“Yes, some people are going to think of Philip Roth, but Ezra Blazer is a work of fiction,” she said. “The entire book is an amalgam of details and impressions derived from experiences both romantic and platonic that I’ve had over the years, plus a healthy dose of research and imagination. I can understand why some people would associate Philip Roth with Ezra Blazer, but really they are not neatly correlated.”
In evoking the relationship, Ms. Halliday wasn’t aiming to write a fictionalized romantic tell-all, she said, but saw it as a way to explore a young writer’s creative struggles and to show how experience, along with imagination, shapes fiction.
“I wanted to write about an aspiring writer who was having trouble under what I think Harold Bloom called ‘the anxiety of influence,’ because I certainly felt that, working right at the heart of publishing,” she said. “To go back to Philip, I wanted Alice’s relationship to be with someone of that stature because it worked for the story.”
“Asymmetry,” which is being embraced as a virtuosic and daring literary debut, is hardly a conventional semi-autobiographical first novel about a young writer’s coming-of-age. It unfolds in three disparate sections that don’t intersect in obvious ways.
The first, “Folly,” centers on the asymmetrical romance between Alice and Ezra. He pays off her student loans, gives her shopping bags full of books and reads her his work in progress. She takes him to the hospital when he has chest pains, worries that their vigorous sexual encounters are exacerbating his bad back, and acquiesces when he introduces her to friends as his research assistant. They joke about their age difference — when she teases him for being a cradle robber, he calls her a grave robber. But while their relationship is playful and affectionate, his stature as a writer complicates Alice’s own literary aspirations.
In a disorienting shift, the second section, “Madness,” is narrated by Amar Ala Jaafari, a young Iraqi-American economist who is detained by passport control at a London airport on his way to visit his brother in Iraqi Kurdistan. The final segment, “Ezra Blazer’s Desert Island Discs,” unfolds as a fictional interview segment on the BBC program, as a journalist asks Blazer about his writing and what music he would take to a desert island. His revealing answers about love, music and literature capture Mr. Roth’s conversational voice perfectly, some people who know the author say.
There are subtle clues connecting the disjointed narrative strands, and recurring themes that take on new resonance as the novel progresses: the relationship between autobiography and fiction, the power of imagination, and how art can provoke empathy for people whose backgrounds and experiences diverge from our own.
Ms. Halliday didn’t exactly emerge fully-formed out of nowhere — she published a short story in The Paris Review in 2005, and forged connections in the literary world through her work as an agent. But she’s had a surprising trajectory, and is something of a late bloomer, having spent nearly two decades working on her fiction largely in private before submitting a book for publication.
She grew up in a working-class family in Medfield, a small town in Massachusetts, where her father worked as a mechanic and repairman and her mother made a living as a seamstress. They divorced when she was 5, and she and her sister moved in with her mother and her mother’s boyfriend, who started an extermination business together and later married.
They lived near the library, and in the summer she would spend her days there, reading E.B. White and Laura Ingalls Wilder and then Dickens, Fitzgerald and Edith Wharton. She excelled in school and went on to study art history at Harvard, becoming the first person in her immediate family to go to college.
After graduating in 1998, she got a job as an assistant literary agent at the Wylie Agency and was soon promoted. Ms. Halliday became friendly with some of the writers represented by the agency, including the novelist Louise Erdrich, the poet Louise Gluck and Mr. Roth.
“You know she’s unusual immediately,” Ms. Erdrich said of Ms. Halliday. “I’ve never known anyone who has such precise syntax, it was like she was writing in the air.”
Working with accomplished writers every day might intimidate some aspiring novelists, but Ms. Halliday found it exhilarating, and began to think about writing fiction.
“Prior to that, I thought there was some sort of magic involved, and that I just didn’t have that magic,” she said.
She started getting up at five in the morning to write. Mr. Roth’s dedication to writing, the daily act and routine of it, made an impression on her, she said.
“His example as a hard-working novelist was one of the most encouraging,” she said. “A lot of it is showing up even when you feel it’s not working. He’s very good at that.”
Ms. Halliday declined to say much about her relationship with Mr. Roth, beyond acknowledging that they were once romantically involved and remain friends, and she cautioned against reading Alice’s story as autobiography.
“Of course there are details of Alice’s life that overlap with my own, but so much is invented for the sake of the narrative,” she said. “Philip, more than anyone, knows that’s what writing is like.”
In 2006, Ms. Halliday left the agency to focus on fiction. She did some freelance editing and ghostwriting to support herself, so progress was slow.
She moved to Milan in 2011 with her husband, who works at an Italian publishing house, and began working on “Asymmetry.” When her agent submitted it to publishers in the summer of 2016, it sparked a heated auction between eight publishing houses.
Publishers’ enthusiasm — fueled partly, no doubt, by Ms. Halliday’s intriguing back story — caught her off guard. In the years she spent working on the novel, Ms. Halliday often relied on advice that Ms. Erdrich gave her. “She said, ‘write as though you’re writing in secret, as though no one will actually read it’,” she said.
Now that her secret is out, Ms. Halliday no longer has the luxury of laboring in obscurity. She’s already writing another novel, set partly in Italy, which explores how conspiracy theories take hold. It tackles a theme that has long preoccupied her: the blurred boundaries between fiction and reality.