Introducing Picador’s New Voices of 2021
Picador’s New Voices of 2021 are nine outstandingly talented new writers of literary fiction and non-fiction who Picador are proud to publish in the coming year.
Picador believe that the way a story is told is just as important as the story itself. Committed to providing a platform for voices that are often not heard, each year Picador’s New Voices showcases the best new writers of literary fiction and non-fiction. From vital new perspectives in literary fiction and fascinating scientific explorations to the first full-length book in the Orkney language in over fifty years, these are the new authors you should be reading in 2021.
Emma Stonex’s debut novel The Lamplighters is an intoxicating mystery based on a true story. Here Editorial Director Sophie Jonathan introduces the novel and explains why the combination of atmospheric mystery and literary elements meant she immediately knew she had to publish it.
‘The Lamplighters begins with a mystery. In Cornwall in 1972, three men vanish from a lighthouse, miles from the shore. The entrance door is locked from the inside, the clocks have stopped and the table is set for dinner. The Principal Keeper's weather log describes a mighty storm, but the skies have been clear. But the men – they’ve simply gone. Twenty years later, the mystery of their disappearance still haunts the women left behind, women whose bond should have tightened since the tragedy, but instead it broke them apart.
This book has everything – atmosphere in spades, sentences I want to pluck out and read over and over again, emotional power like a punch to the gut, and drama that will leave your heart pounding. It’s flawlessly paced so that as each secret is uncoiled the novel becomes ever more compelling. What I find remarkable about this book is the way Emma combines that drama and tension with all the elements of the best literary fiction.
It’s vividly evocative and atmospheric, the whole novel tangy with the salty air of the Cornish coast, and told in genuinely lyrical prose. The novel is fascinating for its portrait of the detachment and seclusion experienced by the keepers and their wives – women who, in the 70s, shouldered the traditional domestic expectations yet lived without their husbands for three quarters of the year.
And of course Emma is brilliant on the way that loneliness and distance might threaten your other faculties, your sense of the real, of the maybe imagined. But there is emotion here too and at the novel’s centre is a story of love and loss that moved me to tears. Emma writes with beauty and power about grief, guilt, regret, betrayal and obsession. I think S.J. Watson puts it perfectly when he called The Lamplighters ‘beautifully written and evocative, this is a mystery, a love story and a ghost story, all at once.’ So here’s Emma to read you an extract.’
Gabriela Garcia is an award-winning writer who grew up in Miami. Of Women and Salt is her astounding debut novel which tells the story of five generations of women who are bound by the stories they share. Gabriela’s editor Sophie Jonathan tells us why she couldn’t wait to publish Of Women and Salt, and Gabriela reads an extract from the book.
‘Of Women and Salt stunned me with its power when I first read it, and I’m going to set the scene by telling you where it begins and ends. Of Women and Salt starts in 19th century Cuba, a place on the brink of political upheaval, with Maria Isabel, a young woman who works in a cigar factory. The country she loves is shifting and her own love story and subsequent tragic loss are entirely dictated by the place Cuba is becoming. And then the novel’s end – it is 2019. A dark night on the Mexico/US border, and Ana is determined to return to America. Because it is the place that offers her the best chance at life, at a fresh start, and – though she doesn’t know it yet – a family.
Of Women and Salt tells the stories of Maria Isabel and Ana – and of Jeanette, Gloria, Carmen, and Dolores, women across five generations of a family. Moving backwards and forwards in time we see Jeanette – struggling with drug addiction in Miami, taking in Ana when her mother is arrested by immigration officials. Carmen is desperately trying to raise wayward Jeanette, whilst determined to forget the Cuba she left behind and the mother she can no longer acknowledge.Dolores is bringing up her children Carmen and Elena in a Cuba where her husband waits for Fidel Castro’s call to arms – and where Dolores ultimately must commit an act of extraordinary violence in order to survive and protect her daughters. All of these women are linked by blood, by the stories and secrets they share, and by a single book passed down through the family, with an affirmation scrawled in its margins: we are force. We are more than we think we are.
To me Of Women and Salt is a rising chorus of fiercely proud voices, and talking about the book Gabriela has said that she drew on her own experience growing up with a Cuban mother who had an automatic path to citizenship in the US and a Mexican father whose deportation she feared, and from her knowledge that privilege, race and class dissolve the notion of a monolithic Latinx community.'
The section Gabriela is going to read from is in Gloria’s voice, when she finds herself at an immigration detention centre, with no idea where her daughter Ana might be.’
Raven Leilani has been published in Granta, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern and The Cut, and Dolly Alderton said of her debut novel, ‘these pages are some of the most exciting, disturbing, dark, sharp, funny pages I have read in a debut.’ Here Commissioning editor Kishani Widyaratna shares why she’s so excited for readers to meet Raven’s character Edie.
‘Reading Luster for the first time on submission was simply exhilarating, as I felt I had been waiting years for a novel like this. I fell for the caustic humour, the fearless writing, the immediacy and acute emotional insight, but most of all, I fell for the messy, sharp and hilariously funny Edie. She is a character of the sort that we don’t get to see often enough in fiction and this is something Raven Leilani had in mind when writing. She says, ‘I wanted to write a book about a black woman that allowed her the room to make mistakes . . . I thought that was important for black women. We live in a world where there are many institutions and people invested in policing our feelings and our bodies. It’s a tightrope that flattens our humanity.’
Luster is a novel about so many things – about navigating the world as a black woman, about being a young person in an economy rigged against you and about the forging of an artist’s soul in the unlikeliest of circumstances. I could go on about the many different aspects of this book, but I think Zadie Smith perfectly captures why Edie and Luster feel so special. She says, ‘What a brave thing, to dare to create Edie, a young black woman frequently in doubt, embarrassed, and unsure, who is passionate and perverse, kind and vengeful, depressed and exhilarated – in other words, human . . . Raven’s novel made me feel less alone and so excited about the future, both for her as a young black writer and for the many readers she is surely soon to gain.’
I am so excited for readers to meet the unforgettable Edie. I hope that they will be as thrilled by Luster and Raven’s brilliant talent as I have been.’
In this video, Raven discusses her inspiration for writing the novel and shares an extract from the book.
Jackie Polzin’s debut novel heralds a startling new voice in literary fiction. Here, Kishani Widyaratna tells us how her heart was stolen by the story of four chickens and why yours will be too.
‘Reading the manuscript of Brood by Jackie Polzin on submission, the first thing that struck me was the narrator’s disarming, deadpan voice, and I found I very quickly took to her and her irresistible clan of chickens. I read much of the novel while on a weekend away. I was walking the city, going from gallery to gallery, and yet I found myself yearning to get back to the novel. I wanted to see how Gloria, Gam Gam, Darkness and Miss Hennepin County were getting on as a freezing winter and surprise tornado were thrown in their path, and to see how our narrator was coping with loving such fragile creatures. There is a line that comes quite early that I think rings as true for the reader as it does for our narrator, ‘I should have seen this coming: missing the chickens.’
Darkly funny, surprising and quietly profound, Brood completely stole my heart and the hearts of so many at Picador. There’s so much to love, from our narrator’s unforgettable voice to the unique characters of the brilliantly realized chickens (each reader will have their own favourite, I promise) to the devastating insights the book delivers about motherhood, marriage, grief and so much more. Sublimely written, masterfully told and cut through with sly humour, it is simply irresistible.
For a book that is so delightfully particular, part of Brood's lasting appeal is that it resonates far beyond this individual story of our dear narrator, one year and four chickens. At its core it is a book about all the love people have to give, and the surprising places they might put that love when there is nowhere else to hold it. Has there ever been a book like brood? I am certain there has not.’
In this video, Jackie Polzin tells us more about the themes of motherhood and loss her debut novel addresses, and reads a section of the book.
Danielle Evans is the author of The Office of Historical Corrections, a collection of short stories that Roxane Gay called ‘sly and prescient’. Here, Commissioning Editor Ansa Khan Khattak explains just what she loves about Danielle’s work, and shares some of her favourite stories from this collection of literary fiction.
‘In the opening story of The Office of Historical Corrections a young woman, Lyssa, isn’t allowed to serve as a princess during the children’s parties held in the replica of the Titanic venue where she works, because to have a Black princess would be historically inaccurate. Lyssa’s deadpan response ‘“We’d hate for the six‑year‑olds having tea parties on the Titanic to get the wrong idea about history”’ – made me laugh out loud.
In the second story, a fleet of bridesmaids – forced to each wear one colour from the rainbow in an kind of flattening of identity that will be familiar to anyone who has ever formed part of a bridal party – appear, when assembled, ‘like a team of bridal Power Rangers’. This too made me laugh out loud. Yet alongside this kind of observation, which brings so much humour to Danielle Evans’ work, there exists an immense sense of grief and loss, hovering just beneath the surface of even the most absurd moments. Dori – not a bridesmaid herself but encouraged to come along by ‘the aggressive hospitality of the bridal party’ – is still mourning the loss of her sister, who survived being shot at close range by her husband, but is forever altered. When Dori is called on to account for the whereabouts of a groom with cold feet, it’s her sister’s address that she gives to the frantic bride.
This is perhaps what I love most about Danielle’s work: her ability to entertain you with the farcical turns real life so often takes, while at the same time introducing you to characters who are struggling under the weight of very real grief. That she manages to do both of these things within the space of a single story is testament to how remarkable her talent is.
In the novella that ends the collection and gives it its name, Danielle describes the work of the Institute for Public History (dubbed The Office of Historical Corrections by its detractors) in the same wry tone that we see in her other stories. Tasked with correcting historical inaccuracies that they might see or hear repeated by, for example, tourists in Washington D.C., their work is constrained by certain guidelines. These are listed quite casually, but nestled amongst them is the requirement that its employees ‘make every effort to avoid or back away from the kind of confrontation likely to escalate to force or police intervention’. When the main character becomes involved in an investigation into a historic racially motivated murder, this edict – that history should be corrected, as long as it doesn’t cause a fuss – becomes a crack that exposes a legacy of racial injustice and the (un)willingness of contemporary society to look that squarely in the face.
Refinery29 said ‘Danielle’s work would ‘blow your mind, leaving you to put the pieces back together’. I think Rebecca Makkai nailed it when she described her as ‘a stone-cold genius.’
Neema Shah’s debut novel, which follows a Ugandan Asian family as they flee Kampala and try to rebuild their lives, was shortlisted for the Bath Novel Award and the First Novel Prize. Here, Ansa Khan Khattak explains why this extraordinary and timely work of literary fiction is a must-read.
‘Neema Shah’s debut novel tells the story of a Ugandan Asian family living in Kampala – newly married Asha and Pran, and Pran’s parents – who are forced to flee when the entire Asian population is told to leave the country by the then president, Idi Amin.
In 1972, Amin gave Ugandan Asians – many of whom had travelled from India to work in the country when it was a British colony – ninety days to leave. The novel follows the family during their final weeks in Uganda, but also shows them trying to rebuild their lives in the UK, though the devastating secret about what one of them did during the expulsion threatens to break them apart once again.
In Kololo Hill, Neema offers a snapshot of the upheaval caused by such a monumental global event, but always keeps you close to the family whose relationships are at the heart of the novel, whose lives we’re so invested in. The fact that you’re viewing these political events through how they affect individuals forces you to imagine what it might have felt like during those last days: to see your neighbours disappear in the night, to bury your money in your back garden in the hopes that one day you’ll come back.
Neema began writing in 2015. Since then the themes she writes about – immigration, people in search of refuge, the UK’s treatment of citizens of its former colonies – have dominated our headlines. What I love about Kololo Hill is that it shows how normal people navigate extraordinary times, how the bonds between family bend and flex under pressure. It is also about what happens when people are subject to bureaucratic systems that care only about what passport they have. It’s a profoundly moving and eye-opening work of fiction.’
Here, Neema tells us some more about her debut novel and her family background which inspired it, and reads a short extract from the book.
Jackie Higgins has always been fascinated by the natural world, having read Zoology at Oxford University and worked as a television documentary director for programmes including The Natural World and Wildlife on One. Sentient is a work of literary non-fiction which explores our evolutionary heritage and what it means to be human. Picador Editorial Director Georgina Morley tells us about the first time she met Jackie, and about the extraordinary creatures that make this a must-read.
‘When the proposal for Jackie Higgins' Sentient hit my inbox at the end of September 2018, I knew pretty much instantly that this was a book I wanted to work on and that Picador wanted to publish. A combination of the Frankfurt Book Fair (remember when they happened in real life?) and an overseas trip for Jackie meant we didn't actually meet (yes, in real life!) until 22 October. I've never been one for a meeting first thing, but timings required us to meet at 9.30, and what a treat it was. We met at the Pan Macmillan offices and it's fair to say it was one of the best author pitch meetings I've been in. Lively talk about curious creatures – be it Tyson the Mantis Shrimp with the strongest, fastest punch in the ocean or the gloriously peculiar Star-Nosed Mole, whose nosey tentacles enable it to find its dinner even in the deepest, darkest, deep underground – and gales of laughter punctuated the hour we spent together.
Now, two years on, I have Jackie's full manuscript on my hard drive and am myself chock full of riveting facts about a whole menagerie of strange creatures – each of whom has a supersense – and those supersenses tell us more about ourselves and what we can touch, taste, feel, smell and hear than anyone might have thought possible. Forget five senses working overtime (it's an XTC song, look it up!), we might have as many as thirty two. Or more. It's a terrifically engrossing read and you'll never look at a vampire bat in the same way again.’
In this video, Jackie Higgins tells us more about Sentient, and what sentience really means.
Harry Josephine Giles
Harry Josephine Giles is a poet and performer who now lives in Edinburgh. Their astoundingly original work is a book of firsts. Here, Commissioning Editor Don Paterson tells us more about this uniquely compelling verse novel.
‘Deep Wheel Orcadia is, effortlessly, a first: a science-fiction verse novel written in the Orcadian dialect, it’s also the first full-length book in the Orkney language in over fifty years. It comes with a delightfully readable and witty English translation that allows us to get up close and intimate with a tongue very unfamiliar to most of us: as a result, we not only have the sense of immersion in a new landscape and community, but of learning a new language as we go. The rich and large cast of Deep Wheel Orcadia weaves a compelling tale around themes of place and belonging, work and economy, generation and gender politics, love and desire – all with with lightness of touch, fluency and musicality one might expect of one the most naturally talented poets to have emerged from Scotland in recent years. Harry Josephine Giles hails from Orkney, and is already widely known as a fine poet and spellbindingly original performer of their own work; Deep Wheel Orcadia, however, unquestionably goes where no poet has gone before.’
Harry Cliff is an experimental physicist who works on the Large Hadron Collider and an acclaimed science presenter at the Royal Institution and TED. His non-fiction book, How to Make an Apple Pie from Scratch, takes a mind-altering look at the foundational questions of modern physics: Where does matter come from? Why does the universe exist?
Cliff illuminates the history of physics and chemistry that brought us to our present understanding – and misunderstandings – of the world, while offering readers a front row seat at the dramatically unfolding quest to unlock, at long last, the secrets of our universe.
A transfixing deep-dive into the origins of the world, How to Make an Apple Pie from Scratch investigates not just the makeup of our universe, but the awe-inspiring, improbable fact that it – and everything it, from stars and galaxies, apple pies and us – exists at all.