This season’s list features five translated works—from the French, Italian, Japanese, and Spanish. Even the American debuts have a distinctly international flavor, with a collection riffing on Turkish history, a Cold War intrigue, and a sweeping novel about a historically black community in Nova Scotia.
Ayşe Papatya Bucak
"As a creative writing teacher, I read so many short stories,” says Ayşe Papatya Bucak, a professor at Florida Atlantic University. “Nothing seems original to me unless it’s pretty out-there, so I was trying at least to do stories I hadn’t seen before.”
The result is Bucak’s debut collection, The Trojan War Museum (Norton, Aug.), which spins sly, inventive stories from Turkish history. “Her work is historical and contemporary, real and imagined, a blend of myth and fact,” says her agent, Julie Barer.
Alane Mason, Bucak’s editor, praises the “freshness and power of the prose—never a word wasted or a risk shied away from.”
The title story imagines a series of museums dedicated the Trojan War, some curated by the Greek gods and some of which are horrifyingly immersive. “I wanted to write a story that had multiple stories in it, like the layers of Troy, and where the setting performed the narrative structure,” Bucak, 48, explains.
Other stories animate colorful 19th-century figures—wrestler Yusuf Ismail, diplomat and art collector Khalil Bey—and grapple with their Orientalist depictions in the West.
Bucak, whose father is Turkish and whose mother is American, attended Princeton University and studied with novelist Russell Banks before working in publishing for several years. “I learned pivotal lessons as an undergrad, but then it took me a really long time to execute them,” she says. “Writing is like a lot of things—you have to learn over and over.”
Though Bucak was initially cautious, writing about her father’s homeland opened up new possibilities. “The only Turk I knew for most of my life was my dad, so I wondered if I was entitled to write about Turkey,” she says. “It really took me until my 30s to realize, ‘Oh, I’m mixed!’ That let me write about Turkey the way I experience it.”
"I can still remember segregation in the Alabama education system,” says Jeffrey Colvin, 61, who grew up in Tuscaloosa, Ala. A former Marine who holds an MFA in fiction from Columbia University and now lives in New York City, Colvin was working on series of stories set in and around his racially divided hometown when he learned about Africville, a black community in Halifax, Canada, “that no longer existed, wiped out during a thing called urban renewal.” He thought to incorporate his Alabama stories into a larger narrative about Africville, first settled in the 18th century by freed slaves and exiled Jamaicans. The idea developed into his debut novel, Africaville (Amistad, Dec.).
“I’ve been wrestling with how to write about the South in my own way,” Colvin says. “This allowed me to talk about the South, but also stand apart from it and think about how it connects to the larger world.”
Opening in 1918 during a fever epidemic, the novel relates the ordeals of the Sebolt family. “I was in awe that Jeffrey sustained that balance of a shadow—literal and metaphorical—always looming over the Sebolt family,” says Colvin’s editor, Patrik Bass. “And yet there’s a resilience—rooted in a sense of home—that takes them, and readers, to other places,” he adds.
“Once I started reading, I was instantly drawn in by his story of a family and the town that both defines and confines them,” says Colvin’s agent, Ayesha Pande.
Race is similarly defining and confining for the Sebolts, one of whom passes as white after moving to Alabama. “One of the things I find fascinating is the way in which people cast off their past,” Colvin says.
Colvin cut his novel down significantly, sometimes painfully, over the various revisions. Laughing, he paraphrases James Baldwin: “You don’t get the novel you want, you get the novel you got.”
Jean-Baptiste Del Amo
Nostalgie de la Boue
"Mine wasn’t a family of readers, and I never expected to write books,” says Jean-Baptiste Del Amo, who grew up in southwest France. When he completed a draft of what would become his first novel, 2008’s Une Education Libertine, he had no connections to the Parisian publishing world and a miniscule postage budget to work with. “I didn’t have enough money to send the book to more than four publishers,” he says.
Del Amo chose wisely; two weeks later, he received a positive response from the venerable Éditions Gallimard. “My life changed completely,” he recalls.
Animalia (Grove, Sept.), Del Amo’s fourth novel, his first to be translated into English, is a century-spanning, mud-splashed epic about a clan of hardscrabble pig farmers in a small French village. “I wanted to tell a story about family and how violence can be transmitted from one generation to the next,” Del Amo, who is 37 and lives in Paris, explains. “I could use pigs and breeding as a metaphor for the human condition.”
In the book, Del Amo mixes lyrical passages of the French countryside with merciless descriptions of the sights, smells, and barbarism of industrial pig rearing. “The first half of the novel is like a landscape painting and the second half has a more documentary feel,” says his editor, Peter Blackstock.
“I want the reader to be physically involved,” Del Amo says. “Sense is the best way to bring the reader into my universe.”
“Jean-Baptiste’s hypnotic, poetic and sometimes terrifyingly visceral prose shimmers and quivers on the page,” adds his translator, Frank Wynne.
Cruelty, toward humans and animals, is the novel’s central theme. Since writing the book, Del Amo has taken a more activist stance on animal rights. Animalia, though, was not written to be a political statement. “The book led me to the activism, and not the contrary,” he says.
Juan José Millás
Juan José Millás’s From the Shadows (Bellevue, Aug.) features one of the most memorable closets since C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. In the book, Damián, a middle-aged, recently unemployed handyman, fashions himself a cubby hole behind the antique wardrobe in a family’s home.
“He is a sort of modern Robinson Crusoe, trapped on an island that turns out to be a closet,” Millás says of his handy, ghostly protagonist. “He in fact controls the movements of the family, which gives him a feeling of power that he had never possessed.”
When the house is empty, Damián leaves his redoubt to tidy it up. Millás, 73, says he shares his protagonist’s Zen-like approach to cleaning: “It’s one of my favorite activities. As I polish the cups and glasses, I enter a special state of consciousness, from which I understand the world and its problems better.”
A strange character, Damián stages an imaginary talk show, of which he is the star, in his head. “The contrast between his reality—the closet—and fantasy—the set—seemed to me to be very symbolic of the isolation in which people live and the hunger for fame to which they aspire,” Millás says.
From the Shadows, translated by Thomas Bunstead and Daniel Hahn, is Millás’s first novel to be published in North America. (Two works were pubbed in the U.K., but both are out of print.) Millás lives in Madrid and is a columnist for the newspaper El País, contributing “hybrid pieces” called articuentos: “They are hybrids because they have the appearance of a journalistic column, but they hide a short story inside them,” he explains.
Millás’s editor, Erika Goldman, says she was captivated by his “whimsy and the logic of his imagination” and praises his “lively, mordant social satire that gives us what we look for in the best of international literature: insight into another world that deepens our understanding of our own.”
Hiroko Oyamada’s The Factory (New Directions, Oct.) is an oneiric satire of corporate life in contemporary Japan. In the novel, three employees—a document shredder, a copy editor, and a scientist who classifies the moss growing on a factory’s massive campus—struggle to make sense of their company’s opaque mission.
“Even the smallest pond has its own ecosystem,” Oyamada says. “The same holds true for any workplace.”
After graduating from Hiroshima University with a degree in Japanese literature, Oyamada worked as a temp at a sprawling car factory with a massive staff. “Just being there in the middle of it all left me feeling anxious,” she says. One day, she started writing on the clock. “At first, it was practically a diary, but soon it became something much closer to a novel.”
Oyamada, 35, explores the unsettling parallel between the employees and the eerie creatures roaming the company’s grounds, each of which has adapted to corporate life and the facilities. This fantastical animal element was inspired by a surreal moment from her factory job. “I looked up and saw a woman by one of the printers, holding a giant black bird by its wings,” she recalls. “When I looked back, what I saw wasn’t a bird at all. It was a part for the printer—maybe a toner cartridge. Still, the image of that bird in the basement stuck with me.”
David Boyd, who translated The Factory, says, “Every time I go back to Oyamada’s writing, I find something new—something major that changes the entire story.”
Oyamada’s tale conveys the economic insecurity felt by a generation of Japanese. “I finished the book in 2010—a time when young people were working as hard as they could in exchange for woefully low wages,” she explains. “These deplorable conditions have become so normal that no one even talks about them anymore. What may have immediately struck some readers a decade ago as comically awful working conditions may now seem less terrible and more tolerable.”
Kimberly King Parsons
Frustrated by her progress on a novel, Kimberly King Parsons says that she started “cheating by writing these really fun, illicit short stories”—a form that has always appealed to her. “There’s something about the compression that does it for me in a way that most novels don’t.”
Those stories coalesced into Black Light (Vintage, Aug.), Parsons’s debut collection. They are set in Texas, where she was born and lived until she attended Columbia’s fiction MFA program. “It’s kind of ridiculous, but it took my agent to tell me that they all took place there,” says Parsons, who is 40 and currently lives in Portland, Ore.
That agent, Meredith Kaffel Simonoff, says she was struck by Parsons’s “Texan-twanging voice” and how “despite shades of sharp-tongued truth-telling, feral desperation, white-hot rage, and often giddy narcotic abandon, the stories also somehow capture the magic, warmth, and enchantment of hope.”
“I think the bed is the place I can write the most comfortably for the longest amount of time,” Parsons says. But despite her Proustian writing habits, the tales hum with a jittery energy.
“Her unique sentence structure makes you want to stop dead in your tracks and listen, the way an unusual guitar hook does,” says Parsons’s editor, Margaux Weisman.
The collection features iridescent characters “trying to get at what’s underneath real life,” Parsons says. “There’s a lot of game playing in these stories, whether it’s children or whether it’s adults behaving badly to get to a place where they can feel that glow.”
One such game takes place when two married colleagues call out sick and spend the day in a seedy motel. “I personally love hotels,” Parsons says. “There’s something magical to me about how it becomes a stage and what happens in that room is potentially performative.”
Hot off the Cold War Presses
One of Lara Prescott’s prized possessions is a CIA-printed copy of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, whose publication history is the subject of her debut, The Secrets We Kept (Knopf, Sept.). “It’s a tiny second or third edition printed on Bible stock and small enough to fit in your pocket to conceal,” she says.
Prescott’s novel focuses on the role that women agents played in the CIA’s effort to secure, publish, and distribute the U.S.S.R.-banned novel behind the Iron Curtain in the late 1950s. “It seemed like a novel while I was reading all these declassified documents on CIA.gov,” Prescott says. Her protagonists are a young typist in the CIA typist pool and a glamorous woman skilled at extracting secrets from powerful men.
The story immediately grabbed her agents, Jamie Chambliss and Jeff Kleinman, who describe the novel as “A Gentleman in Moscow meets Hidden Figures.”
While researching the novel, Prescott, 37, realized that she “just couldn’t write from the Western perspective” and decided to chronicle the difficult life of Pasternak’s mistress and muse, Olga, twice sent to the gulag because of her lover’s subversive novel.
Prescott—who lives in Austin, Tex., where she received her MFA in creative writing at the Michener Center—studied political science and international relations at American University. Before turning to fiction, she was a communications writer for various political campaigns. “I didn’t have the fortitude or the underlying passion for being next to power,” she says.
Prescott’s tale also weaves in the Lavender Scare, the government’s Cold War–era persecution of gay and lesbian federal workers. “Though the CIA was promoting freedom through these works of art, at the same time they were persecuting their own employees,” she says. “Censorship and persecution exist on both sides.”
Utopia and Its Discontents
Set on the fictional island of Miden, Veronica Raimo’s first novel to appear in English, The Girl at the Door (Black Cat, Oct.), recounts a sexual abuse allegation that upends the lives of a professor and his pregnant girlfriend.
Raimo’s editor, Elisabeth Schmitz, likens the novel to Kristen Roupenian’s “infamous” short story “Cat Person” in that it “considers a narrative other than a clear-cut perpetrator vs. victim one in a story of sexual transgression,” she says.
The professor and his girlfriend narrate in alternating chapters as a citizen committee determines whether they can remain on the utopian island. As she worked on the novel, Raimo became more drawn to the girlfriend’s experience. “I thought it would be more interesting to have this woman, neither the victim nor the perpetrator, forced to live this conflict from an external point of view,” she explains.
For years, Raimo, 41, bounced between her hometown of Rome and Berlin, which she first visited on a graduate scholarship to study East German cinema. “You can feel the tension between a society like Germany, which is richer and works better and is more progressive, and Italy’s,” Raimo says. “I needed the conflict that you experience every day in Rome.”
The darkly ironic tale pokes fun at bureaucratic procedures regulating sexual misconduct and desire, even as it honors “the inner truth of someone feeling that he or she was abused,” says Raimo, who is currently working on Italian translations of Octavia E. Butler and Ray Bradbury. “You can’t really have a protocol for love, even in a society that has a protocol for everything.”
Karina Sainz Borgo
"Sometimes I think I have been writing this novel my whole life,” says Karina Sainz Borgo, a Venezuelan journalist living in Barcelona. In It Would Be Night in Caracas (HarperVia, Oct.), Adelaida mourns the death of her mother while fighting to survive in a Caracas beset with paramilitary marauders and debilitating inflation.
“I’m trying to explain how one of the most important countries of the region became a very primitive society,” Sainz Borgo says. “Dictatorships create differences between people, and one of those is between those who left and those who stayed.”
Sainz Borgo knows this firsthand, having left Venezuela 13 years ago at age 24. “I wanted to write about why I feel guilty because I’m no longer there.”
Capturing Adelaida’s shifting voice challenged Sainz Borgo’s translator, Elizabeth Bryer. “Sometimes her utterances are staccato in nature, truncated as they are by grief,” she says. “At other times her voice is all energetic resilience, fueled by her determination to survive.”
Adelaida’s mother’s death is emblematic of Venezuela’s collapse, Sainz Borgo explains. “It was supposed to be a mother country for all these people, but it didn’t work.”
Sainz Borgo’s editor, Juan Milà, acquired the novel for the new HarperVia imprint focused on translated fiction. “It had everything,” he says—“a gripping voice and plot as well as a deep emotional intelligence that allows us to connect with the human stories in newspapers and on television.”
Sainz Borgo stresses, though, that the novel is not necessarily a tale specific to Venezuela. “Many have said that this is a topical novel, but I do not say ‘Venezuela’ very much,” she says. “I was trying to maintain the universalist nature.”
Written with Care
Lila Savage didn’t write any fiction until her 30s, when she started a novel based on her experience as a care worker. “I was interested in exploring the intimacy that develops between the caregiver and the family,” says Savage, who grew up in the Twin Cities and now lives in San Francisco. “I became very close with so many people, but I also had to start protecting myself emotionally.”
Savage eventually quit care work to focus on writing her debut novel, Say Say Say (Knopf, July). “The work that I did offered a lot of emotional reward, but it’s also tedious and stressful,” she says. Savage, 38, was accepted into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and later secured a Wallace Stegner Fellowship. “For folks from professional backgrounds like mine, it makes such a big difference to have funding to write.”
In Say Say Say, Ella, a young queer woman, cares for a rapidly declining woman—the novel’s title comes from one of her verbal tics—and develops an intense bond with her patient’s dutiful, undemonstrative husband. In portraying his male stoicism, Savage interrogates what she describes as the “cultural expectations for masculinity and the belief that caregiving is women’s work.”
“The novel takes on decline and grief with tremendous courage, honesty, and insight,” says Savage’s editor, Robin Desser. “Lila writes with a delicate restraint that belies how hard this book hits.”
Savage’s agent, Chris Parris-Lamb, hadn’t seen a novel on the subject, despite the fact that caregiving is “one of the most common, and fastest-growing, professions in the country.” He adds, “It felt like the sort of novel Alice Munro might write, if Alice Munro were a queer millennial who wrote novels and had perhaps read some affect theory.”
Matt Seidel lives in Durham, N.C., and is a staff writer for the Millions.