Twinhood, human evolution, infrastructure, and tactile communication are among the wide range of topics covered in this season’s noteworthy first outings.
Outside the Norm
Cat Bohannon was a grad student at Columbia when she was having a conversation with a postdoc about his studies on mice. “That’s when I learned that across the biological sciences, there is the male norm,” Bohannon says, referring to the fact that most lab studies are done with male subjects, though their conclusions are applied across the board. The idea that women’s bodies weren’t getting enough attention became the basis of Eve: How the Female Body Drove 200 Million Years of Evolution (Knopf, Oct.), which considers humankind’s development from the female perspective.
In addition to a PhD in the evolution of narrative and cognition, Bohannon has an MFA in creative writing from Columbia and was a self-described “poet gal” in the early aughts, when she “cooked up a gig” for herself as poet-in-residence at a “Warhol-like factory” in Dalian, China, run by the man who invented plastination. She wrote an essay about it for the Georgia Review, where Elyse Cheney, her future agent, read it.
Cheney praises Bohannon’s writing for its range: “It’s so rich,” she says. “She can be funny, witty, radical.”
Knopf executive editor Andrew Miller recalls his excitement upon first encountering Eve. “There are some proposals you read and by the time you’re halfway through, you just know you have to publish this book,” he says. “This was definitely one of those.”
Helena de Bres
Wellesley College philosophy professor Helena de Bres wrote the first full draft of How to Be Multiple: The Philosophy of Twins (Bloomsbury, Nov.) during a sabbatical in New Zealand, where she stayed in the bedroom she shared with her twin sister Julia.
The book, de Bres’s trade debut, examines selfhood, human connection, and the unique experience of being a twin. It also features illustrations by Julia, a longtime collaborator. “When I was 12, I wrote a novel and she drew the pictures,” de Bres says. “We were just at home in the suburbs, always dreaming up adventures and projects.” Working together in adulthood “felt like a natural mode.”
Callie Garnett, de Bres’s editor at Bloomsbury (and an identical twin herself), recalls that for a long time, she’s wanted to read something that depicted twinhood from a specific angle. “I wanted it both ways,” she says. “I wanted to see it theorized, but I wanted it to be by someone who has lived the experience and could explore it phenomenologically in a useful way.”
Garnett was delighted to find that combination in How to Be Multiple, and notes that de Bres is remarkable for her ability to strike a balance in her writing between being humorous and being “the philosophy professor that she is.”
A Good Fit
“I’ve been interested in infrastructure my entire life,” says engineer Deb Chachra about the genesis of How Infrastructure Works: Inside the Systems That Shape Our World (Riverhead, Oct.). “My dad worked for the local power utility, and I grew up close to our local nuclear station.”
Growing up in Canada as the country was investing in infrastructure projects such as highways and clean water systems, Chachra was somewhat aware of these developments. Visiting her parents’ hometown in India as a child, however, made “infrastructure much more obvious,” she says, “because you actually see the things you take for granted when you don’t have them.”
How Infrastructure Works covers the mechanics of bridges, highways, reservoirs, and more. It also considers the social forces behind those projects, how they’re changing, and ways to improve them. “We have the opportunity to actually make these systems amazingly better,” Chachra says.
She and her agent, Lydia Wills, were less interested in shopping the book around and more interested in going with the right editor. “The first time I met [Riverhead executive editor] Courtney Young, I asked her what kind of authors she worked with, and her answer was ‘nerds,’ ” Chachra recalls. “I thought, this is going to be a good fit.”
“Working on her book has changed the way I see the world,” Young says. “It’s both a fascinating celebration of infrastructure and a very serious, urgent plan for what we need to do next to have our infrastructural systems persist.”
Fumbling at the Edge
John Lee Clark
John Lee Clark is a Deafblind poet, essayist, and educator working on Protactile, a language that’s at the heart of his essay collection Touch the Future: A Manifesto in Essays (Norton, Oct.).
The Protactile movement emerged in 2007 in Seattle, when three Deafblind activists decided to go without interpreters for their meetings. Touching became central to communication, and, as Clark writes in the book, “A grammar soon developed to coordinate all that contact. A new language was born.”
Clark’s debut offers reflections on that language and the movement behind it, a history of the term Deafblind, and an examination of his writing room, among other topics. He notes that the essays grew as the movement did. “It’s hard to tell whether an essay made a fresh incision at the cutting edge and the movement follows or the movement opened up a new nook and an essay is reporting this,” he says. “The book is the fruit of the fumbling at the edge.”
“You step away from this book with a renewed sense of excitement about the possibilities for the future of language and communication,” says Norton executive editor Jill Bialosky, who praises the “electric charge” of Clark’s “voice, vision, and spirit.”
Asked about his own hopes for Touch the Future, Clark points to Protactile’s developing nature. “It may seem strange to say, but I hope that, on one level, my book will quickly grow to be outdated,” he notes. “This will be because what the movement has suggested or only just begun to make manifest has come to pass.”
Michael Harriot wrote Black AF History: The Un-whitewashed Story of America (Dey Street, Sept.) in the odd hours—primarily from one to four in the morning—when he wasn’t busy with his day job as a staff writer at the Root.
Harriot points out that, before electricity, people would “go to sleep when the sun went down, and then wake up in the middle of the night. Sometimes they’d feed farm animals or read the Bible, and then sleep another three or four hours, and wake up when the sun comes up. Instead of milking cows, I would work on the book.”
As a graduate student at Florida State University, Harriot taught a course titled, “Race as an Economic Construct,” which became the basis of a book proposal with a more academic bent, until, he says, “everyone who listened to the proposal said, ‘Well, what about that thing you do where you take history and make it funny?’ ” The one-book proposal turned into a two-book deal, and Black AF History moved to the front of the line. Combining research and humor, it functions as an updated American history textbook that emphasizes the oft-overlooked perspectives of Indigenous and Black people.
Stuart Roberts, Harriot’s editor at Dey Street, recalls being “blown away” when he saw the manuscript for the first time, calling the book “a wildly entertaining ride while you’re being informed and enlightened.”
Harriot emphasizes the importance of bringing a human angle to history. “All of the things that we think of as history aren’t dates and figures and facts and timelines,” he says. “They are actual people and stories.”
Somebody’s Got to Write This
“I’m one of those strange people who at the age of 12 said, ‘I want to be a theatre critic,’ ” says Patti Hartigan, author of August Wilson: A Life (Simon & Schuster, Aug.). In 1987, Hartigan was a “very young aspiring critic” at the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center in Connecticut, where she first met Wilson.
“The playwright Jeffrey Hatcher and I ended up sitting under a tree with August, and he just regaled us with his stories,” Hartigan says. In 2005, she wrote an appreciation of him for the Boston Globe, where she worked as a critic for more than 15 years. “And then time passed and time passed, and there was no biography of this enormously influential genius of a man.”
A decade later, she was in the audience of Wilson’s one-man show How I Learned What I Learned at Boston’s Huntington Theatre. The final scene moved her to tears. “At that point,” Hartigan recalls, “I thought, somebody’s got to write this biography.”
Hartigan has followed Wilson’s career “almost from the beginning,” notes S&S executive editor Bob Bender. “In many ways, her own career parallels his.” And thanks to Hartigan’s rigorous research, he adds, she’s able to give readers “the real August Wilson, both his genius and his flaws.”
Hartigan’s intensive research took her to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale, to Minnesota, and to Pennsylvania, among other places. That all came to a halt when the pandemic hit, but it had a silver lining for Hartigan: “It forced me to stop researching and just sit down and write a book,” she says.
Roger Reeves’s Dark Days: Fugitive Essays (Graywolf, Aug.) brings together pieces on race, community, politics, and literature. And while Reeves’s own story is in there, too, it wasn’t always.
“I was challenging myself, because at first I wanted it to all be critical,” he says. “But then I was thinking about how James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, and even Susan Sontag were really able to weave the personal into thinking about the literary and the political and the social. I was like, okay, let’s try this.”
The author of two poetry collections, Reeves has a PhD in English from the University of Texas at Austin. “I’ve written lots and lots of essays for academic purposes,” he says. “And I kind of got into thinking about what’s possible with the essay form, and how it might overlap and intersect with that of the poem.”
Graywolf executive editor Jeff Shotts notes that it’s not just Reeves’s experience as a poet that shaped his writing in Dark Days. “Roger writes a lot about coming out of the Pentecostal tradition, the tradition of reading scripture, but also the kind of oracular way of passing the word,” Shotts says. “And that really comes out in the beautiful sentence-making in this book.”
Reeves says that as he was writing Dark Days, public intellectualism and the role of criticism in society were on his mind. “Everybody loves the hot take,” he adds. “Critique is a worthwhile endeavor—it’s something that we should pay attention to.”
Nick Romeo was writing a story about gig workers for the New Yorker in 2020 when the seed for The Alternative: How to Build a Just Economy (PublicAffairs, Jan. 2024) was planted. There were the conventional answers to the precarity of gig work, says Romeo, and then “there was a kind of out-of-left-field, very ingenious solution proposed that really cut across both types of solutions.”
That idea was to replace private, for-profit companies with public markets for gig workers that functioned similarly to the way that public utilities operate. Romeo found the proposal eye-opening and was surprised that few had taken notice of it.
“The model for the entire book is to look at similar case studies—incredibly compelling, ingenious ideas that are not widely recognized,” he says. “And yet, they do already exist.” In addition to gig work, The Alternative examines job guarantee programs, emission reduction targets, and worker-owned cooperatives.
The book’s combination of rigorous reporting and accessibility appealed to PublicAffairs editor John Mahaney, who notes that Romeo “frames each of the issues that he takes on with the story of an interesting person. So, it’s very human centered, and he eases you into some of the bigger questions.”
In early 2019, David Shih, an English professor at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire, learned that his father in Texas had a stroke and was hospitalized. In the two weeks that followed, Shih “almost went through” his life “business as usual,” he says, and then booked a plane ticket. But he was too late. His father had died.
“I just started thinking about what took me so long,” Shih says. “That is, why didn’t I go back immediately?” Answering that question became the spark behind Chinese Prodigal: A Memoir in Eight Arguments (Atlantic Monthly, Aug.).
Though the collection began with a personal investigation, the essays open up into a larger look at the history of race in America. “I couldn’t just write a straight memoir without talking about other points in history and other people from history whose notoriety, if you will, I had to negotiate,” Shih says. “They all shaped the what it means to be a Chinese American or an Asian American in some way. And like it or not, I had to reckon with those meanings.”
Amy Hundley, Shih’s editor at Grove Atlantic, notes that “really what he’s doing is translating ideas that have been happening in the academy for a general readership.” Praising the book’s “rigorous” nature, she adds that Shih is “a writer who has a really arresting authority and presence on the page.”
A President’s Life
Ruth J. Simmons
Ruth J. Simmons was the president of Brown University when she began work on Up Home: One Girl’s Journey (Random House, Sept.), but the responsibilities of the job didn’t leave her with enough time to write.
“A president’s life is morning, noon, and night,” Simmons says. When the pandemic hit, she finally had the time and space to get back to work on it.
The idea to write a memoir came directly out of conversations she was having with students. Having previously served as president of Smith College in Northampton, Mass., Simmons arrived at Brown in 2001 as the first Black president of an Ivy League university. She stayed there until 2012, and from 2017 to 2023 served as president of Prairie View A&M University, an HBCU in Texas. Ever since her time at Smith, Simmons notes, she’s been “bombarded” with questions from students about how she got there.
Tracing the first two decades of Simmons’s life, Up Home begins in 1945 in East Texas, where she was born the youngest of 12 in a family of sharecroppers. Writing it was “a way of explaining the aspects of my early life that led me, logically, to the place where I am today,” she says.
Random House executive editor David Ebershoff says he was struck by the book’s “classic” tone “from the first page, the first time I read it,” noting that, because of Simmons’s “clear and honest voice, it’s as if a person, a friend, is speaking directly to you.”
Carliann Rittman has an MFA in creative writing and lives in Upstate NY.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated Andrew Miller's job title.