Valeria Luiselli, whom I’ve been following since The Story of My Teeth (I can still see that all-white book jacket), has a new novel, Lost Children Archive, coming in February. When I learned that Knopf v-p. and editorial director Robin Desser had acquired it from agent Nicole Aragi, I could only think, “trifecta.”
Lost Children Archive takes on several themes in a quintessential American road novel (although, as Aragi says, “It’s a road novel in a completely Valeria way—a road trip for 2018”). It’s the story of a family and family relationships, immigration and migrant children, and the work of documenting sounds and images—all present in a form that employs all of Luiselli’s inventiveness. Each family member takes one box on the trip, and Luiselli intersperses lists of the boxes’ contents (notebooks, reference books, photos) between chapters, revealing the progress of the trip and the characters’ inner lives.
The unnamed husband and wife of the story meet while documenting the sounds of New York City for an oral history and fall in love, blending families; he has a son, she a daughter. Luiselli writes: “Moving in together had been a rash decision—messy, confusing, urgent, and as beautiful and real as life feels when you’re not thinking about consequences. We became a tribe. Then came the consequences.”
Luiselli tells me she wanted to explore the fragility and strength of family bonds (the road trip inevitably impacts the family) and also the way we archive events and the world around us and why. “Documenting is an old theme for me—it’s taken on different shapes,” she says. “This is an age of overdocumentation: pictures, Instagram—but this book is about sound. Sound goes deep into our fibers.” As she writes: “Our mothers teach us to speak, and the world teaches us to shut up.”
In the novel, the road trip from New York to the Southwest is motivated by the husband undertaking a project about “the ghosts of Geronimo and the last Apaches,” while the wife, after becoming involved with a woman whose children are missing at the U.S.-Mexico border, begins a project of “recording children’s stories and their hearings in the New York immigration court.”
Aragi notes that Lost Children Archive follows the trend of auto fiction: “This book incorporates what Valeria has done as a journalist, but here she looks at the self’s responsibility to the world. The novel looks at a big political subject, but it’s intimate, personal, to her and to all of us.”
Desser concurs: “Valeria melds the political and the emotional; she takes migration and makes it a human story. She speaks to the moment we are all in. She’s an activist, and her activism informs everything else.”
Lost Children Archive is a first for all three women. It’s Luiselli’s first novel written in English. From a diplomatic family, she grew up all over the world and attended an American school in South Korea. She now lives in New York and says she “writes in the language that naturally dictates the story.” For Lost Children Archive, she took notes in both English and Spanish (she also speaks Italian and French) and “one day it became clear which language to write in.” She started working on the novel in summer 2014, when the children’s immigration crisis erupted.
In late 2015, Luiselli wrote Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions, in which she translated interviews with undocumented Latin American children facing deportation from the U.S. The essay was published by Coffee House in 2017, and she says that at that point she “turned the novel into a vessel for a different kind of political rage.” She adds, “I was so angry with the news. I was stuffing the novel, not letting it breathe so I needed to write the essay. Then I went back to the novel. I had to distinguish between them, the novel had to reach deeper.”
Luiselli claims the road novel is not “a particular genre I adore” but notes that the road trip is a tradition of the great American novel, which traditionally moves from east to west. The Hispanic community, she says, moves from south to north; Lost Children Archive intersects both of those trajectories.
Alongside the family trip from New York to Arizona is the story of seven migrant children traveling north in boxcars. “I did not want to duplicate the children’s stories from the essay, but to use my imagination,” Luiselli tells me.
Luiselli met Aragi through Granta editor John Freeman, Aragi’s partner. “John published one of my first pieces in English for Granta, and he is to blame for the essay. I didn’t want to write it, but he said, ‘You must.’ He was one of my first readers for Lost Children Archive and asked if he could show it to Nicole.” There was a dinner at Aragi and Freeman’s loft in Manhattan. Aragi asked to represent Luiselli; Luiselli said she would love that.
Aragi had read Luiselli before, when Freeman published her in his magazine, Freeman’s. “Valeria sent me the manuscript for Lost Children Archive on Feb. 13, 2017. I think of it as a birthday present—my birthday is February 12—and I thought, ‘Good Heavens, this is long!’ And then I gulped it down. And kept marking the margins: ‘Excellent!’ ‘Perfect!’ ”
Aragi sent it to Desser as an exclusive on March 24, and Desser preempted it a few days later. “Who says things don’t happen fast in publishing?” Desser asks. She had met Luiselli briefly at a reading and, in her unabashed enthusiasm, says, “I stalked her for years. I pined. Because I had been following her, Nicole sent me the manuscript and I read it right away. Everyone here felt as I did about it: Lost Children Archive is innovative, beautiful, important. It’s set in America but brings the reader the world. I had hoped for a book by her, and this exceeded all my expectations.”
Dresser says she remembers picking up The Story of My Teeth and wondering, “What is this?” And then she began reading Luiselli’s work. “Still,” she says, “I was unprepared for the genius and range of this new book—the scope of it and how it combines everything she does.”
Luiselli’s U.K. agent, Laurence Laluyaux at Rogers, Coleridge & White in London, has represented her for 10 years. “I knew from her first book, Sidewalks, that she would become a significant writer,” she says. Laluyaux uses the same vocabulary as Aragi and Desser to describe Luiselli’s writing: humane, intelligent, inventive, risk taking.
Desser tells me about Luiselli’s fan base in the indie bookstore community. “They’re asking, ‘Why can’t I sell this book right now?’ And my response is that I wish I could have published it last Thursday!”
After Knopf publishes Lost Children Archive in February, Fourth Estate will publish it in early March in the U.K., and foreign rights have been sold in 12 other territories to date.
Desser is so excited about Lost Children Archive that, even after two interviews, she sent me an email: “I wish I had said she employs a dazzlingly polyphonic style or that she has a polymathic imagination.”
You just did, Robin. How could I let that comment pass?