20 Under 40 Debut Writers You Need To Be Reading
Out with the old, in with the debut. These 20 remarkable writers were 40 years old or younger at the time of their debut novel's publication and have not yet published a second novel.
1. Téa Obreht
The debut novel: The Tiger's Wife
Age at time of publication (2011): 25
Téa Obreht won the 2011 Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction (then called the Orange Prize for Fiction) for The Tiger's Wife, which was also a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award in Fiction. The New York Times (Michiko Kakutani) praised it as "Stunning...a richly textured and searing novel," and the Wall Street Journal (Sam Sacks) declared, "No novel [this year] has been more satisfying." The Tiger's Wife is a saga set in a fictional war-torn Balkan country where a young doctor must unravel the circumstances of her grandfather's death through his stories of encounters with "the deathless man" and the legend of the tiger's wife.
2. Catherine Lacey
The debut novel: Nobody Is Ever Missing
Age at time of publication (2014): 29
Catherine Lacey has been called "a very gifted writer and thinker" by the New Yorker (Daphne Merkin), and her debut was praised as "the most promising first novel that I've encountered this year" by the Wall Street Journal (Sam Sacks). Nobody Is Ever Missing follows a woman who leaves her husband and stable life in Manhattan to live in New Zealand, and her subsequent descent into madness.
3. Eimear McBride
The debut novel: A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing
Age at time of publication (2014): 37
Eimear McBride won the 2014 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, the 2014 Desmond Elliott Prize, and several other literary awards for A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing, which was also shortlisted for the 2014 International Dylan Thomas Prize. The Times Literary Supplement praised her as "a writer of remarkable power and originality," and The Guardian labeled her debut as "an instant classic." A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing is the story of a young woman who engages in increasingly violent sexual encounters in an attempt to cope with the trauma of her brother's struggle with brain cancer and eventual death.
4. Smith Henderson
The debut novel: Fourth of July Creek
Age at time of publication (2014): 40
Smith Henderson won the 2011 PEN Emerging Writers Award in Fiction and a 2011 Pushcart Prize. His debut is on the shortlist for the 2014 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize, and has been called "the best book I’ve read so far this year" by the Washington Post (Ron Charles). The New York Times (John Williams) declared, "First novels don’t come much more confidently written or fully imagined than this." Fourth of July Creek follows a social worker who tries to help a semi-feral boy living in the Montana wild, only to become entangled with the boy's extremely disturbed father as his own family disintegrates.
5. Alissa Nutting
The debut novel: Tampa
Age at time of publication (2013): 32
Alissa Nutting won the sixth Starcherone Prize for Innovative Fiction for her short story collection Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls. Her debut novel, Tampa, was praised as "a stunning, brutal book" by Shelf Awareness (Marilyn Dahl), and Tin House declared, "Nutting is sure to become a member in the small club of authors who turns risky writing into high art." Tampa is the story of a sociopathic middle-school teacher who seduces her 14-year-old students, a provocative, satirical examination of modern culture and society.
6. Roxane Gay
The debut novel: An Untamed State
Age at time of publication (2014): 39
Roxane Gay's debut novel, An Untamed State, was longlisted for the 2014 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize and has been praised as "commanding" by the New Yorker and "ferocious, gripping, and unforgettable" by Booklist (Donna Seaman). An Untamed State grapples with the dichotomy of privilege and poverty as the youngest daughter of one of Haiti's richest men is kidnapped for a ransom her father refuses to pay.
7. Adelle Waldman
The debut novel: The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.
Age at time of publication (2013): 36
The Boston Globe (Clea Simon) proclaimed that Adelle Waldman "just may be this generation’s Jane Austen," and her debut was named a best book of the year in 2013 by the New Yorker, NPR, Slate, The Economist, and numerous others. The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. details the romantic life of a flawed, self-absorbed young man as he rises in the 21st-century literary world.
8. Alex Gilvarry
The debut novel: From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant
Age at time of publication (2012): 30
Alex Gilvarry was one of the National Book Foundation's 5 Under 35 honorees in 2014, and won a 2012 New York City Book Award for From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant. He has been called a "young talent on the rise" by Gary Shteyngart, and The New York Times Book Review (Daniel Asa Rose) praised his debut as "delicious... A left-handed love letter to America." From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant is the intimate confession of a Filipino immigrant fashion designer detained at Guantánamo Bay.
9. Josh Weil
The debut novel: The Great Glass Sea
Age at time of publication (2014): 38
Josh Weil won the 2010 Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction for his novella collection The New Valley. His debut novel, The Great Glass Sea, is on the shortlist for the 2014 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize, and Colum McCann has praised Weil as "among the most gifted writers of his generation." The Great Glass Sea is an epic novel of brotherly love set in an alternative present-day Russia, one where the beauty of Russian folklore and culture is tempered by the darkness of dystopian society.
10. Teju Cole
The debut novel: Open City
Age at time of publication (2011): 35
Teju Cole won the 2012 PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Fiction for Open City, which was also a finalist for the 2011 NBCC Award for Fiction. The New Republic (Ruth Franklin) praised Open City as "the most beautiful novel I read this year," and it was named a best book of the year in 2011 by The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Economist, Time, NPR, and numerous others. Open City follows a young Nigerian doctor as he wanders along the streets of Manhattan, encountering people who cause him to revisit his past and examine his very identity.
11. Yelena Akhtiorskaya
The debut novel: Panic in a Suitcase
Age at time of publication (2014): 28
Yelena Akhtiorskaya was one of the National Book Foundation's 5 Under 35 honorees in 2014, and her debut novel has been praised as "brilliant...[a] sparkling debut" by the New York Times (John Williams) and "genius" by the Washington Post (Ron Charles). Panic in a Suitcase follows an immigrant family from Russia living in Brooklyn and their struggle to pursue the American Dream over two decades.
12. Merritt Tierce
The debut novel: Love Me Back
Age at time of publication (2014): 35
Merritt Tierce was one of the National Book Foundation's 5 Under 35 honorees in 2013, and won a 2014 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award in Fiction. The New York Times Book Review praised her debut as "brilliant, devastating... one of those exquisitely rare novels that feel desperate and urgent and absolutely necessary." Love Me Back details the devastating self-destructive downward spiral of a young waitress trapped in the service industry.
13. Will Chancellor
The debut novel: A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall
Age at time of publication (2014): 35
Will Chancellor has been called "a strong new voice in fiction" by Timeout New York, and his debut novel was praised as "the most ‘alive’ book I’ve read this year" by the Chicago Tribune (John Warner) and "wonderful...one of the best of the year" by the Daily Beast (Nicholas Mancusi). A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall is a sweeping, epic journey of personal transformation through Europe and the world of contemporary art that follows an Olympic-bound athlete who disappears to become an artist after a career-ending eye injury, and the father desperate to find him.
14. Valeria Luiselli
The debut novel: Faces in the Crowd
Age at time of publication (2012): 28
Valeria Luiselli was one of the National Book Foundation's 5 Under 35 honorees in 2014, and has been praised as "an extraordinary new literary talent" by the Daily Telegraph and "an exciting and essential voice on the Latin American literary landscape" by the Los Angeles Times (Hector Tobar). Faces in the Crowd is an examination of the ghosts that haunt us, the remnants of loss we encounter daily — the dual story of a woman in Mexico City writing a novel about her experiences as a translator in New York, and the obscure Mexican poet whose works she was desperate to translate and publish.
15. Celeste Ng
The debut novel: Everything I Never Told You
Age at time of publication (2014): 33
Celeste Ng won a 2012 Pushcart Prize for her short story "Girls, At Play." Her debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, has been praised as "a powerhouse of a debut novel... crafted out of shimmering prose" by the Huffington Post (Claire Fallon) and "a breathtaking triumph" by Library Journal. Everything I Never Told You is a heart-rending portrait of family, race, and gender that follows a Chinese-American family living in an Ohio small town in the 1970s as the tragedy of the middle daughter's death and the secrets holding them together threaten to tear them apart.
16. Anthony Marra
The debut novel: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
Age at time of publication (2013): 28
Anthony Marra won a 2012 Whiting Writers' Award in Fiction, the 2014 NBCC John Leonard Award, and a 2014 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, which was also longlisted for the 2013 National Book Award. The debut was praised as "amazing... brilliant... one of the most accomplished and affecting books I've read in a very long time" by NPR (Meg Wolitzer), and the Washington Post (Ron Charles) declared, "I haven’t been so overwhelmed by a novel in years." A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a decade-spanning story set in war-torn Chechnya, where a small group of survivors must persevere in the bleakness of an unjust ethnic conflict.
17. Tiphanie Yanique
The debut novel: Land of Love and Drowning
Age at time of publication (2014): 35
Tiphanie Yanique won the 2011 OCM Bocas Fiction Prize for Caribbean Literature and a 2010 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award in Fiction, and was one of the National Book Foundation's 5 Under 35 honorees in 2010. Kirkus praised her debut novel, Land of Love and Drowning, as "bubbling with talent and ambition... a head-spinning Caribbean cocktail." Land of Love and Drowning is a family saga spanning three generations that begins in early 1900s Virgin Islands, where two sisters and their brother, each possessing a particular magic, are orphaned by a shipwreck in the Caribbean Sea.
18. Boris Fishman
The debut novel: A Replacement Life
Age at time of publication (2014): 35
Boris Fishman's A Replacement Life was praised as "bold, ambitious and wickedly smart" by the New York Times Book Review (Patricia T. O'Conner), and by Joyce Carol Oates as "a memorable debut by a wonderfully gifted young writer... a beautifully nuanced, tender, and often very funny novel... that will linger long in the memory." A Replacement Life is a rumination on family, honor, justice, and nationality — the story of a failed journalist who falls into forging Holocaust restitution claims for old Russian Jews in South Brooklyn.
19. Karen Russell
The debut novel: Swamplandia!
Age at time of publication (2011): 29
Karen Russell was one of the National Book Foundation's 5 Under 35 honorees in 2009, and won the 2012 NYPL Young Lions Fiction Award for her debut novel, Swamplandia!, which was also a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and longlisted for the 2011 Orange Prize. The New York Times (Janet Maslin) praised the debut as "absolutely irresistible... a marvel" and the San Francisco Chronicle (Lauren Groff) declared, "Russell has deep and true talents." Swamplandia! follows a 13-year-old girl determined to save her family's shabby gator-wrestling theme park in the Everglades after her mother falls ill.
20. Bill Cheng
The debut novel: Southern Cross the Dog
Age at time of publication (2013): 29
Bill Cheng's debut novel has been praised as "scintillating... unforgettable" by the Wall Street Journal, and by Colum McCann as "an incredibly daring and powerful debut." Southern Cross the Dog is an epic in the tradition of Cormac McCarthy and Flannery O'Connor that follows the journey one man takes in the tragic aftermath of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, having lost virtually everything he once held dear.