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Asha Lemmie on Hemingway, the Pressure of a Sophomore Novel, and Exploring the Theme of Shame in Her Writing

Tuesday, December 05, 2023

“It can be one of the most crippling emotions known to man.”

By Sherri Puzey

Asha Lemmie’s debut novel, Fifty Words for Rain, was a GMA Book Club Selection and New York Times bestseller. The one downside: it was published in 2020, and Lemmie was unable to connect with many readers in person. Now, with the release of her sophomore novel, The Wildest Sun, Lemmie hopes to engage with more readers face-to-face this time around. Zibby Mag spoke with Lemmie about her writing process, her fascination with complicated and ambitious female characters, and what she hopes book clubs will discuss after finishing The Wildest Sun.

Zibby Mag: What was the inspiration behind your new novel The Wildest Sun?

Asha Lemmie: While writing fiction is certainly not autobiographical, one does channel certain emotions into each story. If Fifty Words for Rain was in part a way for me to process feelings of isolation and sorrow, The Wildest Sun was a way for me to process anger, shame, and the importance of learning to accept and forgive ourselves. I knew that I wanted to write about a very different kind of protagonist. I have a fascination with difficult, complicated, ambitious women. I think they deserve the same grace that we give to their male counterparts, though I am keenly aware that they’re less likely to get it. Delphine is a character that I’m very proud of. She’s deeply imperfect but she learns to use what she has for the good, and I think there’s something we can all take away from that.

And I love Hemingway and the artists of his era. That was super fun to dive into.

How does it feel to be publishing your second novel after the smashing success of your debut, Fifty Words for Rain?

I’m excited! My debut was released during Covid, which was obviously a tough time for everyone. I’m very much looking forward to the opportunity to engage with more readers in person this time around. Of course there’s pressure, but I try not to focus on that. One never knows exactly what’s in store, so I just try to take it one day at a time. It feels less surreal this time around, but I don’t think it will ever feel totally normal.

What does your research and writing process look like? Do you conduct research before you sit down to write the book? Do you write what comes to mind first and fact-check second?

I will usually do a rough outline of the novel before I do much else. Plot, characters, settings, etc. That way, I know where to focus my research efforts. Then I start writing the first few chapters, pause, fact-check everything, and then keep going once everything checks out. It’s much harder to write an entire book and then have to go back and potentially rip the foundation out, so I try to make sure I’m shoring things up as I go along. Then once it’s finished, I do another check with whatever experts I’m consulting with just to fine-tune the details.

What themes or issues did you want to explore in The Wildest Sun?

Redemption and forgiveness are both very important themes in the novel. We’ve all made mistakes, we’ve all experienced some form of shame—whether it’s something we’ve done or simply some facet of who we are—and it can be one of the most crippling emotions known to man. Learning how to move forward and turn those negative experiences into something worthwhile is so important. Women in particular, I may add, have a tendency to be blamed for everything, so it was especially important for me to explore this with a female protagonist.

I also explored themes of family, found or otherwise, self-worth, and the importance of discovering and defining our own identities—which I find endlessly fascinating.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading your novel? What are some of the key topics you envision book club groups discussing after finishing your book?

I certainly think that Delphine’s relationship with her mother and the maternal figures in her life will take center stage. As well as her relationship with Hemingway, the man she believes to be her father. I think the question of identity is so pivotal to this story and it crops up in many different forms. Teddy and Javier, two of the friends Delphine encounters along the way—one in New York and one in Havana—could also be ripe discussion topics.

As for what I’d like readers to walk away with? I never like to be overly prescriptive. But I do hope that people learn to appreciate how far they’ve come even as they work to get to where they’re going.

What books have you read and enjoyed recently that you’d recommend readers pick up after finishing The Wildest Sun?

I’ve been reading a lot lately! I’d recommend The Hours by Michael Cunningham if you haven’t read it yet. I finished it in two days. I also really enjoyed The Secret Book of Flora Lea by Patti Callahan Henry. Both books deal with the questions of ambition and identity in very different but clever, engaging ways.

Posted December 4, 2023

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