It often falls to emerging writers to tell us the stories we didn’t know we needed to hear, and this season’s standout debut authors do just that. These forthcoming titles present a dizzying array of voices and styles that challenge preconceived notions of community, identity, and language at every turn.
Amie Barrodale: Tales of fraught relationships, fueled by exasperation
Conventional writing wisdom holds that one should write every day. But while Amie Barrodale was working on the stories in her debut collection, You Are Having a Good Time (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, July), she waited for a particular impetus. “I’d just write when I got upset,” she says. “Then I would write quickly.”
The stories range in subject matter, but they tend to revolve around intense, disjointed relationships. One, “William Wei,” describes a telephone romance that comes to an unsettling, drug-fueled end. Another, “Frank Advice for Fat Women,” centers on a New York psychiatrist privy to the conflict between a mother and daughter.
Emily Bell, a senior editor at FSG and the director of FSG Originals, shepherded the book after Mitzi Angel, the acquiring editor, left for Faber and Faber, in the U.K. She says Barrodale “shines light on a particular type of person who often goes unnoticed, and she makes the banalities of his or her life fascinating.”
Barrodale, who lives with her husband, the writer Clancy Martin, in Kansas City, Mo., was an assistant editor for Dave Eggers at McSweeney’s shortly after graduating from Barnard College, and she later worked as a staff writer at the Onion, which, she says, offered a kind of master class in concision. “It was a weekly, so we had to work quick and dirty just to make everything clear. Maybe that made me less tolerant of my messy side.” She now works as the fiction editor at Vice.
Though Barrodale always wanted to write fiction, she says, “I think for a long time I was too scared.” An affirming moment came in 2012, when she won the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize, for “William Wei,” which first appeared in the magazine. “When it happened, I felt like a writer—for like, a day. That felt really good. People took me more seriously afterward—a little more—which makes a difference.”
Nicole Dennis-Benn: A Jamaican-born writer sheds harsh light on her homeland
When Nicole Dennis-Benn, author of Here Comes the Sun (Liveright, July), was growing up, she went on frequent trips around her native Jamaica with her mother, who had to travel for her job as a customs officer. This was during the ’90s, when Jamaica was experiencing a tourism boom. Seemingly every time they made a journey to one of the country’s airports, Dennis-Benn and her mother would see a new palatial hotel, complete with a private beach accessible only to guests. It made Dennis-Benn angry. “I thought, ‘This is our country. We can’t use its beaches?’ ”
Dennis-Benn left Jamaica for the United States in 1999, at 18, to attend Cornell. When she returned, for the first time, in 2010, she had to stay at a hotel herself: she’d brought along her partner—now her wife—and her family was still adjusting to the relationship. “I went back to my country as a tourist,” Dennis-Benn, 34, says. Observing the workers at the hotel where she was staying, she became curious about the “lives behind the fantasy” of tourist Jamaica.
Here Comes the Sun centers on two sisters growing up in Jamaica. The elder, Margot, works at a high-end resort in Montego Bay to pay for the education of her younger sister, Thandi, in the hope of giving her opportunities Margot never had. At the same time, Margot seeks to carve out her own independence, the better to pursue her relationship with a woman, in defiance of the homophobic attitudes still prevalent in Jamaica.
Another focus of the novel is the country’s rigid class system, wherein light-skinned Jamaicans enjoy social and financial advantages. “As a darker-skinned girl, you want to be that,” Dennis-Benn says. “You’re told that this is beauty in the country. This is access.”
Katie Adams, Dennis-Benn’s editor at Liveright, says the novel “addresses race through a variety of lenses: class, beauty, ambition, gender.” Julie Barer, Dennis-Benn’s agent, adds, “It’s clear that Nicole loves her homeland and simultaneously feels a responsibility to represent those voices that haven’t been heard from before.”
This commitment to illuminating less familiar aspects of Jamaican culture is borne out by the book’s title, which is less a reference to the Beatles song than a wry appropriation of the country’s travel-magazine mythos. The sun, Dennis-Benn says, “sheds light on the dark side of poverty, desperation, and the will to survive. No one can hide from it in this book.”
Brit Bennett: Questions of religion and community power a young writer’s debut
In December 2014, Brit Bennett, the author of The Mothers (Riverhead, Oct.), published an essay on Jezebel called “I Don’t Know What to Do with Good White People.” The essay, which examines the ways in which “white people expect to be rewarded for their decency” in regard to matters of race, went viral, attracting, as of April of this year, 1.4 million views. It also prompted Julia Kardon, Bennett’s agent, to ask Bennett if she might be interested in writing a nonfiction book about contemporary race issues. Bennett replied that she was working on a novel. “I knew as soon as I read the first chapter that she was a special talent,” Kardon says.
The Mothers follows a young woman, Nadia, as she navigates love, friendship, and religion in a black community in Southern California. Bennett, 25, began writing the book in her late teens, while at Stanford, working on it over summer breaks. “It was almost like an internship in that way,” she says. “The novel has grown up alongside me.”
Bennett continued revising it while in the M.F.A. program at the University of Michigan, and in her last year there, she added a distinguishing feature: a Greek chorus–like first-person plural voice made up of elder “church mothers.”
Bennett’s focus on religion draws on personal experience. She grew up “split between two churches”: her mother’s Catholic and mostly white church, and her father’s nondenominational Christian and mostly black one. “I’ve always been interested in the ways in which power is structured in institutions like churches, where a lot of times the people who do the labor are women,” she says. “These older women [in the novel], who were overlooked and forgotten by a lot of people at [their] church, are actually the ones that have the power to tell the story.”
Sarah McGrath, Bennett’s editor, says she was stunned by Bennett’s youth and narrative skill. “It’s an ambitious book about living up to expectations in a contemporary black community,” she says of the novel, which was a Buzz Panel pick at this year’s BEA. “But she wraps it inside a riveting love story.”
Claire-Louise Bennett: Stripped of convention, an experimental novel explores selfhood
Claire-Louise Bennett, the author of Pond (Riverhead, July), has been writing for some 25 years. But it took her ages, she says, to know what she was after.
She got a little closer some years ago, when, after dropping out of a Ph.D. program, she moved to the countryside of Ireland and, while working at a bike shop, began to write stories. The setting was “conducive to reading a lot, exploring a lot. It opened up some interesting ways of thinking, being out there.”
Bennett began reading books on phenomenology, such as The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard, and became “interested in our immediate physical space.” She adds, “A lot of the time books are about people and relationships, and that didn’t interest me so much.”
Pond, a novel told through linked stories, eschews some of the most basic narrative conventions. One learns very little about the narrator, who remains unnamed, or the locale she inhabits. What emerges, instead, is a flurry of observations and reports from the interior, ranging in subject matter from the environment to the minutiae of domestic life. “I’m thinking about identity and place in a different way,” Bennett says. “I’m trying, I suppose, to transcend those usual markers.”
Peter Straus, Bennett’s agent in the U.K., observes that, for all the eccentricity of Bennett’s approach, the book is “very funny, and moving in a way.”
Rebecca Saletan, Bennett’s editor at Riverhead, says she’d “never seen a work of fiction that was trying to do what this book was.” She thinks of the book as “shorter, female, funnier Knausgaard,” adding that Bennett gets at “the dissonance in each of us between the story we tell the world about who we are, and our actual internal experience, which may be much more fluid, nebulous, and chaotic.”
Lily Brooks-Dalton: Contemplative characters animate otherworldly settings
The dual settings of Lily Brooks-Dalton’s Good Morning, Midnight (Random House, Aug.), are about as far-flung as one could imagine: one character, an astronomer, is conducting research in the Arctic; the other, an astronaut, is making a return trip from Jupiter. But Brooks-Dalton, 28, became inspired to write the novel while in a somewhat less spectacular setting—namely, a public radio station in Amherst, Mass., where she was working as an administrative assistant.
Whenever it snowed at the radio station, an employee would have to go outside and brush off the antennae, in order to keep the signal alive; even if it snowed after-hours, they’d have to keep at it all night. “The idea of someone left in an empty building, and going out into the dark, snow-filled night—that stuck with me,” Brooks-Dalton, who now lives in Portland, Ore., says.
Emptiness and isolation, which Brooks-Dalton addressed previously in a memoir, Motorcycles I’ve Loved (Riverhead, 2015), became a driving theme of the novel. But in order to fully inhabit her characters, she had to do some research. She read memoirs by astronauts and novels by Arthur C. Clarke and Ursula K. Le Guin. She watched films such as 2001: Space Odyssey and Gravity, which came out while she was in the thick of writing. “That was really exciting: to sit in a theater by myself and think, this is exactly what I’m trying to convey.”
Anna Pitoniak, Brooks-Dalton’s editor at Random House, says the settings, distinct as they are, ultimately serve Brooks-Dalton’s explorations of her protagonists. “It’s not just about these characters in their present stations,” Pitoniak says. “It’s so much about them looking back on their lives and asking themselves questions about what they might have done differently. [Brooks-Dalton] captures the emotional layer as well as the visual layer, and those two things pair and complement each other.”
Fiona Davis: A former journalist brings midcentury New York to life in fiction
Fiona Davis, 49, first came to writing by way of nonfiction, earning her master’s in journalism from Columbia and putting in several years as a writer and editor focused on subjects ranging from health to theater. So it makes sense that her fiction debut, The Dollhouse (Dutton, Aug.), would draw on her skills as a researcher. “I loved the idea of taking something that was a piece of history and interviewing people and applying all the same journalistic tools to creating a story,” Davis says.
The Dollhouse presents dual narratives, one about a female journalist set in the present day and the other about a female secretarial college student in the 1950s. Both center on a scandal at the real-life Barbizon Hotel, once a residence for working women (occupants included Joan Didion, Grace Kelly, and Sylvia Plath) located on the Upper East Side of Manhattan that’s since been turned into condos.
To learn more about the Barbizon Hotel, and to get a feel for midcentury New York, Davis, who has lived in New York for almost 30 years, interviewed women who had lived at the hotel during the 1950s and ’60s. She also read back issues of women’s magazines from the same period. “The articles really showed what messages women were being sent at that time,” Davis says.
For Davis, the questions facing women then persist today: “Who are we? Are we defined by our work? By our families?”
Stephanie Kelly, Davis’s editor at Dutton, says the book raises questions about “women in the workplace, feminism, and what it means to be alone as a woman—loneliness versus being alone.”
Historical detail and cultural critique can often hamper narrative, but not here, says Stephanie Lieberman, Davis’s agent. “Her approach to getting the details right is so fine-tuned. It’s impressive that she was able to do all that and still craft a story.”
Nathan Hill: A capacious first novel offers a human look at politics
The likely Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, may not be popular among members of the literary community—some 450 writers recently signed a letter opposing his candidacy on the website LitHub—but the billionaire’s bid for the Oval Office may lift at least one novel this season. Nathan Hill’s The Nix (Knopf, Aug.) is a sprawling story of a mother-son relationship that touches on the Occupy Wall Street protests, the 1968 presidential election, academia, and the world of online video games, and features a “flamboyant ultraconservative presidential candidate,” in the words of PW’s starred review. Hill says: “I love the idea of my book coming out before the election. It’s sort of accidentally topical.”
The Nix is about more than just contemporary politics, and it took Hill, 40, almost 10 years to write. He started it in 2004 shortly after graduating from the M.F.A. program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and moving to New York. During his first month in the city, the Republican Party held its nominating convention for the 2004 Presidential race, and Hill went to Madison Square Garden, where people had gathered to protest the Iraq War.
The novel, which opens with the 2004 RNC convention, spans more than 600 pages, traverses multiple decades and countries, and includes a 10-page-long sentence. “You know that scene in Harry Potter when Hermione has a handbag, and she can put a whole library into it?” Hill says. “The novel felt like that. I kept putting more ideas into it. I infused it with all my obsessions and anxieties.”
For its wide-lens look at American culture, The Nix has inspired comparisons to Don DeLillo and Jonathan Franzen, according to Emily Forland, Hill’s agent. “I think Nathan made a conscious decision to go flat out, to put every single thing he had in it,” she says. “He went for broke.”
Tim O’Connell, Hill’s editor at Knopf, says the book lends an intimacy to the otherwise “depersonalized” realm of politics. “What Nathan does so well is bring his characters into [political] situations. He allows you to enter into them on a very human level. You’re engrossed, but you’re also learning about some of the historical context for the divide we see today.”
Derek Palacio: A novelist examines Cuban exile through the prism of family
Since its diplomatic relations with the U.S. were restored last summer, Cuba has been on many Americans’ minds. For Derek Palacio, author of The Mortifications (Crown/Duggan, Oct.), Cuba has always been a hovering presence. Palacio’s father was born there in 1950 and left with his family for Miami in 1956. Palacio, 33, says his father’s family was large enough that they “embodied all possible reactions to Cuban exile. Some were for it; some were against it. Some were bitter about Castro; some wished they could just go home.”
When Palacio began working on The Mortifications in 2011, while pursuing his M.F.A. at Ohio State University, he set out to create a cast of characters with those diverse perspectives. The novel centers on three members of a Cuban family—a mother and her son and daughter—who settle in Hartford, Conn. in 1980, while the family patriarch stays back on the island. Of all his characters, Palacio relates most to the son, Ulises. “He has my father’s view, and maybe my own, which is we don’t know that much about Cuba, so our feelings about it are more mysterious.”
Among Palacio’s inspirations for the novel was the memoir Before Night Falls by the Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas. “He writes so beautifully about the island, but his style, especially when he writes about growing up in the countryside, feels a little ethereal, and dreamlike. That, for me, was potent. My dad remembers very little about the island. So what he’s told me already feels a bit like a dream.”
PJ Mark, Palacio’s agent, first heard about the novel while having lunch with Palacio’s wife, the writer Claire Vaye Watkins, in 2012. “Claire talked about Derek’s novel, calling it the Cuban Corrections,” he recalls. He says the book shares some of “the Catholic mysticism of Louise Erdrich” and compares it to other narratives of family and diaspora, such as Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowlands and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth.
Palacio, who lives in Ann Arbor, Mich., has never been to Cuba. But now that travel to the country is opening up, he hopes to visit. “For a long time it’s been a distant possibility. Now it’s something we’re probably going get more deliberate about exploring.”
Guillermo Saccomanno: A decorated Argentine writer debuts in English with a noir behemoth
Over the course of his career, the 68-year-old Argentine writer Guillermo Saccomanno, author of Gesell Dome (Open Letter, Aug.), has published several novels and story collections; been translated into French, German, and Russian; and received such awards as the Premio Nacional de Literatura and the Dashiell Hammett Prize, twice (once for Gesell). About Gesell Dome, his first book to be translated into English, Saccomanno says (in an interview conducted through his English translator, Andrea Labinger), “It intrigues me to find out how I’ll be read in the land of Faulkner.”
In its focus on the tight-knit seaside community of Villa Gesell, in Argentina, Gesell Dome does call to mind Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. The novel, which contains elements of noir, follows several residents of the community who are drawn together in an increasingly nefarious web of scandal and violence.
Saccomanno, who has been living in Villa Gesell for most of the past 30 years, began work on the book in 2005. While writing he had the sense, he says, “that the town itself was dictating the story to me.” He adds, “Tolstoy supposedly said, ‘Describe your village and you will be universal.’ That idea was the driving force behind this novel. Violence, addiction, domestic violence, sexual abuse, blackmail, corruption, the lives that unfold in this atmosphere, all called out to me.”
Labinger, who received a PEN/Heim grant for her translation of the novel, says it’s astonishing that Saccomanno’s work hasn’t appeared in English already. While working on the translation, she collaborated with a native informant, the Argentine noir novelist Alicia Plante, who helped her render Saccomanno’s use of lunfardo, a type of Argentine slang, and verse, a linguistic practice in which syllables are inverted to create neologisms. “I certainly expanded my vocabulary of obscene and impolite language, because the novel is just rife with it.”
Kaija Straumanis, the editorial director of Open Letter, calls the book a trip. Citing CSI and People magazine as points of comparison, she says, “It has that juicy feel of, ‘God, these people are so messed up, and it’s such a train wreck, and I know it’s just going to get weirder and worse for them, but I can’t look away.’ ”
Jade Sharma: An indie publisher sets the tone
Since its launch in 2011, Emily Books, the e-book-subscription service and online bookstore (and now book publisher) founded by Emily Gould and Ruth Curry, has oriented itself around a particular taste. In the words of Curry, “Our aesthetic tends toward this dark and funny and bitterly honest worldview.”
It would be hard to imagine a book more in line with that worldview than Jade Sharma’s Problems, which Emily Books will publish, in partnership with Coffee House Press, as its first print title in July. The novel concerns a young woman named Maya with a penchant for destructive decision making. She carries on an affair with a former professor, sees her marriage fall apart, attempts to break a heroin habit, and, failing at this, sets about funding her addiction with money earned from Internet-facilitated sexual encounters.
Sharma, 36, began working on the novel in 2007 and finished it a few years later, while studying in the New School M.F.A. program, where she met Curry. She says she chose the subject matter in “the way people slow down to look at car accidents”: “What if she ends up having an affair?” she asked herself. “What if she gets sacked from her job? It was like pushing my poor character further into shit.”
Maya isn’t based on Sharma, but she is, like Sharma, of Indian heritage. “At first I thought, I should make her white, so I don’t have to deal with the race issue, because white people are blank slates. But then I realized not to make her Indian would be fucked up. Indian girls can be crazy bitches, too.” Ultimately, though, Sharma wanted to examine “Maya’s truth,” her “wrestling human heart in all its agonizing, pitiful glory.” Sharma adds, “She’s so human that her being Indian is an afterthought.”
Curry says the novel’s grim material didn’t deter her. “For an archetype of what Emily Books wants to do,” she says, “it’s pretty perfect.”
Daniel Lefferts is a writer living in New York.