On Historical Blurring and the Question of ‘What If’
Rachel Barenbaum and Christopher Castellani in Conversation
RB: It’s funny you say that. My uncle read the book a long time before I sold it, and he said, how do you have so many characters? How do you keep track of all those people in your book? And I said, you know, to me, they’re just like real people. When you’re out in the world, and you’re trying to buy a ticket to get on a train, you’re going to see a conductor, and there are going to be people next to you. I just imagine all these people like you were saying; they’re all real to me, so I see them going through the world and interacting, because that’s what we do.
CC: As strong as your two main characters are, I don’t think only about them. I think about—not the train conductor, obviously, but the secondary characters that are the next tier down from the protagonists. They stand out to me as much as the main characters, like the conniving professor, and the grandmother, and Sasha, the man that Miri rescued. You created this whole world of people, and this is also the question that you’re going to get a lot of the time: how much of it is based on real people, and how much of it is completely imagined? I know you can’t say, 18% is real, but in general, how did you balance that?
RB: I made everybody up except for Einstein. When I wrote the first draft, the book was about the grandmother, Baba, and she was loosely based on my great aunt, who came from Russia.
CC: That’s what I’m remembering, I think, that there was a real person who anchored the book.
RB: She was the only one, and everybody else I just made up. But a very famous author whose name I can’t remember right now once said all of our characters are based on real people and simultaneously made up. We couldn’t write anything real without knowing people and our experiences. So, it’s all fiction—but there must be bits and pieces of people I know sprinkled here and there.
But you also have these characters that are so real.
CC: Yeah, but before I go back to me, because I’ve talked too much, I think it’s a real testament to your book that I don’t think of it as a book in which everyone is made up. Maybe because you have this real historical event, and, again, that clock that is running the whole time, and you do have Einstein, not as a character, but as a real person in the book. It does have that glow of reality, and this atmosphere that if you went to that time and place, you would find those characters. You wrote into reality in a way that felt very convincing. And I think some people are not going to believe you when you say that these characters aren’t real.
The idea of the female doctor, did that come from family history or your imagination?I wanted a strong woman in the book who was doing something with her life.
RB: I wanted a strong woman in the book who was doing something with her life. Not that motherhood isn’t doing something with your life, but most women then were mothers and that was all they did. If a woman wanted to work, she was a midwife of some sort, or in childcare. I love books with strong female leads who are breaking barriers and doing interesting things; that’s just what I’m drawn to. So I invented her, and then I found that there were a couple of real-life surgeons in Russia then, but they had to go to Switzerland and France to get their degrees, and then they came back to Russia to practice. So I made my character a little further forward thinking—she gets her degree in Russia.
CC: You don’t have a medical background, right?
RB: No. Nor am I a physicist!
CC: I just assumed that you had a medical background, or that Miri was based on a real person.
RB: I want to hear you talk about your play within a play.
CC: In my attempt to find a story arc for Anja, in the non-real part of the book, I wanted her to have, not a quest—quest is too strong a word—but a driving narrative, and the option I came up with was that she held onto a play, this lost play, and she felt pressured, or a sort of ambivalence, about releasing it or putting it on. I liked that enough as a plot device. It’s not going to make marketers and editors stand up and be like, ooh, how exciting, a novel about somebody who isn’t sure they want to put on a play. They’re not going to get super excited about that, but I got excited about that laughs and then I thought, it can’t just be a play about anything. It can’t just be some random Williams play that doesn’t relate in any way to the rest of the book, so I realized early on that the play had to be about Frank, and had to be something that Williams was doing as an act of penance for his relationship with Frank, and also something that he was doing to try to get Anja to star in the play and resurrect his career. It had to have these two elements to it, but I was trying to avoid at all costs having to actually write the play.
The idea of writing a Williams play—even a bad Williams play—was very daunting, to say the least. But the more I wrote the book, the more I realized, you can’t be talking about a play and have the play be a big part of the story if you’re not going to give it in its entirety, and it had to add another layer to our understanding of the characters in order to justify it being in the book. And I love when I’m reading a book and suddenly the landscape shifts a little bit, and I’m reading a document, a letter, a play script. And also this idea—this is the last thing I’ll say, I promise—that when you’re in the world of the play, suddenly you’re not in the world of Leading Men, you’re in the world of that play, and I wanted to give, again, another sense of illusion, another sense of what these characters were constantly doing, which was writing plays, going to plays, and living in these made up worlds.What if dwells in this world of possibility, but possibility also includes danger or destabilization, and people don’t like that.
RB: What did your editor think about the play?
CC: He never once questioned it. My agent questioned it; she thought maybe it wasn’t necessary to have the whole play in it, so she suggested that I break it up and just show clips of it, but it didn’t work. It’s funny, I’ve had people who’ve written and said, after they’ve read it, wow, that was a really bad play, and then other people saying, you know, that play was pretty good. [laughs] The reactions to the play have been as polarizing as the reaction to the book itself.
I’ve gotten the most incredible letters from people—the most passionate, generous, tear-stained letters, and reviews of this book, and the absolute meanest reviews, and the meanest, almost personally aggrieved responses to this book. So there’s something very polarizing about it. I think a lot of it has to do with what we’ve been talking about, that people get upset about the blur of fact and fiction; they want it to be one or the other. They want it to be comfortable; they want to know what they’re dealing with. I think that question of what if is an anxious question. What if dwells in this world of possibility, but possibility also includes danger or destabilization, and people don’t like that. They want their history in neat chapters, and they want to know that he was good, and he was bad. And what you said about ideas: ideas are scary too; ideas challenge people.
RB: People want to read a textbook and say, that’s how it happened, and I know everything there is to know, and now let’s move on. This idea that maybe you missed something, or you didn’t understand this, or there was someone else in the background, it’s so unsettling that a lot of people can’t—it’s a visceral reaction to this idea that maybe they missed something.
CC: Exactly. And they want it to be linear. But of course that’s not in any way how life, or history, or relationships work.
RB: People are so surprised when I say Einstein’s math was wrong.
CC: Right, like, no, no, you can’t do that!
RB: Right, like, he couldn’t have been wrong! But he really wasn’t a mathematician first. I’m not saying he was bad at math.
CC: But people don’t want their narrative to be disrupted.
RB: Yes. I get that reaction from people: are you sure he was wrong?
CC: And who are you to say? Where’s your degree?
RB: Right. You’re not a physicist and you wrote this book?
CC: You’re probably going to get articles with headlines like, “When Einstein was Wrong: A Novel by Rachel Barenbaum.” They always want to focus on something melodramatic and controversial.
RB: It’s really sweet that you talk about when I get articles. [both laugh]
CC: Oh, come on, of course you are. It’s going to be awesome. I’m so excited.
RB: I so appreciate knowing that I can send you an email with any panic, or anything. It means so much to me.I think that my greatest measure of success will be if I can sell my second book.
CC: Any time, and not to freak you out, but it’s only going to get worse in terms of the anxiety. The main question is, and you never know, is it going well? You’ll get good reviews—you’re already gotten good reviews—and things will be going along, and your editor or agent will talk to you, but you’ll never have a sense of whether it’s going well. Even if demonstrable things go bad, like you get a bad review, that doesn’t mean things are going badly. And if you get a great review, that also doesn’t mean things are going well. You just don’t know, so you have to accept that. Books that seem like they’ve blown up don’t actually do that well, relatively, and then books that you’ve never heard of are number two on the New York Times bestseller list. You can’t gauge anything; it’s all illusion. The only thing that matters is: you’ll get letters from people, you’ll do readings and interact with readers, and that is real, and that’s what you focus on—those individual reactions that you get from readers. That’s what I’ve found; that’s the only thing that I can control, and the only thing that I know is real. Everything else is an illusion.
RB: I think that my greatest measure of success will be if I can sell my second book.
CC: Exactly. A writer friend of mine, who has published something like 12 books, said, the only measure of it is, did you have a better experience than you did with your previous book? Not sales-wise, but artistically. And, do you have an opportunity to write and publish the next book? That’s the only thing you should think about. Everything else is what it is.
Christopher Castellani’s fourth novel, Leading Men—for which he received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and the Guggenheim Foundation—was published by Viking in February 2019. Leading Men was a New York Times Editors’ Choice, an LA Times bestseller, and profiled in Publishers Weekly, People, Entertainment Weekly, Interview, Lambda Literary, and other publications. His collection of essays on point of view in fiction, The Art of Perspective, was published by Graywolf in 2016. Castellani is on the fiction faculty of the Warren Wilson MFA Program and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. He lives in Boston, where he is the proud artistic director of GrubStreet, where he has worked for nearly twenty years.
Rachel Barenbaum is a graduate of GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator. In a former life she was a hedge fund manager and a spin instructor. She has degrees from Harvard in Business, and Literature and Philosophy. She lives in Hanover, NH with her husband, three children, and dog named Zishe—after the folk hero who inspires many tales around their dinner table. A Bend In the Stars is Rachel’s debut novel, forthcoming from Grand Central. It has been named a summer 2019 B&N Discover Great New Writers selection.