Periodically, we hear that fiction is dead or at least seriously impaired, a belief spectacularly disproved by the four United for Libraries panels at the recent American Library Association conference in Chicago. From Anton DiScalfani, crossing boundaries with her luminous and erotically charged best seller, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, to John Scalzi, who launched an intriguing experiment in online storytelling that became The Human Division, to Kent Wascom, gifting us with an historical titled The Blood of Heaven that’s more than history, the authors presented aren’t just writing strong, illuminating fiction but rethinking its possibilities.
Wascom wrapped up the “First Author, First Book” panel, always an exciting showcase of fiction’s future and this year one of the best “firsts” panel ever fielded by United for Libraries. Though his book is grounded in historical fact—the adopted brothers of his antihero actually existed in West Florida, the Gulf Coast region that changed hands frequently in the early 1800s and was briefly independent—Wascom declared that he really wanted to examine “the conflict between our Enlightenment ideals and the more savage ‘ideals’ of religious fanaticism, avarice, and violence.”
For this reason, he sees his book as applicable to today’s world, rife with nation making and religious frenzy, and clearly it has touched a nerve. While on tour, he was asked by one irate listener how he expected genteel Southern people to read it (“It’s not for the faint of heart,” Wascom conceded). “Well, I don’t, frankly,” explained the New Orleans–born author. “But genteel Southern people got us into war, so maybe a little confronting with violence and darkness would be good.”
Wascom was not the only “First Author” to make a bold statement by plumbing U.S. history. Janice Clark opened the proceedings by presenting The Rathbones, a gorgeous, near-mythic story about a 19th-century whaling family that she rightly described as “a New England gothic adventure that’s the Odyssey meets Moby-Dick by way of the Addams family.” In The Resurrectionist, explained Matthew Guinn, he drew on a medical college’s real-life discovery on its grounds of the bones of dissected African American slaves to ask profound ethical questions about the continuing legacy of slavery. One of the “resurrectionists” was in fact an African American slave whom Guinn at first thought of as “the boogeyman,” preying on his own community, but who, he finally realized, had no choice.
In You Are One of Them, Elliott Holt also drew on real-life events—American ten-year-old Samantha Smith’s writing to Soviet leader Yuri Andropov pleading for peace—to craft “a mystery of sorts but also a character study” featuring two girls suffering not nuclear but personal fallout. (“I wondered what would happen if there were two girls, and I thought it would be more interesting to write about the marginalized one,” she offered.) Jessica Soffer’s Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots expands to world history, recalling “the beauty of Iraqi Jewish culture that’s now mostly bygone” while also addressing the personal; this is a novel of “light and dark, tending toward hope” about a young woman battling self-mutilation, which Soffer sees as an obsession akin to her love of books.
Amy Gail Hansen deftly explained The Butterfly Sister, about one young woman’s struggle with mental breakdown and a college classmate’s disappearance, by explaining the kinds of books she herself likes to read: mystery, upmarket women’s fiction, good book-club books, and classic authors (“I taught middle school and high school, and I am drawn to the historical background of writers, especially regarding the connection between creativity and madness”).
Finally, in The Returned, inspired by a dream about his deceased mother, Jason Mott considers what would happen if the dead started coming back—a complicated scenario because “we are different from who we were when the person died, we’ve dealt with their passing.” Mott’s book, out in August, is already grabbing good reviews and good attention; it will be an ABC series in the fall.
Trying Something New
Other United for Libraries panels included debut authors, among them Stephen Kiernan, who discussed The Curiosity at “Quirky Books for Quirkier Librarians.” As a George Polk Award–winning journalist, Kiernan has some four million words in print, but getting a novel published took some doing. (A previous novel was a James Jones First Novel Fellowship runner-up but collected 47 rejections.) Inspired by a James Taylor song, his story of a frozen man’s revival got a big boost when he vacationed with Chris Bohjalian and another author; they told him that the plot needed a beautiful woman “who was smarter than anyone else.” Quickly, Kiernan shifted his focus from social criticism, achieving success by “taking out the VP, putting in a shower scene, and giving myself permission to tell a love story.”
Sf great John Scalzi, likewise featured on the “Quirky” panel, also talked about doing something different. His latest work, The Human Division, started life as an online serialized novel because back in 2009 his publisher, Tor, got the bright idea of engaging more actively in electronic publishing. As serialization has been around at least since Dickens, “We thought, Why not do something new,” explained Scalzi. “Why not do episodic storytelling, with each episode a complete story that could be read in one sitting. Stacked together, though, they could create a narrative arc.” The experiment was a success; each of the 13 distinctive episodes was a USA Today best seller, the book is doing well, and Scalzi enjoyed the entire process (“I was never bored!”).
Scalzi wasn’t the only author who’s been experimenting. Inspired by a dream about a girl in a record shop stocking vinyl discs that hold not music but souls, “Sandman Slim” author Richard Kadrey wrote the YA novel Dead Set, which sends 16-year-old heroine Zoe to a twisted beyond—“like the Wizard of Oz with dead people instead of munchkins,” as he explained at the “Crossing Over! Teen Books for Everyone” panel. Comparing Zoe to tough-guy Sandman Slim, Kadrey commented, “I write about powerful characters. Here I wanted to write about someone with none of the power.”
At the “Shoot Between the Lines: Mystery Writers Reveal All” panel, John Dufrense explained his departure from literary fiction with the darkly witty literary thriller No Regrets, Coyote by noting his success with stories published in Miami Noir and Boston Noir, volumes in Akashic’s best-selling series. Both ended up in ”Best American Mystery” annuals, and Dufrense realized, “I could do this.”
Sara Gran set the tone nicely at the “Shoot Between the Lines” panel by proclaiming, “I am obsessed with mysteries. They’re deeply psychological and archetypal because they mirror the very real mysteries we face in our own lives.” Her new novel, Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway, second in a series, is set partly in an urban-decayed 1980s New York City that takes in Brooklyn, where she grew up. “It was an abandoned city with a mystery behind it. Why was no one coming to help?”
Discussing Downfall, third in his Sam Capra series, three-time Edgar nominee Jeff Abbott described his book as “Strangers on a Train to the nth degree. What would you do to save your family? And what if bad people asked that same question?” Before writing Loyalty, starring a tougher-than-nails heroine who recalls “Lisbeth Salander within social norms,” Ingrid Thoft tried her hand at amateur sleuths but found it uninspiring to make bodies drop conveniently dead at her protagonist’s feet. So she took a private investigator course and came to understand that the civil investigators who work for personal injuries lawyers “serve an important role, helping a certain segment of the population without a safety net, without family or insurance.” And that’s what made it into her debut novel.
In his new standalone, The Innocence Game, inspired by the actual Northwestern innocence seminar in which students work toward freeing falsely imprisoned inmates on death row, news Emmy Award winner and documentary Academy Award nominee Michael Harvey got into some very real, very stark mysteries. (Harvey is the author of the popular Michael Kelly series.) As the three students in the novel’s seminar work on a case, Harvey introduced some chilling real-life facts, particularly a conviction won because drops of the victim’s blood were found on the accused’s clothing. Testing showed, though, that the blood was full of citric acid, barely present in human blood but used in large doses to preserve it—clear evidence of framing. In a similar case, a 2000 execution in Texas was carried out after both the Supreme Court and then-governor George Bush refused to hear appeals.
Interestingly, authors at the “Crossing Over! Teen Books for Everyone” panel clarified not only why YA literature appeals to adults but how it can vivify contemporary writing generally. As Amanda Sun said, “There are truths in childhood that we need to know, but we’ve lost something along the way. Let’s fix literature.” Sun spoke about her debut YA title, Ink, which draws on Japanese mythology to present two adolescents—one American, one Japanese—overcoming cultural difference to confront a mystery between them. Sun, trained in archaeology and hence well aware that “society changes but people don’t,” pointed out that fairytales are dangerous, but necessarily so, bringing readers young and old closer to life’s essential toughness.
Her perspective was shared by sister panelist Tod Davies, editor and publisher of Exterminating Angel Press and author of the “History of Arcadia” series (including the recent Lily the Silent), dark-edged fairytales for both YAs and adults. Davies argued that fairytales hold universal, biological truths and that, problematically, “modern literature takes the position that there is no good and evil,” issues that children’s and YA literature confront directly. Like Davies, who wouldn’t flinch at recommending Anne of Green Gables to a downhearted divorcee, the “Crossing Over!” authors saw the YA/adult line as fading and unnecessary. Said Darynda Jones, author of the adult “Charley Davidson” series and now a new YA series launched with 2012’s Death and the Girl Next Door, “We’re all friends here, and now YA is being written really well.”
Kadrey eloquently summed up the crossover issue by quoting noted British author Nick Hornby, who has said, “I see now that dismissing YA books because you’re not a young adult is a little bit like refusing to watch thrillers on the grounds that you’re not a policeman or a dangerous criminal.” But Anton DiScalfani had the last word. Her hot new debut, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, is an adult novel told by a Depression-era teenage girl; “I love the adolescent point of view, which has access to the innocence of a child’s world and the insightfulness of adults,” she explained. DiScalfani noted that her novel “has been called a lot of things: women’s literature, Southern literature, equestrian literature, tastefully erotic literature. I am indifferent to categories.” In the end, such indifference makes for richer, more powerful fiction, and it prevailed at all the United for Libraries Panels. The result was engaging fiction for everyone.