obvious in this dark coming of age tale set in the Northern California in the late 1960s.

Grace

Natashia Deon — Grace (Counterpoint)

Deon’s debuts is a complex portrait of slavery pre- and post-Emancipation Proclamation. Fifteen-year-old Naomi runs away from her Alabama plantation and ends up in a Georgia brothel, where she falls in love with a white man. The bulk of the story follows their child, Josey, who is separated from her mother and raised by a freed slave in the years following the Civil War; she negotiates a life of violence as a mixed-race slave, then as part of a group of freed women. Rebecca Solnit says, “People will compare this book to Twelve Years a SlaveCold Mountain, and Beloved, and those are fair comparisons for the kind of time and place here, and the evocation of the south 150 years ago. But reading it, I thought of murder ballads, those songs of melancholy and injustice.” Grace is a moving story about the bonds of mother and daughter in the most difficult of circumstances.

Barkskins

Annie Proulx — Barkskins (Scribner)

In a novel that seems like to occupy a parallel universe to Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, two young woodcutters (“barkskins”) land in 17th century New France hoping to create lives in the New World. Like the half-sisters in Gyasi’s book, their personalities, skills, and luck are diametrically opposed, with dramatically different results. Proulx depicts the paths of their family trees for the following 300 years with her inimitable style and insight.


June 21

The Mandibles

Lionel Shriver — The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 (Harper)

Shriver is widely admired for her compelling family dramas We Need to Talk About Kevin and Big Brother. Now she moves into speculative, dystopian fiction, a la Margaret Atwood, to probe the nature of family life when a global currency collapse wipes out the fortune they expected from their 97-year-old patriarch.

Vinegar Girl

Anne Tyler — Vinegar Girl (Hogarth Shakespeare)

Tyler’s modernized take on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is the latest in a series of similar books published by Hogarth. Of course, modernizations of Shrew have been with us a long time, such as the musical Kiss Me Kate and the teen-oriented movie 10 Things I Hate About You. So one would think there was nothing left to do with this story of a difficult young woman who refuses to marry, complicating the marriage plans of her younger sister. Here, 29-year-old Kate Battista teaches pre-school and keeps house for her eccentric scientist father and takes care of Bunny, her younger sister. The plot thickens when Dr. Battista needs to find a way to keep his Russian research assistant in the country and looks to Kate for help.


June 28

The Trouble with Lexie

Jessica Anya Blau — The Trouble with Lexie (Harper Perennial)

The irrepressible Blau is back with another breezy yet biting tale of a young woman in various forms of trouble (as in her last book, the darkly comic The Wonder Bread Summer). Lexie James has overcome a troubled upbringing, earning a master’s degree, nabbing a plum job at a prestigious New England prep school, and becoming engaged to a terrific guy. As her wedding date nears, she is plagued by self-doubt. Does she really deserve a life like this? An alumnus of Ruxton Academy becomes the catalyst for Lexie’s journey of self-discovery. In The Trouble with Lexie, Blau offers up an entertaining combination of humorous and poignant moments in a fast-paced, fun read.

Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist announced

baileys-womens-fiction-prize-2015-longlist-stack

The shortlist of six finalists for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction was announced today in London. The prize is the UK’s only book award for fiction written by a woman.

The five judges have selected Outline by Rachel Cusk, The Bees by Laline Paull, A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie, How to Be Both by Ali Smith, A Spool of Blue  Thread by Anne Tyler, and The Paying Guests by Sarah Walters.

The finalists were chosen from a longlist of 20 books.

“Short-listing for the 2015 Baileys Prize was the fantasy book club of a lifetime,” said  chair of judges Shami Chakrabarti. “The novels we shared and the shortlist we ultimately honour form a body of great women’s writing to entertain and inspire for many years to come.”

The major surprise of this year’s shortlist is the omission of the much-admired Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, which many amateur prognosticators tapped to win the award (it was a finalist for the National Book Award). Samantha Harvey’s Dear Thief also has many fervent supporters.

The judges will now choose a winner, to be announced at an awards ceremony at Royal Festival Hall in London on June 3.

Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist announced

How-to-be-both-US-647x1024  StationElevenNorthAmericaHiRes    I Am China  The Country of Ice Cream Star  A Spool of Blue Thread  The Bees

The judges committee for one of the most-anticipated awards in the literary fiction world, the UK’s Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, has announced the longlist of 20 titles for the 2015 award.

According to The Guardian, Committee chair Shami Chakrabarti introduced this year’s nominees by saying, “I think we need to keep celebrating women’s fiction. We need to celebrate women generally and there’s nothing more powerful than stories.  We need to celebrate stories by women, for women, as just one more way to redress gender injustice.”

This year’s longlist includes well-known writers such as Ali Smith (for How to Be Both), Sarah Waters (for The Paying Guests), and Anne Tyler (for A Spool of Blue Thread), as well as debut novelists like Emma Healey (whose Elizabeth is Missing won the Costa Award), Laline Paull (for The Bees, a thrilling dystopian tale set in a beehive), and PP Wong (whose “The Life of a Banana” explores how it feels to be “yellow on the outside and white on the inside”).

Another nominees of note is Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, which was a National Book Awards finalist and bestseller. Coincidentally, Mandel was named  a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award today (along with Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation and Jennifer Clement’s Prayers for the Stolen).

The prize is open to novels written in English and published in the UK and was created to reward “excellence, originality and accessibility” in writing. The judges read 165 books, which they narrowed down to 20. The list of six finalists will be announced on April 13, and the award ceremony will be held in London on June 3.

Chakrabarti spoke extensively on the need for and value in the Women’s Prize, as well as about gender issues in publishing.

“We are still nowhere near where we should be,” she said. “I also don’t think women are getting their due in other literary prizes. I am still surprised at some of the lists and comments made by judges and chairs of judges elsewhere, so I don’t think it’s time to end a women’s prize.

“Literature ought to be further on than it is, given how long women have been writing brilliant stuff,” she continued. “It’s just hilarious to me that we should target a women’s book prize … at a time when women are much further back than they should be, not just in publishing but in politics, economics, health care. I think there is still work to do and there’s an ocean of talent to be discussed and shared and celebrated, and this is one way of doing it.”

The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist

Outline by Rachel Cusk – British – 8th novel

Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans – British – 4th novel

Aren’t We Sisters? by Patricia Ferguson – British – 8th novel

I Am China by Xiaolu Guo – Chinese/ British – 6th novel

Dear Thief by Samantha Harvey – British – 3rd novel

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey – British – 1st novel

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel – Canadian – 4th novel

The Offering by Grace McCleen – British – 3rd novel

The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman – British/American – 3rd novel

The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O’Neill – Canadian – 2nd novel

The Bees by Laline Paull – British – 1st novel

The Table of Less Valued Knights by Marie Phillips – British – 2nd Novel

The Walk Home by Rachel Seiffert – British – 3rd novel

A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie – Pakistani/British – 6th novel

How to be Both by Ali Smith — British – 6th novel

The Shore by Sara Taylor – American – 1st novel

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne  Tyler – American – 20th novel

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters – British – 6th novel

After Before by Jemma Wayne – British – 1st novel

The Life of a Banana by PP Wong – British – 1st novel

 

Carrie La Seur on The Home Place: “I wanted to tell a good story, one that the people I’m writing about would appreciate”

Carrie La Seur  The Home Place ad

In a year distinguished by outstanding debut novels, Carrie La Seur has written one that stakes its own claim to the distinctive territory known as the literary suspense novel. I was pulled in on the first page of The Home Place and the story had me riveted until the last page. I was equally impressed by the quality of the writing and the multi-layered plot. There is a great deal going on in The Home Place but it never feels overloaded or heavy-handed. The many characters and conflicts, the murder mystery, the love story, and the threat posed by coal mining to the ranchers’ way of life in southeastern Montana are all handled so expertly that one would never suspect that this is La Seur’s first novel. And she wrote it while working full time as an attorney and raising children. You can read my review here

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You have such an interesting and impressive background. Educated at Bryn Mawr and Yale Law School, Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, public interest lawyer, and now author. Having grown up in Billings, what made you decide to head east to a small, private liberal arts school? Did you experience culture shock moving from Montana to Philadelphia, or had you been yearning for city life for so long that you adapted easily? Did you plan to become a lawyer while at Bryn Mawr or did that come later?

I got good scholarship support to go to Bryn Mawr, but it was a huge culture shock for me. I went there because I wanted to see the world. We could barely afford it. I typed all my papers in the computer center, worked in the dining halls, walked dogs, etc. By the time I graduated, I had an idea that I’d like to be a lawyer, because I wanted to have the tools to represent people I had grown up with who had never gotten a fair shake.

When did you start writing? Was it always a part of your life or is it a more recent development?

Writing has always been my primary form of self-expression. I kept journals for many years and still dip into one now and then. When I was a kid, I’d write plays and have my friends and little brother act them out. I’ve tried a few writing classes, but they always took the joy out of it. The moment writing ceases to be a joy, I get up and walk away. Without that, there’s no point.

Which writers have had the greatest influence on you, both as a writer and as a reader? (I always assume they’re not necessarily the same, as one can love some writers but not be inspired to write like them.)

This book began as a little project I gave myself to tell something like the homecoming story Anne Tyler told in her first novel, If Morning Ever Comes, but for myself, with characters and problems that interested me. But I’ve never thought in terms of wanting to write like someone. Every word is derivative in some way, but you’ve got to mean it as your own or why write it?

I’m a terrible reader of novels. I’m hypercritical. I keep looking for that childhood experience of being so swept away in a book that I can’t bear for it to end and I want to read it over and over, like I did with C.S. Lewis or L.M. Montgomery or L’Engle or Tolkien. Something about Doris Lessing satisfies me lately, although I couldn’t say exactly what. It has to do with puzzling out big questions in a very engaging way. I love biography, history, and histories of ideas. Agrarians have been blowing my mind lately. I could read Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, Michael Pollen, or farm memoirists like Kristin Kimball all day and night. It’s probably consistent that Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer made me very happy. I like to read about people having complex, long-term interactions with places, delving into seasons and soil. And then Neil Stephenson and William Gibson and Arthur C. Clarke because my husband said they were geniuses and made me read them, and he was right. Tomorrow I will change my mind about all of this.

Obviously, there are some similarities between Alma Terrebonne and you, in terms of where she was raised and educated and her career choice. How did you decide which autobiographical aspects to use in The Home Place? Did you start out writing a memoir and it turned into a novel because it gave you more freedom and allowed you to include more than your personal experiences? A few authors have told me this is how their novel began (e.g., Brittani Sonnenberg with Home Leave).

There are settings and characters that are very familiar to me, and of course themes that I wanted to explore, but the story really isn’t very autobiographical. It was certainly never a memoir. If anything, I used details from my own life to emphasize the fact that my fictional characters aren’t as improbable as they might seem.

The Home Place is a character study and the story of a family dealing with a tragedy amid a web of complex relationship dynamics. The writing is often lyrical and there is a palpable sense of place. These are all characteristics of literary fiction. Yet it is a murder mystery set against the rural drug culture and complicated by the environmental issues posed by Big Coal trying to expand mining in Montana. What were the challenges of writing a “literary thriller”? How did the plot evolve?

Alma needed a compelling reason to come home, and something to keep her in Montana long enough to deal with what she left behind. That required an urgent event right away. Once I decided what that event was, much of the rest fell into place – as much as you can say that about a novel that easily went through a dozen rewrites. Mostly I wanted to tell a good story, one that the people I’m writing about would appreciate.

Do you view The Home Place as a sort of “belated coming-of-age” story? I’ve read several novels in the last few years in which characters who have been away from home for a long time feel the pull of “home” (both family and place) and experience a transformation in acknowledging this connection.

There are definitely elements of the bildungsroman here, especially considering how long it took me to write it.

As you wrote The Home Place, did you picture certain actors playing each role? Or when it was finished and existed outside of you? It’s a very cinematic read, and I found myself doing that as I read. Are there any plans for a movie?

To tell you the truth, I didn’t think about that until you asked. I wasn’t picturing famous faces.

It’s probably not the greatest commercial choice, but if they left it up to me I’d go for Noomi Rapace – who played Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish version of the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo movies – for Alma. She kicked ass, and Alma has more than a little fight in her to get where she is. The accent might be a challenge, so then Rooney Mara.

For Ray, I love Evan Adams, but he might be a little old for the role. For Vicky, Taryn Manning, “Pennsatucky” from Orange Is the New Black. Maddie: Betty White. Helen: Someone like Debbie Reynolds or even Sally Field. Pete: Channing Tatum, all the way. Walt is Woody Harrelson or Nick Nolte in hairy, crazy mode. Chance: Nobody too pretty. I never said he was handsome. Someone like a young Hugh Laurie.

No movie deal yet.

What is your writing routine? Do you write in a particular place? What five things do you need in order to write?

I write whenever I get a chance. Much of The Home Place was written on the couch after the kids went to bed. The only 5 things I need are 5 minutes of peace and quiet, and sometimes that’s all I get.

What has surprised you about the process of writing and publishing your first novel, both good and bad?

It’s all surprised me. I knew nothing. I was stunned to find an agent and ecstatic to sell my book. The whole thing is still hard to believe.

Fun Questions

If I were a car, I would be… a bicycle. A really fast one.

If I were a city, I would be… Melbourne, Australia.

If I were a pet, I would be… a horse.

If I were a product from the Home Shopping Channel, I would be… ? (I don’t have cable.)

If I were a TV show, I would be… Firefly.

If I were sushi, I would be… unagi.

If I were a movie, I would be… The Thomas Crowne Affair.

If I were a fairy tale character, I would be… the witch.

If I were a Disney character, I would be… Quasimodo.

If I were an actor, I would be… broke.

If I were a sound, I would be… the song of the western meadowlark.

If I were a beverage, I would be… Laphroaig.

If I were a year, I would be… next year.

Dog or cat person? Dog.

Beatles or Stones? Stones.

Dylan or Springsteen? Springsteen.

Half-full or half-empty? Leaving glasses of water sitting around is just asking for trouble.