Comparative and world literature professor Brett Ashley Kaplan added “fiction author” to her resume this year after publishing her debut novel “Rare Stuff” in August, describing the new venture as “wandering a little falteringly into the landscape of fiction writing.” Fast forward a few months, and her efforts are already paying off.  

Kaplan has been selected as a featured author for the Texas Book Festival, which is taking place November 5 and 6 in Austin, Texas. It’s an annual event that connects the authors of the year’s best books to thousands of book lovers. Kaplan is one of 300 authors who have been invited to participate in the festival, which highlights everything from literary fiction to cookbooks.

“When I looked at the list of featured authors, I nearly fell off my chair,” said Kaplan. “Brilliant writers such as Sandra Cisneros and David Wright Faladé, or A.M Holmes, Sara Bird, and Omar Epps — I mean, it’s a truly impressive lineup.”

Kaplan’s novel tells the story of a daughter’s search for answers about her mother’s disappearance, as well as a magical realism tale of Yiddish-speaking whales trying to save the planet.

When the book opens, the main character Sid is on the shores of Lake Michigan, spreading her father’s ashes and reciting the Jewish prayer for the dead.

“At the beginning, Sid is slightly lost,” said Kaplan. “But sometimes a search for someone else allows you to find yourself.”

That search is prompted by Sid’s late father, who left her a suitcase full of interlocking clues that may — or may not — lead her to discover what happened to her mother. Sid also finds a fragment of a novel that her father had written, which fantasizes that her mother may have been adopted by a charismatic group of benevolent whales.

“The whales learned Yiddish, thinking that this global language with a vibrant press would be the best way to communicate their ecological missives to humans who don’t seem to be doing nearly enough to save our precarious planet,” said Kaplan.

“Rare Stuff” takes Sid and her Caribbean-Jewish partner on a journey of discovery as they become absorbed into the universe of these Yiddish-speaking whales who have built glass houses under the sea to protect the humans in their care.

“The novel is playful, melancholy, full of intrigue and hope,” said Kaplan. “It will appeal to readers of Jewish-American fiction and eco-fiction. It will appeal to anyone who has ever mourned or fallen in love.”

Kaplan said she couldn’t be happier with the book’s reception so far.

Book Talk: Illini Union Bookstore, Authors Corner. Jewish Studies presents Brett Ashleey Kaplan, author of the new novel "Rare Stuff" on Thursday, October 27 at 4 p.m.

“I’ve received such lovely blurbs and reviews. On top of that, friends and family are so sweetly posting pictures of themselves with the novel on social media. It’s incredibly supportive, lovely, and heartwarming,” she said.

If you want to hear more, Kaplan will be sharing excerpts from “Rare Stuff” at a book launch on Thursday, October 27, hosted by the Program in Jewish Culture and Society. The launch will take place at the Illini Union Bookstore in the Authors Corner on the second floor at 4 p.m. 

Kaplan said while she doesn’t fully know what to expect from the Texas Book Festival as a first timer, she’s hoping this book launch will help her prepare. In the meantime, she’s just soaking it all in.

“This invitation to join people whose writing I’ve admired for years feels like an ‘arrival,’” she said. “I hope this is the first step to fully becoming a fiction writer!”

Dania De La Hoya Rojas