In 1999, Gayl Jones published a book that reads the way jazz sounds. Her fourth novel, Mosquito, is an ambitious, experimental riff that blends historical and philosophical beats and finds connections between U.S.-Mexico border tensions and the Underground Railroad. Mosquito displayed the wide-ranging talents of a writer heralded by Toni Morrison and fresh off a National Book Award nomination. It was also the last novel Jones would publish for more than two decades.
What makes a writer wait decades to publish? What does that time do to the stories they eventually tell? When Jones reemerged recently with her fifth novel, Palmares, a six-volume work that focuses on a settlement of Black Brazilians, the mystique of her absence was as compelling as her sprawling historical fable. Her linguistic invention, honed over the course of a patient career, is as impressive now as when Morrison, then an editor at Random House, first encountered her writing in 1974.
Similarly reticent, the late Harper Lee often seemed distrustful of the fame she garnered from To Kill a Mockingbird. Perhaps that wariness explains why she repeatedly stalled the publication of the follow-up to her iconic 1960 novel. In 2015, while reports of the elderly author’s poor health and frail memory swarmed, the sequel Go Set a Watchman suddenly appeared. Under these dubious circumstances, the question may not be what took so long for the book to come but why it was ever released at all.
Margaret Atwood, by contrast, is no recluse. Still, the author of The Handmaid’s Tale was notably withholding when it came to her most famed dystopian universe. She waited 34 years before finally delivering a sequel to that book. Where Go Set a Watchman’s controversial release risked contradicting the authority of a vulnerable author, in the case of The Testaments, Atwood’s agency is undeniable. She reclaims the story with surprising shifts in narration. By upending readers’ expectations, the saga of the handmaids becomes, once more, Atwood’s singular creation.
Sister Souljah likely relishes the way her novel The Coldest Winter Ever has become not only a mainstay at Black-owned bookstores but also the cherished fodder of middle-school classrooms and cafeterias since its 1999 debut. When she put out the follow-up, Life After Death, 22 years later, she offered the mainstream publishing industry a chance to catch up to what her readers have always known: Her so-called street lit is simply literature, no more, no less.
We may never know why some writers disappear, but their reappearance can be a gift. Joy Williams’s precise new work reads as both urgently summoned and naturally continuous with the literary themes that have appeared in her stories for decades. In the apocalyptic Harrow, her first novel in 21 years, a congregation of ghosts haunts the pages. They point us to unnerving things, like how we live side by side with death. They also point us to what came before: the words that endure in spite of—and long beyond—an author’s silence.
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What We’re Reading
“All of Jones’s women are on the run, but from book to book they become more likely to have a place to go.”
Rob Stothard / Getty
“Why end the silence? And why do it now? Perhaps it really was as simple as a manuscript lost and recovered, serendipitously for all involved … Or perhaps Lee, alive but ill, is being treated the way so many deceased authors are: as ideas rather than people, as brands and businesses rather than messy collections of doubts and desires.”
Rosdiana Ciaravolo / Getty
“To publish a sequel after so long is to inevitably suggest that it is her book, and her world, after all.”
Anthony Barboza / Getty
“Life After Death presents an opportunity to more thoroughly consider literature of its kind—for those of us who first became acquainted with Winter as teens, and for a publishing industry that still doesn’t quite understand characters like her.”
Joe Sohm / Universal Images / Getty; Getty; Catherine Falls / Getty; Cedric von Niederhausern / The Atlantic
“For decades now, Williams has been consumed with this question: What will death be like, and how would we live differently if we knew?”