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)



New York Public Library names Young Lions fiction award finalists…and all five are women!

The Turner House  Gutshot  You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine

Beautiful Bureaucrat  Night at the Fiestas

The New York Public Library has announced the finalists for the 2016 Young Lions Fiction Award and, for the first time, all five nominees are women. The Young Lions program is a membership group of people in their 20s and 30s who support the NYPL and celebrate young writers and artists who are making an impact on the city’s cultural life.

The 2016 finalists are:

Angela Flournoy, The Turner House (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Amelia Gray, Gutshot: Stories (FSG Originals)

Alexandra Kleeman, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine (Harper)

Helen Phillips, The Beautiful Bureaucrat (Henry Holt)

Kirstin Valdez Quade, Night at the Fiestas: Stories (Norton)

The award, which is given to an outstanding writer under 35, comes with a $10,000 prize. The five finalists are selected by a reading committee of Young Lions members, writers, editors, and librarians. A panel of judges selects the winner. The Young Lions Fiction Award was founded by Ethan Hawke, Jennifer Rudolph Walsh, Rick Moody, and Hannah McFarland and made possible by an endowment funded by Hawke, Moody, and several other benefactors.

The award will be presented during a ceremony at the library on June 9.

Night at the Fiestas was recently awarded the John Leonard Prize for debut fiction by the National Book Critics Circle. The prize is decided by a direct vote of the organization’s 700 members nationwide.  The story collection also received the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a “5 Under 35” award from the National Book Foundation. It was a New York Times Notable Book, and was named a best book of 2015 by the San Francisco Chronicle and the American Library Association.

The Turner House was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers Award.” It was also short-listed for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize and the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction, and was nominated for the NAACP Image Awards for Outstanding Literary Work — Debut Author. The Turner House was also a New York Times Notable Book and an Editors’ Choice.

Flournoy’s debut is also a finalist in The Morning News’ Tournament of Books, a “March Madness” playoff in which 16 books are placed in brackets to compete against each other, with a different judge for each match. The Turner House, which just yesterday defeated Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, will face Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, which defeated Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies and just last week won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, in the championship today.





Molly Antopol’s THE UNAMERICANS named a finalist for Barnes & Noble’s “Discover Great New Writers” Award

The UnAmericans  Molly Antopol

Molly Antopol, whose debut story collection, The UnAmericans (W.W. Norton & Company), was my favorite book of 2014, is one of three finalists in the fiction category of Barnes & Noble’s Discover New Writers award program. [Read my review of Feb. 8, 2014 — coincidentally enough, one year ago today — here, and my interview with Antopol here.]

The other fiction finalists are Arna Bontemps Hemenway for Elegy on Kinderklavier (Sarabande Books) and Evie Wyld for All the Birds, Singing (Pantheon Books).

The nonfiction finalists are Bryce Andrews for Badluck Way: A Year on the Ragged Edge of the West (Atria Books), Caitlin Doughty for Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (W.W. Norton & Company), and Will Harlan for Untamed (Grove/Atlantic).

The award is celebrating its 25th year in 2015. The two winners, who will each receive $10,000, will be announced at a ceremony in New York City on March 4. The runner-up in each category will receive $5,000, while the third-place finisher will receive $2,500.

Over a thousand books published in 2014 were submitted for the contest by publishers. The three judges in each category narrowed the list down to 64 books and, ultimately, to the three finalist.

Antopol has enjoyed a remarkable 15 months, starting with being named one of the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” writers at the NBA’s awards ceremony in November 2013. The UnAmericans was published in February 2014 to consistently positive (and occasionally rave) reviews and was nominated for the 2014 National Book Award. She is currently teaching creative writing at Stanford University.

Evie Wyld is the Anglo-Australian author of After the Fire, a Still, Small Voice (2009) and All the Birds, Singing (2014 in the U.S.). In 2010 she was listed by The Daily Telegraph as one of the twenty best British authors under the age of 40. In 2013 she was included on the once a decade Granta Best of Young British Novelists List. Her novels have been shortlisted for the The Costa Novel Prize, The Miles Franklin Award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize, the Orange Award for New Writers, the Dublin International IMPAC Prize, The James Tait Black Prize, and long listed for the Stella Prize and the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.

CITIZEN examines current Black American experience with powerful prose-poetry

Citizen   Claudia Rankine 2014

Citizen: An American Lyric

By Claudia Rankine

Graywolf Press (Oct.  7, 2014)

169 pages, $20.00

If ever there was a book for and of its time, it is Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. Rankine, a poet and essayist, considers what it means to be a black American in 2014, six years after the election of the first black president. While there was much talk in 2008 and 2009 about America entering a post-racial era, it was mostly a naïve wish. Of course, what we learned was that we were entering an era in which racists were the ones who felt rejuvenated, crawling out from under their rocks to spew hate in every direction, but particularly toward the (half-) black man who dared to occupy the White House.

Those who pay attention to issues of race, culture, and economics may know quite a bit about these subjects. But do they understand what it means to be black, here and now? Do they understand what it feels like to go through life with your skin color defining you before you have a chance to say or do anything on which you might more fairly be judged? Only the smug and arrogant – and most oblivious — would make such a claim (as we have seen frequently in the media, particularly in the last few weeks).

One can argue that substantial gains have been made and that life has never been better for black Americans. But rather than nearing the end of this journey toward true equality and acceptance, we are discovering that the oasis ahead was a mirage and that we have miles to go before we reach our destination.

Rankine makes this clear by taking us on a personal and conceptual journey through the contemporary black experience in Citizen. Through a hybrid of prose-poetry essays and more traditional poetic approaches, Rankine forces readers to face the daily reality of being black. It is, in many ways, a case of death by a thousand cuts.

Citizen is divided into seven parts, each of which addresses a different aspect of, or takes a different approach to, the subject. The philosophical, almost stream of consciousness introduction moves into a series of incidents in which black Americans encounter the manifest forms of racism, from benign ignorance to virulent hatred. Rankine has explained in recent interviews that these experiences came mostly from friends and colleagues, as well as her own life.

And it stings to read about these accumulated insults, indignities, slights, misplaced resentment, and the like. In one scene, a well-traveled black woman settles into her window seat on the plane. A woman and her young daughter stop in the aisle. The girl tells her mother, “These are our seats, but this is not what I expected.” The mother replies, “I’ll sit in the middle.”

In another, a black woman visiting her alma mater is joined at lunch by a white alumnus, who proceeds to explain that her son was not accepted at their prestigious college because of affirmative action or some such program, as if the black alumna were somehow responsible for either the policy or the school’s legacy decision.

A black woman schedules an appointment with a therapist over the phone. When she arrives at the therapist’s home office and rings the doorbell, a woman throws open the door and screams, “Get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard?” Rankine writes, “It’s as if a wounded Doberman pinscher or German shepherd has gained the power of speech.” Stunned, she manages to tell the woman she has an appointment. “Then she pauses. Everything pauses. Oh, she says, followed by, oh, yes, that’s right. I am sorry. I am so sorry, so so sorry.”

Even a skeptic will be forced to acknowledge that a constant onslaught of interactions – most of them negative — based on one’s race would be exhausting, disheartening, and eventually infuriating.

In another section, Rankine explores the incident at the 2009 U.S. Open tennis tournament in which Serena Williams became infuriated with a line judge’s call and verbally accosted her. “What does a victorious or defeated black woman’s body in a historically white space look like?” Rankine asks. “Serena and her big sister Venus Williams brought to mind Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.’”

Rankine reviews an earlier incident, at the 2004 U.S. Open, in which the chair umpire was excused from officiating finals matches after making five egregiously bad calls against Serena in her semifinal match against Jennifer Capriati. “Though no one was saying anything explicitly about Serena’s black body, you are not the only viewer who thought it was getting in the way of Alves’s sight line.” That match led to the introduction a year later of the Hawk-Eye line-calling technology. The 2009 incident is thus given context that didn’t exist for most viewers at the time, who wondered, as did Rankine, if Williams had (finally) lost her mind.

By piling up these painful anecdotes, Rankine simulates the experience of being black. But Citizen is not a laundry list of complaints or an exercise in self-pity. After sensitizing the reader by guiding us for a mile in black shoes, Rankine shifts to a deeply felt analysis of the consequences of implicit and explicit racism, concluding that one can’t simply shake off a lifetime – not to mention a racial and cultural history — of such experiences and pretend it doesn’t exist.

“The world is wrong. You can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you; it’s turned your flesh into its own cupboard.”

Rankine also analyzes the uses and abuses of language in expressing race-based ideas and emotions and reaches a counterintuitive conclusion. “For so long you thought the ambition of racist language was to denigrate and erase you as a person. After considering [philosopher Judith] Butler’s remarks, you begin to understand yourself as rendered hypervisible in the face of such language acts. Language that feels hurtful is intended to exploit all the ways that you are present.”

Much of the second half of Citizen comprises prose narrative “scripts for situation videos” that Rankine made with her husband, John Lucas. These scripts take us through a series of deaths of black men and boys at the hands of whites, often police officers, including early 20th century lynchings, the Jena Six, James Craig Anderson, and Trayvon Martin. Rankine also considers such related matters as New York City’s “stop-and-frisk” policy, which unfairly singled out black men (“And you are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description”), the contrast between U.K. and U.S. media reporting on race-related incidents, and the 2006 World Cup head-butting incident involving France’s legendary soccer player, Zinedine Zidane, who is of Algerian Berber descent.

A section on Hurricane Katrina is particularly wrenching, as she interpolates multiple voices.

“Then someone else said it was the classic binary between the rich and the poor, between the haves and have-nots, between the whites and the blacks, in the difficulty of all that…. The missing limbs, he said, the bodies lodged in piles of rubble, dangling from rafters, lying facedown, arms outstretched on parlor floors…. What I’m hearing, she said, which is sort of scary, is they want to stay in Texas…. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, she said, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them…. Then this aestheticized distancing from Oh my God, from unbelievable, from dehydration, from overheating, from no electricity, no power, no way to communicate.”

Rankine has crafted a multi-faceted exploration of the contemporary black American experience that succeeds both as a work of literature and a public service at a time when such an exploration is desperately needed. Now, if only we could put a copy of Citizen in the hands of every American adult.

THE UNAMERICANS: Molly Antopol’s debut collection is my choice for the National Book Award

The UnAmericans   Molly Antopol 1

The UnAmericans

By Molly Antopol

W.W. Norton: Feb. 4, 2014

272 pages, $24.95

In recognition of Molly Antopol being named to the longlist for the National Book Award for Fiction, I am re-running my review of The UnAmericans, originally posted on Feb. 8, 2014. 

It has become increasingly common for reviewers and lovers of short stories to compare an exceptional story writer’s work to that of Alice Munro, the short story master who won the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature (just as Munro was often compared to Chekhov). Often the comparison is unwarranted, either because of differences in style or subject matter or, frankly, because few writers are in Munro’s class.

But if any writer’s work justifies comparisons to Munro, it is Molly Antopol, whose debut collection, The UnAmericans, was published on February 4 by Norton. Each of the eight stories is a powerful, novelistic work that manages to encompass a character’s entire life through the use of representative experiences and telling details — as is the case with Munro’s work. Though the stories vary widely in terms of characters and settings, they share the ability to pull the reader in like a riptide and carry you away before you realize it. As I read The UnAmericans, it soon became clear why Antopol was selected by the National Book Foundation as a “5 Under 35 Author” last November (along with well-regarded young writers Amanda Coplin and NoViolet Bulawayo, among others).

The title of the book refers to the fact that the characters in Antopol’s stories are Communists from the first half of the 20th century, dissidents from Russia or Eastern Europe, or non-Americans like the Israeli characters in “A Difficult Phase” and the heartbreaking closing story, “Retrospective.” More broadly, it refers to people who are, in fact, Americans, but are viewed as “un-American” in their beliefs, behavior, or sub-culture by the mainstream culture.

Her stories display an impressive insight into the psyches of the various damaged characters, all of whom are trying to find their place in their own family, culture, or time. The stories take place against a backdrop of significant events, whether World War II, the Communist witch hunt of the 1950s, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, or the tectonic social and economic shifts in the former Communist bloc countries.

Each story pulled me in almost immediately and held me in thrall to the last word. I was intrigued by the characters, settings, and conflicts and wanted to know how these people would find their way to some kind of contentment. Her narrative control never faltered; despite this being her first collection of stories, I felt I was in the hands of a master. I am particularly allergic to clunky sentences, cliched imagery, and wooden dialogue. I did not find a single example of any of these common writing afflictions. These rare traits are what reminded me of the stories of Alice Munro: complete control, flawless writing, and realistic characters fighting for their emotional or psychological lives.

In “The Old World,” divorced dry cleaner Howard Siegel falls for a slightly younger and very voluptuous Ukrainian immigrant named Sveta, to the consternation of his daughter and her husband, who have recently become Orthodox Jews. Sveta is, in part, impressed by the fact that Howard’s “people” also came from Kiev. “Our people?” he thinks. “My people were from Ditmas Avenue. My people had left Ukraine before the Cossacks could impregnate their wives.” His relationship with Sveta leads them back to Kiev, where events take a surprising turn. But Howard discovers something he wasn’t expecting or even interested in, and a glimmer of hope prevails.

Another of my favorites, “Minor Heroics,” concerns two Israeli brothers who live with their mother on a moshav, a cooperative agricultural community similar to a kibbutz. The older brother, Asaaf, has just been discharged from the Israel Defense Forces after being stationed in Hebron. The younger brother, Oren, is a driver in the IDF, which he admits is “perhaps the least essential job in the Israel Defense Forces.” An accident on the farm changes the lives of the family and Asaaf’s relationship with his girlfriend, Yael. Oren has always played second fiddle to the charismatic Asaaf, but the accident shifts the ground beneath their feet, and the story depicts the characters’ efforts to find solid ground again. As in “The Old World” and life in general, things do not turn out quite as anyone had planned. Antopol’s sympathetic understanding of these two very different young men and their sibling rivalry produces a narrative tension in which we hope things will turn out well, yet fear (and suspect) they will not.

“The Quietest Man” tells of a father who is preoccupied by his daughter’s sale of her play, which he believes portrays him in an unflattering light. How can he persuade her to rewrite the character? Is he just paranoid? Neurotic? Antopol uses this fraught circumstance to examine the father-daughter relationship, in which both operate under misconceptions about the other’s character. Again, the protagonist discovers that all is not as it seems; life and the people in it are not so predictable after all. How often we fail to understand even those to whom we are closest.

“Duck and Cover,” set during the years of the Eisenhower administration, follows the coming of age of a young girl who has grown up in a family of Communist Party members in Los Angeles. Her father is an active member and all their family friends are members of “the Party.” This milieu is simply the air she breathes, and she has never questioned it — until now.

“And then the question that’s been knocking around inside me for years comes tumbling out: ‘Do you ever think it isn’t worth it?’


“We’ve been talking so openly, but suddenly even saying the question feels too risky, as if someone might really be listening. ‘You know,’ I say. ‘Have you ever thought, for just a second, of giving all this up and being — like everybody else?’

“‘We are like everybody else,’ my father says quickly. ‘Everyone who matters.’”

“For a moment he doesn’t say anything. ‘You have to understand,’ he says. ‘The Party was our life, your mother’s and mine. And after she died, the idea of getting out of bed and making coffee and going on with my day seemed … impossible. But everyone, they stepped in. The Party women caring for you, Lou and Alan coming by every single day, taking you to school, to the park on weekends. Everybody, all of them, they helped you with your homework, they taught you to read. I couldn’t do any of that myself.’ He takes a slow sip of beer. ‘You can’t question the Party,’ he says. ‘The moment you do — you fall apart.’”

“… All at once I feel his pain, his life, lean against my heart.”

“A Difficult Phase” follows a young Israeli journalist, Talia, who is looking for work after having returned from a job in Kiev, but instead finds herself in a relationship with an older widower with a sullen teenage daughter. On their first date, Tomer opens up too soon and with too much intensity, revealing, among other things, that he is in therapy and that his daughter, Gali, was going through a “‘very understandably difficult phase.’”

“She realized she was enjoying herself. That she hadn’t, if she was going to be completely honest, had such a good time in months. Getting Tomer to sidestep the terrible first-date small talk and move straight to the core of things was making Talia feel, for the first time since she’d lost her job, like a journalist.”

“‘I’m sorry,’ Tomer said, reaching for the check. ‘You’re the first person I’ve been to dinner with and I probably shouldn’t be let out of the house.’”

“And though Talia knew he was right, and though she knew there probably wasn’t a man less ready to date in all of Tel Aviv, possibly the entire Middle East, somehow that was making him all the more appealing.”

This is what I love about Antopol’s writing: her characters are real people, experiencing life the way it actually happens, full of unexpected turns in the road that take you places you never thought of going, but at which you find yourself glad to have arrived. Gali is not the only character going through “a difficult phase.” So are Talia and Tomer, so are we all, and the phase may be one’s entire life, which is often difficult.

I was so impressed by The UnAmericans that I read it twice, something I almost never do. I have no doubt it will be at the top of my list of the Best Books of 2014 in December. If you like short stories at all, I exhort you to read this book. Molly Antopol may be new to you and me, but she worked on these stories for 10 years while completing her MFA at Columbia University, serving as a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford, and teaching creative writing in Stanford’s English department. In her first collection, she is already a writer to be reckoned with.

National Book Awards fiction longlist includes Antopol, St. John Mandel, three more women

The UnAmericans   Molly Antopol

StationElevenNorthAmericaHiRes   Emily St. John Mandel by Dese'Rae L. Stage

The National Book Foundation announced the longlist of 10 nominees for the 2014 Fiction award today. Unlike the controversial list of nonfiction nominees released yesterday (nine men and one woman, with no memoirs or essay collections), the fiction list is an impressive group, divided equally between men and women.

Much-admired and often-awarded writers Jane Smiley (Some Luck, due Oct. 7) and Marilynne Robinson (Lila, also due Oct. 7) lead the list, which also includes well-regarded writers Emily St. John Mandel (Station Eleven), Anthony Doerr (All The Light We Cannot See), Elizabeth McCracken (Thunderstruck and Other Stories), Richard Powers (Orfeo), and Rabbih Alameddine (An Unnecessary Woman).

The fiction committee also nominated debut story collections by Molly Antopol (The UnAmericans) and Phil Klay (Deployment), and the first novel by Mountain Goats lead singer John Darnielle (Wolf in White Van).

Read my reviews of The UnAmericans here and Station Eleven here.

Reviews of Some Luck and Lila are forthcoming.

Elizabeth Graver: “Everyone—and every place—has a story, a history, an untold life”

Elizabeth Graver portrait

Elizabeth Graver

After reading The End of the Point last July, I interviewed author Elizabeth Graver on July 8. I’m reposting it now because the book has just been published in paperback. I found her responses just as thoughtful and beautifully written as the novel. The interview stands on its own and will, in fact, almost certainly inspire you to read her latest novel, which was longlisted for the 2013 National Book Award.

Find out how to qualify to win one of three copies of The End of the Point here: http://wp.me/p3EtWm-cT

What inspired you to write The End of the Point?

I’d heard a story from my husband of a beloved Scottish nanny who took care of the children in his family for several generations and then moved back to Scotland in her old age.  When she died, she left all her money to the female grandchildren in the family she’d worked for.  Apparently, she’d had a romance with a soldier during WWII. That was the first seed: Why did she stay with the family for so long, why did she leave? It led me to Bea, and then to so many other questions—about place, social class, child-rearing, the intersections between historical events and personal history.  The book (slowly—it took me over seven years to write) unfolded from there.

You live and work in Boston. How much of a connection do you feel to the Massachusetts coast? Any particular spot(s)?

My own beloved landscape is the woods and fields of inland New England.  I grew up in Western Massachusetts, and I now live in a rural suburb outside of Boston, in an old farmhouse surrounded by fields and woods.  New England—its seasons, the shapes of its hills, its particular flora and fauna—is in my life-blood; this comes into particularly sharp focus whenever I live somewhere else.  I didn’t grow up on the coast, and perhaps because of this, the ocean always feels a bit vast and daunting to me—beautiful and compelling, but not my home place.  I do love to swim, though, and to be buoyed up by salt water.  My husband’s family has for five generations had a house on a little spit of land on Buzzards Bay, in South Dartmouth, Massachusetts.  I love spending time there, but it will never be a place of origin for me, though it is for him and for our daughters—and in a very powerful way.  My fictional Ashaunt is in part an effort to understand their relationship to the real place that served as inspiration for my novel.

The book is divided into five sections, each focusing on a different character (although always in third person). Why did you choose this narrative structure?

I was interested in inhabiting one place over a wide span of time and through a number of different points of view. I think of the book almost as a kaleidoscope. The first, brief section, “Fifteen Axes, Fifteen Hoes,” provides a sweeping glimpse of the long view, moving from the early Native Americans through to the turn of the 21st century. In the other four sections, I cover much less time but go deeper, landing (among other places) during WWII, during Vietnam, and at the end of the 20th century.  My hope is that the structure, in both its diving-ins and its jumps and ellipses, might suggest to the reader a lot of other, untold stories.  We land here, and here, but we could have landed somewhere else.  Everyone—and every place—has a story, a history, an untold life.  Here are a few.

Why is Helen so demanding of Charlie? In general, do you believe it is worse when the first child is a boy? When the family is wealthy like the Porters? How does one find a balance between expectations and genuine desire to see potential realized on one hand and unconditional love and encouragement on the other?

I see parenting as a complex mix of nurture and nature, and as very colored by one’s own past and the parenting one received. Helen is by nature ambitious, restless, smart.  But she also suffers a number of losses.  The loss of her brother, after whom she names her son—seems to me a central one.

And she comes of age in a time and place where intellectual ambition is, if not actively discouraged, certainly not put first for women. Helen begins life as the third child in her family and ends up, after the death of two siblings, the eldest one.  Charlie is her oldest son. She is young when she has him. She funnels too much into him.  The wealth is complicated, both enabling and inhibiting, I think.  Helen tries in various ways to move outside the circle she was born into, but its pull is powerful and its gifts not insignificant, and she always comes back.

What made you decide to focus on Bea in the opening section? I enjoyed the character and the time spent in Scotland. Have you been asked to write a sequel of sorts exploring Bea’s life in detail? (We know how it ends, of course, but filling in all the missing years.)

No one has asked for a sequel yet! I love Bea, and I had a great time going to Scotland to research that part of the book.  I’m not sure why I began with Bea, but it may have something to do with her insider/outsider status. She is trying to make sense of things at the same time that the reader is.  She finds Ashaunt too sandy, windy and chaotic for her liking.  I didn’t want this book to read as a nostalgic beach book in any easy way, though interrogating nostalgia is something I hope the book does.  Bea comes from elsewhere.  She leads us in. I’m also interested in expanding notions of “family” and “mothering” to include non-blood relatives and even land.  Bea, while technically childless, is in a funny way a mother to much of the book, just as Ashaunt is a mother to Charlie and perhaps to other characters too.

Two characters (and, arguably, even more) suffer from mental illness. You write about the nature and experience of mental illness quite knowledgeably. What is the story behind that?

If I hadn’t been a writer, I might have been a psychologist.  I’ve written about mental illness in my other books as well (most centrally in The Honey Thief). Mental illness can highlight fundamental questions we all grapple with: Who am I? How am I separate from or linked to the rest of the world?  What is the line between the real and the imagined? The past and the present?  My body and my mind?  My sister is a psychiatrist and helps me when I get stuck.  For better or worse, the line between mental illness and health feels like a quite porous one to me.  As a novelist, I never stop hearing voices.

What is your technique/strategy for incorporating prose poetry into the novel without “overdoing” it and distracting from narrative momentum?

I try to keep time moving in the novel (not always forward, but in one direction or another) and to stay landed in scene most of the time.   If there is poetry, or highly poetic prose, it needs to be in service of the characters and story. But I’m also not aiming to write a fast-paced book. Not everyone will like it.  I hope readers who love poetic prose will be happy to linger when I do!

Were any other novels particularly inspirational or influential in writing The End of the Point?

Annie Dillard’s The Maytrees for its prose and seaside setting; Julia Glass’sThree Junes, for its structure; Virginia Woolf—all her books, but in particular To the Lighthouse.  George Colt’s non-fiction book, The Big House.

Why do you think so few men read fiction by women, even novels that are clearly not romance or genre fiction? For instance, why shouldn’t a man be intrigued by the title, cover art, and/or plotline of, say, Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, Attica Locke’s The Cutting Season, Rilla Askew’s Kind of Kin, or Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior?

I happen to know quite a few men (and be married to one of them) who read a lot of fiction by women, so I may have a skewed vision. It may also not be a coincidence that I married a man whose shelves were filled with Grace Paley, Emily Dickinson, and Louise Erdrich long before I met him. Some of why more men don’t read more fiction by women, of course, has to do with what gets reviewed, and where, and by whom (and you are helping with that with your wonderful reviews of fiction by women writers).  And with some of the covers and marketing, as a recent article pointed out.  And fiction is sometimes seen, at least historically, as “softer,” more emotive, less “useful” than non-fiction.  Also, though, it asks the reader to cross over all kinds of boundaries—of time, place, gender, etc. etc. That can be scary.  Also necessary, in my view.

Who are some of your favorite authors? For each author, could you explain briefly why his/her work is important to you?

George Eliot, for her wide social vision, her prose, her mix of empathy and rigor.

Alice Munro, for her narrative structures, language, use of white spaces, psychological insight.

Toni Morrison, for her poetry and the risks she takes in form and subject matter.

Edward P. Jones, for his explorations of generations and of the power of place, and for his handling of time.

John Berger…Marilynne Robinson . . . Charlotte Bronte . . . Michael Ondaatje . . . Angela Carter . . . Bruno Schultz . . . William Trevor . . .

What have you read recently that impressed you?

I’m in the middle of Colum McCann’s Transatlantic and really enjoying it. I’m interested in the structure, in the separate but echoing narratives. I was blown away by Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. I love really good narrative non-fiction, particularly books that take me deep into a new world.

What is your writing routine? I know you teach English and creative writing at Boston College; do you do the bulk of your writing on school breaks, summer vacation, etc., or do you manage to make it part of your daily life?

I do the bulk of my writing when I’m not teaching, though I do a lot of mulling, gestating, dreaming during the semester, and I revise in the cracks between other things.  I have two daughters, 10 and 13, so my daily life is very full.  I try to go away for a week or so every year—to an artists’ colony or to some other quiet place with my historian friend—and then I plunge really, really deep into the work.  A week can feel like a month when I’m in intense writing mode. It’s exhausting and exhilarating and necessary.  Parenting, teaching, and writing are all things I do intensely, and I’m grateful to have all three things in my life.  At any given moment, one thing might be at center stage. I work hard to put writing there some of the time.  This said, I’m in much less of a hurry to finish a book than I used to be—a gift of middle age, perhaps.

What are you working on now? How do you typically come upon the subject of your next novel or story? 

I’ve been poking about in my own family history and just spent a few days interviewing my wonderful 86-year-old Uncle David about his childhood in Spain and New York. What might come of it—a story, an essay, a non-fiction chronicle of some sort, a novel—I can’t say yet, but I’m having fun.  My maternal grandmother was a Sephardic Jew born in Turkey.  As a young woman, she moved to Spain, and later, widowed with two small sons, immigrated to New York.  I interviewed her when I was in college and have long wanted to do something with those tapes; she was a marvelous storyteller who lived a fascinating and quite dramatic life that involved a lot of cultural crossing.  Right now, I’m reading about Sephardic Jewish life in Turkey and Spain, interviewing relatives, playing around . . .

[See Elizabeth Graver’s guest blog about the early stages of the novel-writing process, posted on May 13, 2014, here: http://wp.me/p3EtWm-cJ.]

The subjects of my fiction come to me in lots of different ways, inspired by a dream, or a magazine article I’ve read, or by lowering myself down into research and seeing what happens.  Or a voice arrives.  I never know where I am going in the beginning or even what genre I’ll end up in.

Kindle, Nook, or good old-fashioned book?

Old-fashioned books.  I just got an i-Pad, but so far, I’ve only read newspapers and magazines on it. I figure it might be good for reading while travelling, and I’m itching to go somewhere far-flung with my family (I might get to use this new idea as an excuse to go to Spain!). But I do love the feel of a paper book—to be able to flip back and forth, write in the margins. I won’t easily give that up.