the written world: on starless seas


the news section is moved to the top because my book (my book, the book that I wrote, my book) is out today. that feels momentous. or at least it feels like it ought to feel momentous; all i actually feel right now is a sort of anxious distraction, a flighty certainty that i’ve left the stove on or the laundry on the line with rain in the forecast. as if i half-started something and lost control of it; as if i’m likely to be punished for the hubris of starting at all.

but still: it’s out. (probably; i scheduled this post for 12:01AM because i’m very chill, so it might not be the 10th where you are. also it doesn’t come out til the 12th in the UK). if you live near a physical, actual bookstore, it might be there! it was an Indie Next September pick; a Barnes and Noble Discover pick and a B&N Best of the Month pick; and an Amazon best-of-the-month editor’s pick. you can read the first chapter here or find it on goodreads. or purchase it at indiebound, amazon, barnes & noble, or request it from your local library! there’s also an extremely lovely audiobook, if you’re an audiobook person, read by--get this--January LaVoy, which got an earphones award from audiofile. 

also, i’m doing an AMA on reddit’s r/books at 10:00am today; a launch event at carmichael’s books on frankfort ave. in louisville, ky, on september 12th at 7:00PM; and i’m reading and signing at our dearly beloved local library in berea, ky on september 14th, 4:00-6:00 PM.

come say hi?

of starless seas

the absolute number one coolest thing about being an Author is that, sometimes, if i’m very good and cross my fingers, i get to read excellent books slightly before the rest of you. this combines my two greatest passions: reading good books and knowing things slightly before other people.

this summer i got an advanced copy of erin morgenstern’s The Starless Sea. “morgenstern? as in The Night Circus? the book that swept us away eight years ago and left us with an ache in our hearts, a yearning for what never was?” yes, my darlings, my dreamers. that morgenstern.

The Starless Sea is better. or maybe better is too straightforward a word: it’s stranger, deeper, older. The Night Circus was alice catching sight of the white rabbit; The Starless Sea is alice tumbling headfirst down the rabbithole. (it is also specifically calibrated to tug at my particular heartstrings. it begins with a child who finds a magic door, but doesn’t walk through it; there are separated lovers and very significant books that don’t belong on library shelves; there is a sense of wonder and want, of loss and ache. erin and i have joked on twitter that the venn diagram of our books is very nearly a circle.)

i don’t know if it’s possible to extract writing lessons from something so wondrous and unique, but if i did, they would be something like:

lesson #1: the world is enough

on the sixth page of The Starless Sea, we are told:

“Far beneath the surface of the earth, hidden from the sun and the moon, upon the shores of the Starless Sea, there is a labyrinthine collection of tunnels and rooms filled with stories. Stories written in books and sealed in jars and painted on walls. Odes inscribed onto skin and pressed into rose petals...It is a sanctuary for storytellers and storykeepers and storylovers. They eat and sleep and dream surrounded by chronicles and histories and myths. Some stay for hours or days before returning to the world above but others remain for weeks or years, living in shared or private chambers, and spending their hours reading or studying or writing, discussing and creating with their fellow residents or working in solitude.”

and that’s enough. that’s all it took: we are hooked as effectively as fish on her line. we are convinced there is secret world of storytellers waiting for us, and that’s enough to pull us through four prologues and a half-dozen characters and stories. it occurred to me that many of my favorite books pull a similar trick: they rely on my longing for a place that doesn’t exist, that i desperately want to exist. i wanted to attend hogwarts and wander through the black and white tents of Le Cirque des Rêves and walk the hills of Gont with Ogion. i wanted to fall through the wardrobe or climb the rooftops of Lyra’s oxford.

in my own writing, i’ve found it helps if i give myself a place i want to be, to build myself a haven or a heaven. it’s only fiction, but sometimes--it’s enough.

lesson #2: tell all the truth but tell it slant

but why is that underground world so alluring? why does it pull at my soulstuff? because, i suspect, it’s a fanciful metaphor for finding a community, a home, a place-you-belong. because i know how it feels to wander for years and finally find a place--or a person, actually--that feels like home. and isn’t that the secret superpower of good fantasy, that it can take metaphors literally? that it can tell the truth slantwise, by starlight, and therefore let as look straight at it? like dickinson says: “the truth must dazzle gradually/ or every man be blind--

the movie About Time--a perfect film unfairly maligned by rotten tomatoes--uses time travel to talk about the mundane miracle of time passing, the things we lose and gain as we time-travel slowly into the future, at the rate of one hour per hour. more darkly, colson whitehead’s Underground Railroad made the underground railroad into a literal tunnel system. he took the entire history of american slavery and reconstruction and condensed it into an odyssey-like epic that is totally fabricated and entirely true.

so like: instead of trying really hard to make stuff up, maybe we should try really hard to tell the truth.

lesson #3: lessons are bullshit

this book has four prologues. it has alternating perspectives and dropped threads and books within books within fairy tales. it starts “slow.” the magic is murky, unexplained, ineffable. the main character has no clearly established Stakes or Motives, but is merely an endearing grad student who likes games and narratives, who i would personally die for.

what i’m saying is--The Starless Sea doesn’t follow the rules of writing, because there are no rules of writing, because writing is just chaos and hope and breadcrumb trails in dark woods. sometimes i think i get too bound up by hero’s journeys or beat-sheets or prescriptive twitter threads and forget to just follow the damn story. to walk willingly into the dark woods and know the crows are eating the crumbs i’ve left behind. to get well and truly lost, because getting lost is the only way you find gingerbread houses and wolves and witches.

other reading

some other things you might like, because i do:

  • NPR’s Embedded series has five episodes on mitch mcconnell, the thesis of which is: fuck that guy. (and truly, fuck that guy). it’s good reporting and storytelling, a lot of kentucky history, and an interesting insight into the strategies of a real-life supervillain.

  • The Good Place podcast has an entire episode talking to Lin Manuel Miranda, and there has never been a sentence more specifically designed to soothe my troubled soul. the amazon is on fire and hurricanes are getting worse and there’s been another shooting and we’re deporting sick children and torturing families, but--Lin Manuel Miranda is on the Good Place podcast.

  • i’m re-reading patricia briggs’ Dragon Bones books for the eight millionth time. i couldn’t tell you why i love them so much, except that they’re about a ragtag team of misfits on a mission to save the kingdom and everybody has a secret identity/backstory revealed at the most shocking moment and also there are dragons.


did you know you’re allowed to reply to my newsletters, if you like? as if it were just an overlong email i sent specifically to you? because they are, and you can! i like talking to people about books, and i like long emails, and i might not be able to respond to every message but i love them very much.