Interview

Interview: Nathan Yungerberg

Those of you who attended JAGFest 2.0 back in February 2018 might remember a riveting staged reading of Nathan Yungerberg’s play Esai’s Table, where destiny meets eternity for three young black men atop an ancient magical table in a mythic tale of black lives, friendship, family, and love. Back then, we volunteered at JAGFest and were able to do a brief interview with this remarkable, thoughtful playwright.

This month, Esai’s Table is back as a full production at Briggs Opera House in White River Junction, Vermont, and Nathan kindly took time out of his incredibly busy schedule to answer a few of our questions about his experience in moving from a staged reading to a full production. We love his reflections on the process and hope you will too. Thank you so much, Nathan, and Jarvis Green of JAG Productions for bringing this incredible production to the Upper Valley. Break a leg!

The world premiere of Esai’s Table is at Briggs Opera House from October 10 to 17, starring Dimitri Carter, Cornelius Davidson, Marcus Gladney, Jr., and Benton Green, and directed by Stevie Walker-Webb.

Tickets to Esai’s Table are $35 and are on sale now!

Nathan Yungerberg

Nathan Yungerberg


Literary North: How would you describe Esai's Table to someone coming to it for the first time?

Nathan Yungerberg: Esai's Table is an Afro Surrealist fantasy that explores the humanity of young black men. It is hard to explain too much without giving away crucial elements of the story, but I would say be prepared for an otherworldly dimension jumping emotional rollercoaster!

LN: How did JAGfest and the work you did there shape the final creation of Esai's Table?

NY: Getting away from NYC for one week and having a chance to breathe allowed me to see the play from a whole new perspective. I ended up making a significant change to the ending of the play that is much more subtle on some levels but packs an emotional punch and wraps up the themes of the play.

LN: What do you think of the process, in general, of doing staged readings? Have you found it helpful (or essential?) to developing a full production?

NY: Staged readings can be helpful for so many reasons. This day and age, when it is so challenging to get a production, it is beneficial to be able to share your work in a simplified, cost-effective setting. I appreciate readings because I can learn the most when I can hear it. I also find it a great way to introduce people to my work. I can say that over a decade of writing and numerous readings, I am a fan of the process and find it helpful. I have found it useful in the developmental process that leads up to this full production. I have learned so much about the play over the past five years, and each reading I have done, I learned a little more.

LN: Were there things in the staged reading version (themes, characters, scenes, lines, etc.) that you ultimately decided to cut or change for the full production but were sorry to lose? If so, can you tell us about an example?

NY: There was a numerology theme that existed in the staged reading. While I loved it, I felt it was confusing for the audience. I had also not fleshed out the idea enough to warrant its place in the play, so it had to go. I wouldn't say I was sorry to lose it, but it is always a process of letting a creative aspect go. The good thing is that I recycle aspects of my stories that don't make the cut, so I will probably use it in another story one day.

LN: What special gifts do each of the individual actors bring to the production?

NY: First of all, the actors are so amazing, and I love them so much! When Benton Greene, who plays Esai, came into the audition room, he brought this air of mystery and otherworldly energy that was scary, but it was exactly what we wanted for the character! He also brings a lot of compassion and love to the role, which balances out the dark sides of Esai. Benton is also brilliant, and when he comments about something that isn't sitting right, I listen!

Dimitri Carter, who plays Adam, brings a level of optimism and innocence that is crucial to the character. We knew Dimitri was our Adam from the moment he walked into the audition room and melted our hearts.

Marcus Gladney, Jr. IS David. He has this authentic air of self-esteem and self awareness that is so beautiful.

Cornelius Davidson brings both the vulnerability and the sharp edge of Michael into the room. You get the sense that the character has a lot going on deep inside because Cornelius understands the revealing of layers that are required to make Michael believable.

LN: What are you working on next?

NY: I decided a few months ago that I am going to start calling myself a storyteller, and I am launching my own storytelling company, Mercurri. I will be producing a national tour of my play THEA (about Sister Thea Bowman) and an international tour of my play Mother of Pearl, which is a metaphysical love letter to the house music scene. I am also working on a play with music with Larry Waddell, one of the founding members of the R&B group Mint Condition.


Nathan Yungerberg is a Brooklyn-based playwright whose work has been developed or featured by The Cherry Lane Theatre (2017 Mentor Project with Stephen Adly Guirgis), Roundabout Theatre Company, The Playwrights’ Center, JAG Productions, Crowded Fire Theater, American Blues Theater, The Brooklyn Museum, The Nuyorican Poets Café , The Lorraine Hansberry Theater, and many others. Nathan is one of seven black playwrights commissioned by The New Black Fest for HANDS UP: 7 Playwrights, 7 Testaments, which was published by Samuel French.

Interview: Sara London

Sometimes the right book falls into your hands at just the right time, and that’s how we feel about Sara London’s new collection of poems, Upkeep, which is released today by Four Way Books. The poems in Upkeep feel somehow like burnished stones, solid and familiar in the hand, yet full of surprising veins and glinting minerals. Every word feels perfectly etched just where it ought to be, making each poem feel so fully formed you can’t imagine them being written any other way.

Through these poems, Sara London traces the pain of losing someone dear, the paths to finding a solid grip on the world again, and the ways we can all be both strangers and neighbors to each other. As the poet Tom Sleigh put it, “…her work embodies what Seamus Heaney once called ‘the steadfastness of speech articulation,’ in which her care for language is continuous with her care for other people and the world.”

We are so delighted that Sara agreed to do an interview with us, and we are even more delighted that Upkeep is here in the world at last! Go get your copy, and then read it out loud!

Sara will be reading along with Sue Burton at the Fleming Museum of Art in Burlington, Vermont, on Thursday, September 12 as part of the Painted Word Poetry Series. This is a great opportunity to see two wildly talented poets in one great evening.

 
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Literary North: Upkeep begins with an epigraph from Seamus Heaney's “Clearances" and contains a poem titled “Letter to Seamus." The language in your poems also certainly shares a linguistic heritage with Heaney's poems (blunt, concrete, chewy, Anglo-Saxon vocabulary). Can you speak a bit about your connection to Heaney and his influence on this book and your writing?

Sara London: I love your adjective “chewy” to describe Heaney’s diction—those tongue-to-teeth words that afford so much pleasurable munching for the reader. His language dazzled me early on, the alliteration and percussiveness of the consonance, the imagery, his invocations of a rural Irish childhood amongst frogs and bogs. And his edibles, blackberries of course (“when the bath was filled we found a fur”), oysters (“The frond-lipped, brine-stung / Glut of privilege”), and milk’s “scuts of froth.” I love all his books, but Death of a Naturalist was a revelation to me as a young poet, and I still go to his many volumes and teach his poems routinely.

Within that lyrical feast, there are loamy, pitted layers of human complexity. It was a treat to hear him read on a few occasions, and when he and his wife Mary visited Smith College, I was able to join a more intimate afternoon chat with students. He struck me as a deeply generous, wise and unpretentious man. His sonnet cycle, “Clearances,” an elegy in memory of his mother, is one I return to again and again. And on the topic of language, in one section, he writes of his mother’s feeling of verbal inadequacy. “She’d manage something hampered and askew” — which makes the speaker “naw and aye /…relapse into the wrong / Grammar which kept us allied and at bay.” (Of course the Irish-inflected idiom is a famously rich dish, no matter the grammar!) I still feel sad that he’s gone—that big, profound poetic heart.

LN
: Speaking of language, we were struck (and comforted) by your use of Yiddish in several poems. Did you grow up with Yiddish as part of your language at home? Does it enter your poetry naturally? How does it feel to play with multiple languages in a poem?

SL: My grandparents and great aunts and uncles (all gone now) would sometimes spice their English with Yiddish asides. These were uttered amidst laughter for private commentary or as punchlines inappropriate for the youngsters around the dinner table. And they used endearments like shayner-kops (“pretty heads”) for my sisters and me. Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish was as thumbed through as any dictionary or encyclopedia in my parents’ home.

My father seemed to take special pleasure in the humorous application of Yiddish, and in translating for us. I’ve kept a note he wrote in Yiddish after making a quick stop at my house in Northampton many years ago. In part, it reads: “Ich hob zum der w/c (oo) geganger . . . Das ist alles. Pa!” The full translation he provided reads: “I came, I saw, I drank a glass of water, I used the facilities, I sat on the porch. Be well, I love you, thanks, that is all — Dad!” For me, my father will always be associated in part with that older world in which Yiddish commonly punctuated Jewish American conversation. (These days, Yiddish is mostly used among Orthodox Jews.)

I love the sound of the language, though sadly I know little of it myself. (For Yiddish enthusiasts out there: Philip Roth has a hilarious riff on the word “pupik,” belly button, in Operation Shylock, where he perfectly characterizes the “sonic prankishness of the [word’s] two syllabic pops…” And I recommend Aaron Lansky’s Outwitting History, his richly anecdotal account of founding the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts.)

LN: The Martian poem series in the section titled “Fugitive You" is clearly about someone considered alien to our world or culture, but maybe not a true interplanetary alien. "Rain on the Red Planet," for example, made us think of the Jew as an alien in America. Can you talk about the inspiration behind the Martian poems and the interplay between Judaism and "Martianism"?

SL: So many thoughts converged in that poem. As we uncover more details about Mars, we come closer to “touching” the red planet, yet human touch comes with such serious liabilities historically and environmentally. There’s an apocalyptic note in that “hard rain.” And though I wasn’t making an explicit association between Martians (aliens) and Jews, I can see how one might decipher a link. The persecuted Jew and the Jewish immigrant hover as ghosts in some of my poems; they’re fixtures of my cultural and historical imagination I suppose. The Martian I’ve imagined, on the other hand, dwells in a sort of cosmic innocence—alien, yet safely so.

But the Martian series actually began as a sort of linguistic thought experiment: How might I describe both mundane and more profound aspects of human experience to “someone” who doesn’t know our world? It began with the playground swing—that universal apparatus of “escape” and “return”; children’s first release into “space.” I wanted to capture that uniquely kinesthetic sensation anew, “without any irritable reaching after fact and reason,” as Keats once put it. So the Martian became my test audience, but grew quickly “real” and complex for me, a being from afar for whom I grew increasingly affectionate. Not a god, but perhaps a sort of analogue of myself—a “nobody” in another realm of space and time, who became for me a pulsing “somebody” on the far side of my grief.

LN: The book includes several touching and personal poems about your father's death. What was your experience in writing these poems? How does it feel to be sharing them with the world (including your family)?

SL: Death is such a strange thing—there’s nothing commensurate, nothing like the thrust of close personal loss to so unsteady us. It’s a bit surreal. When I think of those days now, my father’s dying, I see it as a kind of cruel yet fascinating “magic” played upon the family, that “there/not there” conundrum. In that last phase, there’s an intensified physicality, as we note each breath; we lean in closer and closer, yet ultimately the very mystery of endings holds us at bay. We remain “outside” the experience.

An odd theatricality characterized my father’s last days—there was much that I couldn’t write about. Of course, there’s such a highly personal aspect to this sort of writing; a lot of raw emotion involved. One hopes that family members will understand that these privacies of grief are also shared, gleaming, human moments—they’re ours, yet also part of the sweeping mortal saga. I’m so grateful to have had poetry and family to help me through that time. And if my poems resonate with anyone, that’s a true bonus. The work simply flooded forth; never before or since have I been as prolific. The elegy is a vital inherited form, and poets’ lives are in some ways spent in preparation for a dip into these powerful waters.

LN: Did this collection begin with a specific idea or poem? How did the experience of writing this book—your second—differ from writing the first (The Tyranny of Milk, 2010)? What do you look for when you are gathering poems together to put in a collection?

SL: Unlike the first book, this one came together tonally, through elegy, though it took some time to get it all right. Organizationally, it was tricky; many poems focus on my father, but not all. And issues of tone created some challenges—the question of how to blend the humor, irony and sobriety in a way that would make for dynamic and logical reading and provide that desired “narrative arc.” I ended up taking out at least ten poems from the original manuscript (mostly more topical poems). And, at my editor’s wise suggestion, I placed the Martian poems at the front of the book rather than at the end, where they’d originally been. (They’re the most recent work in the book.) I think this reversal helped establish a more surprising, and, ideally, a more interesting point of view at the outset. I thought I’d go on to address this alien figure for a longer series (a couple of Martian poems were not included), but my weirdly extraterrestrial imagination proved finite. The Martian just stopped visiting. Nonetheless, I keep a glass of luminescent milk on my windowsill, in case my poem-pal returns!

LN: What are the simple things that you encounter in a day that might move you to begin a new poem? Do you keep a notebook?

It’s hard to say just where most of my poems come from, but reading good contemporary poetry inspires me to write; reading has always been ignition for me. But often a memory or a phrase will come unbidden, and I’ll write something down that might develop into a poem. Observation, experience, memory—all feed my impulse to write. And I’m always eager to get those initial pen scratches onto the computer. I’m an inveterate reviser; my first drafts are typically weak. But I try to nail that first inspiration quickly, so I don’t lose it, and then I work on poems for months. I make notes constantly—words, ideas, images, phrases, little sparks that could lead me to greater illumination. I don’t use a single notebook; I’m not that organized or particular, but I do put scraps in (paper) files, to keep track of poems when they’ve made it to the “in-progress” phase.

LN: The final poem in the collection ("New Worlds") feels so uplifting after many poems of sadness: "the heart's / pipes never yet wrung, old tubes, they play on." What was the source of this poem and how did you choose it to cap the collection?

SL: That poem, dedicated to the Ghanaian-born artist El Anatsui, was, in fact, unique in that I wrote it for a Mount Holyoke College Art Museum exhibition catalogue. As a member of the MHC InterArts Council, I worked with an interdisciplinary team of faculty members involved in collaborating on the Anatsui exhibition catalogue. His dazzling bottle-top sculptural pieces inspired the poem, and my own memory of collecting bottle caps in Mexico as a child helped me respond very personally to his process of trash-redemption. I was thrilled to meet him when he came to campus to talk about his work. And I wanted my book to close on a note of affirmation. I’m passionate about the visual arts in general, and for many years wrote arts journalism and reviewed contemporary exhibitions. I also love ekphrastic poetry (poems about art) and often teach it in my classes. I find that visits to art museums can be poetically soul-pumping.

LN: What is the most memorable thing you've read this summer?

SL: The most memorable book of poetry I’ve read in recent years is Tyehimba Jess’s Olio. The artful ambitiousness of that collection, its use of many forms and employment of technical acrobatics (his graphically sprung “syncopated sonnets,” for example), is truly inspiring. The poems are instructive historically, and awaken a world of voices from unheralded African American musicians and performers of the past. The book is a paean to lost artists, and a political statement so crucial to our moment.

As for what I’m reading now: a fascinating study of empathy in the primate world, Frans De Waal’s Mama’s Last Hug. This summer has been one of interruptions, so I’ve begun a number of excellent books that I’m still finishing: Margo Jefferson’s Negroland; Tom Sleigh’s new essay collection, The Land Between Two Rivers; Tracy K. Smith’s Ordinary Light and Patrick Donnelly’s Little Known Operas. In these terribly distracting and very troubling times, stretches of reading are too often broken up. But I’m always eager for the kind of linguistic, intellectual and emotional pleasure that’s most reliably found amidst the pages of books. I treasure that simple task of scrutinizing words, roaming among lines of poems—like Heaney’s lantern of Diogenes in “The Haw Lantern” —for that one honest thought.

 
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Sara London is the author of Upkeep and The Tyranny of Milk, both published by Four Way Books. Her poems have appeared in many journals, including The Common, Quarterly West, The Hudson Review, Poetry East, The Iowa Review and the Poetry Daily anthology. She teaches at Smith College, and has also taught at Mount Holyoke and Amherst colleges. Sara is the poetry editor at The Woven Tale Press. She lives in Northampton, MA.

Interview: Miciah Bay Gault

We’re so excited to share our interview with Miciah Bay Gault on the occasion of today’s release of her debut novel, Goodnight Stranger. Goodnight Stranger is a beautifully written novel, a literary thriller that will have you wondering from the start who is telling the truth and who is hiding secrets. Set on an island, it’s the perfect summer escapism novel, perfect to take with you to the beach, but equally satisfying if you’re holidaying on your sofa after a long week of work.

Of Goodnight Stranger, George Saunders says, “Somewhere the ghosts of Shirley Jackson and the Henry James of The Turn of the Screw are smiling, because a wildly talented young writer has joined their lineage. What a taut, keenly intelligent, and provocative debut Goodnight Stranger is.”

Thank you so much, Miciah, for answering our questions so thoughtfully. We’re so happy your book is out in the world!

Miciah teaches in the MFA in Writing & Publishing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts and coordinates the Vermont Book Award. She’ll be celebrating her book’s at launch Bear Pond Books this evening (July 30), and will be reading at several Northern New England locations in the coming months, including Gibson’s Bookstore (August 1), Northshire Books (August 10), The Galaxy Bookshop (August 27), Phoenix Bookstore (September 19), and Vermont College of Fine Arts (September 27).


Literary North: We’re always curious how a story begins and how it changes. Did the story in Goodnight Stranger begin with a specific image or idea? How did you find the plot changing as you wrote? Did anything unexpected arise?

Miciah Bay Gault: I read a personal history in The New Yorker years ago—about one couple’s struggle with infertility, which has nothing in the world to do with Goodnight Stranger. In The New Yorker piece the couple kept losing the pregnancies, over and over. They ended up, after years of hope and heartache, with one daughter, and I found myself wondering about the daughter. Did she, as she got older, think about the brothers and sisters she might have had, did she feel a sense of grief, was she haunted by them?

Then I imagined this image: two grown siblings in a doorway, a stranger facing them across the threshold. The air is charged with surprise, with recognition, hope, and danger. One of the siblings says, “It’s him.”

That premise was the starting point. I knew early on that Lydia and Lucas would by the siblings, twins actually, that they’d be in their late 20s, that their lives would be overshadowed by the death of a third sibling in infancy. I knew a stranger was going to show up, someone handsome and charismatic, and also eerily familiar with their home, their family. From there I had to ask myself all kinds of hard questions to find out what the book was really about.

LN: Let’s talk about your writing process. Do you write a messy first draft or do you tend to go sentence by sentence? How many drafts did you go through while writing this book? Are you the type of writer who works at the same time and place every day, or did you have to grab time whenever and wherever you could?

MBG: I’m laughing as I answer this question. I’m pretty sure I wrote 70 or 80 drafts of this novel over fifteen years. Some drafts were major renovations, removing entire characters, and shuffling chapters from one location to another. Some drafts were more concerned with tightening language. I love sentences and spend an inordinate amount of time working on that level, polishing, carving, chiseling.

I’ve been so lucky to have an agent, Jenni Ferrari-Adler of Union Literary, who’s very hands on and who worked on several drafts with me. And my editor Laura Brown at Park Row Books/ HarperCollins, has an amazing editorial eye. After so many years of working alone on the manuscript, it’s been a dream to have a team working with me on the book.

I prefer to write in the morning, riding that first wave of caffeine. I’m very fond of coffee. Sometimes I still manage to write at this time, if my kids sleep in a little, but mostly I write when I can—when the kids are in school, or napping. When I was working full time at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I wrote during lunch breaks, or first thing in the morning on the picnic tables on the college green.

LN: The character Cole is an outsider. He arrives on the island and then insinuates himself into the lives of Lydia and others who grew up on the island. Can you talk a bit about the role of the outsider in your story?

MBG: Writers love to quote John Gardner (although I’ve never actually found the original quote) that there are only two plot variations in fiction: a man goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town. Obviously, in Goodnight Stranger, I was interested in the latter. I knew I wanted Lydia and Lucas to have a safe, prescribed life, routines that were interrupted by the arrival of the stranger. I wanted Lydia to see herself through the stranger’s eyes. In many ways Goodnight Stranger is the story of siblings who, so mired in grief and longing for the past, never grew up. They’re frozen in time, in a kind of adolescent limbo. Lydia realizes at one point that they’ve never moved the furniture around in their house, never replaced wine glasses that broke decades ago. Baby B is the sibling who died in infancy almost thirty years ago, and his bedroom is still set up for a baby, with teddy bear knobs on the dresser. Cole, the stranger, challenges all their beliefs, everything they thought was true about their family, and ultimately…unsticks time for Lydia and Lucas.

LN: Have you always been an avid fan of literary suspense? Can you share some of your favorite authors—past or present—in the genre?

MBG: I wouldn’t actually say that I’m a fan of literary suspense, and to be honest I’m more than a little surprised that I ended up writing a literary thriller!

I do like page-turners, but that term can be subjective. I consider Pride and Prejudice a page-turner (and I know how it ends because I’ve read it a dozen times!). That said, I’m a devoted fan of Shirley Jackson, whose sentences are exquisite, and whose horror is rich and intricate. Another favorite author is Wilkie Collins, who I would classify as literary suspense.

I respond to books with beautiful sentences and a strong emotional core, and sometimes those books happen to be literary thrillers. Fiction I’ve loved lately include Donna Tartt’s A Secret History, Crystal Hana Kim’s If You Leave Me, Melanie Finn’s The Underneath, and Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties.

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

MBG: I’m riveted by Christina Thompson’s Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia, a nonfiction exploration of how people came to inhabit the Polynesian islands. It’s beautifully written, impeccably structured, and fascinating.

 
Photo by Daryl Burtnett

Photo by Daryl Burtnett

 

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.

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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.

 
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