How Pantheon’s Lexy Bloom Brought Hanan al-Shaykh’s New Novel to American Readers

THE OCCASIONAL VIRGIN is a frank and fearless novel from acclaimed writer Hanan al-Shaykh, published today by Pantheon. The book’s storyline follows the tumultuous lives and sometimes shocking choices of two women, successful in their careers but unlucky in love.

In this Three Questions for an Editor interview, Lexy Bloom, Senior Editor/Senior Culinary Editor, Knopf, Pantheon, Vintage, Anchor, offers insights into her editorial work with the author, the process of transforming what was originally a short story into THE OCCASIONAL VIRGIN, and the ways in which this book will resonate with American readers. Read on.

When and why did you first begin working with Hanan on THE OCCASIONAL VIRGIN? About five years ago, Hanan and her agent, Binky Urban, sent me the translation of a long story that Hanan had written in Arabic about a decade earlier, entitled “Two Women by the Sea.” It was about two friends -- Lebanese women in their late 30s, both of whom were now living in the West -- who meet for a short vacation on the Italian Riviera. The setting, on a sun-drenched cove by the Mediterranean where “nature has mixed sea and shore together,” was incredibly seductive. It felt unusually intense, and so vividly drawn. It reminded me a little of the moment in Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, when Lila and Elena visit the sea for the first time. And I was intrigued by what Hanan was trying to do by telling the intertwined stories of these two women: Huda, who had grown up in a very religious Muslim family in Beirut; and Yvonne, who had grown up in a very strict Christian family in the north of Lebanon. The sea represented something different to both of them, but something fundamental all the same. I encouraged Hanan to keep working on the story. But later she came back to me, explaining that she’d realized she had much more to say, and what would I think if she turned it into a short novel? This was, of course, excellent news. In 2015, she published an Arabic version of this book in Lebanon, entitled The Virgins of Londonistan. Then, along with her British editors, Alexandra Pringle and Faiza Khan of Bloomsbury, I took that novel and helped her work it into something a little different for our English-language publication. How would you describe the editor/author/translator process and your editorial lens involved in bringing this book to its final form? [caption id="attachment_116378" align="alignright" width="225"] Hanan al-Shaykh (left) with Lexy Bloom and Lexy’s daughter Clio, at the author’s home in the South of France.[/caption] As I explain above, the editorial process for this book was a little unusual – so it won’t be surprising that the translation process followed accordingly. I edit a lot of translations and typically, the bulk of my editorial work is with the translator. In this case, although Arabic is Hanan’s first language and the one in which she chooses to write, she is also fluent in English, so there is no need for the translator to act as a go-between. Once Hanan completes a draft, she works directly with her translator, Catherine Cobham, on the English-language version. When Hanan is happy with it, she sends it to me, along with her British editors, and we work on rounds of edits together, in English. In the case of THE OCCASIONAL VIRGIN, we undertook several rounds of edits, and for the first round or so, Hanan went back to Catherine for translation help. But at a certain point, we began to work on our edits directly. Ultimately we came to see the book as a diptych – two works that connected into one larger story, with a conversation ongoing between each half. The first, with Huda and Yvonne by the sea in Italy, is the set-up – the way we begin to understand how their childhood experiences affected who they are today. The second, which takes place in London, is the response. A chance encounter at Speaker’s Corner makes each of them do very shocking things, and the second half deals with this encounter, and the events that unfold. The primary characters, with their unorthodox personal choices and entanglements, straddle different cultures and conflicting worlds. What aspects of this novel do you feel will resonate most strongly with readers and why? At its heart, this is a story about two friends. I always come back to the short story that was the germ for the novel – a story about two women by the sea. These women, Huda and Yvonne, chose to leave behind their families and make new lives for themselves elsewhere, in other parts of the world, in other languages. We meet them when they are in their late 30s, at the top of their careers – Huda is a theater director in Toronto and Yvonne is an advertising executive in London. But they have both been unlucky in love. Huda can’t commit to being in a relationship, and it is her natural instinct to play tricks on the men she’s involved with, which, as you might imagine, gets her in all sorts of trouble. Yvonne, on the other hand, is desperate to have a baby, and this desire is so strong that it has become blinding. As a result, she’s making terrible choices when it comes to men, and nothing is working out. The scenario I’ve just described is pretty universal: two women sorting out the balance between work and love, particularly as they reach their late 30s and the pressure of their biological clocks makes their choices carry much more weight. I think this will resonate with anyone who reads it. Where THE OCCASIONAL VIRGIN is distinct, however, is in the characters’ back stories – the strict childhoods that Huda and Yvonne had in Lebanon, the families and cultures they’ve chosen to leave behind, and how that break will never be clean. Just as the book’s structure has two distinct parts, it is the dichotomy that makes this story unique – but also what I think will make it resonate with American readers most of all.

Flying 100,000 Miles in a Prop Plane to Take the Pulse of Small Town America

Our new Igloo Book Buzz selection is James and Deborah Fallows’ OUR TOWNS: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America, published by Pantheon on May 8. For the last five years, the Fallowses have been traveling across America in a single-engine prop airplane. Visiting dozens of towns, they met hundreds of civic leaders, workers, immigrants, educators, environmentalists, artists, public servants, librarians, business people, city planners, students, and entrepreneurs to take the pulse and understand the prospects of places that usually draw notice only after a disaster or during a political campaign.

The America they saw is acutely conscious of its problems—from economic dislocation to the opioid scourge—but it is also crafting solutions, with a practical-minded determination at dramatic odds with the bitter paralysis of national politics. At times of dysfunction on a national level, reform possibilities have often arisen from the local level. The Fallowses describe America in the middle of one of these creative waves. Their view of the country is as complex and contradictory as America itself, but it also reflects the energy, the generosity and compassion, the dreams, and the determination of many who are in the midst of making things better. The Fallowses talked to Slate about OUR TOWNS: “We started this project in 2013,” Deborah said, “when there wasn’t a political backdrop to this story. It was more coming out of the recession, and us coming back from China and wanting to get some instincts about where America was at this point, and wanting to go out to as many places as we could to see if our impressions of what we heard about America from being in China for a long time—everything was going to hell in a hand basket, and that there were really tough times—was true.” James added, “I think we’re naturally optimistic people, and so our starting point was more we kind of didn’t think things could be that bad, and it wasn’t our experience and it certainly wasn’t our experience in the time that we had been in America before. We didn’t have an agenda. It was really to just open the book and see what was out there.” “We didn’t ask about national things,” Deborah said, “except at the very end. But when we just asked about people’s lives and what was going on in their town, it was so heavily weighted towards in my neighborhood, at my schools, on our main street, what people need here, what people want from my town. I don’t know if people had just given up on the national scene or they didn’t want to talk about it anymore, but it felt like it just didn’t occupy a huge part of where their energy and where their intentions were set and were focused.” James concluded, “The complete tribal nature, identity nature, quasi-religious nature of national politics is separate from the local in a way that I don’t know an exact precedent. It is reassuring for the health at the local level. It’s quite alarming that nonetheless, we have this national result. I guess the news we have to offer is that there is that contrast because I think most people have assumed that national-level dysfunction must indicate profound disease through the entire body politic.” To read the full Slate article, click here. Watch and listen to James and Deborah Fallows’ recent segments on CBS Sunday Morning and CBS This Morning. James Fallows has been a national correspondent for The Atlantic for more than thirty-five years, reporting from China, Japan, Southeast Asia, Europe, and across the United States. He is the author of eleven previous books. He has won a National Book Award and a National Magazine Award. For two years he was President Jimmy Carter’s chief speechwriter. Deborah Fallows is a linguist and writer who holds a PhD in theoretical linguistics and is the author of two previous books. She has written for The Atlantic, National Geographic, Slate, The New York Times, and The Washington Monthly, and has worked at the Pew Research Center, Oxygen Media, and Georgetown University.

Featured Author Event: David Reich (Washington D.C.)

Westminster colleagues take note: Pantheon author David Reich will be discussing his groundbreaking book, WHO WE ARE AND HOW WE GOT HERE: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past, on Thursday, April 26, in Washington, D.C in the Rasmuson Theater at the National Museum of the American Indian, as part of the Smithsonian Inside Science Program. The event will begin at 6:45 p.m., with Reich’s talk followed by a book signing.

In WHO WE ARE AND HOW WE GOT HERE, Reich allows readers to discover how the human genome provides not only all the information a human embryo needs to develop but also the hidden story of our species. Reich delves into how the genomic revolution is transforming our understanding of modern humans and how DNA studies reveal deep inequalities among different populations, between the sexes, and among individuals. Provocatively, Reich’s book suggests that there might very well be biological differences among human populations but that these differences are unlikely to conform to common stereotypes. David Reich, Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School, and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, is one of the world’s leading pioneers in analyzing ancient human DNA. In a 2015 article in Nature, he was names on of ten people who matter in all of the sciences for his contribution to transforming ancient DNA data “from niche pursuit to industrial process.” Awards he has received include the Newcomb Cleveland Prize from the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Dan David Prize in the Archaeological and Natural Sciences for his computational discovery of intermixing between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens.

Gessen, Hamid, Markel, Petrushevskaya, Roy, and Whyte are NBCC Awards Finalists

The National Book Critics Circle has announced the finalists for its 2017 awards.   Penguin Random House imprints publish six finalists for NBCC Awards in the following categories:  

  FICTION  Mohsin HamidEXIT WEST  (Riverhead) Arundhati RoyTHE MINISTRY OF UTMOST HAPPINESS  (Knopf)   NONFICTION Masha GessenTHE FUTURE IS HISTORY: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia (Riverhead)     BIOGRAPHY Howard MarkelTHE KELLOGGS: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek (Pantheon) Kenneth WhyteHOOVER: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times (Knopf)   AUTOBIOGRAPHY Ludmilla PetrushevskayaTHE GIRL FROM THE METROPOL HOTEL: Growin Up in Communist Russia (Penguin)       View the complete list of NBCC finalists here. Winners of the NBCC awards will be announced on Thursday, March 15 in NYC at the New School’s Tishman Auditorium.  A finalists’ reading will be held on March 14 at 6:30 p.m. in the same location. Both events are free and open to the public. The National Book Critics Circle was founded in 1974 at New York’s Algonquin Hotel by a group of the most influential critics of the day, and awarded its first set of honors in 1975.  The NBCC now comprises more than 1,000 working critics and book-review editors throughout the country.  The NBCC annually bestows its awards in six categories, honoring the best books published in the past year in the United States.

Chernow, Farrell, Klagsbrun and Sebestyen Nominated for 2018 Plutarch Award

Biographers International Organization (BIO) has nominated ten books as semi-finalists for its 2018 Plutarch Award, the only international literary prize for biography that is chosen by fellow biographers.   Four of the nominees are published by Penguin Random House imprints: 

  GRANT by Ron Chernow (Penguin Press) RICHARD NIXON: The Life by John Farrell (Doubleday) LIONESS: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel by Francine Klagsbrun (Schocken) LENIN: The Man, the Dictator, and the Master of Terror by Victor Sebestyen (Pantheon) View the complete list of nominees here. The Plutarch Award Committee will announce four finalists the week of February 5.   All BIO members will then vote for the winning book, which will be revealed on May 19 at the Ninth Annual BIO Conference in New York.  
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The Library of Michigan has announced its 2018 Michigan Notable Books honorees as part of its annual recognition program.  This year’s 20 books were chosen by Michigan librarians from a list of nearly 300 titles published in 2017.  Two of the books being honored are published by Penguin Random House imprints:

THE MARSH KING’S DAUGHTER by Karen Dionne (G.P. Putman’s Sons) THE KELLOGGS: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek by Howard Markel (Pantheon Books) Congratulations to Ms. Dionne and Mr. Markel as well as their editors and publishers. View the complete list of 2018 Michigan Notable Books here. The Night for Notable celebration, hosted by the Library of Michigan Foundation and featuring author Richard Ford as keynote speaker, will take place in Detroit on April 7.  

How the Kellogg Brothers Transformed Breakfast and Wellness

“What’s more American than Corn Flakes?” Bing Crosby once posed that rhetorical question and would probably have enjoyed reading our new Igloo Book Buzz selection, Howard Markel’s THE KELLOGGS: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek, published by Pantheon.  

What inspired Markel, a doctor, professor, historian, and author, to write this book?  He said, “After finding a treasure trove of papers and other archival materials documenting the Kellogg brothers’ lives, I knew there was a remarkable story worth telling. This family saga was more than the story of the creation of corn flakes or a feud between brothers, it was a compelling and important tale of modern medicine, nutrition, industry and wellness in America.”   Vicky Wilson, who edited the book, said, “The story of the Kellogg Brothers is a great American saga of know-how, instinct, curiosity, invention and determination.  It’s the building of a vast industry that changed how America lived and ate for more than seven decades, from post-Civil-War America, through the gilded age up to the Second World War.  It’s a kind of Magnificent Ambersons, mid-western American saga that gives us a changing world in the heart of the industrial age.” [caption id="attachment_7390" align="alignright" width="199"] Howard Markel
Credit: Joyce Ravid[/caption] THE KELLOGGS has garnered much praise from media outlets as well as authors: “A tale of grit, controversy, faith and the emergence of the ‘wellness’ movement. In the hands of Markel, a trained historian, physician, seasoned writer and chronicler of America, this tale comes alive. A fabulous read.” —Abraham Verghese, author of CUTTING FOR STONE “Howard Markel’s riveting, deeply researched new book covers vast territory: the saga of the squabbling Kellogg brothers (“magnificent showmen, resolute empire builders, and unwavering visionaries”), their mass-branding of breakfast cereals, their concept of ‘wellness,’ and their enormous influence on the diet of millions of Americans.  This book arrives at a pivotal moment in our own history when mass-marketing, showmanship, and the media deserve particularly deep study.  Markel’s incandescent scholarship and his incisive analysis shine through this book.  THE KELLOGGS can certainly be read as a biography of two visionaries (and their extended families), but it also deserves to be read as a case study by generations of future readers.” — Siddhartha Mukherjee, Pulitzer Prize -winning author of The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer “This incredible story by itself would be sufficient for a book. Markel, however, goes much further . . .an engrossing adventure about the rise of Midwest America from the pioneering days of the Kellogg family to World War II with all of its failures and successes. Medicine, breakfast foods, and the Seventh Day Adventist Church are part of the story.” — Robert S. Davis, New York Journal of Books

Meet Our Author: Meg Howrey

meg howryAuthor Meg Howrey is a former dancer who performed with the Joffrey, Eglevsky Ballet, and City Ballet of Los Angeles. She toured nationally with the Broadway production of Contact, for which she won the Ovation Award in 2001 for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. During her writing career, Meg has been the author two novels for Pantheon/Vintage, Blind

Sight and The Cranes Dance, and the coauthor of two bestselling novels for Penguin, City of Dark Magic and City of Lost Dreams, published under the pen name Magnus Flyte. 9780399574634Ms. Howrey’s new book, THE WANDERERS, which goes on sale from G. P. Putnam’s Sons on March 14, has been described as “Station Eleven meets The Martian.” This brilliantly inventive novel is about three astronauts training for the first-ever mission to Mars, an experience that will push the boundary between real and unreal, test their relationships, and leave each of them—and their families—changed forever. Wonderfully imaginative, tenderly comedic, and unerringly wise, THE WANDERERS explores the differences between those who go and those who stay, telling a story about the desire behind all exploration: the longing for discovery and the great search to understand the human heart. In this “Meet Our Author” interview, Meg takes us inside the heart of her creative life: How would you describe your writing regimen and routines? I alternate writing sitting at a desk with standing up at a sort of jury-rigged podium. In both places there is much gesticulation and theatrical facial expressions and mumblings. Making a book is a form of performance art. I’m a slow starter and will spend months on the first one or two chapters. Whether I’m writing two hours a day or ten, each book feels like its own particular beast and requires different regiments of feeding, care, and grooming. Books can bite or run away so you have to stay calm and be patient. What was the genesis of and the inspirations behind your new novel, THE WANDERERS? I read a newspaper account of a study conducted by the Russian and European space agencies to investigate the psychological effects of a long duration space mission. I thought, “Well, that’s interesting but wouldn’t what you’d feel on an actual mission to Mars be substantially different from what you’d feel in a simulator?” And then, “Possibly not, if the simulation was very good,” and also, “That would make a cool setting for a novel,” followed by, “It’s too bad I can’t write that novel since I don’t know anything about space.” So, the beast of this novel entailed a lot of research. Some of the themes I’ve tried to work on in other books are here: consciousness, ambition, the constructs of family, the problem of deciding what is real, and what “real” means. How have you been able to find the time and the creative energy to achieve success as an author, dancer and actress? meg pull quote1A thing about dance is you start so young you can have had a ten-year career by the time you’re in your mid-twenties, especially if you don’t go to college, which I didn’t. The acting really came out of the dancing—every once in a while somebody needed a ballet dancer who actually wanted to speak, and there weren’t that many of us. (Basically, there was the really beautiful one, the one who could also sing, and me.) Whatever else I was doing I was always, always reading, and trying to write came out of that. With all these things—dancing, acting, writing—I never feel that I’ve arrived. I’m always squinting at goalposts. You are among a handful of Penguin Random House authors whose books have been published by multiple imprints, in your case Pantheon/Vintage, Penguin and Putnam.  How has this experience helped shape your writing career? An accurate reckoning in my “Acknowledgements” section would run to twenty pages.  THE WANDERERS exists because of the generosity of Shelley Wanger and everyone at Pantheon/Vintage, and Carolyn Carlson and many delightful Penguins, and now Tara Singh Carlson and a fantastic team at Putnam. Through five books I’ve been reinventing myself, and these people have given me the space to do it. There aren’t enough thank you cards.