Read Her Like an Open Book returns from the Year of Living Stressfully

 

Hello book-loving friends. I’m glad you’re still here.

You may have noticed that Read Her Like an Open Book was much less active for the past year or so, with only intermittent posts. My blog was quiet because my life was not. I changed careers and was busy getting my freelance writing-and-editing business, Argus Editorial Services, on its feet. I was also developing a photography sideline, Inner Light Photography. Both my mother and my mother-in-law experienced health issues due to advancing age. (My 87-year-old mother passed away in January.)

And, frankly, I was suffering from a condition that began in 2016 and developed into a disorder in 2017. You may know it as Post-Trump Stress Disorder. As a news junkie, former high school Journalism teacher, and even more former attorney, I simply could not ignore what was taking place. But my preoccupation with keeping up with the daily drama (and trauma) took a toll on this blog, which I regret.

I decided last month that, with its five-year anniversary approaching in June, I would revive this blog, which means so much to me and has more supporters than I thought. I’m happy to report that when I approached several dozen writers about contributing to my weekly guest author feature, they responded with enthusiasm and many encouraging words. So far, I have received firm or tentative commitments to participate from over 40 authors.

In the coming months, you’ll read essays, interviews, and reviews by the following  writers: Robin Black (whose previous essay is the most-read post in the history of this blog), Chantel Acevedo, Karen Bender, Jessica Anya Blau (who will be interviewing Jane Delury), Michelle Brafman (interviewing Mary Morris), Gayle Brandeis, Siobhan Fallon, Wendy J. Fox, Stephanie Gangi, Lauren Grodstein, Yi Shun Lai, Krys Lee, Karin Lin-Greenberg, Margaret Malone, Marian PalaiaJodi Paloni, Keija ParssinenElizabeth Poliner, Anne Raeff, Elizabeth RosnerGina Sorell, Rene Steinke, Amanda SternThrity Umrigar, Ellen Urbani, and Mary Kay Zuravleff.

We’ll start tomorrow with a wonderful essay by Bernadette Murphy about reclaiming your life by overcoming your fears. Watch for a new guest author post every Tuesday.

You can also follow the social media accounts connected to this blog: there’s a Facebook page and a Twitter account, which is personal but mostly limited to book-related tweets. And I would certainly appreciate your sharing the word about this blog if you are so inclined.

This blog has always been an expression of my literary activism and feminism. My goal, as always, is to bring more attention to all the great literary fiction and memoirs by women writers. (And to encourage more men to read fiction, especially literary fiction, and even more especially by women authors.)

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Author Caroline Leavitt on Literature and Litigation: “My Life in Lawsuits”

caroline leavitt

Everyone knows the lawsuit story about The Help, right? Kathryn Stockett was sued by a family housekeeper, more than a year after Stockett gave her the book to read. The housekeeper claimed that despite the fact that this was fiction, her likeness, image and stories were used without her permission. Because the housekeeper had known about the book, and because her right to sue was past the statute of limitations, the court threw the case out.

But still, there’s that question: Who was right? Who really owns a life?  No one lives in a vacuum. We are all bumping up against and being impacted by other people all the time, and to really tell our stories, sometimes we have to tell a little of theirs, as well.

Fiction, of course, is safer than non, but still, it can’t save you from threats. My very first novel was my very first lawsuit. Meeting Rozzy Halfway, about two sisters growing up in the ’60s in Boston, about mental illness and identity, was based partly on a girl I knew and partly on the intensely close relationship I had with my sister. It was about Ben, Bea and Rozzy Nelson, an All-American Family with a golden girl daughter who becomes schizophrenic. Right before the book was due to be published, the buzz was deafening. I was in every newspaper, slated for radio, and all over TV. And then a letter came. A family, with almost the same names, Ben, Bea and Rozzy Neiman (that’s not their real last name, but it’s close enough), whose daughter Rozzy was schizophrenic, were suing for invasion of privacy.

Meeting Rozzy Halfway

The Neimans thought I was telling their story. I was tempted to laugh it off, because I didn’t know them or their story. “Do you really think I’d be so stupid to use their real names?” I asked my then publisher.

“People can sue for whatever they want. You don’t want them suppressing your novel and losing all this great buzz.” The questions from the lawyer started. Did I know them? (No.) Had I heard about them? (No.) Was my story even a little about them? (No.) Was I absolutely sure? (Yes.) In the end, because they didn’t want to go to court, the publisher pressured me to change their names in the paperback edition, a book I can’t look at now, without feeling slightly sick. I never heard from these people again.

There’s a wonderful Annie Lamott quote, “If people don’t want you writing about them, they should have behaved better.” But I began to know the rules. You always change names and appearances and even occupations. Change the city, if you can, too.

Feed Me anthology

A few years ago, I wrote an essay called “The Grief Diet,” for an anthology called Feed Me. (http://issuu.com/rhpg/docs/feedme_excerpt_fin) The essay was about a time, over 20 years ago, when I was so tortured by the sudden death of my fiance, that I thought the only way I could outrun my grief was to get involved with someone else. So I did, only the person I chose happened to be so emotionally abusive, so toxically cruel, that the only reason I stayed was because I knew if I left, I’d have to grieve for the man I had really loved. Oh, what a price I paid, though. My abuser/boyfriend wouldn’t let me eat (I whittled down to 95 pounds), stalked me on the street to track me, opened and read my mail, and even went into my computer when I wasn’t home and rewrote parts of my novel, adding a Groucho Marx joke because “it wasn’t funny enough.” He woke me up in the middle of the night to whisper, “Marry me,” and wouldn’t let me sleep until I said, “yes,” though I meant no. God. No, No. No. He hated my friends and didn’t want me to see them, and when I saw his friends, he accused me of flirting with them, so he didn’t want me to see them, either. He hated the way I dressed because it wasn’t girly enough for him. He hated that I didn’t cook, that I didn’t like the same books and music he did. I got skinnier and skinnier and so unhappy, my mother flew up from Boston and begged me to leave. My friends finally staged an intervention, and I left him. The grieving began again and yes, it was terrible, but in the end, it was better than being with him. And it lead to a new life.

When I wrote the piece, I didn’t use his name, or his physical description, or anything that could have tied him to the piece. I hadn’t heard from him in years. We had never shared a single friend, but then the book was out, and I put my excerpt up online, on my blog, on FB, and suddenly, over 20 years after our relationship, there was a call from the publisher’s lawyer. But to my surprise, it wasn’t him. It was another terrible ex-boyfriend, who was sure the essay was about him, and who wanted to suppress the book and my blog, because everyone would know it was him. “There was more than one boyfriend like that during that time,” I told the lawyer. Still, he called the publisher and the editor so many times, they told me they wouldn’t take his calls or emails anymore. In the end, he was sent away, but it left me shaken.

But is it easier if you get permission?

Well, um, no.

I wanted to write an essay for a friend’s anthology about infidelity, and I wanted to write about my first marriage, a terrible time that involved my husband’s betrayal, my best friend’s betrayal (she orchestrated my husband’s liaisons with his other woman), a murderous shrink, and a dead dog.

The Other Woman anthology

It was years later. I was ridiculously happy with a new husband, a child, a home, a career, and I had forgiven her. I told her I wanted to write about that terrible time when everything fell apart for everyone. Was it all right with her? “Oh, please do it,” she said. “I can tell you so much.” And she did. She cheered me on when the essay landed in an anthology, The Other Woman, when it was picked up by New York Magazine for its special Love and Sex issue, called “High Infidelity” (http://nymag.com/news/features/2007/sexandlove/30914/), and when I was invited on The Today Show twice to talk about infidelity and betrayal. But then I got a film option and a play option based on the anthology. Suddenly, there was a nasty message from her, threatening to use every cent she owned to take me to court, to ruin me, to stop me from stealing her life. “How dare you?” she said. “Who do you think you are?”

I was stunned. I had asked her permission and she had given it. I hired a lawyer who looked at the case and said there was none. She had known about the project years and years ago and had not sued. Her name, her profession, her appearance — all were changed, and legally, that is all that was needed.

She was silent after that.

To me, the interesting things in life are the relationships between people. Everyone’s life intersects and bangs up against the lives of others all the time. How could I possibly tell the story of my life without mentioning the people who impacted me the most, in both wonderful and horrific ways? Writers are magpies, and we collect details about people and we use them for fictional characters. Sometimes people see themselves, but sometimes they don’t. My mother swore she was a character in one of my novels (she wasn’t), and my sister never saw our girlhood in Meeting Rozzy Halfway. The only way you are truly safe is that you cannot libel the dead. At least as far as I know.

Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times bestselling author of Pictures of You and Is This Tomorrow, and wants to assure you that none of the characters are based on you.

Guest blogger Susan Jane Gilman: “What Am I Reading? Don’t Ask.”

Susan Jane Gilman  Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street

Susan Jane Gilman has published three nonfiction bestsellers (Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress, and Kiss My Tiara) but June 10 marked the publication of her debut novel, The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street. It has received much acclaim already and is an Indie Next pick for June. (You can catch her on tour this week in San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Providence, New York City, and Washington, D.C.) Gilman’s journalism has been published in countless magazines and newspapers, her stories have been published in literary journals like Story and Ploughshares, and her commentaries were heard regularly on NPR. She was born and raised in New York City, attended Brown University, and earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan. 

Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations” runs over five hundred pages, and I loved every one of them. But here’s what I remember: Pip’s nasty stepmother buttered only the top of a loaf of bread, so that each slice received just the thinnest wisp of butter along the crust. There was the pathetic woman with the mouldering wedding cake, Miss Havisham. And, oh yeah, an ingenue named Estella.

That’s it.

Five hundred pages and my takeaway is a slice of bread, a bad cake, and two women. I’d even forgotten that Pip was called “Pip.” I’d had to go back and look it up.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s brilliant “One Hundred Years of Solitude”? One of my favorite books of all time. Yet here’s what I can recall of that classic: A cloud of yellow butterflies, hovering above an open-air bathroom. “Love in the Time of Cholera”? Fermina Daza. I think she was the protagonist.

“Corelli’s Mandolin?” Corelli. A mandolin. A girl on a beach.

“Beloved”? Slavery.

“Olive Kitteridge”? The fact that the main character was named — wait for it — Olive Kitteridge.

Really.

I am a literary fiction and nonfiction writer, with a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing.

Two of my bestselling books were memoirs. I have nearly total recall of the day when I was seven years old and our second-grade teacher, an eccentric, flame-haired New Zealander named Mrs. MacNuer, had us make stick puppets depicting humanoid dinosaurs; mine was a lime-green Stegosaurus with a peace medallion and a handbag. I can recall what the streets of China looked like in 1987, shrouded in ghostly, pearlescent fog, the air smelling of wood smoke and garlic while swarms of black bicycles emerged from the pollution and chugged around Tiananmen Square. My family calls me ‘the historian” due to my full, sensory memory of places, events, conversations. Butdon’t ask me about the novel I read recently. I’ll have even forgotten the author.

I am not proud of this. We writers are supposed to be encyclopedic and erudite, capable of speaking incisively about great books. Certainly, I believe I should be capable ofretaining the most basic elements of what I read. Certainly, I should be capable of quoting lines from the literature that’s become hard-wired into my central nervous system.

Certainly, I should beable to give you thumbnail synopses of the novels I’ve loved and championed over the years — from Irene Nemirovsky’s “Suite Francaise,” to Mona Simpson’s “Anywhere But Here,” to April Sinclair’s “Coffee Will Make You Black.” to Téa Obreht’s “The Tiger’s Wife.” Surely, I should be ableto remember the plot from “The Catcher in the Rye.” I’ve only read the goddamn thing six or seven times. But no. I still cannot, for the life of me, tell you how it ends.

Last year, in Barnes and Noble, I came across a book about God written by Karen Armstrong. “Wow, this looks interesting,” I said to my husband. I read the endorsements on the back.

Turns out, one of them was from me.

I’d forgotten that I’d reviewed it on NPR’s “All Things Considered” several months earlier.

I’d worry that I have early-onset dementia, except that I’ve been this way since college.

And here is what is, perhaps, at the heart of the matter: Books, for me, are like fever-dreams. When I read, I am completely and utterly consumed by them. The rest of the world falls away. Caught in a riveting story, I’ll abandon my own writing, leave the laundry sopping in thewasher, ignore my mounting emails. I’ll move through my days in slow-motion, my thoughts bifurcated between the objects directly in front of me and the luminous otherworld that has takenover my brain. I feel addicted, unseeing. If anything distracts me from my fugue state, all I want todo is get back to that book.

But then, when I read the final sentence, and wistfully close the cover and set the book back down on my nightstand, it’s like a hypnotist snapping her fingers. Suddenly, I’m back in reality. And like a dream — even the best, most delicious dream — the book recedes so quickly that I am left with only fragments, glimpses of what I loved, surreal and ephemeral shards. A Russianadultress’ fingers, heavy with emeralds. A tumbleweed dancing end over end in an apocalyptic field. Ted Lavender. A tug boat storm-tossed in the straits of Japan.

Two days later, when you ask me what I’ve read, I’ll enthuse, “Oh, I just finished this phenomenal novel. It was set in an Indian reservation. With this devastating car scene between amother and son? And a tower?”

But for the life of me, I won’t be able to tell you what it was!

 

Guest Blogger Laura McBride: My Year with Virginia Woolf

Laura McBride   Virginia Woolf

Laura McBride is the author of We Are Called to Rise, which is published today (June 3) by Simon & Schuster. She is a professor of English at the College of Southern Nevada in Henderson, just south of Las Vegas, where her novel is set. It has received strongly positive notices and is one of this summer’s must-reads. (Look for my review tomorrow and an interview shortly thereafter.) 

About a million years ago, when I was in college, I did my senior thesis on Virginia Woolf.  It was an odd choice of topic – for an American Studies major – but my department was an easygoing place.  They didn’t mind that I was preparing to launch my deepest academic work on a British author I knew nothing about.  They just asked me to find my own qualified advisor (which they might have thought would be limiting) so I queried my friends in the dining hall, and someone recommended J. Hillis Miller (a famed member of the Yale deconstructionists).  I made an appointment, and asked if he would take me on.

I have no idea why he said yes.  I may have struck him as a raw primitive, he may just have been that sort of professor.  On that first day, he established the rules.  Read everything that Virginia Woolf had ever written, several times if possible.  Read the autobiography by her nephew Quentin Bell.  Read not one word of criticism or review.  Not an essay, not a book, not a damn student editorial.  And meet with him, once a week, for an hour, maybe two.  (Can you believe that?  Yale was great.)

I don’t remember any particular form for our sessions. I don’t remember poring over lines from the text, or discussing any literary theory.  I don’t remember any formal analysis at all; mostly, we just chatted about whatever I was reading then.  It was courteous; there was a pretense of intellectual equality.  I remember my youthful enthusiasms; I must have bored him terribly.  And then, when the hour or so was up, Professor Miller said “Alright, Laura, back to your reading.”

And that is how I spent many months, steeped in Virginia Woolf – her life and temperament so different from my own – with no particular expectations and no particular knowledge.  It was magical.  I don’t know how much I remember from that reading – I have that sort of mind – but I did eventually write a brutally long (for the reader, that is) essay on The Waves.  No evidence of it exists – thankfully – but I vaguely remember an experimental beginning in stream-of-consciousness style.  Ouch.

It seems to me that I often don’t know when I am in the middle of an extraordinary moment, when I am doing something I will never do again, and those months reading Virginia Woolf and talking about it with Hillis Miller, in that way, in that delightfully casual way, was such a moment.

I also learned two things.

One, it is a great pleasure to discover something in literature for oneself.  To read a review, a critique, or an analysis is to lose something of one’s own impressions forever.  I am careful of the chatter of other minds, even if they are better than my own.  I try to strike the balance thoughtfully: between reading what others are reading at a given moment, which offers the great pleasure of shared experience, and reading what no-one else is reading at the time, for the different pleasure of silent space.

Two,  when I write, I focus.  I rewrote that senior thesis, all 40-some pages of it, on the day before it was due.  I had woken up with the clear realization that the essay was terrible, and also with a clear idea of how to fix it.  It was a Thursday in December, bitterly cold; I went to the Mudd Library, which had wonderful light, and I sat down at a table in the middle of the reading room and began to write.  I wrote furiously.  I remember my hand cramping several times, and I remember shaking my fingers angrily; I had to hurry.

I started writing when the doors opened at eight, and when I finished, when I wrote the very last word, the first thing I did was look at my watch.  It was after four in the afternoon.  I was relieved that I had finished before the library closed at five, I was surprised that I had been sitting so long.  I remember those two thoughts, and then I remember realizing that I was cold.  I was freezing.  I was so cold that the feet of my chair were banging against the wood floor as my body shook.  I could barely stand up – I was so cold and cramped – and also, I was hungry, I needed a bathroom, and it was getting dark; I could barely see the page on which I had just been writing.  I looked up to see a young man, a graduate student probably, dressed in a winter coat and a stocking cap and gloves, with a red nose.

“Are you finished?” he said.

“I’m cold,” I almost yelled back. “There’s something wrong with the heat in here.  I’m really cold.  And it’s dark.”  I was a bit frantic, not at all polite.

“Yes,” he said. ‘The power went out about ten this morning.  The library’s been closed since noon.  We asked you to leave several times, but you never looked up, so I said I would just wait here until you were done.”

I really wish I knew who that man was.  Wow, I really wish I knew who he was. But then, perhaps you can see why I stopped writing when my children were small.

A Conversation with Molly Antopol about THE UNAMERICANS

The UnAmericans  Molly Antopol colorMolly Antopol 1     

The theme I found myself circling back to, again and again, was the complicated—and sometimes devastating—impact one person’s quest to improve the world can have on the people closest to them.

The UnAmericans seems like the work of a more mature writer, both in terms of the subject matter and the narrative voice. Why do these stories feel like they were written by an older Jewish writer? Have people been telling you that you’re an “old soul” since you were young?

Thank you! Yes, people have been telling me I was an “old soul” since I was little. I’m an only child, and was always a big reader, and kind of a nerdy kid—my mom says on camping trips I’d sit in my tent all day and write myself into whatever book I was reading.

I’m not sure why these stories feel to you like they were written by someone older, but maybe it has to do with the fact that so many of my characters are significantly older than I am. Once I understood that my collection looked at how people were shaped by large political and historical moments, it became really important to me to explore those events from multiple perspectives and voices—old and young, female and male, American, East European and Israeli. I wouldn’t allow myself to see the book as finished until I felt I’d written as convincingly as I could from these varied points of view. And it is true that many of the Jewish writers that have meant the most to me over the years—Grace Paley, Edith Pearlman, Leonard Michaels, Cynthia Ozick, Bernard Malamud—are from a generation prior to mine.

Your stories are set in various times and places, and concern distinctive situations. Yet your characters share some common traits. What would you say unites your characters, despite their superficial differences?

I’d written about half of the stories that ended up in the book when I began to see the ways in which these characters were in conversation with one another. The book doesn’t have any stories about female writers teaching creative writing and living in California, but I do feel that my stories are autobiographical in the sense that they capture what I questioned and obsessed over during the decade I was writing them. And the theme I found myself circling back to, again and again, was the complicated—and sometimes devastating—impact one person’s quest to improve the world can have on the people closest to them.

“Minor Heroics” is a fascinating exploration of the sibling dynamics of brothers. I loved the complex relationship between younger brother Oren and older brother Asaaf, which was made more fraught by the presence of Asaaf’s girlfriend, Yael. What inspired this story? What themes were you exploring?

That story began with an image for me: of two young men fighting, and one letting the other take the upper hand. When I started writing, I didn’t know who these people were or where they lived or why they were fighting, and so I started with the ending and worked my way back.

Your bio reveals that you’ve spent some time in Israel, which informs several of your stories. Can you tell me about your experiences in Israel and how they came to inspire stories like “Minor Heroics” and “A Difficult Phase” (probably my favorites)? Why does Israel have such a powerful effect on people?

I can’t speak for everyone else—but for me, I first went there to study during my junior year in college, and found the juxtaposition of the country’s extreme modernity and its extraordinary history incredibly fascinating. Since then, I’ve continually gone back and forth between there and the U.S. I lived in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv for years—I used to work for a Palestinian-Israeli human rights group, and at a youth village aiding new immigrants from Chechnya and Russia. And for the past seven years, since I started working on Stanford’s academic schedule, I’ve spent my summers there. At this point, I feel like I know Israel better than I do most parts of the U.S., and some of the people I love most are there. But I first arrived there as a guest, an observer—and so even writing about it now, I’m always aware that I’m staring through the glass.

What was your goal in writing the stories in The UnAmericans, other than to tell a compelling story? To shed light on the lesser-known personal impact of key events or situations? To make the “unsympathetic” or outcast more sympathetic, more recognizably one of us?

The first connotation the word “Un-American” brings up for me is the Red Scare, and the earliest stories I wrote in the book were all set during the McCarthy era and inspired by my family’s involvement in the Communist Party. As I worked on the collection, I became fascinated by the complicated meaning the word “Un-American” might have to this current generation of Israelis, forced to contend every day with their country’s close but messy relationship to America. In one of my stories, an Israeli soldier resents having to defend a settlement filled with Brooklyn-born religious families, but still pines for a chance to discover the United States for himself. In another, a young Israeli journalist’s life path is thrown into question during America’s 2008 economic meltdown. I also found myself exploring this idea of “Un-American-ness” in terms of privilege—for example, in the book’s final story, my working-class Israeli narrator never feels at home in America even after a decade of living there, whereas his wealthy American wife globetrots across the Middle East with utter confidence and ease.

While I wrote, I kept thinking about this notion of “Un-American-ness” for my East European characters—dissidents and academics, banned artists and writers—who, after risking their lives for their politics in their mother countries, then have to reinvent their identities in the United States, a country where they’re treated as anything but American. I kept thinking about the complicated emotional impact the fall of communism might have had on my characters during that time, and what it might have felt like to dedicate oneself to a cause that, in the course of world events, ultimately comes to an end. I wondered whether some people might have had a niggling feeling of nostalgia for that bleak time, simply because they held a significant place in it. For so many of my characters, their entire sense of self is shaped by their political work, and I wanted to explore how having lived under surveillance in Eastern Europe influences their lives once they immigrate to America, where they quickly realize that not only are they no longer being watched—they’re no longer being noticed.

More than anything, though, I found myself interested in writing about family, in particular the dynamic between these immigrant parents and their children: parents who find themselves in a country whose reality is so painfully different from their expectations; and their children, inheritors of so much political heaviness, who struggle both to honor these thwarted ideals and to navigate their own complicated lives.

In November, you were named one of the “5 Under 35” writers to watch by the National Book Foundation. How has that acclaim affected you, both on a personal level and as a writer working on a novel, in the few months leading up to the publication of The UnAmericans? Before the award, had you read anything by Amanda Coplin, NoViolet Bulawayo, Daisy Hildyard, and Merritt Tierce?   

It’s an extraordinary honor. I was so thrilled to get the news, and to be in such incredible company. Writing is often such a solitary pursuit; it was very nice to get recognition from people who are not related to me! I had already known Amanda Coplin (we have mutual friends) and NoViolet Bulawayo (we’re at Stanford together) and had been completely in awe of both of their novels. Two truly incredible books. I met Daisy Hildyard and Merritt Tierce for the first time at the 5 Under 35 ceremony, and was excited about their work after hearing them read. Merritt’s book comes out soon, and Daisy’s novel is on my bedside stack.

You’re working on a novel entitled The After Party. Can you share the subject matter? When might it be published?

Well, it’s set in Israel, Eastern Europe, and New York, right after the fall of communism. But I’m superstitious about discussing a book that’s in such an early stage—I shouldn’t say anything else!

Which authors or books have had the greatest influence on you, either as a person or as a writer? In what way?

Grace Paley has had an enormous influence on me. I admire her stories for so many reasons: for their intellect, humor, poetic compression and emotional generosity. I first read Paley in a literature seminar in college, and it was only then that I truly understood how compassionate and direct stories can be without ever veering into sentimentality. And she writes such gorgeous sentences without ever seeming like she’s showing off. Most of all, I love how character-driven her stories are while still giving us a nuanced sense of the larger political landscape—the politics of her fiction feels like such an essential part of the people she writes about that I never feel she’s being didactic or forcing any opinions on me.

The books I read as a kid were also hugely important in my becoming a writer, in particular Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy and Lois Lowry’s Anastasia Krupnick series. I recently reread those books and found them just as fantastic as I had as a kid—both Fitzhugh and Lowry write with so much warmth and self-awareness and what feels like genuine love for their characters. I also loved books about explorers as a kid, particularly Gulliver’s Travels and Call of the Wild—for a long time I wanted to be a zoologist or a marine biologist, and even as an adult, I’m happiest when I’m outdoors, off on some kind of adventure.

That’s one of the things I love most about being a fiction writer: all I need is a laptop, and when I’m not teaching I travel as much as I can, applying for every research grant and overseas gig I hear of, then extending those trips as far as the stipends will go. There’s something so incredible about being completely alone with my stories—in a country where my cell phone doesn’t work and there isn’t a single person who knows where I am or what I’m doing.

What have you read in the past year that really impressed you? Who deserves more acclaim?

I recently read and loved Ken Kalfus’ Equilateral; Jamie Quatro’s I Want to Show You More; Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped; Jennifer du Bois’ Cartwheel; Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena; Tom Kealey’s Thieves I’ve Known; Elliott Holt’s You Are One of Them; Tom Barbash’s Stay Up With Me; and Gal Beckerman’s book on Soviet refuseniks, When They Come For Us We’ll Be Gone. Right now I’m really enjoying Maria Hummel’s Motherland, as well as an advance copy of Skip Horack’s new novel, The Other Joseph, which comes out next winter.