Until about a decade ago, Karin Lin-Greenberg led a peripatetic existence, bouncing from one state to another, pursuing whatever college teaching job she could land. After earning her MFA from the University of Pittsburgh in 2006, she pulled up stakes three times, moving from Pennsylvania to Missouri, then to Ohio, then to North Carolina, for temporary gigs. In between packing and unpacking and class responsibilities, Lin-Greenberg scrambled to write as much as she could, publishing in any periodical that would accept her. Tenure, and the chance to finally settle somewhere, was the goal. She finally secured a permanent position in 2012 at Siena College, a small Franciscan liberal arts school in Upstate New York.
In 2013, Lin-Greenberg published her first collection, Faulty Predictions, which went on to win the Flannery O’Connor Award in Short Fiction from the University of Georgia Press. In 2021, she came out with a second volume of stories, titled Vanished, which received the prestigious Prairie Schooner Raz-Shumaker Prize. “For a very long time, I thought of myself exclusively as a writer of stories—the shorter form just fit into my life better,” she says. “Expending years on a novel seemed too big a gamble. If I couldn’t sell it, I’d be left with a publication gap on my CV.” Still, she occasionally tinkered with her stories, pondering how she might expand them. It became “a kind of game,” she says.
The tinkering has finally paid off. In May, Counterpoint will publish Lin-Greenberg’s stunning debut novel, You Are Here.
The genesis of the book goes back to a flash fiction class the author was teaching in 2017. Justin Torres’s 2011 novel We the Animals was on the syllabus, and students debated whether the sections of the short novel were vignettes, chapters, discrete stories, or all of the above. The discussion led Lin-Greenberg to play around with an encounter she’d had while getting her hair cut. “I was having a conversation with my stylist, who said she had to send scissors all the way to Japan to get them sharpened,” she recalls. “She told me there used to be people whose job it was to regularly call on salons and offer to sharpen their scissors on the spot. That practice is long gone, she lamented.”
That germ of an idea blossomed into “The Sweeper of Hair,” a story that in 2018 was named a finalist for the Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Award. In the story, Lin-Greenberg introduces single mother Tina Huang, who cuts hair in a shopping mall beauty salon called Sunshine Clips. Tina’s nine-year-old son Jackson (named for Michael Jackson) keeps her company after school while practicing magic tricks. The warm reception the story received prompted the writer to think bigger: “How could I place these characters in this location and make a novel out of them?”
You Are Here features multiple protagonists, all connected to the struggling Upstate New York mall that was born in “The Sweeper of Hair.” We don’t know precisely how long the characters have lived in and around the mall, but they seem entrenched—in both good and bad ways.
Lin-Greenberg began gradually adding to the cast, setting new scenes in the struggling mall, where all manner of people convene and intersect. One of Tina’s regular customers is Ro Goodson, who is also in “The Sweeper of Hair.” From Jackson’s viewpoint, Ro is “a very old woman with white hair.” She chose Tina to be her stylist because she thinks her late husband would have approved of her decision to give an Asian person some business, which makes her proud, as she feels she’s being charitable. The Huangs, on the other hand, see Ro as a lonely busybody; they treat her with kindness.
Ro struggles to come to terms with how quickly the world is leaving her behind. She is judgmental, possibly racist, and emblematic of someone whose resistance to change has left her feeling joyless. But there’s also wisdom in there somewhere. Lin-Greenberg says that Olive Kittredge, the title character of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize–winning novel by Elizabeth Strout, influenced her portrait of Ro. “On the surface,” she says, “Ro seems very crusty and mean. But it’s more complicated than that. Is she sympathetic, or not? What informs her, and what in the past has shaped her? I wanted the answer to that question to be complicated.”
Among the extraordinary aspects of You Are Here is that it encompasses so many different points of view. Kevin, who’s white, is married to Gwen, a Black woman whose parents named her after the poet Gwendolyn Brooks. They have two children together. Another of the novel’s key players is high school senior Maria. She’s half Puerto Rican and a gorgeous and empathetic aspiring actor who works as many shifts at the mall’s food court as she can get. An unhinged fellow student obsesses over her, with disastrous results.
The novel’s diversity seems authentic and universal. It echoes the work of Anne Tyler, whose novels Lin-Greenberg devoured as a teenager, curling up with them in her local library. “Tyler writes about people who could be neighbors, people you would know,” she says. “Like me, she’s drawn to quiet characters, taking you behind what you see on the outside to understand their interiority. They aren’t the people who are going to be the loudest, the most extroverted—they don’t have to have super-extraordinary lives to be compelling in fiction.”
At one point in the novel, Maria observes: “The mall is a great place to study humanity.” Lin-Greenberg says, “It’s a place where you can totally be an observer and nobody notices you. You can walk around and be just another unseen person.”
Ethnicity plays an important role in the novel, and it’s a subject Lin-Greenberg says she thinks about a lot. “My mom’s Chinese and my dad’s white, so I never felt like there was one group I fit into. I wanted to get that idea into the book with Kevin, Gwen, and their kids, and to explore the fact that while I don’t know the answers to the questions I raise in the novel, it’s still possible to stretch beyond our perspectives when we write consciously and thoughtfully.”
The imaginary community Lin-Greenberg offers us in You Are Here is filled with people who have their hopes dashed—who face irrelevance, desolation, and despair. And yet the author’s vision is hopeful: in each other, we find humanity.