On Historical Blurring and the Question of ‘What If’
Rachel Barenbaum and Christopher Castellani in Conversation
A Bend in the Stars by Rachel Barenbaum is the story of a scientist racing Einstein to prove relativity. In the chaos of war in 1914 Russia, on the brink of solving the famous field equations, he goes missing—launching his sister on a desperate search across Russia to find him. When she does, she must choose between saving his work and her own future.
Leading Men by Christopher Castellani is an expansive yet intimate story of desire, artistic ambition, and fidelity, set in the glamorous literary and film circles of 1950s Italy. In July of 1953, at a glittering party thrown by Truman Capote in Portofino, Italy, Tennessee Williams and his longtime lover Frank Merlo meet Anja Blomgren, a mysteriously taciturn young Swedish beauty and aspiring actress. Their encounter will go on to alter all of their lives.
Christopher Castellani: It’s so boring to ask you this to start, but I have to because this is the question you’re going to get from every single interviewer, so you might as well start answering it now.
Rachel Barenbaum: [laughs] Ok!
CC: Why did you choose to write about this particular set of characters and this particular real-life event and these real-life people? And how did you first get the idea?
RB: This is actually my Jewish Book Council pitch. I’ll try it out on you.
CC: All right, hit me.
RB: In 2015, I was reading one of those excerpts in Scientific American that said a hundred years ago this month, Einstein was trying to get to Russia to watch an eclipse, to prove relativity, but it’s a good thing he didn’t make it, because at the time, he didn’t have the right math. And if he had gotten the pictures and he had published his math, people would have called him a fraud. And I thought, that is a genius book—what if someone else actually made it to Russia? Einstein’s team was stopped at the border because he was German. Part of my family is Russian, so I’ve always been fascinated with that country and that time period—that’s when my family left. So it just came together from there very easily. I think the lens of what if? is fascinating.
CC: There’s the counterfactual mode of fiction writing: those books like The Plot Against America, and a lot of other books that imagine, what would have happened if we lost the Second World War? or, what if JFK had survived his assassination? There’s a long history of those kinds of books out there, which I didn’t realize until I started delving into this genre, and it does have a very political history. The first stories that were written in the counterfactual mode—or what I was calling “real name writing mode”—the earliest examples go back to the Romans.
RB: Can you write something apolitical, if it’s a what if? I think, inherently, when you’re writing a what if story, you’re going back because you think something is missing in history, and I don’t know what motivates that—if you want to call it politics or not—but I would call it politics. Certainly in my book, it’s politics. I’m haunted by the idea that we have a huge war every time the next generation forgets what it was to lose people in a war. And I know we have wars going on right now that are awful, but I think a lot of people forget the horrors of World War I and what was happening in Russia. That was the first great war, and I really want people to remember how much the world changed at that moment, because that was the last moment in history when ideas really motivated people more than fear. I want us to come back to that.
CC: One of the things that motivates so many writers in this genre is a redemptive or corrective impulse. Some writers are writing about figures who have not been properly celebrated or acknowledged, as a way of correcting the history, and some people are writing about people who have been misunderstood, as a way of redeeming them. I agree that the corrective and redemptive impulse is inherently political, and so it sounds like, for your book, you were writing this as a way of reminding people of this period in history that is more easily forgotten because World War II came on its heels, and that great war has dominated the cultural imagination more so than the First World War. Is that right, would you say?
RB: For sure. But, also, I believe that people can be moved by ideas. Ideas are powerful. When I was writing the first few drafts, I wanted my main character, Vanya, to be moved just by the need to solve relativity. Why can’t he just be so driven by this need to understand the universe? And I got a lot of pushback on that because people would say, but that’s not enough: he has to be scared for his life; he has to be scared for his family. I think some of that is true, but at that time, in the 1900s, ideas were that powerful. The Russian Revolution came right after that, and I think that we forget today how important those ideas were.
CC: I love that, and I think what you’re coming up against is truth and human nature versus plot and marketability. Those two things don’t always agree with each other. And I agree with you; if you have a character who is motivated by ideas, well, what do we always tell our students? Your character has to want something and want it intensely. It’s your job, not to give them a bunch of other things to want; it’s your job to convince the reader that they want that one thing so badly that they’re willing to risk their life for it, and if it’s to prove an idea or discover something, it’s a little more challenging, but that’s your job as a writer—make that idea so compelling to the reader that we get swept up in it.
RB: Yes. Exactly. I’d love to move back to asking about the what if genre, and ask about your what if. Can you tell me about the what if you chose for Leading Men, and talk a little bit about why you were so drawn to your alternate history?
CC: The more I’ve been thinking about this, the more I have been drawn by that corrective or redemptive impulse in order, mainly, to bring Frank’s story into the light—to recognize the man behind the man, to give an identity and a texture to those people who create space for artists. As Williams’s rock, his partner, his—he wasn’t his muse, but Frank created a space for Williams to create his art, and he sacrificed a lot of his own identity, and a lot of his own ambition, in order to do that.
I found that sacrifice compelling on a human level, and I found the idea of what goes into making a great artist interesting on a broader level—the idea that no artist does it alone, that if it weren’t for Frank or some of the other people who were in Williams’s orbit, he probably would have self destructed and not created as much as he did. I wanted to give Frank his due.
And then there was the collision of fact and fiction, with introducing this other character, Anja into it, who is completely fictional. A line that was written about Hilary Mantel I found really resonated for me: someone who was writing a review of her said that historical fiction can be read as less an effort to evade the blur between fact and fiction, than to honestly point toward that blur as a condition of history itself. The idea that history is not stable, history is not monolithic, that history is a collection of what really happened and what has been interpreted as having really happened, really compelled me.
Having a fictional character alongside a real character and having them interact not only seems like an accurate description of how we write history, or how we understand history, but particularly for writers who are constantly having these imaginary friends around us at all times, I’ve come to think of Anja as an imaginary friend that Williams and Frank conjured up. So much of the book is about the illusions that writers live with, or that artists live with, and that we accept as truth in order to survive. Anja functions in that way as well; asking myself that what if of creating her character had that effect—she embodies the illusion that writers have about their characters.
All of that is true, but also the real answer is that—and I’m sure you felt this way too—you have all of these facts that you’re supposed to adhere to, and a timeline, and you had a historical event that functioned as a clock for your book, and gave it a structure and shape, and those are great: having those constraints are, for me, necessary when I’m writing, because otherwise I could go crazy and I wouldn’t know what I was doing, but they also can feel confining. For me, having a section of the book that had constraints, and then another section of the book that had no constraints was the perfect recipe for simply having a—I wouldn’t say an easier, but a more dynamic writing experience. When I was tired of the constraints in the Frank sections, I would dream and play a little bit with Anja. And then when I was feeling too overwhelmed by possibility with her, I would go back to the confines of the historical sections.
How did that play out for you, that merging of fact and fiction?I balk at this idea that writing is inherently lonely, because I don’t feel lonely when I’m writing.
RB: Well, first I want to go back to this idea that you started out with, because I loved this: you said that Frank created the space for Williams to be artistic and to write his plays, and that history, or we, don’t often appreciate that or look at that space. That is fascinating because so many artists need someone as their anchor, and yet in Leading Men Williams still felt so lonely to me, even though Frank was there, and I wanted to know what you thought about that loneliness. Did you feel that?
CC: I’m not in Williams’ head in the book, so whatever loneliness he gave off was through Frank’s eyes—through his interpretation of what Williams was like. Everyone always says that writing is lonely, but even though my characters are imaginary friends, I don’t feel like I’m alone when I’m writing. I feel like I am surrounded by these people. This is what I meant before about writers being able to live in illusions. It’s a complete illusion that these people exist, and yet they’re as real, if not more real, to me than my friends and family. I balk at this idea that writing is inherently lonely, because I don’t feel lonely when I’m writing, and I don’t actually know if Williams did either. I felt like he was exhilarated when he was writing. He wrote every single day, and the loneliness came from having written something and having it be over, and having it maybe not be received as well as it could have been, and feeling vulnerable, and feeling scared, and feeling anxious, and the only way to get over that is to write more. He was constantly writing, and so that’s where all that plays out.
RB: I feel that! The loneliness is not in the writing, because I’m with you: my characters are real to me. But then when I’m done, and then I have this book sitting there in my computer and I have to send it out, that’s the moment of terror—and loneliness.
CC: It’s totally terrifying, and, yeah, you’ll have to do edits, but you don’t have the same relationship with those characters as you do when you’re creating them the first time. They start to, not to be dramatic, but they start to die, and you have to say goodbye to them, and you have to move on. Maybe that’s where the loneliness comes from: we create these people and then we watch them fade away, and then we move on, and that’s a lonely feeling, to be saying goodbye to our friends all the time.
RB: I love that. I think that’s right.
CC: One of the many strengths of your book, and one of the things I loved about it and find so rare, is how well populated it is. There are so many minor characters—the grandmother, for example—it feels very rich and robust, and it feels crowded. What’s a positive word for crowded? [laughs] It feels like you’re in good company.