This was meant to be a tough book,” Therese Anne Fowler says while taking a break in her South Carolina hotel room from the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance’s annual show. She’s speaking of A Good Neighborhood, her new novel about an interracial romance in fictional Oak Knoll, a gentrifying North Carolina community, slated for February publication. Fowler’s third book with St. Martin’s marks a dramatic change from her previous historical novels: Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald (2013) and A Well-Behaved Woman (2018), about Alva Smith Vanderbilt.
“With those books, I liked taking someone whose reputation had been maligned and giving another perspective,” Fowler says. “When I finished A Well-Behaved Woman, it was absolutely my intention to do that again, but—as I think we are all woefully aware—things in this country are not going so well. The constant bad news was really dismaying to me, and I needed to respond to my dismay, to present something about how we are backsliding in this country and turn it into a story. I don’t think I knew that was my motivation at the time; I just knew that I was compelled by these characters arising in my imagination.”
A Good Neighborhood begins with the arrival of wealthy white businessman Brad Whitman and his family to a closely knit mixed-class, mixed-race North Carolina suburb—a move that sparks class and racial tensions. College professor Valerie Alston-Holt, who is black, eventually brings a lawsuit against her new neighbors, whose freshly dug swimming pool is slowly killing the roots of her oak tree. This sets in motion events leading to a grim denouement for the growing love between Valerie’s son, Xavier, and Brad’s daughter, Juniper.
To more effectively connect with Valerie’s and Xavier’s motivations and actions, Fowler read contemporary first-person accounts “about the experience of being black in the United States right now,” as well as books that provided historical perspective on racial discrimination and social injustice; she also “pursued anything else I could think of that would give me black people’s view of what it’s like to be black in America, rather than a white person’s view of how black people feel,” she says. “Then I tried to create the most authentic characters and situations that I could.” She also had a sensitivity reader review a draft.
The novel’s tragic end was inevitable, Fowler says. “But I actually didn’t know for a long time who was going to meet the tragic end. I knew this was a risk; there will be readers who prefer to read something that doesn’t challenge them and horrify them with its outcome, and that’s okay. It won’t be the book for them, but no book is ever for everyone.”
The other risk Fowler took was to deviate from the track record established by Z and A Well-Behaved Woman. “My publisher would clearly be anticipating something like what I had done previously and with some success,” she says. “So I wrote the draft of A Good Neighborhood with some trepidation in terms of my career but with complete conviction in terms of this being what I needed to do.”
Fowler has never hesitated to follow her artistic convictions, even if they appear to be at odds with more practical concerns. “When my debut novel [2008’s Souvenir] appeared, I did not have the first clue about what it was like to exist in the world of publishing,” she says. “When I understood that I was going to be judged because I was writing women’s fiction, I had to change career direction.”
Fowler’s decision led to a split with Ballantine, the publisher of her first three novels. Reunion (2009) and Exposure (2011) were, like Souvenir, contemporary stories of the sort pigeonholed as women’s fiction. “I left Ballantine because they weren’t interested in Z, and I wasn’t interested in doing the kinds of books they wanted me to continue doing but were not supporting sufficiently,” Fowler says. “The sales trend was going in the wrong direction, and I had an editor, who is no longer employed there, who was telling me, ‘Well, just keep writing things like this, and we’ll just put them out under a different name.’ I took the opportunity to at least try to change course. At the time, I thought my career was done, but St. Martin’s fortunately did not hold my past against me. They said, ‘We can [publish Z], and some of your readers from the other books will come along’—which actually has been true. My agent, Wendy Sherman, was very supportive of the change; she has been such a terrific steward of my career. Now she tells me, ‘Write what you’re passionate about, and I will sell it.’ That’s our operating principle.”
Happily for Fowler, it is her current publisher’s operating principle, as well. “St. Martin’s completely embraced A Good Neighborhood. What they have done to market this book, as they have for my other books with them, is to put it in booksellers’ hands and say, ‘We really value what you think and what you may be able to do in terms of getting this book into people’s hands.’ So that’s why I’m here at SIBA, and why I’m going to all the trade shows in the next few weeks. I’m glad to see that independent booksellers are stronger now than they have been in some time; they have made a great difference in the trajectory of my career from Z forward.”
Fowler’s now married to a man who helped point her to that career: science fiction writer John Kessel. Fowler says that when she first met Kessel in 2000, he was a professor at North Carolina State University and she was an undergraduate in her 30s finishing up a BA while raising two young children. She had never written fiction before handing in a short story as the final project for his course on science fiction. “He said I had promise and should consider pursuing fiction, and I changed course based on that feedback; instead of going for my PhD in sociology, I enrolled in the MFA program at North Carolina State,” Fowler says. “Our relationship then was based entirely on me trying to be a writer and him helping to guide me, but when we met again at a reception after Z was published, we were both at different places in our marital lives. We just had our fourth anniversary.”
Today, Kessel and her agent are Fowler’s trusted first readers. The dedication of A Good Neighborhood reads, “To Wendy and John, who always see me through.”