Interview

Interview: Rachel Barenbaum

For a very brief time a couple years ago, we were in the same writing group as Rachel Barenbaum. At the time, Rachel had mentioned she was working on a novel that delved into science and Russian history. It sounded like a rich, complex novel and it was exciting to hear that it was on the road to publication thanks to Rachel’s hard work and her participation in GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator program.

ABendInTheStars.jpg

And now, look! A thick, juicy novel with a beautiful cover, packed with history, science, adventure, fully-realized characters, and a race to the 1914 solar eclipse. A Bend in the Stars is on the 2019 B&N Discover Great New Writers list and has garnered glowing reviews comparing it to All the Light We Cannot See and The Women in the Castle.

Thank you, Rachel, for taking time out of your busy pre-launch schedule to answer our questions about your book, your research process, and your road to publication!

A Bend in the Stars releases today, May 14, 2019. Go get your copy from your favorite local indie!

Rachel will be giving a reading from her novel at the Howe Library in Hanover, New Hampshire, on Tuesday, July 9 at 7:00 pm. She’ll also be reading at this year’s Bookstock on Saturday, July 27, in Woodstock, Vermont.


Literary North: Where did the original idea for your book come from? Did you start with an image, a fact, a character, or something else?

Rachel Barenbaum: In 2014 I was reading Scientific American’s monthly installment of ‘50,100 and 150 Years Ago’ and learned that in 1914 an eclipse fell over Russia that could have proved Einstein’s theory of relativity but because of war and bad weather no scientists were able to mount an expedition and record the event. Even more, the brief noted it was a good thing because in 1914 Einstein’s equations were incorrect and a photograph of the eclipse taken then would have likely discredited him. Before I even put the magazine down I knew it was a book idea: What if someone did make it to the eclipse, and did manage to take a photograph? Could he have taken Einstein’s place in history? I was already a bit obsessed with Russian history and knew it was one of the most fascinating and tumultuous times in the country’s history. And I knew that Einstein wasn’t working in a vacuum, that there were other scientists working to help him – and beat him. Could I bring that race to life?

LN: What was it about Einstein's theory of relativity that initially captured your interest and made you want to make it such an integral part of this book?

RB: In college I studied literature and philosophy and became obsessed with the concept of time – which is a key part of relativity. What is time? What is a second, minute or hour? It’s an arbitrary measurement. Sequence, on the other hand, is not arbitrary. But how do we define sequence without a measurement of time? I still don’t have any answers and I still obsess over the question.

Even more, I’m a little obsessed with our understanding of gravity and it’s effect on time. We all learn about gravity being the force that pulls an apple from a tree to the ground. Why don’t we also learn about the gravity that shapes the universe and time? It’s all connected, one giant canvas and without looking at the whole it’s hard to feel like we can find any real answers.

Finally, I wrote about relativity because this concept is powerful and yet understandable on so many levels that I want to encourage everyone to think about it. The universe bends. What does that mean? And how does that change the way we understand our world?

LN: What was the research for this book like? Did you already have a background in the science and history you wrote about, or did you learn as you wrote?

RB: Tons and none. I love this time period and read dozens and dozens of books about Czarist Russia, science and philosophy around the 1900s and the life of Jews living in Russia long before I sat down to write. In addition, growing up around my grandparents and great aunts gave me a sense of some of nuances I wanted to add like the split in the Jewish community between those who wanted to assimilate and those who didn’t and the constant fear of the czar’s men.

But all of that only gave me a base, a general feeling I could incorporate into the novel. To truly write scenes, I need to see them in my head and so the bulk of my research involved finding photographs. The best trove I found was in an old National Geographic that I purchased on eBay, published in 1914 right before the war started. The issue was devoted entirely to a survey of life in Russia and featured dozens of stunning photographs of Russians from all walks of life. Two things struck me in particular in this truly spectacular photo essay: (1) The faces of the citizens in the photos were so clear and so gorgeous I could imagine them as real people, living today. And that made the time period come alive. I could imagine what the teenager staring at me might have been thinking as she stood next to that boy, or the mother as she held her baby. (2) The vast size and diversity of the country. I was blown away by the largely uninhabited, untouched landscapes and just how separated groups of people across the empire were by those expanses. To me it was gorgeous and terrifying and something I wanted to be sure to capture in this book.

LN: Which writers (or books) helped shape the way you approached writing A Bend in the Stars?

RB: So many! I’m not sure where to start. I am a reader before I am a writer and I often think about Toni Morrison’s famous words: “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” To do that, I read. And read. And read. When I sit down to fix a draft, I sit with characters and stories I love – but aren’t quite right. They are my dearest and oldest friends, closest confidantes and best inspiration. Without them, I’d be lost. They include: Toni Morrison, Ayn Rand, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Edgar Alan Poe, Shirley Jackson, Patricia Highsmith and many more. I really love books written by women with strong female protagonists. Why don’t we have more of those out in the world?

LN: A Bend in the Stars is rich with history, science, math, Judaism, geography, etc. Did you find any challenges in structuring the novel so that you could maintain the momentum of the story while still delving into such a variety of topics?

RB: No. I didn’t set out to write a book that touched on all these aspects, didn’t sit down with a list or goals that included covering any of those topics. I wrote a book in a world, a setting, that I loved and all these pieces were organic to that universe. For example, I didn’t have to force parts of history because they were already in the scene. I couldn’t put my characters down in any part of Bend without them being surrounded by the history, science, math, Judaism that’s there.

LN: Some of the scenes in your book are quite cinematic (for example, the fight scene under the bridge when Miri and Sasha first meet, or when Miri and Sasha are trapped on the train with the threatening Zubov). How do you plot out action scenes like this?

RB: It’s funny, people say that a lot about this book – that it’s cinematic. And they want to know how I did that. The answers is that all the people in Bend are real to me. They are not based on anyone I know but they are my imaginary friends and their world is as real to me as the desk and office I’m sitting in now. This is to say that I see them and every scene they inhabit playing out in my mind as I write so I did not plot one thing happening and then another. Rather, I see it as it unfolds. That’s not to say it turned out well the first few times I saw it! For example, I didn’t mention that Miri and Sasha were hidden by brush and bushes in an early draft and one reader remarked that without those details the drunks would see them right away! So I went back again and again to fill in the scene, to add the details, but I always see it as a scene – not a plotted, choreographed moment.

LN: This is your first novel. What was the road to publication like? Can you tell us a bit about the GrubStreet Novel Incubator program?

RB: The road to publication was a long one. I started thinking about this book in 2014. I’m a writer who writes tons and tons of pages – only to hold onto one or two paragraphs so for every one of my published pages I’ve probably written at least one hundred. I wish I could be more efficient, write better drafts but I just don’t work that way. That’s where the Novel Incubator at GrubStreet comes in. Michelle Hoover’s program was amazing. I had to apply with a full rough draft. She and her committee select 10 writers for the program and I spent a full year working on my draft, revising pages and helping my classmates do the same. The class taught me what worked and what didn’t, to cut and rewrite again and again. It was brutal and the best thing that ever happened to my writing. I’d really encourage anyone who has a full rough draft and is serious about taking their writing to the next level to apply. But beware! It is no walk in the park. If you want to publish a novel you have to be willing to work – and work hard. Assume everything needs to be redone and know that means it’s only getting better.

LN: Are there any debut novels coming out this summer that you'd like to shout out?

RB: Chip Cheek’s Cape May, Julia Phillip’s Disappearing Earth, Karen Dukess’ The Last Book Party, Alexander Tilney’s The Expectations. Not a summer debut, but Lauren Wilkinson’s American Spy came out a few months back and it is superb. Elizabeth Shelburne’s Holding On To Nothing is due out this fall and I can’t wait. Not a debut, but Helen Phillips’ The Need is spectacular. And I can’t wait to get my hands on Julie Orringer’s The Flight Portfolio.

 
rachel-barenbaum.jpg
 



Interview: James Crews

HealingTheDivide.jpg

When we first heard the title of the new book of poetry edited by James Crews, Healing the Divide: Poems for Compassion and Connection, we thought: How wonderful! It seems to us that James is the perfect editor for this book. You see we know James. He read his beautiful, compassionate poems at our inaugural Poetry & Pie. And we're still hoping to make it to one of his Mindfulness and Writing workshops. In this day and age, when we're all reeling a little from divisive politics, we like the idea of seeking wise counsel from poets like Ross Gay, Donald Hall, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Marie Howe. A morning meditation perhaps? Flip open this anthology and read some words of hope before moving about your day. Thank you, James, for the work you do!

James will join several other local poets to celebrate the launch of Healing the Divide with a reading at Bear Pond Books in Montpelier, Vermont, on Tuesday April 16, starting at 7:00 pm. It should be a really wonderful evening.

In honor of the today’s release of Healing the Divide, we interviewed James about this book, how it came together, and the work that poetry can do to help bring us together. We hope you enjoy James’ replies to our questions as much as we do.


Literary North: Where did the idea for this book come from? Did someone approach you, or did you approach someone?

James Crews: The idea for Healing the Divide actually came to me one day while I was in the shower. My husband, Brad, ran for political office in Vermont last year, and he had been working on his speech all winter, much of which was about how the power of kindness and community literally saved his life when he returned home from the military, discharged for being gay. He talked about how the smallest gestures—the flick of the wrist waves, the folks stopping to chat with him while on a walk—made him feel that he belonged to a place again, and really began the healing process. It dawned on me that poetry can do the same kind of work, and I have always preferred poems that highlight connection in some way, whether between lovers, family members, friends or strangers. Once I had the idea, the pieces quickly fell into place. I asked Dede Cummings with Green Writers Press if she would publish the anthology, and she instantly said yes. Ted Kooser also immediately agreed to write the Preface, so all I had to do was gather the poems and get permissions from the writers and their publishers, which was no small task. But I was struck over and over with the support and generosity that people showed toward this project.

LN: How did you go about selecting the poems to include?

JC: I have a whole trove of poems that I really treasure and go back to over and over. "Shoulders" by Naomi Shihab Nye is one of those, as is "Small Kindnesses" by Danusha Laméris. So I had quite a few already on hand, but once you start looking for something, you will always find more and more of it. People started sending me poems about kindness, and Naomi Nye connected me with numerous poets I'd never even heard of, who had wonderful work to share. I combed through Ted Kooser's “American Life in Poetry” newspaper column quite a bit, since I knew I wanted as many of the poems as possible to be accessible to a wide readership. I worked with Ted on his column for several years at the University of Nebraska, and I really credit that experience with teaching me how to locate poems that might appeal to a mass audience.

LN: How do you try to include compassion in your own writing practice, towards yourself and your words and your readers?

JC: I often lead workshops on mindfulness and writing as a way to teach (and re-teach) myself the practice of compassion and attention for the world as it is. And if we're really paying attention, we'll see that we are not as divided as we think. Yes, there are disagreements, there are life-and-death issues that must be addressed, but there are also people coming together and being kind to each other on a deeper level every day. I feel it's my job as a writer (as a human being, really) to highlight those moments first for myself —to keep myself out of despair—and then for others too. Writing is an integral part of my spiritual practice, so I feel my poetry is always showing me ways to pay closer attention, how to be more kind and gentle to myself and others. I'm working on a new book right now, a collection of poems, reflections and exercises, which essentially argues that writing itself is a spiritual practice that can connect us to ourselves and each other. Quite honestly, I try to follow Anne Lamott's advice quite a bit in my work: "Write the book you would most want to come upon in the world."

LN: In what ways can poetry work to help us heal and come together in the face of so much anger, division, and mistrust in the world?

JC: Mark Nepo, one of our great spiritual writers, has said that "Poetry is the unexpected utterance of the soul." It's hard to put into words, but I also believe that poetry comes from some deeper place inside us—whether we call that the soul, the spirit, or the intuition—and as a result, it's what we really want to say, it's the truth as we know it. All art works this way, but poetry has a distinct advantage in that it's made from the material of language that we use every day. Poets turn that democratic, raw material into something strange, harrowing, transcendent, beautiful, and often universal. I admit that I have a personal bias for poems that seek to uplift, and do so in accessible language, but creativity of all kinds has never been more important than it is right now at this political moment, and we need as many diverse voices as we can get to heal us all and remind us of the one human story.

LN: Is there a poem—or a poet—that you rely on to help you remember kindness and connection on really hard days?

JC: Most of the poets I return to over and over are in the anthology: Ted Kooser, of course, but also Barbara Crooker, Anya Silver, Ross Gay, Li-Young Lee, and the late W. S. Merwin, among many others. But I keep coming back to "The Way It Is" by William Stafford, which we were lucky enough to be able to include in the book. In the poem, he talks about a thread "you never let go of," and I've always wondered what that thread was for him, what he meant by that. The older I get, the more I think that the thread is whatever intention we carry with us out into the world, whether through our work, our creativity, and our relationships (to others and to ourselves). And for me, that thread is to be as present and kind as I can be. I will make mistakes, take wrong turns, get distracted, but as long as I can keep holding onto that thread and letting it guide me, as he says in the poem, I know I can't get lost. I hope Healing the Divide can do the same for a few readers as well.

LN: What was the most memorable thing you read in the past month?

JC: I know that I'm a latecomer to this book, but I finally got around to reading Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. I relished every word and so appreciated how she blended memoir and storytelling with science and indigenous knowledge. This book comes at the right time too, since I'm now (slowly) putting together a new anthology called Down to Earth: Poems of Mindfulness and Devotion. This will be a collection of nature poems that honors elements of the living world as having a consciousness and agency of their own. I hadn't thought of it before, but I suppose this anthology is also very much about compassion and kindness, just this time between humans and the Earth. I can't help but think we all need to be reminded of that essential connection right now.

jamescrews.jpg

Interview: Bethany C. Morrow

The Burlington Book Festival lands in Burlington, Vermont, on October 12 to 14, with an amazing lineup including Mary Jo Bang, Dan Chiasson, Maria Hummel, Mark Leyner, Bethany Morrow, and Sharon Olds. This is the last in a series of four interviews in celebration of the Festival.

Bethany C. Morrow is the author of the debut novel, MEM, published by the wonderful small publisher, Unnamed Press. Publisher’s Weekly describes MEM as “ambitious and insightful, raising questions about memory, trauma, and humanity.” Morrow was an Indies Introduce Debut Author selected by the American Booksellers Association. Originally from California, she currently lives in upstate New York.

Thank you, Bethany!

Mem.jpg


Literary North: Tell us a little bit about your writing process.

Bethany Morrow: I think my writing process adapts to each individual project, but there are some places where I start. The transition from thinking about writing something (which is a step in the writing process) to literally writing about it requires, for me, a first line; an inciting incident, or reason the story is starting now; a character I know (or think I know for now); a sound (as in a song that matches the emotional tenor of the character or incident or); a climax.

Once I have those things I write a first chapter, which tends to be establishing, so it's not very long. Like introducing yourself before you start blabbering on to someone who doesn't want to know you, lol. And then I see what I've learned from that introduction, and go back to thinking. Once I know the next few steps, I start writing toward the end of the first act, at which point I stop again and go back to thinking because things organically develop and I want to write the story not the story that first appeared in my head if it isn't true anymore. The process goes a bit like that through the climax, until I know how it ends.

LN: What influences have helped shape you into the writer you are today?

BM: A reader might be a better person to answer that. I can only say what meant a lot to me as a young reader/writer: Christopher Pike, Lois Duncan, Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and everything by Toni Morrison (especially up through Love, since that's when I was rabidly reading and rereading her, including essays and interviews).

LN: What was the kernel of the idea for your novel, MEM? What inspired you and influenced your writing as you worked toward its completion?

BM: The kernel of the idea was making cloning more interesting than I find it in real life, lol. And then determining that the most interesting person in that world would be such a clone, but one that doesn't match her intended purpose, and because there's an expectation on her to prove her humanness, she has such a shallow pool of "respectable" identity expression while others who are never questioned are free to be inhuman. 

LN: What brings you joy?

BM: My son, of course, before everything. The right words. A sound too perfect to be translated into words. A shared happiness.

LN: What was the most memorable thing you read in the past month?

BM: I started reading What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah, and from the first page, the gasp I made at the end of the first story, it's just intoxicating.

BethanyMorrow.jpg

Interview: Micah Perks

TrueLove.jpg

Micah Perks is a Professor of Literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she co-directs the Creative Writing program. She’s written four books, her most recent being a collection of linked short stories entitled, True Love and Other Miraculous Dreams of Escape. Her work has been published in Tin House, Zyzzyva, The Massachusetts Review, and many other places. We were delighted to have the opportunity to interview Micah as her new book was about to be released. Thank you, Micah!

You can see Micah at Water Street Bookstore in Exeter, New Hampshire, on Saturday, October 13 at 7:00 pm. Micah will also be in conversation with Peter Orner at The Norwich Bookstore on Wednesday, October 17, at 7:00 pm.


Literary North: Tell us a bit about putting together your new collection of linked short stories, True Love and Other Miraculous Dreams of Escape. What threads were you following throughout this collection?

Micah Perks: These are stories I originally wrote over a period of fifteen years. When I went to put them together, I realized there were characters who were similar to each other—like a bald Latin American guy with great teeth who was sometimes an Argentinian scientist and sometimes a Chilean professor and sometimes a human rights activist. (My husband is a bald Chilean guy with great teeth.) I realized they were basically the same guy, so I started there, making them the same guy, and everything lead from there—if he's the same guy, then his children are the same people, his storyline needs an arc, and after six months, I had a linked collection. All the stories are about the longing to forge close connections and the longing to escape. This is something I've been writing about all my life. I think it's a very American dilemma—from the very beginning we have wanted to create a shining city on a hill and as soon as we created communities there were people who wanted to light out for the territory ahead of the rest. We've imagined utopia in an ideal community and also utopia in an escape from those communities.

LN: What influences have shaped you into the writer you are today?

MP: Growing up on a commune in the Adirondack wilderness. My escape artist father and my ever loving mom. And I've always loved reading. I read a lot. The books that made me a writer were C. S. Lewis' Narnia series and Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. One about finding the perfect world, the other about escaping stifling domesticity.

LN: You've written essays, memoir, and fiction. How does the genre you're working in affect your writing process?

MP: If I'm writing memoir, it's because I want to focus on issues of truth and memory. I always contact the people I'm writing about and ask for their point of view. Often I write their point of view into the memoir. My fiction is usually a blending of historical research, experience, and imagination. 

LN: What brings you joy?

MP: Great question! Kayaking. Biking. Nature. Reading and writing. My students. My children. Eating delicious things. Lying at night talking face to face with my husband, laughing over cocktails with my friends. Any combination of these things. I biked from Berlin to Copenhagen in June with my daughter after she graduated from college. That trip included the biking, the laughing, my daughter, the nature, even sometimes a cocktail. It was very joyful.

LN: What was the most memorable thing you've read in the past month?

MP: Another great question. I'm reading Valeria Luiselli's Faces in the Crowd right now. I LOVE the way she moves between past, present, and a fictional time/place. Brilliant. And the dialogue of the young boy is really funny. I love funny kids. I love books that make me laugh, feel sad, think. This book does all three.

MicahPerks.jpg

Interview: Mary Jo Bang

The Burlington Book Festival lands in Burlington, Vermont, on October 12 to 14, with an amazing lineup including Mary Jo Bang, Dan Chiasson, Maria Hummel, Mark Leyner, Bethany Morrow, and Sharon Olds. This is the third in a series of four interviews in celebration of the Festival.

Mary Jo Bang is the author of several books of poems, including A Doll for Throwing (Graywolf Press, 2017), The Last Two Seconds (Graywolf Press, 2015), The Bride of E: Poems (Graywolf Press, 2009), and Elegy (Graywolf Press, 2007), which won the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry and was a 2008 New York Times Notable Book. She teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.

Of A Doll for Throwing, Publisher’s Weekly says, “Bang’s impeccable collection reads as a ‘circular mirror of the social order,’ reflecting the historicity of our current moment with wit, subtlety, and grace.” And The Washington Post writes, “Mary Jo Bang bends and tosses ideas as easily as one would a Wurfpuppe, a flexible doll created by Bauhaus artist Alma Siedhoff-Buscher that always landed with grace when thrown.”

Thank you, Mary Jo, for your wonderful answers to our questions!

ADollForThrowing.jpg

Literary North: Tell us a little bit about your writing process.

Mary Jo Bang: My writing practice changed when computers replaced typewriters. When I began, I kept notebooks or wrote on loose sheets of paper—when the poem felt resolved, I would type it. Now, I usually compose a poem on the computer and print it out when it feels somewhat settled. I then mark changes on that piece of paper and eventually go back to the computer and make more changes. I repeat that cycle for anywhere from minutes to weeks or months. Because it’s far easier to make changes on the computer, compared to retyping a poem from start to finish, I think the process of composing remains fluid for longer.

There is also the fact that when I began writing, I had the luxury of sitting in front of a blank piece of paper for hours or days, never knowing whether it might become something worth saving. I’m busier now and also clearer about what I want to say. I can’t imagine sitting in front of a piece of paper for days. I may not write as often but when I sit down to write, I write (meaning, I type what I write on a keyboard).

LN: What influences have helped shape you into the writer you are today?

MJB: I remain influenced by Samuel Beckett, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Sigmund Freud, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Jean Toomer, Gertrude Stein, early Eliot, my friends, my teachers, my students, The New York Times, New York City, the Surrealists, Baudelaire, Dante, Shuzo Takiguchi, every painting I’ve ever seen, my erratic brain, etc.

LN: Your most recent book of poems, A Doll for Throwing, was inspired by the Bauhaus school, and photographer Lucia Moholy. Why did you decide to write about this subject? What inspired you and influenced your writing as you worked towards its completion?

MJB: As always with inspiration, one sees or hears something, or one entertains a thought, and then there’s a next seeing or hearing or thinking. It’s all very messy and unpredictable at the beginning, but, at some point, you begin to shape whatever you’ve taken in by combining it with your pre-existing obsessions and preoccupations. In this case, I saw a rather non-descript photograph by Lucia Moholy in a museum and became curious about her name. I knew of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy—the famous Bauhaus Master-teacher and visual artist—and wondered whether she was related. I learned that she was his first wife and that she had taken most of the iconic photographs of the early Bauhaus buildings and workshop products but that those photographs came to be associated not with her but with Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus school and design movement. Her name had been all but erased from history. I felt, as a woman who has worked to establish herself as an artist against some odds (working class background, years of single parenthood), an odd kind of kinship. I eventually immersed myself in the history of the Bauhaus and used that place and era as an imagined stage from which I then wrote about my own experience of being a woman and an artist in the present—as well as my own experience of being a photographer, before I became a poet.

LN: What brings you joy?

MJB: So many things! Right now, translating Dante’s Purgatorio into colloquial English. For me, translation is similar to working an endless crossword puzzle. I never tire of it. If I could, I’d give up sleeping for it, however, whenever my disembodied mind attempts to do that, the body that houses my brain puts its foot down and insists I go to bed.

LN: What was the most memorable thing you read in the past month?

MJB: Khadijah Queen’s I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men & What I Had On, a delightfully subversive book of prose poems. She uses a fever-pitch stream-of-consciousness approach to construct brief narratives about growing up in Los Angeles. The poems play with received notions of celebrity, masculinity, femininity, fashion, film, and family (to name a few). The book becomes a ‘joiner’ collage of snapshots, each featuring another glimpse what it’s like to be alive in America in the present! It’s smart and funny and like nothing else you’ll read.

MaryJoBang.jpg