With settings ranging from a Sydney suburb to a Harlem apartment complex, West Texas to the Rust Belt, this season’s inventive fiction debuts have a lot to offer. Here are 10 books to look out for this fall.
“I’ve always felt like a mole in the medical setting, somewhere between an anthropologist and a spy,” says Anna DeForest, a doctor who will be starting at Sloan Kettering’s Supportive Care department this summer.
A History of Present Illness (Little, Brown, Aug.) comprises the fictionalized field notes of a medical resident cycling through various rotations. The title refers to a section of the medical-note template, DeForest explains, in which medical students “learn how to mask and arrange to please our supervisor more than to listen to the patient and lay out things that might not meet the criteria for diagnosis.”
In the novel, however, DeForest imagines another way of filling out the notes, including reflections on curious medical-linguistic constructions and doctors’ unspoken assumptions. Agent Sarah Burnes at the Gernert Company worked with DeForest to “pull the thread of one terminal patient through the manuscript, which could act as a spine.” And thus amid the merry-go-round of patients, the narrator follows the case of Ada, who suffers from slow encephalitis, to her death.
“When you’re always rotating off, you never really see something start and evolve and then end,” DeForest says.
Lauding the novel’s ruminative style, Vivian Lee at Little, Brown, says that it was an “editor’s dream to sit in thoughtfully constructed prose in which every word is chosen with the utmost attention.”
DeForest, who has an MFA from Brooklyn College, applied to medical school to pursue a stable, challenging career. She dryly adds that it’s helped assuage her fear of death (“I found that being around illness and death calmed that aspect of my life”) and prepare for the end of the world: “I thought it would be good to think about what kind of skills you would want to have in an apocalypse scenario,” she says, laughing.
DeForest began the novel as a capstone project in her third year at Columbia Medical School. Then came her residency with its 80-hour workweeks. “By the time I came back to the book, it had become this creepy time capsule,” she says. During residency, “human suffering becomes the bread and meat of your workday. You get accustomed to it. And then I had these notes from someone who was not used to it and really disturbed by it.”
Ramona Emerson’s debut novel, Shutter (Soho Crime, Aug.), which takes the form of a police procedural, tackles a central taboo of Navajo culture: death. “We don’t talk about it, and I wanted to explore that,” Emerson says.
The protagonist is a forensic photographer, Rita, who is haunted by the spirit of a murder victim who pesters her to help catch her killer. “It’s in some sense a metaphor for art and artists,” Emerson says. “I can relate to what Rita is going through. I’ve got a million different voices coming in and telling me what story I need to tell.”
When Emerson, a documentary filmmaker, graduated from the University of New Mexico in 1997, the sprawling film industry that has since sprung up in the state didn’t yet exist. So she took a job as a forensic photographer.
“It’s never as exciting as it appears on TV,” Emerson says, but the job came with a key perk: her boss let her borrow the equipment for her own documentary projects. The first, The Last Trek, was about a 78-year-old sheepherder bringing her flock 22 miles up a mountain for the last time, and her current project, a docu-series called Crossing the Line, addresses border-town violence. All feature Navajo subjects. “I think people have a very distorted view about who we are and how we live because they’ve only read things from people who don’t live in our communities,” she notes. “It’s not all poverty porn.”
At a certain point, Emerson grew disheartened. “I’ve been working on films for 20 years,” she says, “and nobody has watched any of them. Why don’t I just start writing?” To gather material for her novel to come, the first in a planned trilogy, Emerson took a 16-week course at the Albuquerque Police Department’s CSI Academy.
“Shutter was like nothing I’d read before: the startling combination of prose energy, stark grit, and wry humor; the lovably embattled protagonist; and the brilliant visual quality of this literary text rendered by a cinematographer,” says Juliet Grames, v-p, associate publisher at Soho Press.
Photography is Rita’s passion, yet also a burden. “She loves photography,” Emerson says, “but at the same time it just brings her such misery, and I can say the same thing for making documentaries.”
Jonathan Escoffery’s linked collection If I Survive You (MCD, Sept.) follows the intense rivalries and misadventures, comic and tragic, of a Jamaican American family in Miami. “The engines of a lot of these stories are the mistakes these characters are making,” Escoffery says. They face difficult moral dilemmas about whether to perform ethically dubious, dangerous jobs or go hungry, and their choices often lead to devastating outcomes.
Escoffery is the kind of writer who comes along once in a generation, according to Farrar, Straus and Giroux editor Jackson Howard. “I truly believe that this book will end up sitting alongside debuts like Tommy Orange’s There, There; Paul Beatty’s The White Boy Shuffle; and Tea Obréht’s The Tiger’s Wife. It swallows you whole.”
The collection is varied, including a meditation on race and identity and a Gulf Coast noir involving drug smuggling and lobster traps. “I really can’t stand collections where it seems like it’s the same story over and over again,” Escoffery says.
Renée Zuckerbrot, Escoffery’s agent at Massie & McQuilkin, was struck by his prose, which “effortlessly veered between muscular and tender,” she says. “Jonathan’s stories were linked by setting, tone, and theme, and when we were able to shape them into a cohesive collection about an immigrant family struggling to adapt to their new life, we knew we had something really special.”
Now living in Oakland, Escoffery grew up in Miami and began attending college part-time in his mid 20s. Discussing the craft of fiction “became the best thing I had going in my life,” he says. He decided to apply for an MFA, and as the deadline neared, a story about a Jamaican American family “poured out” of him. “I’d never written about this family or Jamaican Americans, and even though it was a rougher, rawer story, I knew it had to be a part of my application.” He was accepted at the University of Minnesota’s MFA program, leaving Miami for colder climes in his beat-up Dodge Raider.
At the heart of the collection is Trelawny, the younger of two brothers, who craves his father’s approval. He takes on the oddest of odd jobs and feels rootless in America. “He comes to see his parent’s decision to leave Jamaica as the great tragedy of his life,” Escoffery says.
Buzz Me In
Sidik Fofana had the title for his collection Stories from the Tenants Downstairs (Scribner, Aug.) before he had written a word. He wanted something that would evoke the “grand presence” of iconic hip-hop album titles like Tupac Shakur’s Me Against the World, Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, and the Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die. Discussing the kinds of alternative literature writers grew up with, Fofana notes that while the previous generation (Jonathan Lethem, Junot Díaz) was more attracted to comics, “my first literary apprenticeship was hip-hop and the stories rappers told.”
Fofana, who has an MFA from New York University, grew up in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston and teaches high school in Brooklyn. He based the collection’s stories on the Harlem apartment complex he lived in after college. “I love the concept of the book, the tight focus on one apartment building and its residents, the way the tenants move in and out of each other’s lives,” says Kathryn Belden, v-p and editorial director at Scribner.
Among the building’s occupants are a woman trying to make rent, young men pulling the “Okiedoke” con on a food delivery man (give fake address, pay with Monopoly money, run!), and a paraprofessional teacher’s aide in a spirited, occasionally unruly classroom. “The theme linking the stories is the American dream and the disillusionment of the American dream,” Fofana explains.
Fofana’s agent, Ethan Bassoff at Ross Yoon Agency, adds, “Each story is very different, yet each narrator feels so authentic, so in control of their story.”
The book also nods to the changing Harlem landscape and the way gentrification eludes tidy narratives. “The people who come in are sometimes embraced by the community and sometimes looked at suspiciously,” Fofana notes. “It’s one of those things that doesn’t get resolved in our lifetimes.”
Reading aloud to students has taught Fofana about the kind of writing that enraptures its audience. “I can feel what lines they most resonate with,” he says. “And for me, that’s a powerful form of education, what moves students: conflict, characterization, but also raw honesty.”
Rust Belt Mystics
Developers are looking to “revitalize” the fictional Rust Belt town of Vacca Vale, Ind., in Tess Gunty’s The Rabbit Hutch (Knopf, Aug.). However, the novel’s teenage protagonist, Blandine, is more interested in a spiritual, rather than economic, awakening, turning to the writings of 12th-century mystic and Benedictine abbess Hildegard von Bingen for comfort.
Growing up in South Bend, Ind., Gunty saw in female mystics “rare examples within the Church of women with any kind of power over their own lives.” She describes her mother as a “very mystical Catholic” and notes that while she herself has “drifted very far from those belief systems, being raised among them makes them feel accessible and real and just as possible as anything else.”
Gunty attended Notre Dame University, where she was surprised by the experimental bent of the creative writing program, sometimes feeling that the readings were “lacking all human warmth,” she says. “But this immersion in a completely different way of thinking of fiction, language, and story bulldozed a lot of preconceptions I had, and I became slowly but surely converted to a more open view of what a novel could look like.”
The book begins with Blandine exiting her body after suffering a violent assault. Then, Gunty rewinds the clock to a week before the attack. “The Rabbit Hutch is a masterful stylistic achievement, with layers upon layers of narrative twists that still truly blow my mind,” says Gunty’s agent, Duvall Osteen at Aragi Inc.
Knopf executive editor John Freeman adds that Gunty’s manuscript “just lifted me up and carried me with it as she set to work evoking a collection of souls seeking redemption. How do you make such a story a page-turner? I don’t know, but she did.”
While pursuing an MFA at New York University, Gunty, as if by gravitational force, kept getting pulled back to the Rust Belt in her writing. “Purgatorial is the word I would use to describe these towns abandoned by businesses that had once brought great prosperity to them,” she says. “Even as a child, before you understand any of these forces or history that prove what you’re feeling, you feel haunted by the past the city has.”
A Human Interest Story
In Tracey Lien’s All That’s Left Unsaid (Morrow, Sept.), a young reporter named Ky Tran investigates the violent death of her teenage brother in the Vietnamese enclave of Cabramatta, Australia. Ky tracks down the witnesses, including her childhood best friend, all of whom are hesitant to discuss what they saw with the authorities. Despite the community’s tight ethnic and linguistic ties, Lien says, “no community is a monolith. Everyone has a slightly different reason not to speak to the police.”
Comparing the novel to Brit Bennett’s The Mothers, Hillary Jacobson, Lien’s agent at ICM Partners, praises “the way it powerfully captures the emotional underpinnings of a distinct community.”
Emily Krump, executive editor at HarperCollins, adds that the novel addresses “critical contemporary conversations while still telling a suspenseful, entertaining story. It is like reading the best op-ed essay in novel form.”
Born and raised in Australia, Lien moved to the United States in 2013 and worked at Vox before becoming a business reporter for the Los Angeles Times. After a while, though, “the stories I was doing just didn’t feel important to me anymore,” she says. She decided to leave her long-cherished profession and apply to MFA programs. “Journalism was my whole identity, and leaving it was really hard.”
Lessons absorbed from Lien’s journalism career proved useful in fiction writing: keep the reader engaged (“People are ready to stop reading, any excuse”), use dialogue judiciously (“Don’t quote someone if you can paraphrase it better”), and put in the daily work (“As a journalist, if you only wrote when you felt inspired, you’d be fired pretty quickly”).
Alongside the mystery, the novel questions the rhetoric around inclusion and multiculturalism for immigrant communities in supposedly welcoming places like Australia. Reflecting on her experience there growing up as an Asian Australian, Lien says, “At some point, I realized the conditional nature of my citizenship. Belonging is conditional on my impeccable behavior and gratitude. If I ever do anything to step out of line, then I risk being perceived as a nuisance or, worse, as a threat.”
Sarah Thankam Mathews
In Sarah Thankam Mathews’s All This Could Be Different (Viking, Aug.), Sneha, a 22-year-old Indian immigrant, has a tenuous corporate consulting gig in Milwaukee. Navigating workplace and financial difficulties, a property manager from hell, idealistic (if occasionally exasperating) friends, and a tempestuous queer romance, she attempts to carve out her place in the world.
Viking assistant editor Allie Merola praised the novel’s “insistence on love, openness, and interdependence over bitterly guarding one’s emotions and resources in times of crisis.”
Bill Clegg at the Clegg Agency adds, “Sarah’s genius is in how she illuminates—with humor and wisdom and some of the sharpest, most natural dialogue I’ve ever read—both the specificity and universality of the human experience.”
At one point, Sneha rereads Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, a foundational coming-of-age novel. “I was interested in the tension of trying to write this juicy and fun romance- and friendship-oriented novel,” Mathews says, “but also one with some meaningful political content and having it housed within this arguably somewhat conservative form.” Going to the root of the Western bildungsroman with Goethe allowed her to challenge the genre’s central tenets. “What if it’s more than assuming your place in the world? What if it’s about pushing against the norms?”
Finances are an ever-present concern for the characters, and a determining factor in their relationships. “Money is something that has always interested me in my personal life, in the fiction I read and write,” says Mathews, who was born in India and emigrated from Oman as a teenager, turning briefly to Canada and then to the U.S. “It’s this tremendous locus of constraint and possibility.”
Mathews lives in Brooklyn, where she founded Bed-Stuy Strong, a mutual aid network focused on food security. She fondly recalls Milwaukee, where she spent a year after college in Madison, Wis., and feels the Cream City has been disrespected or largely ignored—especially its robust history of labor organizing. She describes her novel as a “love letter to smaller places” and “a somewhat subtle injunction to learn the histories of these places that are routinely dismissed but occupied a really interesting place within the nation’s political history.”
Variations on a Theme
“The first choice was what kind of music does he play,” Laura Warrell says, referring to Circus Palmer, the antihero of her novel Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm (Pantheon, Sept.). “I didn’t even have to think about it: jazz. It just seems so sophisticated a musical art form.” Circus, a trumpet player, can neither commit to a relationship nor break out of the Boston-area jazz scene: “Circus hasn’t gone where he needs to go emotionally and creatively to be the musician that he imagines himself to be and the kind of artist who’s really going to get somewhere,” she explains.
Warrell grew up in Ohio, describing herself as the “weirdo” in the family for “writing books and being artsy.” She attended Emerson College in Boston on a theater scholarship before switching to an interdisciplinary writing and journalism program. “I’ve admitted to myself that I was intimidated by the coolness of the kids in the theater department,” she says. While living in Spain, she wrote a novelized version of her “adventures as a single woman.” It secured an agent but didn’t sell, which, though disappointing, turned out to be a mixed blessing: “I’m proud of it, but it wasn’t necessarily who I wanted to be as a writer,” she notes.
The setback made her “buckle down” and pursue an MFA at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Inspired by a relationship she had with a musician, Warrell, then teaching English at the Berklee College of Music, started exploring the trope of the womanizing artist: “I’d read so many books, seen so many movies, about playboys who can’t help themselves. I wanted to write stories about women in these relationships.”
A polyphonic portrait of the women in Circus’s orbit—lovers, an ex-wife, a teenage daughter—emerges. Comparing the novel to Toni Morrison’s Jazz, Dawnie Walton’s The Final Revival of Opal & Nev, and David Mitchell’s Utopia Avenue, Warrell’s agent, Chad Luibl at Janklow & Nesbit, says, “It’s a beautiful harmony, how the POVs work together, like instruments in an orchestra.”
LaToya Watkins’s Perish (Tiny Reparations, Aug.) opens with the illustration of a brief family tree that resembles one she came upon as a graduate student researching the history of Black communities in West Texas. “Some of the members had just trickled off,” she recalls of the family genealogy she discovered in the archives of a church, “and on the drive to the next little town, I started thinking about it and creating narratives.”
Those narratives coalesced into a painful saga about a West Texas family. It begins when a girl named Helen Jean, after being raped by her father, makes a covenant with God to bear the incestuous baby she is carrying.
The sins of Helen Jean’s father are revisited upon three generations of family members, who gather around Helen Jean’s deathbed. “These characters have tried to bury the past at some point,” Watkins says. “Digging up what’s been buried and confronting those horrors is one way to get past the things they have done and were done to them.”
After deciding that the novel would feature multiple perspectives, Watkins dived into similarly structured works for inspiration: Alice Walker’s The Third Life of Grange Copeland, William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, and Ernest Gaines’s A Gathering of Old Men.
“I was very ambitious in the beginning,” Watkins says. “I did begin with like 20 narrators.”
Editor Amber Oliver admires how Watkins handled not only “the hard truths about what it means to live with inherited family trauma” but also “the humanity and the spirit of resilience in her Black characters throughout their hardships.”
For all its horror, Perish is at heart the story of a family coming together, and Watkins thinks back fondly of her time writing when her three (now-grown) children were younger: “I thank them for sharing me with the book because they were so gracious. They understood when my door was closed what was happening.”
The Adorno of Twitter
Ryan Lee Wong
Ryan Lee Wong recalls the sense of anger and despair, an almost “bodily feeling,” while protesting police violence after the 2014 shooting death of Akai Gurley by New York City police officer Peter Liang. Several years later, those feelings resurfaced while writing his novel, Which Side Are You On? (Catapult, Oct.), about a similar young activist.
“I needed space to meditate while writing this novel,” Wong says. Fortuitously, around the beginning of the pandemic, the Brooklyn Zen Center that Wong attended established a location in Millerton, N.Y., where he spent almost two years.
Wong’s novel follows Reed, a Columbia University student contemplating whether to drop out and take up organizing full-time. Upon returning to Los Angeles to visit his ailing grandmother, he spars with his mother, a noted activist herself who founded a Korean-Black Coalition during the Rodney King riots, over the most effective form of organizing.
“You sound like Adorno if he, like, worked out his ideas on Twitter,” is how one of Reed’s high school friends describes him. He delivers scathing critiques of white supremacy and scoffs at what he sees as complacent capitulations to the neoliberal order.
“When I started writing the novel, I was a lot more like him,” Wong says of Reed, who’s more interested in being right than opening himself up to opportunities for cross-generational understanding.
Wong grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from Brown University with an art history degree, after which he moved to New York City and wrote art criticism. After becoming the program director at the Asian American Writers Workshop, he considered embarking on a novel.
During this time, Wong was reading “like a sponge,” finding inspiration in Alexander Chee’s Edinburgh (for the “specificity of its depiction of a mixed-race character”) and in Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy and Sally Rooney’s works (for how cerebral dialogue drove both).
The result is a portrait that tempers its occasional satire with an earnestness. “I fell in love with it for its intellectually sharp, funny, full-of-heart story of an activist’s coming of age,” says former Catapult editor-in-chief Megha Majumdar.
Matt Seidel is a staff writer at The Millions.