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Interview with Tara Isabella Burton, author of SOCIAL CREATURE

Tara Isabella Burton’s Social Creature is on so many summer reading lists for good reason. It’s a fast-paced contemporary thriller focused on a twisted friendship between two young women in New York City. Full of bizarre and luxurious parties, crime, sin, pretense, and social media, it’s a smart and addictive read.  We spoke to Burton on the phone and talked about her influences, dandies, and more. 
 
You initially wrote a novel that you abandoned because it wasn’t working, but you brought the characters back in this book. What changed in this iteration?
Originally the book I’d written was a Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca knockoff and it was very dated, it could have been set in 1960, it was on a Mediterranean cruise ship. It was stilted and everyone was overly dramatic. But despite that, I liked the idea of having these two women who were obsessed with each other, this man playing the role of the femme fatale character, and this fourth character, a kind of harlequin type who likes to cause chaos. The four of them, I wanted them to live! But at nineteen, I didn’t have the insights or life experience do do anything interesting with them.
I’m from NYC but was in University of Oxford from eighteen onward, so I’d never really been an adult in New York. I started coming back to NYC in about 2013, developing intense relationships with women and close friends-  the experience was an incredibly frenetic New York life. Around that time I became more and more fascinated with ways in which the internet is a canvas for people to explore their identities. How you create a literary poetic language around the internet and technology and these things that are very real in people’s lives but are not necessarily “literary”.
I wanted to write this story more about the female friendship, and being set in this New York with that frenetic feeling gave the novel it’s atmosphere. Originally no one had cell phones, I kept technology out because I wanted to write like Daphne du Maurier. But it turned out that I liked finding out how to write about someone texting and  and still keep that literary, lyrical register. The characters got reborn in a much better book for them.
You had this great twitter-thread talking about how self-creation via the internet is interesting and artistic, not frivolous. Some press surrounding the book makes it seem like it’s a scathing indictment of social media – but that’s not what you’re going for!  
No! I’m excited by it! But I see why some people would think that. So, a little bit of backstory – my doctorate is in theology but specifically about the idea of self-creation in 19th century dandies. Basically my thesis was about how in Paris, people were exploring how to create yourself as a work of art. What does it mean to create your own identity? So I think social media is fascinating! The technology is new but the instinct to create yourself is not new – it’s as old as humanity. Particularly when it comes to women online, women posting selfies, there’s a tendency to dismiss one’s social media presence as a form of artifice that has nothing to do with reality. And I find that shockingly simplistic. This is just a whole avenue to explore our identities. Is it fictional? Yeah, partly, but no more than putting on makeup or smiling when you don’t feel like it or dropping references to books you haven’t actually read.
 
 It was super interesting to hear you studied French decadent literature – the excess, the over the top social circles absolutely come through  – can you tell me about crafting that atmosphere?
Pretty much every incident in the book is something I’ve seen or experienced. I wanted to create a world that is not at all a one-to-one representation of a particular New York group, but instead a stylized pastiche of Brooklyn lit bros, finance bros, vintage club kids etc. None of these people necessarily hang out together – I wanted to create a New York scene in order to create a sense of timelessness that you don’t get by portraying just one group. The New York I created was rooted in my experience of coming back in my twenties, but very much designed not to map onto one social group.
 
Can you tell me about the two main characters’ power dynamic? Neither one is innocent, neither one is fully appealing, you can’t wholly identify with either. 
If Lavinia and Louise had been born in each other’s bodies and met, the exact same story would have played out. They’re very very similar; they appear as opposites, but the way in which they are opposite is a function of privilege and money and upbringing. Fundamentally they are just two women who lack a solid sense of self – they are constantly looking to define themselves through other people. I think their relationship is toxic and interesting because Ido think they love each other, I think they are in love with each other – for me there was no doubt there was a sexual and erotic attraction. But they are so obsessed with themselves that they can’t have any intimacy with any other human being, because every interaction is just to fill this black hole of “who am I”. Both of them have power in every moment.
 
Are there other complicated and obsessive relationships in literature that you love?
One of my favorite toxic relationships is the literalization of the trope that the most toxic relationships are when you’re two sides of the same person. So I think Fight Club is the perfect example of that. It does incredible job of making literal this metaphorical truth that the people who get inside your head are you or are as close to you as possible.
Also Henry James – one of my favorite writers. He’s hugely influential in regards to how I approach dialogue and he’s such an incisive writer about petty little social codes and class and money. Wings of the Dove has a relationship between two women that’s so mediated by outside power structures that it’s impossible for them to authentically relate to each other.
 
When friends ask you for book recommendations, is there anything new or old that you always mention? 
My favorite book of the year is The Collector which is incredibly terrifying story of am who kidnaps a women as though she’s an object.
i love latest book “based on a true story” which is another toxic female friendship. it follows a french novelist and a ghostwriter who mysteriously floats into her life.
I also used to make all my old boyfriends read D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love which is another story about very messed up people having deep conversations and glowering at the landscape. I like books with lots of intense conversation and big symbolic scenes.
 
Check out SOCIAL CREATURE!

From the Editor’s Desk: Kate Miciak, Vice President & Director of Editorial for Ballantine Bantam Dell on Susan Elia MacNeal’s Maggie Hope books

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.   It all started with a title on a manuscript submission I couldn’t get out of my brain: Mr. Churchill’s Secretary. OK, I admit to a certain obsession with the British icon–but his secretary? What must it have been like to work during Britain’s darkest hours with that flamboyant, irascible, outrageously complicated figure? Biographies and memoirs abound of Churchill’s generals, his family, his aides. We know all about his pets, his bathing habits, his socks, favorite drink and books. But his secretary? As I turned the manuscript pages, I was hooked. For this debut novel wasn’t merely about life in the shadow of Winston Churchill during those scary, dangerous days of what became known as the “false war”—it was the captivating story of a brilliant, college-educated, ambitious young woman with a flair for math and codes…who found that the only job opening for a woman in wartime UK government was typing and filing: Talk about a glass ceiling! And, she wasn’t even British.  She was an American. An American woman in the Blitz, working at the side of the seminal power makers of the period, forced to elbow her way into a man’s world….And crimson lipstick and cocktails…. What’s not to love? Over the course of six award-winning novels, Susan and her marvelous creation, Maggie Hope, continue to enthrall me. In these gloriously researched capers, Susan has led Maggie and her spellbound readers down the bomb-torn alleyways of London, into the heart ‎of the UK’s spy network, parachuting into enemy headquarters, conspiring with Eleanor Roosevelt in the very corridors of the White House.  She’s crafted an intimate glimpse of young Princess Lisbeth and the Royal Family at Windsor; cavorted with Fala, FDR’s Scottie; and courageously shown us the suffering of those in the concentration camps.  More important, she’s stripped away the bald historical facts to inveigle us deep into the hearts of women during war:  women making tough choices and sacrifices, surviving, fighting back, courageously holding together their lives and their jobs and their families under unspeakable pressures. There was a real Mr. Churchill’s secretary, a woman named Elizabeth Nel who worked for the Prime Minister from 1941 to 1945 and even wrote a memoir of it, which begins: “It doesn’t really matter who I am or where I come from.  Without undue modesty, the only thing of real interest about me is that during World War II I worked for four and a half years as one of the Personal Secretaries to Sir Winston Churchill….”  But Susan MacNeal has proven, time and time again in her marvelous, intriguing novels, that the women behind the scenes did matter.  And that’s the real triumph of the Maggie Hope novels. Learn more about the Maggie Hope books below!

From the Editor’s Desk: Stephanie Kelly, Associate Editor at Dutton Books, on The Dollhouse by Fiona Davis

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 concept isn’t novel, yet it’s still so often surprising—and always, always, important. The Dollhouse by Fiona Davis embodies this theme in many different ways. Firstly, there’s the title itself. “The Dollhouse” was the nickname for New York City’s iconic Barbizon Hotel for Women– called such because of all the pretty young things that lived there. But the Barbizon housed more than pretty faces: from 1927 to 1981, the Barbizon was a safe, respectable haven for young women looking to make their mark on the city as models, actresses, editors, secretaries, or wives. Many were successful, including Joan Crawford, Grace Kelly, Sylvia Plath, and Candace Bergen– all residents of the Upper East Side’s most coveted sorority. It’s a glamorous history, and what drew me to the novel in the first place. And in that regard, The Dollhouse delivered: I read it in one sitting, entranced by famous musicians in seedy jazz clubs, fashion shows in solariums, and the descriptions of delectable spice blends you can almost taste as you turn the pages. But looks can be deceiving, and The Dollhouse is so much more than glamorous. It’s a mystery; it’s an exploration of the changing rolls of women in the workplace, and what it means to be fulfilled as a woman; and it’s an ode to the many sides of New York City. And for these reasons, the Dollhouse is a novel that has stayed with me ever since I first read it over a year ago– and I know will continue to stay with me for a long time to come. The Dollhouse is a dual narrative, centering on three fictional women who are tied together not only by the Barbizon, but by a hidden tragedy that occurred there. There is shy Midwesterner Darby, who arrives at the famed hotel in 1952, determined to become a secretary and secure lifelong independence without a man. Instead (in scenes that highlight the power of female friendship), she befriends Esme, a Barbizon maid looking to become a star, in spite of prejudice against her as a Puerto Rican immigrant. Esme introduces her to another, darker side of the city— not to mention a boy who just might change Darby’s mind about remaining single. Fifty years later, the Barbizon, now gone condo, is home to journalist Rose, until she is unceremoniously dumped by her live-in boyfriend, leaving her homeless as well as heartbroken. She crosses ethical boundaries in her desperation to distract herself with a juicy story: the truth behind her elderly neighbor Darby’s rumored involvement in a deadly skirmish with a hotel maid back in 1952. The tension of the mystery simmers throughout the novel and kept me flipping the pages as Darby’s and Rose’s stories intertwine to reveal the shocking truth. Rose’s fascination with Darby opens her eyes to the rich history of the building, and her research into the elderly denizens of the Barbizon– like Darby, all single women who never left the former hotel, now in rent-controlled apartments on the fourth floor– inevitably causes her to look inward. Is this her future? Is she destined to be lonely and forgotten? Rose’s story is one that resonates in today’s world: What roles do relationship status, career, and autonomy play in living a fulfilling life as a woman? Can women “have it all” … and can they be happy if they don’t? As Rose digs deeper, including talking to Stella, another Barbizon resident (and one of my personal favorite characters in the novel!), she is treated to a wealth of insights on life, happiness, female agency, and empowerment… from women she herself had dismissed for their age and single status, for how they appeared on the surface. And then there’s New York City. From the cloistered Barbizon (“God forbid we venture into the real world and buy something inap­propriate,” a character named Charlotte wryly observes to Darby while they attend a fashion show within the hotel) to the uninhibited jazz clubs, from the city’s charms to its dangers, from the 1950s to today, The Dollhouse truly captures the beautiful, fickle, and ever-changing heart of Manhattan. It’s not an easy task, but Fiona’s passion for research— she, too, is a journalist— and writing skill bring the city as alive as any one of her nuanced characters (another moment here to appreciate Stella, for it is not only the protagonists who are incredibly drawn in the novel. I could take the time here to tell you why Stella is so fabulous, but a character that wonderful is best experienced for yourself). When I first received The Dollhouse on submission, I knew it was something special. But looks can be deceiving, and I didn’t know just how special until I fell into its pages. I hope you too have a chance to read this glamorous, suspenseful, romantic, thoughtful, and affecting novel. Learn more about the book below!

Writing Tips from Jillian Cantor, author of The Hours Count

We know readers tend to be writers too, so we feature writing tips from our authors. Who better to offer advice, insight, and inspiration than the authors you admire? They’ll answer several questions about their work, share their go-to techniques and more. Now, get writing! 

How would you recommend creating and getting to know your characters? The absolute first thing I do is decide my main characters’ names. I feel like I need to know someone’s name before I can start to know him or her. My favorite place to figure out first names is the Social Security popular baby names website, where you can view name popularity by birth year (back to 1879) to see what common and (uncommon) names were in the year your character was born. After I decide names, I’ll start to make notes of other things, like birthdays/age or relationships to other characters, quirks, where a character lives, or things he/she likes or dislikes. But I start drafting pretty soon into this process. I mostly learn and get to really know my characters as I’m writing the first draft, thinking about what they do and how they react and speak when I put them in different situations. So I think the best way I get to know my characters is to write them. By the time I get to the end of the first draft, they’re often different than what I started with (and I know them much better). But then I go back and revise. After developing an idea, what is the first action you take when beginning to write? The first line of novel is really important. It sets the tone for the entire book. I want it to show what the book is ultimately about, but also to be interesting and hook the reader. When I first start thinking about and developing an idea I always start thinking about first lines. I jot down ideas, often for weeks or months. But, I don’t wait for the perfect first line before I start drafting a book. I begin with the first one that comes to me and then I keep writing from there to get my first draft going. So just the act of getting words and ideas down on the page is the most important action I take in order to actually start writing. I set a goal for myself – usually 3-5 pages a day – and I make myself sit down and write something, make some progress in the draft, even if it’s ultimately terrible and will all be changed in revision. Most of the time the first line that appears in the final draft of the book is not at all what I started with. I keep thinking on that first line, even as I keep writing the first draft. Usually I don’t understand enough about the story myself until I finish or get most of the way through a first draft. So I start writing at the beginning, but 9 times out of 10 that beginning changes by the time I make it to the end! Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do to get thinking? I always write at home, and I need quiet to write. I negotiate my writing schedule around my kids’ schedules so I usually write while my kids are at school during weekdays, or very early in the mornings on the weekends or during the summer when my kids are home – really, whenever I can find uninterrupted quiet each day. I have an office in my house where I can shut the door, and I do write there, but when no one else is home I also write at my kitchen table. I like to drink coffee while I write, and that always helps to get me thinking. Or when I get stuck, I’ll exercise. Taking a long walk, run, or hike, often helps me work through a plot a point I was stuck on or figure out a problem in my story. What’s the best piece of advice you have received? The best advice, and I got this from a writing professor in grad school, is simply, “butt in chair.” As in, just sit down and force yourself to write something, no matter what it is or how terrible you think it is. The hardest part is making yourself sit down to do it. So I don’t let myself make excuses – I put my butt in the chair every morning and write something. What are three or four books that influenced your writing, or had a profound effect on you? I read Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott in the first fiction writing class I took, and I still have a copy on the shelf in my office. I love what she writes about first drafts and I feel like it’s still important to give myself permission to write something terrible the first time around as long as I write something. I’m a big believer in the importance of revision! Black and Blue by Anna Quindlen is one of my favorite novels, and the first I read by her. I come back to it, and her novels, again and again, because I feel like I learn so much about sympathetic character development from her. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, which I first read in college, always makes me think about writing characters in a world different from our own today (which is applicable for writing historical fiction as well) and the fact that characters still need to first be inherently human and relatable, no matter how different their world is from the one we know.

Learn more about the book 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!

The Life of a Book: An interview with Sales Manager Justin Goodfellow

We’re going deep inside the making of a book, with interviews from Penguin Random House employees in editorial, marketing, sales, and more.  If you’ve ever wondered about all the behind-the-scenes work that goes into making your favorite books, this is the series for you.   Today we’re featuring our interview with Justin Goodfellow, who sells But What if We’re Wrong? to bookstores, and is here to give us a sales perspective.  What does your job entail? 

I have the great fortune of being a Sales Manager for Penguin Adult books! In this role, I present all of the upcoming titles from Penguin Books to independent bookstores in the New York metropolitan area. In other words, I’m a bookseller to booksellers! During the course of a year, I meet with various book buyers to discuss and select the titles that will eventually be on their shelves for readers to purchase. The part about these meetings that I love so much is that I get to be involved in curating the store along with the buyer. Every independent bookstore is unique, and it is my responsibility to learn as much as I can about the stores so that the books I sell them will reflect their personalities. 

I also work extensively with the other departments in publishing like editorial and publicity. Editors will often let sales people read manuscripts so that we can offer feedback or let them know about a store that will be particularly excited about the book. And then there is publicity! Publicists are dear friends to Sales Managers because we work together to setup author readings and signings at different bookstores across the whole country. In my opinion, there is no better way to spend a weekday evening than to attend a reading at your local bookshop.

When you describe But What if We’re Wrong? to bookbuyers, what is your hook? What is memorable or unique about the book? Why would they want it in their store?

You would probably laugh at how little of a hook I need for Chuck Klosterman a lot of the time! His reputation precedes him, and I often sell the book well by simply saying, “Look, it’s the new Chuck Klosterman!” But there is so much more that I get to tell my booksellers about. When it comes to But What If We’re Wrong?, I feel like Klosterman has explored a question that covers an impressive number of topics. From a conversation with Neil deGrasse Tyson about the multiverse to reasons why the NFL could potentially fail, But What If We’re Wrong? is genius in its breadth, and that is going to bring an entirely new audience to Klosterman.

There are so many different reasons for why independent bookstores love Chuck Klosterman! One thing I’ve heard that cracked me up is that many view Chuck Klosterman as a hipper Malcolm Gladwell. Now while I personally think that Gladwell is plenty hip, I also feel like I understand the deeper sentiment underneath that opinion. There is a level of access that every Klosterman book achieves, and it results in a sincere investigation about a topic. Reading Klosterman doesn’t feel like reading an author who is analyzing something from the outside; it feels like reading the carefully considered meditations of someone who is intimately involved with what they write about. That sincerity can’t be faked in a reading experience because it is simply the result of skillful writing.  

What’s your favorite thing about your job? What would surprise a layman to know?

What continues to strike me about my job is that I get to connect people who all love books. My publishing house considers me a specialist on the bookstores I work with, and in turn, my bookstores view me as a specialist about the publishers and all of the different titles we bring out. It is a singular role, and I love the opportunity to continue learning from the books and the people that participate in the world of literature.

You’re a fan of Chuck Klosterman – what do you like about his writing? What do you like about this new book? Do you have a favorite moment or line?

I love that Klosterman always feels like he is writing directly to me. It creates an experience that not many authors can bring to the page. Sometimes this occurs through those passages that directly address the reader, but more often I feel addressed by a line of thought. It’s as if a good friend of mine is laying out an issue before me with perfect pacing and allowing me to fully grasp his point of view. 

My favorite part of But What If We’re Wrong? is this amazing section about television’s ability to capture and portray a time period. The quick take away from the chapter is that while everyone might love Mad Men and think of it as crowning accomplishment that captured the 1960s, many historians of the future would probably disagree. The perceptions that created Mad Men came from people living in the early 2000s instead of the actual 1960s. Everything about Mad Men is too perfectly considered and too meticulously constructed with hindsight to be genuinely natural. Instead, a show like Roseanne offers a much more realistic portrayal of its time period. Like many families living in the 1990s, Roseanne showed a chubby American family trying to get by with okay jobs while living in a kind of messy house. For many, that is an accurate picture of life in the 1990s, and Roseanne was able to capture all of this unknowingly. The show was just created in the very same time period its characters lived in!

Read the first post in this series here, and part one and part two of the Q&A with Klosterman’s editor.

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!

Senior Editor at The Penguin Press, Virginia Smith Younce, on The Star Side of Bird Hill, by Naomi Jackson

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. I fell in love with Naomi Jackson’s debut novel about a matriarchal family in Barbados, The Star Side of Bird Hill, from the opening page. In short order, Jackson indelibly captures Barbados’ Bird Hill neighborhood and the two young Braithwaite sisters who have left Brooklyn to come and live there with their grandmother. From its very first line, Star Side plunges us in this very specific, very beautiful community: The people on the hill liked to say that God’s smile was the sun shining down on them. Jackson’s first descriptions of the girls at the heart of this novel are also stunning. Dionne, the elder sister, is “sixteen going on a bitter, if beautiful, forty-five.” Phaedra, age ten, saw “her skin had darkened to a deep cacao from running in the sun all day in spite of her grandmother’s protests… Glimpses of Phaedra’s future beauty peeked out from behind her pink heart-shaped glasses, which were held together with scotch tape.” Before I turned to the second page, I was fully immersed in this place, and I felt I had known these girls for years. Author Naomi Jackson grew up in a predominantly West Indian neighborhood in Brooklyn and spent summers in Barbados with her family. There is a strong autobiographical element to Star Side, which explores themes of immigration and identity, motherhood and family, sexual awakening and coming of age, and mental illness and belonging. After their mother’s breakdown in New York forces them into exile in Barbados, Dionne spends the summer in search of love, while Phaedra explores Bird Hill, where her family has lived for generations. The girls’ grandmother, Hyacinth, is a midwife and practitioner of the local spiritual practice of obeah. Hyacinth is a magical character, and the novel beautifully explores parenthood through her loves and losses. Her daughter Avril left Barbados for good when she fell for the girls’ father Errol. When Errol arrives to reclaim the sisters, the girls must choose between two worlds, as their mother once did. It has been so gratifying to see in-house readers, booksellers, and reviewers connect with this lyrical narrative. Jackson’s Barbados captured our imagination, and her characters are unforgettable, especially the heartbreaking young Phaedra.The Star Side of Bird Hill is an Indies Introduce selection, and many of our independent bookselling partners told me at BEA how excited they were to get this novel into the hands of their more advanced YA readers, as well as their adult readers who love transporting, literary fiction. I look forward to seeing many more readers fall for Star Side and the very talented Naomi Jackson. Read more about The Star Side of Bird Hill here.