Chaos Outside the Study Door: Virginia Pye on Balance in Writing and Life

Virginia Pye author photo 2_0  virginia-pye-books

Last night, at a bookstore reading in Boston to celebrate the launch of her second novel, the author mentioned the “mental multitasking” required of women writers. We must live double lives, she said, or even triple, I’d suggest, as we juggle writing, paid work, and often, family.

The day before, an aspiring writer and friend sat on my back patio and lamented how she can’t make time to write during the academic year. Her job as an elementary school librarian and her community involvement are so time consuming, though also greatly rewarding, that there’s nothing left in her mind late at night or early in the morning when she finally pushes aside the tasks of the day and sits down to write.

Another friend, a best-selling author with three young children, recently texted me: “I’ve not been working, in any real way, for something like two months. And I feel almost panicky about returning to my manuscript.” That she is highly successful and widely respected seems only to ratchet up her anxiety, not calm it.

Frantic, worn out, and living multiple lives, the woman authors of probably every book that Bill Wolfe so skillfully reviews on this blog writes with chaos just outside their study door. Male authors no doubt face similar, difficult pressures as those experienced by women, and of course each artist’s challenges are unique, but for the purposes of this blog that focuses solely on women writers, I’m interested in sharing my own experience and that of other women I know who have pursued writing through various stages of life. They may not have recently made a big transition in their lives, as I have by moving to a new city, but with children careening about, or paid work to complete, not to mention spouses or partners who require a certain amount of attention, we women writers must struggle to block out the noise of our lives.

In her journal, Virginia Woolf wrote, “My mind is churned and frothed. And to write I must be a clear vessel.” If anything, achieving this ideal state of mind has become even more elusive for women writers. To succeed at putting meaningful words on the page, the woman writers I know juggle complex schedules, financial pressures, and the needs of loved ones in order to find the clarity Virginia Woolf described.

Before I had children, it was easier for me to create the ideal conditions for writing. I taught writing at a university and tutored at a high school, but I still managed to write daily. When my first novel didn’t sell, I pressed on and wrote another one. I had a strong second draft under my belt when I gave birth to my first child. The delivery was complicated and left me exhausted and debilitated for months. The experience of having almost not survived made me all the more grateful to be a mother.

In the first months, my attention was focused on recovering and and enjoying my daughter. The thought of writing hardly occurred to me. I remember my husband setting up the changing table on what had been my writing desk. The irony of that choice wasn’t lost on me, but it didn’t matter: I had no regrets about putting writing aside. And in the following years, I continued to prioritize being a mother over being a writer of long form fiction.

But eventually the urge to write began to return. I first found myself penning poems, mostly about motherhood, but also about nature and gratitude for life. Eventually, these became prose poems. Then they became short essays on mothering. Then finally, I wrote short stories in which I created fictional characters and worlds, my imagination reignited and engaged once again.

By then, my son, born three and a half years after my daughter, was ready for preschool. I had spent almost eight years being a full time mother. Although not every moment was idyllic or easy, I loved those years with my children. But as I returned to writing, I was now ten years older and with no published novel to my name. I felt greater internal pressure to write than when I’d been an aspiring writer in my late twenties and thirties and had all the time in the world. As a result, I dove back into the practice of novel writing each day when the children were off at school. I returned to my craft with a vengeance.

I remember feeling keenly aware that some of my peers had continued to write published novels while having children. That hurt my ego and made me ache for the legitimacy that being published bestows. But in looking back, I can see that I couldn’t have done it any other way. I needed to recover from childbirth then commit myself fully to being a mother, building up my reserves in order to raise my family, and perhaps also in order to have the mindset to eventually return to novel writing. Now, as a recent empty nester, I relish my uninterrupted days. At the same time, I miss the clamber and vitality that I had grown used to in our home.

Today, I see more women writers who are young mothers and who also somehow manage to publish highly accomplished work at the same time. I envy their sense of purpose and success, though I know it can’t possibly be easy.  The pressures on these women are enormous, but they still manage to maintain their imaginations and inner lives. Pursuing their work, even in brief, free moments, helps these admirable women maintain a sense of themselves when they might otherwise feel like they’re drowning in the monotony and challenges of motherhood. I remember that feeling and how hard it was to strike a balance.

The world continually distracts us from our work at the same time that it nags us to be successful. We feel we should be at peek productivity all the time, in every season of our lives. But for many of us, that isn’t possible. We need the fallow periods as well as the ones in which we write with sharp focus. Both of my published novels were written fluidly and with a clear sense of purpose, but I have a half dozen other unpublished ones, including the one I’m working on now, that took years to write. Each book has its own rhythms, its own demands on our imaginations and lives. If everyday living swamps us, then I think it’s helpful to accept that fact, until, once again, the balance shifts and we reach a place where writing can become a top priority.

On Facebook and Twitter, every other friend seems to be publishing a new book every other week. I’ve recently seen posts by women writers who have dashed out final scenes before going into labor, or written right through chemo treatments, or while dealing with the death of a parent. If true, those are remarkable achievements. But I’ve also seen mention recently in reviews and interviews that some authors have “lost” whole years to travel, or childrearing, or in the case of a recent young man who was compared to Dickens, to years of playing video games. While I don’t recommend that distraction, who can say what feeds the mind of the writer?

We need to have faith that our skills as writers will still be there when the time is right for us to create. My best-selling author friend and my school librarian friend will each get back to their writing when the time is right, and perhaps because their lives are so full right now, they’ll return to it with a new and more enlightened mind. The increased wisdom and empathy that we gain from living our lives well is surely reflected in our writing.


Virginia Pye’s second novel, Dreams of the Red Phoenix, was chosen as a Best Book of 2015 by the Richmond Times Dispatch and was called “riveting” by Library Journal. Gish Jen wrote, “Gripping, convincing, and heartbreaking, Dreams of the Red Phoenix is a real page-turner and thought-provoker—wonderful.” Virginia’s debut novel, River of Dust, was an Indie Next Pick and a Finalist for the 2013 Virginia Literary Award in Fiction. Caroline See in The Washington Post called it “intricate and fascinating,” and Annie Dillard described it as, “A strong, beautiful, deep book.” Her award-winning short stories and essays have appeared in The New York Times Opinionator, Literary Hub, Huffington Post, The Rumpus, The Tampa Review, The Baltimore Review, and elsewhere. Please visit her at www.virginiapye.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Dreams of the Red Phoenix follows lives of Americans in rural China on the verge of war with Japan

Dreams of the Red Phoenix

Dreams of the Red Phoenix

By Virginia Pye

Unbridled Books, Oct. 2015

$16.00, 270 pages

Virginia Pye’s grandparents and parents gave her a wonderful gift that she perhaps didn’t fully appreciate until the last decade. They served as missionaries in northern China from 1909-1941, when Pearl Harbor forced her grandmother to return to the U.S. (her father had returned for college in 1939). Their experiences, documented in letters and photos and a book by her father on rural Chinese warlords, eventually inspired her first novel, River of Dust (Unbridled Books, 2013).

Pye returns to this rich lode of material for Dreams of the Red Phoenix, a compelling study of a newly widowed American, Shirley Carson, and her teenage son, Charles, caught up in the Japanese invasion of northern China in 1937. Shirley’s husband, Reverend Caleb Carson, is believed to have died in a landslide on a horseback ride into the mountains to visit isolated villages. Shirley finds herself forced into a role she does not relish, continuing her husband’s work at the mission enclave. Her task is significantly complicated by the recent Japanese invasion; after taking control of Manchuria in 1931, the Japanese steadily made their way west over the next few years, leading to the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937.

Shirley has maintained her distance from the Chinese, including the local warlords and, eventually, the Communists of the Red Army. Instead, she has focused on her roles as mother, wife, and mission manager of sorts. But as events in her personal life and China begin to spin out of control, she finds herself transformed, reluctantly at first and then passionately, into the nurse she had trained to be, and as the American contact for the local Red Army leader, Captain Hsu. She is challenged by the need to negotiate complex political and personal relationships with Captain Hsu and Major Hattori, the charming but ruthless Princeton-educated Japanese commander.

In a separate plot, the somewhat sheltered and naive Charles is similarly caught up in military and social machinations he barely comprehends. At first, he is primarily disturbed by the disappearance of his Chinese friend, Han, who may have joined the Red Army regiment hiding in the nearby mountains. Charles cares for Han’s pigeons, attempts to learn his whereabouts, and quickly becomes more independent and self-sufficient as his mother becomes preoccupied, and then obsessed, with caring for wounded civilians, many of whom she knows are army soldiers dressed in civilian clothes so she will agree to treat them in the mission compound.

Shirley and Charles lose their bearings as the war reaches them and it becomes nearly impossible to determine who is friend or foe. Difficulties in language and culture create constant confusion and misunderstandings, and Shirley soon becomes ensnared in the military strategies and gamesmanship of Captain Hsu and Major Hattori.

Pye has woven together an unfamiliar setting, a coming of age story, a moment in history that is unfamiliar to most Americans, and what could be termed a tale of early feminist self-discovery into a multi-faceted novel. It is both a fish-out-of-water cultural exploration and an involving, occasionally thrilling historical novel.

Dreams of the Red Phoenix is one of the few novels I’ve read that could have benefited from being somewhat longer. I found myself wanting to know more about the big picture behind the war as experienced by Shirley and Charles, the non-missionary work of Reverend Carson, and the history of China. Perhaps Pye’s third novel will dig even more deeply into the litte-known history of Americans in China in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Undoubtedly there are many more stories of this intriguing time and place waiting to be told.

Fathers’ Day favorites: 12 Novels by Women for the Men in Your Life

In honor of Fathers’ Day, I’ve compiled a list of novels by women that fathers (well, men in general, actually) should like. One of my objectives in starting this blog was to encourage men to read more fiction by women. I don’t think I’ve succeeded, but it’s a battle worth continuing to fight.

The following novels feature compelling characters  (both men and women), involving plots, a powerful sense of time and place, enough action to satisfy the typical male’s requirement that “something happens,” and that certain something that just makes me think they would appeal to guys.

Sparta cover art  Roxana-ROBINSON-2-C-David-Ignaszewski-koboy

Sparta — Roxana Robinson

Roxana Robinson’s Sparta  may well go down as the definitive depiction of the costs of war paid on the home front. In a gripping third person narrative, Robinson shadows Conrad Farrell upon his return from four years of front-line duty in Iraq. Sparta moves back and forth in time from Conrad’s tour of duty to his return home.

But the core of the story concerns his attempts to cope with PTSD, reestablish his relationships with his family, friends, and girlfriend Claire, and to reintegrate into a civilian world that he finds mystifying and occasionally even infuriating. He has left some crucial part of himself behind in Iraq and struggles to find his true self again. To an observer he appears to be the ideal American warrior specimen, but inside he is psychologically and emotionally shattered.

The last section of the book is something of a page-turning thriller, as the reader wonders what Conrad will do to solve what appear to him to be overwhelming and unsolvable difficulties. If I had to choose one novel about the experience of Iraq War veterans coming home that will still be read in 20 years — and likely considered a modern classic — it would be Sparta. It is required reading for anyone who cares about the human costs of war.

Hundred Year House paperback  Rebecca Makkai 2013

The Hundred-Year House — Rebecca Makkai

Rebecca Makkai’s sharp-witted sensibility is at work on every page of The Hundred-Year House, an entertaining and absorbing novel that combines genres into an appealing and unique hybrid. Her second novel (following 2011’s The Borrower) is a literary mystery, a multi-generational family saga, a ghost story, a portrait of several marriages, and an exploration of the creative life set in three different eras (1929, 1955, and 1999), reflected in the novel’s three sections.

It is 1999 and Doug and Zee Herriot have agreed to live in the expansive carriage house on the Chicago-area estate of Zee’s eccentric mother, Gracie Devohr, and her Y2K-obsesssed stepfather, Bruce. Zee is an English professor at the local university and Doug, currently unemployed, is researching the life of minor American poet Edwin Parfitt with plans to write a biography. What would possess a young couple to live with the wife’s parents? Well, the price is certainly right, but for Doug it’s the fact that Laurelfield was once an artists’ colony at which Parfitt was a regular guest.

Makkai has cleverly structured The Hundred-Year House in reverse, so we experience Doug’s investigation into the life of Edwin Parfitt and the estate’s past as we travel back to 1955, when the house changed from arts colony to a private residence once again, and 1929, when the colony was in its heyday. And the family’s secrets are also revealed by going back in time. Makkai juggles several plot strands with aplomb, and there are plenty of surprises in store for attentive readers who are trying to solve the mysteries of Laurelfield alongside Doug.

This is a wickedly plotted and colorfully peopled novel that makes for a completely engaging read, full of perplexing mysteries, skillfully revealed (and often twisted) explanations, and a palpable sense of time and place.

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We Are Called to Rise — Laura McBride

Laura McBride’s debut novel captures the times in which we live with a story that skillfully weaves four narrative strands into a compelling and unforgettable tapestry. Set in the neighborhoods of Las Vegas, We Are Called to Rise tells the stories of a middle-aged woman whose marriage has suddenly collapsed, an eight-year-old Albanian immigrant boy whose family is struggling culturally and economically, and a recently returned Iraq War vet with a head injury and PTSD. The fourth narrator, who appears occasionally, is a social worker who becomes a Court-Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for the boy.

The lives of these characters intersect in a moment of violence that is shocking and yet seemingly inevitable. The second half of the book explores the aftermath of an event that has left Bashkim’s future in limbo. Although alternating narrators can sap the momentum from a novel when not done well, McBride keeps the chapters to a manageable length and never keeps a character offstage for long. As a result, the story moves at a steady, increasingly tense pace. McBride presents us with a vision of a world in which good people step forward and try to make someone’s life better, in which a “new normal” can come out of a tragedy. In which little things matter immensely.

The Tusk That Did the Damage  Tania-James-1024x682-MelissaStewartPhotography

The Tusk That Did the Damage — Tania James

Occasionally a book comes seemingly from out of nowhere to grab you by your heart and mind and leave a permanent impression behind when you’re finished. It is a masterful work that explores the various aspects of the illegal ivory trade in southern India. By combining timeless conflicts among humans and between humans and both the animal kingdom and the natural world, James has crafted a book that will hold most readers spellbound.

James uses a three-pronged narrative to provide readers with a panoramic view of life in the highlands of southern India, where elephant poaching is widespread. The first narrator we encounter is “The Elephant,” known as the Gravedigger. He was orphaned as a calf and raised to be exhibited, but his years of mistreatment have led him to escape his captors for a life of freedom and revenge. When the opportunity is presented, he kills humans and “buries” them and attempts to cover them with brush, virtually “erasing” them in the process.

Then we are introduced to the first-person narrative of a studious and ambitious young man named Manu, who has known only a life of extreme poverty and abuse as the son of a rice farmer.

The third point of view is provided by an American documentary filmmaker, Emma, who has recently graduated college and, along with her best friend, Teddy, is attempting to make a film about an Indian veterinarian who is attempting to rescue elephants calves and reunite them with their mothers (who are said to reject calves if they have had contact with humans).

Manu’s older brother Jayan is a small-time criminal who is part of a large poaching ring. Manu dreams of education as his escape from a life of few options and struggles to stay out of Jayan’s life. While nothing truly excuses the ivory poachers, we learn what drives them to destroy these incredible creatures in order to obtain their valuable tusks.

James weaves the plot strands together, turning the screw steadily toward the story’s inevitable tragedy. For The Tusk That Did the Damage is a tragedy despite the best intentions of some characters. The core of the novel is the universal conflict between idealism and pragmatism. The Tusk That Did the Damage is a short, sharp shock of a book that will leave readers with much to think about.

Friendswood  Rene Steinke

Friendswood — Rene Steinke

Rene Steinke, author of the 2005 National Book Award finalist Holy Skirts, has returned to the literary scene after nearly a decade with a timely and absorbing novel. Friendswood explores two issues that are seemingly discrete but are actually intertwined: corporate polluters turning a residential neighborhood into a toxic waste site and sexual abuse by high school athletes in a small town that worships football. In both cases, the immoral and possibly illegal behavior of privileged actors is indulged by the majority, who value economic growth and athletic prowess over questioning their way of life, the choices they make, and the cost of both.

The narrative is shared by four characters. Lee is a mother turned single-minded environmental activist when her teenage daughter Jess dies from a strange cancer. Jess’s death eventually drove Lee and her husband apart; now her life revolves around her part-time job in a doctor’s office and monitoring the adjacent property, the site of a former refinery. When she discovers that the site is belching toxins from the soil again, Lee moves from vigilant to vigilante.

Hal is a former mediocre high school athlete struggling to make a living in real estate; he is living vicariously through the athletic exploits of his son, Cully, and hoping that a recent religious rebirth will save him, his business, and his wilting marriage. Willa is a 15-year-old student with an artistic streak and an eccentric persona that doesn’t fit easily into the culture of this small town located between Houston and the Gulf. Dex is a classmate of Willa and Cully with more on his mind than just football and girls. Their lives intersect in ways they could not predict, even though readers probably can.

Time has passed since the toxic cleanup and town leaders believe part of the former refinery property is safe for new residential development. Big shot developer and former football star Avery Taft wants to bring this project to fruition, and Hal is desperate to persuade Taft to retain him for his realtor services. Lee has discovered worrisome materials during her nocturnal prowling behind the fences and attempts to alert the few influential people who are sympathetic to her unpopular obsession. Dex develops a romantic interest in Willa, as Cully begins to see her as an easily manipulated potential conquest.

Steinke grew up in the actual Friendswood, Texas, and she knows small towns and their residents well; she knows that football, religion, and the oil business are often the Holy Trinity in such places.

Kind of Kin  Rilla Askew

Kind of Kin — Rilla Askew

Kind of Kin author Rilla Askew deserves high praise for managing to explore the lives of those on both sides of the immigration issue without turning it into a one-sided screed. While Askew’s position is clear, Kind of Kin uses multiple narratives to put us inside the kaleidoscope of immigration politics at the national, state, and local levels.

The novel’s protagonist is Georgia “Sweet” Kirkendall. Her father, Bob Brown, a taciturn but respected local mainstay in the tiny town of Cedar, Oklahoma, has been arrested for harboring illegal aliens in his barn, to the surprise and disappointment of friends and family. Even more strange is the fact that he refuses to hire a lawyer or put up a defense.

His parentless grandson, 10-year-old Dustin, is forced to stay with Sweet, who is already struggling with her own son, a young bully named Carl Albert, and her husband, who works long hours out of town and has grown emotionally distant from Sweet and Carl Albert. At the same time, Luis Celayo has entered the U.S. illegally to search for his long-lost sons, who went north to work. The plot is enriched considerably by the fact that Sweet’s niece, Misty, is married to an illegal alien who has been deported but has made his way back into the country. Then Dustin disappears, and the hunt for him drives the story to its dramatic conclusion.

While on paper the plot may sound melodramatic, it does not read that way. Instead, it comes across as a realistic depiction of the many lives affected by the political decisions made on the issue of immigration and immigrants’ rights. The narrative is fast-moving, the various viewpoints are woven together smoothly and logically, and the characters act like real people, not cardboard cut-outs intended to stand in for points in a political or legal argument.

Kind of Kin is a deeply involving story whose headlong momentum makes you turn the pages faster as the novel progresses. Kind of Kin would make a great choice for book clubs, as there is much to chew on within its 400 pages of powerful prose. For everyone else, it is worthy of this high praise: It is a terrific, thought-provoking book that you won’t be able to put down or soon forget.

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The Home Place — Carrie La Seur

In Carrie La Seur’s masterful debut novel, The Home Place, her protagonist, Alma Terrebonne, has done everything possible to leave her dysfunctional family and its tragic history behind in Montana. She escaped by earning a scholarship to a small college outside Philadelphia. Having distinguished herself there, she then attended Yale Law School. Now, fifteen years after the winter car accident that killed her parents and took her younger sister Vicky’s leg, Alma is a hard-charging workaholic corporate attorney in Seattle living the sophisticated urban life. She is content, or has at least persuaded herself that is the case.

But a phone call from Billings changes everything. Vicky has been found dead of exposure in one of the city’s drug-infested neighborhoods, and Alma is called home to help arrange for the funeral.  Once back in Billings, she learns the details of Vicky’s death, which generally appears accidental but which has also raised a few red flags for Detective Ray Curtis, a Crow Indian whom Alma knew in high school. With her lawyerly mind now fully engaged by a complex problem, Alma works with Curtis to dig out the truth of Vicky’s death from under its mysterious circumstances. They are both suspicious of some of Vicky’s acquaintances, who are involved in the meth manufacturing and distributing business.

While her mind is thus engaged, Alma is pulled back into the past by her family and their ancestral ranch an hour out of Billing, “the home place.” Her grandmother Maddie is still the loving and feisty white-haired matriarch, but age has caught up with her. Eleven-year-old Brittany had been living an unsettled life with Vicky and is now in need of a guardian. Matters are complicated further by a predatory coal mining company “land man” who is trying to get neighboring ranchers to sell their property.

La Seur has woven all these strands into a seamless tapestry. The Home Place is a character study of Alma’s belated coming-of-age as she faces her family’s tragic past and complicated present, a mystery that becomes increasingly suspenseful, and a love letter to the Big Sky country of southeastern Montana. In many ways, The Home Place is the type of novel I like best: literary fiction with an ethical dilemma or mystery at its core, well-written and respectful of readers’ intelligence, but warm-hearted and well-paced.

laline-paull-the-bees

The Bees — Laline Paull

The Bees combines the best traits of a thriller, a character study, a hero’s quest, and a dystopian fantasy to powerful effect Just as Richard Adams made readers care deeply about a warren of rabbits in his 1973 classic, Watership Down (perhaps the best novel for adults featuring anthropomorphized animals), Laline Paull’s The Bees will have readers worrying about the many threats, both external and internal, to the members of one hive in an English orchard.

Flora 717 is a dutiful member of the sanitation workers, the lowest caste in the hive, when it is discovered that she can speak (the “flora kin” group is mute). For her part, Flora is deeply conflicted between her genetic predisposition to “Accept, Obey, and Serve” (the workers’ mantra) and her rational and critical mind, which causes her to question, disobey, and ultimately lead.

As she demonstrates her intelligence, bravery, and devotion to the Queen, she moves up literally and figuratively in the world of the hive. But her proximity to the Queen, the Priestesses, and the drones makes her privy to knowledge she would be better off not knowing. Before long, Flora has become a threat to the Queen in a way she could never have imagined.

Beyond its intense and exciting plot, The Bees is distinguished by its well-drawn and credible characters. On one hand, Flora is consciously reluctant to follow her own path, for nothing could be less like a bee, yet she is compelled to take certain actions, as if her mind is being controlled by a force greater than herself.

The novel’s other noteworthy accomplishment is the way Paull has seamlessly incorporated a wealth of fascinating information about bees without bogging down the narrative. Her background in screenwriting has resulted in a cinematic thriller with several scenes you are unlikely to forget. The Bees begs to be turned into a movie; the question is whether the CGI experts will dare to attempt it.

Paull has provided filmmakers with a riveting story featuring a gamut of memorable characters and a unique setting. In the meantime, readers have the opportunity to experience The Bees in the movie theater of their own mind.

Man Alive paperback 10-7-14  Mary Kay Zuravleff

Man Alive! — Mary Kay Zuravleff

We are all fascinated by the idea of a person being struck by lightning. What is the actual experience like? How harmful is it (since we know victims are not always killed)? What effects is the victim left with? Are they changed psychologically or spiritually, in addition to the physical changes? How do their families cope with such a shocking event? Or maybe I’m one of the few people who wonders about these things.

Man Alive! answers these questions with the story of psychiatrist Owen Lerner, who is struck by lightning while putting a quarter into a parking meter one inclement afternoon during his family’s summer vacation at Rehoboth Beach in Delaware.

In the weeks and months that follow, Owen recovers from his physical wounds (entry and exit points of the lightning, skin grafts for burns, etc.). But it is his psychological changes that throw the Lerner family off its axis and into a spinout. The long months of recovery wear on his wife Toni’s patience, especially the changes in Owen’s personality: the frequent space-outs, odd and even offensive comments similar to Tourette’s Syndrome, and his preoccupation with barbecuing. Owen’s relationships with college student twins Will and Ricky and 16-year-old daughter Brooke become increasingly confused and fraught with misunderstandings.  And Owen becomes his own ultimate psychiatric patient, suffering from several disorders at once.

As with any involving novel, Man Alive! is full of the conflicts large and small, profound and mundane, found in most families. But the stakes are higher. Will Owen ever fully recover and become himself again? Or is this new Owen the permanent Owen? What effect will that have on his marriage with Toni?

Zuravleff explores the characters, conflicts, and questions with sympathy and a cutting wit. She takes Owen’s predicament seriously but also finds much humor in his shifting personality and struggle to reground himself in the life he has known. The fast, snappy dialogue among the members of this smart, ambitious family provides much-needed humor to balance this serious examination of a man, a marriage, and a family. Man Alive! is an intriguing examination of the way extreme situations can utterly alter marital and family dynamics and how humans react to change both inside and outside themselves.

River of Dust  Virginia Pye

River of Dust — Virginia Pye

One of the great joys of the reading life is the ability to travel to other times and places, to experience life among other peoples and cultures. Virginia Pye’s River of Dust, though not a joyful novel, offers those pleasures in abundance. River of Dust is a character study of a man of great faith enduring a spiritual crisis, a close examination of the dynamics in a young marriage, a suspenseful missing persons story, and a jaundiced travelogue.

A few years after the Boxer Rebellion of 1898-1900, Reverend John Wesley Watson and his young wife, Grace, have been sent by the church to engage in missionary work in the small Chinese city of Fenchow-fu in the drought-stricken country northwest of Beijing. After making a name for himself building schools, roads, and a hospital, the Reverend (as he is called throughout the book) and Grace, along with their three-year-old son Wesley, move out of the missionary compound to a tumbledown house well outside of town. Before they can even move their bags into the house, a pair of Mongol bandits accosts them and kidnaps Wesley. The compelling plot of River of Dust is thus set in motion. Who are these men, why did they steal Wesley, and what do they want with him?

The Reverend becomes justifiably obsessed with hunting down the nomads and reclaiming his son. He sets out with his man, 60-year-old (but very capable) Ahcho, riding across the badlands in search of the bandits and young Wesley. Many Chinese mock the Reverend and his “Lord Jesus.” They call him “Ghost Man,” some with grudging respect, some sarcastically.

River of Dust is the story of this young couple’s encounter with a strange nation: its wide range of people, incomprehensible culture, and primitive religious superstitions. Like most imperialists, whether political or religious, the Watsons and their fellow missionaries believe they understand China and its people’s needs and that they can make a difference in their lives. They soon discover that this may not be the case. China is far more complex than they had imagined.

Pye has done a masterful job blending several elements into a story about sympathetic characters operating under the most challenging of circumstances. There is much here that will fascinate, surprise, and even shock the historically and culturally curious reader.

The Enchanted  Rene Denfeld

The Enchanted — Rene Denfeld

There are some subjects one would not imagine being interested in reading a novel about. A story concerning the prisoners in a rundown prison’s Death Row and those who work with them — the warden, a female legal investigator hired for death penalty cases, and a fallen priest — might seem to be just such a novel. But there are also some novels that are so special that they transcend their subject matter by creating a reading experience that leaves an indelible impression on one’s heart and mind.

Rene Denfeld’s The Enchanted is just such a novel. The Enchanted is an absorbing and haunting meditation about finding beauty and peace amidst unrelenting violence and heartlessness, the nature of sin and salvation, and forms of love in the most unlikely of places.

The Enchanted is narrated by an unnamed Death Row prisoner in the oldest prison in the state, a stone fortress in which the walls weep from the omnipresent Pacific Northwest moisture. The investigator, known only as “the lady,” is working on the case of another prisoner named York, whose crimes are of such an inhuman nature that they are not even mentioned by the narrator — who admits that his own crimes are so heinous that they too should never again be spoken of.  The priest is a broken man who has violated his vows and has come to the prison as both a last stop and a chance at some form of salvation. The warden is a good man doing a difficult job about which he has no qualms; some people’s crimes justify the punishment of death, but he takes no pleasure or satisfaction in seeing it carried out.

It is an irony common to much of the greatest literature that one can write about inconceivably dark, painful subjects with one’s heart, soul, and mind open to the beauty and satisfaction that can sometimes be found in such circumstances. As tragedies from Shakespeare to Arthur Miller show, one can experience catharsis and be ennobled from reading about a flawed and deeply human character’s life and their experience of death.

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

Station Eleven — Emily St. John Mandel

In this spellbinding novel of a post-apocalyptic world, St. John Mandel ponders whether art can save us — or at least help us to maintain our humanity long enough to start rebuilding our world. Station Eleven won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, was a finalist for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award, and made the long-list for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction (UK). It was also a huge bestseller, proving that thought-provoking literary fiction can be embraced by mainstream readers.

Station Eleven begins with the death of famous actor Arthur Leander during a performance of King Lear on a winter night in Toronto. EMT Jeevan Chaudhary is in the audience and attempts to save Leander, to no avail. Watching from behind a pillar onstage is eight-year-old child actress Kirstin Raymonde.

Later that night, Chaudhary receives a phone call from his friend, an ER doctor at a Toronto hospital, telling him the so-called Georgian Flu (from the former Soviet Republic) appears to have reached Canada and is worse than anyone expected. He advises Chaudhary to get out of Toronto immediately but not via the airport, since that is where the flu entered the country. In short order — dramatically and plausibly rendered by St. John Mandel — millions perish and the city goes dark. Chaudhary eventually decides to risk heading out for safer territory to the south.

The novel then begins its many shifts in time and place, moving back in time to examine Arthur Leander’s life. Then we move forward 20 years, after the flu has wiped out most of humanity, at least as far as the survivors along the west coast of Michigan know. Living in small groups, people carve out a brutal living in former towns and isolated outposts.

Moving among these locations is the Traveling Symphony, former members of the symphony combined with an acting troupe. The TS community includes Kirstin Raymonde, the child actress who was onstage with Arthur Leander the night he died. This group of artists appears to be the most democratic and socially cohesive group of survivors. Will their art be enough to salvage and maintain their humanity and bring it back to the feral people they encounter?

Station Eleven is a riveting read from start to finish. St. John Mandel’s vision of the nightmarish “end of the world” is frightening without being gory, as well as generally plausible. There is a deep thoughtfulness and measured tone to her writing that keeps Station Eleven from becoming a melodrama. The result is a haunting, heartbreaking tale of humanity brought to its knees, humbled, and then slowly able to begin creating a new world, in which they can see glimmers of light on the horizon.

Other recommended novels:

The Untold — Courtney Collins

The Gods of Gotham — Lyndsay Faye

A Guide for the Perplexed — Dara Horn

Black River — S.M. Hulse

The Moor’s Account — Laila Lalami

The Cutting Season — Attica Locke

The Ghost of the Mary Celeste — Valerie Martin

The Half Brother — Holly McCraw

Jacob’s Folly — Rebecca Miller

The Goldfinch — Donna Tartt

24 Authors’ Favorite Books of 2014 (updated 1/4/15)

To wrap up 2014 in a suitable fashion, I asked several writers to share their favorite book of 2014 written by a woman. You’ll want to have your To Be Read list handy so you can jot some additional titles down. Although this completely random selection of writers did not generate a consensus choice, Marilynne Robinson’s Lila, Robin Black’s Life Drawing, and Dylan Landis’s Rainey Royal came up a few times. Active links will take you to my reviews or the author’s guest essays written for Read Her Like an Open Book (RHLAOB). The contributors and I would love to hear your thoughts on their choices — as well as your personal favorites — so we encourage you to leave a comment below. And may 2015 be your best year of reading yet!

Helen Benedict

Helen Benedict

Three books by women come to mind as great favorites of the year: All The Broken Things by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer, about a young Vietnamese boy, his pet bear and his little sister, severely deformed  by Agent Orange. Moving and funny and surprising all the way through. Also, Be Safe, I Love You, by Cara Hoffman, a tense and honest book about a woman soldier newly home from war. And a book of short stories about the Philippines in World War Two called The Caprices by Sabina Murray.

Helen Benedict is a novelist and journalist, best known for her writing on injustice and the Iraq War. She is the author of six novels, including Sand Queen (Soho Press, 2011) and The Edge of Eden (Soho Press, 2009). The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq (Beacon Press, 2010) and Benedict’s other writings on women at war inspired the award-winning 2012 documentary, The Invisible War. Benedict has been a professor in Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism since 1986.  She has received fellowships from Yaddo, MacDowell, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, The Ragdale Foundation, The Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Ireland, Palazzo Rinaldi in Italy, and the Freedom Forum.

 

Robin Black by Deborah BoardmanPhoto by Deborah Boardman

Robin Black

I have had an incredible reading year. The Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante and the Old Filth trilogy by Jane Gardam were both new to me and both – in very different ways – gave me a three book immersion that will stay with me always. But my “you should read this and may not have heard of it yet” choice is An Unseemly Wife by E.B. Moore, the story of an Amish woman who is taken on a perilous journey from Lancaster County heading to a perhaps illusory Idaho composed of dreams of expansion and seclusion, both. The story is based on Moore’s family history and it’s a powerful, intimate look at a culture into which “foreigners” can rarely glimpse. And for nonfiction, Without You, There Is No Us, by Suki Kim, takes us into an elite “university” in North Korea – speaking of cultures many of us can’t glimpse. It’s informative for sure, and also heartbreaking.

Robin Black is the author of the acclaimed short story collection, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This (2010) and the novel Life Drawing (2014), which was chosen as the favorite book of 2014 by Beth Kephart and Dylan Landis (see below). Her essay for Read Her Like an Open Book, “On Learning to Spell Women’s Names While Men Buy My New Book for Their Wives,” was the second-most read post in 2014. Robin’s stories and essays have appeared in numerous publications including The Southern Review, The New York Times Magazine. One Story, and The Best Creative Nonfiction, Vol. I (Norton, 2007). Her work has been noticed four times for Special Mention by the Pushcart Prizes and also deemed Notable in The Best American Essays, 2008, The Best Nonrequired Reading, 2009 and Best American Short Stories, 2010. She holds degrees from Sarah Lawrence College and the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. She lives outside Philadelphia.

 

 2013-07-10-JessicaBlau

Jessica Anya Blau

I was thrilled when I discovered that Dylan Landis’s new book, Rainey Royal, was all about my favorite Landis character, Rainey, a girl who makes some unforgettable cameo appearances in Landis’s first book, the collection Normal People Don’t Live Like This.  In Rainey Royal we follow the title character from age 14 to 26—the years when she is navigating a profoundly messed-up adolescence while experimenting with her tremendous powers of beauty, talent and youth. Rainey is infinitely alluring and sometimes startlingly dreadful. She’s a hard-to-love girl who you can’t help but take deeply into your heart and carry around as if she were someone you once knew intimately.

Jessica Anya Blau is the author of the bestselling novels The Summer of Naked Swim Parties (2008), Drinking Closer to Home (2011), and The Wonder Bread Summer (2013). In May 2014, she was one of the first authors to contribute an essay to RHLAOB, “My Favorite Women Writers of the 1950s.”  She grew up in Santa Barbara, California but lives in Baltimore and teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University.

 

Kim Church

Kim Church

2014 has been an amazing year for books. I can’t single out a favorite, but I’d like to mention a couple that surprised and delighted me:

The Game We Play, a debut story collection by Susan Hope Lanier (Curbside Splendor). Lanier, a photographer, writes with an eye for close-up, using the smallest objects to talismanic effect. These are growing-up stories about characters trying to form themselves when everything around them is deformed. The game conceit that unifies the collection (most obvious in the final story, “At Bat”) is a nod to Lanier’s love of baseball, which she calls “the perfect game because it is complex in its simplicity. There is drama in every pitch if you watch closely enough.” The same could be said of these stories—minutely observed, deceptively simple, emotionally complex.

Are we allowed to mention books by men? If so, I recommend All I Have in This World by Michael Parker (Algonquin), about a couple of down-on-their-luck strangers who go in together on a used Buick Electra. I love the mesmerizing rhythm of Parker’s sentences. And I’m a sucker for stories about unlikely friendships.

Kim Church is the author of Byrd, which was published in 2014 by Dzanc Books and long-listed for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize. Kim earned her B.A. in English from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and her J.D. degree from UNC School of Law. Her short stories and poetry have appeared in ShenandoahMississippi ReviewPainted Bride Quarterly, Prime Number Magazine, the Norton anthology Flash Fiction Forward, and elsewhere.

 

 pamela erens by miriam berkleyPhoto by Miriam Berkley

Pamela Erens

I was taken with so many books published this past year. In fiction, these included An Untamed State by Roxane Gay, Life Drawing by Robin Black, The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai, Orion’s Daughters by Courtney Elizabeth Mauk, The Sixteenth of June by Maya Lang, Department of Speculation by Jenny Offill, Danceland by Jennifer Pieroni, Life In, Life Out by Avital Gad-Cykman, and Cutting Teeth by Julia Fierro. In nonfiction: My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead, The Other Side by Lacey M. Johnson, Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, On Immunity by Eula Biss, and Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast.

But if I had to pick the one 2014 book that I have been returning to the most in my thoughts and in conversation, it would be The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison. The final long essay in the collection, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” knocked me out. It’s an exploration of representations of and beliefs about and the experience of female suffering, and the bottom line is that Jamison made me see her subject anew. She advanced the conversation, so to speak, and it seems to me that books yet to be written are going to be shaped by hers. I want to add that I think that something of the same is true for Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State.

In 2015, I plan to get to at least two 2014 works in my to-read pile that I know will engage me: Rainey Royal by Dylan Landis, a follow-up to her powerful 2011 collection Normal People Don’t Live Like This, and the Elena Ferrante Neapolitan trilogy.

Pamela Erens’s second novel, The Virgins, was published by Tin House Books in August 2013. It was a New York Times Book Review and Chicago Tribune
Editors’ Choice and was named a Best Book of 2013 by The New Yorker, The New Republic, Library Journal, and Salon. The novel was a finalist for the John Gardner Book Award for the best book of fiction published in 2013. In April 2014, Tin House Books reissued Pamela’s debut novel, The Understory, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing.  Her short fiction, reviews, and essays have appeared in a wide variety of literary, cultural, and mainstream publications, including The New York Times,Vogue, Elle, Salon, Los Angeles Review of Books, Tin House, and The Millions. For many years Pamela was an editor at Glamour magazine.

 

 lisa_gornick

Lisa Gornick

My shout out goes to an elegant piece of long-form journalism and literary criticism by Kathryn Schulz, “The Story That Tore Through the Trees,” published in the September 9th issue of New York Magazine.

Schulz masterfully weaves together an account of how Norman Maclean, a retired University of Chicago literature professor, began at 73 what would become his posthumously published and wildly influential Young Men and Fire about the tragic Mann Gulch conflagration; the stories of the thirteen smokejumpers who died in the fire and the three who survived; an examination of the split-second decision of the crew foreman, Wagner Dodge, to light a match and fight the looming flames by encircling himself with those of his own making; and her analysis of how Maclean mythologized the events of that day in a way that  spoke to American themes of conquest and purification, but evaded the fundamental ecology of fire.

“To love a book,” Schulz writes, “is to acknowledge the power of stories to move us; but we should also acknowledge that not every story moves us in the right direction.” Schulz’s story, though, does move us in the right direction. Both an intellectually muscular piece of writing, encompassing science and cultural history, and a classic story of men in battle — the kind of writing usually associated with male writers like John McPhee — her essay lays bare the impact of romanticized notions of masculinity on our views of nature and on policy making. I was inspired that it was written by a woman.

http://nymag.com/arts/books/features/mann-gulch-norman-maclean-2014-9/index5.html

Lisa Gornick is the author of Tinderbox (Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux and Picador), a novel which touches on the history of the early smokejumpers. Her collection of linked stories, Louisa Meets Bear, will be published in June, also with Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Gornick wrote a fascinating essay for RHLAOB about the sources of inspiration behind Tinderbox

 

Laura Harrington

Laura Harrington

My favorite book of the year is Reading Like A Writer by Francine Prose. The trick to writing, Prose writes, is reading – carefully, deliberately and slowly. How does she make this a wonderful read? A master herself, Prose breaks down the process into words, sentences, paragraphs, narrative, character, dialogue, gesture, with brilliant examples culled from hundreds of books. Unlike James Woods’ How Fiction Works, which cites 81 books, only 8 by  women, Prose is much more democratic. Her final chapter, “Reading for Courage,” is worth the price of the book alone.

Laura Harrington spent 25 years writing for the theatre, and in 2008 she received The Kleban Award, given each year to “the most promising librettist in American Musical Theatre.” She took time off to write her first novel, Alice Bliss, which explores the impact of the Iraq War on the home front through the eyes of a young girl whose father is halfway around the world. Harrington contributed a powerful essay, “What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About War,” to Read Her Like an Open Book in March 2014. 

 

 Beth Kephart

Beth Kephart

This is an impossible task. I thought 2014 was an exquisite year of work by writers taking broad and beautiful risks.

For compression and the elegance of the time it portrays, Samantha Harvey’s Dear Thief:

http://beth-kephart.blogspot.com/2014/12/dear-thiefsamantha-harvey-reflections.html

For a fascinating perspective on a desperately unwinding woman, Catherine Lacey’s Nobody is Ever Missing:

http://beth-kephart.blogspot.com/2014/08/nobody-is-ever-missingcatherine-lacey.html

For a book richly steeped in the twin geographies of movable time and malleable possibility, Stacey D’Erasmo’s Wonderland:

http://beth-kephart.blogspot.com/2014/02/wonderlandstacey-derasmo-reflections.html

For a beautifully paced story about the private wants that are rarely spoken, Robin Black’s Life Drawing:

http://beth-kephart.blogspot.com/2014/07/life-drawingrobin-black-reflections.html

For a harrowing and brave and deliciously odd story of a woman who is trying to regain her footing, to know who she is, to find a rope in the well, Jenny Offill’s Department of Speculation:

http://beth-kephart.blogspot.com/2014/07/dept-of-speculation-jenny.html

And for a timeless, genre-less autobiography in poetic prose, Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming.

Beth Kephart is the author of Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir (Gotham/Penguin, 2013), Small Damages (Philomel Books, 2012), and Going Over (Chronicle Books, 2014), a YA novel set in Berlin during 1983. Chronicle will publish One Thing Stolen, set in Florence in April 2015. Kephart maintains a blog, Beth Kephart Books, and reviews books for the Chicago Tribune. Her essay for Read Her Like an Open Book, “Urgency. Please.” last August was one of the most-read posts of the year. 

 

 Dylan-Landis

Dylan Landis

Life Drawing, by Robin Black, contains one of the keenest, most distilled passages about marriage I’ve read: “There are often two conversations going on in a marriage. The one that you’re having and the one that you’re not. Sometimes you don’t even know when that second, silent one has begun.” All of Life Drawing is penetrating, disturbing and, at a couple of points, shocking. It’s the story of friendship and betrayal, told from the point of view of an artist, Gus, whose marriage to a struggling writer, Owen, is shadowed by her past affair. The writing is beautiful, the plot is taut, and the voice is both intimate and wise.

Dylan Landis is the author of the novel Rainey Royal, a New York Times Editors’ Choice selection, and the linked story collection Normal People Don’t Live Like This, a Newsday Ten Best book.

 

 caroline leavitt

Caroline Leavitt

Rainey Royal by Dylan Landis. It’s a raw, gutsy portrait of a dangerous upbringing and of a young woman finding her place in the world. It’s also unlike anything I’ve read before.  Plus, the language is gorgeous.

Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times bestselling author of Is This Tomorrow, Pictures of You, and seven other novels. Her many essays, stories, book reviews, and articles have appeared in Salon, Psychology Today, The New York Times Sunday Book Review, Publisher’s Weekly, People, Real Simple, New York Magazine, The San Francisco Chronicle, Parenting, The Chicago Tribune, Parents, Redbook, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and numerous anthologies. Her next novel, Cruel Beautiful World, will be published by Algonquin in 2015. Her guest essay for Read Her Like an Open Book, “My Life in Lawsuits,” was one of the top 5 posts in 2014. 

 

 Lisa Lenzo

Lisa Lenzo

From the minute I began reading Making Callaloo in Detroit, I felt as if Lolita Hernandez had taken me by the hand and the rich cadences of her Caribbean characters were leading me with their voices. After I finished the second story, I thought I knew what the next stories would be all about, and I was perfectly pleased to follow Hernandez further, down similar roads. But then the third story took me into a wholly different zone—an auto factory in Detroit– and I realized that Lolita Hernandez has more than one type of story to tell me. So if you want to smile as well as be surprised, pick up Making Callaloo in Detroit, open to its first page, and let this wonderfully talented writer lead you into her spicily seasoned, often sensual, sometimes gritty, and always rewarding realms.

Lisa Lenzo is the author of Strange Love (2014), a novel-in-stories published by Wayne State University Press as part of their Made in Michigan Writers Series. Lenzo’s first collection of stories, Within the Lighted City (1997), was chosen by Ann Beattie for an Iowa Short Fiction Award and published by the University of Iowa Press.”Strays,” from Strange Love, won the 2013 short story contest sponsored by The Georgetown Review. Lenzo contributed an essay for RHLAOB on turning real life into fiction. 

 

Paulette Livers

Paulette Livers

First impulse answer: Lila, Marilynne Robinson’s follow-up to Gilead and Home. I stopped and made myself scour through all the other wonderful books I read this year to be sure I wasn’t reflexively going to an author I adore. But Lila gave me everything I want. Compelling voice, deep interiority that manages to remain mysterious—sometimes even to the narrator herself, which is the best kind of mystery. Robinson’s mastery of the craft never falters, something the reader only discerns when she is forced to leave the vivid and continuous dream that is first-rate fiction, and attend to life around her.

Paulette Livers is the author of the novel Cementville (Counterpoint, 2014), winner of the Elle magazine Lettres Prize 2014 and finalist for the Center for Fiction’s Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize and Chicago Writers Association’s Fiction Book of the Year. Her work appears in Southwest Review, The Dos Passos Review, Spring Gun Press, and elsewhere, and can be heard at the audio-journal Bound Off. A member of PEN America and the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, Livers lives in Chicago. Livers contributed a powerful piece to RHLAOB, “How NOT to Write a Political Novel,” earlier this year. 

 

 Laura Long

Laura Long

I was enchanted by the boldness and precision of The Drum Tower, a novel by Farnoosh Moshiri about a family in Iran at the cusp of the 1979 revolution. At the center of this lyrical, psychologically astute novel are Talkhoon, a young woman confined to the Drum Tower basement, and her violent uncle, Assad. Moshiri reveals the madness of a revolution and of individuals, and a search for knowledge that includes the mythic bird Simorgh. This is the fourth novel by Moshiri, who fled Iran and lived in refugee camps in Afghanistan and India before relocating to the U.S.

Laura Long is the author of the novel-in-stories, Out of Peel Tree (West Virginia University Press/Vandalia, 2014) and two collections of poetry. She is the Geraldine Lyon Owen Professor of English at Lynchburg College in Virginia. She earned her BA in English/Creative Writing from Oberlin College, MAs in Anthropology/Folklore and English/Creative Writing at the University of Texas in Austin, and a Ph.D. in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Houston.

 

Rebecca Makkai 2013

Rebecca Makkai
While I’ve talked a lot elsewhere about my favorite novels of the year, I haven’t had much chance to gush about two strange and miraculous debut story collections: The Lovers Set Down Their Spoons, by Heather A. Slomski, and A Different Bed Every Time, by Jac Jemc. Slomski’s work reminds me of Etgar Keret — surreal and even fablelike — until it doesn’t. Her final story, “Before the Story Ends,” while slightly experimental in point of view, is realist and devastating, a counterbalance to everything earlier. Jemc’s experimentalism is often more verbal; I sometimes feel like she’s getting fresh with the English language in the backseat of a car. And her characters are hungry, desperate, illogical people. But this works, and the stories work. I kind of want to set these two collections up on a date. They’d have gloriously weird children.
Rebecca Makkai is a Chicago-based writer whose second novel, The Hundred-Year House (Viking/Penguin, July 2014), is the story of a haunted house and a haunted family, told in reverse; Library Journal called it “stunning, ambitious, readable and intriguing.” Her first novel, The Borrower, was a Booklist Top Ten Debut, an Indie Next pick, an O Magazine selection, and one of Chicago Magazine’s choices for best fiction of 2011. Makkai’s short fiction was selected for The Best American Short Stories for four consecutive years (2008-2011), and appears regularly in journals like Harper’s, Tin House (her story “K-I-S-S-I-N-G” is featured in the Winter 2014-15 issue), Ploughshares, and New England Review. Her first story collection, Music for Wartime, will appear in July 2015. She teaches at Lake Forest College and in Sierra Nevada College‘s MFA program, and runs StoryStudio Chicago‘s Novel-in-a-Year workshop.

 

lydia netzer

Lydia Netzer

My favorite book written by a woman and published in 2014 was Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by Karen Abbott. She writes so brilliantly about female spies in the Civil War, from the battlefield to the bedroom, I was completely caught up in the story of these four women. Learned a lot, laughed, gasped — this book was captivating.

Lydia Netzer is the author of two novels that are almost as smart, quick-witted, and quirky as she is. Shine Shine Shine, about astronauts, autism, marriage, and the struggle to be normal, was named one of the New York Times’ 100 Notable Books of 2012. How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky (2014) is about two close friends who decided to raise their son and daughter together and then separate them with the intention of having them fall in love and marry as adults. 

 

Ann_Packer_2008

Ann Packer

Angela Pneuman’s gorgeous coming-of-age novel Lay It On My Heart knocked me sideways.  Charmaine Peake is the 13-year-old daughter of a self-proclaimed prophet in a small Kentucky town. When her father suffers a breakdown, Charmaine and her mother, the hilariously and yet compassionately drawn Phoebe, have to take up residence in a trailer and navigate the intimacy forced on them by their new circumstances. (And you thought your mother had poor boundaries.) At the same time, Charmaine starts junior high, one of a handful of church kids in a large secular community. One of my favorite scenes occurs toward the end of the book, when Charmaine has an encounter with an older teenage boy who has been tormenting her on the school bus. It’s an unforgettable interlude: dirty, funny, and excruciating in the best way. By turns darkly comical and deeply moving, this intense and beautiful novel is cause for celebration and also no surprise to readers familiar with Pneuman’s stellar first book, the short story collection Home Remedies. Angela Pneuman is one of our best.

Ann Packer attended Yale University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She is the author of two national bestsellers, the novels Songs Without Words (2007) and The Dive from Clausen’s Pier (2002), which won a Great Lakes Book Award, an American Library Association Award and the Kate Chopin Literary Award. Her most recent book is Swim Back to Me (2011), a novella and five short stories. Her next novel, The Children’s Crusade, will be published by Scribner on April 7.

 

 steph-post

Steph Post

My favorite book written by a woman in 2014 is Nayomi Munaweera’s debut novel, Island of a Thousand Mirrors. Munaweera has been compared to Michael Ondaatje, but her work–lyrical, fearless and unrelenting–has set Munaweera onto a pedestal of her own. Her unflinching tale of women warriors, survivors, and refugees of the Sri Lankan civil war is at once heartbreaking and inspiring. Quite simply, Island of a Thousand Mirrors took my breath away.

Steph Post is a novelist (A Tree Born Crooked, Sept. 2014), short story writer, editor, reader, teacher and dog lover. Her essay for RHLAOB, “Writing Under Fire,” was published in November. She lives in Florida. 

 

 Virginia Pye

Virginia Pye

Euphoria, by Lily King, is a cleverly constructed novel about a love triangle between three brilliant characters, each an anthropologist in New Guinea, competing in intellectual prowess and love. The woman scientist in the mix is based on extensive research about the great Margaret Mead, who readers may recall from old textbooks. But nothing about Nell is musty or dull—in my opinion, she’s more vibrant and distinct in mind and body than any female character in recent fiction. [King’s essay for RHLAOB about her creative process, “Pencil and Paper,” was her first-ever contribution to a blog and one of the highlights of the year.]

Virginia Pye’s second novel will be published by Unbridled Books in Fall 2015. It is set in North China in 1937, twenty-five years after her first novel, River of Dust, took place there, and tells the story of an American missionary widow and her teenage son as they try to escape the escalating war with Japan and the dramatic rise of Communism. She wrote for RHLAOB about the writer’s ever-expanding skill set in “Hawking My Wares.” 

 

 robinson_roxana with book cover

Roxana Robinson

My nomination is Elena Ferrante’s Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, the third in her Naples trilogy. The novels begin in impoverished post-war Naples, in a community infested by the Camorra. The author calls herself Elena Ferrante, but doesn’t make public appearances, and so has created a mystery around herself. But whoever she  is, this writer is brilliant, savage and relentless. In her trilogy starting in Naples in the  1950s, she traces the deep lines of connection between crime and family, violence and children, deception and women, and shows the devastating consequences of corruption. Interestingly, because of this writer’s refusal to appear in public, rumors have sprung up about her real identity. The claim is made that she’s a man. Really? Why would you say that? Because she’s so good? Because it’s impossible to imagine a woman writing so well and so candidly about something so savage? Honestly, I can’t see any reason for these rumors except misogyny.

Roxana Robinson is the author of nine books: five novels, including Sparta (2013), Cost (2008), and Sweetwater (2003); three collections of short stories, including A Perfect Stranger and Other Stories (2007); and the biography Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life (1987). Her work has appeared in The New YorkerThe AtlanticHarper’s Magazine, The New York TimesThe Washington Post, BookForumBest American Short StoriesTin House, and elsewhere. She teaches in the Hunter MFA Program and is the current president of the Authors Guild.

 

Leora Skolkin-Smith

Leora Skolkin-Smith

My favorite book this year was Andrea Scrima’s A Lesser Day. Profound in both form and content, this overlooked novel deserves center stage.

Leora Skolkin-Smith is the author of the novels Hystera (2011) and Edges (2005), which was edited and published by the late Grace Paley for Paley’s own imprint at Glad Day books. Edges was nominated for the 2006 PEN/Faulkner Award and The PEN/Hemingway Award by Paley. Skolkin-Smith was raised in New York and Israel and earned her BA and MFA at Sarah Lawrence College.

 

lee-upton-april-2010-closeup

Lee Upton

One of my favorite books released in 2014 is The Woman Who Borrowed Memories: Selected Stories (NYRB Classic) by the Finnish writer Tove Jansson (1914-2001), best known as the author and illustrator of children’s books featuring charmingly blob-like creatures called Moomins.  The Woman Who Borrowed Memories is the first full-scale English translation of Jansson’s stories for adults, bringing together work written over the course of twenty-five years.  Often these fully original, beautiful stories are about the small changes that transform a life from the inside, changes that may be imperceptible to others and baffling to the person experiencing those changes.  Jansson tends to write about artists—sculptors, cartoonists, illustrators—who reveal an obsessive dedication to precision, a dedication much like, apparently, the author’s own.  Many of her characters love silence and solitude.  Sometimes they encounter animals, and those encounters, closely observed without sentimentality, elicit admiration for the animals’ feral qualities. (Her animals tend to bite.)  In “The Monkey,” a pet monkey acts out a sculptor’s own urges.  When the monkey, off her leash, scales a tree in winter, the sculptor’s observations make for a keen portrait of artistic ambition:  “You poor little bastard.  You’re freezing, but you’ve got to climb.”  Jansson frequently asks questions.  Here’s a sampling, plucked from the slowly whirling weather systems of several stories:  “What is it that’s happened to me?” “What shall we drink to?”  “What are you angry about?”  “What is it that’s wrong?” “What do you want?” “What’s life about?”  The funny thing about these limpid, bracing, fierce, and yet welcoming stories: they create the sensation of our being enclosed and alone in a quiet place. Distractions melt away and we may begin, like Jansson, to think about fundamental things.

Lee Upton’s collection of short stories, The Tao of Humiliation, was selected as one of the best books of 2014 by Kirkus Reviews. Her sixth collection of poetry, Bottle the Bottles the Bottles the Bottlesrecipient of the Open Book Award, is forthcoming this year from the Cleveland State University Poetry Center.  A professor of English and writer-in-residence at Lafayette College, she is the author of thirteen books, including the novella The Guide to the Flying Island, and a collection of essays, Swallowing the Sea: On Writing & Ambition Boredom Purity & Secrecy.  Her awards include the Pushcart Prize, the BOA Short Fiction Award, the Miami University Press Award for the Novella, the National Poetry Series Award, and awards from the Poetry Society of America.

 

Laura-van-den-Berg

Laura van den Berg

[If I had to pick] a favorite, I’d say All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews, a brilliant examination of death and sisterhood and survival.

Laura van den Berg earned her M.F.A. at Emerson College. Her first collection of stories, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us (Dzanc Books, 2009), was a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection and shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Award. Her second collection of stories, The Isle of Youth (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013), won the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts & Letters and was named a “Best Book of 2013” by over a dozen venues, including NPR, The Boston Globe, and O, The Oprah Magazine. Her first novel, Find Me, will be published by FSG in February 2015. The recipient of a 2014 O. Henry Award, Laura currently lives in the Boston area and is the 2014-2015 Faculty Fellow in Fiction at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. 

 

 

Mary Vensel White

Mary Vensel White

My favorite 2014 book by a woman was Marilynne Robinson’s Lila. Because her previous novels, Gilead and Home, both claim a spot on my Favorites of All Time list, I anticipated this new novel with barely-contained glee. So, it’s no surprise that I loved it. Perhaps Lila is more narrow in scope than the others and in fact, I spent the first section wondering if readers who were new to the series would love it as much as I was. The main character, Lila, is the same who appears in those previous novels and this new one focuses on her version of the story we already know. But then I stopped wondering, and became captivated by Robinson’s evocative writing and Lila’s world. Robinson is a master of the subtle, a soft-focus spotlight on the frailties and wonders of human feeling, and a creator of one of the most beloved characters I’ve ever known, John Ames. The unlikely love story between this elderly minister and the guarded Lila will squeeze your heart into a pulpy mess. In a good way.

Mary Vensel White’s debut novel, The Qualities of Wood, was published in June 2014 by Authonomy, an imprint of HarperCollins. She graduated from the University of Denver and lived for five years in Chicago, where she earned an MA from DePaul University. White wrote an essay for RHLAOB about the novel that changed her life, Lolita, last May. She lives in Orange County, California with her husband, four children, and two badly trained dogs.

 

 Joan_Wickersham

Joan Wickersham

I’ve admired the novels of Deirdre Madden for years. Her latest, Time Present and Time Past, is proof that a novel of ideas doesn’t need to be ponderous — it’s a deft, brilliantly economical meditation on memory and the limits of knowledge, and it is also a deeply sympathetic, charming, subtly shaded family portrait.

Joan Wickersham is the author of the memoir The Suicide Index: Putting My Father’s Death in Order (Mariner, 2009) and the short story collection The News From Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story (Knopf, 2012). Her op-ed column appears regularly in The Boston Globe. Wickersham has read her work on National Public Radio’s “On Point” and “Morning Edition.” She has received the Ploughshares Cohen Award for Best Short Story and has been awarded grants by the National Endowment for the Arts, The Massachusetts Cultural Council, the MacDowell Colony, and Yaddo. She graduated from Yale with a degree in art history, and she lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband and two sons.

What Are Some of Our Favorite Women Authors Reading This Summer? Part 2

Summer is the season when readers have more time to read than usual. Accordingly, there seems to be more talk than usual these days about what people are reading or planning to read. So I thought I would ask several writers about their summer reading. 

I posed three questions to them: 

  1. What have you read recently that impressed you (and that readers should know about)?
  2. What are you currently reading?
  3. What is in your To Be Read stack?

I received the responses that follow, each of which includes books you will almost certainly want to read. There are more good books being published than ever, and there are still all those earlier books, from classics to last year’s overlooked books, so the options for readers are truly unlimited. 

Part 1 of this feature was posted on July 20, 2014 and can be found here

 

Katie Crouch   Abroad

Katie Crouch, author of Abroad

Recently Read: The Blindfold  by Siri Hustvedt. This legendary writer’s first book. In this novel-in-stories, Iris Vegan is an impoverished graduate student in New York. I love how having no money is met with fear and utter despair here, which is such a very real phenomenon. So many times in novels characters say they’re broke, but being a woman alone with no money in New York invokes a special sort of peril. The book has some wonderful twists, during one of which Iris cross dresses, and another when she has a brush with madness. She also falls completely for the wrong man. It’s a truly wonderful psychological thriller.

Reading now: The Year She Left Us by Kathryn Ma. It’s about a young adopted Chinese woman in the U.S. who returns to her homeland to research her family, and how that choice reverberates throughout her life and her current fractured clan. The writing is out of this world.

Going to read: The Hundred Year House by Rebecca Makkai. I’ve heard great things about this one. Plus it’s spooky, and I love spook. Great writing? An English manor house? Twisted characters? I’m sold.

[My review of Abroad is coming soon.]

Kimberly Elkins   What is Visible

Kimberly Elkins, author of What is Visible

What I read recently that impressed me: David Samuel Levinson recently published a stunning novel, Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence, that really knocked my socks off.  The book manages the nearly impossible feat of being a page-turner while still embracing literary writing of the highest order.  The novel is populated by unforgettable characters, and the secrets abound and rebound.  Trust me, you want to read this one!

What I’m currently reading: I am, in general, often afraid of poetry–modern poetry, anyway–afraid that it will make me feel stupid for not understanding its obscure tropes and labyrinthine metaphorical conceits, and so when I find a poet whose work stirs me in ways that I both can and cannot understand, and yet is still accessible, then I am smitten.  Rita Mae Reese’s The Alphabet Conspiracy is such a book. Reese uses dictionary entries as the jumping-off point to uncover, and to rediscover, messages of the soul encoded in language, and the results are gorgeously engrossing.

What’s up next on my reading list: I’m eager to read Valerie Martin’s The Ghost of the Marie Celeste, another historical novel based on real people and events:  the Marie Celeste, a ship which vanished in 1872, and the storm stirred up by young Arthur Conan Doyle’s story about it.  Martin’s Property is one of the finest, most stirring novels I’ve ever read, and was key to showing me what historical fiction could be at its best.  There’s nothing like learning from a master, page by page, line by line.

Siobhan Fallon   You-Know-When-the-Men-Are-Gone

Siobhan Fallon, author of You Know When the Men Are Gone

Was recently impressed by: Anything and everything by Valerie Trueblood. She is a master. We ought to all know her name; she belongs on that lofty shelf with Annie Proulx and Grace Paley. Her stories are wide sweeping worlds, everything captured in a handful of pages, and they astound. They also inspire; I always want to write, and write something completely different and new, as soon as I finish one of her stories. My favorite collection is Marry or Burn, but her latest, Search Party: Stories of Rescue, is also great.

Reading now: Right now I am reading Lily King’s Euphoria for the second time, and I very rarely reread a book when there are so many out there on my ‘list’ to get to. But Euphoria is everything I wish I could put in the novel I am currently working on— a tortured love affair combined with the examination of human behavior and how cultures clash. Euphoria is also filled with beautiful, insightful writing and electric tension. King is terrific.

Up next: Rebecca Rasmussen’s Evergreen, just released. Rebecca’s debut novel, The Bird Sisters, came out around the same time as my collection of stories, and we became fast friends thanks to social media and a panel (and shared hotel room!) at the 2011 AWP in Washington, DC. She’s an all-round lovely and magnificently talented woman. If you’ll excuse me, I am going to open up her new book right now…

[My review of You Know When the Men Are Gone is here.]

Patry Francis

Patry Francis, author of The Orphans of Race Point

I was afraid I might not have time to do much reading while I was promoting my novel [The Orphans of Race Point], but the opposite has proven true. Every time I do an author talk or a reading at a bookstore, I discover another book or two or three that I simply must have.

Recently, I’ve been telling everyone I know about The Moon Sisters by Therese Walsh, Long Man by Amy Greene, and The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez. Though they are very different, they all have strong protagonists — and a lot of heart.

My current read is The Blessings by Elisa Juska. It was recommended to me by two friends who recently heard her speak here on the Cape and did not disappoint.

Booksellers have convinced me I must not miss: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra or Daphne Kolotay’s Russian Winter. Those are up next for me.

[My review of The Orphans of Race Point is coming soon.]

 mira-jacob   Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing

Mira Jacob, author of The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing

I just finished reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

I’m reading The Heaven of Animals by David James Poissant, I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You by Courtney Maum, and The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes.

Next up are Ted Thompson’s The Land of Steady Habits and Marie Helene Bertino’s 2 a.m. at the Cat’s Pajamas!

 Dylan-Landis   Rainey-Royal

Dylan Landis, author of Rainey Royal

Recent: Robin Black’s Life Drawing. Suspenseful, gorgeously lyrical portrait of a couple whose marriage, shadowed by an old affair, is painfully tested again. I love it especially for lines like this: “There are often two conversations going on in a marriage. The one that you’re having and the one you’re not. Sometimes you don’t even know when that second, silent one has begun.”

Current: An advance copy of Marilynne Robinson’s Lila. I haven’t read Gilead, which this follows, but I’m an ardent lover of Housekeeping, and this seems nearly as beautiful and intimate. She has a lovely fluid way of looping back and forth through time, creating layer upon narrative layer.

Next: Maybe Lynne Tillman’s Someday This Will Be Funny. Or Ivy Pochoda’s Visitation Street. Or the new Edward St. Aubyn, Lost for Words.

[My review of Rainey Royal is coming soon.]

rebecca-makkai-

Rebecca Makkai, author of The Hundred-Year House

I just read Cristina Henriquez’s The Book of Unknown Americans, which is not just beautiful but important, the kind of book that teaches us empathy.

I’m reading Kate Racculia’s Bellweather Rhapsody, which is a bit like The Westing Game for adults. (That’s a high compliment. It’s so fun that I’m shirking all nonessential duty to read.)

I was blown away in the bookstore by the first page of Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State. I’d heard it was amazing, but I wasn’t prepared to be knocked clear across the bookstore.

[My review of The Hundred-Year House is coming soon.]

 Virginia Pye   River of Dust

Virginia Pye, author of River of Dust

I just finished Smith Henderson’s Fourth of July Creek.

Right now I’m reading Jonathan Spence’s The Search for Modern China (all 900 pages) in an ongoing way as research for my next novel. I’m also reading The Art of Floating by Kristin Bair O’Keeffe and Out of Peel Tree by Laura Long. I tend to read more than one novel at once.

I’m looking forward to reading Bret Anthony Johnson’s Remember Me Like This and Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See.

The research book by Spence — a history of modern China — is like ballast. The rest is for pleasure and to see what’s being written well right now. There are so many more books I’m not mentioning! These are just the ones of the moment.

I also always have an Audible book on my iPod for when I’m out walking the dog or on long car rides. Right now, I’m entering the magical, fully-fleshed out world of Bleak House, where I expect I’ll be for months. Kind of a treat to hear those wonderful British accents and to enjoy Dickens’ humor and impeccable language. The man could write.

[My review of River of Dust is here.]

Brittani Sonnenberg with Home Leave cover

Brittani Sonnenberg, author of Home Leave

I just finished Celeste Ng’s book, Everything I Never Told You, which I found intricately plotted and deftly written. I recently read Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote and really loved it, especially the way he paints setting. And I recently came across a poem (“Found to Be Borrowed from Some Material Appearance (5)”) by Donna Stonecipher, a Berlin-based American poet, which I think is pretty brilliant.

I think Jane Gardam, a British writer, now 86, deserves more attention. She wrote a fantastic trilogy mostly set in Hong Kong, the first book of which is Old Filth. I also admire Amy Bloom’s short story collection, A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You.

I’m currently reading The Singapore Grip by J.G. Farrell and The Art Spirit by Robert Henri, and I plan on reading California by Edan Lepucki and Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann.

[My review of Home Leave is here.]

Tomi L. Wiley

Tomi L. Wiley

I just finished Bloodroot by Amy Greene, and before that Shine Shine Shine by Lydia Netzer (in between some John Greene, but he’s not a woman). I just bought Rebecca Makkai’s The Hundred-Year House two days ago – excited to read it. Up next is either Elizabeth Gilbert [The Signature of All Things] or Abroad by Katie Crouch. Reeeeeeally looking forward to the new Tana French.

“Hawking My Wares”: Virginia Pye on a writer’s ever-expanding skill set

Virginia Pye bookstore  River of Dust

On a recent sunny Saturday in May, I sat at a table just inside the door of a Barnes & Noble in my hometown and hawked my wares. I’d done book events at the two indie bookstores in Richmond, and was now happy to be hosted by the community relations manager at the B&N nearest me—a friendly, tattooed man who’d recently moved to Richmond from Brooklyn, where he’d also sold books. I was touched when he said he’d read my novel and thought it was excellent. Booksellers have so many books to read, and I was honored that he’d taken the time to read mine. He seemed excited to have me at his store, and I overheard him telling shoppers and other B&N booksellers that he loved my novel and they would, too. In other words, he wasn’t just a nice guy, he was doing his job. As I sat at the table they’d set up for me, I quickly realized that I must now do mine, too.

Being a writer today requires a skill set beyond what’s needed to create a book. As it turns out, you also need to be able to sit attentively for hours in public and smile in a welcoming, inviting way at strangers. I don’t believe that at any moment I actually leered at people, though I did occasionally catch myself leaning too far over the table as shoppers entered the store, hoping, unconsciously, to draw them magnetically towards me and the stacks of my novel, River of Dust, displayed on the table. [My review of River of Dust is here.]

If a shopper came within, say, three feet of the table and so much as snuck a peek at my book, I launched into a description—gauging the intensity of my pitch according to whether they stood their ground, inched closer, or backed away. Body language is remarkably clear: when someone’s not interested, they simply leave.

Not many folks did that, though, because they were basically polite and decent, and once I started to talk to them they tended to move closer. They seemed to feel at least as awkward as I did about the whole business. They began to touch things on the table: my stacks of books, the bookmarks I had arranged in a pretty fan, my little pile of business cards, searching, I sensed, for a way to anchor themselves.

Perhaps this is a good moment to mention that a fascinating cross section of America walks through the doors of a Barnes & Noble on a sunny Saturday afternoon in May. Friendly people, most of them, but also some fascinating bookish types who appeared to have gone there on intensely bookish missions. Others hovered through the store, their fingers grazing the book covers, but never picking one up. As odd as some people seemed, I felt predisposed to like them all since they were ostensibly readers and on a beautiful spring day they had chosen to visit a bookstore.

Want to win a copy of Virginia Pye’s River of Dust? Just leave a comment at the bottom of her guest post and you’re entered to win one of two copies, generously offered by Unbridled Books. http://unbridledbooks.com/ Feel free to share the link to this post on Facebook or tweet it on Twitter, etc. The two winners will be randomly selected on Friday, June 13. It will be their lucky day!

When a customer did finally stand before me, I beamed up at him or her (more often her), and began: the book is set in China in 1910, the story of an American missionary couple whose toddler child is kidnapped, lots of adventure, opium dens, but also about faith and belief, different world views, differences between East and West, deep and yet fun, serious and yet something else, a lot else—and with each sentence and phrase, I felt my novel decomposing in my hands like a wad of pulp in the rain. What I really wanted to say to them was that the only way to know what it’s about is to read it.

But instead, as I spoke, I assessed their moment-by-moment level of interest: if the mention of something exotic like an opium den seemed to catch their attention, I’d throw in hints of a traveling circus or a beheading, or an aside about Rudyard Kipling and Colonial literature. If they seemed more engaged by issues of spirituality and faith, I described my characters’ wavering devotion; if the cultural differences between East and West sparked their interest, I’d embroider with some improvised riffs about the U.S. and China today.

As I spoke, I realized this is how people sell things, any things, all things. This is what we do in our country: we size one another up, figure out what the other wants, and then do our best to offer it. That may seem incredibly obvious, but that thought, that very concept, had not previously been in my repertoire as a writer. Some writers write what they think the market “wants,” but I’ve never deliberately done that. I suppose we’re all influenced by the commercial tides around us and create accordingly, but that’s never been my conscious intention.

But now, I was a salesperson for the imagined world I had created in my novel. And although I was new at this, it turns out I sold a good number of books that day and had a good time doing so. I liked talking to strangers. They were smart and funny and respectful and told me what books they had enjoyed reading recently and what they didn’t like in a novel.

When I mentioned the kidnapping at the start of my story, one woman threw up her hands and said it sounded too terrifying and real for her to read. No matter that my kidnappers were Mongolian bandits on the northwestern plains of China in 1910. Another woman, after I’d gone on a little too long describing my story, quietly explained that she only read SciFi and Fantasy.

Then there were some readers who interrupted my sales pitch mid-course to say mine was exactly the kind of book they loved and they wanted to buy several copies. I was just as curious to ask these readers how they knew they loved it as I had been to ask the SciFi/Fantasy woman why she never read anything else.

An old adage started to come to mind: there’s no accounting for taste. And there was no predicting it, either, although I tried. I did my best to profile each incoming customer. I picked out the readers I was sure would be interested in River of Dust, but just as often as not, they never even wandered over to my table. Whereas the ones who seemed least likely to engage with me ended up eventually buying a copy.

That evening when I got back home, exhausted and exhilarated from my efforts, I told my high school-aged son that I’d sat at a table in Barnes & Noble for three hours and talked to strangers. For some reason, he took that moment as an opportunity to mention that he would never be interested in work that involved sitting at a desk all day. I said that seemed like an overly simple way to decide what kind of work to pursue in life. Think of all the jobs that precludes, I argued: no reading, writing, computing, teaching, being a professor or a banker (not that anyone in our family has done anything remotely that practical); in other words, no white collar work at all. None of that.

Right, he said, I know.

You know? How do you know?

Because, he said, that’s who I am.

All day I’d been trying to wrap my mind around the business of what we like and why we like it. Who we choose to be when we walk through the doors of a bookstore and make our selections. How we stake our claims and show our interests, our passions, and conversely, how we know what does not interest us at all. Why we either veer towards the table or away from it. Perhaps it’s as simple as that’s who we are. And apparently, the number one lesson in salesmanship, parenting, and even in writing is to be OK with that.

River of Dust, I know with great certainty, is not only the type of book I like to read, but precisely the book I wanted to write.

[My recent conversation with Virginia Pye can be found here.]


 

Virginia Pye’s debut novel, River of Dust, was published in 2013 by Unbridled Books and chosen as an Indie Next Pick by the Independent Booksellers Association. Carolyn See in The Washington Post called it “intricate and fascinating;” Annie Dillard said it’s “a strong, beautiful, deep book;” Robert Olen Butler named it “a major work by a splendid writer;” and Caroline Leavitt described it as “a gemstone of a novel…a masterpiece.”

Virginia has published award-winning short stories in literary magazines, including The North American Review, The Tampa Review, The Baltimore Review, Failbetter and as a Shebook. Her essays can be found in The New York Times Opinionator blog, The Rumpus, Brain, Child, Dear Teen Me and elsewhere. Interviews with her about River of Dust are online at The Nervous Breakdown, The Huffington Post, Large-hearted Boy and Fiction Writers Network.

She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence and has taught writing at New York University and the University of Pennsylvania, as well as in high schools and home settings. She lives in Richmond, Virginia.

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.