by alysonforbes on Sep 28, 2017

Congratulations to Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, whose debut novel A Kind of Freedom has been nominated for a National Book Award for Fiction!

National Book Award fiction judges Alexander Chee, Dave Eggers, Annie Philbrick, Karolina Waclawiak and Chair Jacqueline Woodson have named A Kind of Freedom one of ten books nominated this year.

If that news isn’t quite enough to move this debut to the top of your to-be-read pile, A Kind of Freedom was also a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice following a rave review in those pages.

People magazine recently gushed, “Brilliantly juxtaposing World War II, the ’80s and post-Katrina present, Sexton follows three generations of a black New Orleans family as they struggle to bloom amid the poison of racism. The author’s deep knowledge of her city and unerring ear for dialogue help bring her unforgettable characters to life.”

The Washington Post calls the novel a “moving debut… ingeniously told,” The San Francisco Chronicle also highly recommended the book—and that’s just the beginning of what you’ll read and hear about Margaret Wilkerson Sexton this fall.

Click here to order your copy of A Kind of Freedom.

by  on Aug 31, 2017

What inspired you to write this book?

A trip to Germany with my father in April 2015 served as the catalyst for this book, but in a multitude of ways, the material contained in these pages is the culmination of a lifelong project. As a daughter of two Holocaust survivors, I have already written for many years about my experiences of inherited grief, loss, and trauma. However, during that particular trip (which was the third time I visited the site of the Buchenwald concentration camp with my father—a camp in which he was a prisoner at the age of fifteen), I began to focus more intently on the historic threshold we are all currently approaching. How will the legacies of Holocaust survivors, liberators, victims, witnesses, and perpetrators be remembered when they are no longer among us in person? This questioning led me to investigate other genocides and atrocities of the 20th century (and earlier), as well as to engage in research on the emerging evidence for the complexities of inter-generational aftermath of war. I found it was urgently important to blend my personal narrative with interviews and broad-based studies that reflect a widely shared accounting of past, present, and future. How can each of us help move in the direction of healing—individually as well as collectively?

What are you reading right now? 

I’ve just finished reading a novel called Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss. We are going to be in conversation at Keplers in a few weeks, and I’ve been an admirer of all of her books for quite a while. Our themes and concerns have many parallels. I’m also starting to re-read a dystopian novel called Memoirs of a Survivor by Doris Lessing. It had a stunning effect on my imagination when I read it several years ago, and I’m curious to see how it impacts me now, especially since I’m paying so much attention to the word “survivor”—how and where the term and its meaning is continually explored.

What’s the one book that you recommend to people, over and over? 

I recommend different books to different people, depending on what they seem to be wanting to experience or to learn, but I am most likely to urge anyone and everyone to read To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, because it’s a perfect masterpiece. I have come to feel somewhat similarly about The Sea by John Banville (and both are quite short, as it happens). A bigger commitment of time and attention is required for this one, but The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, by Daniel Mendelsohn, is a tremendously moving and elegantly crafted work. It’s as much about storytelling and memory and creativity as it is about family history and the Holocaust.

Who are some of your writer mentors? Do you find that’s changed over time as you evolve as a writer or do they remain the same? 

My earliest writing mentors were my professors at Stanford and at U.C. Irvine, but all of that was a very long time ago! My evolution as a writer definitely includes the discovery of inspiration from new writers all the time. And sometimes my mentors show up as ghosts — in the sense that writers no longer living can feel like the ones who teach me and guide me the most, for example Virginia Woolf (see above) and James Joyce and Rainer Maria Rilke.

What is your most prized book possession? A first edition? A gift? Please describe. 

I confess that I have an ever-growing collection of signed books, more than I have shelf space to accommodate. But one inscription that feels the most meaningful is on a page inside David Grossman’s exquisite novel See Under: Love, where he wrote this: “Listening to you read your poems made me feel that we are brother and sister.”

by alysonforbes on Aug 03, 2017


What inspired you to write the novel?

I noticed a trend in African American communities whereby members of my generation seemed to have fewer opportunities available to them than members of my grandparents’ generation. That struck me as odd considering there was such blatant racism alive in my grandparents’ generation including Jim Crow segregation. I wondered what systemic oppression had taken the place of Jim Crow to block African Americans in a modern setting. And I wanted to explore those systems through fiction so that readers might viscerally experience the heartbreaking impact racism has on people’s lives.

What are you reading right now? 

I just read Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong, which was a subtly heartbreaking but funny take on a woman’s transition into adulthood in the face of her father’s battle with Alzheimer’s.

What’s the one book that you recommend to people, over and over?

Probably Purple Hibiscus. People love Americanah and for good reason, but Adichie’s first book, Purple Hibiscus, tells the compelling and engrossing story of a young girl coming of age in a violent home in postcolonial Nigeria.

Who are some of your writer mentors? Do you find that’s changed over time as you evolve as a writer or do they remain the same? 

Jane Vandenburgh is a mentor who has taught me so much about writing but more importantly about accessing the magic behind the work, the source of the creation. I don’t think that will ever change because she has a timeless ability to guide me back to the real reason I’m creating in the first place, and that seems like a gift that will always be relevant.

What is your most prized book possession? A first edition? A gift? Please describe. 

My most prized book possession is probably my signed copy of Leaving Atlanta, in which Tayari Jones reassured me that my book (which I hadn’t written yet) would be beautiful.

by alysonforbes on Jul 19, 2017

A KIND OF FREEDOM by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton

HEART BERRIES by Terese Marie Mailhot

  • Los Angeles, CA: Vroman’s Bookstore—Otherwise Reading Series/in conversation w/Elissa Washuta/reading/signing—8/31

IMPROVEMENT by Joan Silber

MAGDALENA MOUNTAIN by Robert Michael Pyle


  • West Hollywood, CA: Book Soup—reading/signing—8/21

RESISTANCE by Jeff Biggers

SURVIVOR CAFÉ by Elizabeth Rosner

TERRARIUM by Valerie Trueblood

THE WIDOW NASH by Jamie Harrison


And many more listings coming soon….

by alysonforbes on Jul 10, 2017

What inspired you to write the new novel?
Pages for Her is a sequel to a novel that was published in 2001, Pages for You. Those characters were very vivid to me as I wrote that novel, and have seemed alive to many readers over the years: the story poured out of me at a transitional time in my own life, and I think that helps explain its intensity.

When I wrote that book, I did not imagine writing a sequel, but readers have often wondered what happened later to Flannery and Anne, and the more I was asked that question the more I began to wonder, myself. After a while I knew that eventually I would have to write about Flannery and Anne again to find out where they went, and what they continued to mean to each other even from a distance. Writing Pages for Her was the way to find out.

What are you reading right now? 

I just finished Rachel Cusk’s brilliant novel Outline. Her prose is so cool and clear, and she has such insights about marriage and divorce, motherhood, writing—life. It’s all there. I’m going to find the book that followed it, Transit, and read that soon.

In the interim, though, I am reading C E Morgan’s first novel, All the Living. I recently read The Sport of Kings and was astonished by it: Morgan is a writer to watch closely, as she has scope and depth in her work, and a spiritual seriousness too.

What’s the one book that you recommend to people, over and over? 

It’s interesting how hard I find it to answer this question! I am not much of a proselytizer, by nature: of course there are novels I love and writers who feel like they belong to me personally, but I don’t always assume that my taste will be shared by someone else, or that I know what book is right for someone else at a particular time. (That’s a funny thing about novels, isn’t it? It has to be the right time for them. When I first read Middlemarch, I could not find it, somehow; later, I came back to it when I was ready and discovered the masterpiece everyone had told me it was.)

Having said all that! – there is a title that comes to mind that I love to recommend, and that is Toni Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye. It is a stark, beautiful, extraordinary novel. So short and powerful, lined with grief and anger and love. I enjoy recommending it as people often know her later ‘bigger’ books, Beloved or The Song of Solomon, and I enjoy drawing people’s attention back to that remarkable book.

Who are some of your writer mentors? Do you find that’s changed over time as you evolve as a writer or do they remain the same? 

In person, I was lucky enough to be taught by John Barth and Stephen Dixon at Johns Hopkins, and they are both writers of intelligence, humor and integrity, so were great guides both to writing and to the writer’s life.

In terms of writers whose work I hold close, yes certainly the novelists I treasure have changed. I loved Woolf and always will, though I have not re read her in years. In my twenties I was one of many readers bewitched by Jeanette Winterson, along with other writers who had powerful voices, such as Jamaica Kincaid and Grace Paley. I admired from a bit more of a distance English writers like Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes.

Now, though, I’m returning to some of the great social realists of the last century, Forster for instance, and Wharton: I am interested in reading writers whose characters are complete, and whole. Both of those writers have such empathy, and humor in their understanding of people. Penelope Fitzgerald, too, though she’s a different kettle of fish.

What is your most prized book possession? A first edition? A gift? Please describe. 

When I was about fourteen, I had a romantic boyfriend a few years older than I was, in Oxford, who gave me a copy of Richard III, inscribed with a French love poem. I had to study Richard III for my exams. I would be really sad to lose this book, which has miraculously made it through so many moves. I have no idea what happened to that young man, but I’m touched still by his inscription. And it is so great that it is Richard III, that powerful and savage story. It would be awful if it had been Romeo and Juliet!

by  on Jun 07, 2017

What inspired you to write this incredible novel?

Some family history—my mother’s family were Cornish miners—but mostly the image of a woman stepping off a train and disappearing. I’d been doing historical research for a documentary on Butte, and my head was stuck in the turn of the century—the edge of the modern world, and so much of it was about to literally explode. It was a great age for reinvention, and I’ve always been annoyed by our sometimes patronizing attitude to the past, the notion that people were as bland as most obituaries. I wanted humor, and frankness, and realism in lust and romance; I wanted to have fun with my plot, and I wanted to handle the past without nostalgia, and without distance.

What are you reading right now?

I just finished George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo—which is so oddly and beautifully joyful—and I’ve started The Songs, by Charles Elton, whose last book, Mr. Toppit, I really loved.

What’s the one book that you recommend to people, over and over?

The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, by Michael Ondaatje. One hundred inspired, singing, surreal pages.

Who are some of your writer mentors? Do you find that’s changed over time as you evolve as a writer or do they remain the same?

I wrote my thesis on Peter Matthiessen, and knew him quite well; he’s still in the back of my head, telling me to aim (considerably) higher. And maybe different books call for different inspiration, though I’ve never tried to break down another writer’s prose or plot. When I was writing mysteries it would have been the odd combination of Dorothy Sayers and the Swedish writing team of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö: humor, clarity, a lack of melodrama, plots that rang true. And I read several of Kate Atkinson’s novels during a pause in writing The Widow Nash, and marveled at the dialogue and all the spinning plates.

 What is your most prized book possession? A first edition? A gift? Please describe.

I don’t know why, but I’ve never really thought that way. Maybe a battered children’s book (King Arthur illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren, very much not Little Golden Books/Disney style), or my great-great grandfather’s notebooks, which I used in The Widow Nash. After my father’s death last year, I guess it’s become his old New Directions paperback of Lorca’s Selected Poems, which is held together by duct tape.

by  on May 03, 2017

1. What inspired you to write this incredible book?

 It was originally inspired by events in my own life, but the end result is not autobiographical. For me, writing fiction is a way of trying to understand what happens, to make sense of what seems senseless as it happens, by reimagining events and giving them a new and different kind of life. If I can take something raw and transform it into art, into something that has a kind of beauty, that’s a source of the greatest happiness to me.

I wrote three different versions of this novel, with three different sets of characters and points of view, and the third version was the easiest. Once I realized they needed to be poets (because successful poets tend to think in original ways and make up their own rules in life), and that I needed to give equal time to husband and wife in third person, the book practically wrote itself in under a year.

And I had a lot of fun writing the poems for the main characters. I sent some of them to magazines, and one was accepted for publication, but unfortunately it had to be withdrawn from use by the magazine, because the book has come out sooner than the magazine would have and they wanted first rights.

2. What are you reading right now?

 I am re-reading James Joyce’s Ulysses for a reading group at University Press Books in Berkeley, following along with them though I am not in Berkeley for the next five months.

And I am devouring memoirs, since I am nearly finished writing one. I have enjoyed everything by Mary Karr, Atul Gawande, and Joan Didion. I loved A Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks and Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan. I read both of those twice, as well as Didion’s Where I Was From, Blue Nights, and The Year of Magical Thinking. I also really liked Trevor Noah’s enlightening Born a Crime.

The best book I have read lately, though, is a novel: Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone. I also loved Anthony Doerr’s novel All the Light We Cannot See.

3. What’s the one book that you recommend to people, over and over?

James Baldwin’s book of short stories, Going to Meet the Man.

Baldwin exemplifies everything I admire in a writer: he’s thoughtful and honest, he writes beautiful sentences and paragraphs, and he confronts issues head on. The title story in that book is breathtaking. He wanted to investigate why racism is still so deep-seated in our culture, and to do that he put his head inside the lion’s mouth: he inhabits the white sheriff who beat people with a billy club when Dr. King and others led protest marches in Selma, Alabama, and shows how the man’s sexuality is hard-wired to the torturing and killing of black men.

Other books I often recommend are quite different: Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (which I would vote the best novel ever written), Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America, Edward P. Jones’s The Known World, and Tobias Woolf’s Old School.

For more about me as a reader, see my essay “Dolls Alive” in The Most Wonderful Books: Writers on Discovering the Pleasures of Reading, edited by Michael Dorris and Emilie Buchwald.


 4. Who are some of your writer mentors? Do you find that’s changed over time as you evolve as a writer or do they remain the same?

My earliest mentors were my mother and grandmother, both of them teachers. They read “The Dollyland Star,” a newspaper I produced about my dolls, and my first short stories (like the one about “Frankie the Frog”).

In college, certain professors encouraged me, and I tried to please them, which actually held me back as a writer. My breakthrough came when I realized I should not try to write something I imagined they would like—I should write something I would like to read myself.

Later I was married to a poet for over a quarter century, and he became a major mentor for me, as my first reader and “in-house editor,” but I don’t show him my work anymore. Now I have a writing group (made up of mostly Bay Area writers) that has sometimes helped me with astute responses. Most recently, I have relied on readings by the New York agents I have worked with, editors and others at Counterpoint Press, and my current husband, who (ironically enough) was long ago the first of those professor/mentors I tried to please.

For more on the influences on me as a writer, see Clayton Childress’ Under the Cover: The Creation, Production and Reception of a Novel, which Princeton University Press will release on June 20, 2017. He is a sociologist of literature, and he used my novel Jarrettsville, my writing practices and formative history as his chief example.

5. What is your most prized book possession? A first edition? A gift? Please describe.

Friends recently gave me a signed copy of William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, in which he wrote me a personal note (since I used to surf and still own a board). I’m treasuring that right now.

And long ago, my first professor/mentor (now husband) gave me a first edition of the oldest version of The Letters of D. H. Lawrence, which is probably the most valuable book I own.

And I am now reading my husband’s copy of Ulysses, which contains his wonderful teaching notes. That’s priceless to me.

by  on Apr 10, 2017

1. What inspired you to write this biography?

Sam Shepard has triumphed in so many areas – Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Oscar-nominated actor, great prose stylist, screenwriter of the now-classic film, Paris Texas, accomplished drummer, and he’s a hell of horseman. Add to this that he’s accomplished all this on his own terms. I felt it was time to update his life story. There hadn’t been a new bio in more than a quarter century, plus there were new letters and archival material available.

2. What are you reading right now?

The new Richard Russo collection of short stories, Trajectory, that I’m scheduled to review. Plus a cultural history of the 20th century that I can’t recall the name of. For walking the dogs I have The Brothers Karamazov on audio, read by an eccentric British man who I suspect might be drunk.

3. What’s the one book that you recommend to people, over and over?

Crime and Punishment. It’s one of those classics that so many people are afraid to tackle, and I tell them it’s not that difficult. Once you understand that each character can be known by a few different names and you get those down, you’re good to go. As for the controversial epilogue, I’m glad Dostoyevsky included it – it makes me weep like a baby every time.

4. Who are some of your writer mentors? Do you find that’s changed over time as you evolve as a writer or do they remain the same?

Michael Lennon was Norman Mailer’s archivist, and he wrote the great biography of Mailer, A Double Life. After I reviewed it, he contacted me and said he lived just up the road a bit, suggesting we should get a beer some time. We met and I adopted him as a mentor. He’s encouraged me all along, fielded my questions and provided wise counsel in my hours of need – which were not infrequent.

5. What is your most prized book possession? A first edition? A gift? Please describe.

A few years ago, the owner of a bookstand near Central Park recognized a middle-aged man perusing the stacks. The owner realized it was Sam Shepard. He approached him with the only copy of a Shepard book he had on hand. Sam signed it for him. Last year, I bought it from the owner. It’s titled Angel City and Other Plays.


by alysonforbes on Apr 04, 2017

In an interview with Colorado’s KGNU Radio Bookclub, author Laura Pritchett discusses her novel, The Blue Hour. Read the full interview here.

by alysonforbes on Apr 03, 2017

Thomas Dilworth’s biography, David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet, receives a glowing review from The Spectator. Read the full review here.

by alysonforbes on Mar 21, 2017

San Francisco Chronicle‘s weekly “First Sentences from New Books” column features the first sentence from Anna Journey’s new essay collection, An Arrangement of Skin. Read the selection here.

by alysonforbes on Mar 16, 2017

The New York Public Library named Karen Bender’s Refund: Stories, Hiromi Kawakami’s Manazuru and Noo Saro-Wiwa’s Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria to their list of 365 notable books by women authors. See the full list here.