On a sunny May afternoon, EW’s Los Angeles offices are catching literary fever. Five buzzy debut authors — Taffy Brodesser-Akner, 43; Sarah M. Broom, 39; Linda Holmes, 48; Lisa Taddeo, 39; and De’Shawn Charles Winslow, 39 — have arrived, converging for their first major round of press.
The mood is excited, anxious, slightly overwhelming. The publishing world has changed hugely over the past decade, pronounced to be near-extinct more than a few times, only to find a post-Kindle (and Instagram-worthy) renaissance. And here are the people behind the stories affirming just how alive books remain, whether they’re hitting the heart of our cultural moment, vitally reframing histories, or unfurling the kind of sparkling romance perfect for a lazy summer day.
Taking their seats on a cozy sectional, the writers discuss the cultural power of books, the struggle of becoming an author today, and how exactly to define a “beach read.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: To start, let’s talk a little bit about what these books are. How do you guys describe these books to friends and family?
LINDA HOLMES: How do I get them to read them? I say, “Mom…!” No. [Laughs] Evvie Drake Starts Over is a book about a woman who’s a young widow. She has an apartment in the back of her house, which she rents out to a recently washed-up professional baseball player. It takes place in Coastal Maine, so you get your lovely small-town lobster community, and lots of fun back-and-forth. It’s a little romantic. It’s a little fun.
TAFFY BRODESSER-AKNER: I loved her book.
HOLMES: I loved her book, too.
BRODESSER-AKNER: We’ve contractually decided to say that we loved them. [Laughs] But I did! Fleishman Is in Trouble is a novel about a man who is recently divorced and who starts dating now for the first time through apps, and whose ex-wife drops his kids off for his weekend — and then disappears.
LISA TADDEO: My book, Three Women, is about three women — their sexual desires and lives. One is a housewife in rural Indiana. One is a restauranteur in the Northeast whose husband likes to watch her have sex with other men and women. And the last is a young woman in Fargo, N.D., who’d allegedly had a relationship with her teacher when she was underage.
BRODESSER-AKNER: It’s a good book. [Laughs]
DE’SHAWN CHARLES WINSLOW: In West Mills is about a woman named Knot who refuses to live her life based on societal norms. She has some addictions and she likes to read a lot. She has a well-meaning, meddling neighbor who just wants to fix her. We watch these two people grow… and deal. [Laughs]
SARAH M. BROOM: The Yellow House is about my growing up in New Orleans beyond the tourist map. I have 11 brothers and sisters; it’s about this house that we grew up in, that my mother bought when she was 19 years old with her life savings. It tells the story of that house, what happened to the house, and our lives now.
TADDEO: I just got chills.
What was your path to writing this book? Was it hard to get it published? How long do you think you had this book in you?
WINSLOW: In West Mills is a story that has been with me probably since I’ve been a teenager. I didn’t even know I was interested in writing until I was nearly 30. But the questions that I try to answer in the book through fiction are questions about people I knew when I was a child, that I didn’t get to know a lot about, and dynamics that I didn’t understand. I made up the answers because I could not access the real answers.
TADDEO: An editor asked me if I wanted to write a book, and he sent me a bunch of books — [like] Joan Didion and Janet Malcolm. One of them was Thy Neighbor’s Wife by Gay Talese. I read that and I was like, “This is very male.” [Laughs] So I started talking to men and women and all kinds of people, but it became about female desire. Because I wanted to read about that.
You do write in the book, “As I began to write this book, I thought I’d be drawn to the stories of men.” For everybody here, one of the reasons you’re here is there’s a freshness to your books in the way you’re taking stories we might think we know, or places we don’t know, and illuminating them. Can you talk about how that evolved for you? How you went in thinking that, and found a different story?
TADDEO: I’d been writing for Esquire a lot and I was very in tune with this male audience. And it was the opposite gender from mine, and I was intrigued by it. But then I started talking to a lot of men. The stories started to feel — there was a lot ego involved. Not in all the men, but in a lot of it. Women felt more complex and interesting.
Taffy, what about you? What was the road to becoming a published author for you?
BRODESSER-AKNER: I was a magazine writer, too; I was a GQ writer. When I turned 40, a lot of my friends started telling me they were getting divorced. I wanted to do that story for GQ. I wanted to do the story of a divorce — especially now. For people who were my age, when they were dating in the first place, it was this horrifying scenario where you show up somewhere and hope somebody likes you. Whereas now, it is staying home and hoping that somebody likes you — which is equally horrifying. One day after one of my friends was showing me his phone, and all of the new activity on it, I called up my GQ editor and I asked him if I could write this story. He said, “It’s just not the kind of thing we do anymore.” I think I hung up and I pulled over into a Pain Quotidien and I wrote the first 10 pages of it, as a novel. That was in late 2016. I finished it pretty quickly. I thought I was interested in the story of a male divorce, but in the end I was interested in everyone’s points of view. But also it started when I was 6 years old and my parents got divorced. I became someone who was obsessed with divorce.
HOLMES: Lisa was talking about the difference between the way that men think and talk about desire, and the way that women do. And one of the things I really love about Taffy’s book is that there are moments where it seems to be going in a direction of a book about the “American literary man.” And then it has this wonderful turn in its approach. There’s a commonality in what you guys are talking about.
BRODESSER-AKNER: Right, yeah!
HOLMES: In terms of whose POV people are interested in.
Linda, in writing a story about a widow, were there certain tropes or tendencies that you’ve noticed that you wanted to avoid?
HOLMES: Absolutely. I originally had these stories in my head as separate things. She’s a widow and — it’s not a spoiler because it’s in the introduction — she was not very happily married. When she becomes a widow, it’s very hard to talk about that, about “how do you really feel?” and how are people believing that you feel versus how you actually feel, and what’s the guilt associated with that?
Then I had a separate idea about a baseball player. I’ve always been fascinated by broken-down athletes — I don’t know why. [Laughs] And I realized that there was a way in which their feelings of being busted were in dialogue with each other a little bit. I moved them into the same house. I started writing pieces of it, I think I found a stub of a piece of it as early as 2004. But I started to sit down and write it, actually, in National Novel Writing Month in 2012. And I wrote it for six days, and then my apartment flooded! Four years later, I picked it up again in earnest. And I don’t know if you noticed, but the fall of 2016 was kind of heavy! [Laughs]
I heard about that.
HOLMES: I needed a place to put some mental energy. I started working on it and it got finished in the spring of 2017.
BRODESSER-AKNER: Wait, are you saying that they were supposed to be two separate novels?
BRODESSER-AKNER: That’s amazing. I love finding stuff like that out.
HOLMES: And I couldn’t get anywhere with either one of them!
The post-2016 reality speaks to a larger question about book culture right now, and what role books do play and should play today. You’re all entering the literary landscape. What feelings do you have on that?
BRODESSER-AKNER: The thing that we forget very often right now is that this has always happened. There have always been distractions. The thing that I think is more crucial to the question than the political landscape is technology and phones — the amount that we’re able to read and the amount that we are able to absorb right now. In my magazine writing, but also in this novel, you have to work very hard to keep people’s attention now, and you just have to be dancing in every sentence. If there’s nothing that a new book can offer you, people are going to put it down, because there’s just too much to read. That, to me, is terrifying. That’s what I think. It’s not really what you asked!
BROOM: I think also this is a moment, to say sort of the opposite, [where] we’ll get to the point where the nonstop distractions will actually become the thing that people don’t want. We’re seeing it happen already in certain ways. For me, personally, it’s thinking about how to make a world and still take time in the writing, as a writer, and build a place where people can be outside of the distraction and the noise.
WINSLOW: The role of books is to teach and entertain at the same time. That can be done in a quiet way, and it can be done in a busy way. But I don’t think that books have an obligation to address the moment. All writers do — but unintentionally.
BRODESSER-AKNER: I agree with that. I don’t know that the turns that Lisa and I took in our books would’ve happened in another time.
Sarah, you are one of two on this panel who has written nonfiction, but you’re really the only to have told your own family’s story. Were there concerns about getting it right, or not divulging too much?
BROOM: Absolutely. The entire act of being the baby child of 12 and telling this story felt like a major transgression. It took me a really long time to give myself permission to write the story. I was approaching it in certain ways as a journalist would, trying to interview all of my family members and record them and then transcribe it. That provided a level of detachment, in a way. But even now it’s horrifying. I have dreams about it, because the smallest thing can make someone uncomfortable. I’m trying to tell a story, which I think of as this epic, big story. I don’t mean for it to be hagiography; these people have to be characters and they have to feel alive. Readers have to come to know them. It was hugely difficult and remains really difficult. But for me, to get to your question, the big thing was: Put myself on the line, even more than I put anyone else on the line.
BRODESSER-AKNER: Have they all read it?
BROOM: No. They have not. Having 12 voices saying, “I don’t like this, I don’t like that,” would drive me insane. [Laughs]
HOLMES: So it’s your reactions that you have dreams about?
BROOM: Yeah. I don’t worry so much about having gotten things wrong, because I’m such a granular, detailed type of writer. It’s their reaction to things. It’s very, very tricky.
You mentioned telling a bigger story — that your family gets at larger themes. Having read your book, that’s absolutely true. The house, particularly, is such an iconic symbol of the American dream. What was it for you about that house? What story did you find you were getting to as you went deeper?
BROOM: That’s a great question. For me, the house began as the idea of belonging to a place that you don’t feel represents you or even belongs to you fully. And so, from the place of the house, the story for me became about New Orleans and the way that New Orleans is mythologized — the way that people feel so deeply that they know it. Or that it’s doing something for them. Within the mythology of New Orleans, the actual people who make New Orleans the place that most people love are just completely out of the story. I saw the act of writing the book of me as a cartographer, reimagining, revising, expanding a map of a sort — to include all the people I know, all the places I know, that I never see on the literal and also theoretical map.
De’Shawn, your book has, for lack of a better word, such a vibe. Knot, your protagonist, loves Charles Dickens. Who are some of your inspirations?
WINSLOW: More recently, Edward P. Jones. But Toni Morrison was the first for me. I I had not read any of her work, and I went and saw [Beloved], and someone said, “Oh, you’ve got to read the book.” I read the book and I was a Toni Morrison addict. The Color Purple: I watched that as a film and, finally, somewhere in my mid-20s, I read the book for the first time, and then I became addicted to Alice Walker’s written work. Those are the first names that come to mind.
Linda, what about you?
HOLMES: I am a romantic comedy fiend. Nora Ephron is one. Some Aaron Sorkin stuff: The way he writes dialogue back-and-forth, I’ve always really loved, even though some of the other stuff I struggle with. [Laughs] I do also read books, I just want to say. [Laughs] Liz Gilbert is one, actually, but also writers like Jennifer Weiner, Rainbow Rowell — people who write really good relationship stories that I like a lot have been very influential on my writing.
A lot of those authors that you mentioned have fallen into the “beach read” category, and I think it’s safe to say it’s kind of a controversial term in the literary sphere. Some view it as a little condescending. What are your thoughts on it, especially since I think your book — of everyone’s here — fits into that?
HOLMES: I think it’s probably more beach-ready than these [other] books. [Laughs] But here’s the thing that’s funny: People are going to read all these books at the beach. People read when they have time to read. They’re going to take their precious time when they are away from work and sit and quietly say, “Yes, tell me this story that you made up.” I would never be ungrateful for that, or have any sort of problem with it. There are times when those kinds of terms — whether it’s that or chick-lit or whatever you want to say — are used in ways that are diminishing. But for me personally? I’m extremely lucky to have written this book and published it. Read it at the beach. Read it in book club. Read it in the tub. Someone told me she read [the galley] in the tub, and it made me so happy. That’s a beautiful thought to me.
What about the rest of you? We have a nice mix here of types of books. Are you worried about being slotted into a category?
BRODESSER-AKNER: I mean, I always am. I’m a woman. My name is Taffy. [Laughs] That ship sailed long ago. But when people ask me — I’ve never understood “beach read.” I understand when it’s used aggressively, but my tastes don’t change at the beach. We never talk about the fact that everyone reads on the toilet.
We don’t talk about that!
BRODESSER-AKNER: [Laughs] Like Linda, I don’t care — just please read it. Mostly, it’s being used to put my book on lists… and, please! Call it what you want.
HOLMES: I think sometimes it means slightly more diverting, in the sense that I do think my book is more diverting than Lisa’s book, for example. In terms of being like, “I want to get away from anything that makes me worry about the world” or anything like that. When your book is seriously engaging with these really complicated things that exist in the real world, I can understand people thinking that there’s some valuable distinction between those things. But people are also going to read that book at the beach.
BRODESSER-AKNER: I would read it on the beach to distract me from the beach, because I don’t like the beach and I love your book. [Laughs]
TADDEO: I hate the beach.
Beach reads from people who hate the beach. [Group laughs]
BRODESSER-AKNER: Tips for how to read beach reads if you don’t like the beach.
HOLMES: I don’t like the beach either. I burn like a lobster.
Lisa, you were called out a few times there. How do you hope to stand out as an author? What do you hope people take away from your book?
TADDEO: The first person I profiled was the woman in Indiana, who was in a passionless marriage and was having this all-consuming affair with her high school lover. I spoke to a friend back in New York and I was telling her a little bit about the woman. She was like, “God, that’s pathetic.” I was like, “Why is it pathetic? You did the same thing with a broker.” My biggest hope for the book, and humanity in general — not to put my book on the same level as humanity: We always condemn other people, like we’re picking out paint swatches. We look at a friend who’s strung up on some person and we’re like, “Oh, why are you doing that? Just don’t call him.” I just think we should be less judgmental. That’s my hope for the book.
Nowadays it’s easy for people to point to a book about women and say, “This book comments on the #MeToo movement in X, Y, and Z ways.” However! I do think your book speaks to the post-#MeToo movement in an interesting and important way. How do you view this book in conversation with that?
TADDEO: I think there are a couple of different things. For Maggie, who is the young woman who had the alleged relationship with her teacher, if that happened — if the trial had happened post-#MeToo — I think it would have gone a different way. For Lina, the woman in Indiana, her desire existed on its own plane. Women want to not be sexually molested, but that doesn’t take into account what they do want. Sometimes, it exists on its own plane of desire, and sometimes it interfaces with #MeToo. But most of the book was done before #MeToo.
De’Shawn, you appeared in a New York Times feature heralding great new male black authors. The piece argued that we are entering a new, exciting era to hear those voices. What did it feel like to be a part of that? How do you see yourself as part of that trend, and do you view that as something we’re seeing?
WINSLOW: It was a wonderful experience to be in the presence of black men who are doing great things. As [the feature] pointed out, there was a contrast between the killing of black men; it posed the question, “How is it that these men are able to do [great] things?” It was a good feeling that someone wanted to showcase that there is a difference. It’s very unfortunate that we get separated, we get weeded out or however. But it was a great moment. And it didn’t have anything to do with sports or rap — some of the things that we tend to be associated with. It was exciting. I can only hope that men of color in general, writers, will be able to have a voice and have that voice heard.
Your story is historical and you span several decades. What kind of research did you do, and what did you learn about those time periods?
WINSLOW: I did a lot of research that I ended up not using, because I decided to fictionalize the town. In terms of cultural events and stuff, a lot of Googling: What big events were going on in 1941 or ’42? So on and so forth. I asked my mother as many questions as I could come up with. Sometimes she had an answer, and sometimes she didn’t. That’s when I made it up.
The dialect is so specific, too.
WINSLOW: The dialect was easy because I grew up hearing that sort of speech. Not so much now, but [growing] up, I didn’t go to daycare. The daycare was the old lady across the road, or the old lady who may have even babysat your mother. These people now — one of them just passed away maybe five years ago, when she was 97 or 98 years old. That’s the way she spoke to me. And until I went to school, I spoke that way too. So the dialect came easy.
Sarah, you write about how you had all of these histories, all of these books that didn’t talk about New Orleans East very much. Obviously you’re from there, but did you find it hard to learn about it beyond your own experience?
BROOM: Yes, really hard. I remember being in a bookstore, in the French Quarter, and a man said, “New Orleans East is too young for history.” I was befuddled by that for weeks after. What place, what thing, is too young for history? It’s an oxymoron. Just finding people who wanted to talk about the history of this place. There’s a moment in the book where I’m trying to get this city council guy to sit down for an interview, and the next time I see him, he’s being arrested for money-laundering charges. There was no one paying attention to New Orleans East. It never appeared in any of the narratives. People were literally boiling their water; coyotes were running, according to stories. I’m always drawn to places like that, that no one is paying attention to — that are completely off the map. I don’t think of these people as voiceless at all, whatsoever. I think of centering their voices as they exist in my world, every single day.
That’s a beautiful note to shift into our lightning round on! Last great book you read?
HOLMES: I just read Say Nothing.
Oh God, I loved that book.
HOLMES: You know the book! I loved that book. It is a book about the Troubles in Northern Ireland. It’s a fantastic book. It’s nonfiction, but it feels like really well-written fiction in many places.
I would compare it to Lisa’s in that way.
HOLMES: Yeah. And it’s funny — I know this is supposed to be the lightning round [Laughs] — listening to all these stories, because all of these stories of how people write books, no matter what kind of book it is, resonate with me in some way or another. When I was trying to talk about “beach reads versus whatever,” I’m like, “Why am I trying to explain, ‘Well like, this book is diverting and maybe Lisa’s is less diverting’?” They’re all books! Everybody writes it thinking, I have something I want to talk about and that I want to say, and that I hope other people will be willing to listen to. Whether it’s the story of my family, the story of people who have a story to tell — they’re all books. Whether it’s a nonfiction book like [Lisa’s], that reads like fiction, or an actual nonfiction book that reads like a series of histories, or like Taffy’s book, which to me is the most contemporary novel-ish thing I’ve read in a while.
Lot of dating apps in those first few pages.
HOLMES: My point is, Say Nothing is a really good book and everyone should read it.
Lightning round to Taffy.
BRODESSER-AKNER: I recently reread The Human Stain by Philip Roth. I am never not in awe of his sentences and of the buildup and the disgust. It’s kind of where I was going with, “This has happened before.” I was reading about the crisis of political correctness in the ’90s. “America is over!” It helps to read things like that at different times to remember, just in case anybody is suffering from our current political moment. That book, like many of his books but especially ones in that trilogy, you start reading a sentence and you come out at the end and you can’t believe what just happened to you. That was always a goal to me in writing. What if you could surf an entire book in one, crazed breath? That’s a thing you should be able to do.
TADDEO: The Human Stain is my favorite Philip Roth, it’s fantastic.
BRODESSER-AKNER: More than American Pastoral?
TADDEO: Definitely, 100 percent. [For me,] it’s two — I can’t read one book at a time. I wouldn’t call it ADD; it’s just me. I was rereading James Salter’s Last Night. I don’t really love his novels but his short stories, I think, are among the best. And Carolina Setterwall, who just wrote Let’s Hope for the Best. I don’t think it’s out yet, but it’s also about a young widow. So those two, yeah.
WINSLOW: The last book that I completed that I loved was Rumaan Alam’s That Kind of Mother. I loved that. And right now I’m reading Mrs. Bridge for the first time and I’m in love.
BROOM: I just finished Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter, which is such a mood, and lyrical, and so spare and so big at the same time. It’s my fifth or sixth reading. I always love it.
Second round. Quicker this time. [Group laughs] What book shaped you as a reader, as a kid?
HOLMES: Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume.
BRODESSER-AKNER: The Pistachio Prescription by Paula Danziger.
TADDEO: The Stand by Stephen King. I’ve always been a depressive.
WINSLOW: I wasn’t a child reader.
BROOM: Aesop’s Fables.