Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

Hardcover, 240 pages
Expected publication: February 13th 2018 by Grove Press

An extraordinary debut novel, Freshwater explores the surreal experience of having a fractured self. It centers around a young Nigerian woman, Ada, who develops separate selves within her as a result of being born “with one foot on the other side.” Unsettling, heartwrenching, dark, and powerful, Freshwater is a sharp evocation of a rare way of experiencing the world, one that illuminates how we all construct our identities.

Ada begins her life in the south of Nigeria as a troubled baby and a source of deep concern to her family. Her parents, Saul and Saachi, successfully prayed her into existence, but as she grows into a volatile and splintered child, it becomes clear that something went terribly awry. When Ada comes of age and moves to America for college, the group of selves within her grows in power and agency. A traumatic assault leads to a crystallization of her alternate selves: Asụghara and Saint Vincent. As Ada fades into the background of her own mind and these selves–now protective, now hedonistic–move into control, Ada’s life spirals in a dark and dangerous direction.

Narrated by the various selves within Ada and based in the author’s realities, Freshwater dazzles with ferocious energy and serpentine grace, heralding the arrival of a fierce new literary voice.

It’s not easy to persuade a human to end their life – they’re very attached to it, even when it makes them miserable, and Ada was no different. But it’s not the decision to cross back that’s difficult; it’s the crossing itself.

Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater is a novel of layers that do not always nicely overlap; in fact, the pieces often seem to not fit together at all. It is a novel born from trauma and emotional paroxysms, a read that erupts with them throughout. You have to peel back the layers to get to what Emezi has laid underneath, to find the gems, to find the hidden well of pain and sentiment offered here, and that may not be a satisfying journey for many readers.

Freshwater is the story of Ada, a young Nigerian woman with a fractured self, or multiple personalities, due to the gods who have mistakenly taken root in her body and mind. It is a dark novel portraying the malevolence within us – that darkness at the very deepest depths of us that we hope to never have to witness of ourselves or in others. It is a novel that portrays the psychological effects of such darkness and emotional violence. When Ada comes into adulthood and leaves her splintered home for a new existence in a Virginia college, a traumatic sexual experience further shatters her mind and her multiple personalities are born. Ada fights a battle between herself, her other selves and her God she left behind, a battle to regain her equilibrium that veers her onto a dangerous course of self-destructive behavior. A path of bloodshed, tears and an equal dose of sexual trauma and exploration. Ada fights with herself, realizing something is wrong. She wants a change but her other personalities refuse to let her go.

Let me tell you now, I loved her because in the moment of her devastation, the moment she lost her mind, that girl reached for me so hard that she went completely mad, and I loved her because when I flooded through, she spread herself open and took me in without hesitation, bawling and broken, she absorbed me fiercely, all the way; she denied me nothing. I loved her because she gave me a name.

Freshwater was a novel that took a lot of patience for me to read. If you’re a reader who clings to continuity, who needs progressive character development to follow the path a protagonist’s life, or a reader who is in the least bit squeamish, this will likely prove to be a difficult read for you. Not an unworthy read – but a difficult one. The narrative leapt back and forth in time with new personalities and overlapping stories already told being retold differently. This book was a collage, a kaleidoscope, a reflection of a splintered self. Given the subject matter, the shattered quality of the narrative is understandable but at times arduous to read.

It was hard for me to fully connect with Freshwater when the moments of truth, heartbreak and the demise of entire relationships in Ada’s life were narrated, not fully shown in action. Emezi’s debut novel is more about the relationship between Ada and her other selves –internally—than it is about her outward experiences in the world. (view spoiler) It wasn’t enough for me, though some parts of the novel were absolutely gripping, and there were some lovely lines scattered throughout.

He wanted to pretend he was somehow better than he knew he was; he wasn’t ready to throw himself into sin. Humans find it easier to just lie and lie to themselves.

However, in those neglected moments (which is probably why the book is relatively short) the novel loses its soul and misses opportunities.

Other qualms:

The quote headings at the start of each chapter made no sense to me in the context of the story. Often, they made no sense to me at all though I got the feeling that they were Nigerian sayings. And I had too many WTF moments here because of the haphazard way life events and realizations were thrown into the narrative, no build-up, just dumped. I found myself reading whole passages and thinking, Where did this come from – outta thin air? That was the main issue I had with this novel: there was no real character development aside from Ada and Ewan, just a series of narrations and events.

I also never understood the title of the book. There was a reference to it at the end of the novel, but I found it to be too cryptic and unclear, so I still have no idea what it was trying to convey, why it was the namesake of the book. Because of this, I had the noteworthy experience of loving and hating Freshwater. There were moments where I couldn’t wait to turn the page and others where I skimmed past the incoherence of the We. Because of that, Freshwater’s dazzling and dreadful moments condensed down into a grade of 3 stars. ***

*I received an advance-read copy of the book from the publisher, Grove Press, via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

 

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Akwaeke Emezi Akwaeke Emezi

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Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melamed

Hardcover, 352 pages
Published July 25th 2017 by Little, Brown and Company

For fans of Emma Cline’s THE GIRLS and Emily St John Mandel’s STATION 11, this dark, unsettling and hugely compelling story of an isolated island cult will get under your skin.

GATHER THE DAUGHTERS tells the story of an end-of-the-world cult founded years ago when ten men colonised an island. It’s a society in which men reign supreme, breeding is controlled, and knowledge of the outside world is kept to a minimum. Girls are wives-in-training: at the first sign of puberty, they must marry and have children. But until that point, every summer, island tradition dictates that the children live wildly: running free, making camps, sleeping on the beach. And it is at the end of one such summer that one of the youngest girls sees something so horrifying that life on the island can never be the same again.

“When a daughter submits to her father’s will, when a wife submits to her husband, when a woman is a helper to a man, we are worshiping the ancestors and their vision.”

Jennie Melamed’s Gather the Daughters bowled me over in more ways than one. It was haunting, arresting, thought-provoking and confrontational in all the best ways possible. It pressed up against the boundaries of my personal comfort levels – and then pushed passed them. This was a novel with something to say, and Melamed’s voice carried far, loudly and still resonates in my head as I write this.

In Gather the Daughters, this island is no ordinary island, and these girls live no ordinary lifestyle. Cut off from the mainland (which they’ve been told has burned to the ground, riddled with disease, sin and destruction, never to be habitable again) they live in a dystopian world without realizing that they really don’t. The “ancestors” brought their people here as an escape, away from the laws and customs of the mainland, and built their own commandments (the Shalt-Nots) and customs for the people to abide by – customs which include no access to outside books or knowledge, a social hierarchy where men reign supreme and women are subservient in every possible way, and a land where fathers have a special relationship with their daughters…

In the midst of it all, a handful of girls have the wherewithal to question it all, and those who don’t suddenly disappear for speaking out band together to find answers…

The first thing I’ll say is that Gather the Daughters is not a read for the faint of heart, but it IS a book for readers who aren’t afraid to cross a few lines. Jennie Melamed has crafted a novel that both explores and speaks out for the victims of abuse with poeticism, grace and force. She tells their story, paints their woes and harnesses their pain to educate and lend them a voice. The Daughters will push you to your boundaries. It will make you uncomfortable, make you think, make you angry.

“She bit Garret Jacob badly when he tried to slide fingers over her breast in the night, waking to him cradling a bleeding palm and glaring at her. Embarrassed and guilty, she apologized and let him do whatever he wanted with her later – acts she was pretty sure the ancestors would have disapproved of.”

With this novel, Melamed addresses the effects of rape culture on its survivors and on its observers. But, it is so much more than that. Gather the Daughters is an exploration of cult mentality and the tools used on its subjects to maintain the status quo and power the cult forward, of patriarchal rule and oppression, of the burdens of womanhood, of the will we have to survive and of what happens when we lose that will and succumb to the influence of others. It is an exploration of the darkness within us all and of an extreme patriarchal system of oppression not unlike how many women live today.

“If everyone does it, it can’t be too bad, right?”

(I can only imagine someone said something similar just before drinking the Jonestown punch in ’78.)

From the very first page I was drawn in with one of the most haunting and arresting prologues I’ve read in a long time. Admittedly, there were times when the writing was too flowery in a way that took away from the poeticism of the novel rather than adding to it, so that what Melamed was trying to convey was nearly lost, but that never overshadowed the evocativeness of this atmosphere she painted for us. This world was complete. I felt it, lived it, was part of it, a difficult feat that Melamed surmounted with ease. Their world was all encompassing and the tension of their cult-like existence against the backdrop of the “Wastelands” was palpable. This novel started out of the gates with a bang garnishing an easy five stars, but the second half of the novel slowed a bit, while still offering morsels for thought, earning Jennie Melamed’s Gather the Daughters a very strong four stars overall. ****

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Jennie Melamed JENNIE MELAMED is a psychiatric nurse practitioner who specializes in working with traumatized children. During her doctoral work at the University of Washington, she investigated anthropological, biological, and cultural aspects of child abuse. Melamed lives in Seattle with her husband and three Shiba Inus.

Behind the Name: Joe McGinniss, Jr. Talks Life, Writing and the American Way

Hardcover, 368 pages
Published August 2nd 2016 by Simon Schuster

Joe McGinniss, Jr. isn’t just his father’s son. Here, the author of The Delivery Man and Carousel Court sheds some light on growing up the son of a celebrated author, his own writing process and, well, the thing he would change about American society if given the shot. After reading and reviewing Carousel Court, I was intrigued at the thought of getting to know more about this author in particular, and now we can. Here you have it folks — Joe lets loose his wry outlook on life and writing in this hilarious but thoughtful interview.

 

Question # 1

Some would say that writing is in your blood, as the son of the late, esteemed writer Joe McGinniss. How did your father’s professional heights, experiences and struggles impact your urge or desire to become a published author?

Great question. So, I watched him from afar; my parents divorced around the time of my birth, and my mother raised my sisters and me. We’d visit him on the weekend and during the summer and, though most of the time we spent with him he wasn’t working, the days he did were the same scene: dad in the kitchen early making something weird for breakfast, then into his office, closing the door and the hum of the Selectra…the paper being spooled in,….then typing….hours of it…until lunch.

 

Question #2

In your 2016 article, “Lessons from My Father” printed in The New Yorker, you gave a poignant account of your father’s life from your own point of view, from your childhood to his death after you’d become a published author yourself. What was it like to write such a telling account of the triumphs, pains and struggles of this man you loved beyond the words we know on his pages, and how does your knack for fearlessly regarding hard truths translate into your own fiction writing?

Oh boy. Kind of draining. But not technically difficult because there was so much emotion fueling the writing of the piece. I felt compelled to get some information out there about his personal struggles, demons if you will. He was loving and supportive and driven and flawed. His vulnerability and isolation haunted me. Something unseen prevented him from fully embracing the moment and those who cared most about him without drifting back into his personal darkness. Depression and drinking were/are a family legacy (both of his parents suffered from it both their entire adult lives. He was an only child. A lonely child.)

 

Question #3

As the author of full-length novels The Delivery Man (2008) and Carousel Court (2016), what is the hallmark of your writing process? Do you follow a particular path from inception to completion of a novel, and how does this process—if any—change as your career grows and morphs?

Initially, for the first two stories, there was a tonal quality that appealed to me. Visceral, spare, propulsive and haunting were all goals and came more readily. As well, so much of what I read that moved me tended to be spare and accessible, if not dark. A sense of place and location also were critical. Las Vegas and the exurbs of Los Angeles had me mesmerized, and I wanted to channel that as best I could through the lens of the story I was architecting. The current novel is less about place or even tone/mood and more character and plot driven (though the first two certainly had what seemed like pretty propulsive stories that one could ideally, if they were into it, race through). 

Dear lord those years. Too many between them from a writing perspective. I was, and am still in many ways, an idiot. I didn’t realize that it kind of doesn’t help one professionally in the writing business to take nearly a decade between books. Yes, I had good reasons (my son was born and my wife worked outside of the home).

 

Question #4

Both The Delivery Man and Carousel Court are phenomenal displays of contemporary literary Realism, written as “shattering indictment[s] of a society.” As a writer, do you start with this at the heart of your novel-writing process—an intuition to dispel myths and expose truths—or do you find it to be a byproduct of the topics you write about?

I’m not that sophisticated. I create what I can and try to convey what I feel and try to make sure it’s interesting. Does the story move and entertain and surprise? Is it boring the reader? Does it feel simultaneously real and dreamlike? I never know, but through the process of rereading and stewing about it, obsessing about how thin and uninspired it might read and is it working, will people want to pick it up and if they do, will they want to read it to the end—and if they do will they post some crap review on Goodreads complaining that the characters weren’t “likable” enough, as though novels and stories now have to provide new bff’s for readers.

 

Question #5

Your 2016 novel, Carousel Court, is written about a street you actually know intimately yourself. Did the actual people you know from this neighborhood shape the direction of the novel? If so, how?

Interesting. So Carousel Court is the name of a random cul de sac (I believe) that I located on Google maps, then zoomed in and did the whole street view thing where I spent hours tooling around the neighborhoods in the Inland Empire east of LA imagining life there. So no, I did not know it well. And the characters who I sentenced to a life there were pulled from the ether and other odd places and shaped into the cast of Carousel Court.

 

Question #6

In writing your novels, what were some of the sections, passages or themes that you or your editors opted to remove from the final drafts of the manuscripts, and why? How does this part of the editorial process shape your writing as a whole? 

Well my esteemed editor – a brilliant bloke named Jofie Ferrari Adler – suggested I write the last chapter in French. So that was awkward.

No not really. There was actually, with Carousel Court, one significant story turn that we didn’t agree on initially but discussed and meditated on and in the end, as always, the editor was right.

 

Question #7

Tell us one thing you wish you could change permanently about the American way or our society.

Public education. Schools should be community hubs, financed like private colleges, tailored to meet the needs and wants of the people they serve. Open year round and paying teachers so much more and training and retraining so that children and their families have an oasis available to them every day of the year every year of their lives no matter where they’re born or their neighborhood’s property values.

Oh and no more “summer vacation.” A few weeks off here and there but wow, like we need to educate and nurture our children less?

 

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The Sellout by Paul Beatty

Paperback, 289 pages
Published March 1st 2016 by Picador (first published March 3rd 2015)

The Sellout is the first book by an American author to win the UK’s prestigious Man Booker Prize.

A biting satire about a young man’s isolated upbringing and the race trial that sends him to the Supreme Court, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout showcases a comic genius at the top of his game. It challenges the sacred tenets of the United States Constitution, urban life, the civil rights movement, the father-son relationship, and the holy grail of racial equality – the black Chinese restaurant.

Born in the “agrarian ghetto” of Dickens – on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles – the narrator of The Sellout resigns himself to the fate of lower-middle-class Californians: “I’d die in the same bedroom I’d grown up in, looking up at the cracks in the stucco ceiling that’ve been there since ’68 quake.” Raised by a single father, a controversial sociologist, he spent his childhood as the subject in racially charged psychological studies. He is led to believe that his father’s pioneering work will result in a memoir that will solve his family’s financial woes. But when his father is killed in a police shoot-out, he realizes there never was a memoir. All that’s left is the bill for a drive-thru funeral.

Fueled by this deceit and the general disrepair of his hometown, the narrator sets out to right another wrong: Dickens has literally been removed from the map to save California from further embarrassment. Enlisting the help of the town’s most famous resident – the last surviving Little Rascal, Hominy Jenkins – he initiates the most outrageous action conceivable: reinstating slavery and segregating the local high school, which lands him in the Supreme Court.

This entire novel, especially the prologue, reminded me of the ramblings of someone’s old grandpa rocking on the front porch of his clapboard home. I can only assume this is exactly what Beatty was going for, by the direction the novel ended up taking, but I felt like I was reading—no, sifting through—a bunch of nonsense I just wanted to be done with. And a lot of this read like an ultra-liberal excuse to spout out the n-word (hard er, mind you) as both a starting point, comma and full stop to every paragraph. It was absolutely exhausting.

I was looking forward to a good satire, but I don’t think I ever laughed once, because I was too distracted by trying to figure out what the hell he was even rambling about and how it fit into any possible plot line, ironic device, literary direction–hell, even a Katt Williams-like satirical skit–anything! I wanted to like this one – the first time non-Commonwealthers are allowed to be considered for the Man Booker Prize and an American—I’d be lying if I didn’t go ahead and point out—and African American wins it. I HAVE to read it; I’m so excited…I’m so confused…I’m so let down.

I don’t want to take away from the win at all. Have it; keep it, Paul Beatty. But I’m not on the bandwagon. Not even a little bit. DNF.

 

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Paul Beatty Paul Beatty (born 1962 in Los Angeles) is a contemporary African-American author. Beatty received an MFA in creative writing from Brooklyn College and an MA in psychology from Boston University. He is a 1980 graduate of El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills, California.

In 1990, Paul Beatty was crowned the first ever Grand Poetry Slam Champion of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. One of the prizes for winning that championship title was the book deal which resulted in his first volume of poetry, Big Bank Takes Little Bank. This would be followed by another book of poetry Joker, Joker, Deuce as well as appearances performing his poetry on MTV and PBS (in the series The United States of Poetry). In 1993, he was awarded a grant from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts Grants to Artists Award.

His first novel, The White Boy Shuffle received a positive review in The New York Times, the reviewer, Richard Bernstein, called the book “a blast of satirical heat from the talented heart of black American life.” His second book, Tuff received a positive notice in Time Magazine. Most recently, Beatty edited an anthology of African-American humor called Hokum and wrote an article in The New York Times on the same subject.

Green by Sam Graham-Felsen

Hardcover, 320 pages
Published January 2nd 2018 by Random House

A novel of race and privilege in America that you haven’t seen before: a coming-of-age story about a life-changing friendship, propelled by an exuberant, unforgettable voice.

“This isn’t some Jedi bull****; the force I’m talking about is real, and its energies are everywhere, working on everyone.”

Boston, 1992. David Greenfeld is one of the few white kids at the Martin Luther King Middle School. Everybody clowns him, girls ignore him, and his hippie parents won’t even buy him a pair of Nikes, let alone transfer him to a private school. Unless he tests into the city’s best public high school–which, if practice tests are any indication, isn’t likely–he’ll be friendless for the foreseeable future.

Nobody’s more surprised than Dave when Marlon Wellings sticks up for him in the school cafeteria. Mar’s a loner from the public housing project on the corner of Dave’s own gentrifying block, and he confounds Dave’s assumptions about black culture: He’s nerdy and neurotic, a Celtics obsessive whose favorite player is the gawky, white Larry Bird. Together, the two boys are able to resist the contradictory personas forced on them by the outside world, and before long, Mar’s coming over to Dave’s house every afternoon to watch vintage basketball tapes and plot their hustle to Harvard. But as Dave welcomes his new best friend into his world, he realizes how little he knows about Mar’s. Cracks gradually form in their relationship, and Dave starts to become aware of the breaks he’s been given–and that Mar has not.

Infectiously funny about the highs and lows of adolescence, and sharply honest in the face of injustice, Sam Graham-Felsen’s debut is a wildly original take on the struggle to rise in America.

 

I will be surrounded by dudes like this for the rest of my life. White boys and white girls who grew up behind whitewashed fences, who grew up with no idea, for the rest of my life. The force preordained it: Not only will I be surrounded by them, I will become one of them, the thing I hate and can’t escape. Not a white boy or a whitey or a white b*tch, but a white person.

If you’re looking for a way to start your new year out right, Green is absolutely the way to go. Prepare yourself to be transported by a distinctive voice and a story line that screams with authenticity. More than authentic—it was one that mirrored what middle school was like for me in the 90s: the same cliques, the same typecasts, the same social rules. This novel transported me back to those days, back to those vibrations in the air, to that slang on our tongues, to those priorities in our pre-teen minds and to those questions that plagued our thoughts night and day about the world around us and our place in it.

Picture it (in my Estelle Getty voice): Boston, 1992.

David Greenfeld is one of the only white sixth graders at Martin Luther King Middle School—the “ghetto” school—with no friends, no cool points, and no chance at getting a girl. His Harvard-educated, politically correct, granola parents don’t understand his pleas to be removed from the school, and there seems to be no end to the social torture in sight. Until. He meets Marlon Wellings, an ultra-smart, Boston Celtics-obsessed, black kid from the projects across the street whose street smarts start to rub off on Dave and who’s life in the hood and drive to get out of it spark questions in Dave’s mind he’s never contemplated before.

In Green, Sam Graham-Felsen gives us a fresh look at the merging of two cultures, literally painting it is a physical intersection of neighborhoods as well as of cultural mores and rules. I couldn’t help but remember another book I’ve reviewed recently that was also a coming-of-age story with a jumping off point from the ’92 L.A. riots—and all the while, I marveled at how much better this story was told, at how much more the voice and experiences rang true. Graham-Felsen brought these characters to life on the page. He gave them hopes and made them my hopes. He made them fall, and I felt the blow myself. And he made them fail, as we all do in life sometimes. It is in those moments that this novel’s heart is most evident and that its impact slammed into me the hardest.

Through Dave and Marlon, Graham-Felsen explores the color line through the eyes of adolescents still finding themselves amidst the chaos of race relations. What really set this novel apart for me is that he gave us the perspective of the white side of the fence, while still being true to both stories, to both cultures.

In school the next day, Ms. Ansley shows us another installment of this long, made-for-TV movie we’ve been watching called Roots. When she introduced it, she said we needed to know our history, especially after what happened in L.A…I hear people shifting in their chairs. The violence is one thing: We all know the wounds are just makeup, the whip’s just a prop, the loud crack’s only a sound effect. But the n-word is different. Even if it’s just acting, it’s still the real n-word. I’ve heard it ten thousand times…but always with the soft ending. Hearing it with the hard er …makes my face muscles clench up even thinking about it. All that evil, all that power, packed into two tiny syllables.

Then, we have ‘the force.’

As their school year progresses and confrontations are had, as Dave’s belief in religion is explored and his cross into cultures and upbringings other than his own changes his outlook on his surroundings, he begins to ponder the idea of ‘the force,’ his interpretation of race relations around him. He sees it everywhere. It peppers his every interaction with the world around him, and jolts him out of adolescence and into a more adult mindset:

It seemed like the smoke of those riots spread all across the continent, all the way to Boston, like they were looking for their own Reginald Denny, because as far as I could tell they stepped for no other reason than the fact that I was white. But as I ran away…I began to wonder if maybe I was looking at them the wrong way, the same way I must have stared at the TV screen when those dudes bundled Denny—a shook and boggled look that said, You are predators—and maybe that made them want to treat me like prey. All summer, I tried to deny the force, but I felt it every time I got checked on my way past the Shaw Homes…And I felt ashamed of that…and yeah, I’ve been feeling ashamed that the force has been with me, pretty much nonstop…

Green was an entertaining read and one that provoked thought. There were moments when I laughed out loud and, yes, even a moment when I cried. There’s something for everyone within these pages, because we all know at least one of these characters, from the granola do-gooders to that kid from the wrong side of the tracks. Here’s your chance now to get glimpse into their world. I wouldn’t be saying enough to say that I highly recommend this book for readers of all sizes, colors and creeds who are ready to open their minds and their outlooks. I even recommend it for all ages, because the cultural boundaries explored within Green are real and not to be ignored. The tragedies of everyday life surrounding us are real and not to be downplayed. And the line between the haves and the have nots, the clueless and the culturally aware, the predators and the prey is real and should never, ever be doubted. 4.5 stars. *****

 

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Sam Graham-Felsen Writer based in Brooklyn. Author of the novel, GREEN (Random House, Jan 2018). Former chief blogger for Barack Obama.

Magic Meets Humanity, Resilience Meets Reality – Chloe Benjamin Tackles the Ultimate Life Question: How We Handle Mortality

Chloe Benjamin’s magically poignant new novel, The Immortalists, hits the shelves everywhere January 2018! The rising new literary star stopped in at The Navi Review to discuss all things bookish and — dare I say it? — existentialist. Read here as the author we’d all love to know, of the novel we can’t wait to snag, leaves a little piece of herself here for her readers.

 

Question # 1

You’ve described your life in eight words as: “Lakes, books, coffee, crafting, friends, stories, quiet, home.” Can you describe for us a typical day in your life, and how your writing and writing success has changed (or not changed) that eight-word formula for you?

I’m very impressed you found that S&S questionnaire! Happily, a typical day in my life hasn’t changed very much, although I’m now a full time writer (while I wrote my first book, I worked in social services). I live in Madison, WI, where I did my MFA, which is far from the publishing epicenter in New York City. While I used to worry I might miss opportunities by being so far away, I’ve realized that having a quieter, more removed life is a good fit for me. I love to fly into New York, but it’s better for my work to have a few degrees of separation from the hubbub and pressure. Most days, I try to write from 9am to 12 or 1pm and use afternoons for emails, media and other business-y things. Working out, going to yoga, spending cozy evenings with friends, and knitting (a lot!) keep me balanced.

 

Question #2

Your debut novel, The Anatomy of Dreams, explores similar themes as The Immortalists. Going by a description comparable in its probing questions—“Human beings are more productive than ever before, but they’re also unhappier. They feel oppressed by the limits of their lives: the boredom, the repetition, the fatigue. What if you could use your sleep to do more—to receive all of the traditional regenerative benefits while problem-solving, healing, even experiencing alternate worlds? Wouldn’t you be capable of extraordinary things?” –your novels explore the idea of “what if” and the oppression that life’s limits press upon us. What do you want to say the loudest as you explore these themes; what do you want to ensure that your readers get out of these novels once they’ve turned that final page?

I’m drawn to big, existential questions: the tension between life’s limits and possibilities, the tension between knowledge and uncertainty, and so on. I think we all cope with these curiosities, to some degree, so I hope that my novels offer readers the chance to sit with and explore them. With The Immortalists in particular, and its focus on mortality, I hope it offers solace and companionship for those who also struggle with uncertainty, anxiety and loss—as well as the question of how to live fully.

 

Question #3

The world you created in The Immortalists is so complete, from the description of magic tricks to the inner workings of experimental science, it’s obvious that you did a lot of research to get the details just right. What can you tell us about your research process for this novel? 

Both of my novels have taken quite a bit of research, but The Immortalists definitely takes the cake! Each of its four sections required a deep dive into a different character, time period, profession and subculture, from the Castro’s early gay community to the world of professional magicians. To keep myself from becoming overwhelmed, I focused on these sections one at a time, though I sometimes had to jump forward and research the next character because of their role in the previous character’s section (for instance, I had to understand Klara’s passion for magic while writing the preceding section, Simon’s). My research process included a wide variety of materials, from nonfiction and memoirs to documentaries, archival footage, interviews and travel.

 

Question #4

In The Immortalists, magic plays a big factor in the story line and becomes a metaphor throughout, which becomes the novel’s namesake. What is your own personal experience with magic, and how did you know it was the perfect fit for Klara?

I didn’t have any experience with the world of magic prior to writing the book, but like Klara, I do have a curiosity about the edges of reality—or, put differently, how much of reality seems inexplicable, how it can be mindbogglingly strange and hard to pin down. When I thought of the name for Klara’s act, I knew it was the perfect title for the novel, as all of the characters chafe against mortality in different ways. I see religion, science and magic—all belief systems that offer ways of coping with these questions—as more related than they might seem on the surface.

 

Question #5

Readers who know and follow you will be able to tell that you put a lot of yourself into The Immortalists, such as your love of science and medicine and your personal experience with both San Francisco and New York, where you went to school. What other nuggets of yourself or your past can be found within the pages of this novel?

I grew up with San Francisco and gay parents, and I was a ballet dancer for about fifteen years—so even though I’m not a gay man, I probably share the most DNA with Simon’s section. On the other hand, I identify with Klara’s passion and ambition, and with Varya’s tendency toward anxiety and control. I’m probably least similar to Daniel, though I have a soft spot for him, and his section is set near Poughkeepsie, NY, where I went to college.

 

Question #6

As an MFA holder and writing instructor, I’m sure you’ve run across so many different forms and genres of writing. What forms or genres of writing have you not yet experimented with yourself, and would you like to ever try writing in those forms? What makes those so different from the writing you do now?

I think of my writing as being pretty traditional literary fiction: character-driven, with an attention to language—though I love a good story and am always trying to improve my use of plot! There’s a bit of a speculative or magical realist element to my work, and I admire writers who write more fully within those traditions. I’m fascinated by outer space and have a wild dream of writing a novel set on a space station, but I have no experience writing sci-fi and the research for that kind of project feels even more intimidating than what I did for The Immortalists!

 

Question #7

Which of your short stories or review articles (previously or soon-to-be published) was the hardest to write or conceptualize, and what was that experience like for you?

The hardest one to write was one that hasn’t yet been published, as I’ve been keeping it under my hat until I feel brave enough to share it. It’s about my own history of anxiety, especially as it relates to loss and the body.

 

Question #8

What is the strangest compliment you’ve ever received regarding your writing, whether in school or since being published?

Ooh, strangest? I once got a three-star review that said something like, “Was gonna be a two; got a little better.”

 

Question #9

The road from drafting a novel on your laptop to having it published by a major publisher can be just as long and grueling a process as it is exciting and self-verifying. What is your most memorable experience with your editorial team thus far? Have there been any situations where you do did not agree with their edits, and, if so, how did you deal with this?

I’d like to think I’m both open to feedback—that’s why you have an editor, after all!—and firm in my vision for my work. When my agent sent the book to publishers and I spoke with the editors who were interested, I was lucky to find someone who shared my vision but could also improve on it. I have to say that the publishing process has been incredibly smooth and positive. My editor and I are very simpatico, and if one of us feels strongly, the other typically understands and cedes to them.

 

Question #10

All of your readers are dying to know: what projects are you looking forward to working on next?

I’m working on another novel, though I’ve had to set it aside entirely in the past few weeks, as publicity ramps up for The Immortalists. I’ll be on tour throughout January (feel free to link to the tour schedule on my website!), but after I come back and sleep for a thousand hours, I’m excited to get back to it.

 

Where the Tables Turn: Feel free to ask me any question you’d like for me to answer for my readers, and/or pose a question to your readers or the general public!

There are more ways for bloggers, reviewers and readers to connect with authors these days, but I imagine that presents challenges when it comes to offering unbiased coverage. How do you juggle connecting with authors and writing honest reviews?

To answer Chloe’s question (other reviewers and bloggers, feel free to join in!): That’s a really great question. For me, writing reviews is about honesty, exploration and being 100% myself. I think—and I hope!—that that’s why my readers keep reading and following. I appreciate every author who takes the time from their busy lives to interact with me and the readers, while at the same time I think it’s important to give a fair review that is genuinely how I feel about the book. (Ironically, the only 1* review I’ve ever written is my most famous, with nearly 700 likes on Goodreads and counting—people love a good takedown.) Of the authors so far who are participating in this series (2 of which are not yet posted) I’ve given two 3* reviews, a 4* review and two 5* reviews. I’m just as excited to interview a 1* star-reviewed author as I am to interview a 5*-reviewed author, because it allows all readers to get to know that writer and their work—AND it allows me to ask questions that may clear up sour points in their novel for me.

Writing is an objective art. I don’t only write reviews; I’ve just completed my own novel and I’m working on a short story collection. I know that criticism can sting but that it can also add a new and dynamic POV that others had not thought to explore before. Being able to straddle that line allows me to juggle connecting with authors on a human level with writing honest reviews of their work. I would never embellish or mark down a review for likes or to get an author to work with me—BUT I do sometimes round stars up for novels that have a message I loved with a delivery I did not or some other incongruence such as that. For me, each rating is about the reading experience as a whole on an intellectual level. 🙂

The Jekyll & Hyde & Various Sides of Writer Joy Lanzendorfer

To start the New Year of 2018 off with a BANG, if you’re looking for a dynamic writer you may not have encountered yet, look no further, for Joy Lanzendorfer is here! From short stories to blogging, photography to non-fiction articles, she shares her writing experiences with us here at The Navi Review. Oh, and don’t worry – she’s no Mr. Hyde, but you’ll love reading about her interest and experience with it!

Question # 1

You have written dozens of freelance articles for publications such as Mental Floss and The Atlantic, including many “facts you didn’t know about____” pieces. Where do you come up with the ideas for these pieces, and how do you know all of these fun facts?

I get ideas by noticing connections and asking questions. I find that when you follow your curiosity, one thing leads to another, and you end up making discoveries. For example, I became interested in Robert Louis Stevenson’s time in Napa, near where I live, because he honeymooned on a mountain that I’ve hiked before. In researching that, I learned that he stayed in a hotel in Monterey that still exists, so of course I had to visit that too. While there, I learned that he got the idea for Treasure Island from Monterey—while there, someone found Spanish coins on a beach and people speculated that pirates had put them there. I also learned how sick Stevenson was while in Monterey, and I started wondering how a man who died at age 44 from tuberculosis managed to accomplish so much in his life—he traveled much of the world and wrote a bunch of best-selling fiction. And THAT led to the discovery that he likely wrote Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde while on a cocaine binge. He was prescribed the drug and then wrote the novel in just a few days after he started taking it. Naturally I had to share all this with Mental Floss, which I did in my article 11 Strange Facts About Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (http://mentalfloss.com/article/67769/11-strange-facts-about-dr-jekyll-and-mr-hyde). So that’s an example of how I get ideas. Lots of curiosity, lots of research.

 

Question #2

You maintain a blog at www.ohjoy.org where you post everything from short stories to vacation photos to articles you’ve written for various publications. How has blogging helped you in your writing career, and what drives you to continue blogging?

It’s funny because I made my first website in 1996, and I’ve been online in some way since then, but it hasn’t helped my career at all until recently. I think the difference comes from building up social media, which I started doing about three years ago. Having more of a Twitter presence means that if followers are curious about me or read something I wrote, they’re more likely to go to the blog to see who I am. Sometimes that means they’ll reach out to me professionally. When I put up that I was looking for a literary agent, several agents saw it and emailed me, which never would have happened before I was on Twitter. I don’t think writers have to blog, but I do think it’s smart to have some kind of site with your bio and contact information. These days, people want to see who you are online.

Question # 3 

That would be “You’re A Good Man, Andy Hardy,” which was published in Hotel Amerika, and unfortunately isn’t online. It’s about the Andy Hardy movies of the 1930s, which starred Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. The story is from the point of view of Betsy Booth, Judy Garland’s character, and it deals with gender inequality and traditional American ideas of what makes people “good” and “bad.” It’s the closest I’ve come to writing in the creative mode I’d ideally like to stay in, which is somewhat surreal and lyrical while still humorous. And the story gave me no hassle and came together easily, which makes me like it more.

Question #4

You seem to have a real passion for photography. Your blog features everything from nature photos to candid shots in everyday life. How did you develop your passion for photography, and how does this impact your writing?

Good question. I’ve never thought about this before. The short answer is that I’m just a creative person and I’m always making or recording or expressing something in some way. I cook and garden and sew and knit and all kinds of crap like that. I also come from a creative family. My grandfather was a photographer, my mom’s a painter, and my dad builds things out of wood, so it’s no surprise that I’m a visual thinker. Photography allows me to express my experience of a situation visually, and I like to share that experience with others. (My mom also makes oil paintings from the pictures I take, so I do a lot of it for her.) As for my writing, it’s useful to have a visual record of things I’ve experienced because I might want to describe something from it in the future.

 

Question #5

You’ve written and interviewed extensively on “The Rise of Plagiarism in Self-Publishing.” For those who haven’t read your work on this (which can be found at www.ohjoy.org), what circumstance have you personally encountered that has made you such a passionate voice about this?

I don’t think anything I’ve written has been plagiarized, although who knows? I’ve never looked. But I can’t imagine anything worse than someone taking your work and passing it off as their own, especially if it’s your creative writing. This may make me seem petty, but in school I hated when people copied me. I really couldn’t stand it if I did something original and someone else started doing it too. So I empathized with the writers in that article, especially since they had so little recourse for protecting their work.

 

Question #6

In your flash fiction such as “Murmur” and “Drought,” you pack social commentary into short reading doses. Do you find that it’s easier or more difficult to make an impact with flash fiction than with longer short stories or full-length fiction? What is your preferred medium of writing, and why?

I prefer novels. With novels, you have room to build worlds and develop characters, and the reader is more likely to go along with you. I think full-length short stories are the hardest things to write, period. They’re very finicky. They work best when the ending resonates, which means that writing them is a matter of setting out the exact components of a story—no more, no less—that lead to an earned ending that somehow equals all that came before. That’s hard to get right and it’s easy to think a short story is done when it’s not. Short-shorts are easier for me. They have to shift in some way to be a “story,” but that shift can be interpreted many ways, which means they’re more experimental. I like to experiment.

 

Question #7

What forms of writing have you not yet experimented with, and would you like to ever try writing in those forms? What makes those forms so different from the writing you do now?

I’m interested in playwriting. When I was in high school, I would go to the library, get out stacks of plays, and then read them, one after another. Because of this, the structure of a play is burned in my brain. I still read plays and keep up with current playwrights. Writing in all dialogue would come naturally to me, so maybe I’ll give it a try some day.

 

Question #8

Which of your stories is the first short story you ever had published in a literary magazine, and what was that experience like?

It was in college. It was a short story for a magazine called Straight Up!, or something silly like that. The story had to do with a glass swan, if I remember correctly. I probably have a copy up in the attic. It was a big deal to me because they paid me $80 for the story, which was the first time I was paid for something I wrote. At the time, I was debating whether or not to be a writer, and that story pushed me over toward writing, for better or worse.

 

Question #9

What is the strangest compliment you’ve ever received regarding your writing?

At a party recently, I ran into someone who was at a reading I gave 7-8 years ago. The story I read was about a creepy stalker with a glove fetish. Apparently my story freaked out this woman so much that she can’t look at gloves without thinking about it. She said I changed how she looks at gloves. Imagine that! It was one of the nicest compliments I’ve ever received.

 

Question #10

Tell us one awkward/embarrassing/unique fact about yourself.

 

I asked my friend what I should say here, and she reminded me of the weird things I do to myself when I’m writing. I’ll wrap myself in multiple blankets so not the slightest shift in air temperature can penetrate my skin, then I’ll put giant headphones on to block out noise, and then, if the light is bothering me, I’ll slap a sunhat on top of my head. I’ll look like a mummy with a crumpled sunhat on its head. It’s the most unsexy, silly way to write, but it helps me concentrate when I’m not distracted by bodily discomfort. It’s like putting blinders on a horse so it can concentrate on walking down the street.

 

Where the Tables Turn: Feel free to ask me any question you’d like for me to answer for my readers, and/or pose a question to your readers or the general public! 

 

What’s your favorite writing prompt? I like looking at the Post Secrets site for inspiration. (https://postsecret.com/)

 

To answer Joy’s question (readers, feel free to jump in and respond as well!) I tend to prefer prompts that push me outside of my comfort zone but not so far as to go completely to left field. For example, I love the prompt “Write about somebody who is COMPLETELY unlike yourself.” That’s how my short story “Kid Gloves” was written, from a prompt I was given years ago. However, if I was given a prompt like “Write about a Martian living on Mars” I’d be at a complete loss!

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