Tag Archives: debut novels

Post-Debut Struggles

Many articles are written about debut writers who get a big advance and whose lives are changed by having their books published. But only a few have such luck/opportunity. For most debut novelists, their book comes out, and after the flurry of readings and reviews, they return to a life much like the one they led before.

Merritt Tierce, in her essay, “I published My Debut Novel to Critical Acclaim—and Then I Promptly Went Broke,” published in Marie Claire, writes about her post-debut struggles. Her novel, Love Me Back, was widely written about and got much praise when it came out in 2014. She has sold over 12,000 copies. But this is still not enough to pay back her advance, so she has made no money from the book since it published. The essay is an honest look at how hard it is to make a living as a fiction writer, even if one does write a successful book. I appreciate having this story shared, even if it is not as uplifting as the ones about those who get a big advance..

And here at Proto Libro I have fallen behind with my reviews, but have some I’m working on and will post next month. I find Fall is a nice time of year to settle in with a good book.

Thanks for reading, stopping by!



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Never too old to debut, part 2

Did you know that Harriet Doerr and Annie Proulx published their debuts after the age of 50? And that Doerr was in her 70s when her first book came out? I didn’t until I read this short piece published by the Center for Fiction, and written by Elizabeth Marro, an author who recently published her own debut in her 50s. I have written about other authors who got their debuts published later in life, but this is the first I have read about the age of these particular authors. I have been working on my own novel for many years and am not sure when it will be published. It is comforting to know that if I debut later in life  I will be in good company.

And then there is Arlene Heyman whose debut collection of short stories, Scary Old Sex came out this spring. She is 74. And not only has she been working on the book for many decades, with some of the stories being published in journals, the title is literal–many of the stories are about older people and their sex lives. I love that she not only published a book at her age, but that she also writes about what it means to be sexually active in one’s 60s and 70s. It is nice to see someone who is able to write openly about what happens to us when we age. I have not read the collection yet, but it is getting good reviews and she has been interviewed widely. One person she spoke to was Terry Gross. The interview includes Heyman reading a couple short excerpts from the book . Thanks to my friend LC for telling me about Heyman.

Let me know if you have read Heyman’s book!




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Debuts in the News

I came across some articles and a podcast about debuts this week that I would like to share. The first one, from Bustle, talks about three debut novelists who have made it to the shortlist of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, which celebrates women writers around the world. It is always nice to see debuts get attention in contests, as it gives them more visibility than they would get otherwise.

In the US, The Nest, a debut novel by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, about a wealthy dysfunctional New York family, made it on to the NY Times hardcover bestseller list this week. This is extremely unusual, as only a few debuts ever make it to this list. But Sweeney has gotten a lot of press, both for the book and her advance, which was in the seven figures. She is also an older author, making her debut in her 50s. The book is described as a dark comedy

And the Minorities in Publishing podcast features a conversation with three debut novelists and their experiences getting their books out in the world. The conversation includes, Sophia Chester, Leland Cheuk and Mira Jacobs. It’s a frank look at what it means to get a book published when you are a minority.

Happy spring reading, all!



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Debut novels by women

February always passes by too quickly. Even this year, with its 29 days, I can’t believe March is next week and that I have not posted since early February. But I can tell the month is coming to its end as the days are getting longer and here in New York it feels like winter barely kissed us.

I link today to a great post on Bustle that lists “beautifully written” debut novels by women over the years.  Classics like, To Kill a Mockingbird and Frankenstein, are featured along with more recent debuts, including some I have written about here.

What I really loved about this post is the author’s  passion for reading debuts. I could not have put it better.

“A little secret I’ve learned after years of browsing bookshelves is that some of the best books are found in the debut section. Right on that table as you walk in with books piled up of all different sizes and looks. The first novels. The new names. The stories without an overwhelming list of public opinions. They’re like blind dates, and it’s exciting.”

More reviews to come…next up, Bright Lines by Tanwi Nadini Islam.


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Debut authors read in Brooklyn

Two writers I know, and who have been a part of my New York-based writers group, are reading in Brooklyn from their debut novels this month.

Sharon Guskin will read from The Forgetting Time at her book launch at the Powerhouse Arena in DUMBO on February 3rd. The book is about a four-year old boy, Noah, who has nightmares that signal something deeper than a sleep disorder. His mother and a psychiatry professor set off on a journey to find the root of Noah’s dreams.

Guskin will be going on a book tour after the Brooklyn reading, including stops in Wisconsin, Washington State, California and Florida. Check out her tour dates, if you are near any of those cities.

And Leland Cheuk, who I interviewed on the site last year, will be reading at an event sponsored by the NY Writers Coalition at BookCourt on February 15th. His novel, The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong, recounts a dysfunctional Asian-American family in which a father and son vie for power. Cheuk will also be going on book tour in March, to Seattle and California. You can find his dates on his website.




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Books I didn’t read in 2015

I get overwhelmed by how many books, good books, there are to read. There are just not enough hours in the day to read them all. Today I will write about some of the debut novels published in 2015 that I didn’t get to yet.

Garth Risk Hallberg’s, City on Fire is the debut that got the most attention in 2015. However many of the stories focus more on his enormous advance (2 million dollars) than the book itself. The book was included in a round up by The New Republic about 2015 books with mixed reviews, which also included Bill Clegg’s debut novel, Did You Ever Have a Family. I am intrigued by Hallberg’s story, set in NYC in the 70s, but a little daunted by the length, over 900 pages! And Clegg’s book, a story of a family loss, also looks moving.

And Paula Hawkins’ debut Girl on the Train, coined this year’s Gone Girl, continues to do quite well as one of the few debuts on the bestseller list. For those of you who like thrillers, it is meant to be a good read, but this book is getting enough attention that I might not review it.

Some books I hope to read are:

The Fishermen, by Chigozie Obioma is a story of four Nigerian brothers and how an encounter with a madman changes their lives. This book was shortlisted for the Booker and other prizes.

The Turner House, by Angela Flournoy is a story of an African American family in Detroit. Flournoy was a finalist for the Center for Fiction’s Debut Book Prize for this book.

Gonzo Girl, by Cheryl Della Pietra is a fictionalized account of her years working as an assistant to Hunter S Thompson. Should be a fun read!

And The Ambassadors, by George Lerner is set in Africa and New York and explores a family with a father who does expat work, traveling regularly to Africa and how that impacts his son and wife.

To a great year of reading in 2016! More reviews to come later this month.

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Is my favorite debut really a debut?

As I read the “Best of” book lists, and reflect back on my year of reading, I concur with Michelle Obama that the best book I read, and reviewed, this year was Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World. Her poetic use of language, emotional openness and roving intellect made this memoir stay with me weeks and months after I put it down. And as I wrote in my review, my husband got so engrossed with the story that he actually missed his subway stop on his commute home, ending up in a completely different part of Brooklyn than he was headed, when he finally looked up from this book.

She tells the story of the untimely death of her husband at age 50, then goes back in time to share their love story and moves forward to explore her, and her children’s, grief. The book is a wonderful meditation on love and on loss. But although this book is her first memoir, Alexander is such an accomplished poet and academic, with eleven books of poetry and four books of essays published, that I wonder if she counts in the debut category? Since it was her first memoir, I took liberties to include her on my “debut” reading list, and after I loved the book so much, I wanted to share that with all of you.

As for the more traditional debuts, meaning an author without much of a publishing record when their debut novel came out, of the novels I read and wrote about this year, The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen won the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize and is being picked up on best book lists, including the Times 100. And while I enjoyed this book and admired its ambition, the three books that stayed with me the most are:

Etta and Otto and Russell and James, by Emma Hooper, for its magical tale and quirky story.

The Unfortunates, by Sophie McManus, for its breathtakingly precise and beautiful language that made me feel like I was reading a book written 100 years ago.

And Disgruntled, by Asali Solomon, for her ability to capture the teenage years of a unique girl growing up in Philadelphia.

Although The Unfortunates was written up quite widely when it came out and was nominated for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, all of these books deserve more attention than they got. And the authors all capture unique female stories which deepen our collective understanding of the world.

How about you? What debuts did you read this year that you really loved?

In the new year, I will write about books that I didn’t get to yet in 2015, including The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma and Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House.

Happy holidays, dear readers….to a festive end of the year. Until 2016!


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Million Dollar Debuts

The Wall Street Journal published an article last week, “Betting Big on Literary Newcomers,” that looks at a burgeoning trend of large advances for literary debut fiction. The writer attributes this trend to the recent success of some literary novels. The bestseller list is not just for genre fiction authors like James Patterson and Danielle Steel anymore, and so publishers are looking for the next big literary book and making bets on debut authors.

This fall, Garth Risk Hallberg’s, City on Fire, got attention for the $2 million advance he got for the book, making it one of the largest advances ever for a literary debut. And yet it was one of a handful of books coming out this year, and next, for which publishers paid over a million dollars for a debut novel. But for an author to earn back an advance of that size, at least 200,000 books need to be sold. That’s a lot of books. And a lot of pressure on a new author.

What I found interesting about the article is that it described a “winner takes all economy” that is emerging around debut books, where the books with big advances get more attention, either through social media, advertising or word-of-mouth, than other debuts, and while many of these authors never sell enough books to pay back the advance, they sell a lot for an unknown writer. And what that does is make less room for debuts with smaller advances or those that are published by independent houses.

This article reaffirmed my desire to focus my blog on debut books. There is no science to selling a book. And as one of the people interviewed in the article said, this is a business built on hunches. New authors earning large advances don’t have the same struggles as authors who publish with a small press, but it is hard for all new authors to build an audience and establish themselves in the literary marketplace. I look forward to discovering new voices in the years to come…





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Haruki Murakami’s First Novels



Haruki Murakami

Knopf, 2015

234 pages

I am a huge fan of Haruki Murakami. When I started this blog, I wanted to read his early works and reflect on how they compared to his more well-known publications, but I could only find a couple of rare (and expensive) copies of the books for sale used on Amazon. Now I know why. Although Murakami published his first works in Japanese in the early 70s, they were not published widely in English until this summer.

And in fact, Murakami himself did not want the books to be published in English and said that he considers The Wild Sheep Chase, which he published in 1982, to be his first book. But they are now out in the world.

Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973 were published by Knopf as Wind/Pinball in August.

The books got widely reviewed and were noted as having all the ingredients of later Murakami novels – jazz music, the surreal, strange random events and his ability to make the everyday magical – but they were considered to be less refined than his later works. Critics said they are a great introduction to Murakami and will be enjoyed by fans. Interestingly, when I looked at the Goodreads reviews, I found that “enjoyed by fans” held up, but those who had not read him before were underwhelmed by this introduction.

So what did I think? I agree with the critics that these books have the elements of his later, more developed, work and they are interesting to read because they are like looking at childhood photos of a friend you met as an adult. You see a familiar face in those childhood photos, but there is a youthful enthusiasm that might not be so present in the face you know and love.

Hear the Wind Sing is about a young Japanese man home from college for summer break. He spends most of his time in the local bar drinking with his friend named Rat and meets a young woman with nine fingers. Not a lot happens in this book, but the mood of the later Murakami novels is present.

Pinball has more plot and is about a young man living in Tokyo and working as a translator. He happens to meet female twins who move with him. And he listens to a lot of jazz records. The book culminates when he sets out to find a vintage pinball machine he used to play. And this is when this book becomes more like the Murakami novels I love. There is a quest that involves unique characters and a surreal climax, after which the narrator goes back to his ordinary life in Tokyo.

Of the two, I found Pinball the most engaging as its surreal ending took me by surprise and delivered. But after reading both books, I agree with the readers on Goodreads more than the critics. These are worthy books, and if you are a fan of Murakami, I think you will enjoy them, but for Murakami newcomers, you might want to start with the book he calls his first, The Wild Sheep Chase. This was the first book of his that I read and I found it magical, I could not put it down and read all of his other books I could find in succession afterwards.

I am glad to finally read these debuts and to learn about one of my favorite author’s younger writer self. And if you are not familiar with his work, you  can explore what he has written on his website.


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The Center for Fiction — 2015 First Novel Long List

The Center for Fiction does good work. They host readings, classes, reading groups and foster an interest in fiction writing. They also have an annual prize that acknowledges the best debut novel of the year. Their long list is out, and The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen, which I reviewed last month, is on it, along with Sophie McManus, whose The Unfortunates, I will review next. Two other titles that stood out to me are:

Girl at War, by Sara Nović, a coming of age story set in Croatia during the Yugoslav Civil War, and New York in 2001, about a young woman coming to grips with her experiences during the war.

The Turner House, by Angela Flournoy, a family drama set in Detroit in which the 13 children in the Turner Family need to decide what to do with the family house, which has lost its value in the financial collapse.

Happy summer reading!


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