There certainly was a theme to this year’s adult book editors buzz picks session: the devastation that secrets can have upon people's lives, their quests for the truth to their existence, and how the rippling effects of trauma can persist for generations.This year, six editors, paired with their authors, introduced the buzz picks to booksellers and others via a live feed on BookExpo’s Facebook page.
Comparing Nadia Owusu to Zadie Smith, Joan Didion, and Sylvia Plath. Dawn Davis, v-p and publisher at S&S/ 37 Ink, introduced Aftershocks: A Memoir (Jan. 2021) a combination literary memoir and cultural history by the daughter of a Ghanian father and Armenian-American mother.
Owusu’s memoir begins with the disclosure that her mother abandoned her family when she was a toddler. The same day her mother comes to visit several years later, a terrible earthquake strikes Armenia.
Associating her mother’s visit with that earthquake, Owusu became obsessed with them. “I began to think of my life as existing on fault lines,” she said, listing all the calamities she has survived, including the death of her father. Years later, Owosu’s stepmother reveals a devastating secret about her father that upends Owosu’s life.
“I wrote Aftershocks to process my trauma,” Owusu said, “I ended writing towards love and connection. There is gratitude, writing through the grief.” Davis said, “This book ultimately is about hope and a reminder of the power and beauty of language.”
Tim O’Connell, Knopf senior editor, introduced Betty (Aug.) by Tiffany McDaniel, the tale of a girl born in small-town Ohio in 1954 whose father is Cherokee and whose mother is white. It’s a coming-of-age story, O’Connell said, but it’s also “myth-making” about the “cycle of real trauma and occasional beauty” in the lives of Betty and her family.
According to McDaniel, “families really are the keys to their secrets,” and the novel was inspired by a story told by her mother about her grandmother. “I really wanted to show female relationships and sisterhood,” McDaniel said, “What it means to be a mother, a sister, a daughter, as well as yourself.”
Betty is also a story of father-daughter relationships, O’Connell noted. McDaniel concurred that Betty and her sisters “find their way” through their father’s storytelling. “They see him as an ally,” she said.
While O’Connell said that he would not describe Betty as “magical realism,” McDaniel does “take the real and makes it magic,” to which McDaniel added, “a story is born in that moment of looking at the thread between reality and the imagination, which is why I believe in the magic of the ordinary moment.”
Caroline Bleeke, senior editor at Flatiron Books, said that Migrations (Aug.) by Charlotte McConaghy was every editor’s dream: a debut novel by a complete unknown that pulls in colleagues as it moves through the publishing pipeline. Its protagonist, Franny Stone, travels to remote Greenland in search of the world’s last flock of Arctic terns, but it turns out that there is more to her quest.
“When I describe this novel,” Bleeke said, “I like to call it a love letter to the wild places and the creatures that are threatened by our changing world. It’s also a love story, and a novel about hope.”
McConaghy explained that she did not start out writing Migrations as environmental fiction or as a climate change novel: she started writing “an intimate story of a woman’s journey.” But, she said, one cannot write about the natural world without addressing climate change, so she decided to “lean into it.”
Impact of Past Upon Present
The first question posed by Jessica Williams, executive editor at William Morrow about Plain Bad Heroines (Oct. 20), was to ask author emily m. danforth to sum up her comic tale set at a New England girls boarding school. Featuring a dual timeline narrative alternating between 1902 and today, the plot contains both classic gothic novel and contemporary horror film tropes. It is a story about unsolved deaths that shut down the school. More than 100 years later, the malevolent force behind those deaths may derail a movie about the murders that is being filmed on the long-abandoned campus.
“I’ve been describing it as Sapphic gothic meta fiction,” danforth said, “Picnic at Hanging Rock plus Blair Witch Project times lesbians equals Plain Bad Heroines.” Williams also tried to describe it, noting that “it is this unique, complex combination of traits: it’s got the horror, haunted house, it incorporates slasher films. It’s also laugh-out funny. It’s got footnotes and it’s illustrated. It’s also filled with Sapphic romance.”
“Even in 2020, there’s something really powerful about writing lesbian lives and loves back into history,” danforth noted.
Sally Kim, senior v-p and publisher at Putnam, introduced The Prophets (Jan. 2021) by Robert Jones, Jr, a debut novel about two African-American slaves on an antebellum plantation in the Deep South. Their “forbidden love,” Kim noted, has an impact upon everyone else on the plantation, from the other slaves to the master and his family. The story builds up to a “crescendo of unbearable tension” with an ending, she said, that is unexpected; readers “won’t see it coming, which is hard to pull off.”
The Prophets, Kim said, “is dark because of all its truths, but it also manages to be light: affirming and hopeful. It’s a celebration, in all its forms, of the heroic power of love.”
Jones, the founder of the social justice- social media community, Son of Baldwin, said that the novel was inspired by his search for information on people who were “black and queer during antebellum slavery.” After failing to find anything, Jones thought of something Toni Morrison once said: “If you cannot find the book you want to write, you must write it.” Jones added that one motivation for writing such a novel was to emphasize that even in the most miserable conditions, such as enslavement, “you can find joy.”
The last pair of speakers, Gillian Blake, senior v-p, editor-in-chief at Crown, and Sara Seager presented Seager’s memoir about the intertwining between her professional triumphs and personal tragedies, The Smallest Lights in the Universe: A Memoir (Aug.). Seager is an astrophysicist and professor of physics and planetary science at MIT who searches for intelligent life on other planets. When her husband died unexpectedly, Seager became a single parent at age 40, forced to figure out how to do even the most prosaic tasks involved in raising her young children that her husband used to deal with so that she could focus upon her career.
The Smallest Lights, Blake said, comparing it to Lab Girl, is a book about “getting your life thrown upside down. It’s also a book about hope, about how pursuing science is a real form of hope, of optimism.”
Her memoir, Seager said, is about her personal and professional quests. The Smallest Lights examines her “journey of outer space and search for planets. It’s about astrophysics and the journey of exploration.” It’s also, she added, “about the journey of inner space and search we all have to do to make our lives meaningful, especially after some kind of major trauma.”