This summer is rife with literary heavy hitters, from National Book Award winner Lauren Groff’s first short story collection to a political thriller from a former president. There are laid-back beach reads and buzzy memoirs and humor galore, but among the prestigious list stands four literary debuts that are already taking the book world by storm. Be ready to hear these names again and again — after all, several have already secured follow-up book deals, before their first has even hit shelves.
R.O. Kwon — The Incendiaries
A decade ago, R.O. Kwon set out to pen her debut novel and wound up spending years just reworking the first 20 pages.
“I’m a maniac about sentences,” she explains. “I wanted them to be perfect.”
Kwon’s original idea for The Incendiaries was based on her teenage years, during which she was deeply religious, and even had plans to become a missionary.
“I loved the idea of becoming a religious recluse,” says Kwon. “And then I lost the faith and that was cataclysmic to me, and very much at the core of what I wanted to do with the book.”
Following her “cataclysmic” loss of faith, the author coupled those emotions with a deep-seated interest in cults, homegrown experiences, and North Korean labor camps (where she has distant family roots), and the book as we know it was born.
The Incendiaries follows Will and Phoebe, a couple at an exclusive East Coast college, as they simultaneously fall in love and become entangled in an extremist group hell-bent on violently disrupting abortion clinics. It’s full of lofty themes like passion, terrorism, love, and space, but for a tome 10 years in the making, we wouldn’t expect anything less.
Beck Dorey-Stein — From the Corner of the Oval
It’s been over a year since Barack Obama left office, and the Obama administration memoirs are rolling in, but in a refreshing twist From the Corner of the Oval swaps policy for good old-fashioned workplace drama. First-time author Beck Dorey-Stein was working at Lululemon when she responded to a Craigslist job posting and soon found herself as the newest White House stenographer, observing the inner sanctum from up close.
In Oval, she regales readers not only with her witty commentary on what it’s like to share a hotel gym with POTUS himself but the emotional roller coaster that ensued when she became romantically involved with one of Obama’s high-level staffers.
“Writing this book was basically an exercise in embarrassment,” says Dorey-Stein. “Going through my notes [from the job] was like the worst moving experience, only instead of boxes it was just my entire life in documents and text and emails. But I’m proud of myself for writing it all down.”
Readers won’t find state secrets so much as they’ll get a glimpse at what life was really like working for the most historical of administrations. There are countless flights on Air Force One, late nights at four-star hotel bars in far-flung locations, and a bravely honest retelling of her workplace affair. Dorey-Stein was hesitant about sharing the good, the bad, and the ugly, but the stark reality of the presidential turnover pushed her over the edge.
“After the election I was like all right, screw it,” she laughs. “Let’s just go whole hog.”
Tommy Orange — There, There
A vibrant tapestry of Native American life in Oakland, There There is one of the year’s most exciting debuts. Crafted around a dozen characters, each on their own complicated path — a newly sober woman hoping to win back her family, a man trying to honor his late uncle’s memory — the book brings them together in a grand, heartbreaking finale at a huge community gathering.
Orange created a diverse ensemble because, he says, his community has stayed “voiceless” for so long in popular culture.
[It’s] about wanting to express a range of voices within [the Native] community, to give an idea of who these people are,” he explains.
The book’s profundity stems from its prologue, a mini-history of Native American life. For Orange, beginning on such an encompassing note was key.
“I’ve always loved what prologues can do,” he says. “As Native people, we have a history of learning bad history — and not only not hearing our stories, but hearing [them] told wrong.”
Fatima Farheen Mirza — A Place For Us
A Place For Us is the first book to come out of Sarah Jessica Parker’s newly minted imprint, SJP for Hogarth, but Fatima Farheen Mirza is about to become a star in her own right. The young debut author brings us the thinking person’s summer read, a rich and layered tale about family and assimilation.
It follows an Indian Muslim family living in the States as they prepare for the wedding of eldest daughter Hadia, who broke from tradition to choose her husband. The nuptials also beget the return of an estranged son and more than a few crises of culture. Mirza began writing the novel as an undergraduate at the University of California, Riverside almost eight years ago, and the process wrought several lessons for the young author, mostly because of the difficulty she discovered in writing about the hurt that is so present in families.
“The moments of betrayal or cruelty were the hardest to write,” she explains. “It is unsettling to inhabit a mind acting out of anger or jealousy, and I also knew how those actions would haunt the characters for years to come.”
The novel isn’t autobiographical — none of the characters can be traced back to exact people in her life — but she did draw on many impressions of her own family over the years. And the central theme is based on a struggle that Mirza herself knows.
“I always felt both inside and outside of the faith and culture of my family,” she says. “Writing about this fictional family allowed me to return to my home with curiosity and love.”
Catherine Steadman — Something in the Water
According to author Catherine Steadman, if Something in the Water were a cocktail, the recipe would be as follows: 2 parts Gone Girl, 1 part The Wolf of Wall Street, 1/2 part True Romance, 1/2 part Big Little Lies, a dash of Sunscreen and a sprinkling of diamonds.
The deliciously dramatic tale follows newlyweds Mark, an investment banker, and Erin, a budding documentary filmmaker, as they discover a bag full of money floating in the waters off of Bora Bora. They make an ill-fated decision to open the tote, and the consequences that follow take them past the point of no return.
Steadman, 31, has come to her first novel in a most original way: She began as a highbrow British actress. She’s best known for her role on Downton Abbey and has also done stints on The Tudors and Doctors. She first had the idea for Something in the Water while she was shooting in the desert of Namibia.
“It was so hot that the background artists were fainting in the heat,” she says. “I just loved the idea of all that crystal clear water. And the idea came to me: What would a person like you or me actually do if they found a bag full of money floating in the ocean?”
As she set down to pen her first novel, it required a lot of in-depth knowledge of a more sordid world that is a far cry from British television. She turned to — where else — Google.
“It was important to me that everything Erin does in the book is something achievable for a normal person with no special training or knowledge,” she explains. “Everything she does can be found on the internet — I watched a lot of potentially questionable YouTube videos on firearms and diamond trafficking. My hard drive would be deeply concerning if taken out of context!”