Did I get your attention with my title? Yes, while at BEA I had lunch with Donna Tartt, the talented author of The Secret History, The Little Friend and the forthcoming The Goldfinch. Hachette CEO Michael Pietsch and Little, Brown publisher Regan Arthur were there too, along with the authors Daniel Woodrell, Hannah Kent and Rachel Urquhart.
And oh yeah, a couple hundred other members of the media.
What, I didn't say it was a private lunch! But it was an illuminating one, as each author—two established and honored names, two complete fiction novices—gave a quick speech about their upcoming release.
Daniel Woodrell kicked things off talking about The Maid's Version, on sale September 3, his first novel since Winter's Bone. Set in his hometown, the book was inspired by a 1926 dancehall tragedy whose true cause remains a mystery—and whose legacy still haunts the small town today. Was it an accident, or something more sinister? Woodrell is the perfect author to take on this small-town American story.
Debut novelist Hannah Kent, who had flown in from Australia just that day, spoke next, asking for us to forgive her if she fell asleep at the podium. Far from doing so, Kent eloquently explained the inspiration behind her buzzed-about novel, Burial Rites (September 10). As a teenager, Kent went on an exchange to Iceland, and discovered the story of Agnes, a servant woman who was executed for murder in the 1820s—the last person, in fact, to be executed in Iceland. Kent said she was "haunted" by Agnes and has spent the last 10 years piecing together her story, which finally came together in a book that she calls a "dark love letter" to Iceland.
Rachel Urquhart also takes on a little-known culture in her debut, The Visionist (January 2014). But this time, it's the Shakers. Urquhart grew up on the Upper East Side, but her grandfather, who wrote the screenplay for Gone With the Wind, owned a farm in Massachusetts that had previously been part of a Shaker community—and in fact, died there in 1939 in a farm accident. Urquhart spent time on the farm as a child, and the Shakers caught her imagination—but it wasn't until she started reading more about them as an adult that the true strangeness of this uniquely American religion started to spark her imagination. Urquhart, who through the luck of the draw had to hold our attention while lunch was being delivered, recited a rather gruesome Shaker song that definitely did the trick.
Based on her notoriously severe author photos, I expected Donna Tartt's talk to be on the serious side—perhaps a lofty talk about the aims of fiction, or the dignity of authorship. Au contraire. While speaking about The Goldfinch (October 3), Tartt was self-deprecating about the length of time it takes her to complete one of her "miniaturist" books, which she likened to painting with a single hair, and joked about the way an author who has just completed a project surfaces "like a whale" back into the real world.
Which of these books are you most likely to pick up?