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Books We Love: Ari Shapiro picks 'Build Your House Around My Body'

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Today, NPR unveiled a tool that book fans look forward to every year. We used to call it the Book Concierge. Now it's Books We Love - hundreds of titles recommended by NPR staff and other reviewers, sortable with tags like The Dark Side or Tales From Around The World.

Both of those filters describe a book I chose this year. "Build Your House Around My Body" is by first-time novelist Violet Kupersmith. She previously wrote a short story collection, and both feature ghosts. So I asked Kupersmith earlier this year why the supernatural interests her.

VIOLET KUPERSMITH: When I wrote "The Frangipani Hotel," the short story collection, I was very interested in the metaphor of the ghost as sort of a stand-in for the immigrant because I thought, oh, it's such a perfect figure, the ghost, who is sort of trapped between worlds and doesn't really belong anywhere. But with the novel, I was more attracted to the ghost as a way of getting revenge and as a figure who has this agency that was denied to them in life.

SHAPIRO: "Build Your House Around My Body" begins with the disappearance of a young woman named Winnie. Then it winds backwards through time. Winnie has a lot in common with Kupersmith. They're both Vietnamese American women of mixed racial background who moved to Vietnam in their early 20s.

KUPERSMITH: I wanted to explore the haunting of being hurt in any way and how it occupies a little corner of you. It's your own personal little ghost in the haunted house of your mind. And I felt haunted when I came back to America after living in Vietnam for about three years, mostly by the violence that I saw against women being perpetrated against my friends, against me, the everyday misogyny that drains you. And it felt like a spirit inside you. And so the book was kind of my own way of performing an exorcism on myself.

SHAPIRO: This is a sprawling novel that spans generations, and it has some set pieces familiar from Hollywood horror movies and Brothers Grimm fairy tales, like an exorcism and a haunted forest. But because this book is set in Vietnam, the forest is an overgrown rubber tree plantation. The exorcism doesn't have crucifixes or holy water. Kupersmith told me she actually drew from the experience of witnessing a Vietnamese exorcism.

KUPERSMITH: But in real life, it was much less intense. And the ghost, it turned out, was, like, a vegetarian. And so it was upset at the offerings of chicken that was - that were being left for it.

SHAPIRO: Oh.

KUPERSMITH: And so that's why it was causing problems.

SHAPIRO: You know, you're sitting in suburban Philadelphia, and I'm in Washington, D.C. And you're saying the ghost was a vegetarian and upset at the offerings of chicken, which seems easy to laugh at. But I imagine that, in the moment, it felt very real. Maybe it still feels very real. How do you kind of bridge that?

KUPERSMITH: Oh, it always feels real to me. And ghosts and ghost stories was something that I just - I grew up with. And I do believe in ghosts, and I don't think I would write about them as much if I didn't.

SHAPIRO: Violet Kupersmith on her novel "Build Your House Around My Body." It's one of hundreds of NPR recommended books you'll find at npr.org/bookswelove. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.