Julie Orringer

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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The Dipper - May 2019

"The Dipper" is our monthly newsletter, where we highlight readings, events, calls for submission, and other literary-related news for the coming month. If you have news or events to share, let us know

 

May News

Now that the weather has finally turned (and turned again), you might be eager for more clues about our headlining poets for Poetry & Pie III on Saturday, August 3. We’ll release all of the details next month, but, for now, we have a few more teasers for you. Put these together with the first set of clues and see if you can guess who’s coming. The first person to email us with the correct names of all three poets wins a free pass to the event!

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  • Mystery poet #1 started writing poetry at the age of 25 and has studied with Frank Bidart.

  • Mystery poet #2 lives next door to a bear sanctuary.

  • Mystery poet #3 has been on an epic Western road trip this year.

As we mentioned last month, one of the books that we’ve been most excited about this spring is Healing the Divide: Poems of Kindness and Connection, an anthology of poetry edited by our friend James Crews and put out by the fabulous, local publisher Green Writers Press. We recently interviewed James about the book. If you haven’t seen the interview yet, check it out on our blog.

The Upper Valley is very lucky to be the home of Bloodroot Literary Magazine, edited by the fabulous team of James E. Dobson and Rena Mosteirin. Volume 11 (the Fourth Digital Edition) was released in April and is available online and as a downloadable PDF. Volume 11 features photography from our friend James Napoli (of Junction Magazine fame), poems by our own Rebecca Siegel, and poems by our friends Meghan Oliver and Ivy Schweitzer.

We are very excited to announce our first chapbook project: Little Dippers. Each Little Dipper will feature one writer’s work and will be hand-stitched and have covers letterpress printed by us! Look for more information about this project very soon. Little Dipper Issue 1 will be available at Poetry & Pie III in a limited edition of 25.

From time to time, we plan to invite others to join in on the Friday Reads fun with their reading suggestions. Bloodroot Literary Magazine editor and poet, Rena Mosteirin, recently shared her excellent recommendation with us over on the blog.

May’s Shooting Stars

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A cool literary find from each of us to help light up your month!

  • I’m excited to see the lineup for the Marble House Residents for 2019. I kept meaning to make it to one of the Art Seed events last summer and never could quite get it together. The first Art Seed of the season is on Saturday, May 11, from 2:00 to 5:00 pm. Readings and performances followed by open studios. Sounds like a great spring afternoon.—Shari

  • Earth Day has just passed us by, but, really, we all know that every day ought to be Earth Day. To that end, Literary Hub has assembled an absolutely fantastic series of Earth Day reading lists, everything from classics (Rachel Carson, Nan Shepard, Barry Lopez, Henry David Thoreau) to science (Elizabeth Kolbert, Elizabeth Rush, Gary Paul Nabhan, Paul Hawken) to fiction and poetry (W.S. Merwin, Peter Matthiessen, Alice Oswald, Ursula K. Le Guin). Their goal is to list at least 365 books, so keep checking back. These lists could become the basis for one of the most important book clubs ever formed. —Rebecca


May Highlights

Emily Bazelon

Emily Bazelon

Emily Bazelon will give a public lecture at the Norwich Congregational Church in Norwich, Vermont, on Wednesday, May 1, at 7:00 pm as part of the Vermont Humanities Council’s First Wednesdays program. Her latest book, Charged, was recently featured on The New York Times Book Review podcast.

How lucky are we that Frank Bidart will be reading at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont, on Thursday, May 2, at 4:30 pm? So lucky.

Peter Money, one of the poets featured at Poetry & Pints earlier this year, is launching his new novel, Oh When The Saints, on Thursday, May 2, at Salt Hill Pub in Lebanon, New Hampshire, from 6:00 to 7:30 pm.

Part of the weekend-long Waking Windows Festival, this year’s Page Burner Reading series and book sale takes place on Saturday, May 4, from noon to 4:00 pm, and features readings by Angela Palm, Alison Prine, Bianca Stone, Ben Pease, Rachel Lindsay, Franky Frances Cannon, Kerrin McCadden, and Nat Baldwin. The readings will be held in various Winooski locations.

In honor of International Compost Awareness Week and Walt Whitman’s 200th birthday, Left Bank Books in Hanover, New Hampshire, is hosting a reading of Walt Whitman’s post-Civil War poem, “This Compost,” followed by two response activities on Tuesday, May 7, from 7:00 to 8:00 pm.

Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben

You have several chances to catch Vermont writer Bill McKibben this month: Tuesday, May 7, at the Unitarian Church of Montpelier; Wednesday, May 8 at The Norwich Bookstore, and Tuesday, May 14 at Flying Pig Books in Shelburne. His latest book, Falter, is an important read; attend a reading if you can!

On Wednesday, May 8, at 6:30 pm, the Water Street Bookstore in Exeter, New Hampshire, is hosting a reading by some of the poets included in the new Lunation Anthology, published by the Portsmouth Poet Laureate Program and featuring 114 women poets.

Julia Bouwsma, Keetje Kuipers, and Chen Chen read as a part of The Silo Series at The Word Barn in Exeter, New Hampshire, on Thursday, May 9. Doors open at 6:30 pm; the reading begins at 7:00 pm. Complementary coffee and treats!

Sean Cole, producer at This American Life, will give a lecture and lead a discussion at Marlboro College in Marlboro, Vermont, on Friday, May 10, from 7:00 to 8:00 pm, about making radio stories out of books and poems.

Salvatore Scibona will read from his new novel, The Volunteer, at Bennington College in Bennington, Vermont, on Wednesday, May 15, at 7:00 pm.

Nausheen Eusuf

Nausheen Eusuf

The 2019 Hyla Brook Reading Series at the Frost Farm in Derry, New Hampshire, launches on Thursday, May 16, at 6:30 pm with Nausheen Eusuf.

Writers on a New England Stage hosts the fantastic Tommy Orange on Thursday, May 16, at 7:00 pm in Portsmouth, New Hamshire.

Dan Chiasson, poet and poetry critic at The New Yorker, will read at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, Vermont, on Thursday, May 16, at 8:00 pm.

Michele Filgate visits the Portsmouth Public Library in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on Wednesday, May 22, at 6:30 pm to speak about the anthology, What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About.

Kathryn Davis will read at the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, Vermont, on Friday, May 24, at 6:00 pm.

Chigozie Obioma

Chigozie Obioma

Vermont Studio Center visiting writer Chigozie Obioma will read on Wednesday, May 29, at 8:00 pm in Johnson, Vermont.

The 6th Annual Bread Loaf Environmental Writers’ Conference and the 5th Annual Bread Loaf Translators’ Conference begin on Friday, May 31 in Ripton, Vermont. The list of public readings has not been announced yet, but the faculty and guest lists are very enticing, including John Balcom, Jennifer Chang, Daniel Duane, John Elder, Edward Gauvin, Sean Hill, Elisabeth Jaquette, J. Drew Lanham, Suzanne Jill Levine, Helen Macdonald, Claire Vaye Watkins, Dan Chiasson, Bill McKibben, James Prosek, and Emily Wilson. Check the conference website for reading dates and times.

Visit our calendar for detailed information about these events and more!

 

Worth a Drive

  • Myla Goldberg visits The Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, Massachusetts, on Tuesday, May 7, at 7:00 pm for her First Editions Club reading from her new novel, Feast Your Eyes.

  • Aysegul Savas will be at Amherst Books in Amherst, Massachusetts, on Thursday, May 9, at 7:00 pm to read from her debut, Walking on the Ceiling.

  • Julie Orringer reads at the Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on Wednesday, May 29, at 7:00 pm.

 

Worth a Listen

  • Mary Gabriel talks about Ninth Street Women on Lit Up. So good! And did you hear the book is going to be made into a series? We’re here for it!

  • Tune in to The Archive Project to hear the very wise Barry Lopez, one of our favorite writers.

  • Emilie Pine reads “How to Edit Your Own Lousy Writing” by Julian Gough and discusses it with Sally Rooney on The Stinging Fly Podcast.

 

We're Looking Forward to These May Releases

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Calls For Submission and Upcoming Deadlines

The Mudroom at AVA Gallery
The AVA Gallery is seeking storytellers for its next Mudroom event (June 13) on the theme “What I Did for Money.” Submit your story idea (300 words or fewer) and a short bio (150 words or fewer).
Deadline: May 10 | Details

Anne LaBastille Memorial Writers Residency
Indoor and outdoor writing spaces, family-style meals, and fireside discussions at a lakeside lodge in the Adirondacks (October 5 to 19). Three spaces are open to those who don’t live in the Adirondack region. $25 application fee.
Deadline: May 21 | Details

Tiny Stories of Friendship
Firelight, Peterborough, New Hampshire’s immersive and collaborative theatre workshop is calling for Tiny Stories of Friendship—100 words or fewer. Stories will be read/presented/performed at The Thing in the Spring (June 9 at 1:00 pm).
Deadline: May 21 | Details

The Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching, and Writing Intensive
The Conference on Poetry and Teaching is a unique opportunity for teachers to work closely with both their peers and a team of illustrious poets who have particular expertise in working with teachers at all levels. Over the course of 4½ days (June 22 to 26), faculty poets will share specific, hands-on techniques for teaching poetry. $25 application fee.
Deadline: May 30 | Details

The Frost Place 2019 Conference on Poetry
Spend a week at “intensive poetry camp” (July 6 to 12) with writers who are deeply committed to learning more about the craft of writing poetry. The Frost Place Conference on Poetry offers daily workshops, classes, lectures, writing and revising time in a supportive and dynamic environment. $25 application fee.
Deadline: May 30 (scholarships) and June 15 | Details

The Frost Place Poetry Seminar
Join a select community of poets for 5-1/2 days (August 4 to 10) to refresh your artistic inspiration in a setting of great natural beauty. Have your poems-in-progress given generous and focused attention in this intimate setting. Our specialty is unparalleled access to a faculty of celebrated contemporary poets, and our goal is to send you home charged up to re-enter your own work. $25 application fee.
Deadline: May 25 (scholarships) and July 1 | Details

Frost Farm Poetry Conference
Accepting registrations for this year’s conference (June 14 to 16). Registration includes workshops, a one-on-one meeting with your instructor, keynote with Bruce Bennett, critiques with poet-in-residence Rhina Espaillat, panel discussions, readings, a reception, breakfasts and lunches.
Deadline: registration until full | Details

Juniper Summer Writing Institute
Accepting applications for this summer’s institute (June 16 to 22). The institute includes manuscript consultations, craft sessions, workshops, readings, and other events, led by a wide range of instructors, including CAConrad, Gabriel Bump, Ross Gay, Khadijah Queen, Bianca Stone, Ocean Vuong, Dara Weir, and Joy Williams.
Deadline: rolling admissions until full | Details

Lifelines Magazine
Accepting submissions of original and unpublished short stories, nonfiction, poetry, and artwork for their 2020 issue. While they consider a broad spectrum of subject matter for publication, they are looking for pieces that speak to the experience of medicine in some way.
Deadline: October 31 | Details


Upcoming Workshops and Classes

Q&A with Agents from Folio Literary Management
Friday, May 3, 5:30 to 7:30 pm

The Vermont College of Fine Arts hosts a Q&A with three agents from Folio Literary Management: Jeff Kleinman, Jamie Chambliss, and Erin Harris.
Location: VCFA, Cafe Anna, Montpelier, Vermont | Cost: free | Details

How to Write More, Write Better, and Be Happier: A Full-Day Retreat with Joni Cole
Saturday, May 4, 2019, 9:30 am to 3:30 pm
This retreat will help you cultivate a healthy and productive creative process that will serve you now, and for the rest of your writing life. You’ll learn tips and techniques to get started and stay motivated. You’ll receive quality instruction on craft. You’ll also find inspiration and generate new material through writing prompts and other forms of sustenance, most notably gathering within a supportive community.
Location: Old Clary Farm, Greensboro, Vermont | Cost: $175 | Details

Writing with Spirit with Nancy Kilgore
Monday, May 6, 6:30 to 8:30 pm
We start with a brief reading, a short meditation, and then write from a prompt. The last 45 minutes involves reading our pieces (only if you choose) and feedback that is not critique but hearing/reflecting without judgment.
Location: Burlington Writers Workshop, Burlington, Vermont | Cost: free | Details

Manchester Writing Retreat with Deirdre Frost
Saturday, May 11, 11 am to 5:00
This nature-writing retreat will focus on a series of prompts to spark interest and build pivotal content vital to the understanding of the subject matter. The retreat offers helpful ways to think about and to generate a variety of focused pieces and a strategic action plan for work-in-progress. The program will also offer tips on how to incorporate smartphone photography to create more impact.
Location: Northshire Bookstore, Manchester Center, Vermont | Cost: $50 | Details

Poetry and Haiku Printing with Robert Metzler
Tuesday, May 14, 6:30 to 9:30 pm

If you have a poem or several poems that are aching to be printed, the Book Arts Workshop can help you print them. Using the traditional letterpress process of movable type, you will receive instruction in type setting, paper selection, press work, and if more than one page, book binding.
Location: Dartmouth College Book Arts Workshop, Hanover, New Hampshire | Cost: free | Details

Stealing from Theater: Character Creation with Will Alexander
Thursday, May 16, 7:00 to 8:00 pm

Create new characters and expand your understanding of your current cast via theatrical games and exercises in this online webinar. Taught by William Alexander, National Book Award Winner and current chair of the Writing for Children and Young Adults program at VCFA.
Location: online | Cost: $20-$30 | Details

Memoir Writing with Katherine Mayfield
Saturday, May 18, 1:00 to 4:00 pm

Do you have a memoir cooking in the back of your writer’s mind? This workshop will get you started. You’ll learn what makes a compelling memoir, how and why to choose a theme, the importance of reflection in memoir, and techniques which are specific to the art of memoir-writing. You’ll also learn what “creative nonfiction” means in relation to memoir, and how to weave your truth into a riveting description of your life experiences.
Location: The Ford House, SNHU, Manchester, New Hampshire | Cost: $65-$85 | Details

Helping the Poet Make a Better Poem with Steven Cramer
Saturday, June 8, 1:00 to 4:00 pm

In this three-hour workshop, we’ll honor both the critical and creative faculties of our brains (perhaps discovering that they’re closer siblings than we might have thought). We’ll first discuss work-in-process by participants, asking ourselves the only question worth asking in a workshop: how might we help the poet make this poem the best it can be? Then we’ll engage in one or two writing “experiments” designed to encourage using language more as paint than as a vehicle for conveying information, favoring the sensory over making sense.
Location: The Ford House, SNHU, Manchester, New Hampshire | Cost: $65-$85 | Details

Tapping into Your Write Brain: A Workshop for the Creatively Inclined with Joni Cole
Friday, June 28, 6 to 7:30 pm
In this workshop, you will participate in a creative writing exercise using thematic prompts that stir up…who knows? And that’s the fun, freeing, and always powerful experience of writing and sharing from a “prompt”. No writing experience is required. Space is limited. Please register by June 21 through the Hood Museum of Art’s website calendar.
Location: Hood Museum of Art, Hanover, New Hampshire | Cost: free | Details