Eli Schmidt.

In the fall of 2019, I found myself wandering around Times Square in search of a billboard featuring National Book Award-winner Ta-Nehisi Coates’s debut novel, The Water Dancer. “I’m not sure what street it’s on, but you’ll see it,” the book’s marketer had told me that morning, so there I was, dodging tourists with my head and iPhone turned to the sky. At the time, I ran social media for Random House (Coates’s publisher).

We typically celebrated a book’s publication week on the company’s Instagram account by posting a stylised photograph of the finished book, but whenever Oprah Winfrey got involved, as she did by selecting The Water Dancer for her eponymous book club, the publicity, sales, marketing, and advertising plans expanded exponentially. It’s not every day in publishing you get to see Oprah and Ta-Nehisi Coates in conversation at the Apollo Theatre.

In an industry that sees five hundred thousand to a million new titles published each year in the United States alone, there are very few ways to make a book stand out. In recent years, programmatic celebrity book clubs—mainly Oprah’s Book Club (Oprah Winfrey), Reese’s Book Club (Reese Witherspoon via her media empire, Hello Sunshine), and Read With Jenna (Jenna Bush Hager via the Today show)—have exercised significant influence over which books garner buzz both among readers and within publishing companies, elevating sleepy debut novels to best-seller status and making big books even bigger.

First, a disclaimer to any self-important readers expecting a fiery takedown of the celebrity-book-club format: As someone who wants to see more books in the hands of readers, I am wholeheartedly in support of famous people using their immense clout and privilege to promote books instead of the many other products they could be paid handsomely to endorse. An article built on cynicism for something so overwhelmingly positive would be disingenuous click-bait, and you will not find that here.

But just because these book clubs are a net positive doesn’t mean they’re above investigation or critique. Ever since their rise in the late 2010s, the biggest celebrity book clubs have held immense sway over which titles land on the best-seller lists, and their future has an outsize impact on the commercial publishing industry. In order to better understand how these groups operate, I spoke to the teams behind the scenes, as well as to other publishing-industry insiders.

First, let’s address the assumption that these book clubs are just brand extensions with celebrity figureheads who don’t read the books or participate in their selection. Celebrities start book clubs for the same reasons as the rest of us: They love to read and want to discuss what they’re reading with more people. Not once in any of my reporting did I catch a whiff that Witherspoon, Hager, Winfrey, or any of the other celebrities are not die-hard readers, which is obvious when you consider how much work it would take to head up a book club in which you don’t plan to participate.

“If they wanted attention, there’s a thousand ways they can do it without reading books,” said Leigh Newman, director of Oprah’s Book Club. “Oprah is a real reader. She’s always reading. I have spoken to some of the other book clubs, and that seems to be common throughout all of them. I don’t think anyone is doing it as a PR stunt. I think they all love books and they want to talk about books; that’s why these conversations are so comfortable.” Newman even called back after we hung up to tell me she once met Jenna Bush Hager at a party and can attest that she’s a passionate and engaged reader.

Given that all of the major celebrity book clubs are fronted by women, there’s something inherently sexist in one of the most commonly asked questions about celebrity book clubs: “Do they actually read?” As actress Emma Roberts, whose online reading community Belletrist launched in 2017, noted in an interview with author Melissa Febos, “When I’m reading a book on set, some people will come up to me and ask, ‘You read?’ And I say, ‘What part of that is
 surprising? Because I’m an actress? Because I have blonde hair? What is it that literally stopped you in your tracks to be shocked that I can read and do read?’ That’s really crazy.”

Despite their clear love of reading, celebrities aren’t running their public programmatic book clubs in a vacuum. How they operate and make their selections is a subject of much speculation within the publishing industry, which is nearly as clueless as consumers. In our conversations, Hager, Newman, and Karah Preiss (cofounder of Belletrist) all described similar systems reliant on four to eight staff members outside of the named celebrity who make connections within the publishing industry while sourcing books from agents, editors, and publicists—much the same way most book-related media outlets do.

Sarah Harden, CEO of Hello Sunshine—which was sold to a media company backed by private-equity firm Blackstone Group in 2021—told me that Reese’s Book Club doesn’t accept pitches. “We pride ourselves on really trying to be outward about it, because we don’t want to perpetuate the inequities in the industry where if you know someone, if you can get to the right person, you get a leg up,” she said. There are two full-time staffers on Harden’s team and a group of literary scouts at Baker Literary Scouting who “read for Reese to make sure that nothing slips through the net that is worthy of consideration,” she says. In any given month, 100 to 150 books make it onto their long list for consideration.

All of the book clubs claim that there is “no formula” to their selection process, and on many levels, I believe them. While their selections may be intentional, I don’t think there’s any secret contract between Reese Witherspoon and HarperCollins to explain why nine of her book club’s eighty-five non-young-adult picks through June 2024 were published by a single imprint: William Morrow. Rather, these decisions happen in all of the major book clubs in much the same way that most opportunities in the publishing industry happen: through an elusive blend of personal taste, connections, cold pitching, and good old-fashioned luck.

This randomness is reflected in the inconsistent timelines of when authors and publishers are informed about upcoming book-club picks—that can occur anywhere from a year before publication (possibly as a result of a connection) to after a book is already on sale (mostly luck). Sometimes a manuscript arrives nine months early through a shared agent at a big agency like CAA and a deal is locked—perhaps even far enough in advance to adjust the book’s publication date to better fit the book club’s schedule.

Sometimes a books editor or producer thinks the celebrity will enjoy the galley from the strength of a pitch email. Other times it’s pure luck: For example, Winfrey selected The Many Lives of Mama Love after finding a random manuscript in her living room with no idea where it came from. (That sound you hear is the sound of a thousand publicists fainting.)

“It isn’t like a political game of chess at all,” said Hager. “We have found that because we have a specific mission to highlight debuts and diverse books, and because we’ve worked really hard working with every agent and publisher and editor, we’ve created a pretty efficient and incredible pipeline.”

While I fully believe that celebrities aren’t playing some nefarious game of imprint chess to benefit themselves, the pieces are still visible on the board. Of the two hundred combined books selected until June 2024 by Witherspoon since 2017, Hager since 2019, and Winfrey since 2012, thirteen were from a publisher outside of the Big Five (the five largest publishing houses: Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, and Hachette).

More than 40 percent of those books were published by Penguin Random House alone. That doesn’t happen without a lot of people playing chess to make sure it happens, even if the people behind the book clubs aren’t intentionally participating in the game.

Every book club adamantly denies that imprints or agents are a determining factor in the book-selection process, but only a publishing rookie in an industry built on connections would take that at face value. Kelly (whose name has been changed), a book marketer who has worked on multiple celebrity-book-club campaigns, told me how much easier it was for one imprint she worked for to secure Witherspoon’s book-club seal for future books after landing its first one.

“It meant we had an ‘in’ to Reese,” she explained. “We were able to get the next book directly to the person who actually makes the decision, instead of the assistant of the assistant of the assistant slowly going up the chain.” Despite their best intentions, it’s clear that celebrity book clubs are influenced by the same ouroboros of nepotism that affects the rest of the business, just like blurbs or review coverage. Even if the book club itself is imprint agonistic, you still get the same distorted result.

Oprah's Book Club.

Although every book-club representative I spoke to confirmed that they actively solicit and feature books from independent publishers, the outcomes speak for themselves. Around half the books picked by Oprah’s Book Club since it relaunched in 2012, arguably the most reliable New York Times best-seller maker in the industry, were published by Penguin Random House, whose authors are already miles ahead of so many others—simply because of their backing from the world’s most powerful publishing house.

“I feel bad for smaller imprints who don’t work with bigger agents,” said Kelly. “That’s the beauty of what celebrity book clubs have done, right? There’s no rubric. There’s no specificity at all, so no one can be like, ‘What the fuck?’ They’re just picking books they connect with. But what does that mean?”

To be clear, it’s not Reese Witherspoon’s, Oprah Winfrey’s, or Jenna Bush Hager’s job to feature independent publishers and make sure they’re spreading their sales power more equally across imprints. That their pet projects have a tremendous influence on a complex and vital industry isn’t really their problem, but they also claim to care immensely about authors and the industry whose waters they’re playing in, so it would be worthwhile for them to pay more attention to this one element. If celebrity book clubs committed to selecting authors outside of the Big Five, it could have an enormous impact on smaller houses and their authors.

There’s a lot of speculation that the “meaning” behind all of this is a front for celebrities to source new onscreen projects. In recent years, Hello Sunshine has produced several buzzy book-to-screen adaptations, such as Where the Crawdads SingBig Little Lies, and Daisy Jones & the Six. Winfrey has the well-known Harpo Productions, while Hager signed a first-look production deal with Universal Studio Group and created her own production company, Thousand Voices, in 2022.

The women at the helm of these book clubs are far too smart for anyone to claim that optioning isn’t factored into their decisions, but it’s important to note that I found no formal links between book-club selections and a book’s film or television rights. As an example, Andrea Bartz confirmed that the film rights for her thriller We Were Never Here were already committed to Netflix before Witherspoon ever expressed interest.

The book was still selected as a Hello Sunshine pick in August 2021. “Two or three times a year, I hope there’s going to be books that we make into films and TV shows, but we’ve always got to manage that with a really high level of integrity as well, because the minute the book club feels like we’re only picking stuff that we’re making into film and TV, we’re done,” said Harden.

“You would really cut yourself off to make a club that is solely dedicated to finding intellectual property,” explained Preiss, whose own book-club offshoot, Belletrist Productions, focuses on literary adaptations not exclusive to Belletrist’s book-club picks. “There are very specific types of books that make for good television shows, and in this TV market where limited series are not selling in the same way, most literary fiction does not make good television. When it works, that’s wonderful, but it’s not what we’re doing.”

Even if screen rights are not technically part of the book-club deal, several people I spoke to pointed out how celebrity book clubs can still play a role in the negotiations. “It is understood that it goes hand in hand with a lot of things,” said Kelly. “The author may not be getting what they want on one side of things, but they’re going to sell a shit ton of books. So it’s like, what do you want? What are you willing to give for that?”

It’s critical to understand the role that publishers, editors, and agents play in determining which books are selected for the book clubs. Publishers can’t promote every title equally, so much like deciding which authors to send on book tours or who to pitch for the national morning shows, they tend to push hardest for the books to which they gave the largest advance, in the interest of recouping their investments. “If they paid high six-figures for a commercial women’s fiction book that seems it would fit well with one of the celebrity book clubs, obviously they’re going to make a push for it in that way,” said Kathleen Schmidt, founder and CEO of Kathleen Schmidt Public Relations.

So what is the impact of these book clubs, and why do authors and publishers care so much about landing those few coveted spots? Publicist Sam Mitchell explained: “There’s really the sense with fiction, especially with a debut novelist, that you’re just running with your hand on your head if you don’t get into one of these book clubs. There’s just no way up toward whatever measure of success you want—usually the New York Times best-seller list, but really any kind of big buzz—unless you get into the sanctified hall of one of those three big book clubs. And that can be really depressing and off-putting, especially for the first-time authors.”

Desperation for recognition from celebrity book clubs is no doubt connected to the decline of books coverage at traditional media outlets. Not only do national outlets like NPR no longer pack the promotional punch they once did, but due to continued layoffs across the industry, from glossy magazines to local newspapers, there’s also simply less traditional media coverage to go around. “It’s interesting to hear even these massive names in publishing say, ‘If Reese could just pick my book, it would change things even for me,’ ” said Kelly.

Even without access to every single book’s lifetime sales data, it’s clear that these book clubs have a major impact on reader behaviour as well. Forty-eight of Hager’s sixty-eight picks have appeared on the best-seller list, as have sixty-eight of Witherspoon’s ninety-seven. All twenty-seven titles selected by Winfrey that were published on the same day they were announced as book-club picks went on to become best-sellers. I can tell you from a decade of working in the book-publishing industry that these success rates are incredibly rare.

But while Reese’s Book Club, Read With Jenna, and Oprah’s Book Club continue to offer a one-way ticket out of potential obscurity, there’s no denying that they hold less brand equity than they once did, especially among younger readers. Members of Gen Z remember their moms buying Oprah Book Club picks before they could even read, but they don’t watch morning television. Reese Witherspoon may get my heart racing as a middle-millennial who saw Legally Blonde in theatres twice, but readers a decade or two younger than me aren’t likely to care what her book club’s commercial-fiction pick is—at least not in the same way major publishers do.

“Because you now have people like Dua Lipa and Kaia Gerber doing their own book clubs, it makes the other ones look kind of stale in a way,” said Schmidt. “There just isn’t as much brand equity in book clubs as there used to be. How many people are listening to what’s being said on morning shows anymore? It’s TikTok’s world, and we live in it.”

It’s too early to know whether Dua Lipa’s Service95, Kaia Gerber’s Library Science, or even Dakota Johnson’s brand-new TeaTime Book Club will have a significant impact on book sales, but I heard anecdotally that publishers are starting to pay attention.

The viral rise of Gen Z and BookTok is something that came up in every conversation I had with publishing employees. Whereas celebrity book clubs offer a model of positioning books that are powerful and often universally appealing, the idea that a book is for everyone can actually be a turnoff. “It’s not cool anymore to have that book-club sticker on there,” Schmidt said. “It’s cooler to say, ‘I saw this on BookTok’ or ‘This is being discussed all over BookTok.’ I feel like Gen Z especially does not want the sticker on the book.”

Those on the publishing side also pointed out how many of the most popular books on TikTok are radically different from what the celebrity book clubs select. “What we’re worried about in publishing right now is ‘Do we have enough romantasy?’ That’s not their picks,” said Kelly.

Iron Flame—you couldn’t get that book off the best-seller list if you paid The New York Times to take it off. That’s not what they’re looking at. To some extent, they’re talking to an audience that makes sense for them right now, but that audience is growing older. They’re going to stop paying attention, because they’re going to get bored. And instead of adding to the audience with younger people who are reading these big TikTok books, they’re missing it.”

Preiss, whose Instagram book club is less influential than the Big Three but still holds weight within the industry, echoed this point. “Gen Z is more focused on genre, and Reese doesn’t do genre,” she said. “Romantasy and romance are really the future of books. I love literary fiction, [but] to what extent are you actually talking to readers? To what extent are you asking readers, ‘What the f*ck are you reading?’ They’re reading Taylor Jenkins Reid. People are reading Colleen Hoover.”

For years, the signals that mattered most in publishing came from the highest of highbrow sources. Anyone who worked in the industry prior to the 2010s will tell you about the glory days when a rave New York Times review and one national NPR segment led to a spot on the best-seller list. For many, it was hard to accept that Reese Witherspoon holding your book could do more for it than ten NPR interviews. Now BookTok may be the next bitter pill industry insiders need to swallow. The literary quality of the books selected by celebrity book clubs is miles above that of many of the titles amplified through BookTok—and for that matter, BookTok is even harder to predict than the media or the celebrity book clubs.

Aside from Winfrey finding a manuscript in her living room or Roberts discovering a book in an obscure literary magazine (which she does), most of these book clubs are making selections based on what publishers, agents, and editors are placing in their direct line of vision. Publishers are trying to do the same with BookTok, but their efforts to influence the algorithm are a drop in the bucket compared with the authentic power of readers on the platform. “It’s getting much harder for publishers to send that signal out, because it’s really consumers that are sending the signal now,” Schmidt said.

Whether or not the book clubs continue to carry weight for actual book sales in a rapidly changing industry remains to be seen. I, for one, see the solution to the potential (and potentially inevitable) waning power of these major celebrity book clubs as more (and more diverse) celebrity book clubs. That rising tide could lift countless boats in a struggling industry. As author and professor Clayton Childress said in a previous article on book blurbs, “There’s no middle class in publishing,” and anyone on the inside will tell you that a small group of massive best-sellers tends to fund the rest of the business.

Sometimes celebrity book clubs annoyingly make a big book bigger (The Nightingale as a Reese’s Book Club pick in 2023—why?), but a lot of the time, these celebrities are creating best-sellers out of thin air, which then drive major revenue for publishers. The words “Taylor Swift Book Club” probably keep a lot of people up at night, but it’s mind-boggling to think about how much money a Taylor Swift Book Club pick would generate to fund smaller projects.

Because of the popularity of BookTok, I expect to see more Gen Z celebrities launching book clubs in the near future, and I’d appreciate it if we could skip the “Do they even read?” discourse that’s already come for a new generation. Case in point: Kelly told me the sales team at her imprint recently tied the sales spike of an extremely literary novel to Kaia Gerber’s book club, which caused shock waves throughout the room. “It was a meeting of a hundred people, and they were like, ‘I can’t believe Kaia Gerber can understand this book,’ ” she recounted. In reality, Kaia Gerber and her team have great taste in books.

We need more communities that inspire readers to pick up a new book, not fewer, and ones led by a more intersectionally diverse group of celebrities with different reading styles than what’s currently on display. The male celebrity-book-club market is practically untapped, as is the potential for a big name to build a community around a certain niche genre.

In our conversation, Harden mentioned how Witherspoon typically picks lighter, easier Hello Sunshine titles in May and December because those months are busy times for moms. It’s great that Hello Sunshine is able to fulfil that need for a key demographic of readers, and it makes me ache for more celebrity book clubs that speak to specific communities and their unique reading preferences.

“What’s the problem with a bunch of people with big profiles having book clubs?” said Preiss. “I think everybody wants to find something sinister about it; they want to look for the ulterior motive. Even if there was an ulterior motive, who gives a shit? The context is key. It’s really hard to sell books, and it’s incredibly hard to compete with various forms of media. Nobody is Doctors Without Borders over here running a celebrity book club, but if you can let go of the earnestness, I do think it’s still worth doing. What’s the alternative? That celebrities don’t have book clubs?”

That’s not an alternative any of us should want to explore.

Originally published on Esquire US

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Twenty years ago, I stumbled across a copy of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods at a Barnes & Noble in Chattanooga, Tennessee. At first, I was only drawn to the cover, where lightning illuminated a distinctly Midwestern highway. But as I devoured the book over the next three nights, I knew I was reading an instant classic that people would be talking about for decades. I say all of this because since then, I've only felt this way about a handful of books—and Kelly Link’s first novel, The Book of Love, is one of them. I honestly think it’s a masterpiece.

Set in the fictional town of Lovesend, Massachusetts, where “toffee Victorians” and “single-family Capes” line the leafy streets alongside “chicken coops and soccer nets in the backyard, ”The Book of Love tells the story of four high school students investigating why three of them died, only to be resurrected nearly a year later by their music teacher, who may be more god than human. Over a few days, Lovesend becomes the battleground for a cold war between otherworldly deities, ghosts, witches, and creatures. Meanwhile, the human characters search for a way to avoid returning to the realm of the dead, where they only remember “a lot of trees,” the smell of roses, “and under the roses, something burning.” Along the way, Link interrogates the nature of love between friends, lovers, siblings, parents, grandparents, teenagers, and even animals.

The small-town world Link conjures in The Book of Love—one full of nuanced relationships between a large cast of characters, local history and cosmic mythology, and magic hiding in plain sight—is among the most detailed and immersive ever put to paper. It also makes for an extraordinary comfort read, and an emotional reminder of what we lose and gain as we age.

After establishing herself as a singular voice in science fiction and fantasy with five short story collections—including the 2016 Pulitzer Prize finalist Get in Trouble—Link’s 600-page novel is one of 2024’s biggest literary events. From Link's home in the hilltowns of Massachusetts where she and her husband run an independent bookstore, Book Moon Books, Link spoke with me over Zoom about whether she believes in ghosts or afterlives, nighttime logic in literature, adolescence as a liminal space, and what she’s writing next. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

ESQUIRE: When and where did this book begin for you?

KELLY LINK: I’m a writer who finds it very useful to have a deadline, so when I sold Get in Trouble to Random House, I sold them a novel as well, on the grounds that it would make me actually write one. My plan was to write a very short haunted house novel, but I just could not come up with the thing that gave that book a heart. So I fell back on [The Book of Love] because I had a sense of the characters, and unlike the haunted house project, I could see why it would be different from a short story. And then of course it took eight years from that point to turn it in.

Why did The Book of Love need to be a novel instead of a short story?

Honestly, it seemed like it could be a trilogy. But I like compression. Believe it or not, this is a very compressed story as a single novel as opposed to if it were a series of books. There is space to imagine what might happen to these characters at the end, but the only thing I removed when I cut it down to one book was a loving pastiche of Regency romance novels. I was going to move the characters into that space for a whole book, and it would have been fun, but I don't think it was necessary.

How important was it for you to capture a sense of place? How much of Lovesend was inspired by Northampton or real towns on the Massachusetts coast?

The setting is a combination of lived experience and wish fulfilment. Easthampton and Northampton and all of the hilltowns up here have a really distinct vibe and a strong commitment to supporting quirky local businesses. When you live in a town that isn’t too big, that place begins to feel as if it’s a distinct living organism. If you live somewhere long enough, you mourn the ways in which a community changes. But when you write a book, you get to make things last in a way that they don't in the real world. Lovesend is an idealised version of that. There are people who have lived there for a long time who can still afford to live there. Climate change is not yet impressing upon this place in the way that it will very soon.

Why set this story at Christmastime in 2014?

The question of where in the contemporary moment to set it was a real issue, both in terms of music—because these are all characters with strong feelings about music—but also in terms of how the real world impinges on the characters. 2014 is the period when I began thinking about this project. So part of the tonal quality of the novel comes directly from a particular historical moment which is receding swiftly from us. I did think about what setting it at Christmastime would do to the tone. It was fun to take a holiday that wasn't Halloween—my favourite—and try to Halloween-ify it a bit. I also hope it provides a certain amount of solace and comfort.

"When you write a book, you get to make things last in a way that they don't in the real world."

Why did you set the main characters in The Book of Love in high school? Why not a college or adulthood?

I did think about making them much older, but adolescence is a liminal space. It’s a period in which you’re experiencing enormous change. You’re figuring things out about yourself, but you’re also more likely to make leaps into the wild. For me, these characters needed to be people whose impulsivity or decision-making felt more unpredictable, with fewer guard rails.

The first half of the book is written in a maximalist style that zooms in on small moments, memories, and details. Why did you take that approach?

Since this is a book about people coming back from the dead, the granular aspects of life—both the things that are irritating but also the things that give us delight—seem important. Because those are the things that keep us alive, right? If you lose joy or interest in those things, it gets hard to keep on going.

These characters have to make a decision about how badly they want to stay alive. It seemed important to me that they have a hypersensitivity to pieces of their lives that feel very minor. Like the noise that somebody makes when they're vacuuming. Also, to quote a meme, like a “bitch eating crackers.” When you’re so irritated by every single thing that they do. That kind of intensity seemed true to the characters within this narrative space.

How do you get inside so many different fictional people's heads with that level of intimacy?

If I'm going to care about the things that happen to somebody, I need to care about how they see the world in granular detail. The job of the writer is to make those details as interesting as possible. Or as propulsive and connected to the events in the book as possible. I'm not going to succeed at doing that for every reader. But I have to feel I’ve at least made them connective and interesting to me. The readers are willing to go along with it.

You’ve spoken about “nighttime logic” in fantasy fiction before. What does that term mean to you and how did you use it in The Book of Love?

Nighttime logic versus daytime logic is a way of thinking that Howard Waldrop came up with to talk about how narrative logic holds together for the reader as much as for the writer. With daytime logic, there is an explanation for things that happen. Clocks tell time in the way you would expect. Even if strange or fantastical things happen, there's a rule book by which they work that will be explained to you. A lot of realistic fiction, science fiction and fantasy, rely on daytime logic. Here's something startling, but I'm going to explain how it functions in the world. Often rooted in the inexplicable, even ghost stories have a kind of daytime logic to them. Somebody did something wrong and the consequence is that they are haunted.

Nighttime logic is more like carnival logic. Normal roles are upended. In James Theraper's book, The 13 Clocks, things are happening which will not be explained. It signals that the world has become a very strange place. It's not quite the same as dream logic, where first you're in one setting and then you're in another. Or you’re holding a cup of tea and then suddenly it becomes something else. We know dream logic. But nighttime logic is when you have a sense that there is an organising principle behind the world that belongs to the writer. The writer may not explain it, but there is a kind of coherence to it, even if it feels unnerving.

David Lynch is a great example of nighttime logic—there's an estranging quality to his work. A lot of horror operates in nighttime logic. Frankly, a lot of realistic fiction does, too—Joy Williams is great at that, and Barbara Comyns.

Do you often write at night to help you get in the right mindset?

I do my best work between 3:00 pm and 1:00 am. My writing brain gets sharper the farther we get into the afternoon. If I could organize my life so that I push that window further, I would be quite happy! If I'm on a retreat, I can work until three or four o'clock in the morning. I can write pretty much anywhere. I have an office. But I like being closer to other people when I work, so mostly I write down in our dining room. Ideally, I work in a room with other writers. I’ve gotten more writing done if I can see other people engaged in the same work, either having a great time or floundering.

Death plays a large role in this novel, as it does in many of your short stories. Has writing about it so often changed your perspective on mortality?

I saw somebody—maybe Nick Harkaway?—say that writers are generally catastrophists. You get on a plane and if you're a writer, you immediately start thinking about what happens if the plane crashes. You think about the most dramatic possibilities.

I was always somebody who was drawn to ghost stories. And death is always going to be part of a ghost story. I was the child of a pastor who then became a psychologist. Those are the professions where you're dealing with heavy, confusing things. I don't know why writers end up with the material that they draw from over and over again. You end up with a range of interests that you have an emotional connection to as a writer that you’re going to explore. For me, it's the fantastic—and monsters, and loss, and death. It's also about how people see the world and what they celebrate.

I don't think writing about death has changed how I see the world, but I do think it gives me a framework for thinking about the way I want to live. The pandemic has been a hard thing to go through. We had to close the press that my husband and I have run for over 20 years because my husband has long COVID. We have to be very careful about going out into the world because of the chance of exposing him to something that could make his health even worse. When you write fiction, you’re in charge of the things that happen. But you also get to work through the emotional costs and realities of dealing with very heavy stuff.

"I collect other people's ghost stories."

Do you believe in ghosts?

A few years ago, a good friend of mine—Holly Black, the author of The Spiderwick Chronicles—got a letter from a kid that said, “Dear Miss Black, I need you to tell me if fairies are real, and don't lie to me like the other adults.” She wrote back, “I've never seen a fairy, but I know people who say that they have.” That's how I feel about ghosts. I collect other people's ghost stories. There are many that I find either persuasive or troubling. I've never seen one, but I fully believe that some people just don't have the antenna or the radar. I am bad at telling if somebody was drunk. So maybe I do see ghosts. We could be seeing ghosts all the time but we just don't know it.

Do you believe in an afterlife of some kind?

I think I do. A childhood spent in a lot of churches with a father who was a Presbyterian minister, maybe some of that is a holdover But I'm agnostic. I would very much like to believe that there is something after death. But I find the fact that I don't know kind of exhilarating—that there is a mystery to which we all either do or don't find out the answer. That seems kind of cool, that maybe there's something interesting aside from the process of dying. That maybe you get to find out.

I have a hard time at the moment with a lot of things that are happening in the world. Not knowing becomes troubling when you see so much suffering and so much needless cruelty and death. It seems wrong to think there's life after death. And maybe it will be better there because that's just a reason not to fix things. But at the same time, the idea that there's nothing past death makes watching suffering that you can't do anything about feel even harder.

If The Book of Love is a standalone novel, what are you writing next?

[Another] novel, which is a haunted house story. I want it to be economical. Small. More experimental. If a novel is a large boulder the size of a large boulder, the next thing I want to work on is a small boulder. The size of a large boulder—a classic 50,000-word ghost story novel that feels like a short story.

Originally published on Esquire US


If you like movies – and by movies, we mean stories that make you think – then you’ve undoubtedly heard of A24, a name that (arguably) singlehandedly brought original storytelling back to the people, and did it without the backing of big Hollywood studios who would have resorted to referring to filmmaking as ‘the content industry’ (barf).

From Uncut Gems and Ex Machina, to 2022’s Oscar winner The Whale, and now, more recently, the lauded Korean tearjerker, Past Lives, A24 produces movies that are cool. But as Alfred Hitchcock once said, “There are three things that make a good film: the script, the script and the script.”

So, if you’ve ever wanted to get your hands on not just a slew of the original screenplays brought to life by the minds at A24, but also want to plant a cultural flag on your coffee table, then we have the gift for you.

Ari Aster’s Hereditary, as presented in A24’s original screenplay coffee table book. A24

Consisting of not only the original screenplay, but a slew of original and BTS images, details about the film, crosswords, and more, this is the perfect addition to any cinephile or aspiring screenwriter’s living room.

“We started developing the first screenplay books in 2018 as we were expanding our merch offerings,” says the head of brand at A24. “We wanted to create something collectible, like a coffee-table book, that showcased how a filmmaker’s vision gets translated from script to screen.”

To remind you of A24’s excellent cinematic library, here’s a scene of Oscar Isaac tearing up the dancefloor in the eerily prescient, Ex Machina (which, obviously, is available as a screenplay in the collection).

Cop one here and follow A24 on Instagram.

Originally published on Esquire ME

After the monumental success of Avengers: Endgame, I remember wondering, like many people, what Marvel could possibly do to follow up such a cultural juggernaut. How could they raise the stakes or stage bigger battles? What else was left to explore?

Then, in the trailer for Spiderman: Far From Home, after Tom Holland’s Peter Parker learns from Nick Fury that Quentin Beck is “from Earth, just not ours,” Peter asks with nervous excitement, “You’re saying there’s a multiverse?”

Yes, Peter, there is—well, I’m not sure if there are actually parallel worlds adjacent to ours, but in terms of contemporary storytelling? There are multiverses everywhere. There is, if you will, a multiverse of multiverses.

To name just a few, there’s the Academy Award-sweeping film Everything Everywhere All at Once, the popular sci-fi cartoon Rick & Morty, Amazon’s Philip K. Dick adaptation of The Man in the High Castle, Apple’s space race alternate history For All Mankind, the sprawling DC and Marvel franchises, and even onward to novels like Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, Lauren Beukes’s Bridge, Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library, and Iain Pears’ Arcadia. In recent years, tales of adjacent realms and alternate timelines have become more and more pervasive in popular culture.

Of course, stories involving alternate timelines, what-ifs, and speculative histories are nothing new (in fact, as we’ll see, they long predate the scientific theories that explain them). What, after all, is Dickens’s Ghost of Christmas Future but a glimpse into a multiverse? Because Scrooge heeded the three ghosts’ warnings, the vision shown to him by that ghost wouldn’t come to pass, meaning that this dark timeline is either an illusion conjured by the spirit or an alternate version of Scrooge’s life. The same can be said of It’s a Wonderful Life, the multiple finales to the film adaptation of Clue, the Gwyneth Paltrow romance Sliding Doors (and its precursor, the Polish film Blind Chance), and the ‘90s cult show Sliders.

But the cluster of multiverse narratives of the past decade has not just technically been multiverse stories. They’ve been explicitly multiverse stories—as in, they employ the scientific language that originated with the theory. They are directly inspired by the Many Worlds Interpretation, not merely tapping into the kinds of emotional desires that the multiverse offers.

For God’s sake, Marvel’s recent spate of ten films, eleven shows, and two shorts (and many more on the way) are collectively referred to as the Multiverse Saga. Even more significant, though, is how, much like time travel, the multiverse as a storytelling device began as a nifty concept and eventually deepened into a fruitful (and quickly overused) tool to explore things deeper and closer to home. What began as an esoteric theory and a heady narrative device has become as mainstream and emotionally resonant as any cinematic trope.

But as soon as an idea enters the zeitgeist and then the upper echelons of corporate IP, it gets flattened by the cynical and crass exploitation of pandering and profit hunting. The seven Oscars awarded to Everything Everywhere All at Once probably mark the apex of our current multiverse saga, now that the DC and Marvel films lashed to this subject have become increasingly unsuccessful, bombing at the box office and engendering some heavy animosity from fans. The multiverse has gone from an obscure theory to a sci-fi trope to a popular mainstream conceit to an underwhelming excuse for fan service of the crassest kind.

Paul Halpern’s new book, The Allure of the Multiverse: Extra Dimensions, Other Worlds, and Parallel Universes, regales us with the history of the concept—from Pythagorean cosmology to quantum mechanics—in scientific terms. With his insight and expertise, perhaps we can illuminate the social side of the story. Why has the multiverse emerged so ubiquitously in the past decade? What mode of contemporary life does it capture? Why did it catch on so infectiously? And why does it seem to be crashing just as dramatically?

The multiverse as a theoretical concept fittingly has numerous origins. Science—particularly high-level physics—relies on brilliant thinkers intertwining each other’s ideas into a cosmic braid of impenetrable complexity. As The Allure of the Multiverse makes clear, radical and counterintuitive theories like the multiverse—also called the Many Worlds Interpretation, parallel realities, etc.—arise out of a series of breakthroughs, insights, discoveries, and audacious leaps of logic. It typifies, in many ways, the highest level of human thought.

But the multiverse as a metaphoric concept has been nestled inside our ponderous and rueful psychology for as long as humanity has possessed a psychology. Our unique self-awareness, responsible for our physically fragile species’ global dominance, also causes our unique melancholy: we know that we have only one life. And what a precious life it is. The more exposure a person has to the bewildering and intricate enormity of existence, the more one is keenly attuned to the infinitesimal capriciousness of one’s place in it. As Richard Dawkins elegantly put it in the opening of Unweaving the Rainbow:

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.

Imagine, then, knowing how much it has taken for us to be born and how easily it may not have happened. The pressure this awareness places on our one precious life! It is miraculous to even draw breath at all—now what are we going to do with this gift?

Mostly, not a whole lot. Remember, it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. We can’t all be winners, kid.

And so we’re left, at the end of our days, with regrets and musings about alternative paths, convinced our benighted fate was not inevitable, but rather the result of a misstep, a wrong door, a left instead of a right. Who might we have been? What other choices might we have made? Could we have lived a better, more fulfilling life? Or might our circumstances have been worse? The hypothetical versions of ourselves we invent in our minds may not outnumber the sand grains of Arabia, but maybe, like, Cocoa Beach?

The multiverse, then, in addition to attesting to human ingenuity, also represents the most fundamental aspect of the human condition. The multiverse lives in the depths of our minds and our hearts.

In the preface to the revised edition of his 1969 novel The Eternal Champion, legendary sci-fi author Michael Moorcock claims to have coined the word multiverse in his first novel, The Sundered Worlds (1965). He didn’t. That distinction belongs to William James, the philosopher, psychologist, and brother to novelist Henry James, who invented the term to characterise the ambivalence of existence. “A moral multiverse,” he wrote in his 1895 essay “Is Life Worth Living?”, “and not a moral universe.” What Moorcock did was provide the word with the meaning we’ve become so familiar with: “an infinite number of slightly different versions of reality,” as he puts it.

Before Moorcock’s influential usage, the theory languished in the physics world under many different names. Attempts by sci-fi writers to christen the multiverse were similarly unsuccessful, though not always because their entries were inferior. Take Philip Jose Farmer’s The Maker of Universes (1965), published the same year as Moorcock’s debut, in which a man uses a magic horn to travel between “tiers,” or “world upon world piled upon each other like the landings of a sky-piercing mountain.” The novel’s front cover declares it “the many-levelled cosmos,” which is a lovely phrase I quite enjoy. As wonderful as it is, it’s not quite portable enough. Perhaps in another universe…

The contexts for the two origins of the word “multiverse” are worth a brief detour, as they afford some convenient insights into the heart of the concept itself. The subject of the essay in which William James coined the word multiverse was optimism and pessimism. Optimism here does not refer to a generally positive outlook, as we mean today, but rather a philosophy championed by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz in his 1710 work Theodicy and popularised by Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man.

This optimism addresses the problem of evil in theology by arguing that our reality has been chosen by God from a selection of “all possible worlds.” Our reality may contain evil and sin and suffering, but according to Leibniz, realities without the bad stuff are not any better. Ours is, in an infamous phrase, “the best of all possible worlds.” This is an early example of the multiverse, albeit one that exists only in the mind of God. The notion of alternate realms can be found all over philosophical and theological thought.

On the other hand, when Moorcock discusses his use of the multiverse in his novels, he waxes giddy about its storytelling utility. He can narratively “deal in non-linear terms with versions of perception” and create “simplified models of ideal worlds (for which large numbers of people in Western society yearn so nostalgically),” allowing him to consider “by what particular injustices they might be maintained.” Right away, Moorcock saw the treasure trove of metaphoric largesse the multiverse granted a novelist—how the vast expanse of the cosmos could be used to explore the innermost depths of the human soul.

Comic books, those precocious nieces and nephews of genre fiction, similarly grasped the potential of the multiverse. Consider, for instance, the origin of DC’s Barry Allen, a “police scientist” who becomes the second iteration of the Flash (the first being Jay Garrick from the 1940s comics). Barry Allen’s introduction occurred in Showcase #4 from October 1956; in it, Barry is shown reading a comic book featuring his idol, the Jay Garrick Flash (referred to as the Golden Age Flash). So when he’s quite coincidentally struck by lightning and also doused with chemicals, gaining superhuman speed, he names himself after his hero.


DC cleverly incorporated their earlier era into their new one. But in 1961, Garner Fox wrote an issue of The Flash called “Flash of Two Worlds.” In his wonderfully informative book The Physics of Superheroes, James Kakalios explores this story as an introduction to quantum mechanics; he writes, “it was revealed that the Silver Age Flash [Barry] and the Golden Age Flash both existed, but on parallel Earths, separated by a ‘vibrational barrier.’” The explanation is that Barry “accidentally vibrated at superspeed at the exact frequency necessary to cross over” to what they refer to as Earth-2.

“Flash of Two Worlds” was a hit, and as companies are wont to do, DC repeated the formula over and over, increasing the number of Earths each time, now with Earth-3, Earth-S, Earth-X, and Earth-Prime (our reality), culminating finally in 1985’s massive crossover “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” which, like Moorcock, emphasised the utility of the multiverse for the practicalities of narrative.

The major comic event was orchestrated, as Kakalios puts it, to “normalise the multiverse,” a “vast housecleaning of continuity… to weed out poor sellers from many of the less-popular worlds and bring all the heroes from the best-selling titles together on one Earth.” Executive editor Dick Giordano wrote a memo listing the fallen characters (which included Barry Allen), commanding, mafioso-like, “they should never be seen again, nor should they be referred to in story.”

What unites DC’s coldblooded housecleaning and Moorcock’s pragmatism is their sense of testing out the utility of multiversal plots. Each had found a new mode of narrative and were keen to stretch its limitations. But in the scientific community, the theory of the multiverse remained a subject of much derision; it wouldn’t become an accepted mainstream notion until the ‘90s. Thus these stories, which incorporated a version of the actual physics concept rather than merely a hypothetical, had niche audiences.

For all their innovations with the multiverse, from coining the term to crafting it into novels and expanding the world of superheroes, none of these figures fully realised the notion of infinite realities as an avenue to richly scrutinise the pitiful and helpless exercise of wondering what might have been.

If you wanted to explore the emotional possibilities of the multiverse before the 21st century, you did so without mention of any quantum mechanics or general relativity. Instead, you severed the idea from any esoteric mumbo-jumbo that might catapult your novel or film into nerdy territory. Because anything nerdy, for a long time, wasn’t considered emotionally evocative or even representative of typical human experience. Nerds, like the multiverse, existed on the fringes.

The multiverse was born for me when, as an early 20-something reading Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, I was startled by the famous passage about the fig tree. Esther, the protagonist, a 19-year-old aspiring writer, contemplates the innumerable choices that lay before her by comparing them to figs falling from a tree she’s sitting under, each one representing “a wonderful future [that] beckoned and winked.”

“One fig,” she writes, “was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor.” Other figs are exotic places she could travel, lovers she might take, ambitions she may pursue. And while this seems like a particularly envious position for a young kid to be in (each of her hypotheticals is a good scenario), Esther is instead filled with prophetic fear:

I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn't make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

As a young adult, I couldn’t have understood the pangs of remorse given off by older people looking back on an imperfect life. But I could absolutely fathom the frightening prospect of future remorse. Plath’s evocation of paralyzing choices and the many lives those choices might lead to struck a chord with me. For the first time, I grasped the insane caprice of the human condition: how every YES inherently implies a NO to everything else. As the priest says in Charlie Kaufman’s film Synecdoche, New York, “There are a million little strings attached to every choice you make; you can destroy your life every time you choose.”

While we’re on the subject of Synecdoche, New York, isn’t the central conceit of that film that the obsessive recreation of life into art leads to a concerning inability to tell the difference between the two? When we make art, don’t we effectively create multiverses in which we make a different decision or kiss a different person or move to a different city or pursue another career?

Art allows us a peek into the multiverse. Take poetry, for example—it abounds with the mournful, melancholic, and mopey among us pondering the possibilities of passed-over paths. A.E. Housman laments “the land of lost content” made up of “blue remembered hills” in a lyric in A Shropshire Lad (1896), which employs landscapes as its metaphorical terrain, as does Robert Frost’s infamous poem “The Road Not Taken,” from Mountain Interval (1916) twenty years later.

Neither Housman’s blue hills nor Frost’s forking roads feature any suppositions about their might-have-beens—only the utterly human tragedy of regret, our tendency to agonise over our decisions and blame the caprice of causality for all of our problems. The multiverse, in its most basic sense, is about our perpetual unhappiness.

The multiverse, in its most basic sense, is about our perpetual unhappiness.

This is why the multiverse is an immensely appealing device in fiction. But it's also why it’s ultimately unsatisfactory as a means of narrative self-exploration. The multiverse is too multi. Human beings can’t accommodate notions like infinity. Moreover, our lives don’t hinge on endless possibilities but rather on starker binaries like Frost’s splitting roads. Our regrets are small, in the grand scheme of things. And any attempt to extend our regrets into cosmic proportions tilts the realm of human meaning somewhere bewilderingly distant from what we understand.

This accounts for why an otherwise uninspired romantic comedy that was a minor hit in 1998 can coin a phrase that’s persisted in culture for much longer than any of the details of the film itself. Sliding Doors articulated and named humanity’s relationship to the multiverse. We obsess over missed connections, either/or scenarios, door #1 or #2, yes or no, stay or go.

Tales of two outcomes of the same moment entice us, but more options added to the menu tend to overwhelm us emotionally, leaving only our intellectual side intact. Ricky & Morty succeeds because it aims at our brains, revelling in cleverness. But a version of Sliding Doors with three, four, 10, Gwyneth Paltrows would undercut the personal stakes for us.


Multiverse stories can, in fact, diminish their own narrative stakes, particularly in franchises. Corporate studios see the multiverse as an opportunity to expand the scope of their IP. They bring in characters from past cinematic universes, as in Dr. Strange and the Multiverse of MadnessThe Flash, and Spider-Man: No Way Home. In this last example, the Spider-Man films featuring Toby Maguire and Andrew Garfield are now MCU canon. As film critic Clarisse Loughrey observed, the multiverse, for major studios, doesn’t lie in its “creative potential,” but “its cameos.”

More significantly: an endless series of universes means that any character’s death is impermanent, that all dire circumstances are reparable, and that all possibilities tend to equate to no possibilities. This last idea can be summarised by a line from a superhero movie: the recurring theme of Brad Bird’s The Incredibles (2004) is if everyone is special, then specialness loses its specialness and thus no one is special. Specialness is defined by contrast to regularity, just as the weight of our life choices is tied to the limited amount of alternatives we perceive.

Of course, it’s true that at any moment, we can radically change our lives. This means that for any given scenario in which we see only two options, there are in truth many paths we could take. Gwyneth Paltrow could have been hit by the train, too. Our minds ignore these possibilities because we aren’t fully aware of them (who, after all, thinks, Well, I could have turned left at that light or I could have done doughnuts in the intersection until the cops showed?). Just as we aren’t conscious of the millions of coincidences that don’t happen, only the rare ones that do.

What we’re less inclined to enjoy are multiverses with many scenarios where we lose our cosmic footing. Ironically, the MCU’s move to the multiverse—which seemed like such an inspired way to up the ante from Thanos’s threat to half of one universe to a vast war involving infinite ones—had the opposite effect: it flattened the stakes, making them more representative of corporate mergers than insightful explorations of personal potential.

In physics, the multiverse is a fascinating concept that lends theoretical support to other unexplained phenomena of existence. But in our daily lives, a multiverse is mostly meaningless. We cannot consider every possibility, or even many of them; indeed, keeping mental tabs on a single branch (which itself branches again and again) is pretty much impossible. If the multiverse were proven to be real, our natural proclivity for minor regrets would render the world more suited to the scope of our tiny, insignificant lives, which are also—to us—the most important in the universe.

Theories explain; metaphors reflect.

The multiverse, as a theory, emerged because of some as-yet-unexplained problems resolving Einstein’s general relativity with the mysteries of quantum mechanics, not because our hearts are filled with longing and regret. It seeks to account for certain aspects of reality. Whatever emotional implications it also evokes are beside the point. Relativity, quantum physics, infinities—these are beyond our capacities.

But the chance to investigate the many ways our lives could have gone by vivisecting seemingly arbitrary decisions? That is as appealing to people as pondering the ability to stop time, to fly, or to make the right choice in the first place. But these multiverse fictions are not legitimate attempts to explain our current state. Instead, they represent our feelings about our current state. When you’re at your most joyful, you don’t waste time relitigating past choices—unless it’s to marvel over how lucky you’ve been.

Rather, you bathe in the present moment, content that in all the infinite possibilities of this vast, eternal, and relentlessly enigmatic universe, that out of the millions of strings attached to every action, that in the teeth of such stupefying odds, you’ve managed to eke out a sliver of life that gives you purpose and pleasure. Those mired in miserable circumstances are much more likely to sift through their timelines to locate potential missteps. The multiverse, then, explains more about our self-regard than it does the vagaries of light and gravity and particles and waves.

People are filled with regret and weighted by creativity. So we can conjure up invented selves with a magician’s ease, but only for so long. Very quickly our ideas run their course, mostly because we aren’t personally invested in worlds where we’re made of paint or have hot dog fingers or are controlled by the Nazis. These are too far-fetched to be anything but thought experiments, emotionally inert and pragmatically irrelevant.

But give us a missed train or an unrequited love or an untaken journey, and we’ll dedicate much of our lives to concocting stories in which we got things right, found our passions, and chased our dreams, as if it were possible for us to say, as E. E. Cummings once wrote, “there’s a hell / of a good universe next door; lets go.”

Originally published on Esquire US

Our goal is to become activists. We must rely on our own actions more than on words. And these are just words.

Can Dune change the world? Can a novel that involves old-timey knife fights and giant space worms convince people to get serious about climate change? Is it possible the book could encourage more religious tolerance and understanding? Cautiously, the answer to these questions might be yes. Because although Dune did not truly begin its life as a political or ecological text, it’s impossible to ignore those themes in it today. Between 1965 and now, Dune transformed from a curious science fiction book released by an automotive repair manual publisher to a book that seemed to be a repair manual for the entire planet.

On April 22, 1970, in Fairmount Park in Philadelphia, Frank Herbert spoke to thirty thousand people in celebration of the very first Earth Day. He told the gathered crowd he wanted everyone there to “begin a love affair with our planet,” and to that end, he hoped that they would all join him in never again buying a new car. He firmly believed that if people boycotted the purchase of new internal combustion engines, the automotive industry would eventually be forced to make more efficient cars or create clean-energy fuel alternatives. “Getting rid of internal combustion will be no permanent solution," he said. "But it will give us breathing room.”

At the time, Herbert was also concerned about overpopulation as well as pollution. Some of the ways he phrased his arguments may seem dated. But it’s also striking how mainstream most of his views are today. The public perception of Dune as an ecological science fiction novel is perhaps the most important factor in its immortality. And while Herbert himself was a bit preachy, his novel isn’t. And that’s how the magic happens.

Herbert’s self-styling as an environmental activist didn’t happen in 1965 when the hardcover was published by Chilton, and it didn’t happen in 1966 when the first paperback version was published by Ace. Instead, the public transformation of Dune from an underground science fiction novel to an essential ecological text read and analyzed by environmental activists happened in 1968, three full years after the book hit bookshelves.

“I refuse to be put in the position of telling my grandchildren: ‘Sorry, there’s no more world for you. We used it all up,’” Frank Herbert said in 1970, in the nonfiction book New World or No World. “It was for this reason that I wrote in the mid-sixties what I hoped would be an environmental awareness handbook. The book is called Dune, a title chosen with the deliberate intent that it echo the sound of ‘doom.’”

I refuse to be put in the position of telling my grandchildren: 'Sorry, there's no more world for you. We used it all up.'"

The notion that Herbert wrote Dune specifically because he hoped it would be an “environmental awareness handbook” is almost certainly revisionist. But that doesn’t make Dune’s political and environmental commentary incorrect. Even the earliest versions of “Dune World” contain ecological themes simply because of the way Arrakis works. Herbert later said that on Arrakis, both water and spice are analogues for oil, and of course, for “water itself.” The idea that Arrakis wasn’t always a desert wasteland is suggested vaguely in the first novel, but what Herbert’s later novels—specifically 1976’s Children of Dune—do is to reveal a kind of inverted problem. Because of the rapidity of forced climate change on Arrakis, the most integral part of the wildlife—the sandworms—is pushed to near extinction. What is subtle in the first novel is made perfectly clear in the sequels.

Herbert even tips his hand to his own revisionism because he mentions Pardot Kynes—a character you’re excused from forgetting because this person doesn’t really appear in the actual story of Dune. Most of Pardot’s story and his quotes come from the first appendix in Dune, “The Ecology of Dune,” which gives us the backstory of Pardot Kynes, the father of Liet-Kynes, the imperial planetologist who more famously accompanies Leto, Paul, and Gurney during their first inspection of the spice mining and later gives his life to save Paul and Jessica in the desert. As Liet-Kynes lies dying, he recalls a quote from his father: “The highest function of ecology is the understanding of consequences.”

"The highest function of ecology is the understanding of consequences."

“I put these words into his mouth,” Herbert said in 1970, speaking of both Liet-Kynes and Liet’s father, Pardot.

Because the science fiction community inconsistently embraced Herbert in the late sixties, he found his true community with environmentalists. In 1968, within the pages of The Whole Earth Catalog, biologist and editor Stewart Brand forever changed the perception and importance of DuneThe Whole Earth Catalog was a publication conceived by Brand as a way of giving forward-thinking environmentalists and progressives “access to tools” for rethinking everything about the way humankind saw Earth. In the introduction to the first catalog, Brand wrote that hardships caused “by government and big businesses” led to a movement where “a realm of personal power is developing—power of the individual to conduct his own education.” To that end, Brand created The Whole Earth Catalog with the following stated purpose: “The Whole Earth Catalog functions as an evaluation and access device. With it, the user should know better what is worth getting and where and how to do the getting.”

On page 43 of this catalogue, Dune was listed with the following description: “A more recent Hugo Award winner than Stranger in a Strange Land, is rich, re-readable fantasy with a clear portrayal of the fierce environment it takes to cohere a community. It’s been enjoying currency in Berkeley and saltier communities such as Libre. The metaphor is ecology. The theme revolution.”

One of Brand’s big criteria for anything listed in The Whole Earth Catalog was that it could “not already [be] common knowledge.” By 1970, when Frank Herbert was invited to speak at the first Earth Day, it’s safe to say that Dune’s ecological themes were common knowledge. But in 1968, that hadn’t happened yet. These two years rewrote the reputation of Dune, for the better. And this seemingly influenced Herbert to take his sequels in directions more in line with his ecological views and less aligned with what a smaller science fiction readership might have wanted.

"The metaphor is ecology. The theme revolution."

In crafting the first Dune, Herbert created a science fiction novel that was palatable to old-school science fiction readers while attempting something new: establishing world-building that had far-reaching implications about the environmental struggle of our own planet. Herbert may not have sold Dune to Analog or Chilton or Ace as an ecological book, but once prominent environmentalists picked up on what he was laying down, his true colours were shown. It’s tricky to believe that Herbert really picked the title Dune because it reflected the word doom, mostly because the process through which he started writing the book doesn’t seem to support that. But, even later in his life, Herbert seemed to walk the environmentalist’s walk that he outlined in New World or No World.

A decade and a half after the publication of this book, both his son Brian and his widow, Theresa Shackleford, confirmed that Frank Herbert loved riding around in limos and always flew first class if he could help it. And yet, by all accounts, he never broke his promise in 1970. To his dying day, Frank Herbert never, not once, bought a new car.

But if the environmental legacy of Dune is clear, its political messaging is less on-the-nose. For various critics and scholars, the political messages of Dune are not all one way. Is it a story that elevates minorities and, along with the Fremen, truly punches up?

In 1984, Francesca Annis, who played Lady Jessica in the David Lynch Dune, said that she read the entire story of Dune in a conservative light. “I can’t relate to the story politically,” she said. “The book just doesn’t say much about ordinary people. As far as its values are concerned, it’s just one group of powerful people triumphing over other powerful people. In that way, it’s a very right-wing story.”

You can kind of squint and see where Annis is coming from, especially through the lens of the 1984 film. Close readings of Dune reveal the subversion Frank Herbert inserted into this “white saviour narrative,” and as prominent Dune scholar Haris Durrani has pointed out, even in his subversion of it, Herbert still “reinscribes the white saviour narrative.” From this point of view, Paul and his family are like missionaries, coming to “tame” a native people, steal their culture via Bene Gesserit manipulation, and then create a new power base that is arguably just as bad, if not worse. Again, as Zendaya’s Chani says at the beginning of the 2021 film, “Who will our new oppressors be?”

Without change, something sleeps inside us and seldom awakens. The sleeper must awaken.

“If Herbert wanted to make it clear that he was subverting the hero’s journey in the first novel, he could have done a better job,” historian Alec Nevala-Lee tells me. “It’s clearer in Messiah, but it’s easy to read the first novel the ‘wrong’ way.” But Durrani isn’t so sure. For him, Dune isn’t a white saviour narrative at all and is somewhat secretly a one-of-a-kind twentieth-century science fiction novel that speaks to Muslim ideas.

“It’s an attempt to explore Muslim ideas and different Muslim cultures in a way that I think is unique,” Durrani tells me. “There was something unique about what Herbert was doing, bringing his unique viewpoint to thinking about the future of Islam and other Muslim cultures.” The evidence Durrani cites relative to the Muslimness of Dune is somewhat obvious for any reader with an Arabic or Muslim background. In the first book, Paul is sometimes referred to as “the Mahdi,” which in Arabic refers to a spiritual leader who will unify and save the people, generally just before the entire world ends. For Durrani, this idea blurs the “white saviour trope,” because you can easily imagine a version of Paul who isn’t white but is still a fallible and dangerous leader.

“Is he white?” Durrani says with a laugh. “I mean, you could imagine a version of Paul who wasn’t white. I certainly think Gurney Halleck is a nonwhite character. Herbert probably intended Paul to be white, but he’s also drawing on histories of North Africa and the reference to the ‘Mahdi,’ who is not white. I think what’s interesting is that even if Paul is a nonwhite character, he’s still a colonial character. Herbert is playing with ideas of internal colonisation.”

As Durrani outlines in his essay “Dune’s Not a White Saviour Narrative. But It’s Complicated,” the agency of the indigenous people of Arrakis (the Fremen) “appears downplayed,” mostly because of “the narrative focus on the Atreides and Bene Gesserit.” But, from his reading of the text and Herbert’s various comments over the years, Durrani says that all the colonist themes in Dune are strictly anti-colonist, even when the “heroes” are depicted as such. “I read the focus on leaders as critical, not hagiographical... Herbert saw the series as about communities, not individuals.” While talking to me in 2022, Durrani tells me that the endpoint of the series, in Chapterhouse: Dune, features a slate of heroes and protagonists who are specifically not the pseudo–Anglo-Christian characters of House Atreides in the first book. “I think it is significant that the whole series ends with basically a rabbi, a Fremen, a Sufi saint, and basically some guy who’s representative of Afghanistan,” Durrani says. “I don’t know if Herbert was successful, but he wanted to do both: You could read this as just a traditional sci-fi story of this heroic journey. And he wanted the sense of people who are playing into that narrative. But it’s a hard line to walk.”

Dune may or may not convincingly subvert the white saviour tropes, but it does push back against other clichés in coming-of-age stories and hero’s journeys. Nobody refuses the call to adventure in Dune. And Paul’s parents aren’t distant and mythical like nearly all the parents in Star Wars. In fact, the story of the first Dune is as much the story of a mother as it is of a son. Imagine Luke Skywalker growing up with Padmé guiding him, while also fighting her own battles, and you’ve got an approximate feeling of just how radical Dune is within the pantheon of other sci-fi adventure epics. Even Leto II’s transformation into the God Emperor isn’t a black-and-white Darth Vader morality tale. Dune doesn’t wag its finger at bad decisions. It reminds us that everything has consequences.

"Dune doesn't wag its finger at bad decisions. It reminds us that everything has consequences."

“Herbert thought of science fiction... as a form of myth,” biographer William F. Touponce wrote in 1988. “But he did not see myth as an absolute. Myth and Jungian archetypes were simply another discourse that he set out to master and that he incorporated into the dialogical open-endedness of his Dune series.”

Now, contrast this kind of thinking with Star Wars. Everyone is told over and over that the reason that saga is so popular is that George Lucas stuck so close to the archetypes that people couldn’t help but love it. Dune is the opposite of Star Wars in this way; Herbert uses archetypes like the “hero’s journey” as what Touponce calls a “strategy” to “get people emotionally involved in his stories.” Touponce points out that with the publication of Messiah and Children of Dune, some more traditional, Campbell-era SF readers felt like Herbert had betrayed them. And maybe he had. Whether it was slightly retroactive or not, Herbert used the hero’s journey as a framework, but unlike Lucas, he didn’t adhere to it. Dune rejects the archetypes it creates, which gives the story more flexibility. This is why the saga continues to organically expand well beyond what Herbert wrote.

After Villeneuve’s Dune: Part Two is out on home video and streaming sometime after spring 2024, the immediate future of Dune is the Bene Gesserit. Created by Diane Ademu-John along with showrunner Alison Schapker, the forthcoming HBO TV series Dune: The Sisterhood will tell the story of the origin of the Bene Gesserit roughly ten thousand years before the events of the first novel. This series is loosely based on Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson’s 2011 novel The Sisterhood of Dune, which charts the rise of various organisations in the Dune-iverse, including the Spacing Guild and the human computers known as the Mentats. As the 2020s march on, the future legacy of Dune will possibly leave the story of Paul Atreides on Arrakis in the dust. Although there is a huge degree of uncertainty around the future of the Sisterhood series, one stated premise would follow two sisters, Valya Harkonnen and Tula Harkonnen, as they struggle to establish the Bene Gesserit order amid the reign of Empress Natalya.

The last name of the two protagonists—Harkonnen—should raise some eyebrows, too. In the distant past, the dreaded enemy of House Atreides wasn’t necessarily all evil, demonstrating that the unfolding story of Dune continues to defy easy classification. The idea of a sci-fi prequel series revealing its two main characters are part of a family that has largely been portrayed as villains would be like if there was ever a Sherlock Holmes prequel set in the 1400s, in which a heroic captain named Moriarty battled for truth and justice on the high seas. The specific place that Dune: The Sisterhood will hold in the long history of the flowing spice is, at this time, unknowable. But its basic setup has the potential to make The Sisterhood the most transgressive Dune story yet, and if the show enjoys Game of Thrones–level enthusiasm, push the chronicles of Arrakis even further into the mainstream.

The timing of Dune’s twenty-first-century renaissance isn’t just a coincidence. It’s true that Dune has benefited from the gradual mainstreaming of sci-fi and fantasy in the early twenty-first century, but because the phenomenon of these novels and books has always stood separate and apart from sci-fi trends, the emergence of Dune as a dominant pop culture force now is explicable for bigger reasons. In New World or No World, Herbert equated apathy regarding environmental activism with trying to rouse a “heavy sleeper.” But he also believed that people could change: “We can shake the sleepers—gently and persistently, saying ‘time to get up.’”

The history of Dune’s making is a history of contradictions and paradoxes. And, crucially, how we can emerge from that chaos better and wiser. In a lovely and famous Dune scene, Duke Leto tells Paul that “without change, something sleeps inside us and seldom awakens. The sleeper must awaken.” Although often attributed to Herbert’s book, these exact lines comes from the 1984 film, not the novel version of Dune, proving that interpretations and, yes, revisions of Dune have the power to reshape our thinking and our hearts.

"The history of Dune's making is a history of contradictions and paradoxes."

Later, in both the 1984 Dune and the novel, Paul speaks of his awakening, when he becomes the person he believes he’s meant to be. Dune’s meaning to millions and its longevity are specifically connected to this kind of thinking: We can ignore the ills of the world, but not forever. At some point, everyone will have to wake up. On the final page of New World or No World, Herbert writes a single question, wondering if all the storytelling and real talk are sinking in. He asks damningly, and quite simply: “What are you doing?”

The “what” he refers to is somewhat obvious. Are you actively doing something positive in your community? Are you acting generously? Are you doing something about the horrible power structures that keep people down? Herbert may have found his fame and fortune through Dune, but his creation endures not because it lets us escape and ride a sandworm and get super-high on an awesome space drug, but because it makes us feel guilty.

From racial and gender inequity, to class divide and poverty, to dishonesty and corruption in politics, Herbert believed that communities can turn back the slow tide of oppression. The hyperbole in Dune helps to illustrate the ways in which those revolts might happen and the ways in which those revolts might go wrong. Misinformation motivates many of the horrible events throughout Dune, especially when ideological demagogues allow their followers (or voters) to believe they are above the law.

From the real sand dunes of Oregon to the spice fields of Arrakis, Frank Herbert’s heart was always in the right place. His intentions don’t mean that Dune is perfect or without problematic elements. And yet, unlike so many touchstones of twentieth-century literature, Dune is unique because its weaknesses are also its strengths. It’s a story that dares to make us hate the heroes and search inside ourselves for ways in which we, too, have made the same well-meaning mistakes. It challenges us to think outside of our own day-to-day experiences and imagine a world in which just one drop of water is more precious than gold. It pushes us to rethink our emotional strategies in dealing with disappointment, failure, and most of all, fear.

As Paul’s mother teaches him, the Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear is the first and last line of mental defence. The battles fought in Dune occur across various planets and employ all sorts of ingenious weapons. And yet, throughout all the book, film, and television Dunes, the internal human struggle not to give in to fear is paramount. We know that honorary Bene Gesserit Yoda correctly linked fear with all sorts of other horrible outcomes, but Star Wars suggested that a connection with a magical energy field was required to beat back that fear. The Bene Gesserit teach that the battle can be won within your own mind. Tamping down fear doesn’t work. Ignoring it or allowing it to morph into rage can lead to “total obliteration.”

Instead, all of us, every day, have to face our fear. In the world of the twenty-first century, the growing number of fears is seemingly greater and more relentless than ever before. The mental health of each person in the world is like a dam holding back the tide of chaos. And Dune helps. A little. As Herbert said in 1970, “these are only words,” but he also taught us that fear truly is the mind-killer and that the battle for a better world begins inside each person.

“In horrible times, people tend to turn to musicals or science fiction,” Rebecca Ferguson, Lady Jessica herself, tells me. “Personally, I think the world of Dune is so profound and so layered that I hope it’s the kind of thing more of us can turn to. If people do need to escape, do need to feel comfort, I think this brand of science fiction, this kind of reflective art, is buoying and transformative. I hope it helps people. I truly do.”

Ferguson didn’t need to use the Voice to make this ring true. The love of Dune in all its forms is about both things: escape from fear and awakening from a slumber of the mind.

Dune allows us to live in the future, love the artistic intricacy of that future, and then realise, with sobering clarity, that we can’t allow things to end up like that. Dune teaches us to face our fears, to recognise there are plans within plans, and to accept that not every victory is always what it seems. It also makes us look in the mirror and wonder who we are. Like Alia, Leto, and Ghanima, it sometimes feels as though we all have the memories of our ancestors lurking in our minds. The horrible things we’ve done as a species as well as the triumphs are all there, running through our minds at the same time. Dune says there is no way to turn away from the mixed bag of human history. There’s no easy fix for the horrible ways history has unfolded or the ways in which it may repeat itself. Herbert ended his last novel, Chapterhouse: Dune, with a leap into an unknown part of space, a future that was suddenly unwritten. “We’re in an unidentifiable ship in an unidentifiable universe,” Duncan Idaho says. “Isn’t that what we wanted?”

The mystery of the future of humanity is similar. We can’t yet imagine the way in which we get to the future, and we can’t really picture what the universe will look like when the future unfolds. But it is what we want: to survive and to change. Dune says that change is possible. It’s not always all good, but it’s not all bad, either. “The best thing humans have going for them is each other,” Frank Herbert said. We don’t have to be owned by our fear. Because in the end, we can look at ourselves honestly, at this moment, and ask, without fear, “What are you doing?”

From THE SPICE MUST FLOW: The Story of Dune, from Cult Novels to Visionary Sci-Fi Movies by Ryan Britt.

Originally published on Esquire US

Over dinner, a woman looks lovingly at her husband, who is looking elsewhere.

Killers of the Flower Moon took a while to be adapted. The rights to adapt David Grann's book started in 2016 but like any other project, the development of the film was halted due to the global pandemic. Still, the film was finally finished. It made its premiere at the 76th Cannes Film Festival on May 20, 2023 and received a nine-minute standing ovation.

While we have to wait a few months to watch it, Apple TV+ unveils the trailer of Killers of the Flower Moon today.

With stirring Native American pow wow chants spliced with dubstep ("Stadium Pow Wow" by The Halluci Nation née A Tribe Called Red), the trailer brings across the palpable tension of a community gripped with terror.

The American Western crime drama (that's a mouthful) is based on the real-life murders that plagued the Osage Nation. Set in the 1920s, the epic is directed and co-produced by Martin Scorsese and stars an ensemble cast that includes Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, Lily Gladstone and Jesse Plemons.

Roping in the First Nation

Given the subject matter, Scorsese involved the Osage Nation during the film's development. In a press release, Scorsese said, "We are thrilled to finally start production on Killers of the Flower Moon in Oklahoma. To be able to tell this story on the land where these events took place is incredibly important and critical to allowing us to portray an accurate depiction of the time and people. We're grateful to Apple, the Oklahoma Film and Music Office and The Osage Nation, especially all our Osage consultants and cultural advisors, as we prepare for this shoot."

In light of the current book bans and revisionisms in America, we are glad that someone made use of the medium to spotlight America's "hidden histories". (Another example was HBO's Watchmen which featured the Tulsa Race Massacre.)

America's history may not strike a chord with Singapore audiences but the cast and the dramatisation of a real-life event should be enough to get butts in seats.

Killers of the Flower Moon is tentatively slated to be in theatres on 6 October and later for online streaming on Apple TV+.

Before Bond and his brutal swagger, Harry Palmer's modernist melancholy, and the short, balding but brilliant Smiley, there was Ashenden. Not for him the picaresque shenanigans of Rudyard Kipling's Kim, not Richard Hannay's Boy's Own bravado. Rather, the dry, daily grind of a middle-ranking civil servant. Albeit one undercover, stationed in Switzerland, during the First World War. “The work he was doing was evidently necessary,” Ashenden muses, “but it could not be called anything but monotonous.”

In this, he is merely echoing the views of his creator, short story master William Somerset Maugham [pictured above, having breakfast in the South of France, in 1954], who served in the British Secret Service during WWI and, in 1928, published a book of connected stories under the title Ashenden: Or the British Agent.

“The work of an agent in the Intelligence Department is on the whole extremely monotonous,” repeats Maugham in his introduction. “A lot of it is uncommonly useless. The material it offers for stories is scrappy and pointless; the author has himself to make it coherent, dramatic and probable.” Which he does, with elegant aplomb. Because these tales are anything but dull. The prose is as crips and bracing that first martini, the pace brisk, the characters beautifully drawn.

Just like Maugham, Ashenden has the perfect cover. As a successful writer, he goes to Geneva to write his new play, “a comedy”, as he tells a lumpenly suspicious Swiss policeman, “and a light one at that”. Although Switzerland was neutral, the authorities there took a dim view of spies. He'd been sent to Geneva, “knowing the risks, to do work of a certain kind”. Recruited and run by The Colonel, or R, a man with “hard, cruel eyes... and a cunning, shifty look”, he was very much on his own. “If you do well you'll get no thanks,” he's told, in those eternal words, “and if you get into trouble you'll get no help.”

John le Carré once said that Maugham was “the first person to write about espionage in a mood of disenchantment and almost prosaic reality”. Yet although they lack le Carré's moral outrage, or the casual, luxury-steeped ruthlessness of Bond, the Ashenden stories mix languid charms with a steely core. You won't find fist fights and care chases, killer centipedes and high-tech gadgets. But Ashenden has an exotic pungency of its own: midnight bridge games with Egyptian princes; ice cold countesses of dubious loyalty; traitorous Bengalis; corpulent pashas; alluringly vulgar acrobats; priapically hairless Mexicans, and “emancipated princesses who wore garish frocks and danced with strange men in second-rate cafés”.

Though they lack the luxury-steeped ruthlessness of Bond, they mix languid charms with a steely core

Codes are smuggled from France to Switzerland, hidden “deep down between those voluminous breasts” of fat peasant women, and the consequences of treachery are fatal. Jolly English traitors are tricked by Ashenden and sent to their deaths by firing squad; Indian agitators commit suicide with arsenic, while in one story, a beautiful Russian agent is killed by her besotted lover. He works for the opposition. “I loved her,” he cries, “but I knew she must not leave the room alive.” Comedy is tempered with harsh reality. An innocent tourist is assassinated in a case of mistaken identity; the “absurd but loveable” American Salesman Mr John Quincy Harrington, “a bore”, is killed during the Bolshevik uprising in Moscow. All because he won't leave without his laundry.

But it's Ashenden himself who fascinates, wearing both cynicism and compassion equally. He spends as much time fretting about being unable to turn the hot water tap of his bath with his toe (“He had often heard people tell him that he possessed character... but they had never seen him in a hot, but diminishingly hot, bath”) as he does worrying about the consequences of his actions. He arrives for trains hours in advance, suffering from “that distressing malady known as train fever”. And is reassuringly normal, too. Once, when ransacking a suspected enemy spy's hotel room, he admits fear: “You see, I'm scared and you're not.”

The tales are at once funny and moving, grim and glamorous, shot through with pathos and bathos

He's upper middle-class to his core, with “a cool head and an emotion well under control”. Yet he holds no candle for the Establishment. “The bigwigs,” he snarls, “though ready enough to profit by the activities of obscure agents of whom they had never heard... shut their eyes to dirty work so that they could put their clean hands on their hearts and congratulate themselves that they had never done anything that was unbecoming to men of honour.”

Just like the world in which he works, he can be morally ambiguous: “Ashenden admired goodness, but was not outraged by wickedness.” Such were the necessities of a British spy. Yet the tales are at once funny and moving, grim and glamorous, shot through with pathos and bathos. “How much easier life would be if people were all black or all white,” he wonders, “and how much simpler it would be to act in regard to them!” But this is real life. And death. And nothing ends neatly. These are some of the greatest espionage tales ever written. In Ashenden, Maugham creates an all too human character. Not so much superman, as a spy like us.

Tom Parker Bowles is an editor-at-large at Esquire. This piece appeared in the March-April 2019 issue of Esquire UK

Originally published on Esquire UK