Connecting with Six Great Authors at ALA Midwinter

Books can entertain or enlighten, sate our curiosity or pique it, but surely one of the things they do best is to capture significant change in their characters’ lives even as the act of reading changes ours. That was evident throughout the author presentations at the AAP/LJ Annual Complimentary BookTalk Breakfast at the ALA Midwinter conference in Seattle. Even Maisie Dobbs—the generous, indefatigable heroine of Jacqueline Winspear’s best-selling and Agatha, Macavity, and Alex Award–winning mystery series—finds herself at a crossroads in Leaving Everything Most Loved, and Winspear spoke tellingly of how authors grab and mine significant moments they’ve experienced to narrative effect. Here’s a rundown of the authors who spoke.

In Deb Caletti’s He’s Gone (Bantam. May 2013. ISBN 9780345534354. pap. $15.), Dani Keller wakes up to find that her husband has vanished. Has he gone for coffee? Did he leave her? The rest of the taut, propulsive narrative unpacks a lifetime’s worth of love and obsession, marriage and remarriage, damage and unheeded danger that takes Dani (and you, the reader) right to the brink. Caletti opened her talk gently by explaining what books and libraries have meant to her (“opening doors when I didn’t know there were doors”), then switched to a harrowing account of spousal abuse and the library’s new role in her life as sanctuary.

In the end, as Caletti said, “People take many things from you when they are violent but not your dream.” Only weeks after her divorce (her husband initially demanded a share of any profits as part of the settlement, though he had always discouraged her writing), she had an adult work accepted as a young adult novel. She’s since gone on to write many celebrated young adult titles, including the National Book Award finalist Honey, Baby, Sweetheart, but by writing He’s Gone she has fulfilled a promise to herself to return to the adult fold. “It’s a confirmation and a redemption,” she exclaimed. “Having a book on a library shelf is such a privilege.”

Amity Gaige’s Schroder (Twelve: Hachette. Feb. 2013. ISBN 9781455512133. $21.99) is a steadfast, quietly absorbing novel about self, identity, the parent-child relationship, the consequences of lying, and the question whether we can ever shed the past. Gaige wrote it, she explained, because her young son started to ask difficult questions. “Good parenting is rather subjective,” she acknowledged, “and even a very good parent also says things that he or she regrets. I began to wonder whether a flawed, deceptive person could also be a good parent.”

Inspired by the story of con man Clark Rockefeller, Gaige’s protagonist, German immigrant Erik Schroder, stakes his claim to America by falsely adopting a shiny new identity as Erik Kennedy and ends up on the run with his daughter once his lie is uncovered. “Erik inspires a lot of debate,” concluded Gaige, one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 emerging authors. “Some people sympathize with him, while others think he is monstrous.” Obviously, Schroder would provide great reading for book clubs.

How smart of Jill McCorkle to have set her new novel, Life After Life (Shannon Ravenel Bk: Algonquin. Mar. 2013. ISBN 9781565122550. $24.95), at a retirement facility, because the stories of the residents will inevitably capture the joys and hopes, disappointments and misunderstandings of the human condition, all cast in high relief by the looming question of mortality. But McCorkle went even deeper. As she put it so eloquently, she wanted to show us “what happens at the bend in the road, when one way of life ends and another begins.” Former third-grade teacher Sadie, brash, salacious Stanley, even the little girl next door—all are characters in significant transition.

Life After Life had its origins 20 years ago when McCorkle’s father was dying—an understandably difficult moment when “you think time will stop, but there you are paying bills. How odd that these two places bump up against each other,” mused McCorkle. We’ve all experienced those moments, but McCorkle wants us truly to appreciate them, to see the beauty in the intersection between now and tomorrow, life and death. McCorkle herself has had her moments as she worked on this novel, her first in 17 years. As she explained, “Life just didn’t provide the kind of time I like to have to go underground in a novel.” Many, many readers will find it worth the wait.

Though Ben Schrank is president and publisher of Razorbill, Penguin’s middle-grade and young adult imprint, he confessed to the standing-room-only audience of librarians that he had never read the Harry Potter books. It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that his night job is writing novels for adults. His latest is titled Love Is a Canoe (Sarah Crichton Books: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Jan. 2013. ISBN 9780374192495. $26), which sounds like a cloying if well-meant self-help fable but is in fact a smart, affecting study of how we are shaped by all the cloying if well-meant fables in our lives.

The novel intertwines love, marriage, and the publishing industry as Peter Herman, who once wrote the classic self-help title called Marriage Is a Canoe, finds himself dragged into a contest to relaunch the book that will match him with a worthy couple needing marital advice. Throughout, Schrank manages the delicate act of pulling us back from our illusions without leaving behind the bitter taste of the cynic. As the author himself says, “The barbershop pole swirl of sentimentalism and cynicism chase us throughout the day,” and they swirl through the novel as well.

For her latest novel, The Edge of the Earth (Atria: S. & S. Apr. 2013. ISBN 9781451683677. $25), Christina Schwarz dreamed up the perfect setting: a desolate, forbidding island off the coast of California where she could “trap her characters and make a family of strangers.” Managed by the unruly Crawleys, the light station where Trudy goes to live with her new husband, Oskar, after throwing over her intended and refusing to do the expected in 1890s Milwaukee, backdrops a human drama that blends adventure with probing psychological study.

The era was as crucial to Schwarz’s intentions as the setting. “I wanted a time when someone without education might dream of making great discoveries in the sciences, and when women were thinking of change,” she explained. Indeed, inveterate dreamer Oskar’s scientific ambitions tip the story toward tragedy, and Trudy’s emergence as an authority in marine biology frames the entire novel. Most appealingly for readers, Schwarz—author of the Oprah pick Drowning Ruth—sees a sense of place as one of her strengths, and it’s true that spooky Point Lucia—modeled after Point Sur, which Henry Miller called prehistoric—can feel as if it’s located in the middle of the ocean.

In her Maisie Dobbs series, Jacqueline Winspear said that she, too, wanted to explore “a challenging time for women, when the Great War completely changed life in Britain. Women had gotten behind the war, and they had the opportunity to vote, but there was more of a story to tell.” All the Maisie Dobbs mysteries entail both “head and heart,” as Winspear put it, and Leaving Everything Most Loved (Harper: HarperCollins. Mar. 2013. ISBN 9780062049605. $26.99) especially so. Here, World War II is rumbling into view, even as James Compton asks Maisie to clarify their relationship. More significantly, and apart from her case, Maisie is about to take some extended travels that could change her direction—and that of the series.

This time ’round, Maisie’s case involves the murder of an Indian woman, the warm, independent-minded healer Usha Pramal, who recalls Maisie herself. The story allowed Winspear to bring in one of those magic moments she says all writers collect; Usha Pramal wears a sari Winspear recalls from the time an Indian teacher brought in saris for all the girls in her class to try on. Winspear gracefully connects that image to her concern about the Indian women once brought to Britain to care for children and then frequently abandoned when the children had grown. Thus we have another entertaining Maisie Dobbs mystery, and Winspear’s further linking of her ideas to those of the authors who preceded her at breakfast ended the morning on a warm, fulfilling note.

Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.