While the world lurches toward an uncertain future, the authors of this season’s top fiction debuts have their eyes on the past. These novels and story collections, which include a historical saga set in 1930s New York and a narrative about the fallout of the Vietnam War in Australia, examine the many ways in which the events of yesterday haunt—sometimes literally—the present.
Love under pressure in Nigeria
When society forces a married couple to have children, and no child materializes, who’s to blame? Can those spouses fault each other? These are questions posed by Ayobami Adebayo’s debut novel, Stay With Me (Knopf, Aug.), which, through the story of a young Nigerian couple, touches not only on fertility-related pressures but on other issues, including polygamy and sickle-cell disease.
Adebayo, 29, lives in Ife, a city about three hours northeast of Lagos, where she was born. Growing up, she says, she was constantly aware of the immense expectations around fertility. “If a couple had trouble having children, most of the time—99 times out of a hundred—the woman will be the one to face pressure,” she says. “She will be the one, sometimes, who has to leave the marriage, because the husband’s relatives feel she hasn’t fulfilled her side of the contract.” Adebayo wondered if it was even possible for a couple in this situation to be happy. “Even if your relationship is okay, how do you manage all these expectations from people who claim to love you and want the best for you?”
Jennifer Jackson, Adebayo’s editor at Knopf, says Adebayo succeeds at eliciting sympathy for characters who are forced to act in unsavory ways. The book’s characters, she says, “are lying to each other to save their marriage. They’re betraying each other to try to stay together. The fault lies in the pressures being put on their relationship, even more than it does in either character.”
Clare Alexander, Adebayo’s agent in the U.K.—the author is represented by Kathy Robbins in the U.S.—adds that the book is both “very particular to its Nigerian setting” and a story anyone can relate to. “It will break your heart,” she says.
A deceptively slim book, toying with fictionality, trots the globe
An author stumbles upon a manuscript. Accompanying the manuscript are notes made by an audio analyst. The analyst claims to have been commissioned by a man from Buenos Aires to transcribe recordings. The recordings turn out to be notes made by a journalist who ventured to various locales in search of a mythic city. The plot of N.J. Campbell’s debut novel, Found Audio (Two Dollar Radio, July), could reasonably fill 500 pages. Yet the book spans fewer than 200.
Campbell, who is 31 and lives in Fairfield, Iowa, says he made a conscious decision to keep the page count low. “In order to keep the attention of a reader, I needed to be very concise,” he says. Brevity is also a trademark of several of the writers Campbell looks up to: Borges, Calvino, Hesse. “All of Borges’s stories are very short, and they work very well,” he says.
Campbell, who works as a packaging clerk at Maharishi University of Management, where he also studied, wrote the bulk of Found Audio in about four months (though the idea had been with him for years) and sent it to several publishers, unagented, in mid-2015. “I didn’t think I had any chance,” he says.
Eric Obenauf, the cofounder of the Columbus-based Two Dollar Radio, who called Campbell a year later to express interest, says the book brings to mind other multilayered texts such as Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, as well as an even less traditional narrative: “It came on the heels, when I ended up reading it, of my being obsessed with _9MOTHER9HORSE9EYES9,” Obenauf says, referring to a Reddit user who, in 2016, attained minor fame on that website by posting what appeared to be fragments of a single, disturbing narrative in comments spread across various discussion threads. The novel, Obenauf says, plays to his “taste for the metafictional mystery.”
Obenauf also liked that the book took him to places he wasn’t familiar with. “There’s a gazillion writers writing about being a writer in Brooklyn,” he says. “Not that many manuscripts feature adventurer-journalists going to the city of Kowloon or the Louisiana bayou in search of a story. That set it apart.”
A case of skullduggery and domestic strife in Brooklyn
Among the themes addressed by Emily Culliton’s debut novel, The Misfortune of Marion Palm (Knopf, Aug.), is that of class. But for Culliton, who grew up in Park Slope, Brooklyn, class isn’t so much a theme to take or leave as a lens through which to see the world. “It’s always a front-of-mind concern for me, especially in Brooklyn,” Culliton, 33, says. “It’s something that I don’t often get away from.”
The title character of The Misfortune of Marion Palm is a woman from Sheepshead Bay, a lusterless part of Brooklyn, who lives with her trust-fund-equipped poet husband and their two daughters in Brooklyn Heights, a neighborhood in which luster abounds. Marion is living the American dream, or at least a Brooklyn version of it, but dissatisfaction encroaches: she’s been embezzling money from her daughters’ private school, and her husband’s fidelity has come into question. And so, Marion decides to run away from home.
For Jennifer Jackson, Culliton’s editor, this plot point—Marion’s decampment—is part of what makes the novel subversive. “A mom abandoning her kids? It’s one of our last, great, big taboos,” she says. “Emily takes it on by making her main character do the unforgivable in the first chapter.”
Culliton, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in creative writing at the University of Denver (she received an M.F.A. from UMass Amherst), says she didn’t want to skirt or soften Marion’s less appealing qualities. “At the end of the day, she’s left her children. Marion knows this about herself. She wants to be honest about who she is.”
Claudia Ballard, Culliton’s agent, says the book’s unstinting appraisal of Marion is, ultimately, a sign of Culliton’s affection for her. “I think Emily loves Marion deeply, and, when you read the book, I think you do, too. Even though she’s behaving badly, it’s relatable in some ways. That’s an achievement, and something only a voice like Emily’s could pull off.”
An immigrant saga with western trappings
One day, about a year ago, Chris Fischbach, the publisher of the Minneapolis-based Coffee House Press, posted a status on his personal Facebook page asking if anyone could recommend some good western fiction, a genre he reads regularly. He was posting as a lay reader, not as an editor, but an acquaintance, the translator Heather Cleary, sent him a business-rather-than-pleasure message anyway. A friend of hers, Hernán Diaz, had recently completed a manuscript, a kind of western, that she thought Fischbach might take interest in. “I dug in right away and loved it,” Fischbach says.
Diaz’s novel, In the Distance (Coffee House, Oct.), is far from a typical western, which is part of why the book appealed to Fischbach. “I’ve always been interested in westerns that have worked to subvert certain American paradigms, or masculine paradigms,” he says.
The novel is the set in the 19th century and concerns a young Swedish immigrant to California, Håkan Söderström, who travels eastward across the United States in the hope of finding his brother. His journey, a kind of Manifest Destiny in reverse, leads him to encounter a range of characters—to quote the publisher, “naturalists, criminals, religious fanatics, swindlers, Indians, and lawmen”—who call to mind myriad American myths and stereotypes.
Diaz is 43 and lives in New York, where he is the associate director of the Hispanic Institute at Columbia University and the managing editor of the scholarly journal Revista Hispánica Moderna. He says he began to think about writing In the Distance while reading “desert” books (works set in “desolate expanses”—not only deserts but also steppes, plains, the Pampas) and asking himself questions about the relationship between foreignness and physical isolation. “Does nationality matter if one is stranded in a void?” he wondered. “I’ve been a foreigner all my life,” he says. “I was born in Argentina, left for Sweden when I was two, went back to Argentina briefly, then moved to London, and now I’ve been in New York for the last 20 years. So it’s something I care a lot about.”
Diaz may have staked out his desert landscape in the American West, but he isn’t particularly interested in the western per se. “There are no gunslingers or saloon brawls or stagecoaches being chased in the book,” he says. For him, the desertlike atmosphere of the West carries its own truth about life in America. “The vaster the desert, the more claustrophobic the confinement,” he says.
Carmen Maria Machado
Marshaling genre to explore female sexuality
The path to publication for Carmen Maria Machado, the author of Her Body and Other Parties (Graywolf, Oct.), is emblematic of both the literary and genre elements her work straddles. In 2010, Machado, who is originally from Allentown, Pa., attended the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, an M.F.A. program with a reputation for producing writers who write so-called literary fiction. Immediately after she’d finished her coursework there, she attended Clarion, a six-week intensive writing workshop devoted to science fiction and fantasy in San Diego, Calif. Perhaps appropriately, her stories (which have earned her a Nebula Award nomination and a longlist honor for the Hugo award) blend concerns often addressed by realist fiction—namely, female disempowerment and sexuality—with not-so-humdrum plot points: a plague, a grotesque surgery, telepathy.
Ethan Nosowsky, the editorial director of Graywolf and Machado’s editor, says that a lot of work by genre-bending authors “draws on a youthful interest in genre fiction and then grafts it onto literary fiction.” Not so with Machado: “Her stories satisfy both audiences,” he says. Machado’s agent, Kent Wolf, adds that Machado’s focus on women’s sexuality makes her fiction timely: “In this age of presidential candidates saying they’re going to grab women by their private parts, Machado is giving agency to the female experience, told through genre.”
Machado, who is 30 and lives in Philadelphia, says she found her voice in part by reading writers, such as Kelly Link and Karen Russell, who make use of genre elements in their fiction. “I didn’t know you could do that: it was that feeling over and over again,” Machado says. “There were these new avenues that I’d never known existed, and I found myself gleefully galloping down all of them.”
Correction: This section of this article was modified to reflect the fact that Machado was on the longlist for the Hugo award, though she was not a finalist.
A historical novel revives the spirits of New York’s past
When you dig into the past, you’re liable to bring up ghosts. Brendan Mathews learned that lesson while working on his historical debut novel, The World of Tomorrow (Little, Brown, Sept.). In winter 2016, as he was finishing the manuscript, Mathews, 48, accepted an offer to write in a room at the Mount, the Edith Wharton estate in Lenox, Mass. One day, while writing, he says, “I felt a tap on my shoulder, and then a finger tracing all the way across my back to the other shoulder.” He spun around; nobody was there.
“I don’t know if it was Henry James telling me to get lost, or if it was Edith Wharton telling me I belonged in servants’ quarters,” Mathews says. But he decided to take it as a sign of encouragement. The experience, he says, helped him to attain “a comfort with the inexplicable.”
The World of Tomorrow does contain an element of supernatural—one of its characters befriends the ghost of Yeats—but, in general, its ghosts tend to be the more metaphorical ghosts of history. Set largely in the 1930s and centering on three Irish brothers who have migrated to the U.S., the novel touches on the 1939 World’s Fair, the New York jazz scene, the Nazi occupation of Prague, and the dealings of the IRA.
Mathews says he drew inspiration for his novel from his own family. “I started with a character who was very much like my grandfather, an Irish immigrant who came to the U.S. in 1929 to be a big band arranger,” he says.
Mathews’s interest in his grandfather’s experience in the U.S. grew into a larger mediation on migration. “I thought a lot about the question of history pursuing you, and what you can leave behind,” he says. “I wanted the book to be full of immigrants and migrants and émigrés and refugees. I wanted to think about the promises that New York makes, that America makes, the promises that it keeps, and the ones that it doesn’t.”
In an Australian writer’s debut novel, wartime traumas resurface
Narratives about the U.S.’s involvement in Vietnam are legion. What are less common—at least for readers here in the States—are stories about Australia’s role in the conflict. The traumas of that war underlie the Australian writer Josephine Rowe’s debut novel, A Loving, Faithful Animal (Catapult, Sept.), which centers on an Australian family whose patriarch, a Vietnam War veteran, has gone missing.
Rowe, 32, was born in Melbourne and currently lives in Tasmania. In 2011, she attended the International Writing Program at Iowa, a three-month residency for international writers, and, from 2014 to 2016, was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. She’s also the author of two previous story collections published in Australia, How a Moth Becomes a Boat (2010) and Tarcutta Wake (2012).
Rowe, whose father served in Vietnam, says she was drawn to write about the fallout of the war in part because of the “national shame and national silence” around the conflict in Australia. “I had not heard a lot of other voices from the children of veterans of that particular war,” she says. “I would have been really grateful for them. Growing up with somebody who was quite badly damaged by that conflict was quite alienating.”
For Jonathan Lee of Catapult, Rowe’s attentiveness to past traumas is borne out by her readiness to freely “move into different family members’ minds.” He adds, “She’s willing to bend the form of her writing, to capture the rhythms and passions and obsessions of each character’s thoughts.” Claudia Ballard, Rowe’s agent, agrees, adding that the book “moves back and forth in time really fluidly and surprisingly, and yet everything works in conversation.”
For Rowe, this meandering, intuitive approach to time makes simple human sense. “We never meet in any sort of chronological conversation,” she says. “You get people piecemeal, from their own stories, anecdotally. It just seems quite natural to me not to run along with this idea that a story should be told in one direction.”
An Australian novelist takes on Lizzie Borden’s 40 whacks
The moment of inspiration for Australian author Sarah Schmidt’s debut novel, See What I Have Done (Atlantic Monthly, Aug.), about Lizzie Borden, sounds like a scene from a ghost story. In the mid-2000s, while perusing a secondhand bookstore in Melbourne, Schmidt happened across a pamphlet about the Borden case—it fell to the floor as she was pulling down a book. “I wasn’t interested in the case or the trial at all,” Schmidt, 37, says. “So I put it back on the shelf and walked out. That night was when I started dreaming about Lizzie Borden sitting at the end of my bed.”
These dreams continued, and eventually Schmidt, who had been working on other creative-writing projects, decided to write a novel about the murders. “Borden’s voice was so loud in my ear,” Schmidt says. “I had no choice but to keep going.”
Schmidt’s version of the Borden story, which took her 11 years to write, focuses less on the crime and more on the dynamics between the members of the Borden family—a strategy that, for Dan Lazar, Schmidt’s agent, increases rather than decreases the creep factor. “What’s in the book is so chilling and so well-done,” he says. “But what [Schmidt] intentionally leaves out is, to me, even scarier.”
“It becomes less about the sensational aspects of the crime, and more about ‘Who are these people? How the hell did this happen?’ ” adds Corinna Barsan, Schmidt’s editor
It’s a question that haunted Schmidt throughout the writing of See What I Have Done, driving her deeper into the Borden case. After four years of working on the book, Schmidt traveled to Fall River, Mass., to stay in the original Borden house, which is now a bed-and-breakfast. “It’s like stepping into history,” she says of the house, which has been modeled on photographs from the crime scene. Schmidt even stayed in Borden’s old bedroom. “I didn’t get much sleep,” she says.
Margaret Wilkerson Sexton
A sobering view of the post–Jim Crow era
Writers are often told not to quit their day jobs, but what happens when your day job quits you? In 2011, Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, the author of A Kind of Freedom (Counterpoint, Aug.), was working as a corporate lawyer in the Palo Alto offices of Dewey & LeBoeuf when the firm went bankrupt. The firm gave some of its employees, including Sexton, the option to take a partially paid year-long leave of absence. Sexton, who is 34 and lives in the Bay Area, decided to use that year to pursue a long-harbored ambition: she wanted to write a novel.
The novel Sexton wrote is not A Kind of Freedom. Her first, unpublished work concerns a young African-American woman who goes to the Dominican Republic for humanitarian purposes. Sexton’s initial attempt taught her an important lesson about fiction writing: “There wasn’t a question that the reader needed to have answered, or a longing that needed to be fulfilled,” she says.
The question that drives A Kind of Freedom, which follows three generations of an African-American family through 70 years of New Orleans history, is alluded to by the title. “I like to go into books with a thesis,” says Sexton, who grew up in New Orleans. “The thesis here, to me, was, even though Jim Crow is long gone, black America is still being hit with all sorts of obstacles, including the war on drugs and mass incarceration. Because of that, it’s hard to say if we’re in a better place than we were in the ’40s.”
Jack Shoemaker, the editorial director of Counterpoint and Sexton’s editor, says A Kind of Freedom asks questions about the fate of the African-American community after the end of slavery. “Why did these families seem to make progress and then retreat, thrive and then fall back?” he says. “There is a liberal-progressive attitude that progress is a straight line forward, and I don’t think that’s true, and I don’t think it’s true especially for blacks in the United States. That’s part of what Margaret is writing about here.”
With stories of survival and dislocation, a writer returns to form
In certain circles, Jenny Zhang, the author of the story collection Sour Heart (Lenny, Aug.), is already well-known for her poetry—she previously published the poetry collection Jenny, We Are All Find (Octopus, 2012)—and for her essays in the magazine Rookie and other outlets. But with Sour Heart, Zhang is claiming publicly a role she’s always privately occupied: that of fiction writer.
Zhang, who was born in Shanghai and grew up in New York and on Long Island, attended the Iowa Writer’s Workshop from 2007 to 2010, when she was in her 20s. While in the program and afterward, she felt somewhat directionless. “I was not quite experimental enough to be in this camp, and I was not quite interested in realism enough to be in that camp, and I didn’t quite fit in with expectations for immigrant literature or literature about women,” Zhang, 33, says. Feeling “burnt out,” she began publishing poetry and essays and kept what fiction she wrote to herself.
“Having a private life with my fiction—and by that I mean not actively trying to publish it, returning to the life I had when I was just a freshman in college and very naively excited about being a writer—was what helped me get back into it,” she says.
The stories in Sour Heart center on Chinese immigrants and their descendants, and are set in New York City, Long Island, and Shanghai. Samantha Shea, Zhang’s agent, says Zhang examines “the very specific tension that exists between modern young Chinese-American women and their elders, many of whom led lives shaped and haunted by Mao’s Cultural Revolution.”
The book is the inaugural title of Girls creator Lena Dunham’s new Penguin Random House imprint, Lenny. Andy Ward, Zhang’s editor there, says Zhang’s “hilarious, ferociously observational, kind of filthy, deeply human perspective” makes the collection feel fresh.
Daniel Lefferts is a writer living in New York.