In her debut book, Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation (Random House, Mar. 2022), Maud Newton weaves an interest in her family’s history into a memoir that embraces genealogy, history, anthropology, spirituality, science, and all the arguments and information surrounding the questions of who we are, who our ancestors were, and how we face the past.
Sold in May 2014 with a proposal based on her Harper’s magazine cover story, “America’s Ancestry Craze,” the book, Newton says, was “a multi-decade process.” And it’s a marvel: absorbing, addictive, informative.
It all started with stories. The ones Newton had heard from her mother’s side of the family were compelling: a grandfather who married 13 times, a great-grandfather who had been a Communist in early 20th-century Dallas, another great-grandfather who killed a man with a hay hook and died in a mental institution.
Also, Newton writes, “the stories were presented as entertainment rather than tragedy.... My mom’s comic timing and flair for ironic foreshadowing tempered Granny’s dry wit, her succinct and deadly condemnations.”
So Newton started researching her mother’s family in 2000, on her lunch hours at a job she had when she was 29. Her curiosity was rewarded.
Born in Dallas and raised in Miami, Newton had believed both sides of her family had roots in the South, until “my great-grandmother came up as a witch in Puritan New England,” which, Newton tells me, fit in with her mother’s religious fervor. “My mother is incredibly charismatic, eccentric, a wonderful storyteller. She founded an evangelical church in our living room and performed exorcisms. She was given to excess.” As examples, Newton points to her mother’s 30 cats and, at one point, hundreds of birds.
Of her father, Newton writes, “I have loved my father and I have feared him.... He was, by many metrics, an intelligent man.... But he considered slavery a benevolent institution that should never have been disbanded.”
Newton got interested in researching her father’s family later, determined, she writes, “to root out every secret, lie, and hypocrisy.”
When Newton started her blog, Weekend Ancestry, in 2007, her grandparents had all either died or were ill. “I became aware that this generation was disappearing,” she tells me, “and this, combined with family estrangement [she has not seen her father since she started writing the blog], propelled my research. I wondered, where did the dysfunction start? And I was also looking for positives to carry forward. Writing about my mom’s family, the stories were moving. But in researching my father’s line, I discovered that many of them had enslaved people and were involved in the genocide and swindling of Native people. It was surprising, and I was hoping this was overstated, but it was the opposite. It’s remote, but still disturbing and provocative.”
Newton has a law degree and worked for two years as a lawyer (she now writes and edits tax law), but she was always writing—articles, essays, fiction, criticism—and was on the literary world’s radar long before the Harper’s magazine cover story triggered a book offer from Random House’s Andrea Walker.
Walker had been following Newton’s writing and her blog since she was at the book section of the New Yorker, where she remembers reading a short story of Newton’s and sending her a fan letter. “A number of editors were sending Maud fan letters,” Walker recalls. “But we kept loosely in touch. Then my first year at Random House, Maud’s Harper’s article appeared. We all loved the article.”
Walker says she came to Random House with a list of writers she was keeping her eye on, and Newton was on that list. Ancestor Trouble was one of her first deals there.
Julie Barer, Newton’s agent at the Book Group, had also been following her. “I was very aware of her work and was always a fan,” Barer says. “She writes on so many things—religion, art, genealogy—and in so many forms. She uses her talent to cover the waterfront.”
Barer also had Walker’s “list.” Walker had told Barer that as soon as Newton had something, she wanted to see it.
Barer felt the same way. She had signed Newton officially in 2011. “She’s the kind of writer I knew that whatever she did, I would be interested,” she explains.
When the Harper’s article came out, there was so much interest that Barer proposed to Newton that she expand it into a book. Newton said she “would only do it if it could be sprawling, move back and forth with a sense of the spiritual.”
She tells me, “Coming from the settler legacy mess, I felt there was no way to move forward positively without reckoning factually and spiritually.” Newton had been writing a novel at the time and thought seriously over a weekend before she agreed to shift gears.
Barer “threw together a proposal” and sent it to Walker. They closed the deal for North American rights in May 2014, and Newton started writing the book.
The research was exhaustive, and Newton admits to moments of despair. “I wondered if I were informing myself or just researching,” she says. “I knew I would make it work but wondered, will I still be working on this when I’m 80?”
Ultimately, Newton says, “It’s not a book you can pin down. It has the elements of a memoir but is open to however the reader wants to receive it.”
Walker calls Ancestor Trouble a hybrid. “The through line is memoir, the story of a family,” she says. “But it’s not straight memoir; there are so many other components woven in. The books I’m drawn to are books that don’t fit into one space. As I move through my career I’m attracted to books that defy category.”
Walker says that when she signed the contract, she expected it would take a while to see a manuscript. “I knew Maud personally and as a writer, and she is methodical,” she explains. “We went back and forth about the personal, the history, the science. It was like a long conversation, the best kind of conversation. It’s one of those books that is worth the wait.” The manuscript was done in October 2020.
Walker adds, “We couldn’t predict the timeline of the book’s delivery, but the timing is so profound. The subject matter dovetails with this moment when people are trying to figure out what roles their family history plays. I hope people will be inspired by the way Maud wrestles with it herself and do work on their own.”
Newton writes, “When I first started exploring my own family history, my interest flowed as much from fear as longing. The allure of ancestors had a lot in common with a good ghost story. Now I find myself not merely respecting traditions of ancestor reverence, but advocating for them, as a doorway to something vital and sacred, accessible as earth, and natural as breath.”