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Mary Gaitskill: a retrospective

Teenage runaway; young stripper; writer of powerful, haunting stories. From Bad Behaviour in 1988, a story collection depicting seedy New York life, to Veronica in 2006, which follows a rollercoaster of a friendship between two women, Mary Gaitskill’s writing is often disturbing and always meticulously perceptive. In November 2021, we are pleased to publish a collection of Mary’s tender yet daring essays Oppositionsalongside striking reissues of the novella This is Pleasure, the Women’s Prize for Fiction-longlisted novel The Mare and the short story collection Don’t Cry.

In this retrospective we explore Mary’s published books and their recurring themes of feminism, relationships and sexuality.

Tell us which of Mary Gaitskill’s works you’ve read – or plan to read – over at Twitter @serpentstail and Instagram @serpentstail.


Oppositions is a collection of nuanced and provocative essays covering a broad range of subjects written with Mary Gaitskill’s characteristic linguistic flair. Spanning thirty years of her writing, and covering subjects as diverse as Dancer in the Dark, the world of Charles Dickens and the Book of Revelation with her classic blend of sincerity and wit, Oppositions is never less than enthralling.

‘Mary Gaitskill is willing to think about the problematic with complexity and humanity, and without taking sides or engaging in all the fashionable moral hectoring that passes for serious thought these days.’ Eimear McBride

THIS IS PLEASURE (2019; reissued 2021)

A provocative, nuanced novella about power, consent and friendship – and a masterful fictional contribution to the #MeToo debate.

Following the unravelling of the life of a male publisher undone by allegations of sexual impropriety and harassment, and the female friend who tries to understand, and explain, his actions, it looks unflinchingly at our present moment and rejects moral certainties to show us that there are many sides to every story.

‘Gaitskill achieves a superb feat. She distils the suffering, anger, reactivity, danger and social recalibration of the #MeToo movement into an extremely potent, intelligent and nuanced account.’ Guardian

Now available in a beautiful reissue.

THE MARE (2016; reissued 2021)

The Mare is Mary Gaitskill’s first novel in over a decade. Ginger is in her forties and a recovering alcoholic when she meets and marries Paul. When it becomes clear it’s too late for her to have a baby of her own, she tries to persuade him to consider adoption – but he refuses. As a compromise, they sign up to an organisation that sends poor inner-city kids to stay with country families for a few weeks in the summer, and so one hot July day eleven year old Velveteen Vargas, a Dominican girl from one of Brooklyn’s toughest neighbourhoods, arrives in their lives, and Ginger is instantly besotted.

While Velvet returns her affection, she finds the intensity of it bewildering. Velvet discovers she has a natural talent for riding and a deep affinity with the damaged horses cared for there. But when Ginger begins to entertain fantasies of adopting her, things start to get complicated for everyone involved.

‘Visceral and haunting, and the telling, with its shifting first person narrative, is nothing short of masterful’ GQ

Now available in a beautiful reissue.

DON’T CRY: STORIES (2009; reissued 2021)

A set of short stories which once again delves into the messy, broken and often out-of-control lives of ‘normal’ people. As the New York Times writes,

‘The people in Gaitskill’s stories often behave unconventionally and impulsively; they may seem to have an agency outside their author’s control, doing what not even she could expect, but they never escape her pitiless eye and meticulous hand.’

Read an extracted short story, Mirrorball 

Now available in a beautiful reissue.

VERONICA (2005; reissued in 2016)

Shortlisted for the National Book Award, Veronica is the story of the friendship between Alison and Veronica, who meet amid the nocturnal glamour of 1980s New York: one is a former modeling sensation, the other an eccentric middle-aged proofreader.

Over the next twenty years their friendship will encompass narcissism and tenderness, exploitation and self-sacrifice, love and mortality.  Moving seamlessly between the glamorous and gritty ’80s, when beauty and style gave licence to excess, and the broken world of the decade’s survivors twenty years later, Gaitskill casts a fierce yet compassionate eye on the two eras and their fixations.


Because They Wanted To by Mary Gaitskill | 9780241464144 ...

In these stories, ‘Mary Gaitskill charts the twists and turns of emotion and desire, in fanatically analytical prose that zips along in a fever of self-consciousness that would seem loony if her observations weren’t so sane’ New York Times

Read an extracted story: Tiny Smiling Daddy


Two Girls Fat and Thin by Mary Gaitskill | 9780241464151 ...

Mary’s first novel explores the experiences of those alienated from society. A journalist, Justine (‘thin girl’) interviews Dorothy (‘fat girl’) about her time as a member of a cult led by an author. Though they have very different backgrounds, the two girls find they have both experienced vicitimisation at the hands of their parents.

Kirkus reviews wrote,

‘Gaitskill fully understands the psycho-dynamics of being a misfit, and hence the appeal of such as Rand. But her fine and disturbing novel is also a stunning work of the imagination–genuine and luminous.’

Two Girls is one of the books referenced in the Rumpus article ‘What Men Talk About When They Talk About Mary Gaitskill’, which argued that men feel uncomfortable reading Gaitskill’s work and thus are inclined to review it negatively. This in turn prompted Mary Gaitskill’s ‘open letter’, in which she rebuffs this claim: ‘in truth some of my best support has come from men’.


😂 Bad behavior gaitskill. Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill ...

In her first collection of stories Mary Gaitskill explores love, lust, infatuation and power within relationships. In a blog written for Waterstones ‘On Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behaviour, author Zoe Pilger wrote:

‘Like the HBO TV series Sex and The City, which came a decade later in the late 90s, Bad Behaviour documents the lives of women trying to find their way in New York. Unlike the writers of Sex and The City, however, Gaitskill doesn’t pretend that the apotheosis of a woman’s life is finding ‘The One’.’

The story entitled ‘Secretary’ inspired the controversial film of the same name, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal.

Visit our fanzine for more Mary Gaitskill:

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Heatwave Reading for Summer 2021

Summer has finally arrived with a blazing heatwave, and we have your reading covered with some books to celebrate the heat and others to cool you down (even if it’s by the coolness of the author). So pick up a book and a fan and get ready to enjoy or escape the heat. Knowing the UK weather, we know it won’t last long!

Tell us what you’re reading during this heatwave – @SerpentsTail



A satirical Korean eco-thriller with a fierce feminist sensibility.


Yona has been stuck behind a desk for years working as a programming coordinator for Jungle, a travel company specialising in package holidays to destinations ravaged by disaster. When a senior colleague touches her inappropriately she tries to complain, and in an attempt to bury her allegations, the company make her an attractive proposition: a free ticket for one of their most sought-after trips, to the desert island of Mui.

She accepts the offer and travels to the remote island, where the major attraction is a supposedly-dramatic sinkhole. When the customers who’ve paid a premium for the trip begin to get frustrated, Yona realises that the company has dangerous plans to fabricate an environmental catastrophe to make the trip more interesting, but when she tries to raise the alarm, she discovers she has put her own life in danger.

Get your copy

UNDER THE BLUE – Oana Aristide

A lead debut novel: a literary thriller about a pandemic, the rise of AI, and how – or why – we might save the human race.

A road trip beneath clear blue skies and a blazing sun: a reclusive artist is forced to abandon his home and follow two young sisters across a post-pandemic Europe in search of a safe place. Is this the end of the world?

Meanwhile two computer scientists have been educating their baby in a remote location. Their baby is called Talos, and he is an advanced AI program. Every week they feed him data, starting from the beginning of written history, era by era, and ask him to predict what will happen next to the human race. At the same time they’re involved in an increasingly fraught philosophical debate  about why human life is sacred and why the purpose for which he was built – to predict threats to human life to help us avoid them – is a worthwhile and ethical pursuit.

These two strands come together in a way that is always suspenseful, surprising and intellectually provocative: this is an extraordinarily prescient and vital work of fiction – an apocalyptic road novel to frighten and thrill.

Get your copy

BEFORE THE RUINS – Victoria Gosling

One long, hot summer Andy and her friends begin a game that will take their whole lives to play out.

Andy believes that she has left her past far behind her. But when she gets a call from Peter’s mother to say he’s gone missing, she finds herself pulled into a search for answers.

Bored and restless after their final school exams, Andy, Peter, Em and Marcus broke into a ruined manor house nearby and quickly became friends with the boy living there. Blond, charming and on the run, David’s presence was as dangerous as it was exciting. The story of a diamond necklace, stolen from the house fifty years earlier and perhaps still lost somewhere in the grounds inspired the group to buy a replica and play at hiding it, hoping to turn up the real thing along the way. But the game grew to encompass decades of resentment, lies and a terrible betrayal.

Now, Andy’s search for Peter will unearth unimaginable secrets – and take her back to the people who still keep them.

Get your copy


THE WINTER WAR – Philip Teir

So you thought life in Scandinavia was perfect?

On the surface, the Paul family are living the liberal, middle-class dream in Helsinki. Max Paul is a renowned sociologist and his wife Katriina has a well-paid government job. They live in a beautiful apartment in the centre of the city. But look closer and the cracks start to show.

As he approaches his sixtieth birthday, the certainties of Max’s life begin to dissolve. His wife no longer loves him, and his grown-up daughters – one in London, one in Helsinki – have problems of their own.  So when a former student turned journalist shows up and offers him a seductive lifeline, Max starts down a dangerous path from which he may never find a way back.

Funny, sharp, and brilliantly truthful, Teir’s debut has the feel of a big, contemporary, humane American novel, but with a distinctly Scandinavian edge.

Get your copy

ON TIME AND WATER – Andri Snær Magnason

A unique approach to climate change that recalls W. G. Sebald.

Icelandic author and activist Andri Snær Magnason’s ‘Letter to the Future’, an extraordinary and moving eulogy for the lost Okjökull glacier, made global news and was shared by millions. Now he attempts to come to terms with the issues we all face in his new book On Time and Water. Magnason writes of the melting glaciers, the rising seas and acidity changes that haven’t been seen for 50 million years. These are changes that will affect all life on earth.

Taking a path to climate science through ancient myths about sacred cows, stories of ancestors and relatives and interviews with the Dalai Lama, Magnason allows himself to be both personal and scientific. The result is an absorbing mixture of travel, history, science and philosophy.

Get your copy


The true story of trans punk performance art sensation Jayne County’s wild and daring life.

Born in rural Georgia in 1947, Jayne moved to New York and became part of the 60s art scene surrounding Andy Warhol’s Factory. Jayne’s story follows the arc of LGBT liberation in the US – she came of age living hand-to-mouth, faced off against police at Stonewall and came out as a trans woman while she was touring Europe with her band. She went everywhere and met everyone and lived to tell the tale.

Man Enough to Be a Woman is the funny, fierce memoir of Jayne’s extraordinary journey, now including a new epilogue where she reflects on how the world has (almost) caught up with her.

Get your copy

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Pop Song: read an extract

‘…I don’t know what comes after, once I decide to let desire have its way with me. How to un-melt the melted? How to turn the ground powder back into a person? This idea points to a knowledge that I don’t have: how to love without losing the self.’

Plumbing the well of culture for clues about love and loss – from Agnes Martin’s abstract paintings to Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet to Frank Ocean’s Blonde – this brilliant work of debut nonfiction explores the state of falling in love, whether with a painting or a person.

Pham creates a perfectly fractured portrait of modern intimacy, triumphant in its vulnerability and restlessness. Pop Song is a book about distances: the miles we travel to get away from ourselves, or those who hurt us, and the impossible gaps that can exist between two people sharing a bed.

Here is a map to all the routes by which we might escape our own needs before finally finding a way home.

Read an extract below.

Follow Larissa on Twitter.

Ways of knowing

when it’s time to go

A starting gun

A text message

A plane ticket

A phone call

Last call

An upside-down shot glass in front of you at the bar

An orgasm in an unfamiliar room

A failure to come

A silence

The moon is visible


The moon isn’t visible, and you want to find it

You’re the happiest you think you’ll ever be at this party

Everyone else around you is hailing a cab

The sun is setting

The pool is closing

They’ve turned off the fog machines

The sun is rising

The sun is rising and a song you love has started to play

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The Last Thing He Told Me: Q&A with Laura Dave

Laura Dave’s The Last Thing He Told Me is Reese Witherspoon’s Book Club pick for May, a #1 NYT bestseller and a #1 Amazon bestseller!

‘Holy Moly!… you will NOT be able to put this book down! If you’re looking for the ultimate page-turner, I highly recommend The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave.’
Reese Witherspoon

We’re absolutely thrilled with your response to Laura Dave’s The Last Thing He Told Me. Since we’re all dying to know more, our fearless editor Miranda Jewess did a Q&A with Laura. Read on to discover how Laura came up with the novel and all about the forthcoming TV series starring Julia Roberts.

Laura Dave also has a special message for her Viper readers. Click here to watch.

1. The Last Thing He Told Me is quite different from your previous novels. What inspired you to write your first domestic thriller?

I absolutely love thrillers and read them constantly. But when I started writing The Last Thing He Told Me, I wanted to do it a little differently than I’d seen done before. I wanted to write a thriller rooted in hope. What I mean by that is I didn’t want the smoking gun to be that the husband turns out to be evil, or that the main character was wrong to trust herself, or that the story would hinge on betrayal. As my main character (Hannah Hall) navigated the twists and turns of her dilemma, I wanted her to find her way to somewhere unexpected, somewhere better. Instead of the constant reversals leading her to seek revenge or reimagine her entire life, Hannah found herself becoming the hero of her own life.

2. The heart of the novel is the relationship between Hannah and her stepdaughter Bailey. Was this inspired by a real mother/daughter dynamic?

I had my first child several years into working on this novel and it changed everything about the story I was hoping to tell. I understood Hannah in a new way, and her desire to be there for Bailey in the middle of her own struggle. The full landscape of Hannah’s narrative concretized for me. This involved reconsidering Hannah and Bailey’s relationships with their birth mothers, their ideas about motherhood and love, and of course the joy we can find in our found families.

3. The novel is going to be made into a TV series, with Julia Roberts starring as the main character, Hannah. Do you think the character will change through her depiction?

I’m writing the limited series now with my husband, the screenwriter Josh Singer. It’s been a dream to write this with Julia Roberts in mind, and to bring her energy to Hannah’s character.

4. Was the brilliant ending planned or did it change as you wrote? No spoilers!

I worked on this book for many years, on and off, and had many different endings that I considered along the way. But it was after I gave birth to my son in 2016 that I realized Hannah’s story, in the most primal sense, was the story of becoming a mother. For me, the book is the call to that—and the ending is the answer. Once I found it, I never wavered in believing that was where this novel needed to end. I’ve started imagining the sequel to this book. So it is possible this ending will turn out to be more of an intermission… and this family will have a new act, after all.

5. What book or author do you recommend to everyone?

Heartburn by Nora Ephron and Defending Jacob by William Landay.

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The Last Thing He Told Me is Reese Witherspoon’s Book Club Pick for May

We’re delighted that Laura Dave’s The Last Thing He Told Me is Reese Witherspoon’s Book Club pick for May!

Not only is this gripping book soon to be a major TV series starring Julia Roberts, a #1 Amazon bestseller, a Vogue Best Books to Read in 2021, an Amazon Best Book of May 2021, a Reader’s Digest 50 Best Books to Read This Year and a NetGalley Book of the Month for May, it is now also a Reese Witherspoon pick for May!

See what Reese had to say:

‘Holy Moly!… you will NOT be able to put this book down! If you’re looking for the ultimate page- turner, I highly recommend The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave.

This story centers around Hannah, who is settling into her new role as a wife & stepmother when her husband suddenly disappears leaving her with an ominous note and a request to protect his daughter.
There’s so much to love about this thrilling, roller coaster of a novel: mysterious identities, unreliable friendships, dubious loyalties and terrifying chase sequences through the streets of Austin, Texas.

Pick up a copy and join me to discuss our May 2021 pick!’

See her announcement on Reese’s Book Club:

‘Love note to self: the May #ReesesBookClub pick is a juicy, secret-filled read that you’ll finish in a day and talk about for months.

“The Last Thing He Told Me” by Laura Dave gives new meaning to the phrase ‘you can never judge a book (OR suspicious husband) by its cover’ with her gripping tale of love, deception and disappearance.

If the thrilling start doesn’t hook you—a missing husband, a duffel bag of cash, a cryptic note and teenage stepdaughter drama—wait till you find out how it ends. Warning: there’s so many secrets that you may start to question if you can even trust yourself.’

Learn more about the book:


Before Owen Michaels disappears, he manages to smuggle a note to his new wife, Hannah: protect her. Hannah knows exactly who Owen needs her to protect – his sixteen-year-old daughter, Bailey, who lost her mother tragically as a child. And who wants absolutely nothing to do with her new stepmother.

As her increasingly desperate calls to Owen go unanswered, his boss is arrested for fraud and the police start questioning her, Hannah realises that her husband isn’t who he said he was. And that Bailey might hold the key to discovering Owen’s true identity, and why he disappeared. Together they set out to discover the truth. But as they start putting together the pieces of Owen’s past, they soon realise that their lives will never be the same again…

A beautiful and thrilling mystery, perfect for readers of Lianne Moriarty and Celeste Ng.

Pick up a copy of the hardback, order the ebook, or download the audiobook today, but make sure you #CancelYourPlans before reading. You won’t want to stop.


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The Last House on Needless Street: Q&A with Catriona Ward

The Last House on Needless Street is finally out!

We know you all have many questions for Catriona Ward, author of The Last House On Needless Street. Everything from the gripping plot twists that no one sees coming, to the intricacy of the characters that readers are coming to love. Today, we’re delighted to share this Q&A our lovely editor Miranda did with Catriona. Read on to get the scoop.

1. Everyone who has read The Last House on Needless Street raves about all the many twists and turns. Did you plan them in detail, or write furiously and edit afterwards? 

I knew where the book had to end up, so I wrote my way furiously towards that. It was like spinning a vast spiderweb. Each plot thread was integral yet interconnected to a hundred others, and each change affected and reverberated through the whole. It felt impossible at times but I just had to believe it would come together. And some of the most satisfying twists were the ones I discovered as I wrote.

2. A character in The Last House on Needless Street who has become an early reader favourite is the snooty cat, Olivia. Is she a complete creation, or is she based on a real cat?  

Growing up, I had a black cat called Velvet. She was born in Kenya, and came with us when we moved to Madagascar, the US, Yemen, Morocco and finally the UK where she passed away peacefully at the age of 19. Whenever I opened a book she would appear and curl up next to me. I spent most of my childhood reading – so we spent a lot of time together. I think Olivia is very much her own cat, however. As I was planning the book she strolled in from nowhere, as cats tend to do. She was already very full of opinions.

3. The Last House on Needless Street is quite different to your two previous novels, Rawblood and Little Eve, which were more straight historical gothic. Why did you decide to write a modern gothic thriller? 

I was born in the US and lived there as a child. I wanted to mine new areas of experience for this book – my US background, my lifelong fascination with serial killers and those wild forests of Washington State. It felt like time to push my boundaries as a writer and turn my love of the gothic to something strange and altogether different.

4. Who are the writers who most inspire you, and whose work you return to again and again? 

Kelly Link makes the magical seem everyday, and vice versa. I always leave her work enriched. Shirley Jackson understands that sometimes it’s the mundane that terrifies, rather than the monstrous. Growing up, Stephen King was my gateway to horror. His writing was a huge influence and still lives in my imagination today.

5. Can you tell us something about your next book, Sundial?

A mother takes her teenage daughter on a bonding trip to her abandoned childhood home, Sundial, which sits in the great expanses of the Mojave desert in Southern California. Each thinks the other is planning to murder her out there. It sounds sinister, and it is – but it’s also about compassion, sacrifice, and the complicated love that can hold families together.

Catriona Ward was born in Washington, DC and grew up in the US, Kenya, Madagascar, Yemen, and Morocco. Her debut Rawblood won Best Horror Novel at the 2016 British Fantasy Awards, and was a WHSmith Fresh Talent title. Little Eve won the Shirley Jackson Award, was a Guardian best book of 2018 and won the Best Horror Novel at the 2019 British Fantasy Awards. She lives in London and Devon.

You can follow Catriona Ward on Twitter here and Miranda Jewess on Twitter here.

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Call Me Mummy: Q&A with Tina Baker

Have you wondered what inspired the author, Tina Baker, to write about stealing a child? Or maybe you’ve thought about how much of her own self she poured into her characters?

Or, you’re just itching to know what Tina’s next book is? (You and us both!).

Find all the answers, and more, below.

1. Call Me Mummy is your debut novel, and previously you spent years working in TV. What made you decide to start writing?
I’ve always written. At school I’d write stories and poems for myself, not just in English lessons. I kept it secret. It didn’t do to seem soft back there, back then. I was hit on the head with a chair when I entered a Cadbury’s chocolate writing competition. To add insult to actual injury, I didn’t win. I always wanted to write a novel but couldn’t find the time or head space to write fiction when I was a journalist. When my dad died, I finally decided to go for it and did my MA in Creative Writing at City University.

2. The characters of Kim and Mummy are so vivid, both flawed and relatable. Are they based on anyone in real life? Are there parts of your own personality in there?
The three main characters are all parts of me. Don’t hate me! Obviously, I’ve exaggerated because I haven’t actually stolen a child. Honest! I empathise with both Kim and Mummy, although I’m mainly Tonya. Kim’s friend Ayesha is based on the ladies I taught to keep fit at Finsbury Park Mosque.

3. In Call Me Mummy you explore how the media can turn on women who don’t conform to the ideals of motherhood. Why did you decide to include it in the novel?
I was horrified by the treatment of Madeleine McCann’s parents. As if losing a child’s not the worst thing in the world, you’re then crucified in the press. I never did much news reporting as a journalist, but I’ve read stuff that chills my blood. Even if the story’s balanced, people remember headline quotes like ‘Scummy Mummy’ which can ruin someone’s life. Woman can’t win in the media. We’re too fat, too thin, too confident, too bolshy— slammed for being a working mum or a stay-at-home mum. A man can turn up to the school gates with coke up his nose and a hooker on his arm and it’s like, ‘Bless! He’s come to collect the kids.’

4. Which crime writers most inspire you? Is there a book that you want to recommend to everyone?
I confess, I hadn’t read much crime until I was told I was a crime writer. Not one single Agatha Christie. Please don’t stone me in the street. I’ve now read a lot of my Viper colleagues’ work. Dave Jackson makes me laugh, Janice Hallett challenges my brain, Catriona Ward hooks my emotions. Shuggie Bain is the book that most touched me recently. The working class/underclass experience is very close to my heart. Not crime? What Thatcher did to Shuggie’s community was a bloody crime.

5. Can you tell us something about your next book? No spoilers!
Nasty Little Cuts explores those small niggles, resentments and cruelties that build and build within relationships, and then in highly charged situations like Christmas can erupt into something horrific. Bridget Jones meets Jack Reacher.

Tina Baker was brought up in a caravan after her mother, a fairground traveller, fell pregnant by a window cleaner. After leaving the bright lights of Coalville, she came to London and worked as a journalist and broadcaster for thirty years. She’s probably best known as a television critic for the BBC and GMTV. Call Me Mummy is Tina’s first novel.

You can follow the brilliant Tina Baker here.

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Detransition, Baby: Read an extract

In support of #TransAwarenessWeek we are celebrating the extraordinary Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters, coming in January.

Reese had scraped together a life previous generations of trans women could only dream of; the only thing missing was a child. Then everything fell apart and three years on Reese is still in self-destruct mode. When her ex calls to ask if she wants to be a mother, Reese is intrigued. After being attacked, Amy de-transitioned to become Ames, changed jobs and started an affair with his boss Katrina. Now Katrina’s pregnant. Can the three of them form an unconventional family – and raise the baby together?

Torrey Peters lives in Brooklyn and holds an MFA from the University of Iowa and a Masters in Comparative Literature from Dartmouth. She is the author of two novellas, Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones and The Masker. Join her on Twitter: @torreypeters

Pre-order your copy from | Waterstones | Amazon 

detransition baby



One month after conception

The question, for Reese: Were married men just desperately attractive to her? Or was the pool of men who were available to her as a trans woman only those who had already locked down a cis wife and could now “explore” with her? The easy answer, the one that all her girls advocated, was to call men dogs. But now, here’s Reese—sneaking around with another handsome, charming, motherfucking cheater. Look at her, wearing a black lace dress and sitting in his parked Beamer, waiting while he goes into a Duane Reade to buy condoms. Then she’s going to let him come over to her apartment, avoid the pointed glare of her roommate, Iris, and have him fuck her right on the trite floral bedspread that the last married dude bought her so that her room would seem a little more girly and naughty when he snuck away from his wife.

Reese had already diagnosed her own problem. She didn’t know how to be alone. She fled from her own company, from her own solitude. Along with telling her how awful her cheating men were, her friends also told her that after two major breakups, she needed time to learn to be herself, by herself. But she couldn’t be alone in any kind of moderate way. Give her a week to herself and she began to isolate, cultivating an ash pile of loneliness that built on itself exponentially, until she was daydreaming about selling everything and drifting away on a boat toward nowhere. To jolt herself back to life, she went on Grindr, or Tinder, or whatever—and administered ten thousand volts to the heart by chasing the most dramatic tachycardia of an affair she could find. Married men were the best for fleeing loneliness, because married men also didn’t know how to be alone. Married men were experts at being together, at not letting go, no matter what, until death do us part. With the pretense of setting the boundaries of “just an affair,” Reese would swan dive super deep, super hard. By telling herself it would just be a fling, she gave herself permission to fulfill every fetish the guy had ever dreamed of, to unearth his every secret hurt, to debase herself in the most lush, vicious, and unsustainable ways—then collapse into resentment, sadness, and spite that it had been just a fling, because hadn’t she been brave enough and vulnerable enough to dive super deep, super hard?

 She saw herself as attractive, round face and full figure, but she didn’t pretend that she stopped traffic; nor did she frequently note people standing around to admire the harvests of her brain. But with the right kind of man, she bore a genius for drama. She could distill it and flame it like jet fuel when solitude chilled her bones.  

Her man this time was similar to her others. A handsome, mar­ried alpha-type who put her on a leash in the bedroom. Only this one was better, because he was an HIV-positive cowboy-turned-lawyer. He had a thing for trans girls and had seroconverted while cheating on his wife with a trans woman, and the wife had stayed with him, and now he was at it again with Reese. Wheeeee!

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Black History Month spotlight: Alain Mabanckou

For Black History Month, we’re flooding our news feed with profiles of our black authors, past and present. In the seventh of the series, Publisher Hannah Westland writes about Alain Mabanckou, author of The Death of Comrade President.

One of the longest standing and most beloved authors on the Serpent’s Tail list, we have published eight books by Alain Mabanckou over the years. Mabanckou is a wildly inventive, hugely entertaining writer who is equally deft at drawing on stories of his own life growing up in Pointe Noire in the Democratic Republic of Congo, as he is taking us on flights of imagination, following bar flies, psychopaths, humans who can transform into animals, street-walkers, teenage chancers and any number of other larger than life characters. His characters’ view from the street always has something bigger to tell us about the wider world, from the experience of immigrant life in Paris to the sweep of African history.

His playful often absurdist style has had him described as the African Samuel Beckett and his work makes nods to a wide range of influences, from Dickens to Bret Easton Ellis. But comparisons feel insufficient when it comes to describing the experience of reading Mabanckou’s work. You simply need to dive in and let him take you where he will, with the knowledge that you will enjoy every moment of the ride.

Twice listed for the Booker International Prize and winner of numerous awards in France and beyond, Mabanckou’s writing has truly global influence. The second best experience of his work you can have beyond reading it is seeing him speak about it, and he’s long been a favourite on festival panels around the world. His visits to the UK are always a highlight for us, so we hope we can have him back to share his magic with audiences before too long (if you can’t wait, here’s a brilliant event he did with Etgar Keret and Nick Barley at the Edinburgh Book Festival in 2015). 

Watch, fall in love, then rush out to buy his books.

Buy your copy of The Death of Comrade President from your local independent bookshop or: Waterstones Amazon | Hive



Maman Pauline says you should always wear clean clothes when you go out. She says the main thing people criticise is what you’re wearing; you can hide the rest, dirty underwear, for example, or socks with holes in.

So I’ve just changed my shirt and shorts.

Papa Roger is sitting under the mango tree, at the far end of our plot, busy listening to our national radio station, the Voice of the Congolese Revolution, which since yesterday afternoon has broadcast nothing but Soviet music.

Without turning round to look at me, he gives me my orders:

‘Michel, don’t dawdle on the way! Don’t forget your mother’s errands, my red wine, my tobacco, and don’t lose my change!’

He reminds me not to dawdle because I have a habit of stopping to drool over the cars of the black capitalists near the Avenue of Independence, as though I’ll never get another chance. I just stand there gazing at them, imagining one day I’ll buy one myself, I’ll hide it at night in a lock-up, guarded by bulldogs I’ve dosed with Johnnie Walker Red Label mixed with corn spirit to make them ten times more vicious than even the dogs that belong to the whites in the town centre. I get caught up in my thoughts, and forget all about Maman Pauline’s errands; I forget Papa Roger asked me for red wine and the tobacco powder he stuffs up his nostrils, making his eyes water.

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Black History Month Spotlight: Lola Shoneyin

For Black History Month, we’re flooding our news feed with profiles of our black authors, past and present. In the sixth of the series, Associate Publisher Rebecca Gray writes about Lola Shoneyin, author of The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives.

Ten years ago, one of the first books I edited was The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives. The story of a polygamous household having to accommodate a new, young, fourth wife, the characters jostle for space in just the way they would have to in their home. There’s intrigue, drama and plenty of tension. Though it’s named for its patriarch, for me it will always be Bolanle’s book, the new wife who may be booksmart but who seems not to know too much of the real world. While all the characters have stayed with me, it is her pain and quietness that I most powerfully remember a decade on. 

Working with Lola was a joy – her combination of lightness, wit, sly humour and wrenching pain is what makes her first and only novel a modern classic. It was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, has been adapted for stage and will soon be adapted for the screen, has sold consistently well for a decade and will shortly be available with a gorgeous new cover and as an audiobook read by the author too.

In the years since her debut, Lola has created and built the Ake Arts Festival, which has become a literary and arts festival of international renown. Bringing together authors from all over the world to celebrate creativity on the African continent, Lola proves she knows how to inspire others as much as pursuing her own art. Which reminds me to say that I hope it won’t be her only novel forever! I continue to hope (and occasionally hassle her) for another. Meanwhile, The Ake Festival begins (virtually) today and runs until 25 October, so you can join from wherever you are. 

Buy your copy of The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives from your local independent bookshop or: Waterstones | Amazon | Hive

lola shoneyin


When Baba Segi awoke with a bellyache for the sixth day in a row, he knew it was time to do something drastic about his fourth wife’s childlessness. He was sure the pain wasn’t caused by hunger or trapped gas; it was from the build-up of months and months of worry. A grunt escaped from the woman lying next to him. He glanced sideways and saw that his leg had stapled Iya Tope, his second wife, to the bed. He observed the jerky rise and fall of her bosom but he didn’t move to ease her discomfort. His thoughts returned to Bolanle and his stomach tightened again. Then and there, he decided to pay Teacher a visit. He would get there at sunrise so Teacher would know it was no ordinary stop over.

As soon as his driver parked the pick-up truck by the gutter that circled Ayikara, Baba Segi flung open the passenger door and re-inflated his large frame. Without a word or a backward glance at his driver, he dashed down a narrow alleyway. If his eyes hadn’t been entirely fixed on Teacher’s shack, he might have noticed that his driver had scrambled after him. Baba Segi stepped aside to make room for the schoolchildren on their daily pilgrimage. These children went to great pains to bid Teacher good
morning, just to see him steam up the louvres with his response. ‘God mourning,’ the smoky-eyed sage hummed. The children waved happily and toddled off to school. Baba Segi shook his head. If their parents ever discovered that they had strayed from the dusty road that led to wisdom, stepped wide-legged over spluttering gutters and shifted between random buildings, those children would be in grave trouble. Teacher’s shack was in Ayikara and Ayikara was not a place for children.

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Black History Month Spotlight: Langston Hughes

For Black History Month, we’re flooding our news feed with profiles of our black authors, past and present. In the fifth of the series, we take an excerpt from the multi-prizewinning young poet Kayo Chingonyi’s introduction to Langston Hughes’ Selected Poems, republished this year in our Classics series.

Follow @kayochingonyi on Twitter


Kayo Chingonyi

It is appropriate that my first meeting with the work of Langston Hughes wasn’t in the pages of a book but in Gary Bartz’s rendition of ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’, a song I heard while listening to Gilles Peterson’s Worldwide Show on Radio 1 sometime in the early 2000s, when, at fourteen or fifteen years old, it was my habit to record songs from the radio on to my favoured TDK D 90 Type 1 audio cassettes. I sat there, finger primed on the pause button and, when I heard the soaring notation, I let the pause button go to record what came next.

The words in the singer’s mouth had a swing not unlike someone walking down a street in Harlem, with that borough’s famous élan (though, don’t tell Brooklyn I said that). What did it mean to ‘know rivers’, I thought? So began my kinship with Langston; one of the enduring dialogues of my reading life. He was there at that xiii crucial point when my sense of self began taking shape and later, when I was an undergraduate in English Literature, searching the supplementary anthology of a module entitled ‘Introduction to Advanced Literary Studies’ for names I recognised, there he was again, like the nameless protagonist of his much anthologised poem speaking of continuity, ‘the/ flow of human blood in human veins’.

It would be remiss of me here to brush past the quieter poems in Hughes’s oeuvre, those that a volume such as this – reflecting the poems Hughes himself wished to preserve – brings into such sharp relief. I want, then, to offer my hand, dear reader, and take you for a walk around Langston’s poems.

There is an important sense in which Langston is a blues poet, and indeed many of the poems in this volume reflect that in their titles, but there is another part of the blues that Langston brought into his poems: an attunement to the nuances of spoken language and African-American vernacular English most especially:

They done took Cordelia
Out to stony lonesome ground.

‘Stony Lonesome’

Snow has friz me, sun has baked me.
Looks like between ’em
They done tried to make me
Stop laughin’, stop lovin’, stop livin’—

‘Still Here’

Buy your copy of Selected Poems from your local independent bookshop or: Waterstones | Amazon | Hive

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Black History Month Spotlight: Esi Edugyan

For Black History Month, we’re flooding our news feed with profiles of our black authors, past and present. In the fourth of the series, Publicity and Marketing Assistant Elizabeth Hitti writes about the international literary star, Esi Edugyan.


‘Destined to become a future classic … that rare book that should appeal to every kind of reader’ Guardian

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2018

Winner of the Giller Prize 2018

Shortlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award 2020

Finalist for the Carnegie Medal 2019 and the Rogers Writers Trust Fiction Prize 2018

Longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize 2019

New York Times Top Ten Book of the Year 2018

Sunday Times Paperback of the Year 2019

Esi Edugyan tells the story of the outliers of both society and history and in doing so, gives a voice to characters in liminal spaces whose stories have not been told. At least, not from their perspective. Esi compels readers to see the humanity of figures who are different from themselves, and she is unrelenting in her honesty and vivid portrayal of her characters’ lives. Immersing the reader in their experiences and perspectives, Esi compels us to share in their emotions, desires, fears and pain. She forces us to acknowledge the darkness we are capable of internalising; she makes us question our identities; and she induces us to consider the value of physical and psychological freedom.

Washington Black follows the life an eleven-year-old field slave who is selected as personal servant to the eccentric master of a Barbados sugar plantation who dreams of perfecting an aerial machine. Wash soon finds himself in mortal danger and making his way alone, following the promise of freedom further than he ever dreamed possible.

The Second Life of Samuel Tyne is the tale of a man who moves his reluctant family to a grand but crumbling house in a new town, seizing his chance for a new beginning, but soon finding the faultlines in this dream. When his daughters’ school friend comes to stay and nearly drowns in mysterious circumstances, and then a series of fires around the town go unexplained, Samuel and his wife must face up to the secrets within their own family, secrets that threaten to completely tear apart the life they have built.

In Half Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan weaves the horror of betrayal, the burden of loyalty and the possibility that, if you don’t tell your story, someone else might tell it for you. And they just might tell it wrong…

Vivid. Political. Beautiful. Exhilarating. Adventurous. Captivating. Dark. Necessary. Esi Edugyan’s writing cannot be described with one word, nor should it. Her work can only be expressed and understood through the reading.

Buy your copy of Washington Black from your local independent bookshop or: Waterstones | Amazon | Hive

Washington Black


Faith Plantation, Barbados, 1830

The first man to emerge, carrying his hat in his hands, had black hair and a long, horselike jaw, his eyes darkened by heavy brows. He raised his face as he descended and peered around at the estate and the men and women gathered there. Then I saw him stride back to the curious object and walk around it, inspecting the ropes and canvas. Cradling a hand to his eyes, he turned, and for a frightening moment I felt his gaze on me. He was chewing some soft-textured thing, his jaw working a little. He did not look away.

But it was the second man, the sinister man in white, who seized my attention. This was our new master – we all could see it at once. He was tall, impatient, sickly, his legs bending away from each other like calipers. Under his three-cornered white hat a shock of white hair burst forth. I had a sense of pale eyelashes, an uncooked pallor to his skin. A man who has belonged to another learns very early to observe a master’s eyes; what I saw in this man’s terrified me. He owned me, as he owned all those I lived among, not only our lives but also our deaths, and that pleased him too much. His name was Erasmus Wilde.

I felt a shudder go through Big Kit. I understood. His slick white face gleamed, the clean white folds of his clothes shone impossibly bright, like a duppy, a ghost. I feared he could vanish and reappear at will; I feared he must feed on blood to keep himself warm; I feared he could be anywhere and not visible to us, and so I went about my work in silence. I had already seen many deaths: I knew the nature of evil. It was white like a duppy, it drifted down out of a carriage one morning and into the heat of a frightened plantation with nothing in its eyes.

It was then, I believe now, that Big Kit determined, calmly and with love, to kill herself and me.

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Black History Month Spotlight: Pauline Black

For Black History Month, we’re flooding our news feed with profiles of our black authors, past and present. Check back in for updates over the next few weeks. Marketing Director Niamh Murray writes about Pauline Black, whose memoir Black by Design we published in 2012.

As lead singer of The Selecter, Pauline Black was (and still is, they are still touring when life is normal) one of the coolest women in music, and one of very few women in the ska / two tone scene. So her perspective is one of life at the forefront of a musical genre that drew an audience from across black and white music fans and had plenty to say to all. Their music covered racism, sexism, politics and poverty in Thatcher’s Britain – intersectional from the off – and so there would be more than enough here to delight music fans. 
But Black by Design doesn’t confine its scope to sweaty dancehalls, bedsits and recording studios – this is a much deeper and more nuanced memoir, about growing up out of place and what that experience does to Black‘s sense of self, how it motivates her journey of self-discovery. A book for anyone who loved Lemn Sissay’s recent memoir My Name Is Why or Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal by Jeanette Winterson. Read it as one person’s portrait of how multicultural Britain has evolved since the late 70s and when you’re done, check out The Selecter on Spotify.

Buy your copy of Black By Design from your local independent bookshop or:

Waterstones | Amazon | Hive

Follow @paulineblack 

pauline black black by design


My earliest memory is of vomiting the breakfast contents of my stomach onto a pile of starched white sheets that my mother had just finished ironing. I succeeded in Jackson Pollocking all of them. She was not amused, but then again it was her own fault: she shouldn’t have told me that I had been adopted.

It was the late summer of 1958 in Romford, a newly expanding market town in the county of Essex, famous for the stink of its Star brewery, ‘a night down the dogs’ at the local greyhound racing stadium and as the one-time residence of the infamous Colonel Blood, the only man to have stolen the Crown Jewels, even if only temporarily. This backwater suburb was only fifteen miles north-east of London’s buzzing post-war metropolis, but a light year behind in terms of progressive thinking.

My mother was astute enough to know that, since I was about to start infant school, I should be told the truth about my origins, just in case my new pale-faced schoolmates asked me why I was brown when my parents were white. I had noticed that I was different, but I hadn’t realized that it was any kind of a problem. Well, nothing much is a problem at four years old, other than not getting what you really want for birthdays and Christmases.

‘Why didn’t you tell me you felt sick,’ screamed my mother, as she landed a huge smack on my right leg, grabbed me by the arm and sent me upstairs to my bedroom as punishment. ‘As if I haven’t got enough work to do,’ she shouted as I howled my way upstairs.


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Black History Month Spotlight: Attica Locke

For Black History Month, we’re flooding our news feed with profiles of our black authors, past and present. In the second of the series, Marketing Manager Rachel Nobilo writes about the inspiring, change-maker Attica Locke.


‘The most celebrated African-American writer of crime fiction. Although her books are about the black experience in the US, they are universal in scope … a consummate storyteller.’ – Financial Times

Attica Locke is a formidable talent, both on the page and behind the screen, and her depictions of the black experience is vivid, unforgettable and essential. She’s an acclaimed writer, screenwriter and producer and most recently worked on two of the most striking book-to-TV adaptations I’ve seen, When They See Us and Little Fires Everywhere

When They See Us won the Critics’ Choice Television Award for Best Limited Series and was nominated for 11 awards at the 71st Primetime Emmy Awards. Notably, in 2018, Attica campaigned against the Mystery Writers of America’s decision to bestow a lifetime achievement award to the Central Park Five prosecutor who pushed for the teen’s convictions. She successfully prompted the Mystery Writers of America to rescind the award for the first time in its history. 

Heaven My Home, the latest in her Highway 59 series, follows on from her Edgar Award-winning Bluebird, Bluebird, a powerful novel about the explosive intersection of love, race, and justice set in East Texas and centred on black Texas Ranger Darren Mathews. Heaven My Home returns to the deep country of Texas, now suffering a new wave of racial violence in the wake of the election of Donald Trump. We return to the experiences of Darren Mathews as he battles centuries-old prejudice in his investigation of a black man suspected in the possible murder of a missing white boy: the son of an Aryan Brotherhood captain.

Attica Locke is the author of Pleasantville, the winner of the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction that was also longlisted for the Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction. Her novel The Cutting Season was the winner of the Ernest Gaines Award for Literary Excellence and her first novel Black Water Rising was nominated for an Edgar Award, an NAACP Image Award, as well as a Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and was short-listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. 

We are thrilled to be publishing the next volume in the Highway 59 series next September. Stay tuned for more exciting updates.

Buy your copy of Heaven My Home from your local independent bookshop or:

Waterstones Amazon Hive

Heaven My Home


He didn’t have time to go home the way he’d come, hugging the north shore of the lake, sailing along a thin canal of relative safety, porch lights on boathouses and craggy lake cabins twinkling hints of civilization. That would take nearly an hour. It would be full-on dark by then, and Levi hadn’t brought a flashlight. He’d set out in a thin jacket with nothing on board but Pappy’s old radio and a single oar pitted with rot that his grandfather had used to pull himself ashore. The radio kept cutting in and out. The antenna was bent halfway down, and in the pockets of silence, a deeper kind of fear took hold. He’d heard the lake went silent come nightfall, Spanish moss on the cypress trees dampening all sound, so that you could feel in this primeval lake on the edge of the state, this swamp at the edge of time, that you were the last man alive.

Not that he’d ever been on the water this late, not even when his granddaddy was still alive. Pappy believed in supper at five o’clock sharp. The Swamp Loon would have been drying in the boathouse by now, Pappy on his third or fourth beer in front of the TV. The old man steered clear of the lake after dark, always warning Levi how easy it was for a man to get turned around once night fell if he was moving solely by the light of a weak headlamp or a shy moon. The lake was big and complex—the many bayous, tributaries, and inlets like a tangle of snakes on the Texas side, at least the part that sat in Marion County—a wetland maze that had mystified outsiders for hundreds of years. If you didn’t know the lake well, you could easily mistake one cypress tree for another, take the wrong bayou pass, and never find your way out, not in near blackout conditions. The thought made Levi’s heart race. The radio shot back on, startling him, Patsy Cline cutting through a burst of static. It was a station out of Shreveport that switched from zydeco to country near suppertime—another sign he was late.

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Black History Month Spotlight: Saidiya Hartman

For Black History Month, we’re flooding our news feed with profiles of our black authors, past and present. Check back in for updates over the next few weeks. In the first of the series, Senior Marketing Manager Flora Willis writes about the incredible Saidiya Hartman.


‘Few, then or now, recognized young black women as sexual modernists, free lovers, radicals, and anarchists, or realized that the flapper was a pale imitation of the ghetto girl.’

In Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, literary scholar and historian Saidiya Hartman reimagines the lives of black women in America at the turn of the century. Emancipated but limited by what white society deemed acceptable, Hartman’s women are trailblazers for a new way of living.

While the author’s archive is shockingly small, her characters and their lives – built out of sociological surveys, tenement photographs, reformatory case files, and other sources – are rich and whole. It is engrossing reading: with each character a new world, and throughout, the pages alive with chatter echoing in tenement block stairwells, underwear fluttering on clotheslines, the low-lit clubs of Harlem where queer poets and singers take to the stage, cramped rooms where couples fall in and out of love; awful and all too frequent slashes of police violence.

In October last year we attended Hartman’s event at Birkbeck University in London. We knew it would be great. But we couldn’t have anticipated the breathless silence as Hartman walked on stage, the air of awe and reverence and the prolonged standing ovation. When she read, you could have heard a pin drop. You can listen to her talk as a podcast.

Since we published Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, Hartman has been awarded a MacArthur Genius grant. They said: ‘By addressing gaps and omissions in accounts of trans-Atlantic slavery and its aftermath, Hartman has influenced an entire generation of scholars and afforded readers a proximity to the past that would otherwise be foreclosed.’

We are thrilled to be publishing Lose Your Mother, a remarkable meditation on slavery, history and kin, in June 2021.

Buy your copy of Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments from your local independent bookshop or:

Waterstones | Amazon | Hive

wayward lives


If it is possible to imagine Mattie and other young black women as innovators and radical thinkers, then the transformations of sexuality, intimacy, affiliation, and kinship taking place in the black quarter of northern cities might be labeled the revolution before Gatsby.Before the queer men and lady lovers and pansies congregated at the Ubangi Club, or the Garden of Joy or the Clam House, before the Harlem Renaissance, before white folks journeyed uptown to get a taste of the other, before F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Radclyffe Halland Henry Miller, before black communists and socialists preaching on Harlem street corners noticed girls like Mattie, eager as any to hear news of a future world— this reconstruction of intimate life commenced.After the slave ship and the plantation, the third revolution of black intimate life unfolded in the city. The hallway, bedroom, stoop, rooftop, airshaft, and kitchenette provided the space of experiment. The tenement and the rooming house furnished the social laboratory of the black working class and the poor. The bedroom was a domain of thought in deed and a site for enacting, exceeding, undoing, and remaking relations of power. Unfortunately, the police and the sociologists were there also, ready and waiting, for Mattie Nelson on the threshold of want.