Homesick for Another World, on sale now from Penguin Press, is the rare case where an author’s short story collection is, if anything, more anticipated than her novel. And for good reason. There’s something eerily unsettling about Ottessa’s stories, something almost dangerous, while also being delightful, and even laugh-out-loud funny. Her characters are all unsteady on their feet in one way or another; they all yearn for connection and betterment, though each in very different ways, but they are often tripped up by their own baser impulses and existential insecurities. Homesick for Another World is a master class in the varieties of self-deception across the gamut of individuals representing the human condition. In this interview, Ottessa takes us inside her world: How would you describe your writing regimen and routines? Obsessive and neurotic and captivating. I wake up, I work, I dilly dally, work, take out the trash, work, pace around, eat, work, shower, work, read, work, go for a walk, call people, work, eat, work, sleep. Toward the end of writing a book, I often sleep with my computer under my pillow… What differentiates your approach to conceiving a novel as compared with your short stories? The motivation to write a short story often comes from an abstract, mysterious noise in my head, and I can take my time concentrating on that sound and experimenting with what words, voice, characters, and narrative movements are being described by the music in my mind. Writing a novel is that, plus a million pounds of pressure at my back, loaded with questions about how my life is being reflected in this writing process, and what I want to learn and say to the world. So, novels are more prolonged and intense journeys, although they can start out as playfully as a story. Where do inspirations for your characters and storylines come from? They come from my life experiences, overheard conversations, dreams, the imagination, the ether… It what ways has Penguin Press impacted your writing career? Penguin Press has been a miracle in my life – this team has been so incredibly supportive, positive, and – I think – gutsy. I tell everyone how blessed I feel to have a publisher that understands my work and sees its value today and the potential for the future. Explore Moshfegh’s books below:
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.
The 2015 National Book Award winners were announced last evening. Today we celebrate the winners and the finalists, all of whom wrote groundbreaking, touching, beautiful books. Adam Johnson, author of Fortune Smiles, a collection of stories, won the prize for Fiction. National Book Foundation: In the process of writing your book, what did you discover, what, if anything, surprised you? Johnson: Because I research a lot, the surprising joy of discovery is always central to my writing. I love to fashion entire worlds in my stories—these I try to adorn with details gleaned from the real world and the emotions of life lived. In researching the title story, for example, I was both troubled and inspired to hear North Korean defectors describe the regime-sponsored crimes they had to participate in. It wasn’t until I’d delivered hundreds of UPS packages in the Louisiana heat that I knew where my character in “Hurricanes Anonymous” would sleep that night. And it’s not until you descend to the lower levels of a Stasi prison that you begin to understand what must exist at the heart of a story like “George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine.” Start reading an excerpt here. Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of Between the World and Me, won the prize for Nonfiction. National Book Foundation: In the process of writing your book, what did you discover, what, if anything, surprised you? Coates: I discovered how hard it was to make the abstract into the something visceral. My goal was to take numbers and stats and make people feel them with actual stories. It was to take scholarship and make it literature. Start reading an excerpt of the book here. See Coates read in a video here. Robin Coste Lewis, author of Voyage of the Sable Venus, won the prize for Poetry. “Robin Coste Lewis’s electrifying collection is a triptych that begins and ends with lyric poems considering the roles desire and race play in the construction of the self. The central panel is the title poem, “Voyage of the Sable Venus,” a riveting narrative made up entirely of titles of artworks from ancient times to the present—titles that feature or in some way comment on the black female figure in Western art. Bracketed by Lewis’s autobiographical poems, “Voyage” is a tender and shocking study of the fragmentary mysteries of stereotype, as it juxtaposes our names for things with what we actually see and know” – National Book Foundation Be sure to check out the winning books below, and discover your next award-winning read!
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. Ottessa Moshfegh’s fiction is like a new species of wild animal. First there’s that stunned delight: I’ve never met this species before! Whoa, it feels kind of dangerous. Then there’s the inevitable effort to categorize it, to place it within a larger taxonomy. It’s been delightful to watch some of our smartest, most fearless writers come to grips with what makes Ottessa Moshfegh’s work so special, so hard to shake. Take Jeffrey Eugenides: “Moshfegh is a writer of significant control and range…. What distinguishes her writing is that unnamable quality that makes a new writer’s voice, against all odds and the deadening surround of lyrical postures, sound unique.” Or Rivka Galchen: “A scion of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Raymond Carver at once, Moshfegh transforms a poison into an intoxicant.” Those stories I read in the Paris Review stuck with me for keeps: these are very different psyches each to each, and the voices are utterly distinct, but each is an exploration of a mind that’s unsteady on its feet in a most arresting way, a triumph of unreliability, you could say – unreliable on just about every level imaginable. The world is a lot weirder than is commonly understood; Ottessa as an artist has a purchase on that weirdness and brings us into contact with it, in a way that is wildly electric. But those are the stories; like many I was very eager to see what this writer would do with a longer form. McGlue, her bravura novella, gave a tantalizing hint, but nothing quite prepared me for the narrative tricksiness, the storytelling cunning, of Eileen. My God, can this writer play the long game. I want to quote, if you’ll forgive me, from the starred Kirkus review, because it makes the point better, I think, than I can: “A woman recalls her mysterious escape from home in this taut, controlled noir about broken families and their proximity to violence…. The narrative masterfully taunts…. The release, when it comes, registers a genuine shock. And Moshfegh has such a fine command of language and her character that you can miss just how inside out Eileen’s life becomes in the course of the novel, the way the “loud, rabid inner circuitry of my mind” overtakes her. Is she inhumane or self-empowered? Deeply unreliable or justifiably jaded? Moshfegh keeps all options on the table…. A shadowy and superbly told story of how inner turmoil morphs into outer chaos.” Set in the 7 days leading up to Christmas in 1964 in a small town outside Boston, Eileen is the story of how a deeply unhappy young woman imprisoned by her circumstances finds a most unexpected accomplice who busts her out of her confinement, though arguably, as Bob Dylan sang, she uses a little too much force… While stylistically this reminds me of nothing so much as Shirley Jackson of The Birdcage and Vladimir Nabokov of King, Queen, Knave, in another sense this reminds me of the wonderful Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, in that there’s a political valence to this novel all the more powerful for being so beautifully sublimated in a powerful suspense novel. It’s a hell of a thing for a young woman to feel as unattractive as Eileen Dunlop is made to feel by the world around her; the wound is real. And so, though she makes choices you or I might perhaps not make – though perhaps you would! – I think few will say that in the end they’re not rooting for her to go all the way. Read more about Eileen here.
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. A few summers ago, Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s novel The Sound of Things Falling had just taken the literary world by storm. Bestselling, universally praised, hailed as “brilliant” on the cover of the New York Times Book review by Edmund White, the novel was a huge moment for Juan. Riverhead had published two earlier critically acclaimed novels of his as well: The Informers and The Secret History of Costaguana. He happened to be in New York, visiting from Bogota, Colombia, for the Brooklyn Book Festival where he wowed crowds with his mellifluous voice. I met up with Juan and his wife, Mariana, before his Festival events and we had a bagel brunch on the roof of my apartment building in Brooklyn – a quintessential borough activity. As we talked about future books by Juan, he mentioned an earlier book of his – Los Amantes de Todos los Santos (which we’ve translated as Lovers on All Saints’ Day) – a collection of stories that he had always felt was some of his best writing. And it had never been translated into English, not one story. I remembered his translator, the inimitable Anne McLean, confiding in me that the stories had always been some of her favorite writing of Juan’s too. I got jealous: they all loved this book and I had never read it! We hatched a plan then and there to bring this book out to American readers, to get it translated into English for the first time. One of the wonderful things about this story collection is how different it is from Juan’s novels. It takes place in Europe – mostly in France and Belgium – which had for many years been the place where Juan lived as an ex-pat, far from Colombia and South America. The influence of European writers, of a moody, earthy, ancient perspective, resounds through these stories. Juan references the idea that a story collection is like a novel where none of the characters know each other. They exist in a universe, struggling, loving, making grave mistakes and small triumphs, and at the end of this crescendo of a collection, you come away with an overwhelming sense of loss and love, of humanity at its most burdened and brilliant. This collection showcases the breadth of Juan’s ability; he is truly one of the great writers of our time, in any language, and I’m proud to bring all of his writing to American readers – past, present, and future. Learn more about Lovers on All Saints’ Day here.
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. Karen Joy Fowler and I have been together since 1990, when her agent sent me the manuscript of what was to become KJ’s first novel. That agent had discriminating taste and kept a small list. She also very quietly took the measure of the editors she met. I had known her for years and saw very little in the way of submissions. She placed her clients well and the marriages tended to last. So when the manuscript arrived, I was both curious and interested. Nabokov is famously on record as saying “you will know great fiction when the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end as you read.” It’s been my good fortune to have that happen many times though not having it happen is more the norm. With Karen Fowler’s Sarah Canary, it happened immediately and continued to the last page. Her agent had taken my measure over the years and now she hit a home run. That novel—quirky, subversive, funny and, yes, sad, was a literary success. Of the many glowing reviews, the one I still treasure came in as a prepublication comment. I should preface this by saying that in my wayward youth, I had gone to graduate school, reading politics and philosophy and, as a teaching assistant, handling the introductory comparative politics course. I loved the teaching and hated the grad school but I soldiered on until the day came when I realized I would never fit into the white, male- dominated world of academia. And I also realized that poetry and fiction mattered more to me than statistical analyses and grantsmanship. The revelation—not quite as dramatic as Paul on the road to Damascus but still undeniable—was made real when I found myself immersed in the poetry, memoirs, and short fictions of W. S. Merwin. I did not personally know Merwin, but from his work I sensed KJ’s novel would strike a chord and I sent him a bound galley. The result was all an editor could hope for. This U.S. Poet Lauriat and winner of just about every major literary prize had this to say: “An enchanted and enchanting narrative . . . a work with the suggestive authority and the evanescent power of myth. Her storytelling gifts are exhilarating.” KJ now has six novels to her credit, the most recent—We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves—a best seller on both sides of the Atlantic, earned her the PEN/Faulkner Award and made her a finalist for the Man Booker in the first year that prize was opened to Americans. Just this past week the Knopf publicist for Judy Blume’s new adult novel told us that as her tour began, all she wanted to talk about was WAACBO and she urged her audiences to read it. But then, from the beginning it was clear to me that KJ was a writer’s writer and her fans are legion—from Michael Chabon to Ann Packer, from Kaled Hosseini to Ursula Le Guin. If you have yet to read KJ, a good place to begin would be Black Glass: fifteen gemlike tales that showcase the extraordinary talents of this prizewinning writer. I published it in 1998 and its reception far outpaced what publishers expect from short story collections. Nationally (and very favorably) reviewed, it went on become a Ballantine Reader’s Circle paperback, with Ballantine simultaneously promoting all of her backlist. But that was seventeen years ago. The stories have worn well, and Putnam believed, following on the success of WAACBO, there was a new audience, a new generation to reach out to with this collection. But publishing short stories is still hard, and publishing a collection that has already had one incarnation can be a publicist’s nightmare. I’m happy to report that KJ’s terrific publicist (Katie Grinch) came through. At the end of May, Esquire magazine presented its summer reading list and Black Glass was one of their ten fiction selections. Not bad for a republished story collection! And KJ is set to revisit the Diane Rehm show this summer. She is also still touring, largely now to college campuses—several having made WAACBO the freshman read for the incoming class. In Black Glass, KJ lets her wit and vision roam freely, turning accepted norms inside out and fairy tales upside down—forcing us to reconsider our unquestioned verities and proving yet again that she is among our most subversive writers. By turns tender and funny, these stories are also dark and acerbic—the unexpected sting that jolts us out of our comfort zone. A master of the sly feint and cunning conceit, Fowler toys with figures from myth, history, and pop culture, upsetting all our expectations. So here is Carrie Nation loose again in the land, breaking up topless bars and radicalizing women as she preaches clean living to men more intent on babes and booze. And here is Mrs. Gulliver, her patience with her long-voyaging Lemuel worn thin: money is short and the kids can’t even remember what their dad looks like. And what of Tonto, the ever faithful companion, now turning forty without so much as a birthday phone call from that masked man? Playing with time, chance, and reality, Black Glass is, as Kirkus said, filled with “ferociously imaginative stories in an accomplished and risk-taking work from one of our most interesting writers.” The New York Times Book Review: “There is much that is fantastical about Black Glass, but also much that is rooted in a solid emotional reality; in fine-edged and discerning prose, Fowler manages to re-create both life’s extraordinary and its ordinary magic.” San Francisco Chronicle: “[An] astonishing voice . . . at once lyric and ironic, satiric and nostalgic. Fowler can tell tales that engage and enchant.” The Washington Post: “’Black Glass,’ Fowler’s longest story, is one of those marvels that defeat criticism. It’s a piece of bravura virtuosity, which Fowler also manages to make extremely funny. You reread the story, intent on discovering how she did it, and end up losing yourself again to wonder and enjoyment.” The Boston Globe: “Arresting . . . each piece puts us on notice in its own way that an intriguing intelligence is at work.” So, is this multitalented woman a monster? Well, no. No, no, and no again. KJ emerged from the politics that was Berkley in the sixties and she never lost her commitment to fair play and justice. She is a warm and generous woman with a brilliant mind. If you want to know more about her, read her prefatory essay in this new edition of Black Glass. Oh, and one more thing: She wasn’t an English major and did an MA in southeast Asian history. Plus she does not have an MFA in writing. Thank heaven there are still writers who do not follow that cookie cutter path. Read more about Black Glass here.