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The Dark History Behind 2019’s Bestselling Debut Novel

Your book club probably already read Where the Crawdads Sing. How much did a long-ago murder in Africa influence Delia Owens’ first novel?

https://getpocket.com/explore/item/the-dark-history-behind-the-year-s-bestselling-debut-novel?utm_source=pocket-newtab

Slate

  • Laura Miller
Mark and Delia Owens in North Luangwa National Park in Zambia in 1990. Photo by William Campbell/Corbis via Getty Images.

Where the Crawdads Singby Delia Owens is the sort of book that you’ve either never heard of or have already read for your book club. The bestselling hardcover title of 2019, Crawdads has sold more than 1 million copies—jaw-dropping for any first novel, much less one by an author who just turned 70, living on a remote homestead in northern Idaho. Publishers Weekly has called its success the “feel-good publishing story of the year.” (Spoilers for the novel follow throughout this piece.) If you’re one of the people who’ve read the book, you probably know a little of Owens’ romantic backstory, like the huge boost her debut got when Reese Witherspoon, the Oprah of our time, selected it for her book club. Or the fact that while Crawdads is Owens’ first novel, it’s not her first book. And then there’s the 22 years she spent in Africa with her husband, Mark, living close to the land and working in wildlife conservation. Delia and Mark wrote about those experiences in three memoirs. But what most of Crawdads’ fans don’t know is that Delia and Mark Owens have been advised never to return to one of the African nations where they once lived and worked, Zambia, because they are wanted for questioning in a murder that took place there decades ago. That murder, whose victim remains unidentified, was filmed and broadcast on national television in the U.S.

To be clear, Delia Owens herself is not suspected of involvement in the murder of a poacher filmed by an ABC camera crew in 1995, while the news program Turning Point was producing a segment on the Owenses’ conservation work in Zambia. But her stepson, Christopher, and her husband have been implicated by some witnesses. This murky incident from Delia’s past is hardly a secret. In fact, in 2010 it was the subject of “The Hunted,” an 18,000-word story written by Jeffrey Goldberg and published in the New Yorker. You can find a link to that story, along with a one-line reference to a “controversial killing of a poacher in Zambia,” in Owens’ Wikipedia entry. However, the Wikipedia entry for Owens comes as only the fourth result when you Google her name, and a lazy or unseasoned internet user might stop reading after browsing the official bios that outrank it. Apparently many such users are members of the press. In numerous interviews, Owens giggles about how her publishers “keep sending me champagne” or recounts how she was inspired by her observations of animals that “live in very strong female social groups.” (No such group appears in Where the Crawdads Sing.) But when it comes to the remarkable fact that, in the company of a charismatic but volcanic man, she apparently lived through a modern-day version of Heart of Darkness? Not a peep.

Goldberg—who spent months researching “The Hunted,” traveling to South Africa, Idaho, and Maine in addition to making three trips to the Luangwa area in Zambia, and interviewing over 100 sources—is bemused by how effectively Owens and her publisher have managed to overshadow perhaps the most fascinating, if troubling, episode in her life. “A number of people started emailing me about this book,” he told me in an email, “readers who made the connection between the Delia Owens of Crawdads and the Delia Owens of the New Yorker investigation. So I got a copy of Crawdads and I have to say I found it strange and uncomfortable to be reading the story of a Southern loner, a noble naturalist, who gets away with what is described as a righteously motivated murder in the remote wild.”

Several sources Goldberg spoke with, including the cameraman who filmed the shooting of the poacher, have stated that Christopher Owens—Mark Owens’ son and Delia Owens’ stepson—was the first member of a scouting party to shoot the man. (Two other scouts followed suit.) Others have claimed that Mark Owens covered up the killing by carrying the body, which was never recovered, up in his helicopter and dropping it in a lake. Whoever pulled the trigger that day, what seems indisputable from “The Hunted” is that, over the course of years, Mark Owens, in his zeal to save endangered elephants and other wildlife, became carried away by his own power, turning into a modern-day version of Joseph Conrad’s Mr. Kurtz—and that while Delia Owens objected, at times, to what was happening, she was either unable or unwilling to stop him or quit him. And despite being set in a different place and time, her bestselling novel contains striking echoes of those volatile years in the wilderness.

Mark and Delia Owens first arrived in Zambia in 1986 after getting kicked out of Botswana, where they had made themselves unwelcome by criticizing the government’s conservation policies. The young couple sought out a preserve in Zambia’s North Luangwa wilderness, an area whose indigenous inhabitants had been expelled by the nation’s former British rulers. They were drawn to the region’s isolation and then dismayed to discover that poachers were devastating the local elephant population. Some of the animals were killed by people who had lived in the surrounding area for generations and whose ancestors had long hunted its large mammals for meat, but the greatest threat came from poachers feeding a booming international ivory market.

These well-armed poachers overmatched the ragtag band of park service scouts charged with protecting the elephants. The Owenses raised money from European and American donors to better pay and equip the scouts; in exchange, they were named “honorary game rangers” by the Zambian government. According to many sources Goldberg spoke with in Zambia, Mark Owens became the de facto commander of the scouts, harrying poaching parties with firecrackers shot from a Cessna and later, from a helicopter, menacing them with a machine gun. Under his command, scouts raided villages and roughed up residents in search of suspects and poached loot. In one (highly contested) letter, Mark Owens informed a safari leader that his scouts had killed two poachers and “are just getting warmed up.” (Mark and Delia Owens deny most of these claims, alleging various conspiracies against them by those who resented their success and fame or who had a corrupt financial interest in the poaching trade.) “They thought they were kings,” the recipient of this letter said of the Owenses. “He made himself the law, and his law was that he could do anything he wanted.”

Delia Owens sometimes objected to the risks her husband took in combating the poachers, and in their co-authored 1992 memoir, The Eye of the Elephant, she describes at one point separating from him and building her own camp four miles away. Eventually, the couple reconciled. After the ABC story aired and Zambian authorities became alarmed at the idea of a foreign national overseeing a shoot-to-kill policy in one of their preserves, the Owenses traveled to the U.S. for a visit and never returned. According to Goldberg, “The American Embassy warned the Owenses not to enter Zambia until the controversy was resolved,” but as of 2010, the case was still open. “There’s no statute of limitations on murder,” an investigator told Goldberg. Mark Owens confirmed to me through his attorney that there have been no further developments in the case and noted that no charges were ever filed. His attorney also confirmed that the pair never returned to Zambia. I was unable to reach Christopher Owens.

The Owenses then moved to a remote area of land in Boundary County, Idaho. The couple “eventually divorced but remain friendly and live on the same acreage,” according to an edit to Delia Owens’ Wikipedia entry made on June 10 of this year. (In the acknowledgements at the end of Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia thanks Mark Owens for being one of the novel’s early readers.) A Wikipedia editor later deleted the passage, noting to the person who had altered Delia Owens’ entry and nothing else on the entire site, “Sorry if you have personal knowledge but articles must be based on verifiable sources.” In an interview with Amazon, Delia describes Mark as her “former husband,” and posts to her Instagram account suggest that she recently moved to North Carolina.

On first impression Where the Crawdads Sing, with its mid–20th-century Southern setting, suggests that Delia Owens has gotten over the traumas of her African years and the losses brought on by the exposure of her husband’s behavior in Zambia. Her novel is the story of a white girl who essentially raises herself in the swamps of North Carolina in the 1950s and early 1960s. Abandoned by her family and mocked by her classmates during the single day she agrees to attend public school, Kya Clark prefers to commune alone with nature, collecting specimens and producing exquisite drawings of the swamp’s flora and fauna. (Eventually, these are published in a series of successful books.) Kya’s story alternates with chapters set in 1969, in which Chase Andrews, a womanizing former quarterback, is found dead under an abandoned fire tower and police investigate the death as a possible murder.* Kya, stigmatized as “the Marsh Girl” by the townsfolk, is charged with the crime, and the last quarter of the novel depicts her trial.

“Almost every part of the book has some deeper meaning,” Owens said in her interview with Amazon. “There’s a lot of symbolism in this book.” To anyone who has read “The Hunted,” those lines are tantalizing, even if Owens doesn’t mean them to be. Having her heroine stand accused of murder echoes the Owens’ Zambian experience and the subsequent ordeal of becoming the subject of a 18,000-word exposé in a prominent magazine. Even more eyebrow-raising is the plot twist in the novel’s final pages: It turns out Kya did, after all, murder Chase.

Kya’s similarities to Delia Owens, who grew up in Georgia, are manifest. Both are lonely, yet prefer the company of animals to people; the Owenses’ memoirs recount one long search for life outside the human fold. “Here’s where civilization ends,” Mark once said admiringly of North Luangwa, Goldberg reports. Kya is depicted as a misunderstood victim, cast out of society by the small-minded prejudices of her neighbors. In his closing statements, her defense attorney exhorts the jury and the town itself to examine its conscience: “We labeled and rejected her because we thought she was different. But, ladies and gentlemen, did we exclude Miss Clark because she was different, or was she different because we excluded her?”

In every respect, Kya is wronged by those around her. Her father abuses the rest of the family, forcing her mother and siblings to leave. Her first love, a fellow marsh habitué who sweetly teaches her to read and write, does not return for her as promised once he leaves for college. White-gloved mothers pull their children away from her on the streets, calling her “dirty.” Chase seduces her with talk of marriage and children, but instead chooses a more socially acceptable bride. Later, he tries to rape her.

In the absence of any better models, Kya looks to the animals around her and reads scientific articles for insights into human behavior:

Some behaviors that seem harsh to us now ensured the survival of early man in whatever swamp he was in at the time. Without them, we wouldn’t be here. We still store those instincts in our genes, and they express themselves when certain circumstances prevail. Some parts of us will always be what we were, what we had to be to survive—way back yonder.

Apart from the novel’s final and highly implausible twist, Kya is depicted as a lovely, gentle, naϊve child of nature, devoid of any negative traits besides an unwillingness to give her first love, Tate, a second chance once he finally realizes that he can’t live without her. When Tate comes to visit Kya in her marsh cabin to plead his case, she appears as an angelic vision, “in a long, white skirt and pale blue sweater—the colors of wings.” Yet despite exhibiting no aggressive, atavistic impulses herself, Kya more than once contemplates the truth that “ancient genes for survival still persist in some undesirable forms among the twists and turns of man’s genetic code.” This idea—that, in extremis, a primitive drive for “survival” will trigger “harsh” and “undesirable” actions—resembles a moment in the ABC segment on the Owenses, in which Meredith Vieira (then a reporter for the program) describes the shooting of the poacher as the result of what “Mark Owens calls a ‘hardening of the human spirit,’ the ultimate price he has paid to work here.” Owens himself then remarks, “It’s a very dirty game. It’s a measure of the desperation of the situation, I think.”

Owens’ Kya is an impossible personality built on a moral conundrum: Her virtue arises from her purity—that is, her remove from the contaminating influences of “civilization,” with its false values, cruelty, and lies. Nature and animals, by contrast, are the locus of truth and spiritual sustenance. Nature also acknowledges Kya as its chosen daughter. When she is in custody during her trial, the jailhouse cat recognizes her quality and visits her cell at night. But “nature,” it seems, is also the excuse for Kya’s crime, which is a major one, a measure of the desperation of her situation, so to speak. And after all, isn’t Chase, like that nameless poacher, a bad man, who got his just deserts even if his killing technically violates the law of the land? Although Kya is in fact guilty, the book frames her trial as unfair, the targeting of a mistreated outsider by a community incapable of justice. And yet, she is acquitted, getting away with her crime.

Fiction writers often don’t realize how much of their own unconscious bubbles up in their work, but at times Owens seems to be deliberately calling back to her Zambian years. The jailhouse cat in Where the Crawdads Sing has the same name—Sunday Justice—as an African man who once worked for the Owenses as a cook. In The Eye of the Elephant, Delia describes Justice speaking with a childlike wonder about the Owenses’ airplane. “I myself always wanted to talk to someone who has flown up in the sky with a plane,” he said, according to Delia. “I myself always wanted to know, Madam, if you fly at night, do you go close to the stars?” When Goldberg tracked down Justice and asked him about this story, the man laughed. He had flown on planes many times as both an adult and a child before meeting Delia Owens. He later worked for the Zambian Air Force.

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This example of what Goldberg tactfully calls the Owenses’ “archaic ideas about Africans” has its parallel in Where the Crawdads Sing, too. A black character, a kindly man called Jumpin’ who runs a gas station and general store for swamp boat operators, is among the very few people in the community to befriend Kya. She encounters Jumpin’ a few days after being sexually assaulted by Chase, her face still visibly bruised. “Was it Mr. Chase done this to ya?” he asks. “Ya know ya can tell me. In fact, we gwine stand right here tills ya tell me.” When Kya begs Jumpin’ not to report the assault to the sheriff, he protests that “sump’m gotta be done. He cain’t go an’ do a thing like that, and then just go on boatin’ ’round in that fancy boat a’ his.”

Even setting aside the Gone with the Wind–style dialect here (Owens is 70, after all), the scene betrays a profound racial and historical ignorance. The idea that any black man living in the rural South during the early ’60s would seriously considerreporting to local law enforcement the attempted rape of a white woman by the son of a prominent white family is ludicrous. He would have had ample knowledge of men like Chase getting away with even worse. One of the Owenses’ critics in Goldberg’s article touched on this obliviousness when he characterized the couple’s attitude toward Africa as “Nice continent. Pity about the Africans.”

Press coverage of Delia Owens since the runaway success of Where the Crawdads Sing has focused on her tomboy girlhood, her passion for helping African wildlife, and the pristine isolation of her Idaho home, portraying her as nearly as unspoiled as her heroine. But Owens’ past is far more dark and troubling than that—and also a much more interesting story than Crawdads’ tale of a persecuted, saintly misfit finding solace and transcendence in nature. Owens’ own story appears to be one of love and righteousness run amok, of the seductive properties of power and violence, of what it feels like to watch your husband become someone your neighbors have cause to fear. The Owenses have spent much of their lives trying to get as far away from humanity as they can, but theirs is an impossible quest: Like all of us, they bring humanity and its failings with them wherever they go.

Laura Miller is a books and culture columnist for Slate and the author of The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia

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All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg review – the sins of the father

This penetrating examination of misogyny and family ties focuses on a dying gangster, and the women he made suffer

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/apr/03/all-this-could-be-yours-by-jami-attenberg-review-the-sins-of-the-father?CMP=twt_books_b-gdnbooks

Ben Libman

“The only problem she had was men, who constantly bothered her”: this might be the motto of Jami Attenberg’s latest novel. The line is uttered by Twyla, the daughter-in-law of a dying misogynist gangster named Victor Tuchman. She’s not alone in feeling this way about men in general, and Victor in particular. His wife, Barbra, and his daughter, Alex, have also gathered to see whether the man who made their lives miserable will die, and to figure out how much they really care. This story is about them.

The bulk of the novel takes place over a single day, just after Victor has been for a heart attack. The setting is present-day New Orleans, where Victor and Barbra have moved after a long, mansion-bound life in Connecticut, ostensibly to be near their son, Gary, and his wife and daughter, Twyla and Avery. But Victor is a deceptive man, even to his children. He is also a bad man.

Though we’re never given the exact nature of his crimes, we learn that he was a New Jersey gangster, more or less of the Sopranos variety. He was also an abusive husband and father, a philanderer and a tyrant and likely a rapist. Whatever the details of his life, their implications have long been clear to Alex: “Her gut told her he should be in jail right now.”

It is the women around Victor – Barbra, Alex and Twyla – who must endure the hurricane of his life, who must try to love him, to make him happy, to cover up for him, and who are all upbraided and assaulted by him. Much like Attenberg’s 2012 book The Middlesteins, this novel is uncompromising in its penetrating treatment of the ties that bind a family together.

Attenberg weaves her narrative with a scintillating and often wry prose; her love for her characters, and her keen interest in their joys and longings, never fails to shine through. Often she sets scenes with the terseness of a screenplay, but periodically she plunges into rich description, as when Twyla, crying, looks in the mirror and notices “lips in distress, cracked at the edges, only half the color left behind, the other half disappeared, god knows where, absorbed into skin, into air, into grief”.

These tears are not just for Victor’s victims. Alex must plead with her ex-husband, Bobby, not to expose their daughter to his compulsive lechery. Twyla has lived the bulk of her life trying not to wither beneath the male gaze, and now finds herself more distanced from Gary than ever. Barbra struggles to understand why she still loves her husband, after all this time. And all of them live under the shadow of another, casually destructive man: as Alex thinks every day, “our president [is] a moron and the world [is] falling apart”. The varied experiences of these characters make it clear that the bad man is not an exception to the rule of manhood; he merely defines its borders.

Jami Attenberg

The novel is not only concerned with gender politics: it also frequently returns to questions of socioeconomic class. And yet, it is weaker on this topic. We get cursory moments of virtue-signalling, when the narrative pauses briefly on working people – a cashier, a waitress, a tram driver – to tell us about the second job they’re forced to hold, or about how much they hate privileged tourists. The novel tells us about mass graves for the indigent, and gives us 30 pages with Sharon, a black woman only tangentially related to the plot, who lifts up her neighbourhood while suffering the effects of white gentrification.

But none of these people is a protagonist, none of their lives is centred. The novel points to them, wants them to be recognised; but it refuses to perform that recognition itself. “Whatever we do tonight, let’s not talk about politics,” Alex says to a man she meets at a bar, just after an altercation with a homeless man on the street. Despite the book’s signals to the contrary, this might be its other motto.

All This Could Be Yours is published by Serpent’s Tail.

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Monday morning writing joke: “It ain’t write, I tell you”

Two writers went to the same doctor’s office on the same day. She told each one he didn’t have long to live.

“It’s awful,” said the first writer. “I’m right in the middle of a novel and she’s only given me six months to live. I’ll never get it finished. What about you?”

“It’s awful for me, too,” said the second writer. “She gave me three years to live.”

“Three years!” the first writer said. “Three years! What’s so awful about that?”

“I write short stories,” the second writer said. “And I’m fresh out of ideas.”

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‘American Dirt’ was planned as a publishing triumph. What went wrong? – Los Angeles Times

Celebrities endorsed ‘American Dirt’ — then the reactions on Twitter turned negative. Cries of appropriation — and barb-wire dinner pieces — spark scorn for book

Source: ‘American Dirt’ was planned as a publishing triumph. What went wrong? – Los Angeles Times

It was poised to be a blockbuster long before copies arrived in bookstores last week: a thrilling contemporary migration story following a mother and her son, desperate to cross Mexico and reach the United States.

Its publisher, Flatiron Books, an imprint of Macmillan, paid a seven-figure advance after outbidding several competitors for the novel. It snagged a coveted selection in Oprah’s Book Club and had been shipped to key celebrity influencers, including Stephen King, Sandra Cisneros and Salma Hayek. A reported first run of 500,000 copies was printed. The film rights were sold.

But by week’s end, the novel “American Dirt” had garnered attention that its boosters likely didn’t expect: angry charges of cultural appropriation, stereotyping, insensitivity, and even racism against author Jeanine Cummins, who herself said in the book’s author’s note, “I was worried that, as a nonmigrant and non-Mexican, I had no business writing a book set almost entirely in Mexico, set entirely among migrants.”

Despite the backing of towering figures in American media, Cummins’ page-turning portrayal of a mother on the run is now at the center of the first bonafide literary controversy of the year, and is forcing a hard reflection on the state of Latinos in a cultural field that remains overwhelmingly white.

In the face of critiques, Cummins is pushing back in public. Her publisher released a statement encouraging discussion around the title, while some authors and booksellers have come to Cummins’ defense. In a culture that is used to debating black and Asian representation and stereotypes, the entrenchment around “American Dirt” is fueling even more complaints over the ease with which popular culture still employs Latino-related stereotypes in contemporary movies, television and fiction.

“American Dirt” is also highlighting factors that observers say have contributed a near shutout of contemporary Mexican and Mexican American voices from the top tier of the publishing publicity machine — the sorts of books that are guaranteed handsome sales by virtue of projection.

What went wrong?

As passages from the novel began emerging last month, Mexican and other Latino voices began raising red flags. The author’s portrayal of Mexican culture was called outlandish, littered with stereotypes, stilted bilingualism and an awkward peppering of italicized Spanish phrases.

“I assert that American Dirt fails to convey any Mexican sensibility,” said Long Beach writer Myriam Gurba in an early negative review that became a catalyst of the controversy.

It is the marketing of this brown and black pain.

Lilliam Rivera, author

“American Dirt” has also sparked an emotional discussion about how far the publishing industry still must go to more richly represent the scope and diversity of the Latino experience, said authors, literary agents and other industry figures in interviews last week. It’s a discussion focused on a complicated question: Who gets to frame others’ stories, and how?

Barbed-wire centerpieces

Publishing, like Hollywood, has yet to fully confront its lack of diversity involving Latinos, the largest nonwhite demographic and now largest minority voting group in the United States. A 2019 Publishers Weekly study based on self-reported survey of 699 industry respondents found that Latinos comprised just 3 percent of the publishing workforce in 2018. An earlier Diversity Baseline Survey conducted in 2015 by Lee & Low Books found that Latinos represented 6% of the publishing industry overall, while whites were 79%.

“American Dirt” has opened a window into the ways a few select books are brought to the public’s attention at a time when many authors have to hire their own publicists or arrange their own book readings and events. The roll-out to some took on the veneer of insult to Central American trauma and pain surrounding the treacherous passage through Mexico.

“They’re handling it like they handle a Marvel comics movie,” said Roberto Lovato, a Salvadoran American writer in San Francisco, who is finalizing an upcoming memoir. “But this industry will make you dance the minstrel salsa dance or the minstrel cumbia dance,” he added, in reference to the tenor of Latino-themed titles that are deemed palatable to wide audiences.

Indeed, the operation behind “American Dirt” made what many describe as cringe-worthy errors even before the book hit stores.

Back in May, Flatiron Books hosted a dinner for Cummins during a booksellers convention in New York, a sign that the novel would have strong publisher support. On the tables at the dinner were barbed-wire centerpieces holding flowers. Evoking a border wall, the table decorations, complete with faux barbed wire made from twigs, played off the novel’s cover design. Critics found a photo Cummins posted of the centerpieces on her Twitter account, and have circulated the image as a symbol of the publisher’s insensitivity.

“It’s disturbing to see a publishing dinner with barb-wire centerpieces,” said Lilliam Rivera, the L.A.-based Puerto Rican author of successful young adult novels. “It is the marketing of this brown and black pain.”

More criticism followed among Latino writers, from the fringes to the center of the literary power establishment. Mexican author Valeria Luiselli, a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant recipient, called the book the “worst possible” pick for Oprah’s nod. Francisco Goldman, the celebrated Guatemalan American novelist and journalist who divides his time between New York and Mexico City, said in an interview he was “shocked” by the “tone-deaf” publicity roll-out. “And these are supposedly sophisticated people.”

When Oprah Winfrey’s super-charged publicity campaign for “American Dirt” launched Tuesday, with the announcement of her book club pick on “CBS This Morning” and on Winfrey’s social media accounts, the already-simmering anger over the novel only grew.

Critics noted a string of similar casual-seeming social posts from famous figures such as Yalitza Aparicio (“Roma”), MJ Rodriguez (“Pose”) and Gina Rodriguez (“Jane the Virgin”). Hayek, the Academy Award-nominated Mexican actress, posted her own glowing review for “American Dirt” later in the week, then deleted it on Friday. “I confess I have not read it and was not aware of any controversy,” she said on Instagram. Each entertainer displayed an e-reader version of the novel and nearly all of them thanked Winfrey for sending the book, hinting at a multiplatform publicity campaign.

Not everyone went along. Kate Horan, the director of the McAllen Public Library in Texas, posted portions of a letter she sent to the American Library Assn. and Oprah’s Book Club, declining to participate in a recorded “unboxing” event meant to push “American Dirt.” Horan said she felt compelled to turn down the offer from Oprah’s Book Club after seeing the reactions among Latinx writers she and her staff admire.

“When we took the book out, our hearts dropped,” Horan said in a telephone interview from Philadelphia, where the American Library Assn. is holding its mid-winter conference. “There followed many conversations with people in my community, and of course reading the book, I can only compare it to a telenovela. It’s so hyper stereotyped, that it’s harmful.” (The McAllen public library will still have a dozen copies of the book for checkout, Horan said.)

A muddled identity

Buzz around “American Dirt” had been building since 2018, when it was sold at auction to Flatiron editor Amy Einhorn, who is known for acquiring the novel “The Help” — a bestseller whose white author was criticized for, among other things, comparing a black maid character’s skin to a cockroach. Cummins’ book scored blurbs from not only King and Cisneros, but also Don Winslow and John Grisham. Winslow, who called “American Dirt” “a ‘Grapes of Wrath’ for our times,” and others defended their endorsements of the book.

“I read the book and I loved it. That experience can’t be changed by people who don’t like it,” said novelist Ann Patchett, who called “American Dirt” a “moral compass” in her quote for the title. “There’s a level of viciousness that comes from a woman getting big advance and a lot of attention,” she added. “If it had been a small advance with a small review in the back of the book section, I don’t think we’d be seeing the same level of outrage.”

By week’s end, as the U.S. commercial publishing industry was reeling from the expanding maelstrom over what its critics called a cartoonish melodrama about contemporary Mexico, Cummins still hit the road on a book tour. At an industry conference last week in Baltimore, she defended her right to write the novel from the perspective of the Mexican woman at the heart of her book.

Her character Lydia, 32, is middle-class, college-educated wife and mother who owns a bookshop in the resort city of Acapulco and survives a bloody massacre at a family quinceañera. With her journalist husband and other family members killed, the bookish protagonist and her 8-year-old son make a desperate run for the U.S. border, partly on the freight train La Bestia. Critics have mocked the narrative ploy as implausible for anyone of Lydia’s class stature, who can usually buy airline or bus tickets.

In Baltimore, Cummins said the migrants she met during her research for the novel “made me recognize my own cowardice” as she grappled with early failed drafts and doubts about authenticity. “When people are really putting their lives on the line, to be afraid of writing a book felt like cowardice,” she said, according to a report for the trade site Publishers Lunch.

The author, who did not respond to a request for comment for this article, identified as white as recently as 2016. On Wednesday, Cummins, whose grandmother was from Puerto Rico, said she was “a Latinx woman” while addressing the negative reactions to the book among Mexican, Central American and Chicano readers who have vigorously questioned her authorial integrity. “Not everyone needs to love my book,” she said.

On Friday, Cummins turned up her defense during an interview with NPR: “I am a white person. … I am a person who has a very privileged life. I am also Puerto Rican. … That fact has been attacked and sidelined by people who, frankly, are attempting to police my identity.”

But her critics weren’t buying it.

Gurba and others accused Cummins of profiting off Latina identity and transforming her own ethnicity over time to suit professional interests. “She became a person of color for the sake of financial convenience,” Gurba told The Times. “I call that POC, a person of convenience.”

Another set of earlier photos of Cummins with barbed-wire decorated fingernails brought even more criticism. “Every day I see something new that pertains to this, that it seems like it can’t get worse, and it gets worse,” said YA author Rivera.

Cummins’ somewhat apologetic author’s note also fanned the flames. In it, she says she wished someone “slightly browner” than her had written her book. She also argued that her effort seeks to counter depictions of immigrants as a “faceless brown mass.” Goldman, reached in New York, called the phrase an admission to the book’s “pornographic feedback of violence.”

“It’s just unbelievable,” he said Thursday. “How mediocre, third-rate and sleazy it is for a fiction writer to appropriate violence and suffering that way.”

In her note, he added, Cummins also writes, “we seldom think of [migrants] as human beings.”

“Who is that ‘we’?” Goldman said. “It sounds like Donald Trump Jr. was doing a book club and trying to come up as woke. … How could anyone think of themselves as being the corrective for that?”

Industry buzzing

Goldman said he hopes that the persistent negative buzz may force the publishing establishment to address uncomfortable questions about how U.S. Latinos are reflected in the adult-fiction space, just as similar discussions of portrayals of African American and Asian American characters in film, television and the world of YA novels has led to some changes.

The controversy doesn’t look to go away soon. On Saturday, a group of writers including Lovato, Gurba and others said they sent a letter to Macmillan promising more “action” if the publishing house doesn’t respond more directly to their critiques. Industry players are abuzz with the topic, book agents said, as a string of “American Dirt”-inspired Twitter parodies by brown writers took flight, mocking the publishing industry’s devotion to tired Latino tropes involving gangs and grandmothers.

Eddie Schneider, vice president of JABerwocky Literary Agency, and who represents author Rivera, said Flatiron Books made a string of mistakes in rolling out “American Dirt” and isn’t correcting them. On Thursday, the publishing house defended the title in a statement to The Times.

“I’m baffled I haven’t seen any apology yet,” Schneider said. “Maybe not for the book, but certainly it seems like an apology is in order for the insensitivity of the roll-out.”

Schneider suggested that Flatiron and Cummins should clearly state how immigrant-rights organizations could benefit from the sales that are certain to follow the Oprah Winfrey endorsement. “That to me seems sort of like a bare minimum corporate response — even if they’re still making a ton of money off of it,” he said.

As of Saturday, “American Dirt” was No. 4 on Amazon’s bestseller list.

Times staff writer Dorany Pineda contributed to this report.

 

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Filed under 2020, book publishing, books

cARtOONSdAY: “nOVEL aPPROACH”

novel-writing algorithm computer
But where do its ideas come from?

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Filed under 2019, CarToonsday

cARtOONSdAY: “nOVEL iDEA”

Dear Muse, is it okay if I write this novel in memo form instead of regular chapters?

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Filed under 2017, CarToonsday

7 Strategies for Revising Your Novel | WritersDigest.com

7 Strategies for Revising Your Novel

Source: 7 Strategies for Revising Your Novel | WritersDigest.com

You’ve done it: typed The End. Those two wonderful words mark your graduation from always-wanted-to-write-a-novel to someone-who-did. Congratulations. Other ideas might be cooking away in the back of your brain, making you eager to start a new project. Often, this is where the spirit wanes as new writers lose momentum for the old manuscript. Because, you didn’t finish, did you? You only finished the draft. Now you have to focus on revising your novel.

Here’s the bad news (and there’s no good news): The rewrite is tougher than the draft. The draft is infatuation. The right rewrite strengthens your fiction into something that lasts to publication and gains a significant readership.

You know this task needs triage, so you won’t copyedit too soon. You line edit for tone, consistency and language, but you want more ways to improve.

Boost your novel-polishing skills with these seven strategies.

  1. Embrace the doubt.

Those murky feelings that cloud your mind when contemplating the massive task of revision? Welcome those doubts, that hesitation. A skeptical eye confers an appropriate attitude for rewriting. Every word in every sentence must carry its weight, either revealing character or advancing the story. Now be brave enough to cut or improve weak writing.

  1. Go back-to-front when possible.

Let’s say your plan for one brief session is a specific checkpoint. You’re verifying that sensory detail engages every scene, or perhaps you just want to note how many pages are in each chapter to ensure there aren’t twenty-five chapters of about fifteen pages while one chapter sprawls to thirty-five pages. If the revision item does not have to be done starting on page one and working to the last page, flip it and work backwards. This strategy prevents paging through in a direction that can distract you into an unintended sentence-by-sentence reread. The danger of that accidental read is that it risks dulling your reaction to the prose and worse, lets you fall in love with some passages while neglecting others.

  1. Structure your novel.

It’s not too late. Whether you’re a pantser, pantser-outliner hybrid, or an outliner, your finished draft can benefit from a new, careful outline. Note what questions and stakes the protagonist faces. How does he change in the end? What about the secondary cast?

Off the top of your head, do you know how many chapters are in your book? How does each chapter start and end? Where are the key actions and turning points found? How many scenes shape each chapter? Bracket each scene on a hard copy to reveal whether too much exposition lurks between the scenes. Is the climax close enough to the end that the bulk of the tale is composed of an uphill climb? Is the denouement placed to allow a satisfying, thoughtful resolution?

Gleaning the structure is a terrific exercise in critical examination. Graph and bullet point the features as though deconstructing someone else’s novel. This is not a time for emotional attachment to the piece; just factually note everything that displays the arc of the story, then see what surprises you or doesn’t fit.

  1. Revisit characterization.

With an accurate structure in hand, revisit your character construction while remembering the point of every passage. Did you use particularity in their descriptions? Is the reader shown what motivates every main character?

Crack open the draft to any chunk of dialogue. How obvious is it which of your well-crafted characters is speaking based on the sentences within the quotes? (Ah, yes, that’s just how a pilot/mad scientist/cowgirl would say such a thing.)

Perhaps your setting approaches the standing of character. Lovely, but don’t let the prose get flabby or insignificant—this is an opportunity for imaginative choices.

  1. Task your computer.

Various software programs highlight potential weak spots such as poor grammar and punctuation, or an overuse of modifiers, but any word processing program can be employed to help electronically. Do you have a pet phrase? Use the search function to find those repeats, then fix them. If you gave a person a verbal tic (perhaps she says “Nah” instead of “No”), do a quick find for the special term to ensure it’s not overused. And if another character displays the same tic, make it intentional, not an author slip.

When creating another hard copy to hand edit, select a different font for the second printing. Because of the different spacing, switching from Times New Roman to Courier can help freshen your eyes to the words.

  1. Listen to it.

Hopefully, you read aloud when revising, but you can do more. When my publisher sent author copies of my debut novel’s audio version, I reveled in that first experience of listening to a voice-acting pro read Orchids and Stone. However, I had heard it before, read by my computer.

There are good programs available—I use Natural Reader, which offers a free trial—that lets you listen to any document. This computer-generated reading will be flat, but the robotic affect is a good thing, because your writing must stand on its own, without inflection to carry the drama and dialogue. Chances are you’ll keep putting the program on pause and clicking back to the document to make edits.

Unintended alliterations, assonance and consonance borne in every sentence and surrounding paragraph are much more apparent when voiced. You might marvel over having missed some of these now-obvious editorial problems in print or on the monitor. You’ll hear repetitions that you didn’t see.

Good reading programs allow you to select the speed and gender of the speaker. After a significant rewrite, choose the other gender for the computer’s reading voice, then listen to the entire manuscript a second time. Chances are, you’ll still discover small improvements to make.

  1. Continue to study the craft.

While your polished draft gets some drawer time or is out with beta readers, reread diverse books on writing, studying instruction on revision. Let Robert Olen Butler admonish you to avoid abstraction, interpretation and izing (don’t generalize, summarize or analyze). Pay attention when David Morrell asks if you really want to publish that sentence in that form. Listen to Sol Stein’s warning about tunnel revision—the mistake of only tweaking small ticket items on a rewriting pass while missing the big picture and exposing your pages to excessive front-to-back reading, which makes your editing eye grow cold.

Improving your knowledge of the craft will improve your rewriting skills.

Here’s the deal: new writers often mire themselves and their work in the world of the unpublished due to a lack of self-editing their way to a polished manuscript. The only hope your draft has of becoming a well-read novel is you, and how much effort you put into the rewrite. Go all in.

***

Lisa Preston. Preston is the author of Orchids and Stone as well as several nonfiction books on animal care. Her experiences as a mountain climber, fire-department paramedic, and police sergeant are channeled into fiction that is suspenseful, fast paced, and well acquainted with human drama. She has lived in Arizona, California, and Alaska and now makes her home in western Washington. Visit her at lisapreston.com and on Facebook at facebook.com/lisa.preston.3152.

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Filed under 2017, writing tip, Writing Tip Wednesday