The Beautiful Things That Heaven BearsDinaw Mengestu, 28(Riverhead, Feb.)Born: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; now lives in New York CityFavorite Authors: V.S. Naipaul, Edward P. Jones, Joan Didion, Saul BellowCareer Arc: Teacher at after-school program in Harlem; ESL teacher at CUNY; freelance writer/journalistPlot: Some 17 years after fleeing Ethiopia and the revolution that killed his father, Sepha Stephanos is running a grocery store in Washington, D.C. Just when his loneliness seems at an end, a series of racial incidents puts everything at risk.Author's toughest challenge: "The book draws on experiences within my own family, so knowing how to treat those correctly—being honest and not sentimentalizing them—was a challenge. Also, using parts of narratives from people I'm close to and fictionalizing them was tricky because of my sense of them."Publisher's pitch: Says editor Megan Lynch, "In spare, emotionally potent prose, Dinaw's novel is at once a love story, an immigration story and a look at race and class in the U.S. through immigrant eyes. It's a book that is impossible to forget."Opening lines: "At 8:00 Joseph and Kenneth come into the store. They come almost every Tuesday. It's become a routine between the three of us without our ever having acknowledged it as such. Sometimes only one of them comes. Sometimes neither of them. No questions are asked because nothing is expected."—Liz Hartman
Natalie Danford, 39
(St. Martin's, Jan.)Born: New Haven, Conn.; now lives in New York City and Italy
Favorite authors : Sue Miller, Jane Smiley, Francine Prose
Career arc: From "mother tongue assistant" for English teachers in an Italian high school to freelance writer (and PW contributing editor); co-editor of the Best New American Voicesseries; novelist
Plot: After his death, Luigi's daughter, Olivia, discovers a deed in his name to a house in Italy. Intrigued, she visits his hometown for the first time and discovers why her father was forced to leave his family and country.
Author's toughest challenge: "Structure! I dithered for over a year before choosing to switch between Olivia's point of view and Luigi's: her story is more linear, while his travels backward to childhood in big leaps. Once I'd gotten over that hurdle, the rest went smoothly."
Publisher's pitch: "It has elements of mystery, historical fiction and the story of a woman finding out who her parents were," says Dori Weintraub, deputy publicity director. "It's astounding how wonderfully Natalie's able to capture the point of view of this elderly Italian-American man."
Opening lines: "In the camera store, Luigi was being choosy. He smoothed the lapels of his jacket with both hands. He was thirty-seven, and the hair on his scalp was sparse. Already the same teardrop-shaped pattern that had balanced on his father's head was emerging, a tracing of the future."—Michelle Wildgen
Like Trees, Walking
Ravi Howard, 32
Born: Montgomery, Ala., now lives in Mobile, Ala.
Favorite authors: Ernest J. Gaines, Albert Murray
Career arc: Advertising to temp work to travel magazine editorial assistant to MFA to producer of NFL films to novelist
Plot: The book explores the death of Michael Donald in Mobile, Ala.—the last lynching in America, which took place as late as 1981—and its ramifications on a family that has run a funeral business for generations.
Author's toughest challenge: "Handling the mix of fact and fiction, trying to remain authentic and create a plausible reality around an actual event. I had to stay true to Michael Donald's story and to the goals of a fiction writer: to illuminate history through fiction."
Publisher's pitch: "Ravi Howard is clear, articulate and brings the streets of Mobile to life," says executive editor Claire Wachtel. "He shows how an ordinary family deals with extraordinary circumstances. His is a new voice that harkens back to the days of such writers as Richard Wright, and transcends African-American literature."
Opening lines: "Paul had always been a creature of the night. We both were. As children, our nocturnal habits were permissible only during Jubilees. We looked forward to staying up past midnight, and as the morning hours grew in number we watched the dim light collect itself at the edges of the sky."—Hilary S. Kayle
Lost City Radio
Daniel Alarcon, 29
Born: Lima, Peru; lives in Oakland, Calif.
Favorite authors: "Right now my favorites are Ryszard Kapuschinski, Juan Rulfo, Borges, Bruno Schultz, Faulkner."
Career arc: From MFA (Iowa Writers' Workshop) to "rejected short story writer" to Fulbright Scholar in Peru to Distinguished Visiting Writer at Mills College in Oakland
Plot: In a nameless South American country, a war rages between the government and a guerilla faction from the jungles. Norma, host of the program LostCity Radio, sees her life changed when she discovers a connection to her husband, who disappeared while fighting the war.
Author's toughest challenge : "It was unadulterated pleasure—a joy, a discovery and a revelation. The challenge was in trusting the story, in believing in your intuition—that something you put in on page 20 would be vital on page 300."
Publisher's pitch: Says editor Alison Callahan, "In astoundingly mature writing, Daniel creates a complex dystopia trying to survive a war with no right and wrong—an atmosphere all too familiar at this moment in our history. This is a novel about the vagaries of love and truth, whose mesmerizing prose can be compared to J.M. Coetzee and Graham Greene."
Opening Lines: "They took Norma off the air that Tuesday morning because a boy was dropped off at the station. He was quiet and thin and had a note. The receptionists let him through. A meeting was called." —Suzanne Mantell
Season of Betrayal
Margaret Lowrie Robertson, 51
(Tatra Press, Oct.)
Born: Washington, D.C.; now lives in London
Favorite authors: Alan Paton, Graham Greene, Naguib Mahfouz, Austen, Trollope
Career arc: "Copy boy" at the New York Times; NPR correspondent; reporter-producer, CBS News; international correspondent, CNN—among the first female correspondents to report from behind enemy lines during the first Gulf war
Plot: Against the chaotic canvas of 1983 Beirut, Lara McCauley tries unsuccessfully to hold her marriage together. Seeking out the friendship of a Polish journalist, she sets into motion a chain of events with unforeseen, fatal consequences.
Author's toughest challenge: "Disciplining myself to write—I've always worked on tight deadlines. Writing my novel, there was no one telling me what to do and when to do it. Having written all my adult life for TV, print or radio, I assumed it would be an extension of that, and it isn't."
Publisher's pitch: Says publisher Christopher Sulavik, "Robertson's a natural, elegant writer who uses a rich mosaic of details to create a palpable sense of place. Her novel succeeds on two fronts: it digs to the roots of the Middle East strife and, maybe more important, casts light on the wreckage of inner lives trapped in that strife."
Opening lines: "Thomas' death is so inextricably linked with my own story that I never could have imagined forgetting a single freeze-frame moment of that awful day, when we watched him die, over and over again, in painful slow motion." —L. H.
Gillian Flynn, 35
(Shaye Areheart Books, Sept.)
Born: Kansas City, Mo.; now lives in Chicago
Favorite authors: "It's a long list, including Dennis Lehane, Joy Williams, James Ellroy, Kate Atkinson, Joyce Carol Oates, P.G. Wodehouse and Martin Amis."
Career arc: From M.A.in journalism (Northwestern Univ.) to "the journalism equivalent of odd jobs" to chief TV critic at Entertainment Weekly to novelist
Plot: Reporter Camille Preaker is assigned to her hometown to cover the murders of two preteen girls. Trying to uncover the truth about these violent crimes, Camille is forced to unravel the psychological puzzle of her own past to get at the story.
Author's toughest challenge: "Coming home from hours writing about all things pop culture, and then writing some more. (Please note that Sharp Objects is notably short on pop-culture references.)"
Publisher's pitch: "If Donna Tartt were to write a thriller, this would be it," says editor Sally Kim. "It's the most unique thing that has ever hit my desk. It's new and fresh and dark and creepy and compelling. The character is someone you don't know if you should trust, but you root for her from the first page."
Opening Lines: "My sweater was new, stinging red and ugly. It was May 12 but the temperature had dipped to the forties, and after four days shivering in my shirtsleeves, I grabbed cover at a tag sale rather than dig through my boxed-up winter clothes. Spring in Chicago."—S.M.
Special Topics in Calamity Physics
Marisha Pessl, 28
(Viking, Aug.—already in bookstores and garnering stellar reviews: "The most flashily erudite first novel since Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything Is Illuminated," said Janet Maslin in the Times.)
Born: Detroit; lives in New York City
Favorite authors: "Dickens, Austen, Dostoyevsky, Nabokov, Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides and Michael Chabon."
Career arc: From off-off Broadway actress to financial consultant to novelist
Plot: College freshman Blue van Meer chronicles her senior year in high school, when her father and she settle in North Carolina. What starts out as a coming-of-age tale turns into a thriller—structured like the syllabus for a "Great Books" course.
Author's toughest challenge: "Many writers say they hate writing, but like having written. I'm sort of the opposite. I enjoy the mental challenge of figuring out how to herd my characters from point A to B."
Publisher's pitch: "Marisha's writing is at once bold, brave, spontaneous and incisive. I knew this was a talent that was going to break out," says editor-at-large Carole DeSanti.
Opening lines: "Before I tell you about Hannah Schneider's death, I'll tell you about my mother's. At 3:10 p.m. on September 17, 1992, two days before she was to pick up the new blue Volvo station wagon…, my mother, Natasha Alicia Bridges van Meer, driving her white Plymouth Horizon… crashed through a guardrail along Mississippi State Highway 7 and hit a wall of trees. She was killed instantly." —Judith Rosen
The Thirteenth Tale
Diane Setterfield, 41
Born: Berkshire, U.K.; now lives in Harrogate, Yorkshire, U.K.
Favorite author: Carson McCullers
Career arc : English teacher in France; French professor; private French teacher for those preparing to move to France; novelist
Plot: When enigmatic author Vida Winter—famous for a collection of stories from which one, the 13th, is missing—hires young bookseller and biographer Margaret Lea to write about her, events go curiously awry.
Author's toughest challenge: "Uncertainty. I gave up a career that had brought me financial security and the sense that my life was useful to others. There were no guarantees that my writing would be any good, that I would be able to finish the novel satisfactorily, or that anyone would want to read it."
Publisher's pitch: Executive editorial director Emily Bestler says, "Do you remember the first book you fell in love with? Diane's novel offers the reading experience every book lover fantasizes about—a story that reminds us of why we are obsessed with books in the first place."
Opening lines: "It was November. Although it was not yet late, the sky was dark when I turned into Laundress Passage. Father had finished for the day, switched off the shop lights and closed the shutters; but so I would not come home to darkness he had left on the light over the stairs to the flat."
The Weight of Smoke
George Robert Minkoff, 63
(McPherson & Co., Dec.)
Born: Brooklyn, N.Y.; now lives in Allford, Mass.
Favorite authors: Conrad, Shakespeare, Melville, Dylan Thomas
Career arc: Rare-book dealer, joke-teller to his secretary, absurdist playwright, novelist
Plot: The first of an historical trilogy comprises the secret diaries of Captain John Smith and recounts the perilous first years at Jamestown. Three characters predominate: Smith; Francis Drake, whose heroic persona hovers in absentia; and alchemist Jonas Profit.
Author's toughest challenge: "Getting it published! My original idea was to write an absurdist play about the Jamestown colony. As I started research, I realized it wasn't a comedy. That's when I decided to do something different, but how would I handle the language? I felt it would be more immediate to write in a style a little out of the modern mold."
Publisher's pitch: "This trilogy isn't just historical fiction, it's visionary. Smith and Drake would be captivating enough, but adding the alchemist is brilliant fiction and psychologically true. This is elemental stuff, not costume drama," says publisher Bruce McPherson. Opening lines: "We were alone. The Chesapeake Bay held us in its cup. Under the moon the water ran milk white. I touched its wetness, mesmerized by the surface. It shattered into darkness, the pellets of light now reforming the confused image of my hand."—Liz Hartman