Powell’s Books recommends 25 women to read before you die

powells-thumbnail  powells-city-of-books

The staff at Powell’s City of Books in Portland, one of the country’s (and the world’s!) best bookstores, have compiled a list of 25 women writers you need to read. I haven’t read all of these writers myself, but I can certainly vouch for many of them being worth your valuable reading time (Adichie, Armstrong, Atwood, Didion, Erdrich, Hempel, Solnit, Tartt).

As if you didn’t already have enough to read, here are 25 authors who have published well over a hundred books among them.

You can read the full article here.

As with any such list, the results are at least partially random (there should be little dispute about the inclusion of writers like George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, and Louise Erdrich). Just off the top of my head, I would add Jane Austen, Alice Munro, Jane Smiley, Elena Ferrante, Ali Smith, Jhumpa Lahiri, Lauren Groff, and Karen Russell. Every such list is guaranteed to be a very personal set of preferences.

Who do you think should be on this list? Reply in the Comments below. 

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Lisa Gornick on the pleasures — and perils — of audiobooks

Lisa Gornick by Sigrid Estrada

Lisa Gornick is the author of Louisa Meets Bear (just published by Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus & Giroux on June 9), Tinderbox (hardcover SCB/FS&G 2013, paperback Picador 2014), and A Private Sorcery (Algonquin Books, 2002). She holds a B.A. from Princeton and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Yale, and is a graduate of the writing program at N.Y.U. and the psychoanalytic training program at Columbia. She lives with her husband and two sons on New York City’s Upper West Side. This is a re-post of an essay originally written for Read Her Like an Open Book in July 2014. 

I’ve never been in a book group  — I’ve always preferred to read what is idiosyncratically imperative to me — but a few years ago, I joined a group with three other writers in which we read like mechanics with an eye to how the book is put together: structure, point of view, passage of time, unfolding of plot. For our last book, one of the group members suggested The Goldfinch. I was knee-deep in a draft of my new novel and, as the date approached, I still had a terrifying 700 pages to read. As a solution, I decided to download the Audible version, something — Luddite, physical book reader that I am — I’d never done before.

Within minutes,  I was hooked. The narrator, who my eleven year old recognized as David Pittu, reader of the wildly popular children’s 39 Clues series, is an astoundingly good actor. I fell in love with Pittu’s interpretations of potty-mouth Boris and twangy Xandra and adenoidal Andy, took to walking everywhere so I could justify more time listening, and then took to listening while reading!

Of course, Donna Tartt has to be credited for creating these characters and some of the best dialogue I’ve read (or maybe should say heard) — but without the child-like pleasure of being read to and the child-like state of mind that put me in (by an actor, skilled at reading to children), I might have resonated more strongly with some of the novel’s critics who’ve objected to the sloppiness (see Francine Prose’s powerful critique) and the fairy tale quality of the story.  Not under Pittu’s spell, I would have been more bothered by the novel’s murky philosophical underpinnings that rest on the answer to the question: If a building is burning and you have to choose between saving the cat and the Rembrandt, what would you do?

Bereft after finishing The Goldfinch­­ — more, I have to admit, because I missed being read to during dish washing and teeth brushing than because I missed Theo Decker — I downloaded Nicole Kidman narrating To the Lighthouse. I’ve never been a particular fan of Ms. Kidman  (especially after seeing her post-Botox face), but I loved her brave performance in the movie adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s tour de force, The Hours. Well, Ms. Kidman, it turns out, is a sensitive and subtle reader — I felt as though I were seeing the brutal fractured beauty of life through Woolf’s eyes —  and apparently has been an ardent one since childhood when her parchment skin forced her to stay indoors with Dostoevsky rather than going to the Australian beach.

Oh, no, what to do after this was over? Out of order, but still the obvious choice: Mrs. Dalloway. By now, I understood that who narrates is key — and when I went to purchase my Audible version, it occurred to me to sample a few of the readers. Sorry, Annette Bening. Though I loved you in The Kids are All Right and American Beauty, you are not my Clarissa. But the wonderful British actress, Juliet Stevenson: What a lark! What a plunge! as Clarissa might say.

What’s next? I seem to be on a classics jag, so I think it will be Middlemarch, which I haven’t revisited since college. But, I’m going to read it to myself. Delicious as being read to is, it’s not the same as being alone with a book. There are reasons why children begin reading to themselves — including that they want to experience a book without an adult’s intervening interpretation. No matter the listener’s age, no matter how extraordinary the narrator, he or she intrudes on the private exchange between writer and audience, a sacred space, all the more so in our times when solitude requires conscious effort.

Turning The Goldfinch over to David Pittu to read to me was a short cut — not just with respect to my time, but also with respect to the work of reading: imagining bodies and how they resonate through voices, interpreting punctuation and where the stresses and pauses for breath lie, viscerally absorbing the density of print on a page and the presence or absence of white space. Listening to someone else read a book aloud means letting someone else do a good chunk of that work and, as is so often the case with short cuts, it is the short-cut taker who ultimately loses: fails to develop or atrophies. The truth is, after only a month’s foray into listening to books, I can sense my reading muscle slackening.

Juliet Stevenson reads — in 36 hours — Middlemarch.  Oh, I am tempted.  What a lark!  But as Clarissa would say, No! No! No!

Robin Antalek on Flipping the Gender Voice: When Women Write Male Characters

Robin Antalek

I had never done it before. My protagonists were always female. As a young writer, my female characters thought about things the way I did, and it was pretty basic stuff in the beginning. As I matured, the writing shifted, my concerns and, by default, my characters became less myopic. It was easy to write these women because in every single one of them I saw shades of myself, or someone I knew, or someone I wanted to be. Through draft after draft of short stories and early attempts at novels, the voice was consistently female.

It wasn’t until I was writing The Summer We Fell Apart that I even thought about a male voice. Here I had four siblings, two and two, and while I hadn’t planned to shift the point of view between the characters after I wrote the first section in Amy’s voice, her brother George was pretty much begging to be heard. Here’s the thing: maybe it was naiveté on my part – but I wasn’t stressed as much as I was excited by the possibilities. I wrote those first few paragraphs in his section and it was like slipping into someone else’s skin, putting on different clothes. It was among the most freeing things I have ever done. I wasn’t conscious of putting aside a feminine voice. Instead it was all about inhabiting the character, not over-thinking, that allowed the character to unfold naturally. If we are honest about the breakdown of male and female characters, at the very core there would have to be the belief that the memorable protagonists inhabit characteristics of each gender. When the voice is forced, or unnatural, it stops the entire narrative. If a writer restricts the character based upon the ideal feminine or masculine characteristics, then that character will fall flat.

From the Bible, to Shakespeare, to Dickens, on to Updike, Mailer, and Roth, men have long been speaking for women in fiction, with uneven results. What could be so wrong about women speaking for men?

In The Outsiders, S.E. Hinton writes achingly in the voices of a group of young men who are not much older than Hinton herself when she penned the book. Did it make the child-men any less realistic? Did it make Ponyboy any less a tragic figure? No, it had the opposite effect, and it remains one of the outstanding books about young adults in transition. Published in 1967, The Outsiders was banned from schools because of the gang violence, smoking, and drinking, but never was it criticized for not representing an authentic male voice.

Several recent examples point to women nailing the male voice. In Gone Girl, author Gillian Flynn holds nothing back in her portrayal of Nick and Amy Dunne. Nick’s POV was essential to Flynn’s successful narrative and necessary as a counterpoint to Amy’s. That Flynn created each character as a fully fleshed-out entity, regardless of gender voice, is a testament to her skills as a writer. There is never a moment where you could confuse one voice with the other. That speaks more to Flynn’s understanding of her characters than the need to write so she sounds like a man or a woman.

Then there is the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Whatever criticisms have been logged against the book, the one take-away is that Tartt knows her male characters, especially, achingly so in the portrayals of Theo Decker and his benefactor Hobie. For me those characters worked because there was empathy, a sympathetic core intrinsic to their nature that made them believable and compelled me to want to know their stories. I never heard Tartt speaking as Theo or Hobie. Again, as a writer, you know your character and it doesn’t seem to matter that you’re working out of gender.

During the course of writing The Summer We Fell Apart, I wrote in the voice of two male characters, George and his brother, Finn. They were as opposite as siblings could be – yet, there was darkness and light to each of them that as a writer I enjoyed exploring. The characters crystallized in those moments and flip-flopped any expectations that I had in not being able to write a believable male voice. In the end, to be successful I found that I nearly had to strip the character of gender. I am a woman writer, yes, who wrote a human voice that just happens to be male. Does a narrative voice have specific gender qualities? Are we to believe men and women really love differently? Hurt differently? Will the writer have to reach so far out of her [I don’t like the use of “their” in place of his or her] own experience to be given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to gender crossover?

In my new book, The Grown Ups, I have a male narrator, Sam, who starts as a fifteen-year-old and is nearly thirty when the book ends. There is a tremendous period of growth during that arc that universally applies to both sexes – but again I found it helpful to not think strictly in terms of gender as the story evolved. It is just as complicated to create a male character, as it is a female character. I had moments where I knew there were gender choices to be made in terms of behavior and emotions specific to being a teenage boy, but they were more societal and cultural than anything else. I refused to allow them into the story, so that the voice of the novel evolved on its own. That’s something you can’t – or maybe I should say shouldn’t — attempt to control.

Fiction writing and reading is a leap of faith; we are asking the reader to hear our story, and it is the job of our narrator to make sure the reader stays. A voice, that precious voice that we writers long to hear, comes into our heads and we have to allow it to speak. Whether male or female, it is our job to tell the best, most compelling story that we can.

Robin Antalek is the author of The Summer We Fell Apart (HarperCollins 2010), which was chosen as a Target Breakout Book, and the forthcoming The Grown Ups (William Morrow 2015). Her non-fiction work has been published at The Weeklings and The Nervous Breakdown and collected in The Beautiful Anthology; Writing off Script: Writers on the Influence of Cinema; and The Weeklings: Revolution #1 Selected Essays 2012-1013. Her short fiction has appeared in Salon, 52 Stories, Five Chapters, Sun Dog, The Southeast Review, and Literary Mama, among others. She has twice been a finalist in Glimmer Train magazine, as well as a finalist for The Tobias Wolff Award for Fiction. She lives in Saratoga Springs, New York. You can visit her website, http://www.robinantalek.com, and find her at facebook.com/AuthorRobinAntalek.

Amazon releases most-highlighted excerpts from 2013-14 novels by women

The Interestings   Americanah

Amazon’s Kindle division recently issued a list of the 17 most-highlighted excerpts from books written by women in the past two years. For Amazon, publishers, and authors, the Kindle provides a ton of data about readers’ preferences. For readers, this may seem like an invasion of privacy; certainly, Amazon doesn’t know what you’ve highlighted or flagged on the actual books you’ve purchased from them.

Still, it can make for some interesting reading, like this list, which was covered by Bustle.com earlier this week. Not surprisingly, the most-highlighted authors included bestsellers and award-winners by the likes of Meg Wolitzer, Jhumpa Lahiri, Eleanor Catton, Chimamanda Ngochi Adichie, Elizabeth Gilbert, and Donna Tartt. But you might be surprised by some of the other oft-noted quotes.

http://www.bustle.com/articles/48583-17-of-the-most-highlighted-quotes-from-the-best-fiction-by-women-of-the-past-two-years

 

ABROAD travels through distant and recent past to explore a young life lost in Italy

Abroad  Katie Crouch

Abroad

By Katie Crouch

Sarah Crichton Books/FSG, 2014

282 pages, $26.00

It has long been a tradition for wealthy or academically outstanding students from the U.S. and the U.K. to study abroad for a year while in college. For British students from the mid-1600s through the mid-1800s, the “Grand Tour” of France and Italy was an intellectual coming of age, providing firsthand exposure to the “legacy of classical antiquity and the Renaissance.” Both countries offer excellent universities, world-class cities, unparalleled history, and boundless cultural opportunities.

Into this tradition steps contemporary Irish college student Tabitha (Taz) Deacon, who transfers from England’s Nottingham University to a university in the old city of Grifonia, Italy (think Perugia in the Umbria region). Taz has chosen Grifonia instead of one of the larger cities because of its rich Etruscan history, with which she is fascinated. Soon after settling into a cozy rental just off the city center hosted by two local girls, Taz meets her roommate from America. Claire is a free spirit, eccentric and unpredictable, perhaps even unstable, but with a striking beauty and undeniable charisma that win over most people.

Taz is something of an introvert, but she longs to be part of something larger than herself, in both her academic and social lives. She wanders around town observing both the Grifonians and her fellow “study abroad” students and is intrigued by a trio of sophisticated rich girls from the U.K., one of whom, Jenny Cole, is a fellow student at Nottingham University.

Abroad follows Taz’s experiences as she is admitted into this seductive triumvirate, develops a fragile relationship with Claire, attempts to pass her classes, and seeks out romantic experiences with Italian boys, who are mystifying yet irresistible. She is determined to crawl out of her Irish schoolgirl shell and live passionately while in Grifonia, and Jenny Cole offers her a chance to do just that.

The four girls, calling themselves the “B4,” command a great deal of attention and admiration; they sidestep long lines to get into the most popular bars and restaurants and are given good tables once inside. Everyone seems to know them. They are supremely confident, wear designer clothes, and drink as if they have hollow legs. They are everything Taz wants to be, at least while she is independent in Italy. She seeks transformation, and, in a sense, achieves it.

Taz later explains how central the desire to experiment and change was in the actions of many. “But soon blood would flow, and the others would, knowingly or not, change the truth. Their lies were out of fear, I suppose. Though it could have been something else. Didn’t I, who had in the past weeks transformed myself from the mouse I’d been, know the power of changing reality?”

Not surprisingly, Taz gets both more and less than she bargained for when she befriends Jenny, Anna, and Luka. And that is the core of Abroad’s steadily intensifying story. It’s based loosely on the Amanda Knox case of 2007, in which Knox and her Italian boyfriend were convicted of murdering her British roommate, Meredith Kercher, in what was presented by the press and prosecutors as a lurid love triangle gone wrong. Another Italian man with a long criminal record was convicted of the same crime in another trial

Abroad finds Katie Crouch navigating much darker emotional and psychological territory than in her previous books (Girls in Trucks, Men and Dogs). Rather than write about the controversial investigation and prosecution of Knox, using multiple flashbacks (as novelist Jennifer du Bois did in 2013’s Cartwheel), Crouch presents a plausible version of events and motivations for the eventual murder. We get to know Taz intimately, while Claire remains a complex presence viewed through the eyes of Taz, but not a main character. In the Knox-Kercher case, the media’s reporting was so sensationalized that a fair trial was impossible. As Knox and her supporters have long maintained, she was and still is largely misunderstood and mischaracterized by the public.

On this point, Taz explains, “You see, that was the thing about Claire. I knew her. She and I wanted the same thing. Later, she was painted a hundred different ways: insane, sexy, volatile, brilliant, stupid, insatiable. But the Claire I knew was just a girl with the same simple desire I had – to be loved by as many people as possible.”

“The next day – and years – was filled with clues that made themselves known, rearranged themselves, and faded in time with whomever was being accused at the moment. Almost as if we had all been playing a game in order to lead the police and the world down an endless array of paths. The answers were, in fact, there in the initial police report. Though the story was infinitely complicated. The police wanted a snapshot, whereas the truth, as it often is, was more of a shadowy, ever-changing tableau.”

Crouch has done an admirable job of depicting the complicated and unpredictable thoughts, emotions, and actions of a young woman, exacerbated by loneliness, cultural confusion, and a range of conflicting desires. She captures well the timeless essence of growing up far from home and having to rely on instincts and judgment that can easily lead one astray.

While Abroad has been promoted as similar to Donna Tartt’s spellbinding 1992 classic The Secret History, it doesn’t quite reach that level of intellectual and emotional power. Admittedly, it is only half the length of Tartt’s book, so who knows what Crouch could have accomplished if she’d decided that was her intent. But Abroad stands on its own merits as a fast and often fascinating exploration of the ways deeply flawed but very human people can make a mess of their lives.

Guest blogger Lisa Gornick on being read to: The Pleasures and Perils of Audiobooks

lisa_gornick

Lisa Gornick is the author of Tinderbox (Sarah Crichton Books/FS&G, 2013), which will be published in paperback on September 2, and A Private Sorcery (Algonquin Books, 2002). She holds a B.A. from Princeton, a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Yale, and is a graduate of the writing program at N.Y.U. and the psychoanalytic training program at Columbia.

I’ve never been in a book group  — I’ve always preferred to read what is idiosyncratically imperative to me — but a few years ago, I joined a group with three other writers in which we read like mechanics with an eye to how the book is put together: structure, point of view, passage of time, unfolding of plot. For our last book, one of the group members suggested The Goldfinch. I was knee-deep in a draft of my new novel and, as the date approached, I still had a terrifying 700 pages to read. As a solution, I decided to download the Audible version, something — Luddite, physical book reader that I am — I’d never done before.

Within minutes,  I was hooked. The narrator, who my eleven year old recognized as David Pittu, reader of the wildly popular children’s 39 Clues series, is an astoundingly good actor. I fell in love with Pittu’s interpretations of potty-mouth Boris and twangy Xandra and adenoidal Andy, took to walking everywhere so I could justify more time listening, and then took to listening while reading!

Of course, Donna Tartt has to be credited for creating these characters and some of the best dialogue I’ve read (or maybe should say heard) — but without the child-like pleasure of being read to and the child-like state of mind that put me in (by an actor, skilled at reading to children), I might have resonated more strongly with some of the novel’s critics who’ve objected to the sloppiness (see Francine Prose’s powerful critique) and the fairy tale quality of the story.  Not under Pittu’s spell, I would have been more bothered by the novel’s murky philosophical underpinnings that rest on the answer to the question: If a building is burning and you have to choose between saving the cat and the Rembrandt, what would you do?

Bereft after finishing The Goldfinch­­ — more, I have to admit, because I missed being read to during dish washing and teeth brushing than because I missed Theo Decker — I downloaded Nicole Kidman narrating To the Lighthouse. I’ve never been a particular fan of Ms. Kidman  (especially after seeing her post-Botox face), but I loved her brave performance in the movie adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s tour de force, The Hours. Well, Ms. Kidman, it turns out, is a sensitive and subtle reader — I felt as though I were seeing the brutal fractured beauty of life through Woolf’s eyes —  and apparently has been an ardent one since childhood when her parchment skin forced her to stay indoors with Dostoevsky rather than going to the Australian beach.

Oh, no, what to do after this was over? Out of order, but still the obvious choice: Mrs. Dalloway. By now, I understood that who narrates is key — and when I went to purchase my Audible version, it occurred to me to sample a few of the readers. Sorry, Annette Bening. Though I loved you in The Kids are All Right and American Beauty, you are not my Clarissa. But the wonderful British actress, Juliet Stevenson: What a lark! What a plunge! as Clarissa might say.

What’s next? I seem to be on a classics jag, so I think it will be Middlemarch, which I haven’t revisited since college. But, I’m going to read it to myself. Delicious as being read to is, it’s not the same as being alone with a book. There are reasons why children begin reading to themselves — including that they want to experience a book without an adult’s intervening interpretation. No matter the listener’s age, no matter how extraordinary the narrator, he or she intrudes on the private exchange between writer and audience, a sacred space, all the more so in our times when solitude requires conscious effort.

Turning The Goldfinch over to David Pittu to read to me was a short cut — not just with respect to my time, but also with respect to the work of reading: imagining bodies and how they resonate through voices, interpreting punctuation and where the stresses and pauses for breath lie, viscerally absorbing the density of print on a page and the presence or absence of white space. Listening to someone else read a book aloud means letting someone else do a good chunk of that work and, as is so often the case with short cuts, it is the short-cut taker who ultimately loses: fails to develop or atrophies. The truth is, after only a month’s foray into listening to books, I can sense my reading muscle slackening.

Juliet Stevenson reads — in 36 hours — Middlemarch.  Oh, I am tempted.  What a lark!  But as Clarissa would say, No! No! No!

A conversation with Virginia Pye about RIVER OF DUST: “I’d grown up with China in my consciousness”

Virginia Pye

 

Virginia Pye’s debut novel, River of Dust, was published last year to acclaim by critics and fellow writers. Inspired by her grandfather’s missionary work in early 20th century China, Pye transformed his journals into a compelling story of a young missionary couple whose child is kidnapped by Mongol nomads and the life-altering effect it has on them. River of Dust was published in paperback by Unbridled Books on April 15. See my review of River of Dust here: http://wp.me/p3EtWm-df.

You’ve been writing for quite a while, but River of Dust is your first published novel. Was that intentional? By which I mean, were you primarily a short story writer and then decided to write a novel? Or did you write some novels which, for one reason or another, remain unpublished?

I have to admit that I laughed out loud at your first question, Bill. Here’s the short answer: no, it wasn’t intentional to write five unpublished novels before River of Dust.

But, strangely enough, now I’m almost glad that my writing career has transpired this way. I came out of the Sarah Lawrence MFA program with a novel to sell, and an excellent literary agent tried her best with it. Then, over the years, another excellent literary agent tried to sell several other novels. As often happens, the timing wasn’t right—either the market or the work wasn’t ready. Had the stars aligned and some of my earlier novels been published, I’m sure I would have been proud of them, but in the end, I think River of Dust is more accomplished than any of the earlier books because I learned a lot by writing them.

I wrote short stories all along as well, and sent them off to literary magazines where some were taken. By the way, if you’re aiming high, short stories are as difficult to place as getting a book published.

I actually ended up writing River of Dust in a very short period of time, because I’d been thinking about the ideas behind it for years, and because, as I said, I’d gotten better at novel-writing through practice. The earlier books took years, but River of Dust was written in a burst of energy and was a breeze by comparison. Something clicked, and I dove right in and let the fast-paced story carry me forward. It was more fun to write than anything I’d ever done before, because I’d gained enough confidence to really let my imagination take flight.

As a kid, I would gaze into sepia-toned photos of my grandfather seated on mule back on that arid Chinese plain, or my grandmother surrounded by Chinese children in a dusty courtyard.

Tell me about the inspiration for River of Dust. I know your grandfather was a missionary in China and your father was born there. What fascinates you about China and the missionaries’ work there?

Growing up, I tried to avoid thinking about my family’s missionary background. I didn’t want to claim it in any way because, as someone who came of age at the end of the Vietnam War, I understood the destructiveness of American imperialism. And yet, China was in my background. Two generations of our family had lived there and I lived in Hong Kong for a short while when I was very young. I also grew up in a house filled with Chinese furniture and art. As a kid, I would gaze into sepia-toned photos of my grandfather seated on mule back on that arid Chinese plain, or my grandmother surrounded by Chinese children in a dusty courtyard. Who were those white people, I wondered, and how on earth did they think they belonged in that strange, other world?

Years later, when my parents moved out of the house where I grew up, I took it upon myself to cart my grandfather’s papers back to my home in Richmond, Virginia. I started to read his journals and his reports to the American missionary board. Mixed in with his calculations of costs for supplies and lists of recent converts (!), were also his descriptions of the setting and the people. It turned out that he wrote beautifully, even poetically, about the Chinese landscape and those who lived there. I started to enjoy his wry humor and fluid prose, and although his sense of superiority was apparent, it was also clear that he genuinely admired the Chinese.

My earlier, unpublished novels tended to revolve around American women of various ages who, over the course of their dramatic tales, wrestled with what it meant to be privileged. Those stories dealt with the ways that racism and classism separates people; they asked how can we ever reach across and make a real difference to anyone?

As I read my grandfather’s journals, I realized that he, too, had wrestled with such questions. As a person of privilege—which, incidentally, all white people are in one way or another—how do you reconcile your advantages in a world that is harsh and cruel to so many? In other words, how can we be truly good, not just appear so?

The missionary setting insists that white characters face those kinds of issues. Because I’d grown up with China in my consciousness, it felt familiar—although I’d never been to the mainland until earlier this spring, after River of Dust was published. But the province where my grandparents and father had once lived in northwestern China seemed like a logical place to set my story.

Pye-2

River of Dust seems to be many books in one. It’s a suspense novel about a parent’s search for a kidnapped child, a character study of a clergyman having a crisis of faith, a travelogue of sorts about Americans in rural China circa 1910, a fish out of water story, and an examination of a young marriage. How did you manage to combine all these threads into one seamless story?

My first goal was to write an engaging story—one that had a plot and some intrigue to keep the reader involved. But I love character and try to explore ideas through character. What makes this literary fiction and not, say, highly commercial or genre fiction, is that larger ideas and themes are woven into the story. My goal was to make those different elements seamless, so thank you for that compliment. I wouldn’t have been happy writing just a good story, or a simple character study. And I certainly wasn’t interested in writing a treatise on issues of race, or something like that. The fiction I admire tries to meld all those elements together.

I wanted the Reverend to be a witty character—intentionally or unintentionally—and someone who faces a true crisis of conscience.

Reverend Watson is a good man, but he is prone to tunnel vision and susceptible to many of the temptations that pose a threat to lesser men. I found his spiritual crisis and ensuing journey to be a compelling story. What was your intention with this aspect of the novel? What makes the Reverend tick?

I wanted the Reverend to be a witty character—intentionally or unintentionally—and someone who faces a true crisis of conscience. I think his creation was most directly influenced by the colonial literature I’ve read over the years: Maugham’s The Painted Veil or Kipling’s The Man Who Would be King, both novels that I love, which show male characters flawed by hubris. You could say that the Reverend ends up illustrating the downfall of the white man, though hopefully his travails are individualized and unique.

As the Reverend’s wife, Grace is an effective foil: domestic while he is adventurous, emotional while he is intellectual, a young soul to his old soul, physically weak and often ill while he is a larger-than-life presence. And yet she turns out to be more than she (and the reader) first suspects. Can you talk about what you were exploring in her character and in her marriage?

I think of Grace as a naïve ingénue at the start of the novel. As a girl of that era and class, she was not raised to deal with the harshness of reality—especially not the realities of the rough landscape where she winds up. But the more difficult her story becomes, the more she must reach down into her soul and find strength. Today, a young girl is expected to grow up and support herself, but back then, it was more routinely assumed that a woman would be taken care of. This story shows what happens when a girl with that type of upbringing must learn to finally make her own way in the world and the difficult decisions she must face.

I let my imagination go and decided not to try to set my story in a real place, but instead created an allegorical China.

The characters of Mai Lin, Grace’s “lady-in-waiting,” and Ahcho, the Reverend’s man, nearly steal the story. I enjoyed the way in which they represented the Chinese people, yet were not alike. Describe the important roles they play in the book.

I didn’t want to presume to be able to tell the full stories of the Chinese characters, but thought that their perspectives were needed to reveal the naiveté and ignorance of the Americans. Ahcho and Mai Lin have a better sense of what is going on around them than their American employers. Gleaning a hint of their broader understanding of their country helps the reader to realize that the Americans don’t know the full story. That the two main Chinese characters have such different perspectives from each other adds another layer of understanding for the reader, I hope, and underlines the concept that there are no definitive answers to the questions posed by the story.

How did you manage to capture such a strong sense of place despite never having traveled to China?

I’m not sure, except that I did look closely at those old China photos, and I read my grandfather’s journals, and recalled some of my father’s childhood stories. But mostly, I let my imagination go and decided not to try to set my story in a real place, but instead created an allegorical China—one that exists only in my mind and now on the page. Once I gave myself permission to not stick closely to research or aim for precise imitation, I could then create a harsh landscape that serves as a main character in the novel.

I tend to be able to write for hours and have to make myself stop and take breaks.

When the Reverend arrives in China, he finds that some Chinese have adopted the new faith, but most people are uninterested, highly skeptical, or even hostile to this strange religion and those who have come from America to spread it They are faced with more pressing, life or death matters. This aspect of the plot forces the reader to consider both forms of faith in a new way, particularly to look at Christianity from the eyes of a non-Christian/non-monotheist. How did you get into the mind of an early 20th century Chinese peasant and capture their worldview so well?

It wasn’t difficult for me to imagine a skeptical response to these foreign missionaries. I think that came fairly naturally. I’m not sure how I managed to translate that into the Chinese characters, but I did. What was harder for me was conveying the true beliefs of the Reverend. My grandfather writes in his journals as a zealot: he proudly shares his list of converts on any given day or month. The conviction of his beliefs is much harder for me to imagine, whereas the non-believers I somehow instinctively understand.

I was pleased to see Grace develop into someone who was more than just a dutiful wife, dying for her husband’s attention and approval. Without giving anything away, what motivated you to have her grow in this way? Were you concerned that some readers might find this evolution too modern for the time and place (despite the fact that history is full of examples of women like Grace)?

I think her story is believable: some girls in all eras have been raised to not consider themselves capable in the world, particularly girls raised with privilege who are kept in a “gilded cage.” The story of girls growing stronger as they face hardship is not uncommon in literature. Madame Bovary, for example, wanted to live in the precious world of her romance stories, but Flaubert makes her literally trudge through mud to show how real her world truly is and how she must contend with it.

What are you working on now?

I recently completed a new novel set in China in 1937. It tells the story of an American woman and her teenage son living there right at the moment when the Japanese occupation turns to actual war. The mother is not someone well prepared to deal with it, but deal with it she must! She winds up with the Communists and even manages to meet their leader. As the situation around them grows more dangerous and violent, the reader wonders if she and her son will get out of that warring country alive.

I’m also completing a collection of short stories that I’ve been working on for literally decades. My stories accumulate slowly and I finally realized that I have enough for a collection, so that’s what I’m working on right now.

I read all the time, often more than one novel at once, and I especially focus on contemporary fiction.

What is your writing routine? Where do you usually work, when, how, etc.?

I write pretty much every day, usually in the morning, though sometimes I’ll grab a free minute later in the day. The last few years have been very productive for me. I have several projects going at once and have no problem finding the energy or focus to write, so I just jump in each day. I’ve gotten in the habit of lighting a good-smelling candle before I start to write and the sound of it sputtering and the sight of it flickering provides me with some company and nice energy. I tend to be able to write for hours and have to make myself stop and take breaks. I’m pretty immersed these days.

What have you read recently that impressed you? What are you reading at the moment?

I read all the time, often more than one novel at once, and I especially focus on contemporary fiction. I just finished Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings, which I really loved and admired. That’s a book I wish I had written, probably because its characters felt so familiar to me. Now I’m reading Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World. I like novels about art and artists. Several artist and art collector friends and I have recently started an impromptu book club to read novels exclusively about art and artists. We started with The Goldfinch, then read Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers. I’m not sure how long we’ll keep this up, but it’s a very fun way to bring together art and literature.

Other books recently read: The End of the Point by Elizabeth Graver; The Whiskey Baron by Jon Sealy; The Lighthouse Road by Peter Geye; Bones of the Inland Sea by Mary Akers; Man, Alive! by Mary Kay Zuravleff; The Geometry of Love by Jessica Levine; A Different Son by Elaine Neil Orr; Out of Peel Street by Laura Long. All of these, I realize with true delight, are by new friends—fellow writers I’ve met through the process of having a book published. I might just like that aspect of sharing my work best of all.