This fall’s collection of promising debuts features problem children, supernatural freedom fighters, captive mermaids, mad scientists, righteous vigilantes, and, last but not least, a narrating dog.
Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
An urgent satiric voice
"I’ve worked Black Fridays, and I’ve literally seen someone step on another human being for jeans,” Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah says of his experience working retail at a mall, the setting for several stories about rabid shoppers in Friday Black (Mariner, Oct.), his debut collection.
In his bracing satires on consumer culture and entrenched racism, Adjei-Brenyah mocks the Orwellian formulations that mask societal ills. “I’m really interested in the way people use language to make themselves feel better about evil, explicitly the hiding of death and violence through coded corporate language,” he says.
Adjei-Brenyah, 27, grew up in Spring Valley, N.Y., and was a voracious reader. “I liked fantasy and manga and cartoons, things that aren’t bound by specific realism,” he says. He attended SUNY Albany, where he took classes with Lynne Tillman, his “literary fairy godmother.”
After entering the MFA program at Syracuse, where he now teaches creative writing, he began working closely with George Saunders, the bard of dystopian theme parks. While writing one “theme park–esque” story, “Zimmer Land,” in which people pay to play out their neighborhood patrol fantasies, Adjei-Brenyah recalls joking with Saunders, “George, I know this is your thing.” Saunders told him to go for it.
In the first story, “The Finkelstein 5,” a white man claims self-defense, and is acquitted, after decapitating five black children with a chainsaw. “It’s a knockout of a beginning, and sets a tone for the collection: these stories dive headfirst into some of the most pressing issues of our times,” says his editor, Naomi Gibbs.
Violence abounds in the tales. “A lot of people come to art and writing through strife or hurt or pain, and until you work through it, there will be some lingering aspect of that pain in your art,” Adjei-Brenyah says.
One of the ways he works through that pain is satire. “You know you’re reading this thing that is not the lived experience, but if I try to turn the volume up, you might get close to what it feels like for me,” he says.
Meredith Kaffel Simonoff, Adjei-Brenyah’s agent, praises this amplifying effect. “Nana unforgettably and complexly pushes both himself and the reader to contemplate the world at its most extreme, so as to at least begin to approximate some of the most brutally realistic emotional truths when it comes to living while black in America,” she says.
A novel examines the fraught relationship between artist and muse
Katya Apekina remembers telling her grandmother, a marine biologist, the title of her first novel: The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish (Two Dollar Radio, Sept.) “She said, ‘That’s terrible. They’re not ugly. They just adapt to their environment!’ ”
Apekina, 34, was born in Moscow and came to Boston as a three-year-old in 1986 after Massachusetts senators Ted Kennedy and John Kerry arranged for her refusenik grandparents and mother to emigrate. (Her father would join them in the U.S. later.) After graduating from Columbia University, she did relief work for the victims of Hurricane Katrina; wrote a movie, New Orleans, Mon Amour; and researched a nonfiction book on white Southerners involved in the civil rights movement.
That project never came to fruition, but it did end up informing her novel, which assembles a collage-like portrait of an artist and his family. “I had read so many oral histories doing research, and then Jean Stein’s oral history Edie,” she says. “So I was thinking about the prismatic effect of piecing together different voices.”
Apekina’s novel opens as two teenage girls come from Louisiana to Manhattan to live with their father, a famous novelist named Dennis Lomack, after their mother attempts suicide. Dennis is a charismatic, womanizing figure with a vampiric tendency to feed on those close to him for inspiration.
“The book skews toward some prickly terrain—such as consent, the role of the muse, and privilege—while still possessing a dark sense of humor,” says her editor, Eric Obenauf.
Through the accounts of Dennis’s daughters, readers see the mythology around the great writer crumble. “I was interested in the collateral damage of someone whose art can be cruel and ruthless,” says Apekina, who is also a translator of Russian poetry. “One agent interested in the book wanted me to rewrite it to be about Dennis. That is the opposite of what this book is about. It’s about his daughters, and what it’s like to have a father like that.”
A Canadian explores life off the grid
Claudia Dey, who is 45 and lives in Toronto, used to spend summers working in lumber camps in isolated regions of northern Canada. “It gave me the feeling of what it might be like to disappear, of separateness and untraceability,” she says.
Dey’s experience with profound isolation and her obsession with cults coalesced into Heartbreaker (Random House, Aug.), a gripping tale about an insular community. “I had the feeling of being initiated into a club when I started reading it,” says Dey’s agent, Martha Webb.
The novel is set in “the territory,” a remote wilderness where a charismatic leader led faithful adherents in the 1980s. Decades later, a woman, Billie Jean, has gone missing, and the mystery is viewed through the eyes of her daughter, a local boy, and an eerily perceptive dog.
Once she had the idea for the book, Dey (who is also a playwright and published a 2004 novel, Stunt, in Canada from Coach House) holed up in a cabin and wrote the first draft in a “10-day mania.” “I wanted the sentences to have propulsion, to have the quality of speed,” she says. “Clean. Never clotted. Never sentimental. Super spare. I wanted the scarcity of the place to be reflected in the quality of writing.”
That quality “combines urgency and self-possession,” says her editor, Anna Pitoniak. “I love it when a writer is in full possession of her voice. When there is an authority, and dexterity, to the way in which the story unfolds.”
The propulsive narrative provides a fascinating anthropological account of a strange culture. “I do think that isolation creates its own rules and customs,” Dey says about the territory, where males are anointed with a tribal nickname, the main export is teenage blood, and the women—the rebellious Billie Jean excepted—follow strict sartorial rules. “I take getting dressed very seriously,” says Dey, who cofounded a clothing company. “It’s a form of autobiography.”
Imogen Hermes Gowar
Swimming against the current in 18th-century London
"No one directs you to the mermaid,” Imogen Hermes Gowar says about the negligent docents of the British Museum.
Gowar, who studied archaeology and art history at University of East Anglia’s Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, used to work in the British Museum, where she browsed the collection for story ideas. “I would choose an object and write a piece of flash fiction about it, 500–600 words,” she says. “Who did it belong to? What episode is it central to?” One such object was a “mermaid,” a desiccated figure in the museum’s Enlightenment Gallery said to have been caught off the coast of Japan.
From that exercise arose The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock (Harper, Sept.), an immersive story about an 18th-century merchant’s obsession with two female figures: a courtesan and a mermaid.
“There has always been an association between prostitutes and mermaids,” Gowar says of the mixture of sex and danger each represents. “I was drawn to the idea of women being seen as curiosities in the same way, as collectible things.”
Though the novel has a fantastical element, it is firmly rooted in the sights and sounds of Georgian London. “The experience of reading the novel was so pleasurable, as though all my senses were engaged,” says Gowar’s U.S. agent, Anna Stein.
Gowar says the Georgian period, which she describes as “an era of self-creation,” always interested her—especially the lives of its women: “Reading their biographies, it struck me how cruelly they were treated and how little they were taught to expect from the world,” she notes.
Most cruelly treated is the titular mermaid, confined and isolated from her kind. “You need to have the mermaid talk,” one of Gowar’s friends suggested. Initially skeptical, Gowar found a “collective, watery voice” that rises above the novel’s human drama. “It’s unsentimental and possibly quite dark, but also observant in revealing something that the main characters can’t see,” she says.
Discussing the Villa Savoye, the 1929 house designed by Le Corbusier that features in her debut novel, OK, Mr. Field (Crown/Duggan, July), Katharine Kilalea says that the modernist architect “envisioned a specific circuit through the house that mirrors a traditional narrative arc, leading up to a point of clarity: a window that gave this fantastic view of the landscape.” In front of the window, however, is a bench facing in the opposite direction.
“The idea that your climactic view is something you would turn away from felt truer to life than the idea that you would get to the top and everything would be just as you hoped,” says Kilalea, who is 36.
In OK, Mr. Field, Kilalea drew on this idea of a frustrated narrative arc in telling the story of a London pianist who, after an injury forces him to put his career on hold, moves into a replica of the Villa Savoye in Cape Town, South Africa. Nothing much happens, fascinatingly. “His relationship to the house and the severing of all ties to his former life invite the reader into a vacuum that can be fully inhabited and fully experienced,” says Anna Webber, her U.K. agent.
Kilalea says she first experimented with an architecture-themed work in poetic form before discovering that “poetry had absolutely no use for the idea.” She turned to prose, and the project slowly took shape. “I envy people who can dash brilliant things off,” she notes. “The first chapter was a year in the making, something absolutely ridiculous.”
Kilalea, who grew up in Cape Town before moving to the U.K. to study creative writing at the University of East Anglia, points to a bulky classic as inspiration for her crystalline novel: “A lot of what I was thinking about when writing this book was Hans Castorp and the lethargy of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.”
Will Wolfslau, Kilalea’s editor, compares the novel to more recent works like Dept. of Speculation and The Vegetarian “in that the protagonist slips into a state that goes beyond depression or ennui and becomes an almost metaphysical disorder.”
A novelist tackles motherhood and the immigration system
In Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State (MCD, Sept.), a mother goes with her toddler to a region of northeast California in the grips of a secessionist movement. Before settling on that subject, however, Kiesling says she “wanted to write a bureaucracy novel, which is a huge formal challenge.” She scrapped it but sees a connection between administrative work and child rearing. “Motherhood is its own form of boredom,” she notes.
Kiesling’s thrilling handling of that boredom attracted her editor, Emily Bell. “I was first drawn into The Golden State by the pacing and energy of the writing—to create such mighty momentum in a book that’s grappling with the tedium of motherhood is enormously impressive to me,” Bell says.
In the novel, a San Franciscan woman, Daphne, is married to a Turkish filmmaker who’s strong-armed by customs agents into surrendering his green card and forced to return to Istanbul. Overwhelmed and separated from her husband indefinitely, she impulsively heads to her “ancestral mobile home” in the economically stagnant California town where her grandparents lived. “There are much more horrible and violent iterations of our horrible immigration policy, but this story is actually based on two people I know and a combination of government malevolence and ineptitude,” Kiesling says.
She describes herself as a “foreign service brat” who was born in Israel and lived in Armenia, Greece, and Morocco during her father’s diplomatic posts. She taught English in Turkey after college, then returned to the U.S. for a graduate program in Middle Eastern studies at the University of Chicago, where she studied Turkish and Uzbek. She’s currently the editor of the website The Millions. [Editor’s note: Matt Seidel, the author of this piece, is a staff writer for The Millions.]
Kiesling’s peripatetic upbringing informs some of the novel’s themes, which include pervasive Islamophobia and the deep cultural and political divisions within California. “Because of all these peregrinations as a child, I think a lot about authenticity and who belongs in a place,” she says.
Crystal Hana Kim
A novelist depicts the lingering trauma of the Korean War
"I came from a practical family. The idea of being a writer seemed impossible to me,” says Crystal Hana Kim. She worked for Teach for America after college and decided that if she wanted to pursue the creative path after her two-year stint was up, she would enroll in an MFA program. She did, at Columbia University, and is now publishing her first novel, If You Leave Me (Morrow, Aug.), at the age of 31.
Kim, who was born in Queens, N.Y., and is a contributing editor at the journal Apogee, was close to her maternal grandmother, who was a refugee during the Korean War. “I remember being absolutely fascinated by her stories of waiting barefoot in long government lines for rations,” she says. She adds that when she was struggling to find a “solid sense of setting” for her work, she remembered how vivid her grandmother’s tales seemed. “They made me feel that the actuality of the Korean War something I could imagine for myself.”
Kim’s novel follows Haemi, a teenager during the Korean War who chooses between two suitors with her head rather than her heart. “I thought that this relationship with two young men who provide different things for her would be a fruitful way to explore what it was like to be a woman at this time, when you had a very limited number of choices,” she says.
Each character is marked by the conflict, muddling through post-armistice life and haunted by personal regrets. “I wanted to explore the ways that people were scarred by this war, which doesn’t just end because the armistice was announced,” Kim says. “It’s still going on 68 years later.”
If You Leave Me depicts postwar Korea’s political chaos, but its fierce heroine is always in the foreground. Kim’s editor, Jessica Williams, says that “the true power of this novel lies in Crystal’s heartbreaking creation of Haemi, a conflicted woman longing for autonomy in a rapidly changing world.”
Off with their heads!
Roque Larraquy’s Comemadre (Coffee House, July) comprises two narratives: a macabre experiment conducted by doctors at an Argentine sanatorium in 1907 and the tale of a 21st-century artist whose medium is the human body. “I wanted to write a text in two parts, with two different plots and two different narrative strategies that are forced into a relationship of mutual parasitism, a spectral coexistence,” says Larraquy, who is 43 and was born in Buenos Aires.
Heather Cleary, Larraquy’s translator, notes how the two strands are woven together stylistically, “drawing phrases from the contemporary narrative back into the 1907 story line in the form of oracular enunciations and anachronistic colloquialisms.” She adds, “That earlier section was especially fun to translate, because of both the voice and the way it shifts between the exaggerated formality of institutional pleasantries and the bawdiest of bawdy puns.”
Larraquy’s father was a psychiatrist who saw patients in the family home. “My mother was a pianist and worked in a public hospital, so an interest in the arts and the continual presence of doctors, psychopharmacologists, and patients with serious pathologies were a major part of our family life,” he says. “Fertile territory for fiction.”
Larraquy is currently director of the creative writing program at Argentina’s National University of the Arts. He embarked on a “generally frustrating” screenwriting career before turning his full attention to literature.
Comemadre—the title refers to a fictional plant that produces flesh-eating larvae—parodies the “privileged discourse of positivism in the 19th century,” Larraquy says. In the novel, doctors in search of a glimpse into the afterlife decapitate patients and record utterances made in the few seconds of consciousness before their brains shut down.
The gruesome content is handled with an absurdist touch. “The tone had to be farcical in order to avoid any suspicion of mimetic realism, and to mitigate (or intensify, depending on the scene) the pathos of the horrors being narrated,” Larraquy says.
When asked to speculate on what he might say if subjected to the brutal experiment, Larraquy demurs: “I’d definitely keep my mouth shut: it’s not a great idea, sharing universal truths with the butcher who just cut off your head in the name of science.”
The (super)heroics of nation building
The first draft of Wayétu Moore’s She Would Be King (Graywolf, Sept.), a magical realist account of the founding of Liberia, was twice the length and more fantastical than the final version. “So, there was an alien narrator,” Moore says, laughing. “I recognized that I was asking a lot of the reader, so I cut it in half and toned down the magical realism/fantasy/sci-fi elements.”
Moore, who is 33, felt that when she sent out the initial version of the manuscript nearly 10 years ago, the market was less primed for a magical realist narrative. Her agent, Susan Golomb, agrees: “The fact that it’s debuting right after Black Panther is an interesting confluence, but at the time there wasn’t really anything like it. I felt she was really breaking ground.”
Moore’s family fled Liberia during the civil war there when she was five years old. “My mother, who was in the U.S. at the time, arranged for a network of rebel female soldiers to essentially traffic us out,” she says. Her family eventually settled in a suburb outside of Houston.
“I barely ever heard about Liberia outside of my parents’ efforts, and that absence was resounding,” Moore notes. “When I realized I wanted to start writing, Liberia was the first place I went to artistically.”
Ranging across a Virginia plantation, Jamaica, and Liberia, the novel follows three characters, each of whom is blessed with a supernatural gift and whose paths converge in the burgeoning republic. “Liberia was this beautiful experiment about what would happen if you bring people together from Africa and the Caribbean and America,” says Moore, who with her sister cofounded One Moore Book, a publishing nonprofit seeking to “create more books for those underrepresented readers who are most vulnerable.”
Though Fiona McCrae, Moore’s editor, compared the novel to Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, she was struck by its uniqueness. “It offers harrowing and sweeping history, which also brims with real human passions that one connects deeply to,” McCrae says.
What to dread when you’re expecting
Kids says the darndest things, especially in Zoje Stage’s Baby Teeth (St. Martin’s, July), which takes “child-rearing anxiety to demented new heights,” according to PW’s starred review. After refusing to speak for years, seven-year-old Hanna breaks her silence by channeling a 17th-century French girl who was burned at the stake for witchcraft. Sarah Bedingfield, Stage’s agent, says she was captivated by Stage’s “crafty, thoughtful, something-creepy-about-her main character.”
Jennifer Weis, Stage’s editor, says she was immediately drawn in as well. “I read the first page and I think I got up about four hours later,” she says. “It was such a nuanced look at the relationship between a mother and daughter.”
Hanna feels a blind devotion to her father, an architect, but harbors an intense hatred and distrust of her stay-at-home mother, Suzette, whom she subjects to violent attacks. Behind her villainy, however, is a pitiable confusion. “She is fundamentally someone who misinterprets the world,” Stage says.
Suzette, Hanna’s guardian and nemesis, gamely attempts to repair, or establish, the mother-daughter bond while questioning herself as a parent. “Mothers are the most judged people in the world, and I think Suzette internalizes some of that pressure,” Stage says.
Stage, who is 49, was born in Pittsburgh, to which she recently returned after selling her novel. She began to focus on novels after a career writing and directing independent films and theater. Stage has Crohn’s disease, and at a certain point she says she no longer felt she “had the physical stamina” to carry on her work. In the novel, Suzette has Crohn’s as well, and must contend not only with her problem child but also with a disease whose effects aren’t always apparent to those around her.
“I wanted to bring attention the experience of living day-to-day with an invisible illness,” Stage says. “Her illness compounds her insecurity with her husband, and also gives Hanna an opening.”
Matt Seidel lives in Durham, N.C., and is a staff writer for The Millions.