After the Haitian earthquake of Jan. 12, 2010, Myriam J.A. Chancy, who was then known primarily as an academic writing about Afro-Caribbean women, went on the road for six months to talk at campuses across the U.S. and the Caribbean about the effects of the devastation: 250,000 people killed, 300,000 injured, and 1.5 million left homeless. Her talks were mostly scheduled before the earthquake and planned for topics related to her academic expertise, but after the disaster, the questions were mostly about the situation in Haiti.
“I didn’t intend to write a novel,” Chancy says, but she began one in 2013, inspired by the stories shared by survivors who came up to speak to her after her talks. On October 5, Tin House will publish What Storm, What Thunder. It’s the tale of the earthquake—before, during, and after—told in 10 Haitian voices, including those of a wealthy executive, a small-time drug dealer, an accountant, a young boy, and a musician who emigrated to Boston.
“I wanted to reflect the experience of disaster across gender, profession, and age, to talk about this personally,” Chancy says. “We see things happening to a mass of people—there’s no micro level. I wanted to get to that level, to capture the range of experiences.”
One of the first voices Chancy says she came to was that of a child. “We think of children in the abstract, emotionally, but not how they are really experiencing an event,” she adds. The boy, Jonas, had dreams of playing soccer that were ended by the earthquake. “I cried out for mama until I realized that she couldn’t hear me for all the other children crying out for their mamas,” he says in the book. “As if each were the same person, reaching for my little sisters only to find air in my hand, grasping, then hours of hearing them crying together only for their cries to go silent, after a while, while I lay pinned beneath cement blocks, not knowing what to do, frightened.”
The voices are weaved together effortlessly, each more mesmerizing than the last. Didier, the musician, recalls Ma Lou, the old market woman: “I admired her and all the other women like her, so close to the earth that they seemed dust laden and ethereal, like the ballerinas in little girls’ jewelry boxes, as dainty and precious.” And Olivier, the accountant, observes: “In the span of forty-five seconds, one in every fifty good Haitians in Port-au-Prince died. Who knows about the bad ones.”
Tin House editorial director Masie Cochran tells me she saw the book in April 2020 and remembers loving it from the first page. “I try not to base everything on that first page,” she says. “Usually I finish a book before I send it beyond editorial, but after 15 pages, I was so excited, I sent it to everyone. I had replies in two days. I thought I understood the effects of the earthquake in Haiti, but before I read this book, I didn’t.” She notes how “Myriam captures people’s voices, braids them together, holds them all at the same time. She builds a larger narrative from these individual voices. It’s impressive and masterful.”
The book came to Cochran atypically, and I sensed a story within a story. She tells me that 90% of the books she buys come through agents, but What Storm, What Thunder was sent to her by Lisa Rundle, the rights director for HarperCollins Canada, which will publish it on September 14. It was acquired by HC Canada senior editor Janice Zawerbny, who had met Chancy when she was a freelance editor. Chancy was born in Port-au-Prince but grew up in Canada (she now lives in California, where she holds a chair in the humanities at Scripps College). When she met Zawerbny in 2019, she was thinking of moving back to Canada to be closer to family and started looking for a Canadian agent. She had published three novels in the U.K., but with What Storm, she says, she “wanted more exposure, to get it to as many readers as possible.”
Chancy found an agent who turned down the novel but put her in touch with Zawerbny, offering to look at it again after revisions. “I could tell right away,” Zawerbny says, “that the manuscript was brilliant—so highly original—and that Myriam was a gifted writer. I loved the novel, even in its earliest form. It’s the kind of novel that all literary editors dream about.” The agent’s second reading was delayed, and Zawerbny, who in the interim had been hired as an editor at HC Canada, bought world rights to the novel.
Next Zawerbny met with Chancy and Rundle to discuss U.S. publishers. Rundle sells directly into English-language markets, and when she was putting together a list of possible U.S. presses, she “particularly focused on publishers publishing diverse voices and stories, with a track record of publishing literary novels,” she says. “Tin House immediately came to mind. We were thrilled when Masie fell in love with the novel and were happy to accept her offer to publish in the U.S.”
Cochran says that Rundle sent a great pitch and set up a call for her to talk to Chancy. “When I spoke to Myriam, that sealed it for me,” Cochran says. “I was very impressed with her—her personal connection to Haiti, the intimacy of the work, and her ability to tell the story. I was ready to work on the book.”
Waiting to see if she got What Storm, Cochran recalls, “I had that excited sick feeling—it was a nervous three weeks going back and forth. I wanted the book so badly.” She closed the deal with “a nice offer” at the end of April 2020 for U.S. and audio rights.
Chancy says, “When Masie gushed she also brought constructive criticism. She was spot on.” And Tin House put together an impressive marketing and publicity campaign with its offer. What Storm is the press’s lead fiction title for fall 2021.
Cochran remarks on what she calls “early temperature tests” for What Storm, telling me that Edwidge Danticat responded to a blurb request within 30 minutes and that there was an auction for audio rights, won by Spiegel & Grau. “When I fall in love with a book,” Cochran says, “it’s personal, but I believe it can transfer to a larger audience.”
Though marketing plans for the book are extensive, “we are being nimble,” Cochran notes. “We hope to get Myriam out there in front of people. She has such a great personality. But we’ve had successful Zoom events. My 87-year-old aunt in Kansas had never been to a book event, and since the pandemic she’s a regular!”
Chancy wrote in the acknowledgements that she feels the stories told to her “were a charge, a responsibility to the dead.” She says, “I remember thinking that there’s a reason people are telling me these stories. I became a store for information. At one talk, I was referencing Zora Neale Hurston and the earthquake and her  novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, and I couldn’t help but make the connection between then and now. I showed Haiti now and when Hurston was there in the ’30s, and at the end of the talk, I broke down. These Haitian artisans came up to me after. They spoke Creole and they said to me, ‘We didn’t understand a thing until you cried.’ ”
Correction: The 2010 earthquake in Haiti occurred on January 12, not January 20, and the number of people injured in the earthquake was 300,000, not 1.3 million. In addition, this story has been updated for clarity.