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Harvard Authors Spotlight: Gabrielle Zevin

Photo of Gabrielle Zevin ’00, author of "Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow."
Photo of Gabrielle Zevin ’00, author of "Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow." By Courtesy of Hans Canosa
By Hannah E. Gadway, Contributing Writer

Literature provides a way to explore and celebrate what makes us unique. Gabrielle Zevin ’00, author and former Leverett House resident, uses her work to deftly navigate the mysterious topic of identity.

Zevin deeply understands the role that individual identity and childhood influence play in defining a person’s outlook. The idea of embracing one’s inherent identity is especially apparent in Zevin’s latest New York Times best-selling novel, “Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow.” In an interview with The Harvard Crimson, Zevin commented on how identity shaped both the origins of her writing and the characters in the novel.

“The fact that I am, like Sam in the book, half Jewish and half Korean, and I always lived in places where there weren't a lot of people like me, I think there's an extent to which that sets you as an outsider among other people, which probably puts you in a sort of a writerly mode just from from the jump,” she said.

Zevin has always wanted to be a writer; the desire wasn’t inspired by a specific moment in her past.

Embracing underrepresented identities such as Sam’s has been key to Zevin's writing even before the release of “Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow.” Another of her best-selling novels, “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry,” focused on a Southeast Asian protagonist at a time in which such narratives were less popular in Western media.

“[A.J. Fikry] ended up exceeding even my expectations for what it would sell at the time,” Zevin said. “And when that book came out, about seven years ago now, people were less interested in stories that had biracial, Southeast Asian leads than they are now.”

This focus on diverse identities and narratives is a large part of why Zevin originally began writing.

“I used to believe more in the idea that novels can be a vehicle for social change,” she said. “I don't really believe that anymore. But what I do believe is that a novel can show: Here's a person, like you or unlike you, and can tell you what it is like to be somebody who is not you. I think there's something great about that.”

Another recurring theme in Zevin’s work is the fear of declining health and human mortality. Zevin commented on the origins of this theme.

“I think that, as humans, we like to think that it is not an inevitability that we get old and our bodies fail,” she said. “There's some fiction that lives in denial of this fact. And I think some people read for that; they read for the denial of death. But I don't think it's a healthy way to go through life.”

“Health is chance in many ways, and also the decline of health is inevitable. So I think that's the thing that becomes part of [Sadie and Sam’s] games,” she continued. “And I think, in many ways, one of the reasons people play games is to deny death.”

Zevin also spoke on her college years and how they shaped her attitudes towards the writing process. Her time at Harvard was unconventional, and she often felt very different from her fellow students.

“I think I was a pretty lousy Harvard student,” Zevin said. “I wasn't a joiner.”

Instead, Zevin recalls that she used her time in college to take in the world around her. Although there is often a feeling that students must contribute as much to the Harvard community as they receive, Zevin found this pressure unnecessary.

“One of the things I learned while I was at Harvard was to not be afraid of periods of dormancy or inactivity,” Zevin said. “Certainly as part of the creative process, the times to observe, the times to be quiet, and the times to kind of just be in the world are just as useful as the times when you're really, really, actively doing something.”

She explained that taking things slow in life is more valuable than many believe.

“There's a part in ‘Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow’ that mentions the German word ‘torschlusspanik,’ meaning ‘gate shut panic,’” she said. “And that's something I definitely felt up to a couple of years ago: This feeling that time is running out and they're going to close the gates behind you.”

“But there are some things, like writing novels, that take years, and getting used to the fact that there are slow things in life was difficult for me,” she continued. “Now I love that, I love the fact that in a world where everything is, you know, TikToks, there are certain things that take a long time and that you have to look at, day after day after day.”

This ability to take things slow has obviously generated great results for Zevin. “Tomorrow, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow” is her tenth novel, and her success has only soared after its release. Her focus on exploring intriguing identities, profound questions surrounding health and chance, and an idiosyncratic writing process have made her a standout voice in the contemporary literary world.

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