Eight women make National Book Awards fiction longlist

The National Book Foundation announced the 10 finalists for the National Book Award for Fiction this morning, and it’s an impressive list full of pleasant surprises. The first is that eight of the 10 nominees are women; another is that six of the eight are women of color; and the last is the presence of several surprising dark horse selections from small presses.

    

While it’s no surprise to see Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing and Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach among the finalists, it’s gratifying to see this kind of attention given to Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, an epic saga of the struggles of ethnic Koreans in Japan, Lisa Ko’s Bellwether Prize-winning The Leavers, and Charmaine Craig’s Miss Burma. 

Independent publishers are represented by Counterpoint Press of Berkeley with A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, Graywolf Press of Minneapolis with Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties: Stories and New Issues Poetry & Prose at Western Michigan University with Barren Island by Carol Zoref.

    

Finalists will be announced on October 4, with the awards ceremony to be held in New York on November 15.

The complete list:

Dark at the Crossing by Elliot Ackerman (Knopf/Penguin Random House)

The King Is Always Above the People: Stories by Daniel Alarcón (Riverhead Books/Penguin Random House)

Miss Burma by Charmaine Craig (Grove Press/Grove Atlantic)

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan (Scribner/Simon & Schuster)

The Leavers by Lisa Ko (Algonquin Books/Workman Publishing)

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (Grand Central Publishing/Hachette Book Group)

Her Body and Other Parties: Stories by Carmen Maria Machado (Graywolf Press)

A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton (Counterpoint Press)

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (Scribner/Simon & Schuster)

Barren Island by Carol Zoref (New Issues Poetry & Prose)

 

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Six Terrific Recent Books You May Have Missed, Part 2

We all know the old saying, “So many books, so little time.” And it’s never been more true than now, when more good books are being published than ever. One of the unintended consequences of such a wealth of choices is that deserving books are often overlooked. Some receive passing attention, often below the typical reader’s radar, while others are inexplicably ignored by the publishing industry, press, and booksellers, keeping them a mystery to potential readers. And sometimes a book receives acclaim and sells well, but readers still miss it. There are a LOT of books out there! Here are a handful of recently published novels and short story collections that deserve your time and attention.


bottomland  michelle-hoover-grayscale

Bottomland

Michelle Hoover

Black Cat/Grove Atlantic

March 1, 2016

Hoover’s follow-up to her acclaimed debut, The Quickening, concerns a family of German immigrant farmers in post-WWI Iowa. The Hess family faces discrimination from suspicious neighbors and townspeople but they hunker down and continue to work hard. Then their two young daughters, Esther and Myrtle, disappear. Have they run away to the much-desired big city of Chicago? Or were they kidnapped? In spare, Catheresque prose well-suited to the land and characters, Hoover tells a haunting tale of familial love, the personal and societal effects of war, and dreams gone awry.


crooked-heart-of-mercy  billie-livingston

The Crooked Heart of Mercy

Billie Livingston

William Morrow

March 8, 2016

Livingston is a well-regarded Canadian author of fiction and poetry who deserves to be better known in the U.S. The Crooked Heart of Mercy is the story of three broken people coping with personal tragedies. Ben is a limo driver who has sustained a serious head injury. His wife, Maggie, tries to hold their already fragile life together while Ben is being treated for both physical and psychological damage. She looks to her brother Francis, a priest, for help. But he has his hands full with a DUI scandal, and Maggie finds herself in the role of caretaker for two men. Livingston has a quirky and compassionate sensibility that makes you care deeply about these flawed characters, who find that they can save each other in unexpected ways.


folly-of-loving-life  monica-drake-by-bellen-drake

The Folly of Loving Life

Monica Drake

Future Tense Books

March 8, 2016

Drake is part of the burgeoning Portland literary scene. After two novels, she has written a collection of linked stories set over the course of three decades that depict “old Portland” in an uncompromising but often darkly funny manner. Sisters Vanessa and Lucia lead us through a cast of characters working at a range of low-to-mid-level jobs that just allow them to scrape by. You will recognize these “tough but tender” people no matter where you live and work. Drake’s writing is raw and memorable.


as-close-to-us-as-breathing   elizabeth-poliner

As Close to Us as Breathing

Elizabeth Poliner

Lee Boudreaux Books/Little, Brown

March 15, 2016

Set on a stretch of the Connecticut coast known as “Bagel Beach” for its popularity with Jewish families, As Close to Us as Breathing is a family saga involving the lives of three adult sisters who spend summers there in their family cottage, with their husbands coming down on the weekends. It begins with a tragic accident in 1948 and follows the siblings and their families as they cope with this loss amid the tension between tradition and assimilation in the decades after WWII. The sisters are vividly drawn and characters who will continue to walk around inside your head after you finish this book. One caveat: The story is narrated by a family member looking back to 1948, when she was 12, and it moves back and forth in time and involves many characters, so it can occasionally be disorienting. Polliner’s second novel is a richly layered, compelling read.


houseguest  kim-brooks-close-up

The Houseguest

Kim Brooks

Counterpoint Press

April 12, 2016

The Houseguest reminds us that, as Faulkner said, the past isn’t dead, it’s not even past. Set in New York in early 1941, before American Jews knew of the Holocaust, The Houseguest tells the story of Jewish immigrant Abe Auer, a junkyard owner in Utica, who is persuaded by his rabbi to take in a refugee named Ana Beidler. She turns out to be a beautiful and complicated young actress from the European stage. Her charismatic presence upsets the balance of the Auer household even before she disappears around the time that Abe and other Jews begin to learn of the Nazis’ atrocities. Brooks’ psychologically astute novel shines a light onto the responses of American Jews like Abe Auer, as well as the Jewish organizations in the U.S., many of which operated below the radar to aid their European brethren. More than one “houseguest” has moved in and confronted Americans with a range of unexpected moral dilemmas. This is a powerful debut novel, and one that is especially timely in light of current issues involving refugees.


they_could_live_with_themselves_cover  jodi_paloni_by-dawn-surratt

They Could Live with Themselves

Jodi Paloni

Press 53

May 3, 2016

Reminiscent of Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, Paloni’s debut is a collection of linked stories set in the tiny town of Stark Run, Vermont. Paloni has crafted a series of stories that probe the inner and outer lives of the community’s residents. She writes with a deft touch and palpable empathy for her flawed and very recognizable characters, who often surprise themselves and others. The cumulative effect of the interconnected vignettes is that of a mosaic slowly taking shape. They Could Live with Themselves is perfect for reading in front of a fire on a chilly autumn evening.


Photo Credits

Monica Drake by Bellen Drake

Jodi Paloni by Dawn Surratt

Five Terrific Recent Books You May Have Missed (Part 1 in a series)

We all know — and repeat — the old saying, “So many books, so little time.” And it’s never been more true than now, when more good books are being published than ever. It’s an embarrassment of riches. One of the unintended consequences of such a wealth of choices is that deserving books are often overlooked. Some receive passing attention, often below the typical reader’s radar, while others are inexplicably ignored by the publishing industry, press, and booksellers, keeping them a complete mystery to potential readers. Here are a handful of recently published novels and short story collections that deserve your time and attention.

Watch for Part 2 in the “Recent Books You May Have Missed” series next week.


Grace

Natashia Deon

Counterpoint Press

Grace  natashia-deon

Oprah may have made Colson Whitehead’s novel about slavery, The Underground Railroad, into the summer’s literary juggernaut by choosing it for her book club, but Natashia Deon’s Grace is equally deserving of attention for its unblinking look at the consequences of slavery on women, both the mother-and-child relationship and their freedom to love whom they choose.

Starting in Alabama in the 1840’s, Grace tells the story of fifteen-year-old Naomi, a runaway slave who finds sanctuary in a Georgia brothel run by a free-minded madam named Cynthia. There Naomi falls in love with a white client and has his child, whom she names Josey. From this point, Grace becomes the story of Josey as narrated by Naomi. Half-white, visibly different from the other slaves, she is raised by a freed slave named Charles. When the Emancipation Proclamation is issued, Josey is free, but her fight for dignity is just beginning. Laws don’t automatically change the hearts and minds of the people, and Josey is forced to make her way through a violent, post-Civil War world.

Grace depicts, in often brutal fashion, the cost of stealing someone’s dignity, their unique humanity. Naomi’s narrative voice is authentic and vivid in its unflinching telling of this difficult, but necessary and totally unforgettable, story. Deon has made a powerful statement in her debut novel.


What Lies Between Us

Nayomi Munaweera

St. Martin’s Press

what-lies-between-us  nayomi-munaweera-grayscale

What Lies Between Us is one of the most powerful novels I’ve read this year. It is a heart-shredding story told by the protagonist from prison as she looks back at her life. Ganga is a young girl in Sri Lanka whose quiet life is upended by a shocking violation involving a family friend. Eventually, she and her mother emigrate to the U.S., where Ganga struggles to leave her past behind and reinvent herself as an American teenager. She is torn between two cultures and between the past and present, but she is fiercely determined to move ahead.

Munaweera’s depiction of the complex challenges of the immigrant experience is as good as any I’ve read, and her writing is controlled and lyrical. When Ganga, working as a nurse, falls in love with an American man, her future finally comes into focus. And that’s when her past returns to change everything. The last section of What Lies Between Us is a psychological thriller, and the ending is a literal jaw-dropper.


The Universal Physics of Escape: Stories

Elizabeth Gonzalez

Press 53

universal-physics-of-escape  elizabeth_gonzalez

I read a lot of short story collections and Gonzalez’s debut made a big impression with its wide-ranging intelligence and crisp writing. The winner of the 2015 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction, The Universal Physics of Escape essays a diverse cast of characters trying to find their way out of one circumstance or another, to figure out what is next and how to get there. Gonzalez moves across subjects, settings, and conflicts, but the unifying thread is her compassionate insight into her characters’ lives. The other thing that impressed me was the quality of her writing, with its masterful prose, realistic dialogue, and confident display of varied narrative voices. Every story pulled me in and held me fast, intrigued by the often odd settings and plots. While the conclusions of some stories were unsettling or unclear, they left me pondering the people and problems she presents.

Although this is a uniformly strong collection, a few stories stood out. The opening “Shakedown” concerns an old railroad man who runs a small hydraulics shop but is otherwise at loose ends in the modern world. He is reconnected to his past and able to make a sort of peace with his life when an old steam engine train, restored to run again after many decades, passes through his rural Pennsylvania town.

In “The Reclamation Specialist” the title character, Henry Gray, works for the Pennsylvania Coal Commission trying to restore abandoned mining sites to their original condition. A coal fire has been raging beneath the tiny town of Centralia and Henry has been trying to convince the last fourteen residents to relocate. If he can persuade Mayor Charlie Tenpenny, an old coal miner, to leave, he believes the others will follow his example. And in “Half Beat,” a woman recalls her childhood piano lessons with her elderly teacher, during which she was more interested in getting her to tell the story of how her heart was broken many years before.


People Like You: Stories

Margaret Malone

Atelier 26

people-like-you  margaret-malone

Malone’s debut is a collection of spare and dryly humorous character studies written with unflinching honesty. These are characters we know from the “awkward moment” comedy of shows like “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation,” people who through their own fecklessness or emotional confusion just can’t seem to get things right or catch a break. They are often their own worst enemy. In many cases, they are us: imperfect, perplexed, stymied in every direction.

Three stories anchor the collection. In the opening title story, married couple Bert and Cheryl attend a surprise party neither is particularly excited about and, thanks to inaccurate directions on the invitation, get lost on the way there. Unfortunately, they arrive in time and the party is one awkward moment after another, as is their relationship. Half a dozen stories later, they return in “I’m Your Man,” in which they visit a fertility specialist to determine whether Bert might be the cause of their inability to conceive. They don’t get the answers they need. Finally, the somewhat unhappy, less-than-loving couple face a miscarriage in the closing “Welcome to Samsara” but ultimately reach a place of tenuous balance.

I particularly enjoyed “The Only One,” which is narrated by an adorably earnest and confused middle school girl. Sylvie struggles to make sense of boys, school drama, her piano lessons, her parents’ recent divorce, and her unsettling thoughts and fantasies. “Kissing was on the way to sex and I knew that I wanted to know what sex was but I also knew I wasn’t supposed to have sex because having sex would mean I was a slut and if I was a slut everyone would want to have sex with me, and then I’d be stuck having sex with everybody all the time, which sounds exhausting. I don’t know when I’d have time to practice the piano.”

“Yes” concerns a 17-year-old girl’s answer to her 23-year-old boyfriend Chuck’s proposal. On a cross-country trip to help his mother relocate to Massachusetts, the threesome stop in Reno, which the newly engaged narrator observes is “almost a tiny Vegas but [it] feels unfinished, like someone took a lunch break in the middle of building it and never came back.” Left alone on the fringes of the casino floor while Chuck plays blackjack, she ponders whether she gave the correct reply.

Malone’s writing is so natural and seemingly effortless that the stories fly by. It’s no surprise that People Like You was a finalist for the 2016 PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Fiction (won by Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen).


Lions

Bonnie Nadzam

Black Cat/Grove Atlantic

lions  bonnie-nadzam

Nadzam won the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize for her debut, Lamb, which was also longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize. So there was a feeling of anticipation when her follow-up, Lions, was published in July. Like Lamb, her new novel takes place in the isolated setting of the Colorado plains, in this case the dying town of Lions, and it is the story of both the town and its handful of hardy residents.

John Walker runs the town’s welding shop, as did his father and grandfather, and he expects his son Gordon to do the same. But Gordon’s girlfriend, Leigh, desperately wants to leave for college and the outside world, and Gordon is torn between loyalty to his family and his attachment to the land on one hand and his devotion to Leigh and the sense that Lions has lost its pride. When an old drifter passes through, John, who is famous for his unassuming open-heartedness and generosity, treats him like an old friend and sends him on his way well-fed and newly-clothed. But shortly thereafter Walker dies of a heart attack, forcing the hand of Gordon and others whose lives were profoundly influenced by him in ways the story slowly reveals.

Nadzam’s writing is prose-poetry at its best, gorgeously evocative of the open spaces, harsh weather, and ragged charm of Lions and its surroundings. Lions is a haunting and hypnotic story of people lost in transition.

CEMENTVILLE examines the impact of a faraway war on a small Kentucky town

Cementville

Cementville

By Paulette Livers

Counterpoint Press: March 17, 2015 (paperback)

304 pages, $15.95

One of my recent literary preoccupations has been literature by women about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I’ve read and reviewed several novels and story collections exploring the lives of soldiers, those at home, and the challenges of homecoming (see the list here) from the female point of view.

Paulette Livers’s gritty novel Cementville, which takes place at the height of the Vietnam War in 1969, is a reminder that war is a universal experience, with the same issues recurring across conflicts and generations. Through the many characters and conflicts in Cementville, Livers probes the effect of loss and grief on families and an entire town, how soldiers returning with PTSD adjust to being home, the attempts of soldiers and their loved ones to rebuild or redirect shattered lives, and the varying views about war and its aftermath within a community.

This novel in the form of interconnected stories begins in May 1969, when seven of the town’s young men return from Vietnam in coffins, all killed in one firefight at Phu Bai. They had joined the Kentucky National Guard hoping to avoid combat but were sent into harm’s way. One soldier returns alive. Harlan O’Brien, the local high school’s former star quarterback, has spent three years in a POW camp and returns without a leg and suffering from PTSD.

The residents of  Cementville are forced to cope with an event for which they are utterly unprepared: multiple funerals and returning veterans with PTSD. In addition to Harlan O’Brien, we meet several other characters who show us the various sides of life in Cementville.

Maureen is a 13-year-old girl who dreams of escaping her claustrophobic hometown and who serves as an innocent and non-judgmental observer. Wanda, the local librarian who spends all her non-working hours hiding from people at home, offers another perspective on people and events. Evelyn Slidell, the matriarch of the town’s wealthiest family (and, in a sense, of Cementville itself), provides a view into the town’s checkered history.

The seedy side of Cementville is revealed through the various misdeeds of the Ferguson clan, infamous for their violence, alcohol abuse, and promiscuity. We are also introduced to Giang Smith, a Vietnamese war bride struggling to assimilate to life in America, who finds that the ghosts of Vietnam have followed her to this quiet town in Kentucky.

The novel’s strength lies in its multi-faceted examination of a diverse group of people trying to adapt to a world that seems to have come unmoored. Change is everywhere: war, civil rights, feminism, scientific progress (the moon landing of July 1969), youth culture (Woodstock happened in August 1969), and a shifting economy (the cement factory that gives the town its name has been struggling through a manpower shortage with so many of the town’s young men away at war). Livers focuses on some characters more than others, but we get snapshots of many lives in this one town which, if not quite a microcosm of America in 1969, at least serves as a useful case study.

The downside of using such a wide cast of characters is that the novel ends up slightly overloaded. Some characters and subplots are more compelling than others. The omission of one or two subplots would have resulted in a more streamlined, focused, and potent narrative. Because it’s a novel-in-stories, it is not quite as unified and coherent as it could have been if it had been written in a more traditional manner. And the narrative failed to develop the momentum I expected from the novel’s synopsis and early sections; the frequent movement among several narrators and characters creates a somewhat fragmented reading experience that occasionally made it feel as though I was being pulled in a few too many directions.

It’s always a particular challenge to write a “political” novel that manages to keep the politics underneath the storyline so it doesn’t distract from the characters and plot. [Livers discusses the writing of Cementville in this essay, originally posted here on August 24, 2014.] In that regard, Cementville is mostly a success; if anything, the crowded plot, with some borderline Southern Gothic elements, threatens to diminish her political messages.

Still, despite these  quibbles, I found Cementville an affecting read — and an important one. Livers’s writing can be both pointed and lyrical, and she evokes a powerful sense of place. The community of Cementville comes to life in these pages. If you are interested in the impact a faraway war can have on one community, you should add Cementville to your reading list.

Author Paulette Livers on How NOT to Write a Political Novel

Paulette Livers   Cementville

Paulette Livers is the author of Cementville, a 2014 novel about the impact of the Vietnam War on a rural Kentucky community when seven local boys are killed in one battle and a POW returns home to rebuild his life. Her debut novel has received strongly positive reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, Booklist, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Elle magazine. Livers is the owner of Mighty Sword, a design and writing studio in Chicago. She blogs at http://paulettelivers.com/journal/.

“Fiction is stone deaf to argument. . . . The bad thing about arguments: they carry the menace of neatness into fiction.”  —Eudora Welty, in her essay “Must the Novelist Crusade?”

The secret about writers that non-writers don’t know is that every time we start a new text, most of us feel as if we’re doing it for the first time. I begin from a place of confusion and move to timid exploration, bushwhacking a new path through the wilderness, certain (hoping!) there’s a glimmer of an idea somewhere in all the undergrowth. The glimmer for my novel Cementville came from events that happened in my hometown a long time ago. I was a child when our country was experiencing the rumblings of major change—the burgeoning Women’s Movement, the Civil Rights Act—changes after which nothing would ever be the same. And we were in the middle of a war from which no one seemed capable of extricating us.

Families in my hometown were dumbfounded when the local unit of the Kentucky National Guard was called to active duty at a distant firebase. Sons of farmers trooped off to defend a nearly defenseless Vietnamese hillside stashed with Howitzers and ammo. On the night of June 19, 1969, a thunderstorm fell hard on Firebase Tomahawk. The racket of that middle-of-the-night storm allowed the North Vietnamese Army to overrun the base. Once the fighting was over, Battery C had also lost nine men. The loss to our tiny town was palpable, as if blunt force trauma had been committed upon the communal body. No one seemed immune to the mourning. My older brother was a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne. He sent photographs: a sky raining young men hanging from their silken parachutes like baby spiders released from their mother’s egg sack; a close-up of his ear, bloodied by the debris of an exploded grenade. Eventually discharged, he wandered for a time on the streets of some Cali­fornia city. I put notes in my father’s letters to him, begging him to come home.

Among 1973’s returning POWs was an officer who came back to his rural community to settle. Having returned to a hero’s welcome, he purchased acreage from my aunt and uncle in the bucolic bottomlands and knobs of central Kentucky. He won the hearts of neighbors along Wilson Creek, digging them out of winter storms, pulling out stumps and clearing the land of old trash. Our own hometown hero. He was a godsend, my aunt and uncle said. It was a story that seemed almost too good to be true.

Four years after he came home, our decorated hero shot and killed his neighbor in an argument over tractor parts. The young man who died, a father of four small children, was a factory worker who repaired farm equipment and cars for extra money. I listened to my aunt and uncle talk about this heartbreaking experience, their anguish tangible and ripping. I tried to wrap my head around what had happened, to reach inside the heart of someone who was little more than a flat hero character in my aunt’s kitchen stories until the day he murdered a young man who had become his friend. Even at 18, I knew better than to expect to find meaning in what had happened, something almost never imparted by tragedy. Still the event—which seemed to be the distillation of the wages of war wrought on this tiny community—continued to haunt me.

Years later in a writing group I began working on a series of vignettes. The group suggested the vignettes were part of a bigger canvas; that I might be writing about a community. I might be writing, they said gently, a novel. As the material took shape, multiple voices clamored like a chorus, begging not just for the story of an unhinged war hero or of boys cut down too young, but an elegy for a town gripped in mourning.

In the course of researching and writing Cementville, I discovered my adolescent sense of the magnitude of local suffering had not been an exaggeration. In the 1960s, my community of Nelson County, Kentucky had a population of around 30,000. By war’s end, we had suffered the highest per capita loss of any community in the United States. Was possible to contain such loss and grief in a package as feeble as a bundle of words?

But one thing I did not set out to do was to write a political novel, notwithstanding Toni Morrison’s declaration that all art is at some level transgressive—i.e. political—or better be! Forster’s epigraph for Howard’s End, “Only connect,” best sums up what I was after. I sought connection, entry into the psyches and the adversities of people I was not at all certain I could ever understand. Like the tragically murderous decorated hero. Absent understanding, I hoped at least to approach his struggle with something like empathy. I was trying to illustrate the human spirit in the face of unfathomable grief, and rage.

Novelists are often asked whether a work is autobiographical. With varying degrees of equivocation, we like to respond, No. Eudora Welty, in the essay quoted above, said that novelists take from life “not to report it but to make an object . . . and offer it to the reader. . . . What distinguishes [the novel] from journalism, is that inherent in the novel is the possibility of a shared act of the imagination between its writer and its reader.”

It does seem, though, that we tend to trail after the ghosts that haunt us. We are dogged by the urge to revisit old territory, recheck the status of old wounds. There’s a saying that applies here, one that’s been stated several ways: The past is another country. What I have come to believe is that one gift of the passage of time is the ability to see with the eyes of the traveler visiting a country for the first time. I don’t believe I could have written this book at twenty-five. Even when I was forty, this particular piece of the past would not have been past enough to feel like another country. Distance from that adolescent self steeped in the stew of grief and unable to place anything so large into a manageable framework, allows the writer I have become through years of lived life, to enter her country and see it with the eyes of the traveler.

When I started writing those vignettes of grief-struck families and an unhinged POW I didn’t know I was embarking on the seven-year-long creation of a requiem for a lost time, a lost community, a lost country. As I was arriving at the end of Cementville’s writing and wondering how I would wrap it all up, I thought of something I heard Irish writer Colm Toibin say. He often finds himself stuck in an uneasy helplessness in his work, seeking to rectify the lack of meaning in tragedies. His solution is to find for his stories endings that hover between uncertainty and closure. In the years since adolescence, when I watched the forces of war and social change enact a sort of baptism by fire on my rural community, I have let go any belief I once had that the universe promises us any moral accounting of itself.

Still. We do feel the weight of the cargo of war, and some of us feel the need to bear witness. We look around and say Here we are again. Or Here we are still. Storytelling is my tool for witnessing, a narrow and twisting path toward radical empathy, a bushwhacking exploration into what it is to be human.

Guest blogger Paulette Livers: How Not to Write a Political Novel

Paulette Livers   Cementville

Paulette Livers is the author of Cementville, a 2014 novel about the impact of the Vietnam War on a rural Kentucky community when seven local boys are killed in one battle and a POW returns home to rebuild his life. Her debut novel has received strongly positive reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, Booklist, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Elle magazine. Livers is the owner of Mighty Sword, a design and writing studio in Chicago. She blogs at http://paulettelivers.com/journal/.

“Fiction is stone deaf to argument. . . . The bad thing about arguments: they carry the menace of neatness into fiction.”  —Eudora Welty, in her essay “Must the Novelist Crusade?”

The secret about writers that non-writers don’t know is that every time we start a new text, most of us feel as if we’re doing it for the first time. I begin from a place of confusion and move to timid exploration, bushwhacking a new path through the wilderness, certain (hoping!) there’s a glimmer of an idea somewhere in all the undergrowth. The glimmer for my novel Cementville came from events that happened in my hometown a long time ago. I was a child when our country was experiencing the rumblings of major change—the burgeoning Women’s Movement, the Civil Rights Act—changes after which nothing would ever be the same. And we were in the middle of a war from which no one seemed capable of extricating us.

Families in my hometown were dumbfounded when the local unit of the Kentucky National Guard was called to active duty at a distant firebase. Sons of farmers trooped off to defend a nearly defenseless Vietnamese hillside stashed with Howitzers and ammo. On the night of June 19, 1969, a thunderstorm fell hard on Firebase Tomahawk. The racket of that middle-of-the-night storm allowed the North Vietnamese Army to overrun the base. Once the fighting was over, Battery C had also lost nine men. The loss to our tiny town was palpable, as if blunt force trauma had been committed upon the communal body. No one seemed immune to the mourning. My older brother was a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne. He sent photographs: a sky raining young men hanging from their silken parachutes like baby spiders released from their mother’s egg sack; a close-up of his ear, bloodied by the debris of an exploded grenade. Eventually discharged, he wandered for a time on the streets of some Cali­fornia city. I put notes in my father’s letters to him, begging him to come home.

Among 1973’s returning POWs was an officer who came back to his rural community to settle. Having returned to a hero’s welcome, he purchased acreage from my aunt and uncle in the bucolic bottomlands and knobs of central Kentucky. He won the hearts of neighbors along Wilson Creek, digging them out of winter storms, pulling out stumps and clearing the land of old trash. Our own hometown hero. He was a godsend, my aunt and uncle said. It was a story that seemed almost too good to be true.

Four years after he came home, our decorated hero shot and killed his neighbor in an argument over tractor parts. The young man who died, a father of four small children, was a factory worker who repaired farm equipment and cars for extra money. I listened to my aunt and uncle talk about this heartbreaking experience, their anguish tangible and ripping. I tried to wrap my head around what had happened, to reach inside the heart of someone who was little more than a flat hero character in my aunt’s kitchen stories until the day he murdered a young man who had become his friend. Even at 18, I knew better than to expect to find meaning in what had happened, something almost never imparted by tragedy. Still the event—which seemed to be the distillation of the wages of war wrought on this tiny community—continued to haunt me.

Years later in a writing group I began working on a series of vignettes. The group suggested the vignettes were part of a bigger canvas; that I might be writing about a community. I might be writing, they said gently, a novel. As the material took shape, multiple voices clamored like a chorus, begging not just for the story of an unhinged war hero or of boys cut down too young, but an elegy for a town gripped in mourning.

In the course of researching and writing Cementville, I discovered my adolescent sense of the magnitude of local suffering had not been an exaggeration. In the 1960s, my community of Nelson County, Kentucky had a population of around 30,000. By war’s end, we had suffered the highest per capita loss of any community in the United States. Was possible to contain such loss and grief in a package as feeble as a bundle of words?

But one thing I did not set out to do was to write a political novel, notwithstanding Toni Morrison’s declaration that all art is at some level transgressive—i.e. political—or better be! Forster’s epigraph for Howard’s End, “Only connect,” best sums up what I was after. I sought connection, entry into the psyches and the adversities of people I was not at all certain I could ever understand. Like the tragically murderous decorated hero. Absent understanding, I hoped at least to approach his struggle with something like empathy. I was trying to illustrate the human spirit in the face of unfathomable grief, and rage.

Novelists are often asked whether a work is autobiographical. With varying degrees of equivocation, we like to respond, No. Eudora Welty, in the essay quoted above, said that novelists take from life “not to report it but to make an object . . . and offer it to the reader. . . . What distinguishes [the novel] from journalism, is that inherent in the novel is the possibility of a shared act of the imagination between its writer and its reader.”

It does seem, though, that we tend to trail after the ghosts that haunt us. We are dogged by the urge to revisit old territory, recheck the status of old wounds. There’s a saying that applies here, one that’s been stated several ways: The past is another country. What I have come to believe is that one gift of the passage of time is the ability to see with the eyes of the traveler visiting a country for the first time. I don’t believe I could have written this book at twenty-five. Even when I was forty, this particular piece of the past would not have been past enough to feel like another country. Distance from that adolescent self steeped in the stew of grief and unable to place anything so large into a manageable framework, allows the writer I have become through years of lived life, to enter her country and see it with the eyes of the traveler.

When I started writing those vignettes of grief-struck families and an unhinged POW I didn’t know I was embarking on the seven-year-long creation of a requiem for a lost time, a lost community, a lost country. As I was arriving at the end of Cementville’s writing and wondering how I would wrap it all up, I thought of something I heard Irish writer Colm Toibin say. He often finds himself stuck in an uneasy helplessness in his work, seeking to rectify the lack of meaning in tragedies. His solution is to find for his stories endings that hover between uncertainty and closure. In the years since adolescence, when I watched the forces of war and social change enact a sort of baptism by fire on my rural community, I have let go any belief I once had that the universe promises us any moral accounting of itself.

Still. We do feel the weight of the cargo of war, and some of us feel the need to bear witness. We look around and say Here we are again. Or Here we are still. Storytelling is my tool for witnessing, a narrow and twisting path toward radical empathy, a bushwhacking exploration into what it is to be human.