Six of the year's buzziest authors discuss bringing their books into the world during cultural upheaval

EW assembled a literary panel featuring Emily M. Danforth, Robert Jones, Jr., Charlotte McConaghy, Tiffany McDaniel, Nadia Owusu, and Sara Seager.
By Seija Rankin

Like so many things, the book world has been rocked by the aftershocks of the global pandemic. While many more readers are at home, voraciously tearing through titles, the publishing industry is grappling with national book tours turned virtual, manufacturing delays, constantly changing release dates, and the cancellation of in-person book festivals that have been a bedrock of the literary calendar. This year's BookExpo and BookCon (the annual trade fair and fan convention that follows it) were, of course, canceled, denying the six authors who received the sought-after "Buzz" distinction — used to highlight the breakout books for the upcoming year — the chance to take the stage at the Javits Center in New York City.

EW gathered the authors, debut and returning alike, with tomes running the gamut from dystopian fiction to heartbreaking memoirs, over (what else?) Zoom to discuss what it's like to be a writer in the world right now and what fans can expect from their upcoming releases, which will hit shelves starting next week and into early 2021. You can watch the panel right here, and read more about each of these books below.

Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

This is Danforth's sophomore work — she made her debut as an author with the 2012 YA favorite The Miseducation of Cameron Post, but Heroines is her first foray into adult fiction and it's a feat in its own right. The tome is 640 pages long, and about as sweeping a plot as one can get: It flashes back and forth in time between a girls school in the early 1900s, when several students who are all obsessed with the same author die mysteriously, and current-day Hollywood, during a film shoot for the adaptation of a novel about said mysterious deaths. But despite all that, the current pandemic seems to loom largest when she compares the experiences of publishing the two books. "All of the conversations are different and I'm aware of not wanting to take up conversational space with my own promotion," she says of the pending October 20th release. "I think, maybe there are better things for me to be doing than telling people to read my gothic novel." Despite Danforth's humility, EW can attest that the book is very much worthy of a read — and a perfect escape for these times. (Find out more about those mysterious private school deaths.)

The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr.

"I hope they find the novel to be of some value to the culture, if not to themselves," Jones says of his debut The Prophets, which uses the love story of enslaved teenaged boys to explore the many abuses of a Southern plantation and the way that human connection is forged in the face of not only crisis but blatant racism. "What I hope readers take away from it is a renewed sense of humanity — that they read the book very closely and wrestle with the ideas put forth about what responsibilities we have to one another in creating a world in which we can coexist without being a danger to each other and all living things." The Prophets will hit stores on Jan. 5, 2021, but you can enter to win an Advanced Reader Copy here.

Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy

It's hard to conjure a more heartbreaking compilation of tragedies than those that befall Migrations' Franny Stone: There's the personal (a disastrous marriage and career), the global (climate change has devolved to such an extreme degree that animal life on earth is nearly nonexistent), and the familial (parental abandonment). The book follows Franny, an aspiring scientist, as she convinces a ship and its crew to follow the migration of the very last flock of arctic terns. "I set the book in the near future because I didn't want it to be dystopian," she explains of the Aug. 4 release. "I wanted it to be an existential look at how the deaths of animals will affect us on an emotional level — the loneliness of being here alone." As Franny's husband — a leading expert on extinction — says in this excerpt, the only true threat to birds that has ever existed is us.

Betty by Tiffany McDaniel

This family saga might be the saddest novel you'll read all year. It follows a family in Appalachian Ohio — eight children born to a white mother and Cherokee father — as they grapple with unspeakable tragedies and unbearable racism. But thanks to a heavy focus on their Cherokee culture and the mysticism and earthly knowledge it provides them, the lightness pokes through the dark. It's a novel, but strongly based on McDaniel's mother (the title character). "The seed for Betty began nearly 20 years ago when my mother told me a family secret," the author explains. "I began to discover even more about the family, and if I hadn't written this book most of these stories would have died with that generation." Learn the family's origin story in this excerpt. Betty hits shelves Aug. 18.

Aftershocks by Nadia Owusu

This earth-shattering memoir uses the aftershock — both literal and metaphorical — as a framing device and inspiration. Owusu explores the geopolitical, geological, and psychological traumas that have marked her young life, from moving between countries across Africa and Europe as the daughter of a United Nations employee to her estrangement from her mother and her father's eventual death, as well as living through a civil war in Ethiopia and the 9/11 attacks (to name a few!). "I began to think of my life as existing on fault lines," she says. "I was a global citizen and a person without a clear home and I've often felt like an outsider. So Aftershocks was a way for me to grapple with the multiplicity of identity, the meaning of home, and the ripple effects of trauma." Watch EW's exclusive reveal of the book trailer for Aftershocks. The memoir will be released on Jan. 12, 2021.

The Smallest Lights in the Universe by Sara Seager

Sara Seager is one of the world's leading astrophysicists. She's won a MacArthur Genius Grant, she works at MIT, and she discovers exoplanets for a living. But in her memoir, she explores something much more interior. "My memoir is about outer space as well as inner space," says the author who, fittingly, arrived at EW's panel with a very otherworldly Zoom background. "It tracks a kind of fall-off-the-cliff depression from grief and a bounce back." Seager tragically lost her father and husband to cancer in close succession, and Smallest Lights, out Aug. 18, tells of her attempts to keep her career and her children from crumbling. You can read about the day that she stumbles upon a group for widowed women at a sledding hill in this exclusive excerpt.