Patricia Engel’s Infinite Country, released on March 2 by Avid Reader Press, already has all the trappings of a charmed publication, even for a lead title. The book, which PW’s starred review called “an outstanding novel of migration and the Colombian diasporae,” saw its first printing bumped from 30,000 to 65,000 copies based on prepublication buzz that included a February Book of the Month club selection and strong support from independent booksellers and librarians.
The novel was an instant hit at S&S as well, with CEO Jonathan Karp going so far as to declare it “a modern classic,” saying it kept him “transfixed and enthralled from beginning to end” in a letter to staff. And that was all before Reese Witherspoon chose it as the March title for Reese’s Book Club, which prompted Avid to go back for two more print runs: a 5,000-copy second printing and 10,000-copy third printing, for a total of 80,000 copies in print to date.
Behind the scenes, however, the novel’s route to publication proved particularly special for the team that put the book together. For starters, it was the occasion of a publishing reunion. Engel’s debut story collection, Vida, came out in 2010 from Grove Atlantic’s Black Cat imprint, where the book was edited by senior editor Lauren Wein. Wein left Grove in 2011 for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, where she spent the better part of the next decade as executive editor; Engel stayed on as an author at Grove, where she published It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris in 2013 and The Veins of the Ocean in 2016.
Wein is now editorial director at Avid Reader, where she oversees the imprint’s fiction and memoir program. And when Engel finished the draft for Infinite Country, she said, “it was just sort of natural” to reach back out to Wein. Engel’s agent, Ayesha Pande, submitted the book to a handful of editors, including Wein, who acquired the novel in a two-book deal.
“We’ve always been friends,” Engel said. “Even though I live in Miami and she’s in New York, I still always felt like Lauren was a person I could reach out to at any moment and chat with. I wasn’t surprised that she understood what I was trying to do with Infinite Country, because she has this way of just digging into my brain, understanding what my own goals are, and helping me articulate them even better.”
Wein said that working with Engel on Vida was “a pivotal thing” for her as an editor. “It takes a while for an editor to find their footing and find their confidence,” she said, noting that the feedback she got from Engel in particular “was very instructive to me.”
A decade later, working on a new book by the same author for a new imprint, it became clear that the mutual education that came from the creative collaboration between author and editor had stuck. Reading the Infinite Country manuscript for the first time, Wein found herself recognizing “a maturation process that happened that blew my mind. It restores your faith in the fact that there’s an organic movement of things, that people really do learn and grow. And that you can do that together with someone.”
Toward the end of the publication process, another powerful connection showed itself. This time, it was between author, book, and publicist.
“The first time we all Zoomed together to talk about the book, no more than, like, two seconds into it, I just started sobbing,” said Alexandra Primiani, publicity manager at Avid Reader. “I couldn’t get through thanking Patricia for what this book was because I was crying so much. I saw my parents in Mauro, in Elena,” the parents at the center of the novel’s separated protagonist family, Primiani explained—and not just because her father’s name is also Mauro.
“My family comes from Venezuela, and they came to this country in a very similar way,” Primiani said. “Reading Infinite Country and seeing my own family in it—and not just the family, but the internal conversations, the back-and-forth that I’ve seen in my family when they talk about immigration—hit me in a way that no other book has. That was my first introduction to Patricia: crying, turning red.”
It was a moving moment for Engel, too, and one that reassured her once more that her book was in good hands at Avid Reader. “I could not ask for more than Alex, somebody who felt personally touched and moved by the book, and who felt connected to it—and who, in turn, feels so connected to me,” she said. “I feel like we’ve become good friends, and this has just made the process so much more wonderful and meaningful. It’s very special. I don’t think that there’s any other way to put it.”
Engel believes that her novel will resonate not just with those who share the experiences of immigration and separation her characters endure, or whose families share them, but with all who have lived through a time of quarantine, finding themselves in forced isolation from those they love.
“I put all my heart, my soul, and my blood and my bones into this book, into the writing process,” she said. “It is an expression of everything that has been meaningful to me in my life, my communities, the concerns of some people that I love most. And I think it also speaks to where we’re at now, especially in this time of Covid-19, where families are separated indefinitely because of quarantine and pandemic. They may be starting to get a small sense of what it’s like to be separated by borders, and immigration laws, and paperwork that keeps you from being able to be reunited with the people that you love most.”
Engel added: “We’re in year two of this. Imagine being at this for 10, or 15, as is the case of the family in Infinite Country.”