Hello, old friends and readers! If you’ve been waiting to put down your hard-earned money for my first book, you’re in luck. Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation (Random House, March 2022) can be pre-ordered from your local independent bookstore or your online bookshop of choice.
Ancestor Trouble has a cover! Rachel Ake’s quilt-inspired design incorporates some of my old family photos, an ancestor’s witchcraft testimony, and so much more.
Lit Hub did a cover reveal that features some insights from the brilliant Ake and some commentary from me. And I wrote a little bit more about the design—The Dream Cover I Didn’t Dare to Imagine—for anyone who’s interested. The book will be published by Random House on March 29, 2022.
Here’s the official description:
Maud Newton’s ancestors have vexed and fascinated her since she was a girl. Her mother’s father, who came of age in Texas during the Great Depression, was said to have married thirteen times and been shot by one of his wives. Her mother’s grandfather killed a man with a hay hook and died in a mental institution. Mental illness and religious fanaticism percolated through Maud’s maternal lines, to an ancestor accused of being a witch in Puritan-era Massachusetts. Maud’s father, an aerospace engineer turned lawyer, was a book-smart man who extolled the virtues of slavery and obsessed over the “purity” of his family bloodline, which he traced back to the Revolutionary War. He tried in vain to control Maud’s mother, a whirlwind of charisma and passion given to feverish projects: thirty rescue cats, and a church in the family’s living room where she performed exorcisms.
Their divorce, when it came, was a relief. Still, the meeting of her parents’ lines in Maud inspired an anxiety that she could not shake; a fear that she would replicate the family damage. She saw similar anxieties in the lives of friends, in the works of writers and artists she admired. As obsessive in her own way as her parents, Maud researched her genealogy — her grandfather’s marriages, the accused witch, her ancestors’ roles in slavery and genocide — and sought family secrets through her DNA. But sunk in census archives and cousin matches, she yearned for deeper truths. Her journey took her into the realms of genetics, epigenetics, and the debates over intergenerational trauma. She mulled modernity’s dismissal of ancestors along with psychoanalytic and spiritual traditions that center them.
Searching, moving, and inspiring, Ancestor Trouble is one writer’s attempt to use genealogy — a once-niche hobby that has grown into a multi-billion-dollar industry — to expose the secrets and contradictions of her own ancestors, and to argue for the transformational possibilities that reckoning with our ancestors has for all of us.
More details to come in my newsletter (now renamed Ancestor Trouble) and probably here on the blog too. Redesign coming!
My book has a title! It will be called Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation. The brilliant Rachel Ake is putting on the finishing touches on the cover, which I adore, and I hope to be able to unveil it sometime in the next month or two. The book itself is currently expected to be out on March 29, 2022, although that could still shift a little between now and then. My partner, Maximus Clarke, took some new headshots too, and this is one of the outtakes.
In other news, I’m putting together a class on what I call Acknowledgement Genealogy. You can read more about it in my latest newsletter, which begins like this: “As laws sweep across the states to prohibit teachers from discussing slavery and its legacy, one thing critical race theory opponents can’t do is prevent people from disclosing their own ancestors’ participation in enslavement and genocide in this country. That’s something all of us with that family history need to discuss publicly. Every last one of us. Systemic change begins with individual choices.”
One thing that makes putting the class together feel a little tricky is that it has (depending on your perspective) a spiritual or at least psychological component. You can read about that in the newsletter, too.
To avoid confusion, I’ve decided to change the name of my newsletter from Ancestor Hunger to Ancestor Trouble. They’re often close cousins, in my experience! But I don’t want to have two different titles floating around.
I’m finishing up endnotes, bibliography, and so forth, and my book will be headed into copyediting before long. Right now it’s slated to be out in March 2022, but the date could shift a little before it’s finalized on the Random House schedule. I hope to share the title with you before long. Maybe even a cover, too.
While I was working on the book, I kept telling myself that I wouldn’t undertake another nonfiction project while also still working my (other) job, but apparently that wasn’t true. My brain is already starting to work on a new idea, a familiar sparky branching exhilarated feeling, perfectly captured by Alison Bechdel, quoting Nabokov in response to my predicament. (Fellow fans: she has a new book out!) I’ve also pulled out my old novel draft and started tinkering; I suspect it will be far easier to finish now that I got some more didactic aims out of my system with the book I just finished on ancestor trouble. I guess I’ll find out!
Meanwhile, I pulled together some of my granny’s best sayings, previously posted on this site but always fun for me to revisit, for a post at Medium. All hat and no cattle; a tree full of owls; a long tailed-cat in a room full of rockers (rocking chairs)–if you like old Texan expressions and missed these the first time around, you’ll enjoy it. (And if you’re into quilts or elaborate stitchwork projects, I posted a Twitter thread with some of her most impressive creations, including a bedspread she crocheted from mailing string during the Great Depression.) I’ve also sent acouple Ancestor Hunger dispatches over the past couple months.
And as I’ve mentioned, this site is undergoing a redesign. It should have a new look by mid-summer or so.
Hi. I’m told my book is headed into production soon, and it will be out in early 2022, probably in March. Whew, and hooray! Date and title to come. I’m excited for you to read it, if you’d like to.
Meanwhile, my old Ancestor Hunger newsletter is warming up in the driveway. I’m aiming to send new dispatches every two weeks. Here are the recent ones:
Lineage Unconscious: On Jung and family symbols, including some of mine: black cats and mugwort, acorns and oaks, cardinals and quartz, clover and seashells. Also singing.
Other People’s Family Stories: Including some from Maaza Mengiste, Alexander Chee, and Elizabeth Bachner that I’ve particularly cherished as I’ve been holed up the past couple years.
I didn’t intend to disappear from this site for so long, but the book and my other job kept me busy. And in the unlikely event you were wondering what I was up to in the midst of a pandemic and election and attack on the freaking Capitol and so forth, my Twitter feed probably filled you in.
Recently, though, I deleted all my tweets over a month old in disgust over what social media hath wrought in our democracy and the idea that it was monetizing me in the process. Mostly I feel glad that I did this, and freer, but it was a rash act. I’ve been tweeting since 2008. I often used my archives to remember articles and interviews I’d enjoyed but misplaced. Although I downloaded them before deleting, I don’t see myself perusing the file in the same way.
My personal Facebook page has been blessedly abandoned for three years, so deleting just about everything there didn’t feel difficult at all, though Zuckerberg & Co. do not make it easy and only the insurrection prompted me to sit my ass down for all the hours it took to make it so.
In any case, as my mom used to say in her most theatrical Texan way when I kept trying to reach her, and couldn’t, and did finally: Here I ahhm!
A super-smart fact-checker I was working with on my book late last year called this site the most 2000s blog, design-wise, they’d ever seen, and I could only agree! I also thought, ha ha, you brilliant youngster, you didn’t even see the original paint spatter background (captured in part below) that Max made on actual paper at our kitchen table or the “more subtle” graph paper background we decided on a couple years later.
Truly, it has been a journey here at MaudNewton.com, which will soon undergo a proper redesign. Here’s hoping you’re as well as you can possibly be in these times.
I’ve gotten increasingly into container gardening since moving to Queens three years ago, slowly educating myself about welcoming bees, butterflies, and birds, and tending soil. Some of the containers are large elevated beds.
It’s a bit of a tangle now, in late summer, but my winged friends approve. I’m reminding myself that “going to seed” isn’t always a bad thing. This morning I saw two monarch butterflies and some bumblebees flitting around the Joe Pye Weed—in the backyard, where it’s not as sun-ravaged. For ten minutes or so, the butterflies dove and flew, and drank from the flowers. They left only when a cell phone was pointed at them for a picture. Some beauty is best experienced in the moment, in motion, anyhow.
On the suggestion of the novelist Maureen Gibbon, I’m reading Eleanor Perenyi’sGreen Thoughts, which can be enjoyed in pretty much any order. I often think of Alexander Chee’s insights on the compatibility of writing and plant-tending.
I don’t usually cross-post from my newsletter, but I’m making an exception here. This might be my last post before the site is finally redesigned.
If you’ve been reading my work for a while, you may know that my mom started a church in my living room when I was a kid. It was a tongues-speaking, Rapture-awaiting, exorcism-full ministry focused on hippies, drug addicts, refugees from cults, and assorted others in need. Every Wednesday night, they worshipped in our house in a ritzy Miami suburb. They banged tambourines and Hallelujahed and bound up Satan in Jesus’ name until my father came home and shouted at them to get out or until the neighbors called the cops.
Around the time I turned forty, I started meditating. I studied the Alexander Technique, which, as taught by my teacher, is basically another form of meditation. His approach is especially good for writers and other bookish people who have difficulty being in their bodies. Through all of this, and a billion years of therapy, I opened up to possibilities that had made me anxious before.
When I started writing my book, I could feel myself going in a spiritual direction. I was afraid of what I’d find and where I’d end up, but I decided to follow where the book led me. Recently I went to an ancestral lineage healing intensive, and I’m going to another this summer. It makes me uncomfortable to tell you this, but I’ve decided to own it.
I hand in the draft of my book on June 3! I’m starting another newsletter, Ancestor Trouble (originally called Ancestor Hunger) at Substack, if you’re interested. (More info on the About page.)
Updated August 6, 2019, to link to the Ancestor Trouble newsletters so far:
The Family Face — and Gesture (including Thomas Hardy’s “Heredity,” Tim Spector’s Identically Different, and Nicole Chung’s All You Can Ever Know)
DNA Testing Giveth, and Taketh Away (including Alex Wagner’s Futureface, which I reviewed last year for the New York Times Book Review; a discussion of autosomal DNA testing and inaccurate geographical assignments; and an except from my old Family Tree interview with Laila Lalami)
Sharing Some Ancestor Hunger (on my granny and the original newsletter title, “Ancestor Hunger”; includes an excerpt from my Family Tree interview with Celeste Ng)
Some readers asked if I would consider making my latest newsletter dispatch public, so they could link to it. So I posted it at Medium. It’s about, among other things, how I briefly became a tax lawyer (like and unlike my father), and how important it is for us, in politics, always to keep one eye on the money. Especially now.
It’s always fine to forward the newsletters, or to quote from them. As I’ve said, I don’t ordinarily post them online because I like the veneer of privacy. But once they’re out in the world I’m not invested in trying to control where they end up.
I can’t say the results of the election took me by surprise. Worrying that a Trump win could be coming didn’t dull the horror of the reality, though.
I’m trying not to give in to despair and not to let myself be distracted by the daily onslaught of his racist appointments, trammeling of civil rights, and blatant malfeasances.
For the moment, over at my Tumblr, I’m posting an action a day to oppose what he’s already doing. The most important one is to call the House Oversight Committee (202-225-5074) and insist on a bipartisan investigation of his financials and apparent conflicts of interest. I’ve posted many other ideas in the past couple weeks if you’re not sure where to start.
Lately I’ve been focused on unpacking, meeting the birds and trees in the nabe, writing my book, and doing my other job. I’ve been disinclined to take on much beyond that, but yesterday I sent my first Tiny Letter since January, and it felt good. I’m always glad when a description I give at the beginning of something fits what I end up doing with it, and this one does: Ideas & Intimacies.
The letters aren’t archived online–I like the veneer of privacy–but unless I’m working on a new one, I usually send the latest to new subscribers.
I’ve lived in Brooklyn since 1999, longer than I’ve lived anywhere else, even Miami. It’s been good in many ways but also difficult for me. City life tends to exacerbate my anxiety. I’ve missed living near wild green places.
I’m sure I’d have a much harder time leaving New York than I realize, but I’d be happy to give it a try, if not for Max. The city is his soul-home. He can’t imagine leaving the communities of artists and musicians he’s part of — living anywhere that doesn’t have a Stereographic Association, for instance. After all these years, he still endlessly and lovingly photographs the subway. Even the asphalt seems to nourish him. We’re both introverts, but we have different needs.
So we’re moving, as people sometimes do in this situation, pretty far out into Queens. We’ll still be on a subway line but also right next to Forest Park, a hilly stretch of land with hiking trails and tangles of trees, bordered by lots of cemeteries. I’m going to get a puppy. At least for now, we’re not getting a car.
We don’t move for nine days, but: goodbye, Brooklyn! Thanks, and fare thee well. I’m sure I’ll still see you pretty often. Excited to get to know you, Queens.
The publication party for The Queen of the Night, the magnificent second novel by my dear friend Alexander Chee, is tomorrow night at McNally Jackson. I was stunned and so happy when he asked me to discuss the book with him there.
Alex and I became friends before I read his first book. An instant easy understanding was possible between us that might have been impossible if I’d encountered Edinburgh — which is wonderful and true and utterly its own thing — before I knew him. Over the years he has become a kind of muse for me, as well as a confidant and advisor, though I don’t think I ever put it to myself quite that way until I just typed the words just now.
I keep meaning to mention that Best American Travel Writing 2015 is out and, as promised, it includes my short NYT Mag essay, “A Doubter in the Holy Land.” I’ve been reading my way through the collection and finding so many great things I missed when they were published last year, including Rachael Maddux’s “Hail Daton.”
After I hand in a rough-rough draft of my current book chapter, I’m planning to start on the one that’s most related to the Lives essay. I’ve been reading widely for months in preparation, and I’ll also go back and reread everything linked from my 2014 Begats post on whether faith “has a genetic basis.”
It’s strange to talk to friends, especially old friends, about meditation, even when they ask about it. It’s been so helpful to me, and I’m glad to share my experience when it might help someone else, but I’m also by nature averse to proselytizing. I really don’t ever want to hearken back to the fundamentalist kid me on church outings in public parks, interrupting happy picnics to hand people Jack Chick tracts about how their life is all wrong.
And also, there’s a part of me that still feels answerable to the person I have seen myself as being most of my life, the person attached to pessimism and cynicism and depression and to, on occasion, throwing my entire self, directing all of my energy and passion, into raging against injustice. I have conversations with that person in my head all the time. Which is complicated, because that person was a product of a lot of influences and experiences. That person was inconsistent and always changing, too.
Buddhism (that’s the path I’ve been heading down, after a lifetime of secretly feeling scornful of Westerners who called themselves Buddhist) holds that there is no such thing as a cohesive self, that second to second we are in flux, always transforming, and that if we allow ourselves to observe our thoughts and feelings in meditation without being caught up in them we can see how illusory our sense of a fixed identity really is. We can see how our narratives about ourselves and life and other people are actually much more complicated (and in my case, much more embarrassing and immature) than we think they are.
For me, in the moment, meditation is usually the opposite of bliss. The kind I do doesn’t focus on clearing the mind but on letting the thoughts and feelings be there without following them, letting them exist while returning over and over again to my breath. Sitting with myself like this can be and often is excruciatingly uncomfortable, but cumulatively it makes me feel better: less anxious, less depressed, less manic, less detached, and less angry, though at any given time I might be experiencing all of these things. My practice is especially valuable to me right now, after the loss of my friend Nelson and with many people I Iove going through very hard stuff.
Pema Chödrön writes of difficult feelings — and joyous feelings — as clouds overhead. They’re there, and they affect us, and there’s no point in chasing them as they move through our lives, and there’s no point in fighting them or trying to push them away, either. They’re ever-present and inevitable as the weather. It feels better when we accept that, is the idea. It feels better when we see our feelings for what they are, when we know them intimately and embrace the whole confusing swirl.
One of my favorite parts of my favorite book of hers, Start Where You Are, talks about how the beginner to meditation wants to master everything at once, wants to change immediately and irrevocably into a better self. But, she says, “the truth sinks in like rain into very hard earth. The rain is very gentle, and we soften up slowly at our own speed. But when that happens, something has fundamentally changed in us. That hard earth has softened. It doesn’t seem to happen by trying to get to it or capture it. It happens by letting go.”
Something that made me sad, then happy, then sad after my friend Nelson died was finding our email exchange about how he wanted to start writing again.
And thank you for thinking me a writer, or at least having the seed — I know that having the chops requires craft. And craft requires time, sweat and not a little bit of Jameson’s. I thought about what you said, though. Maybe essays would be a start; the idea of writing the great American novel is outside both my ability and my reality. I am starting to think that reading email for a living has reduced my attention span a bit too much for that level of dedication. Sad, that. But words will always fascinate and entertain me, so if they find a way to come out in a way that someone else would enjoy — that would be something. Thankfully, some of them entertained you enough that summer to call me in the first place.
He sent this soon after the last time we saw each other in New York, in November 2012, right before Hurricane Sandy. I remember being so glad he was thinking this way. The letters he wrote to me while he was in the army — I’ve written about that era a fewtimes — were a joy. I hoped he’d find his way back to the page.
Nelson and I first got to know each other in a high school writing class — the one I took my senior year that also led me to my friend Lili, who died ten years ago of pancreatic cancer, and to our teacher, Mrs. Kjos, who died of ovarian cancer in 2008. I guess this is what being in your forties is like.
Last night I dreamed that I was reading a collection of short stories Nelson had written, a book he self-published knowing he would die soon. In the dream he was still alive. Waking up this morning was the most bittersweet thing.
“The Brooklyn artist Maximus Clarke addresses a surveillance society in ‘Render,’ three panels with human figures that have to be viewed through 3-D glasses — and, in keeping with the theme, park rangers will be milling around.”