These geographically and thematically diverse fiction debuts include vivid portrayals of several African countries, the Russian tundra, and, somewhat less exotically, Houston. There is a psychological thriller based on Greek tragedy and a tragic American comedy on racial strife; two works merging art criticism and drama; and narrators ranging from the tiny (a swarm of mosquitos) to the titanic (God himself).
An Eye for Art
The narrator of María Gainza’s Optic Nerve (Catapult, Apr.), translated from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead, states that “carelessly administered, the history of art can be lethal as strychnine.” Gainza, a 43-year-old Argentine journalist and art critic, administers a more vivifying dose in the novel, which explores the resonances between the narrator’s life and certain treasured paintings.
“My first idea was to write an exhibition catalogue, because every time I went to see some art, the wall texts struck me as so drab they instantly negated any enjoyment,” Gainza says. “An entirely mercurial and whimsical catalogue, naturally.”
Though she dropped that conceit, the narrator is still a docent of sorts, ruminating on the jewels of Buenos Aires’s art world, including an Alfred de Dreux hunting scene and an El Greco. “All the paintings mentioned in the book exist in permanent collections—of museums that until just a few months ago were free to the public,” Gainza notes.
Optic Nerve blends fiction and biographical vignettes, exploring the parallel lives of the narrator and artists. “For me painting, literature, and life are intimately linked—essentially because I don’t consider works of art as sacred objects in any way removed from people,” Gainza says. “My inner feeling when looking at a painting is a bit like walking into a garage sale and finding a bronze sculpture, a shattered porcelain cup, and a microwave all on the same level, all existing together quite harmoniously.”
The narrator, despite her intense relationship to art, is not a collector. Gainza’s walls are also bare. “There was an abbot of Cluny who scolded his monks for letting the reliefs on the abbey’s columns distract them from their chores,” she says. “So perhaps it’s some monastic antecedent that prevents me from living in a house with paintings.”
Screenwriter Alex Michaelides remembers showing a draft of his first novel, The Silent Patient (Celadon, Feb.), to a friend. “He said, ‘You’re a novelist and not a dramatist,’ which is a wonderful thing to hear after struggling for all those years,” Michaelides says.
Michaelides, 41, grew up in Cyprus, where “they start teaching you Homer when you’re about 13.” The classical text that fascinated him, though, was Euripides’s Alcestis. “Alcestis dies for her husband and then comes back to life and doesn’t speak again.” In his updated iteration of the myth, a painter, Alicia, goes mute after shooting and killing her husband. Years later, a psychotherapist who feels compelled by Alicia’s case begins treating her in a mental institution.
After attending Cambridge University, Michaelides trained as a psychotherapist in London, working at a secure unit for teenagers, before enrolling in the American Film Institute’s screenwriting program in Los Angeles. However, he always wanted to write a mystery novel.
“The first question you ask yourself if you follow Agatha Christie is, ‘Is there an iconic location?’ ” Michaelides says. “I know the psych unit really well, and I can bring that to life.”
“To Alex, structure is paramount,” Ryan Doherty, Michaelides’s editor, says. “That’s learned from his screenwriting days and shows in his ability to pull the rug out from under the reader.”
Sam Copeland, Michaelides’s agent, concurs. “It was just un-put-downable—so perfectly executed, so controlled,” he says.
Michaelides credits Uma Thurman, who is starring in a forthcoming film he cowrote, with making Alicia an artist. “She said it would be a great way of getting her unconscious onto the page,” he recalls.
Of Alicia’s psychotherapist, who unethically begins investigating his patient’s crime, Michaelides says, “Therapists aren’t meant to have an agenda but to see what arises. That’s quite a passive approach for a novel. It would take six years instead of six months.”
Julia Phillips’s Russophilia began with a crush on a Russian-American camp counselor. “I remember the feeling of a Russian sentence in an email he sent and how fascinating it seemed,” she says.
Phillips, who grew up in Montclair, N.J., and is now 30, studied Russian at Barnard and secured a Fulbright scholarship to visit Kamchatka, a peninsula in northeast Russia. “I had spent almost all of my life within a 20-mile radius, and I wanted to know what the world was like,” she remembers. “Kamchatka is an extremely contained place because it is so isolated,” she says of the region, which until the Soviet Union’s collapse was largely inaccessible. “After the fall, Kamchatka became eager for integration and a site for exploitation.”
Phillips’s novel, Disappearing Earth (Knopf, May), opens as two young sisters are abducted. “The first chapter, with its quiet menace, extraordinary landscape, and battle cry for the power of story, was irresistible,” says her agent, Suzanne Gluck. Each subsequent chapter introduces a Kamchatka resident who’s tangentially related to the girls’ disappearance.
Disappearing Earth was, Phillips says, initially conceived as a thematically linked collection in which “there was always some sort of loss.” With each new draft, the overarching mystery structure strengthened. “Interweaving the clues became the most exciting part of the process,” she adds.
Phillips’s editor, Robin Desser, praises the “immersiveness that captures the beauty of Kamchatka as well as the social and ethnic fissures and tensions of the people of this region.”
Despite her evocative portrayal, Phillips feels that she can never know Kamchatka the way Russians do. “The book is my American observation of Kamchatka and my American placing of the story into this land.”
Maurice Carlos Ruffin
A Prescient Parody
About the narrator of We Cast a Shadow (One World, Jan.), Maurice Carlos Ruffin remarks, “Once his voice and the way he saw the world became clear to me, it was like sitting next to someone on an airplane. You want to ignore that person.” However, this importunate companion—no word on whether he hogged the armrest—grew on him. “I couldn’t stop listening.”
The narrator is a black lawyer at a white-shoe law firm that holds retreats at a restored plantation. He debases himself in hopes of a promotion that will pay for a skin-whitening demelanization procedure for his teenage son.
“He’s gifted and cursed with the best and worst of America,” Ruffin says of his successful narrator’s self-hatred.
The novel is set in the near future in a Southern city rife with discriminatory laws (“the Dreadlock Ordinance”) and in which African-Americans neighborhoods are fenced-in ghettos. “Like all great fiction that interrogates culture through futurism, it feels relevant to our present,” says Ruffin’s agent, PJ Mark.
Ruffin, a columnist at VQR, is a lifelong New Orleanian and former corporate lawyer who now works for the Social Security Administration. He cofounded a writing group in 2007 and later enrolled in an MFA program at the University of New Orleans. “It took a lot of intention and patience to go from being an unpublished, not particularly good amateur writer to becoming a writer someone might want to read.”
Ruffin’s incisive social vision was sharpened by his legal experience. “Because of our training and experience in court,” he says, “we almost have an X-ray that allows us to see behind walls, the studs and pillars that make up the structure of a house.”
The novel’s exuberant parody and heart leavens its weighty themes. “Maurice’s love and optimism is infused into every sentence—and his sublime novel is an expression of compassion for our flaws, our failures, and our attempts to make things right,” says Ruffin’s editor, Victory Matsui.
As Told by Him
God, famously upstaged by Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost, gives a livelier performance in Giacomo Sartori’s I Am God (Restless, Feb.), his first novel to be translated from Italian into English. Sartori’s feisty God becomes smitten with one of his creations, an atheist geneticist named Daphne who earns extra money inseminating cows.
“The tall inseminatrix is a highly intelligent, single-minded woman scientist battling to be respected in Italian society, where male chauvinism rules almost unchecked,” Sartori says. “Unfortunately, however, God also turns out to be male.”
Sartori, 60, is from Trento, Italy, and studied agronomy at the University of Florence. He worked as a soil scientist on development projects abroad before settling in Paris and has written five previous novels. I Am God, translated by Frederika Randall, is the “first of a trilogy dealing with ponderous contemporary issues in a nonponderous way,” he says.
The novel grapples with an increasingly jealous, fallible God and his linguistic constraints. According to Sartori, “[Human language] is quite inadequate to describe the transcendent. When we speak about God, we inevitably bring him down to our level.”
Sartori’s God is of two minds about man’s efforts to decode the universe. “He is actually fascinated by science—its discoveries and the somewhat monastic quality of its practice—but at the same time he’s disturbed by the scientific community’s arrogance, absolutism, and inability to consider alternative explanations,” the author says.
God looks on humans with a sardonic eye, Sartori says. “For every theme a novelist might treat in fiction, there is now a vast production of nonfictional documentation on an almost infinite variety of topics. Irony is a way of adding something new to the mix: the short circuit between comic and grave can put matters in a new light.”
A Life Exposed
An exhibit of Lee Miller’s photographs produced a strong reaction in Whitney Scharer. “I was so taken by her photography, and so surprised and aggravated that I hadn’t heard of her before,” she recalls. Scharer’s biographical novel, The Age of Light (Little, Brown, Feb.), captures the glamorous, elusive artist.
“Miller played with the idea of memory and photography,” Scharer says. “Depending on which order you show photographs in, you can create a narrative about yourself that you want to tell.”
Miller began her career as a model in New York City, moving in the 1920s to Paris, where she became the collaborator, muse, and lover of the surrealist photographer Man Ray. “She was always seeing herself through other people’s, especially men’s, eyes,” observes Scharer, who is 41 and has an MFA from the University of Washington.
“In this novel she is front and center in all her glory,” adds Scharer’s agent, Julie Barer.
Interspersed with the story of Miller and Ray’s tempestuous love affair are vignettes—“little shrapnel pieces” Scharer calls them—from Miller’s reportage while she was embedded with the Allied forces during WWII. “I think when she found photojournalism, she thought, this is who I am,” Scharer says. She worked for a fine arts printing company in Boston and later became one of the first employees at the GrubStreet writing center.
The novel opens in the 1970s at a boozy dinner party at Miller’s British country house. “Her Vogue editor has come to give her an ultimatum: write about her love affair with Man Ray or fade into the shadows,” says Judy Clain, Scharer’s editor. “This frame grabbed me powerfully.”
Scharer was attracted to Miller’s confidence as well as her vulnerability. “That piece of her that she spent her life trying to hide or overcome is what makes her a fascinating character for a novel.”
Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift (Hogarth, Mar.) emerged from a nearly two-decades-long process. “The weird thing about thinking about a novel off and on for 18 years is I knew the plot of land, I knew the boundaries of the story, but I didn’t know exactly what would grow within the plot of land,” she says. While cultivating her fictional garden, she became an English professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and wrote a study of literary uncertainty.
The novel explores the braided lives of three Zambian families of English, Italian, and African origin, moving from the early days of colonialism to a protest movement in a technologically advanced future.
“Movious is a word we use in Zambia to mean people who move around a lot,” says Serpell, who is 38 and was born in Zambia. She bounced between there, the U.S., and England while growing up.
Equally movious is the novel’s narrator, a choral swarm of drifting mosquitos. “I’m super nerdy about bugs,” Serpell says, and “every time I would learn something new about mosquitos, it would open up this whole other set of ideas I could incorporate into a larger grand narrative.”
Serpell deploys certain genres (for example, magical realism) and tropes associated with Africa with delicate irony. “A lot of the moves I’m making have to do with overturning expectations about what we think of when we read an African novel,” she says.
Serpell’s editor, Alexis Washam, says that the generational aspect of the novel reminded her of Gabriel García Márquez’s Buendía family from One Hundred Years of Solitude, while “the book’s broad scope, multiple locations, and audacious visions of the future also bring to mind the novels of David Mitchell, particularly Cloud Atlas.”
The Old Drift is a hymn to error and chance. “Aesthetically, I’m really into accidental connections,” Serpell says. “The idea of Zambia as a nation was something that was arbitrarily imposed, but that very arbitrary thing has also been very productive.”
Novuyo Rosa Tshuma
A House Divided
Through her blog, Novuyo Rosa Tshuma met the writer NoViolet Bulawayo, who encouraged her to apply to MFA programs in the U.S. Tshuma, who was studying economics in South Africa at the time, says that she first had to inform her relatives. “When you tell your family you want to be a writer, they call a meeting and ask difficult questions,” she adds.
Tshuma received a scholarship from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop that involved teaching. “Oh, so they really think I can teach creative writing to Americans? This is going to be interesting,” she remembers thinking.
Much of Tshuma’s debut novel, House of Stone (Norton, Jan.), is set in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second-largest city, where she grew up. (Her 2005 story collection, Shadows, was published in South Africa.) The novel began as a portrait of one family, but Iowa classmates urged her to widen its scope. “The idea that this could be a bigger book about Zimbabwe stuck in my head,” says Tshuma, who is 30 and now lives in Houston.
The book follows the Mlambo family from the Zimbabwe War of Liberation through the subsequent Gukurahundi genocide in the 1980s and finally to modern Zimbabwe. The narrator, Zamani, is the Mlambos’ unctuous, grandiloquent lodger who ingratiates himself with a family reeling from the disappearance of their son.
“Bold, funny, and lyrical, the voices on her page come alive for me instantly, each one distinct and declarative,” says Tshuma’s agent, Samantha Shea. “It’s a rather amazing feat.”
A zealous excavator of the family’s—and the nation’s—past, Zamani is an idiosyncratic historian. “He’s an ironist, forever questioning, which for me helps subvert ideology in the novel,” Tshuma says of her scheming narrator. “Above all, though, I wanted him to be entertaining.”
The Houston Chronicles
Bryan Washington’s debut collection, Lot (Riverhead, Mar.), homes in on three or four of Houston’s distinctive neighborhoods. “You can live your life within a couple of blocks,” he says, “or you can speak one language in one part of town, and another in another part, and live a multiplicity of lives in the course of a single day.”
Washington, who is 25, moved to Houston as a young child and, apart from attending an MFA program in New Orleans, has lived there ever since. He writes for the New Yorkerand the Paris Review and writes a column on Houston, “Bayou Diaries,” for Catapult.
“Bryan can write about anything—a city, a supermarket, love, sex, food, hope—and completely captivate the reader,” says his agent, Danielle Bukowski.
Lot offers a “glimpse into an often overlooked major American city and into the lives of people whose stories aren’t always told,” says his editor, Laura Perciasepe. Half of the tales, which are named after Houston streets, follow one family in the city’s East End. Others involve a male prostitute moving in with a client, an immigrant taken under the wing of an avuncular drug dealer, and two friends discovering what might be a real-life chupacabra. “I’m interested in characters in transition, whether or not they reach the end of the goal,” Washington says.
“There is a vein of queerness in these stories that runs deep and rich,” said PW’s starred review, and the collection depicts the fraught search for male intimacy.
“I think that each character who is not comfortable with himself, or his masculinity, or where he sees himself in relation to the other males around him doesn’t have a terribly good end,” Washington says.
The Invisible Agent
Lauren Wilkinson’s continent-hopping novel, American Spy (Random House, Feb.), sprung from a localized prompt. In a Columbia MFA workshop, the writer John Freeman asked Wilkinson to write a story about suburban unhappiness. “The craziest thing I could think of was a suburban mom—one who’s very traditional, but an assassin is coming for her,” she says.
Agent Kristina Moore jokes that after hearing Wilkinson read that story, she “ran up to Wilkinson, knocking chairs out of the way, to ask her if she might expand it into a novel.”
American Spy’s protagonist is a black FBI counterintelligence officer recruited in the late 1980s to infiltrate the inner circle of Thomas Sankara, the charismatic leftist president of Burkina Faso. Wilkinson, a 34-year-old New Yorker, was interested in exploring “whatever similarity existed in America between being black and being a spy,” she says. “The books that inspired me weren’t particularly spy novels—for example Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, where the grandfather says he’s a spy in the enemy’s country.”
Wilkinson says that finding a way into her guarded character proved challenging. “The novel started in the third person, and everyone who read it said it was too distanced,” she recalls. She tried having the protagonist tell her story to her children in the first person. “I needed her to be able to open up to somebody, but as a spy, she’s spent her whole life not doing that.”
That voice resonated with Wilkinson’s editor, Caitlin McKenna. “I came to this book because of its concept, but I stayed for its voice,” she says. “The first-person narrative crackles with this amazing collision between anger, resentment, and ambition.”
Matt Seidel lives in Durham, N.C., and is a staff writer for the Millions.