From the Editor’s Desk: Meg Leder, Executive Editor for Penguin Books, on Johanna Basford and the Adult Coloring Book Craze

Editors get very passionate about books they work on – the Editor’s Desk series is his or her place to write in-depth about what makes a certain title special. Get the real inside-scoop on how books are shaped by the people who know them best. Meg Leder, Executive Editor, Penguin Books, takes us inside the world of adult coloring books, one of the hottest segments in publishing.  She edits “The Queen of Coloring,”Johanna Basford, whose newest title, Magical Jungle, is published by Penguin Books on August 9. In your view, what accounts for the adult coloring book craze and what separates Johanna Basford from the adult coloring book artist pack? I think the adult coloring book craze has taken hold for several reasons: (1) It’s a welcome respite from the world of computer screens. Coloring is a distinctly physical activity, and there’s something imminently relaxing about putting marker or colored pencil to paper, instead of spending time with screens. (2) It’s an inherently democratic hobby. All you need is a book and a coloring tool—you don’t need to spend a lot of money on supplies or time learning skills. (3) And I think it speaks to something a lot of us did when we were kids—we loved it then, so it makes sense we’d love it now, especially with the more intricate designs! I think New York Magazine dubbed Johanna the “Queen of Coloring” for a number of reasons. She was one of the first people out there to invite adults into the coloring book realm. She’s got a marvelous artistic vision—she’s so exceptionally talented at creating intricate work that inspires colorists. And she’s also extremely generous, both as a person and as a creator. She’s said a number of times that she just starts the masterpieces, and her fans finish them. I think that generosity shows in her art and resonates with all her fans.  Watch Joanna Basford’s “Magical Jungle – An Inky Expedition & Coloring Book” video: How did you come to acquire and edit your first adult coloring book and how did the process compare with how you work with Johanna on her books? When I was at Perigee, I acquired my first two coloring books at roughly the same time: Outside the Lines by Souris Hong, and Color Me Girl Grush by Mel Elliott. Rather than the fact that they were coloring books, what drew me to both of these was the subject matter (street art and Ryan Gosling, respectively!) and the fact that they expanded notions of creativity. And then, luckily, they both really benefitted from the adult coloring book craze timing-wise. In the years since, the coloring book audience has become a lot more opinionated and sophisticated about what they want in a coloring book, so with Johanna’s titles, we’ve spent a lot of time with our amazing production team looking at paper weight, opacity, etc. When I worked on those first two books, I never imagined that several years down the line, I’d be spending as much time talking about the merits of white vs ivory paper as I do now. But we want to keep those colorists happy! In addition to adult coloring books, what are a couple of the upcoming books you are editing that are of most interest and what do you hope will distinguish them? I’m publishing a book called Carry This Book from Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson this fall. It’s a marvelous illustrated book detailing the contents of real people’s and fictional characters’ bags. It’s one of the most wonderfully weird and weirdly wonderful projects I’ve worked on since I started publishing, and I think readers will be really intrigued by this glimpse into the way Abbi’s mind and creative process work. Abbi’s a spectacularly creative and cool person, and it shows on the page. I’m also really excited about two other books I have coming out this fall:   Tree of Treasures: A Life in Ornaments and The Wasp That Brainwashed the Caterpillar. The former is a gift book that explores the way ornaments tell the stories of our lives, and the latter looks at all the strange animals that evolution has created, including the antechinus, whose males have so much sex during their three-week mating session that runaway testosterone levels make them bleed internally, go blind, and drop dead! I love that my list at Penguin has room for such a wide spectrum of books, and my hope is that readers will enjoy reading them as much as I loved editing them. Explore some adult coloring books here!

From the Editor’s Desk: Vice President and Editorial Director Rebecca Saletan on I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This by Nadja Spiegelman

Editors get very passionate about books they work on – the Editor’s Desk series is his or her place to write in-depth about what makes a certain title special. Get the real inside-scoop on how books are shaped by the people who know them best. As Nadja Spiegelman describes early in her wonderful memoir, I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This, the book grew out of a series of conversations with her mother, Françoise Mouly. Throughout Nadja’s childhood, Françoise had steadfastly deflected questions about her past with “I’ll tell you when you’re older.” She kept her word. When Nadja emerged into adulthood, Françoise told her everything she could remember, not sparing herself the difficult emotions the recounting called up. Nadja would eventually cross the Atlantic to continue the conversation in France with her grandmother, adding Josée’s story and that of Josée’s mother to her ballooning research. For me, however, the book began in a different place, when Nadja was trying to wrestle a narrative out of this overwhelming, overlapping, contradictory array of stories – not to mention each figure’s conflicting interpretations and complicated responses. On her visits to New York, we’d meet for lunch, always somewhere quiet and with a large table, my apartment or the Korean place near my office, so that she could lay out her annotated transcripts and notes and the fantastically detailed storyboards she had assembled. Nadja Spiegelman At moments like these, editors can feel a little like the Wizard of Oz, struggling to muster godlike pronouncements from behind a threadbare curtain of authority. I confess I wondered at moments if we were both lost. But as Nadja began to send me draft chapters, working her way through the material, it became clear to me that my author, young and wide-eyed as she was, had incredibly well-developed impulses as a writer. She knew where she was going, and she returned to the material, draft after draft, until she got it there. Like many writers, Nadja is a creature of the night, but she took that to extremes. Sometimes when we’d Skype, well into the evening for me – editors tend to be creatures of the night too, at least when it comes to editing – she’d still be up, working, when dawn was already breaking in Paris. Sometimes we continued our conversations the next morning, though at her age, the punishing hours she was keeping did not show. But they paid off. Gradually a gorgeous, intricate narrative emerged, one that mimicked the layering and warping of memory, to powerful effect. I have daughters of my own, a decade younger than Nadja – more or less the age Nadja was when her mother first told her her story. I came to the book not only as editor but as mother and daughter. I wondered about all the things I had never asked my mother about her past, or her mother’s. I was in awe of Francoise’s courage in revealing everything, and doubted that I would have the same. The book made me appreciate that we do not understand any adult until we see him or her as someone’s child. I loved getting to be part of its coming into the world. Listen to an interview with Nadja on the Beaks and Geeks podcast:  

A Note From the Editor: DANCING WITH THE TIGER

Dear READERS:

What you have here is a debut novel that is the work of the first new writer I have taken on in a decade. To say I am excited about the novel and the writer is an understatement. Lili Wright is a mature woman who has travelled, lived, and thought a great deal about the worlds she has moved through. It shows in the power of her themes, in her sensitive understanding of her seriously flawed characters, and in her extraordinary grasp of the contradictions embedded in the Mexican culture.  She is that rare American who has thrown off her carapace of privilege to understand Mexico, whose deeply fatalistic people must manage to survive amid the ferocious drug wars and top-down corruption that are corroding the heart and soul of this bedeviled country. “Poor Mexico, so near Los Estados Unidos, so far from God.” Lili Wright has crafted a literary thriller: A novel of propulsive power, it is told in short chapters and many voices. At the center of the plot is the attempt to recover an artifact purported to be the death mask of Montezuma. It has been found by a looter, a meth-addicted American in the employ of a ruthless narco drug lord who wants that mask for his own collection.  But so do many others, including an expat American collector, a former Oaxacan museum director who now makes money providing (false) provenances for looted artifacts, the addled grave-robber himself,  and Anna Ramsay, a young American who knows that getting hold of the mask will save her father’s reputation as an expert, a reputation that has just been savaged in a report claiming  many of the masks in his collection are forgeries. The setting is ripe for multiple double-crosses. Even the secondary characters have secret agendas and how these play out is complex and unpredictable.
But what gives this novel its psychological power is its multifaceted exploration of how we hide ourselves in plain sight. The front we present to the world is just another mask.
As Reyes, the drug lord, says, “Everyone loves masks. Because everyone has something to hide.”  Indeed, he himself is such a master of disguise that no one can describe him. He is a shape shifter of outlandish proportions and would be a character in an opera buffa were he not a coldblooded killer. Just as chilling is the expat collector, Thomas Malone. “A man in a mask,” he says, “is above the law. He makes his own rules, his own moral code.” Wright is masterful in the way she slowly builds his psychopathology. Anna herself says, “I’ve worn a mask most of my life. For years I thought wearing a mask was a way to start over, become someone new. Now I know better.”  Anna is a very wounded woman, but there is not an ounce of self-pity in her and it is Lili Wright’s extraordinary craft that makes us sympathetic to her even as we wait to find out the source of her emotional scarring. She is a heroine for the moment—think “Orange is the New Black,” think the female version of “Breaking Bad.” Dancing with the Tiger is filled with a large and richly conceived cast, a mix of expats and Mexicans from all social strata. None of them are mere walk-ons, all are brought movingly to life in Wright’s talented hands. It is a highly sensual novel and also an erotic novel in the worst way, and it is sprinkled with very quotable one-liners and acid observations: black humor at its finest. (Anna thinks: “chastity, like abstinence, was a virtue best begun tomorrow.”) This is grown-up fiction: Always gripping, often frightening, yet oddly touching. You care about these people. The debut writer I took on ten years ago was Olga Grushin, author of The Dream Life of Sukhanov, which earned her a place on Granta’s  Best Young American Novelists (2) in 2007, won her the NYPL Young Lion’s prize that same year, brought her a nomination for the LATimes First Novel award and made her one of three finalists for England’s Orange Prize. The thrill I felt on first reading that novel was just what happened when I read Dancing with the Tiger. I’m really excited about Lili and ready to run with the novel. Marian Wood

From the Editor’s Desk: Kate Seaver, Executive Editor at Berkley, on Sunshine Beach by Wendy Wax

Editors get very passionate about books they work on – the Editor’s Desk series is his or her place to write in-depth about what makes a certain title special. Get the real inside-scoop on how books are shaped by the people who know them best. All year a stack of books sits on my bedside tale. Books I’m reading and ones I can’t wait to start. In the summer my weekend bag replaces my bedside table and the book choices shift to include more beach reads, fun, uplifting stories that often take place in locations I’d love to visit. Wendy Wax’s Sunshine Beach is such a book. Set in Florida, it’s part of a series of books that feature three women whose lives were upended when they lost their life savings in a Ponzi scheme. To make a living they banded together to renovate old houses. Wendy first introduced these characters in her novel Ten Beach Road. Avery, Maddie, and Nikki were strangers who took on the challenge of restoring a ramshackle, beachfront house to recoup the money they’d been cheated out of. Avery’s marriage had ended, Maddie was trying to keep her family together and Nikki was a business woman who’d lost everything—each story captivated me and it was fascinating to watch the women become best friends and renovate an older house. Without actually having to lift a hammer, I learned how to refinish floors and refurbish a chandelier. Wendy’s gutsy, funny, and very real characters resonated strongly with readers and encouraged Wendy to return to that beloved world for two more novels, Ocean Beach and The House on Mermaid Point. In each book we learn more about the three friends as their lives evolve and they fix up a new property. In Sunshine Beach, the three friends gather in the house they renovated in Ten Beach Road and embark on the challenge of restoring an old seaside hotel just down the beach from them. They also face major life changes. Maddie’s second-chance romance with her all-too-famous new boyfriend gets complicated, Avery struggles with grief over the loss of her mother, and Nikki’s reluctance to commit to the man who loves her could lead her to face the biggest challenge of her life. Even the hotel seems to be against them, when their renovation uncovers a decades-old unsolved murder which might bring their lives tumbling down again… I love these women—their stories are compelling and their friendships inspiring. Each evening, no matter how hard the day has been, they gather on the beach with drinks and appetizers (including Avery’s beloved Cheez Doodles) to say the one good thing that happened that day. It’s an appealing ritual, and I invite you to add Sunshine Beach to your weekend bag and join Avery, Maddie and Nikki on the beach. It’ll prove to be the perfect summer escape. Learn more about Sunshine Beach below!

From the Editor’s Desk: Matt Inman, Senior Editor for Crown Trade on Every Frenchman Has One by Olivia de Havilland

Editors get very passionate about books they work on – the Editor’s Desk series is his or her place to write in-depth about what makes a certain title special. Get the real inside-scoop on how books are shaped by the people who know them best. On a recent Saturday morning, I glanced over at my iPhone and saw the words “O de Havilland” light up my screen. A new e-mail had arrived from Paris, where Olivia de Havilland was pondering a question I’d posed earlier that week (“In the past, you’ve referred to the guiding philosophy behind Parisian style as ‘the Paris principle;’ in your opinion, what are the key tenets of that principle?”) That I was discussing the timeless style of les parisiennes with the two-time Academy Award-winning actress who played Mellie Hamilton in Gone with the Wind (1939), while I, myself, was wearing sweaty tennis clothes and watching “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” now strikes me as a little, well, déclassé. But even if the details of this exchange are a little embarrassing, the story of how our paths crossed perfectly captures two aspects I love about my job: discovery and serendipity. About a year ago, I read a fascinating article about Olivia de Havilland’s groundbreaking 1944 lawsuit against Warner Bros. and found myself wanting to know more. I love reading about Hollywood’s Golden Age—and have always admired Miss de Havilland’s work—and I assumed that she’d already written about her extraordinary life and career. After a little searching, I was surprised to learn that while she had written a book, it was a 1962 memoir about falling in love with a Frenchman and moving to Paris. That book, Every Frenchman Has One, was long out of print and very expensive to buy online, so I went to the New York Public Library to check it out. As I read, I found myself laughing out loud at her witty, candid, and completely charming stories about her skirmishes with French customs, French maids, French salesladies, French holidays, French law, French doctors, and above all, the French language. A Francophile myself, I’d recently seen the Broadway staging of An American in Paris, and was surprised that such a wonderful book about Americans in Paris—and the lessons we can learn from the French—was so difficult to find. But as I read further, I realized that Every Frenchman Has One was about something much more profound. In her own way, Olivia de Havilland was quite brave, not only to drop everything; leave Hollywood behind; and take a chance on life, and love, in a new country, but to write so honestly about her bumpy ride as an expatriate. More than fifty years before Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman married Frenchmen and moved to Paris and long before celebrities revealed every detail of their lives to their followers via social media, de Havilland was sharing her gaffes and insecurities with her fans, saying, yes, even glamorous women can be embarrassed every once in a while; it’s the price one pays for trading comfort for change. More than anything, though, I was struck by Miss de Havilland’s wonderful writing. It exudes an effortless, timeless charm that makes it as appealing today as it was in 1962. Upon returning to the office, I learned Bennett Cerf himself had reverted the rights to Olivia in 1971, and so began my journey toward e-mailing with Olivia de Havilland about all things French on the eve of her 100th year. I’m thrilled that Crown Archetype will put Every Frenchman Has One back in print for the first time in decade—and publish it as an e-book for the first time—on June 28th. I’ve also had the great honor of corresponding with Olivia on a series of questions and answers that reflect on the book, and on her sixty-plus years as an American woman in Paris. They are delightful, and will appear as a postscript to this new edition. (Her answer to my original question about her philosophy of Parisian style, by the way: “1. Discretion, 2. Discretion, 3. Discretion.”). With this reissue, I’m excited to have even a small part in celebrating the centennial birthday of one of Hollywood’s greatest stars on July 1. I hope that anyone who loves Olivia de Havilland, Paris, or stories about Americans abroad will enjoy her book as much as I did. Learn more about Every Frenchman Has One below!

From the Editor’s Desk: Scott Moyer, VP & Publisher of the Penguin Press on The Way to the Spring by Ben Ehrenreich

Editors get very passionate about books they work on – the Editor’s Desk series is his or her place to write in-depth about what makes a certain title special. Get the real inside-scoop on how books are shaped by the people who know them best.

To publish a book about Palestinian lives in the West Bank is to take part in a fiercely contested debate, whether you like it or not.  It’s a debate that’s become a dialogue of the deaf, and it can seem too complicated and unpleasant to pay too much attention to.  I didn’t come to this book out of some sense of advocacy, in particular, nor frankly would I have wanted to: there are enough shrilly partisan books out there, for the most part preaching to the choir.  But what I did and do feel, stubbornly, is that nothing human should be alien to us, and that if a great journalist, which is to say a great observer and listener, someone with a great head and heart, really goes there and stays there, then we ought to pay attention.  And Ben Ehrenreich is a great journalist.  The contact high from his talent is exhilarating. 

He’s also very brave. Show us the extreme challenges of life in a public housing project in the South Bronx, or in a Mumbai slum, and it’s all good; you get roses thrown at your feet.  But the West Bank is under Israeli military occupation, of course, and has been for a very long time, and so if you write a clear and honest human account of life for ordinary Palestinians, then you can be accused of being “anti-Israel” , or worse, and you find yourself under assault, or at least greeted with uncomfortable silence.  In fact, Ben Ehrenreich is no more anti-Israel than someone writing about life in Northern Ireland under British occupation was by definition anti-English.  If you bring to light stories that depict inhumane situations, and thereby create pressure to improve them, are you “anti” the country in which the inhumane situations exist or “pro” that country? 

Anyway, I am making this book sound shrill itself, which is precisely what it is not.  Under the spell of the storytelling, we find ourselves in the shoes of a group of wonderfully vivid and disparate characters, united by the struggle to live decent lives.  What I think was most shocking to me was how openly the enemies of the Palestinian presence in the West Bank – the far right-wing Israeli settlers – admit to having an eliminationism agenda: their stated goal is to drive all Palestinians out of the West Bank and take it over completely – ethnic cleansing on the installment plan. And their means of achieving that is to make life unbearable for the Palestinians. 

Ben Ehrenreich is a powerful witness to all this; he spent several years in the West Bank, all told, and came to know these communities intimately.  There’s sadness and heartbreak in this book, but there’s also laughter and affirmation.  But there’s no escaping the fact that this shows us a situation that has become very extreme, even almost unimaginable, and so I think however uncomfortable it makes us, it’s worth our whole-hearted support.  This isn’t a dogged or prescriptive polemic, it is a work of art; by immersing us in these lives, these stories, it places us as readers right on the horns of the dilemma.  There’s no easy way out, for anyone, but the more we bring this world into our consciousness, the more human we will be – and the more honest we will be with each other about the consequences of our own inaction.

Learn more about The Way to the Spring below:

From the Editor’s Desk: Peter Gethers, President, Random House Studio and Senior Vice President, Editor at Large Penguin Random House on Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

Editors get very passionate about books they work on – the Editor’s Desk series is his or her place to write in-depth about what makes a certain title special. Get the real inside-scoop on how books are shaped by the people who know them best. There are several things that are most thrilling to a book editor. First and foremost is the discovery of true talent. Everything else extends from that. Next on the list is when other people throughout the company respond to that talent positively and excitedly. When strong enough, that response not only becomes electric, it becomes unstoppable. At its most exciting it becomes a tidal wave of appreciation for a book or a writer. Next, of course, is the validation that comes from a wider audience – The bookstore buyers, managers and sales people and then, finally, actual real people who make the final judgment on the book. Over the course of my lengthy career, I have brought in a lot of great talent and some major stars. That is satisfying in its own right. But it does not compare to the discovery of a writer who is fresh, unknown, who is to be revealed. I have never seen a response to an unknown talent like the one I have seen for Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter. It started with my read where, after only 20 pages, I realized I was not just reading a well-written novel, I was reading something special, spectacular. Claudia Herr, who became the line editor and helped shape and refine the novel with Stephanie, was the next reader and the first person to come into my office. She was, literally, trembling and said she had never been so excited after reading a submission. We went about trying to build a consensus but we did not have to try very hard. The manuscript swept through Knopf, through all the layers and every department. Never before had I gotten emails or phone calls saying things such as, “You must buy this book,” or “We have to publish this!” We met with the author and Ms. Danler was at least as impressive as her wonderful prose. Although there are obvious autobiographical elements in her first novel it was immediately clear that she had many more books in her ­ she was an author, not just someone who had written a terrific first novel. The thrill has continued every step of the way. The wild enthusiasm within the Knopf group turned into equally strong support from reviewers and bookstores and consumers. Right from the beginning, we thought that Stephanie Danler had written a novel that had a chance to become iconic, to really be that over-used cliché: “the voice of a generation.” It is starting to look as if we all might be right. What did we see in this book from the moment the manuscript was submitted? We saw an elegant and eloquent use of language; the author’s descriptions of food made us hungry; her descriptions of sensual cravings stirred us; writing about the turmoil of being young brought us all back to our youth, or for those who were still young, it was like having their own lives being thrown back at them at the speed of light. The book made us all see ourselves in different ways, no matter our age or our sex. It also made us see outside of ourselves. It made us see the narrator’s very specific world as well as the world at large in new and startling ways. This is what talent does. This is what Sweetbitter is about to do to readers all over the world. Learn more about the book below!

From the Editor’s Desk: Jake Morrissey, Executive Editor, on Three-Martini Lunch by Suzanne Rindell

Editors get very passionate about books they work on – the Editor’s Desk series is his or her place to write in-depth about what makes a certain title special. Get the real inside-scoop on how books are shaped by the people who know them best. The best present an author can give an editor is the gift of surprise. Editors spend their days reading a lot of manuscripts that don’t tell them anything new. So reading a story about a world you thought you understood framed in an unexpected way that prompts you to think differently about it, that’s hitting the publishing jackpot. Which is what I did when Three-Martini Lunch came across my desk. In this terrific novel, Suzanne Rindell delves into a world I knew something about – book publishing – but sets her story in the late 1950s, which was when big changes were about to take place. I thought I had a decent grasp of the era. I’m familiar with two other iconic New York stories from around that time: Rona Jaffe’s classic novel (and eventual movie) The Best of Everything and the television show Mad Men. In both of those, New York City is portrayed as one of the places to be in the mid-20th century. If you know anything about either The Best of Everything or Mad Men – or even Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 movie North by Northwest – you see a New York that’s sleeker, cleaner, less crowded than it is today. And the roles of men and women were as clearly defined then as their ambitions: Success for men meant career and advancement; success for women marriage and family. In Three-Martini Lunch, Suzanne Rindell peers beyond that mid-century mindset and explores the lives and worlds of Miles, Cliff and Eden, three young people struggling to gain a toehold in New York and hoping that publishing is the way to do that. The lives they lead are a far cry from the expense-account lunches and pristine suburban enclaves of the publishing elite. These young people are drawn to Greenwich Village and its emerging beatnik culture, with its dark and smoke-filled bars, jazz clubs, and poetry readings. And they struggle to stretch their meager bank balances by living in cramped, ramshackle apartments and having just enough money for food and beer but not always both. Suzanne gives her characters fascinating opportunities to pursue their individual ambitions and indulge their temptations. Even more compelling, she shows readers how the choices they make to achieve their goals changes them. I’m not giving anything away when I say that what you think of Miles, Cliff, and Eden at the beginning of Three-Martini Lunch will not be what you think of them at the end. As I followed the characters’ journeys through successive drafts of the novel, I found myself reassessing my own ideas about what was possible in publishing, in New York, and in America during that time. It was an era on the cusp of upheaval and turmoil, and it’s that change that Suzanne Rindell explores so effectively – and so surprisingly – in Three-Martini Lunch. Which is one of the highest compliments I can pay. Learn more about Three-Martini Lunch below!

From the Editor’s Desk: Carole Baron, editor of Maeve Binchy’s A Few of the Girls

Editors get very passionate about books they work on – the Editor’s Desk series is his or her place to write in-depth about what makes a certain title special. Get the real inside-scoop on how books are shaped by the people who know them best. As Maeve Binchy’s publisher and editor, we worked on every one of books together. She was a natural born storyteller whether she was writing a full length novel such as her first, Light a Penny Candle or her last, A Week in Winter. But Maeve was also a short story writer. Working as a columnist at the Irish Times honed her talents in setting up a story with a beginning, middle and end. But in her way, she could pack a whole novel in a 3,500 word short story. She was once asked “how long is a short story?” and her answer was: “It’s a bit like asking how long is a piece of string.” In other words, tell the story. And check out The Maeve Binchy Writer’s Club where she details how she asked herself nine questions before she set out to write any short story. Maeve wrote a lot of them, and now seemed like the time to share these with the world. What a treat it would be for all of Maeve’s considerable and loyal fans. Gordon Snell, Maeve’s husband, was on board. The first task was pulling altogether the short stories with the help of her UK publisher, her agent and her husband. We read every short story she ever wrote… maybe 100, maybe more. Some of her short stories have already been collected into books (I am thinking of “The Lilac Bus,” for example). Others were published in magazines or newspapers, mostly in the UK. Some were written for charity auctions and even as gifts for friends. Which stories should we include? How would they be organized? I was hoping that the organization of the stories could drive a narrative of life because after all, that’s what Maeve wrote about. Once the stories made the final cut, there was only one way I could go about it: I printed them all out—yes, on paper, this was not a job for the computer. I read and reread them, made a few notes, and then put them on my dining room table, trailed some onto the floor, and covered the couch with stories. I would move stories from place to place physically. I added colored paper to help sort out themes as they emerged. Maeve always wrote about relationships and love, about lousy friends, about family, and jobs, and holidays that changed people’s lives. After reading and sorting and crying and laughing, it was clear that the stories fell into natural categories: “Friends and Enemies,” “Love and Marriage,” “Your Cheating Heart,” “Relatives and Other Strangers,” “Work and No Play,” and “Holidays”… And a book was created: A Few of the Girls. So grab a copy and spend some time with Maeve … I think I’ll join you. I can never get enough of Maeve’s humor and wisdom. And if you want a taste of one of her perfect short stories, there is Vintage’s e-short “Dusty’s Winter” that won’t disappoint. Listen to an excerpt of A Few of the Girls from Penguin Random House Audio here!  Read more about Maeve Binchy’s book below.

From the Editor’s Desk: Linda Marrow, Editor of Try Not To Breathe

Editors get very passionate about books they work on – the Editor’s Desk series is his or her place to write in-depth about what makes a certain title special. Get the real inside-scoop on how books are shaped by the people who know them best.

The manuscript of Try Not To Breathe came in to me at about 9:30 one night and due to some happy intersection of title and description and still being too awake to go to bed, I made a cup of tea at about 10 and decided to glance at a page or two before turning in.  At about 1 a.m. I forced myself away from the book for the night but could barely fall asleep – so full was my head and my heart of the story of the two young women Holly Seddon had created.  When I was in the world on her pages I had that magical and delicious feeling every lifelong reader knows when your actual surroundings melt away and all you can see are the streets and houses the characters are seeing. I finished reading the manuscript the next night and for days after I couldn’t stop thinking about Amy and Alex and what both joined and separated them.

Hopefully without giving too much away, the novel is about two women, Alex and Amy, both 30 years old and from the same area of England, where they grew up going to neighboring schools. Told in alternating points of view, their lives intersect in a way that will change everything for both of them. Alex is a journalist whose life has spiraled completely out of control. She had seen tremendous success as a writer very early in her twenties when she beautifully and movingly documented the last year of her mother’s struggle with terminal illness. During this time she became incredibly sought after in London magazine circles and also married the love of her life. But when her mother dies, Alex loses her moorings and plummets into alcohol and reckless behavior, finally moving back to the house she had grown up in.

When Alex is at her local hospital one day working on a small, routine story (the only kind of writing work she can now get)about vegetative cases – she finds herself staring at a young woman, a patient, asleep. The girl looks familiar to her, and suddenly she realizes that  this is Amy Stevenson, a girl who had disappeared when both she and Alex were 15, only to be found near death in the woods. Amy has been in a coma ever since, and the police were never able to discover who had assaulted this girl. Amy’s family and the whole town were left mystified and damaged.

Alex finds herself haunted by her own memories of that time and cannot stop herself from beginning to investigate the story. She realizes that in the fifteen years since the attack, Amy has gone from being at the center of notoriety to having been nearly completely forgotten.

Of the many themes explored by Holly in the novel, two are favorites of mine. One is the phenomenon of locked in syndrome, which Holly researched and uses so brilliantly for the character of Amy, showing us the heartbreak of a young girl trapped mutely within her body.  My other favorite is the music of the novel. From its title on, Holly has imbued her book with a perfect soundtrack as iconic song after song from the early to mid-90s seems to play in the background. And by the end one can see that Try Not To Breathe isn’t just an R.E.M. song title but helps introduce one of the most compelling facets of the novel – the false promise of control, and the beauty and wonder of watching Alex measure out just enough courage each day to fight her demons one more time.

Listen to an excerpt from the book here:

Read more about Try Not To Breathe below.