December 26th, 2011 / 2:12 pm
Behind the Scenes

Home for the Holidays’s “What is your book about?”

One Holiday gift you can expect from friends and relatives is the question, “What is your book about?” or, “What are you working on?” In need of advisement, I asked several authors how they reply to Uncle Scott while enjoying the crown roast.


I don’t blink–I think that is important. I say that I’m working on a novel whose style can best be described as the lovechild of John Grisham and Dan Brown, and that it’s the first book of a trilogy set entirely in an Applebee’s restaurant. I transform my voice into a strained whisper at this point and admit that the pressure is causing me to have a crisis of faith, then I make vague allusions to something I state I may or may not have done at a rural truckstop. If they’re extra-persistent, I say, “Let me just explain the book’s main plot,” and then I describe the most recent Hoarders episode I saw on A&E. – Alissa Nutting, author of Unclean Jobs For Women And Girls


They’re afraid to ask. But if they asked I’d tell them it’s about going through a second puberty and making sex with mammoths. So, is it like The Notebook? No, I’ll say, it’s like we’re dying while everybody else is laughing. – Zachary Schomburg, author of Scary, No Scary


I’m rarely, almost never asked, “what are you working on” or “what is your book about.” I assume my relatives don’t want a narrative and assume or expect I’m doing what I’m always doing — writing. So I have no ready answers, and I’d be surprised if I were asked. Probably I’d hesitate and wonder to myself, Whassup? Then I’d mmble, “I don’t know, you know, not much.” Or, even more likely, I’d go to the musicians’ old-reliable, “Same old, same old.”. – Lynne Tilman, author of Someday This Will Be Funny


Well, Uncle Bill the book is called NEOTAP, it is, like, a book about a prison slash treatment center and like people disappear there. (Just remembered Uncle Bill works for the government.) There is, a psycho boss that is like a total fascist, I don’t know. And all these crazy things happen. (Hmm, thinking of book he can relate to it, that he might have read, has he read Kafka or Catch 22, no probably not.) Hmm, it is kind of in the style of 1984, you know, like satire. – Noah Cicero, author of Best Behavior


I always say, Abraham Lincoln in outer space – Brandi Wells, author of Please Don’t Be Upset


I don’t know. I mean it’s kind of. I guess it’s kind of. I don’t know. Kind of. It’s just about. It’s just about a thing, really. This thing about a group of people, maybe. I don’t know. I really don’t even know. You know? Just this kind of this thing about a group of people, kind of, maybe. I don’t know. It’s just a thing. It’s not even very good. Honestly. Really. You wouldn’t even want to read it, probably. It’s just this thing — it’s completely awful, maybe? — about this group of people, and I don’t know, I’m sorry, I’m really sorry, but if you wanted I could just quickly email you the whole thing, the whole manuscript, and then you could maybe– and obviously only when you have the time — you could maybe provide me with detailed and comprehensive feedback on the whole thing, please, but only if you wanted to? – Chris Killen, author of The Bird Room


After some trial and error with describing the novel I’m working on, I now just say it’s Wes Anderson meets the apocalypse, which seems to be at once exact and confusing enough to keep people from asking more question – Laura van den Berg, author of What The World Will Look Like When All The Water Leaves Us


It’s a prose-work called My Relationship with the Truth, a book in which I attempt to unpack heavy bags from an occlusion-vacation I went on recently with the occult, amour fou, delusions, signs and symbols, moon-madness, distemper, and jammy cliches like “story,” “journey,” “heart,” “soul.” I’ll be detailing psychological, somatic, and mystical experiences I’ve had with potent abstractions like alienation, communion, desire, love, ecstasy, anguish, and loss. Really I will. – Rebecca Wolff, author of The Beginners and editor of FENCE.

– – –

Shane Jones‘s second novel, Daniel Fights a Hurricane, is forthcoming from Penguin in early 2012.


  1. Elijah Rising

      Elijah Rising is now used by high schools and colleges as a
      teaching tool.  The manuscript was placed
      in Teaching Tolerance Library of the Southern Poverty Law Center by Morris Dees
      under title: Michael’s Journal

      The mysticism and religious fanaticism of the Dust Bowl era
      has had a profound impact on the arts. Popular TV shows like HBO’s Carnivale
      have brought this strange time period into the mainstream. These were years
      marked by war, a global depression, racial hostility, and a collective search
      for salvation. In author Lyn LeJeune’s new book, Elijah Rising (inGroup Press,
      October 2011), a man’s descent into madness begins as the world goes to war.
      Disillusioned with his boring life in New York City, a wealthy white heir to a
      railroad fortune follows a black tent-fundamentalist preacher out west. Their
      goal is to bring God to those uncivilized and uncharted parts of America. But
      as they venture deeper into the unknown, it is they who may most require the
      grace of God. Elijah Rising is a love story filled with captivating descriptive
      writing, profound characters, and a learned sense of history. LeJeune has
      written timeless, high-end fiction for even the most discerning tastes.

      ***Note from author: Howard Zinn – greatly missed – was one
      of my first readers.  He wrote this to
      me:  “I read it in two sittings, became
      involved in the story. You write every well!” 
      Now who wouldn’t have pursued the book to publication? It is now
      published by InGroup Press.


      ISBN: 978-1935725084

      Or where great books are sold


  2. bambi

      I like Chris Killen’s reply, it is a masterpiece of incoherence.

  3. Bobby Dixon

      This the the most directly-related-to-the-post/apropos spam comment I have ever seen. 

  4. Anonymous

      LvdB, will you write me such a brilliant response to whatever it is I try to do?

  5. Laura van den Berg

      Anything for you, Joe!

  6. Todd Colby

      I heart Alissa’s response.

  7. Ken Baumann

      My stock response: “Good question.”

  8. alan

      I haven’t tried this, but I was told that the single word “revenge” is evocative enough to give the other person the impression they have learned something about your project and yet isn’t specific enough to allow them to come up with a follow-up question, so the exchange ends there. 

  9. deadgod

      I’m uncomfortable talking about it ’til it’s finished.  What’s the last book you read that you’re still thinking about?

      Is it so hard to be a literary super-genius?

  10. shaun gannon

      i only get asked by my grandpa if i have any poems i could show my grandma and i always say “…no” and he says “okay well then we won’t tell her”

  11. Daniel Bailey


  12. Guestagain

      my grandpa read through a pile of stuff I wrote and told me I was a writer in the same way a cab driver is an airline pilot

  13. Helen

      I say pretty much the same thing when people ask about my novel. I once made the mistake of giving it to a relative to read (as he had asked, as he had written a book himself). He didn’t read it all (just the first 100 pages)

      Then when I was trying to explain it to one of his writer friends and couldn’t, and screwed myself up into a tiny ball of embarrassment,  he stepped in, saying ‘it’s…okay. yeah.’

  14. Cvan

      Except that Lyn LeJeune probably described it at Christmas as “Girl With A Dragon Tattoo” meets Georges Perec meets Bruegel with a smidgen of John Irving.

  15. deadgod

      like bruce willis in the fifth element

  16. sam salvador

      deep space corporate espionage

  17. joe

      I’m not writing.

  18. mimi

      i wish i could say ‘khmer snooker karaoke’ but i would be a liar (i’m not writing a book) and a thief (i appropriated the words from off the street)

  19. Michael

      “What’s your book about?”


  20. Cvan

      Maybe Guestagain’s grandpa was the child in “La Jetee?”

  21. deadgod

      he too saw a dead person

  22. Mark Beyer

      I’ve just finished my second novel, “What Beauty” … about obsession, love, and love’s obsessiveness to beauty. A sculptor living in NYC tries to find a subject and method for his newest cycle; meanwhile, he meets a bag lady who was once a famous, and provocative, social critic writer.

  23. Jonathan Callahan

      I’m mainly working on evading the middle-aged judo-master who is (admittedly somewhat justly) out to take my life, or at least inflict some lasting pain; my family and the small circle of friends who’ve seen me struggle for the past several years to turn my personal disgust with being into something someone might consider Art are mostly just relieved to know he hasn’t gotten to me yet. I think my next novel’s controlling theme will be paraphrasable as “being a short man,” but this isn’t stone-set yet. Probably I’ll kill myself before I finish anything new. But how? Specifics really are the key to everything.