Summer Books Extravaganza: Margot Livesey and Jaswinder Bolina on Beach Reading When the Beach is Closed
In Conversation with V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell on Fiction/Non/Fiction
In this week’s episode of Fiction/Non/Fiction, co-hosts Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan are joined by novelist Margot Livesey and poet and essayist Jaswinder Bolina. Livesey discusses an excerpt from her fantastic new novel, The Boy in the Field, and challenges the traditional idea that that beach reads shouldn’t, or can’t, be “political.” Then Bolina discusses how the most popular books in this historic summer of protest and pandemic—including his own new collection of essays, Of Color—have engaged with themes of race and anti-racism.
To hear the full episode, subscribe to the Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast through iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app (include the forward slashes when searching). You can also listen by streaming from the player below. And check out video excerpts from our interviews at LitHub’s Virtual Book Channel and Fiction/Non/Fiction’s YouTube Channel. This episode was produced by Dylan Miettinen and Andrea Tudhope.
Selected readings for the episode:
Middlemarch by George Eliot · Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen · Normal People by Sally Rooney · The Mothers by Brit Bennett · Milkman by Anna Burns · The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe · Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld · Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid · Ken Follett · James A. Michener · 1984 by George Orwell · Toni Morrison · Margot Livesey on moral weakness for the Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast · The Firm by John Grisham · Tom Clancy ·Sue Monk Kidd · Agatha Christie · Rex Stout · Ngaio Marsh · Ralph Ellison · Billy Collins · How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi · White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo · So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo · Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong · Ta-Nehisi Coates · Citizen by Claudia Rankin · Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay · The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett · A Burning by Megha Majumdar · The Professor’s House by Willa Cather · Real Life by Brandon Taylor · Feel Free by Zadie Smith · The Great Believers Rebecca Makkai · This Is One Way to Dance by Sejal Shah · The Dark Tower by Stephen King
With Margot Livesey
Whitney Terrell: Not too long ago, the quintessential summer book was also called a “beach read.” The New York Times Book Review would do a summer issue. There’d be sand, there’d be shells. And these were books literally designed to read on the beach on vacation. They were designed to take you away from reality, from politics, from the sordidness of your real life. But nobody can go to the beach, thanks to the pandemic, and there is no escape from politics or the sordidness of real life these days. So, what is a summer book in 2020?
Margot Livesey: I am probably a really bad judge of this as someone who read all of Middlemarch on the beach. But Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage is a beach read. Pride and Prejudice is a beach read. Normal People by Sally Rooney is a beach read. The idea of a beach read seems flexible and all embracing, but I think something like Night by Eli Wiesel is not a beach read by definition—that things that are too tragic or too real or too deprived are not what people think of when they think of a beach read.
WT: What do you think a “beach read” is, Sugi?
V.V. Ganeshananthan: The last book that I remember specifically reading on a beach is The Mothers by Britt Bennett. I was in San Diego, and I have a very specific memory of reading it on a beach. It’s a serious book, but it was sort of perfect because I was near the setting that I was reading about, and the description seemed beautifully right on, and it’s a page turner. When I was thinking about what I would read on the beach, I was like, ‘Oh, I know, I started Milkman by Anna Burns, and I haven’t finished it and I really want to go back.’ That’s not light reading. Sometimes in the sunshine is the best time to go into the dark places.
WT: I totally agree, books that are political, in some sense, or are about serious issues can be beach reads. I think of The Bonfire of the Vanities, or Curtis Sittenfeld’s book Rodham—we had her on the show recently—or Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid.
ML: I think [Kiley Reid’s] book is a fantastic example of a book that’s really entertaining in the best sense, and readable, but asks quite serious questions at the same time.
VVG: As we’re talking about this, I can’t help but think that we’re in this era that’s inescapably political. Isn’t it important to have these forms of entertainment that aren’t political? Not that we’re escaping or ignoring—but affirming that all of these politics are in pursuit of this kind of deep enjoyment of the small things in life. If we’re fighting Trump’s insanity all the time, it’s hard to think about the passage of time and moral relationships among siblings… The way normal everyday lies rather than the huge world altering lies that we are now hearing from the administration can affect our lives, too. And Trump or no, those things don’t go away. Our regular lives are going on in the background as well.
ML: I feel very uncertain about how to use the term—both how to use the term “beach read” and also how to use the term, “political novel.” The novel is deeply committed to the individual. Even something like George Orwell’s 1984, what we remember in the novel is Winston and Julia and the fact that O’Brien’s betrayal is a particularly personal one. So, I’m a little sketchy about what really counts as a political novel.
WT: The last time you were on the podcast, we had you talk about the idea of moral weakness in reference to the characters in your last novel Mercury, and also in reference to actors in our current political scene. Mercury touched on gun control. It was, like many of your books, engaged in the current political scene. But The Boy in the Field, which is your new novel, is set in 1999—another century literally—and it feels in some ways separated from our current politics. Was this a deliberate choice?
ML: It was a very deliberate choice. I remember that feeling that we had in 1999 where people thought Y2K, where people thought planes were going to fall out of the skies, or computers would crash, everything would go up in flames. We were looking for danger, but we were looking in the wrong direction, it turned out. And I really liked that sense of menace, of suspicion. I also felt I needed two things to make my plot work. My plot is about three teenagers. I wanted them to have more autonomy than teenagers sometimes do now. And I wanted them not to have mobile phones, as teenagers often do now, so I really needed for several reasons to go back into another century.
With Jaswinder Bolina
V.V. Ganeshananthan: Your collection of essays, Of Color, was published in June of this year, and there’s no way it could have been more timely. But you started this project long before the police murder of George Floyd, and the heightened political tensions of this summer. Can you tell us a little bit about how the project began?
Jaswinder Bolina: The project was actually more or less solicited by Daniel Levin Becker, who is an editor at McSweeney’s, and had somewhere along the way encountered my work. He had solicited an essay for a project, a little anthology that McSweeney’s was working on, and in the course of doing that, he asked if I would ever be interested in doing a collection of essays. I didn’t know if I had enough work. I had never really deliberately set out to write a book of essays. But I had written many over the past roughly nine years. This was about two years ago, and one thing led to another as it does, and the book got greenlit and we were ready to go. It’s a strange thing—it was scheduled to come out in March and then due to the virus and a couple of things, we push the release date back to June and, there it was, it dropped in the midst of this incredible moment of social upheaval grounded in this country’s history of racial intolerance and injustice. It was an odd moment because the book felt, as you say, timely but of course it was written and ready to go long before the actual events it was published into, which I think happens across publishing often.
Whitney Terrell: This is our summer books episode and, if there’s ever been a summer when the summer books are antiracist literature, this is it. Books like How to Be an Antiracist and White Fragility and So You Want to Talk About Race have been on the bestseller list, which is not a common thing in America. We’ve been kicking around this idea of whether or not summer reads are meant to be an escape from reality. Books like those, and your own collection, feel different, like a long, hard look in the mirror. One obvious reason why people are ready for this material now is that there have been generationally significant protests across the country, but are there other things that are making these books what people want to read now?
JB: Yeah, it’s an interesting question. The wheels start turning years in advance of their actual appearance, and certainly the writing of them. I mean, my book, the first essay I wrote for it was called “Writing Like A White Guy” and I published that in 2011. So, I think what we’re seeing is one of those strange moments in literary history where a bunch of books are coming out. One you didn’t mention—Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong—was another big event for Asian writers like myself. These books were in the planning phases, clearly they were on the calendar. On the one hand, there’s absolutely a desire for this conversation, if not necessarily among a readership, then certainly among writers. What it tells you is that for the last 5-10 years, writers of color have increasingly moved into positions where they’re going to be writing these kinds of books. Fortunately, and maybe cynically, publishing seems to have caught up to that trend that there’s this content out there, there is an audience for it.
And so I’m guessing that a lot of these projects got moving in a slightly different context, but just happened to all land at the same moment. What that tells me is that this has been building over several years. The fact that it’s all happened at once is maybe a coincidence. Or there really has been the beginnings of a kind of sea change in publishing where, on the cynical side, publishers may realize they can make a profit off of this, but on the optimistic side, publishers want to give voice to all of these writers who are out here trying to talk about these issues. As for when they landed and what they landed into, it could be that the presidency of Donald Trump is what sort of got publishers thinking about this and writers as well. And on the one hand, you might say that what’s happened this summer was an inevitable outcome of a Trump presidency. But at the same time, I think that his election probably spurred a lot of these books into being.
VVG: I remember seeing on Twitter a bookseller saying that it was great to see these books at the top of the bestseller list, but also that some people had placed orders for these books and not picked them—that there was a kind of virtue signaling. I wonder how virtue signaling is driving those sales. It’s one thing to have an audience that’s interested, and it’s another thing to have an audience that’s smarter. You’re talking about the writers over this period of time gaining different kinds of energy and motivation from different political shifts. I wonder how that has been for readers. When you go back and revise an essay for a collection, you published that essay in 2011, do you think about your audience differently?
JB: Oh my God, that is one of the great terrors of putting out a book like this. I think that I hesitated because I wondered, one, doesn’t everybody already kind of know all of this stuff by now? There’s that lingering in the back of your head. I was a little bit relieved, just going through the editorial process, to find there were still claims that I was making that felt relevant and timely. And at the same time, there’s this other side of it where you do know that there’s a way in which your own work has become part of the conversation so that people may have taken some of your ideas and run with them. And now here you are being like, “Hey, here’s this thing that I wrote.” And everybody already knows it, because they’ve already read the thing and already moved on to the next thing.
And so, it feels like you’re plagiarizing yourself somehow, in a weird way, that you’re calling back to something and trying to remind everybody that this is where these ideas got going. But yeah, you’re absolutely right. Over the course of nine years, readers and writers have read the kinds of things that I’ve written, that far more celebrated writers than I have written. When I started writing, Ta-Nehisi Coates hadn’t written his last two books. There are books that have come out in the intervening years that articulate some things along the lines of when I’m articulating. And there are many books that have come out that articulate things that I believe in and want to talk about far better than I do. In terms of making edits, making changes, we tried to keep we tried to update the book to 2019. And then 2020 happened, and you just realize there’s no way to keep up. You just put out an earnest thought and hope that it sticks.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai. Condensed and edited by Andrea Tudhope and Dylan Miettinen.