NEW YORK — In the minds and official records of the publishing community, Sarah Thankham Mathews is a first-time author. Her novel ‘It Could Be Different’ has been widely hailed as a promising start for the 31-year-old Indian, whose tale of a young immigrant’s personal and professional struggles is a National Book Award finalist.
But for Mathews and fellow nominees Tess Gunty and Alejandro Varela, the debut that earned them recognition and acclaim is a far cry from their initial efforts. Like countless other authors, the three finalists had been writing for years before the public could see their work, trying out ultimately shelved novels and stories, figuring out how best to structure their time, absorbing and rejecting influences and styles as they searched for an elusive and precious literary grail: their own voice.
“A lot of my early efforts were just trying to figure out what I wanted to write about,” Mathews says.
Fiction judges shed light on emerging writers for this year’s National Book Awards ceremony, to be held in New York on Wednesday. Gunty, Mathews and Varela were chosen for the first publications and Jamil Jan Kochai for his second book, “The Haunting of Hajji Hotak” collection of stories. Gayl Jones is the category’s only established author, chosen for her novel “The Birdcatcher,” published more than 45 years after her own famous debut, “Corregidora.”
Of the three most recent authors, Varela had the most unorthodox path to his nominated work, “The City of Babylon.” Varela, who turns 43 this week, did not major in creative writing but instead studied public health, earning a master’s degree from the University of Washington. His early jobs included cancer research at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and teaching at Long Island University, but he also became interested in writing. In 2015 he published his first article, “Crime in the 21st Century”, in the Southampton Review.
Over the next few years, he continued to write short fiction, learning along the way that it was better to “put the words on the page without trying to write perfect sentences first” and to gain confidence in his ideas and his talents. In “Town of Babylon”, he took a friend’s advice and completed a complete first draft without any initial edits.
“I got to spread my wings and play a little,” he says of his novel, the story of a gay Latinx public health professor who returns to his hometown for a high school reunion and relives his past. unexpectedly. Varela said he was able to hone a “humorous yet self-aware tone” which he describes as true to his personal experience.
“I am a queer Latinx son of working class immigrants,” he said. “I didn’t always feel like I was welcomed in the conversations around me and when you feel like you don’t have a voice you become an observer and that leads to a kind of interiority. My writing allows me to have the kind of conversations I had with myself.”
Gunty and Mathews have each written fiction since childhood. Gunty, born and raised in South Bend, Indiana, recalls an ambitious effort from high school days, an untitled short story about a dictator as seen by three women in his life. She had conceived it as the first part of a trilogy but blames youthful indiscipline for never completing the project, which was written on a desktop computer with no internet connection and is now lost forever.
As an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame and a graduate student at New York University, she continued to write fiction, including a short story with the philosophical title “In Search of a divine hypotenuse”. But soon after leaving school, Gunty began a story that “wouldn’t leave her alone”, often a sign of a book the author was meant to write.
She worked on “The Rabbit Hutch” for about five years, finding a new and deeper connection to its material – a polyphonic portrait of low-income housing residents in Indiana.
“In all my other attempts, I’m not sure I’ve been able to access voices different from my own; this book has allowed me to inhabit each person a little more generously,” she says. Gunty, who recently turned 30, credits his own growing maturity and a more organized approach, including sticking note cards inscribed with the book’s major events around his bedroom.
Mathews was also a teenager when she finished a short story, “Fire,” what she calls a tragedy of star-crossed young lovers. She dedicated herself to writing fiction and earned a master’s degree from the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa. But before finding out who she was as an author, she had to recognize who she was not. Mathews was so influenced at one point by “The God of Little Things” novelist Arundhati Roy that she found herself writing what she called a “poor man’s version” of Roy, a “very distinctive” which did not suit him.
‘It Could Be Different’ was written quickly in 2020, and followed some seven years and hundreds of pages of a different novel that she admitted suffers from “some instability” in its narrative. But from her struggles, she forged a new voice, “an immigrant voice, where you see the old ways of speaking merge with the ways of the new country,” and a new sense that the novel she was working on could “live in the world.”
“I wrote a manuscript with a beginning, middle and end in October 2020,” she recalls. “I was like, ‘OK, I’m just going to read it,’ and in the meantime I sent it to a few friends and other readers. What I felt when I got to the end of this first reading is this feeling of elevation and a kind of dream.What was written was not perfect, but it was good, intelligent and alive.