Elizabeth Shelburne

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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