Criticism & Features


NBCC Autobiography Finalists in Conversation with New School MFA Students 2017


Thanks to the students and faculty of Creative Writing at The New School for providing interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2016. Below are excerpts from interviews with the autobiography finalists. Click the links to read more. 

Marion Coutts

IcebergKaty Hershberger Joseph interviewed Marion Coutts about her book The Iceberg (Black Cat Press), which is among the final five selections in the category of Autobiography for the 2016 NBCC Awards.

In The Iceberg, British visual artist Marion Coutts chronicles the two years after her husband, art critic Tom Lubbock, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. In lyrical prose and with raw honesty, she describes their “adventure of being and dying.” Their story is one of constant duality: the art and language that filled their lives. Their toddler son learning to speak, just as Tom was losing his grasp on words. The intensity and mundanity of cancer. And the impossible humor of living while dying.

Katy Hershberger Joseph: There are so many immediate feelings and visceral responses in all of the scenes in the book, and I’m sure it’s because you took notes throughout the entire process. At the time, did you know you wanted to write a book? Were they just notes for yourself or for public consumption?

Marion Coutts: No, it was all very complicated as you can imagine. Suddenly we were thrown from one situation where I’ve had a child 18 months previously and I was thinking about getting back to my career, and then we had this very sudden diagnosis. There was a huge pressure on time…and it was a huge psychic pressure on daily life. I didn’t start writing anything until about nine months after Tom was first diagnosed, and the first bits of writing I did were kind of writing against annihilation, because it was very hard to actually keep anything going.


In Gratitude

Jenny Diski editor Alexandra Pringle 

Keiron McCammon interviewed Alexandra Pringle, Group Editor-in-Chief of Bloomsbury Publishing, about her experience editing Jenny Diski’s final book In Gratitude.

Diski passed in April 2016, a week after publication of her book, which chronicles her early childhood, dysfunctional family life, surreal “fostering” by British literary icon Doris Lessing and her final years living with cancer.

Keiron McCammon: In Gratitude is an interesting title since there is no epiphany, acceptance or forgiveness that one might expect given the title and the fact Diski was facing two terminal illnesses. Where did it come from?

Alexandra Pringle: The key to the title is that Jenny insisted the two words be on the same line on the jacket. Hence you can read it as ‘in gratitude’, and also ‘ingratitude.’ That word play amused her tremendously.  Jenny’s relationship with Doris Lessing encompassed gratitude (for taking her in) and ingratitude (for the difficulties of their relationship).  She had no truck with conventional notions of gratitude (parental or otherwise), it was not her thing. But I think she did feel profound gratitude for the love she shared with her husband the poet Ian Patterson, for her daughter and grandchildren.  Her chief regret, she said, was that she wouldn’t see her grandchildren grow up.

Hope Jahren

Lab girl

Charlene Allen interviewed Hope Jahren about her book Lab Girl (Knopf).

Lab Girl is the autobiography of acclaimed paleobotanist Hope Jahren. Equal parts intimate memoir and creative botany text, the book’s heart lies in the enduring friendship between Hope and Bill, two brilliant scientists drawn together by humor, loneliness, and an endless appetite for adventure.

Charlene Allen: One of the reasons I loved Lab Girl is its many literary references – Charles Dickens, Harper Lee, Jean Genet. I found it compelling that science and literature seem so connected for you, though we live in a world that often sees them as dichotomous (consider our undergraduate degrees which separate arts from sciences). How do you integrate these two important parts of yourself?

Hope Jahren: I think literature works very much the same way that science does. Particularly with great texts that have lasted for years, those books stay with us and sometimes we don’t know what they mean until later. In science we call information “data”. In literature, we call it “story”. When you read a great book, the story becomes one of the tools that your mind uses to understand the world. I wanted so desperately to connect with the reader, and to share how my thinking works – the process – the machinery. And great books, all those literary references, are a part of the machinery that I use every day.

That’s the thing about really making an effort to be honest and open and show your true imperfect self in writing. If you somehow dig deep enough to get at what’s your unique individual story, people sometimes read it and say, “Oh, I know how that feels.” It’s so interesting that you can go inside yourself to write a book, and at the end you’ve created something that brings you closer to other people.


Kao Kalia Yang

The Song Poet

Kelly Stewart interviewed Kao Kalia Yang about her book The Song Poet (Metropolitan Books).

It’s no surprise Kao Kalia Yang is making history with her latest book, The Song Poet. Inspired by her father’s song poetry, or kws txhiaj in Hmong, the book provides its readers a powerful, in-depth look inside the Hmong culture and is the first book by a Hmong author to be recognized as an NBCC Finalist. Yang brings her father’s story to life throughout the pages of The Song Poet, offering her readers an open window into the often unknown history of Hmong refugees in the United States. Through her father’s eyes, she writes of her family’s struggles in fleeing their homes in Laos, living in a refugee camp in Thailand and, in the late 1980s, making a new home in St. Paul, Minnesota.

I had the great pleasure of speaking with Yang about her book earlier this month. Here’s a look into our conversation:

Kelly Stewart: Since this book is a story so personal to you, one you carried with you and wanted to tell for so long, when it was out and you found out you were an NBCC Award finalist, what were your emotions?

Kao Kalia Yang: When you write a book and you put everything you have in it, and when you’re a little known writer from Minnesota, there’s a big likelihood your book will get overlooked, but I was hopeful that it would get at least some positive reviews and that it would be seen enough to do something, so this was really one of those hopes coming to life. It was really exciting and still is. I’m one of the first Hmong writers to be published in America and to speak forth for our community, this is history making for us. We’ve never been here before, and it’s exciting to be there.

This is my second book. After the first one, at the book launch of the The Late Homecomer, someone asked me, “What’s coming next?” and I remember answering, “Whatever it is, something is going to come out because I’m worth more than one chance.” As a writer, there was some pressure. I wanted to write a book that I was proud of, and a book that I loved, and I think The Song Poet is a more mature writer at work. I think the skills that I played with with The Latehomecomer are more fully realized in this book, so it’s truly more complicated. It’s tracing my art; you can see my growth and my development in The Song Poet. I don’t want to take anything away from The Latehomecomerbecause that was my first baby, it’s like your children, when I had my first baby I was like, ‘Oh my God, how did she happen?’ now I have my boys and it’s like ‘How did they happen?’ It’s just amazing.