Yaa Gyasi’s much-anticipated second novel, Transcendent Kingdom, is finally available, and we’re so delighted to welcome Yaa as our guest editor for the month. Her book is this month’s @readwithjenna and @todayshow book club pick, too.
Nearly four years later, Yaa is back with Transcendent Kingdom, and we spent a few minutes catching up with her on her writing process, the stories behind her stories and more.
Where do you get your ideas for your novels?
The inspiration for Homegoing, my first novel, was very clear and visceral. I was visiting the Cape Coast Castle with my cousins and a friend and as the tour guide took us through all the rooms, I knew, in an almost bodily way, that I wanted to write about what had taken place there.
Transcendent Kingdom had a more indirect, harder-to-pin-down starting point. After I finished a first draft of Homegoing, I set it aside and wrote a short story about a Gerard Manley Hopkins scholar whose mother comes to stay with her. I really loved the voice of that story, and I was able to have it published in Guernica, but I didn’t dwell on it for too long because I needed to get back to revising my first novel. And then Homegoing was published and it took on a life of its own and I kind of forgot about the story.
Around the time that Homegoing came out my best friend from Alabama, a neuroscientist, had a big paper published. I was so proud of her and so excited to read it, but when I sat down to do so, I realized that I didn’t understand a word of it. So, I asked if she might let me come shadow her in her lab sometime, and she very kindly obliged. It was an utterly fascinating experience. When I started working on Transcendent Kingdom, I wanted to see if I could write a novel that used that voice that I had loved from the story to explore some of the research questions that my friend was asking in her work.
See what Jenna Bush Hager said about Yaa’s first book, Homegoing, when she announced Transcendent Kingdom as the Today Show and Read With Jenna Book Club pick.
What drew you to exploring addiction and suffering in Transcendent Kingdom?
The work that my friend does around reward-seeking really came first. I wanted to see if I could write a novel that used her research as a spring board. It was almost like giving myself a writing prompt: Write a novel about a woman who studies addiction and depression. The characters emerged from there.
What authors past and present have influenced you as a writer and why?
So many! Toni Morrison changed the landscape of American fiction and cut a path for so many of us, myself included. There has been a Lucille Clifton poem for every season of my life and I feel so lucky to have found her work when I was young. Edward P. Jones’s short stories are marvelous and singular. He is a master of time and structure. I leave his books feeling full. Jesmyn Ward writes about the people of the Gulf Coast with so much love and tenderness that you feel as though you’ve met her characters somewhere before. Bryan Washington is another writer who pays particular attention to place. I’ve been to Houston once, but I get to go, with Washington as guide, every time I pick up his work.
What can we look forward to seeing from you next?
I’m too superstitious to say!
About Transcendent Kingdom
Yaa Gyasi’s stunning follow-up to her acclaimed national best seller Homegoing is a powerful, raw, intimate, deeply layered novel about a Ghanaian family in Alabama.
Gifty is a sixth-year PhD candidate in neuroscience at the Stanford University School of Medicine studying reward-seeking behavior in mice and the neural circuits of depression and addiction. Her brother, Nana, was a gifted high school athlete who died of a heroin overdose after an ankle injury left him hooked on OxyContin. Her suicidal mother is living in her bed. Gifty is determined to discover the scientific basis for the suffering she sees all around her. But even as she turns to the hard sciences to unlock the mystery of her family’s loss, she finds herself hungering for her childhood faith and grappling with the evangelical church in which she was raised, whose promise of salvation remains as tantalizing as it is elusive. Transcendent Kingdom is a deeply moving portrait of a family of Ghanaian immigrants ravaged by depression and addiction and grief–a novel about faith, science, religion, love. Exquisitely written, emotionally searing, this is an exceptionally powerful follow-up to Gyasi’s phenomenal debut.
Click here to see why Jenna Bush Hager picked Transcendent Kingdom for her September book club pick for the Today Show.