Maud Newton is a writer, critic, and occasional speaker. Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation (Random House), her first book, has been called “a literary feat” by the New York Times Book Review and a “brilliant mix of personal memoir and cultural observation” by the Boston Globe, praised by Oprah Daily, NPR, the New York Times, Vanity Fair, Vulture, the Los Angeles Times, Wired, and many others, and named one of Esquire’s best books of 2022. Excerpts from the book have appeared in Esquire, Time, and The Wall Street Journal. Newton also writes personal essays, cultural criticism, and fiction.
Newton was born in Dallas, grew up in Miami, and graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in English and law. Eventually, Maud Newton moved to Brooklyn, and for the past six years, she’s lived on Lenape land in Queens. She started blogging in May 2002 with the aim of finding others who were passionate about books, culture, and politics and establishing an informal place to write about her life and family. Within a few years, her site had been praised, criticized, and quoted in multiple national publications.
Please enjoy my interview with Maud Newton…
How do you describe your occupation?
I’m a writer and critic with an unrelated day job that also involves words.
Talk us through a typical day for you…
On weekdays, I’m up to feed the animals and myself before I start my job by 10 a.m. Things are pretty demanding there until I sign off around 6 p.m. Then I walk the dogs, eat dinner, and get to do my own writing and reading. I’m a night owl.
Right now I’m reading my friend Jeanna Kadlec’s fantastic Heretic: A Memoir, about leaving behind her evangelical upbringing and marriage to a pastor’s son and seeking radical new ways to build community amid the evangelical impulses that permeate our culture. I’m also deep into Hafizah Augustus Geter’s intimate, tenacious, and wide-ranging The Black Period: On Personhood, Race, and Origin in advance of a memoir discussion for the Deep Water Literary Festival that we’ll be doing with Diana Goetsch, whose This Body I Wore is also on my nightstand.
What inspired you to write your latest book, Ancestor Trouble?
Ancestor Trouble flowed from decades of wrestling with my strange and troubled Southern family, and broadened into an exploration of history, psychology, genetics, spirituality, and the transformational possibilities our ancestors have for all of us.
Are you a page folder or a bookmarker?
Page folder! Also an erratic but sometimes obsessive underliner. I’ve gotten away from most marginalia in my older years.
When did you fall in love with reading?
I was so desperate to learn to read as a kid that I memorized some of my storybooks—including where to turn the pages—before I could actually read them. But I started devouring chapter books when I was seven years old.
Can you talk us through your research process when preparing for a new book?
Ancestor Trouble is my first (completed and published) book. I allowed myself to go wide and deep with research. Now I’m working on a novel and I’m also reading widely—which is just my personality in general—but I’m trying to spend more time fully in my imagination.
Great question, but impossible to choose! Maybe The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson (age 16), for a deeper understanding of the role of my white southern ancestors in the Deep South, and possibly something a little academic but thought-provoking like the Harvard University Press anthology Ancestors in Post-Contact Religion by Steven J. Friesen.
What are perfect reading conditions for you?
I can read anywhere, from a crowded train to a vacation spot to my quiet bedroom at night.
For someone starting out in your career, which three books would you make required reading and why?
For a young writer, I would recommend How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee. As a rule, I try to tailor my recommendations to individual readers. Still, for the precision of language and storytelling with intellectual and emotional heft, I might give an aspiring fiction writer James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room and Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account.
If you could invite 5 authors (dead or alive) to a dinner party – who would they be and why?
Because I’ve seen friends so rarely during the pandemic, I’d bring together some writers I admire who are also people I love to spend time with Rahawa Haile, Maaza Mengiste, Laila Lalami, and Alexander Chee. Just to make things a little less cosy, I would maybe throw in an invitation to Lauren Groff, whom I don’t know at all but whose fiction I have recently become obsessed with.
My two most recent purchases are Medieval Herbal Remedies: The Old English Herbarium and Anglo-Saxon Medicine and The One-Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka, a manifesto and an attack on modern agribusiness. Both are connected to my interests and relevant in a very broad sense to the novel I’m working on.
What is your favourite thing about reading?
A book that pulls me in is a whole world unto itself, and one that’s peculiar to my own imagination—a sort of collaboration between the author’s words and my own mind.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the last 6 months?
That’s a tough one! Maybe a toss-up between Arcadia and Florida by Lauren Groff, a short story collection. Arcadia was a recommendation from my friend Emily St. John Mandel, whose new novel, Sea of Tranquility, I recently devoured and really enjoyed. I also love my friend Carrie Frye’s novel, which is still in process, so I won’t say any more about that right now.
If you could insert yourself into any book, which would you pick and why?
I don’t think I would do this!
What two pieces of advice would you give a young aspiring writer?
Move ever closer to the true flame of your interest in a story or idea, and write from that place.
What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life? What impact did it have?
The Bible. I grew up in a religious family, and although I am not a Christian now, I will always continue to be in conversation with this text. See Ancestor Trouble for details.
Which book sat on your shelf are you most excited about reading next and why?
I’m really looking forward to reading Signal Fires by Dani Shapiro.