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Ancestry is a fundamental perplexity of life. We come from our parents, who came from their parents, who descended, as the Bible would put it, from their fathers and their fathers’ fathers, but we are separate beings. We begin with the sperm of one man and the egg of one woman, and then we enter the world and we become ourselves.
Beyond all that’s encoded in our twenty-three pairs of chromosomes—our hair, eyes, and skin of a certain shade, our frame and stature, our sensitivity to bitter tastes—we are bundles of opinions and ambitions, of shortcomings and talents. The alchemy between our genes and our individuality is a mystery we keep trying to solve.
The June issue of Harper’s – with my essay on America’s (and my) ancestry obsession — will be available on newsstands for about the next two to three weeks, if you were planning to pick up a copy. The paragraphs quoted above are a teeny excerpt.
In a letter I wrote last year for The Rumpus’ Letters in the Mail I mentioned that for a long time my approach to writing fiction was a little bit like strangling myself while trying to sing.
I finished writing the letter just as I was beginning the essay that’s just out in Harper’s, and a lot of what I said in it about spontaneity, truth, and excitement in writing stayed on my mind during the many, many months I was holed up in my apartment working on the piece.
As I really begin to delve into my book, I thought I’d post it here, both for myself and for anyone else who might like to see it.
I’m ecstatic to announce that Andrea Walker of Random House has acquired my forthcoming book on the science and superstition of ancestry, a subject that has obsessed me for years because of my own family and also because of the way it obsesses the culture at large. While writing my new story for Harper’s, “America’s Ancestry Craze,” I realized that it was mounting — and over the years had been mounting — into a much bigger project.
Here’s the announcement: “Random House will publish writer and critic Maud Newton’s first book, an examination of her obsession with genealogy and her own colorful family history, along with the science and superstition of ancestry in the culture at large. Newton’s essay, ‘America’s Ancestry Craze,’ is the cover story for the current issue of Harper’s magazine. This interdisciplinary study will draw on memoir, reporting, cultural criticism, scientific and anthropological research to understand the fear and fascination behind genealogy, and why it has become the second most popular hobby in the United States. Newton began blogging about books and culture in 2002; within a few years her site was one of the most widely praised and quoted in the industry, and she began writing for the New York Times Magazine, the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and NPR, among others. Random House senior editor Andrea Walker pre-empted North American rights from Julie Barer at Barer Literary.”
Andrea and I first met while she was at the New Yorker, after she wrote nice things about a novel excerpt of mine that Narrative published, and since then I’ve followed her career with admiration and excitement. I’m thrilled to be working with her and the rest of the Random House team! And now you know what I’ll be doing for the next couple years.
Friends and readers who connected with me on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram have been posting photos of the cover, and every time I see one it gives me a thrill. You can subscribe to read the article online, download the app to buy the issue, or pick it up on newsstands on May 21, which is my birthday.
I’ll be talking about the piece and my interest in ancestry more generally at Lauren Cerand’s Cafe Society on June 6. Details are in her Tiny Letter, if you’re interested.
You can also follow my continuing obsession with the subject — a sort of miscellany clipboard for the book I’m writing — at The Begats.
My new site, The Begats, obsesses over ancestry miscellany of all kinds: genealogical, historical, cultural, scientific, religious, superstitious, personal. If you’re into this kind of nerdery, submit stuff!
And if you’re curious about my own family history, I wrote a lot of posts about my research back in the day, starting here.
A friend and I were beginning that strange dance of making plans to make plans, when I mentioned that I’d be traveling to Jerusalem soon. “We should get together right away,” he joked, “before you come down with Messiah syndrome.” It was the kind of precision-targeted crack only an old friend can manage. I can’t remember whether I laughed or winced first.
When I was young, my mother had a feverish conversion and started a church in our living room. I’d always been a tiny bit anxious that I might one day follow suit, hear the calling myself, start roaming the streets, preaching salvation. A committed but fearful agnostic, I’d never intended to tempt fate by visiting the Holy Land. But I was going to the Jerusalem Book Fair, and my husband, Max, who grew up in the comparatively staid Eastern Orthodox tradition, was joining me.
CRL: Someone asked me, “Is that the difference between a Western hero and an Eastern hero?”
MN: What did you say?
CRL: Maybe. I don’t know. But the Western heroes we know — in literature, it’s someone who is picaresque, larger than life, very vocal. And she’s totally the opposite of that. The heroes of my previous books are very Western, in a certain way. But maybe this one isn’t.
I wasn’t sure when exactly the announcement became official, which is the reason I held off on posting this here, but I’m excited and delighted to report that my employer, Thomson Reuters, awarded $3000 to Girls Write Now last year, as part of the company’s 2013 “Community Champion” awards, because of my volunteering there. (By day I work at TR and am known as Rebecca, Tax Editor and Writer. Otherwise, obviously, I usually go by Maud nowadays.)
Girls Write Now pairs talented at-risk teen girls with mentors — authors and journalists — who meet with them regularly one-on-one and support their writing. What impresses me most is that the girls go on to college. So these mentoring relationships have the power to change the mentees’ lives not just for a few months, but forever. You can see this happening in my favorite video, from 2009, of one of the girls’ readings.
The last time I stayed with my father in Miami over the holidays, I made the mistake of thinking he was lonely. I had a bad habit of trying to decode his emotional state from external markers, in this case his threadbare green bathmat. Part of a towel set my parents acquired when I was seven or so, it had been in a sad state for more than a decade, but on my most recent visit the previous winter, it was covered with holes, actually disintegrating. Each morning before work, my father stepped out of the shower and wiped his feet on it. Evidently he did not register its lack of absorbent effect, the feel of cold tile against skin.
My husband, Max, and I planned to stay with him for more than a week, into the new year, but to celebrate Christmas Day itself with Max’s family at his grandparents’ place a few miles away. As we started to finalize arrangements to open presents, have dinner, and in between take a walk to see the flock of wild peacocks his grandmother had mentioned in recent phone calls, the specter of the bathmat rose from my memories of the last visit. I couldn’t put it out of my mind.
My father had, to put it kindly, never been gifted at housekeeping, but I worried what it might mean that he was living this way, moving through his days with so little attention to the world around him. Was he depressed? Ill? Deteriorating? Although we weren’t always together at Christmas, under the circumstances I thought it might be cruel to spend the holiday with other people when I was in town.
My essay, “Cleaning Up on Christmas,” about the time I stayed with my father to keep him company on Christmas Day and ended up in his house alone, cleaning, is up at Medium.
On a rooftop of a prison
in South Africa Nelson Mandela
tends garden and has a birthday,
as my Jamaican grandfather in Harlem, New York
raises tomatoes and turns ninety-one.
I have taken touch for granted: my grandfather’s hands,
his shoulders, his pajamas which smell of vitamin pills…
“Even from the very beginning, I was interested in the ways that you love somebody and still betray them or hurt them without meaning to. You know, that kind of thing and how that works in families.”
Masha Hamilton, a journalist and novelist and, until recently, the Director of Communications and Public Diplomacy at the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan, spoke with me over the summer about her latest book, What Changes Everything, and about conflict, from warzones to brownstones, at Community Bookstore over the summer.
I reviewed Nick Bilton’s Hatching Twitter, a fascinating history of the tweet and its creators, for the technology issue of the New York Times Book Review. Here’s an excerpt:
A hundred and forty characters doesn’t sound like much, but as Twitter has shown over the course of its short, intense life, they’re enough to aid a revolution, ruin a reputation or direct help after a disaster. Critics tend to focus on the irresponsibility or narcissism of the form, or to say it breeds snark or false praise, or that it enables people to feel politically involved when they’re just ranting from their couches.
Sure, Twitter can facilitate the spread of misinformation. It sometimes operates (as a friend of mine once put it) as a live feed from the id. Some people use it solely to tear things down, and others to ingratiate themselves around the clock. And of course political one-liners are no substitute for being on the barricades, no matter how much @pourmecoffee makes me laugh. But ways of tweeting are so diverse that these criticisms serve as a kind of Rorschach test, revealing more about the critic and what attracts his or her attention on Twitter than they do about the form itself.
Twitter’s utility and appeal lies not just in its brevity but in its randomness and ability to surprise. Within its confines, the uses to which it can be put are virtually unlimited. Even now, on the eve of its anticipated I.P.O., its true function refuses to be pinned down, and “Hatching Twitter,” a fast-paced and perceptive new book by Nick Bilton, a columnist and reporter for The New York Times, establishes that uncertainty and dissension about its true purpose has characterized Twitter from its inception.
It was my habit to start the day with a perusal of a few pages of a metaphysical work. It is a practice as healthy to the soul as the morning bath is healthy to the body. Though I have not the kind of intelligence that moves easily among abstractions and I often do not altogether understand what I read (this does not too greatly distract me since I find that professional dialecticians often complain that they cannot understand one another) I read on and sometimes come upon a passage that has a particular meaning for me. My way is lighted now and then by a happy phrase, for the philosophers of the past often wrote more than ordinarily well, and since in the long run a philosopher only describes himself, with his prejudices, his personal hopes, and his idiosyncrasies, and they were for the most part men of robust character, I have often the amusement of making acquaintance with a curious personality. In this desultory way I have read most of the great philosophers that the world has seen, trying to learn a little here and there or to get some enlightenment on matters that must puzzle everyone who makes his tentative way through the labyrinthine jungle of this life: nothing has interested me more than the way they treat the problem of evil. I cannot say that I have been greatly enlightened.
By popular demand, by which I mean because I think Carrie Frye will enjoy it, here’s a lightly edited version of my introduction to the conversation Donna Tartt and I had after her reading last night.
There are very few novelists writing today — or in any era, I suppose — of whom it can be said with certainty that they will be read in a hundred or two hundred years. Donna Tartt is an exception. In three gorgeous and propulsive novels, all winding and character-driving but also skillfully, satisfyingly, psychologically plotted, she has combined the immersive Victorian pleasures of someone like Dickens with an aloof, slightly antisocial, lightly barbed perspective not unlike that of Iris Murdoch or Nabokov. Perhaps because her prose is so lush, or maybe because she’s a southerner skilled at sliding the most deadly observations into view in a light, offhand way, critics don’t often remark on how eviscerating some of her characters’ insights are, or how funny. Even as the eras she’s writing about, and the eras in which she’s writing, recede into the past, her writing itself stays fresh and urgent.
A not-yet-twenty-year-old friend of mine who lives in Flagstaff, Arizona probably would have sold a kidney to be here tonight, and she’s not the only person much younger than me I know to be enraptured by Tartt’s novels.
In her latest book, The Goldfinch, Theo turns his gimlet eye on Park Avenue and on Las Vegas, exposing their shallow, unique horrors, but also getting at the weird appeal of each of them. Following his mother’s death and a series of other miscalculations and misfortunes, Theo is hobbled by a choice he makes in the opening pages, and by his inability to know how to set it right, but over time he increasingly lives by his own rules, on his own time, surrounded by friends of his own choosing, some of whom are very definitely not friends his mother would have chosen for him.
As Laura Miller wrote for Salon, “Donna Tartt’s characters have a habit of falling into bubbles of one kind or another, places where they are a bit cut off from the world and where they grow fiercely attached to the handful of other people with whom they share their half-dreamlike existence…. [Even Theo Decker] doesn’t quite seem to occupy the same jangly, information-bombarded dimension as the rest of us urbanites.”
Tartt’s books are set and meander all over, but the spirit of her writing — the gestalt of it — is southern. There are many different souths, of course, and I don’t intend a comparison to the religious steeliness of Flannery O’Connor or the in-your-face harshness of Harry Crews or even to the gentle send-ups of Eudora Welty so much as to call attention to a wry, baffled, deeply disassociated perspective that, despite the completely different lush beauty and stylistic flourishes of her writing, reminds me a lot of Charles Portis. You can see this kinship most of all in some of her essays, and these in turn cast an interesting light on her novels.
In 2005 she wrote an essay for Vogue about making Hunter S. Thompson the beneficiary of her high school life insurance policy. “During those years (when I was either trapped in my cinder-block bunker of a school down in Mississippi or — more entertainingly — roaming drunk around airports as the all-expenses-paid guest of political organizations whose valuses I didn’t share),” she wrote, “Dr. Hunter S. Thompson was my constant companion. I kept his books in my locker at school, and I smiled for group pictures on the Capitol steps with his gloomy voice (psychotic… delusional… how long can we maintain?) echoing in my ears. In my own view, I was a double agent: an outwardly cheerful and apparently harmless American child who had by some insane whim of the governing class been welcomed deep into the heart of Republican darkness. I believed that I was a member of Uncle Duke’s secret army, entrenched behind enemy lines; and furthermore, I believed that I was not alone. I believed that scores of other kids like me were keeping their eyes and ears open in hick towns all across America: a nest of hissing vipers, nursed deep in the bosom of Jesse Helms and the Moral Majority. And I believed that someday, when we grew up, we would take over the country. I was wrong.”
In a 1994 Harper’s essay, “Team Spirit,” she recalled being a cheerleader and reading 1984 to and from football games during her freshman year of high school. Realizing that there was “a certain correspondence between this totalitarian nightmare and my own high school, she writes: “gave me at first a feeling of smug superiority but after a time I began to have an acute sense of the meaninglessness of my words and gestures. Did I really care if we won or lost? No matter how enthusiastically I jumped and shouted, the answer to this was unquestionably No. This epiphany both confused and depressed me. And yet I continued — outwardly at least — to display as much pep as ever. ‘I always look cheerful and I never shirt anything,’ says Winston Smith’s girlfriend, Julia. ‘Always yell with the crowd, that’s what I say. It’s the only way to be safe.’”
This sense of not-belonging, of estrangement from the community while living and moving with apparent seamlessness within it, pervades all her fiction. Her characters are in a lot of different places, but they are very rarely of them.
In Fairy Tale Review, she remembered being read to by her grandmother, the way the two of them returned to some books “doggedly, like religious texts.”
“Treasure Island and Kidnapped were the real bridge for me between the child’s world and the adult’s,” she wrote. “Essentially, they were the books that turned me into a novelist, and they did partly through the beauty of the language and partly through the sheer gallop of story but mostly because they made me preoccupied with the kinds of questions that novelists ask. Why do smart people make foolish decisions? Why are honest people so vulnerable to lies, and trusting ones so susceptible to flattery and manipulation? If all people are fallible — a mixture of good and bad — at what point does the equation tip and a good person become bad and vice versa?…. The word romance has been used to describe (and to dismiss) Stevenson’s work for the last hundred years. But I’ve always wondered more critics don’t see that Treasure Island, despite its fanciful stage trappings (spyglasses, cutlasses, pieces of eight), is despite its many enchantments a work of frightful psychological realism.”
Much of this praise could be lavished equally on Tartt’s own novels. It’s not at all hard to imagine readers finding and returning to them in just this way a century or two from now.
I’ve been meaning to create a slideshow of my New York Times Magazine columnlets, for my own archival purposes more than anything, and I’ve finally done it. They appear in the “One-Page Magazine” every Sunday, in print and online. My ambit is loosely historical, so I don’t always focus on books and writers, but in one way or another I often do.
My New York Times Magazine columnlet this week is about Chris Offutt’s attempts to bake a “Bible Cake” recipe (first published in a Kentucky P.T.A. cookbook in 1967) without cursing.
Just about every time I mention a piece of writing in one of these tiny columns, it’s because I hope everyone who sees it will seek the thing out and read it. This one is no exception. I hope I captured a fraction of the flavor (sorry) of Offutt’s full essay, which appears in The Oxford American.
Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s conversation with Jonathan Franzen about his forthcoming novel, The Sound of Things Falling, is only available in the galley, but it’s a fascinating prelude to an excellent book.
My father used to theorize, proudly, that Bowers v. Hardwick was based partly on reasoning from some law review note he wrote. The details are hazy in my memory, and the claim was always speculative, not to mention (characteristically and horrifically) grandiose, but whether or not my father actually helped preside over this era of hatred and bigotry, I’m thrilled it is finally coming to an end.
I sometimes miss writing here, on this website. It seems so old-fashioned to me now, a tiny Internet island disconnected from everything else. I remember first starting to type in this little box, or one very much like it, and the wonder and excitement and anxiety I felt when people responded from their own little boxes and linked to what I’d written. That was eleven years ago. Eleven years!
I’m not the sort of person who wishes things had stayed as they were. I like Tumblr and Twitter, etc., etc., and I’m interested to see what comes next. But I do feel a little wistful from time to time for the newness of the experience of typing some stream-of-consciousness thing like this — which is not at all what I was expecting to write when I opened up WordPress — and setting it loose into the world.
Now I’m putting that energy into my book, which feels good and right, but I wanted to say hello to any longtime readers who might be passing through. So, hello out there! Isn’t this blogging thing crazy?
Right now, apart from my novel, I’m working on a dream of an assignment for another of my favorite magazines. I’m so excited, I keep wondering if I made this up. But I have a contract, so if all goes well, you can read it there eventually.
Finally, I need to thank the illustrious Bud Parr of Sonnet Media, who quickly redid my site and got it back online the last time it went belly-up. If you’re looking for someone to design and maintain a website for you, you really can’t do better than Bud.
Happy summer, you guys! If you were here, I’d make you a salty dog. We could drink them on the terrace with all my herbs and flowers, and my lemon tree, which survived the winter indoors, but we’d have to do it really quickly. It’s getting ready to storm.
Putting together packages for Quarterly Co. has been a lot of fun and a lot of work. I’m ironing out the details for for my very last one right now.
The most recent shipment included Colson Whitehead’s Colossus of New York, art from Molly Crabapple, a short story from Roxane Gay, (a link to) Patty Griffin’s “Florida,” and a letter. The subject was places. Muriel Spark, Roland Barthes, Denise Levertov, Bill Hickok, and Breaking Bad made appearances in previous packages, which were about work and grief, but not the combination thereof.
I’m also excited to be contributing to the Rumpus’ Letters in the Mail. My dispatch goes out in June. Subscriptions are $5 monthly, if you’d like something fun to keep the bills company in your mailbox.
For the New York Times Magazine, I wrote about the increasing popularity of traditional Jewish rituals among American evangelical Christians — including, in a small but growing sector, “bar mitzvahs” for their kids. The article, “Oy Vey, Christian Soldiers,” appeared in the March 22 issue, and you can see some photos and videos of these practices in a related post.
For NPR, I review Rachel Kushner’s brilliant lightning bolt of a novel, The Flamethrowers, which straddles two revolutions: the squatter-artist colonization of Manhattan’s SoHo in the 1970s, and the rise of Italy’s radical left during the same period. An excerpt:
Its young artist narrator, Reno, is wistful and brutally candid at once, with a voice like a painting — lush and evocative — but also like a scythe. “Enchantment,” she says, describing her dashed hopes after a one-night stand, “means to want something and also to know, somewhere inside yourself, not an obvious place, that you aren’t going to get it.”