This season’s notable fiction debuts offer first-generation American perspectives on Chinese folklore and Hindu deities, richly inspired LGBTQ narratives, feminist takes on police brutality against Black women and sexism in the workplace, and more.
K-Ming Chang began writing Bestiary (One World, Sept.) as a sophomore at Sarah Lawrence, and the novel took shape when she was home in California for the summer, expanding on a memoir assignment she’d written about her grandfather. “I initially wanted to go to school in New York because I had this very romantic notion of fleeing home and establishing this whole new life and identity,” she says. “But I quickly realized I would always kind of return back to my family stories and history. I feel like coming-of-age stories are often told about leaving—like leaving the home, leaving the domestic sphere. But I wanted to write one that was about return.”
The novel follows three generations of women who are shaped by the mythology of their Taiwanese heritage. “I didn’t even know my grandfather’s name until he passed away,” Chang says. “He was just this kind of enigma, someone who was completely unknowable, which I think produced a lot of storytelling.”
While she was writing, Chang realized the book was actually about the women in the family, and she began to explore the myths of the Chinese zodiac calendar, particularly her own relationship with being born in the year of the tiger. “The idea of the tiger woman or the tiger daughter is really undesirable,” she says. “My mom kind of withheld that information, and I realized she was afraid it was a jinx. But there was this huge sense of release from being able to confront these curses. It was like reclaiming a sense of agency.”
After finishing Bestiary, Chang googled “New York City agents” and sent the book out to a long list. “I was still an undergrad, you know—I didn’t have connections yet,” she says. She got a call from Julia Kardon and remembers Kardon said they could be the “year of the tiger team.”
Kardon sold the book to One World along with a poetry collection. “Poetry was kind of my first love, and my way into writing,” Chang says.—David Varno
In the Trenches
French writer David Diop’s novel At Night All Blood Is Black (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Oct.), a deeply literary monologue from an unhinged Senegalese soldier fighting for the French in WWI, was honored with a prize by high school students in France in 2018. “I was thrilled to receive the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens because I’m a teacher,” Diop says. “I believe high schoolers identified with the soldiers, who were about their age when they left for war. At Night All Blood is Black isn’t just a novel about World War I—it also evokes friendship and first loves.”
The slim narrative reminded editor Jeremy Davies of the writing of Thomas Bernhard, if Bernhard had turned his focus to world historical issues. Before Davies saw the book, he says, a scout for Farrar, Straus and Giroux mentioned a “very strange, very literary book that wasn’t very commercial,” which was making the rounds at one of the international festivals. “And so that made my ears prick up.”
The book has also resonated with older generations, Diop says. “Many older people came up to me with photographs and documents passed down from their grandparents or great-grandparents, showing a real brotherhood between their ancestors and the Senegalese infantrymen.”
Diop got the idea for the book after reading a book of letters by French soldiers during WWI. “These letters were very moving because they showed the fatal intimacy that the very young soldiers had with the war,” he says. “Given my African origins, I wondered if the Senegalese infantrymen had also written such personal letters.”
Diop began searching, but those he found were “rather impersonal,” he says. “The solution I found was to burst into the character’s thoughts—no filter, no intermediaries. The inner space of a character in a novel can be a place of freedom for the writer who creates him.”
Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night was also an inspiration, Diop says, not only for its WWI setting but the “originality of it’s tone and voice.” He adds that he “wanted to find an original voice to talk about World War I as seen by an African man, a Senegalese man.”—David Varno
Victoria Gosling recalls that when she was a teenager growing up in England’s Wiltshire region, she and a friend went to a party one night at a decrepit manor. The house was well hidden, and they drove down twisty dark roads until they came upon the entrance to a long drive. “We sat on the lawn and drank quite a bit, and then had to stay over,” she says. “The host put me in a bedroom on the third floor, and I woke up in a Queen Anne poster bed.” When she went downstairs in the morning, she was captivated by the house’s shabby grandeur. “I didn’t go back, but the memory stayed with me.”
Twenty-five years later that Wiltshire manor became the main setting for Before the Ruins (Holt, Nov.), Gosling’s debut novel. Its plot concerns the relationship between protagonist Andy and her three best friends from childhood in the 1990s. They secretly meet and play “the game” in a rundown house, searching for a diamond necklace that had gone missing there in the 1930s.
Lucy Carson, Gosling’s agent, says, “Andy was palpably self-destructive, but those tendencies masked some deeper damage and pain. I’m a massive Tana French fan, and I saw the suspense bones of Before the Ruins, and loved the way they intertwined with such a complicated female narrator.”
Gosling says, “I wanted to write about magic and transformation and how they can make up for painful experiences. I’m an emotional dweller.”
At one point in the novel, two of the characters, now grown up, are running from a horrific flood in Florence. “I was living in Prague in 2002 when a very similar storm occurred,” Gosling says. “We were on the third floor of an apartment building and never thought the water would rise that high. Finally the police came to rescue us. They didn’t speak any English, but managed to get us out and take us to safety. My apartment building was about to collapse. It was built on sand.”
Not so for Gosling’s literary future, which seems sturdy and bright. —Wendy Werris
Robert Jones Jr.
Love in Shackles
Robert Jones Jr.’s interest in writing began while he collected comic books as a child in Brooklyn. Describing the first stories he wrote, he says, “I would read a Wonder Woman comic, and write a story where I’m the only boy allowed on Paradise Island.” He also wrote poetry but for a long time felt writing should only be a hobby.
While living in Charlotte, N.C., and working for Bank of America, the words of a guest on an episode of Oprah made Jones feel the dire need to fulfill his purpose. “Writing was all I wanted to do,” he says, “but I had been discouraged.” He moved back in with his mother in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, and at age 31 enrolled at Brooklyn College, where he finished his undergraduate work and, in 2006, went straight into the MFA program.
Describing the origins of his novel, The Prophets (Putnam, Jan. 2021), Jones says, “I wanted to write about a black queer person during antebellum slavery. In everything I’d read, from Toni Morrison to slave narratives, the only mention of anything remotely queer was in the context of sexual assault, but there was never any mention of same sex love. So, following Toni Morrison’s command, which was, ‘If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it,’ I knew I had to write this book.”
Jones continued working on The Prophets over the next decade while developing a popular internet community called Son of Baldwin. After he finished the book, his friend Kiese Laymon put him in touch with his agent, PJ Mark. Seven publishers bid for The Prophets.
When editor Sally Kim first met Jones, he mentioned his early passion for comic books. She remembers saying, “I knew it!” She recognized the Morrison and Baldwin influences but noted his grasp of the comic book structure—the beats and the heroes and the villains. “I found that mix really fascinating,” she notes. “Even though this is probably the most literary book I’ve ever edited, this is a book I can hand to anyone, because if you just read it for the plot, which you can, it will totally work.”—David Varno
A Legal Matter
Erica Katz (a pseudonym) wrote The Boys’ Club (Harper, Aug.)—a tale of a young lawyer bearing witness to sexual harassment and chauvinism—over the course of working at two New York City law firms, taking full advantage of her vacation time. “Instead of going off to some beach and really unwinding, I locked myself in my apartment and I actually plugged away at a novel,” she says.
Katz was an English major and says she was “always an avid reader and writer” but chose a secure profession rather than pursuing creative writing, which was how she ended up in law school. “It was the most wonderful education. I learned how to think critically about the world.”
Law school also helped Katz become a novelist. “I have this very legal brain when I look at the world,” she says, which means “seeing all angles of a situation for exactly what they are with as much honesty as possible.”
Katz’s protagonist, Alex Vogel, a competitive swimmer, relishes the challenge of competing with male colleagues at her firm and credits her background as an only child for her ability to fit in. “It’s a far more interesting conversation to have a protagonist benefit sort of unfairly from her situation.”
When it came time to look for an agent, Katz, who admired Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler, tracked down Danler’s agent, who passed her onto colleague Alison Hunter. It turned out Hunter had gone to law school and spent a summer at the same firm as Katz. “We just had all these overlaps and it was sort of kismet,” Katz says. “I am surrounded by a team of great women.”
That team includes editor Emily Griffin. “Alison just had a lot of excitement around the book,” Griffin says.
By this point, the Brett Kavanaugh hearings had taken place, which inspired Katz and Hunter to come up with the title. It gave the book a new sense of urgency, and the story is now in development at Netflix.
Griffin says the book works on multiple levels. “A lot of law novels sort of focus on the drudgery, but Erica’s brain works a mile a minute and she really enjoys the work, and her characters do, too.”—David Varno
An Unruly Path to Art
“I wanted to write a Black woman who is hungry and dogged and who makes mistakes,” Raven Leilani says about Luster (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Aug.). The main character, Edie, works with little job security to cover bills at a New York City apartment where roaches scatter when she turns on the lights. With whatever energy she has left, she paints.
Like Edie, Leilani has held a range of gigs on her nonlinear trajectory as an artist. To raise money for her MFA at NYU, she ran deliveries for Postmates in Washington, D.C., and in New York, she worked as an archivist at Macmillan before FSG acquired the novel.
Editor Jenna Johnson says, “It was clear from the very first page that there was something original about Luster. The language was immediately vibrant and uncontainable. It’s rare that the very sentences of a book demonstrate its intentions.”
Luster opens with Edie navigating a relationship with Eric, a white man twice her age who is in an open marriage. “There’s something extremely seductive about a stark power imbalance,” Leilani says. “And that exists between them.” After Edie loses her job, she ends up living with Eric, his wife, and their adopted Black daughter, Akila.
Leilani’s book comes in a year rife with civil unrest amid the racial justice movement against police brutality. “I had two Black parents,” she says, “and I still had to learn some lessons the hard way and on my own. I remember when both my parents gave me the talk [about police brutality]—it was shortly after we moved to the suburbs from the Bronx—and I didn’t believe them. I didn’t want that ugliness to be true.”
In a heartbreaking scene with Akila and Edie on the front lawn of the house, police throw Akila to the ground after she insists she lives there. “It’s a real human response to ask, ‘What do you mean I don’t belong? I’m here,’ ” Leilani says, adding that she hopes Akila and all Black women will embrace their rage. “When you are angry, you know that you deserve more.” —Essence London
For the Sake of Danger
Micah Nemerever’s Hitchcockian novel of obsession, These Violent Delights (Harper, Sept.), grew out of a period of unemployment after he graduated from college during the recession in 2008. “I was immersing myself in queer cinema to keep myself sane,” he says, “and I got into the morally hairy varieties.”
Nemerever’s novel takes place in 1970s Pittsburgh and chronicles a dangerous bond between two college students, Paul and Julian, an artist and a psychology major. “When I was studying art history at UConn, the MA program and the MFA program were very tight,” he says. “I’m fascinated by artistic personalities and obsessives in general.”
In the prologue, Paul and Julian abduct a young man whose car broke down, and as the narrative unfolds, the reasons for their crime emerge. Nemerever chose the 1970s setting in order to dive into his Jewish family history. “My grandfather was a refugee, and so there’s a lot of generational trauma around the Holocaust,” he says. “At the same time, there was a sort of evolution of Jewish ethnicity, where in some situations you’re provisionally white, and in others you aren’t.”
Paul, the artist, identifies as ethnically Jewish and becomes inseparable from Julian, who comes from a family that passes in order to fit into WASP culture, in the wake of Paul’s father’s suicide. Meanwhile, Paul’s mother would rather see him chasing “shiksas” than give the impression that he’s gay.
When Nemerever wrote the first draft—“deep in the hangover of the Bush administration,” he says—LGBTQ stories were rare. As more appeared, he began to feel less alone with his ideas. After submitting to his agent, Caroline Eisenmann, she said, “How did you reach into my head and find this book?”
Erin Wicks, editor at Harper, says she saw an opportunity to add more diversity to the types of stories “within queer narratives” and saw a great deal of potential in Nemerever. “I’m always looking for authors to publish, not books, where I see immense talent and immense promise.”—David Varno
Shruti Swamy confesses she’d been nervous about coming up with a good pithy line to describe her collection, A House Is a Body (Algonquin, Aug.). Then she participated in demonstrations against police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minneapolis. She says she experienced immense joy in the presence of others after months of quarantining. She’s now able to boil down the book: “It’s about being alive,” she says.
Over the 10 years Swamy wrote these stories, she picked up two O. Henry awards. “I’d already been publishing stories for several years and emailing with agents,” she says. “But when I won those two awards, I think people really started taking my work more seriously.”
The collection’s opener, “Blindness,” is Swamy’s earliest work, and it features a startling description of a newly married woman who travels alone from Delhi to the mountains of Rishikesh. Despite seeing the piece as a “relic of a younger writer,” she felt it set the tone for the collection, operating “like a door” for the reader. “I really fought for it, because it’s a very weird story.”
Swamy’s determination reflects what she values in the art of the story, as she described in reference to Gina Berriault’s Women in their Beds. “It’s almost like the writer is training you how to see the world,” she says. The collection’s centerpiece, “Earthly Pleasures,” offers a fresh, intoxicating view of a contemporary Krishna.
Swamy’s agent, Samantha Shea, helped her achieve her vision. “I always felt like she had my back as an artist,” Swamy says. “Samantha represents a lot of short story writers and also many women of color. It’s funny, I know way more about agents and stuff now, but I wouldn’t have done anything differently.”—David Varno
Natalie Zina Walschots
Binders of Henchmen
The cynical millennial narrator of Natalie Zina Walschots’s darkly comic debut, Hench (Morrow, Sept.), earns a living temping as a henchwoman for supervillains. Walschots, who is 37 and lives in Toronto, describes this career path as “semiautobiographical,” having herself held an eclectic collection of temp jobs, including a memorable stint writing copy for porn films. “At the end of the day,” she says, “there’s not much difference between working for an oil company, which I also did, and working for a supervillain.”
Walschots has long been fascinated by the henchpeople in superhero stories: the characters she describes as “usually nameless—but often with really excellent outfits—who get lobbed at heroes as cannon fodder.” This fascination led to a startling theory. “I had a feeling that the damage being done by heroes was in fact worse than the villainy they were trying to prevent.”
Being a self-described “lifelong gigantic nerd,” Walschots tested this theory by assembling a spreadsheet, weighing the harm done by superheroes against the harm done by supervillains across DC’s Year One comics. Anna, Hench’s narrator, assembles a similar spreadsheet, outlining the aggressions of real heroes in the world of the novel. The collected data enables her to, in her words, “fuck with” superheroes’ lives, leading Anna to rise as a supervillain in her own right—one who wields data science as a super power.
Walschots’s experience as a target of online harassment is what first piqued her interest in the idea of exploiting information to ruin someone’s life. She had just begun a PhD in feminist critiques of video games when male gamers began using the #GamerGate hashtag to harass progressive women in their field , and strangers flooded her dean’s inbox with claims that her work was unethical.
“The school has to go through an inquiry every time,” Walschots says. “So when that process is abused it’s somewhere between annoying and nightmarish.” She describes the experience as “harrowing,” but she came out of it eager to explore the potential of what she terms a “horrifying and fascinating machine” through fiction, posing the question, “What if you used those powers for awesome?”
The answer delightfully explores a moral gray area, melding humor and body horror into a playful and powerful subversion of superhero tropes.—Phoebe Cramer
David Heska Wanbli Weiden
Justice Is My Business
Rosebud Sioux Tribe member David Heska Wanbli Weiden’s crime thriller Winter Counts (Ecco, Aug.) explores a little-known system of vigilante justice on the Rosebud reservation. “These guys do exist,” he says. “It’s kind of something that’s done in the shadows. If you’re the one getting beat up, you’re not happy about them, but if you’re the family of somebody and the federal government has abandoned you after your little child has been harmed, I think you’d feel that these guys were maybe righting some wrongs.”
In the book, Virgil Wounded Horse, half Lakota and half white, serves as an enforcer at Rosebud. After his nephew, Nathan, overdoses on heroin, Virgil vows to rid the reservation of the drug and the dealers responsible for bringing it there.
Weiden grew up impoverished in what he calls “the roughest neighborhood in all of Denver.” There was no library, but every Friday a bookmobile would come around, and he would load up on genre books, from science fiction to crime and noir. “I Just loved that stuff,” he says. “I grew up just loving a well-crafted tale.”
During Weiden’s MFA, which he began at the Vermont College of Fine Arts before transferring to the Institute of American Indian Arts, he dove deep into crime classics he’d overlooked, by Raymond Chandler and Jim Thomspon, and says he was “blown away.”
In 2018, Weiden’s last year at IAIA, he met agent Michelle Browe at the AWP conference in Tampa, Fla. She signed with him on the spot after reading the first five pages of Winter Counts.
Editor Helen Atsma says she was struck by the amount of heart in the story, rare for a crime novel. “You see Virgil’s love for the community and his family,” Atsma says, “and his desire to protect the people he loves shines through on every page.”—David Varno