Reading with... Alexis Schaitkin

photo: Ashley Weeks Cart

Alexis Schaitkin's debut novel, Saint X, is soon to be a Hulu series. It has been translated into seven languages and was named a New York Times Notable Book of 2020. Her short stories have been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband and their two children. Her newest novel, Elsewhere (Celadon Books, June 28, 2022), is a dark fable of motherhood.

Handsell readers your book in 25 words or less:

In an isolated, cloud-covered town in the mountains, mothers vanish into thin air. The Handmaid's Tale meets Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," with Midsommar vibes.

On your nightstand now:

Trust by Hernan Diaz. I love books that contain embedded narratives. The Plot is a recent one I've devoured. I'm in the early stages of writing one of my own right now, so when I first read the description of Trust, over a year ago, I was desperate to read it. I went to my local bookstore on pub day to buy it.

Favorite book when you were a child:

Fog Magic by Julia L. Sauer. It's about a girl who lives near the ruins of an old, abandoned village, and she discovers that on foggy days, if she walks into the mist, she can travel back in time to when this place was inhabited. I didn't realize how much it had influenced the magical aspects of Elsewhere until I was almost done writing it.

Your top five authors:

Toni Morrison, Gabriel García Márquez, Shirley Jackson, William Trevor, Kazuo Ishiguro.

Book you've faked reading:

Little Women! As a kid, I found the parts about Jo's life in New York City so boring that I never finished it. But all my friends read it, so I pretended I had, too. I have a vivid, very embarrassing memory of going to see the 1994 film starring Winona Ryder with my best friend and having to act like I knew everything that was going to happen, when I really had no idea.

Book you're an evangelist for:

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke. Lately I'm very into novels that sustain a single mood from start to finish, so that reading them is like falling under a spell. This book does that better than any I've ever read. It's atmospheric and unsettling, almost like finding yourself trapped inside of an illustration. (And, appropriately, Piranesi was an Italian artist who sketched elaborate illustrations of imagined prisons.)

Book you've bought for the cover:

Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder. Well, I bought it for the premise, too--it's about a new mom who begins transforming into a dog. The cover is incredibly eye-catching, shocking and sexy.

Book you hid from your parents:

I was lucky not to have the kind of parents I had to hide books from!

Book that changed your life:

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. It was the first time I'd read a novel that was incredibly structurally inventive, but where not a single element felt gimmicky. The sum of all the novel's playfulness was extremely moving. I was just shocked to find myself crying after reading a chapter composed of PowerPoint slides. It was like magic, and I read that chapter over and over, trying to understand how Egan did it. It made me want to take more risks in my own writing.

Favorite line from a book:

"Indeed--why should I not admit it?--at that moment, my heart was breaking," from The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. It's such a simple line, but it just kills me; the restrained narrator finally letting himself be open about his pain, just for a moment. I read an interview with Ishiguro where he said he decided to write this line after listening to the gorgeous Tom Waits song "Ruby's Arms," which has the same powerful tension between reserve and release.

Five books you'll never part with:

Grandfather Twilight by Barbara Berger was my favorite illustrated book as a child, and I recommend it to everyone as a sweet bedtime story. This Is a Poem that Heals Fish by Jean-Pierre Siméon was my son's favorite when he was little; it explains what poetry is in such a beautiful way, with wonderful paintings. Once a Runner by John L. Parker, Jr. was like my bible in high school, when I was very intense about long-distance running despite being extremely slow. I read Wind, Sand, and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry while traveling alone in my early 20s, and returning to it is like coming back to an old friend. James Baldwin's Another Country is probably the novel I've read in the last decade that has stayed with me the deepest.

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

The Hours by Michael Cunningham. The "twist" at the end isn't even really a twist; the clues are intentionally obvious, but somehow I didn't put the pieces together until the very end, and I wish I could have that surprise again.

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