The January 26 Association of American Publisher’s (AAP) Debut Author Panel, which featured novelists published by Riverhead, Atlantic Monthly, Norton, and William Morrow, gave four writers an opportunity to talk about how their first books began and how they got to market. Dina Nayeri, Margaret Wrinkle, Sean Pidgeon, and Tara Conklin spoke at length on questions of authenticity—who is allowed to tell certain stories—and research—write what you know, they said, or write what you want to know more about.
Wrinkle, whose novel, Wash, follows Washington, a slave who worked as a “sire,” talked about how she, as a white woman, came to write a novel about an enslaved black man. “I didn’t even think about anyone reading it,” she began, but “I’ve been challenged by the question, ‘Why do you have the right to talk about this story?’” It’s a question she’s sought to answer through her own family history: Wrinkle is a descendant of slave-owners, and one of her own ancestors was rumored to sell the services of his male slaves as sires. “Having slave-holding ancestors means that it’s my story too,” Wrinkle said. “This is something that needs to be written about.”
Nayeri, whose A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea tells the story of twin sisters separated at age 11, one to grow up in America, the other to remain in Iran. Nayeri, who moved to Oklahoma from Iran when she was ten, said “Maybe Iranians think that I don’t have enough authority to write about Iran.” Having lived in the United States since the 1980s, she explains, “The Iran I experienced is worlds away from the Iran that exists now.” Ultimately, she says, “You write what comes to you and you do the best with it.” Stories are not anyone’s property, she maintains, concluding that “It belongs to you if you write it and you do the work.”
All four debut novelists wrote about a subject that they had some distance from, whether temporal or geographic and whether centuries or decades in the past. All relied on research. Even Nayeri, whose novel is the most contemporary of the group’s, talked about the work she did interviewing Iranians still living in the rural area she wrote about. She even got notes from a very vociferous Frenchman who had lived in Iran for decades, alerting her to when she forgot turmeric in a recipe, often “with forty exclamation points.”
Pigeon, author of Finding Camlann, a novel about two modern scholars who discover what might be concrete proof of King Arthur’s existence, and Conklin, whose novel, The House Girl, follows a young woman enslaved in 1852 Virginia and a modern-day lawyer seeking reparations for the descendants of slaves, both talked about “writing what you know.” Pigeon spoke of his lifelong attachment to the Arthurian legends. “I wrote about something I knew very well. It still took me 16 years to write.” He admitted, “I don’t want to think about how long it would take for me to write about something I don’t know.” Conklin—also a white woman writing about slavery—said that while she chose not to focus on an unfamiliar subject, “I was obsessed with learning about it.”
Wrinkle spoke about the photos in her novel: “It’s very unusual.” She explained, “It’s interesting trying to write a book about slavery when half of the people in the story were denied literacy, [came] from an oral culture, were controlled by documents.” Wrinkle went on, “I want to look at other forms of literacies: to think metaphorically, to read images, to read the natural world as you would the text.”
Conklin concurred, saying that she hopes her novel forces readers to think about “who has written history. Whose are the voices we hear when we read history, when we read textbooks.”