Welcome to the Book Marks Questionnaire, where we ask authors questions about the books that have shaped them.
This week, we spoke to the author of Famous Men Who Never Lived, K Chess.
Book Marks: First book you remember loving?
K Chess: The Ear, the Eye and the Arm by Nancy Farmer. It’s an Afrofuturist caper set in 2095 Harare, with a cast of characters that include reformed gang members, slaves in a plastic mine, and detectives with supernatural abilities. My sixth grade teacher read us the first chapter, but she said we weren’t quiet enough and refused to read any more, so I had to find it at the library.
BM: Favorite re-read?
KC: LaRose by Louise Erdrich. I read it for the first time right after the 2016 election. Parts of it make me pee laughing and parts make me unspeakably sad, but overall, it gives me hope that understanding and redemption are possible, which is a generous message for a book that centers Native characters and their family histories.
BM: What book do you think your book is most in conversation with?
KC: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Like Famous Men Who Never Lived, it’s got an ensemble cast of disaster survivors and a fascination with people’s fascination with their own cultural artifacts. I hope the fictional sci-fi novel my characters are searching for feels as indelible as the Station Eleven comic books Mandel’s protagonist has carried around with her for twenty years.
BM: A book that blew your mind?
KC: How To Be Both by Ali Smith. The novel is divided into two sections and has two narrators, living centuries apart in time, with distinct voices and personalities. And there are actually two different versions of the book available with the sections ordered differently! It’s hard for me to imagine how Smith pulled it off. This is a book about the joy of making art—which I’m always here for—and it’s also super queer, at least the way I read it.
BM: Last book you read?
KC: The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson, the first in a fantasy trilogy about a woman determined to rise in the colonial bureaucracy that destroyed her homeland. It has one of the best inside-the-front-cover maps I’ve seen. I loved the book, but I don’t know if I have the stomach for the sequels.
BM: A book that made you cry?
KC: Oh man, Human Acts by Han Kang, a book that looks at the ripple effects of the 1980 Gwangju Uprising—an event of which I was totally ignorant—in a polyphonic style that is somehow strikingly simple. Simplicity is the best way to approach human brutality, I think. This totally wrecked me.
BM: What book from the past year would you like to give a shout-out to?
KC: A House is a Body by Shruti Swamy. This collection is vivid but dreamy. The stories take place in India and California and Germany, and most of them are about people quite unlike me, yet I often feel like Swamy has access to my private feelings. OK, that sounds creepy. It’s a really pleasurable feeling!
BM: Favorite book to give as a gift?
KC: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. She is such a master—she’s pulling off all these narrative tricks that any novelist would benefit from studying, but the book is propulsive enough to make the events feel inevitable and the telling effortless. I love to teach this book to writers but, like, your mom would probably enjoy it, too.
BM: Favorite book no one has heard of?
KC: The Black Brook by Tom Drury. I guess people were disappointed when he followed up The End of Vandalism, a book about people doing nothing in Iowa, with this, a book about people doing nothing in New England plus a bonus Macguffin about art forgery? I’m not sure why—it’s just as funny and charming, but more haunting.
BM: Book(s) you’re reading right now?
K Chess is the author of Famous Men Who Never Lived, as well as short stories honored by the Nelson Algren Literary Award and the Pushcart Prize. She was a W. K. Rose Fellow, earned an MFA from Southern Illinois University, and currently teaches at GrubStreet. She lives with her wife in Providence, Rhode Island.
K Chess’ Famous Men Who Never Lived is out now in paperback from Tin House Books