The way Nathan Harris puts it, growing up in Ashland he was one of those kids who just wasn’t good at much. Science was a mystery, math broke his brain. But he always loved stories, reading them and telling them.
After he wrote one for an assignment at Briscoe Elementary in Ashland, he tossed it into a bin with all the others for students to pick through. Then something interesting happened.
“I just remember there being something of a line to read mine and thinking, oh, maybe this is something I could do,” he said. “It was a thrill that I hadn’t found anywhere else.”
It’s safe to say that Harris, a 2010 Ashland High graduate, experienced that thrill again recently and is poised to feel it a million times over in the coming months after receiving a call that most first-time novelists could only fantasize about from the Queen of all Media herself, Oprah Winfrey.
The iconic former daytime talk show host and book lover announced Tuesday live on CBS This Morning that Harris’ debut novel “The Sweetness of Water” was the latest pick for Oprah’s Book Club. As part of the announcement, Harris was interviewed in the studio by Oprah, who appeared remotely, and CBS This Morning co-host Tony Dokoupil.
A full-length discussion between Harris and Winfrey will air July 23 as part of the “Oprah’s Book Club” series on Apple TV+.
The endorsement means instant exposure for Harris and his book, which has received rave reviews from The New York Times, The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly and many others. Buyers have responded accordingly. On Wednesday, “The Sweetness of Water” had two user reviews and wasn’t ranked in any of Amazon’s various metrics. By Friday, it had 30 user reviews and was ranked No. 85 in the Kindle store and No. 1 on the site in three different subcategories — gay and lesbian, Southern United States fiction and gay fiction.
A historical fiction novel, “The Sweetness of Water” tells the story of two freed slaves, brothers Prentiss and Landry, who go to work for a grief-stricken Georgian farmer soon after the conclusion of the Civil War.
Harris said he learned of Oprah’s interest about two months ago.
“It’s a very big surprise and it’s very secretive,” he said. “She talked to the head publisher and the editor and that’s it. There was only two or three people who knew at (publisher) Little, Brown and they just told me there was news and I didn’t know what the news was. And next thing you know I’m getting a phone call from Oprah herself.”
Harris, who turns 30 in November, said he could hardly believe it and even suspected a prank, but all his doubts quickly evaporated the second he heard one of the most recognizable voices in the world on the other end of the line.
“We had about a 10-minute talk and it was surreal,” Harris said of that first conversation with Oprah. “She had clearly read the book closer than most and she had all these parts underlined – ‘Oh, Nathan, I love this part, I love that part.’ I was utterly speechless. She asked me a few questions and then she said, ‘Let’s stop with the questions, we’re going to do a full interview soon.’ It was just a stupendous moment. It felt like my dream was coming true.”
After graduating from AHS then from the University of Oregon in 2014, Harris moved to San Francisco, where he wrote much of the novel during off hours when he wasn’t working. Yes, he worked for the food delivery service Postmates. No, that wasn’t the only job he had, and when asked about it Harris chuckled at how, in the recent publicity swarm, reporters seem to have fallen in love with the romanticism of the Postmates story (even Dokoupil mentioned it during CBS’s 7-minute segment).
“I delivered Postmates, but they like to spin that story,” Harris said. “I did other things, too, but that was one of the things I did. They love that. My mom is still an attorney in Phoenix, (Arizona), with my brother, Jacob, and I did legal assistant stuff with them from a distance, but I was doing other stuff as well. It’s not quite the rags to riches story.”
As for the actual writing, Harris said he took a slowly-but-surely approach to “Sweetness,” working on it consistently without saddling himself with strict benchmark goals.
“I always quote Jonathan Lethem, the author,” Harris said. “He says, ‘as long as you make contact with the work every day it’ll get done.’ So I never set a time period, never set a word count. I just made sure that every morning before I started the other jobs I was doing I made the work my priority and I sat with it. Sometimes you’re re-writing a page, sometimes you’re just reading the work over, sometimes you’re writing 500 words, 200 words, whatever it may be. Just writing every day, it will get done. And that’s what I did.”
Occasionally, Harris would share portions of the work-in-progress with his roommate, Mason Costantino, another Ashland High alum. Both felt it was pretty good. Soon thereafter Harris accepted a fellowship at the prestigious Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin, where he lives today. He hired an agent, Emily Forland at Brandt & Hochman, in 2019, and that summer signed with Little, Brown. Forland told Publishers Weekly that the deal included a “nice, substantial advance” for world English rights.
That was a memorable day, Harris said.
“There were a few celebrations, that’s for sure,” he said. “That’s the dream come true right there. There have been multiple dreams that have come true but getting a publishing contract in a world where that’s more and more difficult, that was everything to me. To have (editor) Ben George at Little, Brown trust my work and trust the book and usher it into the world, it all just felt like it was going to materialize for me, all that I had worked for.”
Harris said George was a sensitive editor whose dedication to the book made it better. That’s not to say they didn’t have arguments, but Harris said “they were fights like brothers have fights.” The hard work was well worth it according to book critics, who have showered upon “Sweetness” the kind of praise for which authors would happily sell their souls. It’s been lauded as “deeply moving” (Publishers Weekly), a book that “explores this liminal moment in our history with extraordinary sensitivity (Washington Post),” and Harris hailed as “a storyteller with bountiful insight and assurance (Kirkus).”
Harris said reading reviews dissecting his own work was strange and a little scary.
“As a book fan, a lot of these reviewers I’ve followed my entire adult life and I have read them closely, and now they’re talking about me,” he said. “I find myself sort of scrolling through them quickly because I’m afraid to … get to the negative part, but then the negative part doesn’t come. So it’s been crazy.”
Since the Oprah interview, Harris said, life hasn’t changed as much as one might expect.
“It’s been interestingly busy and quiet, by which I mean my publicist will write me with these interviews at these certain times, but quite frankly other than that I’m somewhat free,” he said. “I’m getting a lot of texts, a lot of calls from people I haven’t heard from in a while, but I still have my time while keeping my sanity, my wits about me just trying to stay grounded.”
What’s next? Harris said he’ll be talking to a film agent soon about a possible film adaptation, but says speculation on that front is still premature. But he’s hopeful.
Regarding his “Sweetness” follow up, Harris doesn’t want to get into any specifics. Instead, he’s chosen to heed the advice to Tobias Wolff and not speak of the work, lest it “harden the words.” What Harris will say is that he’s kept up his practice of writing every day and hopes that more books by him are on the horizon.
Then Harris, who counts the Oregon Shakespeare Festival as an influence, as well as Ashland itself, made a request.
“Try to put in there that everybody who’s reading it should head to Bloomsbury in Ashland to pick up a copy,” he said. “That’s my local shop.”
Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or firstname.lastname@example.org.