We look at Sara Novic’s novel about a woman who grew up during the Yugoslav wars, Matt Sumell’s collection of linked stories about a man dealing with his mother’s death, a collection from Austin Bunn that takes readers over the edge, and more.
Sara Novic, Girl at War (Random House, May)
Novic entered Columbia’s M.F.A. program with a large portion of the manuscript that would become her first novel, Girl at War, already completed. For her, the novel’s structure was the biggest challenge. Her “aha moment” came during a meeting with Sam Lipsyte. “I explained all the chunks of the novel, and Sam drew everything out on the back of a manila envelope,” she says. “After that, the manuscript really came together.” The story moves back and forth between 1991 and 2001, following Ana Juric from her experiences as a child in Croatia during the Yugoslav wars, through her life as a college student in Manhattan, haunted by what she witnessed as a child. The envelope with Sam’s drawing still hangs over Novic’s desk, a reminder to stay the course when she’s struggling with a piece.
Matt Sumell, Making Nice (Holt, Feb.)
Alby, the narrator of Sumell’s debut, Making Nice, a linked collection of stories, is a screwup. Struggling to make sense of the world in the aftermath of his mother’s death from cancer, Alby mostly pisses off people—in one story he fights with his sister; in another, he pushes his father off a boat. Sumell, who attended UC-Irvine’s M.F.A. program and has created, in Alby, one of the most memorable characters of the year, puts no stock in the argument that M.F.A.s homogenize writers. “The governing principle at UCI was some version of zeroing in on what’s working best in a given story, and then encouraging the writer to do more of that; to hold a story to the standard of the best thing in it,” says Sumell. “They championed the unique, the exciting, and the alive.” Sumell’s collection, told by the riveting, hilarious, and sometimes cringe-inducing Alby, is an example of just that.
Austin Bunn, The Brink (Harper, Apr.)
Bunn considers his peers at University of Iowa the most valuable part of his M.F.A. experience. “They brought their private canons, senses of humor, insane ideas for stories, and wild ambitions to the table,” he says. “They taught me invaluable lessons about what to read, how to read it, and, in our disagreements, what mattered to me.” They also humbled him—and that, he says, was essential. Three of the stories in The Brink were born in Iowa’s workshops; it’s a collection that explores what happens at “the end” and what lies beyond it. Bunn engages numerous settings and styles in this debut (one story is set on the deck of a conquistador’s galleon adrift in the ocean, while another follows players in an immersive video game), and has drawn comparisons to Wells Tower and Kevin Wilson.
James Hannaham, Delicious Foods (Little, Brown, Mar.)
Hannaham attended the Michener Center at the University of Texas, Austin, which, thanks to its competitive full-funding package (each admitted student receives $27,500 annually, plus tuition remission) and interdisciplinary focus, is one of the most coveted programs. Delicious Foods has a bold premise, following a young mother and her son, though it’s narrated by the mischievous, irreverent voice of Scotty, a personification of crack cocaine. Hannaham creates a fully realized character out of the drug that threatens to destroy his protagonists, challenging traditional concepts of what a novel can be.
Meghan Daum, The Unspeakable (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Nov. 2014)
This collection of 10 new essays was published last November, nearly 15 years after the release of Daum’s debut essay collection, My Misspent Youth. Daum attended Columbia’s M.F.A. , despite the financial burden. The resulting debt drove her to become a ravenously hungry freelancer, and that work helped her hone her writerly chops. She developed a “kind of scrappy will-write-for-food attitude.” The Unspeakable received glowing blurbs from Cheryl Strayed, Roxane Gay, Sloane Crosley, and others. Each essay is written in Daum’s distinctive no-holds barred style, and features thoughtful discourses on the marriage-industrial complex, casseroles, and near-death experiences, among other subjects.
Megan Kimble, Unprocessed (Morrow, June)
The idea to write her forthcoming chronicle of a year eating only whole, unprocessed foods came from Kimble’s thesis adviser in the M.F.A. program at the University of Arizona. “He was the one who said, yes, write a book about that.” In the tradition of Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food, Unprocessed follows Kimble as she investigates what processed food really is, extracts salt from the sea, mills her own wheat, slaughters a sheep, and more. She calls enrolling in Arizona’s M.F.A. (which counts David Foster Wallace as an alum) the “best decision I ever made.”
Saeed Jones, Prelude to Bruise (Coffee House, Sept. 2014)
Jones had a meteoric rise to literary prominence in the past year. A graduate of the M.F.A. program at Rutgers Newark, Jones joined the staff of BuzzFeed as its LGBT news editor, and also published this second volume of poetry. A new-media wiz as well as a powerful poet, Jones had little trouble generating buzz for his own work, while also creating new online forums for LGBT writing. The poems of this book are harrowing and heartbreaking, treating family, sexuality, and race with unrelenting intensity.