Sheltering: Rebecca Dinerstein Knight Knows a Lot About Plants and Poisons
The Author of Hex Talks to Maris Kreizman
On this episode of Sheltering, Rebecca Dinerstein Knight speaks with Maris Kreizman about her new novel, Hex, the story of a botanist’s love for her boss and the complicated relationships that surround each of them. Knight talks about the relief of writing a book that “has nothing to do with her personally,” and the nerdy joy of having her six characters’ relationships form a hexagon (Hex, get it?). She also reminisces on her and her husband’s choreographed wedding dance and the blessing of owning a chicken in quarantine—three fresh eggs a day! Knight’s local bookstore is The Toadstool in New Hampshire; please order Hex through them if possible (they’re offering free media mail shipping).
From the episode:
Maris Kreizman: Welcome to Sheltering. I’m Maris Kreizman. I’m so happy to see Becky Dinerstein Knight’s face. Welcome!
Rebecca Dinerstein Knight: Hi, Maris! [sings] Seeing your face is the best way to start the day.
Maris: Ooh, I love it. I love your songs and dances. Wait, before we start talking about your book, just tell me a little bit about the dance you did at your wedding, because I was obsessed with that.
Rebecca: Wow, cool question! That is fun to think about. My husband and I decided—well, okay, I’ll start from the beginning. The only thing I’ve ever known that I wanted at my wedding was to do a dance that my fiancé and I would practice. That’s the only request I had. And then one afternoon before our wedding, John said, “What if we did a dance?” And it was like being proposed to all over again. So, then we got really heavy into the tracks, and we tried to make a hip-hop mix with nine different songs, including “Creep,” that we were going to dance to.
Rebecca: Yeah, that’s the one! And we got our friend Matt to mix them all together. He’s a mixer at Radio Lab and he did a super complicated, advanced, high-tech job, and it was so fancy that we couldn’t even keep up with it. So, then we just went super simple and chose “Dancing in the Moonlight” by King Harvest, which is just like [sings] do-dee-do-do-dee-do-do. It’s so tender. And we had just moved into our little house in New Hampshire. We had no furniture, so we just practiced and practiced in our empty living room. And then we did our dance at our wedding. We didn’t tell anybody—not a single person—that we were going to do it, so it was very, very fun.
Maris: It remains a joy to watch, truly. But anyway! Tell me how you’re doing. Introduce yourself.
Rebecca: Okay! Hi, I’m Rebecca Dinerstein Knight. I wrote this book called Hex [holds up book]. It came out this week. I’m really excited about it. it’s a very pretty object.
Rebecca: Viking/Penguin Random House did such a nice job with it, and we were all so excited. Literally, the finished books came into the office and the tour graphics got generated and we were on the launchpad—and then it shut down. So, it’s been this incredibly day-by-day parallel between the devolution of the functioning systems of the world and the arrival of this very small and inconsequential object. So balancing the scales of—what can we say?—hope and perspective and energy and humility, all of these contrary forces, has been quite a jungle. But the support and encouragement that the entire team has received has been overwhelming, so I’m incredibly grateful.
Maris: And I know you’ve done a bunch of digital events already.
Rebecca: Yeah! I mean, people really rallied at a speed and at a specificity that I did not anticipate. It seemed at first that it was simply cancelled, that the events were cancelled, they weren’t going to be happening, the end. And then in a couple of days it surfaced that they were all moving online, and everybody was right there for it. I can’t tell you how much that makes art possible, when people can turn around and be agile and energetic and be generous in that way. It is a true privilege, and a signal of what our community is made of. I really do think the literary community has come together around this in a way that is really, profoundly the best of humankind showing itself. So that’s very, very cool. But yeah, it’s been fun to be on Zoom—with your husband, with Julie Buntin, with lots of friends and good folks.
Maris: That’s good. Tell me a little bit more about Hex. It’s so different from your debut novel, in such cool ways. No disrespect to [The Sunlit Night]—
Rebecca: No, for sure. You know, I wrote my first novel as a younger person who didn’t know—who wrote poetry, and who had spent a lot of time in Norway. I wanted it to be about landscape, which is what my poetry was about, and I wanted it to be about going out into the world. And then, many years later, I really wanted it to be about coming back inside. So, this book is shorter, it’s sassier, it’s got a little bit more attitude, it’s got a lotta bit more attitude, and it came to me in a fever rush, as opposed to a six-year process of learning what a book is and rewriting it and really putting it through the wringer. This book arrived onto me and delivered itself, so that’s a real pleasure to have.
Maris: And the voice is so singular. It’s like nothing I’ve really ever read before. And it certainly doesn’t match up with your own voice; tell me about that.
Rebecca: In a way, that’s the highest compliment you can pay the book, because the curse of the debut novel is the entire response to it is, “Is this you?” And I was a woman who had gone to Norway. Even though none of the things in the book happened to me, that basic architecture was autobiographical. This book has nothing to do with me. I made it as a math problem. It’s six players in maximum conflict with each other and maximum erotic attraction toward each other. I literally started with A, B, C, D, E, and F in a hexagonal diagram, drawing flowchart arrows in both directions between each figure, and just algebra-ed it. It was only geometry, only sex appeal, only “How can we make each character need something from each other?” Having the total relaxation of not having anything to do with me personally, and being able in my nerdy little math and science high school way to tackle it as a geometry, was such a joy. And then the voice just rose up from under it or came down from over it and powered it through, once it had that architecture.
Maris: I think my husband, Josh, had to tell me that Hex is of course short for hexagon and not just—I’m glad you have a pun in the title, is what I’m saying.
Rebecca: You know, it gave itself to me. Because it really is in equal parts about hex like witchcraft hex, and hex like six-sided hex. Why not go there?
Maris: Tell me how you know so much about plants and poisons. I feel like you have so many Scrabble words in your book. I was like, I have to underline this.
Rebecca: Ha! Maris, I’m truly awful at Scrabble. The worst. So bad. Scrabble and bowling, you can really take me to town. I was in voluntary isolation while I wrote this book, way before these days. I moved to Hudson, New York, and didn’t leave my apartment for about nine months. I was able to go to the grocery store in those days, but that was the only place I went. And I sat down and I learned about plants. It wasn’t something that I knew about before, but the idea had started in a rose garden where I worked seven years ago, where there were all these plants that I couldn’t identify, and I didn’t know if they were poisonous or not. I literally didn’t know what I could mess with. And I started thinking, how did mankind ever know what they could touch, what they could eat, what would nourish them, what would harm them? And that started to look so much like human relationships. How do I know that this beautiful person is going to tangle my insides or give me the nutrients I need to thrive? Who can say? So I started putting these things together, and in order to give the botany it’s fair share—I can riff on love issues pretty fluidly, but the botany I’m a beginner with, so I really spent that time, that really solitary time, boning up on not only contemporary chemical practices around planting, but also the history of how we ever came to deal with these plants in the first place.
Maris: It was remarkable to me to read about a specific plant and its place even in literature, and its evolution in literature.
Rebecca: Right, yeah! Once you start looking for it, once you’re tuned into the plant channel, it’s everywhere. The romantic poets have been using them. The aesthetics of florals, for lack of a more scientific word, and the aesthetics of literary beauty are so interwoven throughout time that were a lot of discoveries.
Maris: That’s great. Now tell me a little bit more about being home. You’re in New Hampshire—say more. What have you been doing?
Rebecca: I’m at home in New Hampshire, which is a new home for me. I grew up in New York City. I now live in an old farmhouse in a small village in southwestern New Hampshire, which is just not Manhattan. It’s beautiful. We’ve got land a little cabin and a little stream and three chickens and a cat and a dog, and honestly bless the chickens. We have three eggs a day now. My husband is an editor, he also was working at FSG, and we moved up here and now he’s freelance editing and planting our garden. We just got the broccolis in and the lettuces here. I love it here, but I miss you and I miss the city, and I miss the Chinese food. Actually, I have to correct that. There is a Chinese restaurant up the road from us in Marlborough, New Hampshire, that is more reminiscent of 1994 Upper West Side Chinese food. The only thing you can find in New York now because the old Chinese food is gone, it’s been priced out, but it still exists in New Hampshire. So, Chinese food is actually the one thing I am getting up here, but bagels and pizza are hard to find.
Maris: And what have you been reading lately?
Rebecca: What have I been reading? I’ve been reading a mixture of really old stuff and really contemporary stuff. My husband, John, started reading a lot of Walter Pater for his academic work, and I picked that up and got really excited about Walter Pater, which is not something I ever expected to say. He uses a lot of exclamation marks in the service of beauty, which is a philosophy that I can get down with. He’s very excited about what makes writing stylish, he’s very excited about what makes it vibrant and specific and excellent, and I got really into it. There’s that on the one side, and then there are all of our wonderful friends who have books coming out right now, who are having a tough time of it. The whole system of advanced copies of books and promotion for upcoming books is going so haywire right now, and I have these few precious galleys that managed to get to me before publishing offices shut down. I’ve been loving Justin Taylor’s memoir; I’ve been loving Marie-Helene Bertino’s novel Parakeet. I’ve been loving Jordan Kisner’s book of essays, Thin Places, that came out right before all of this. All of us are coming together and trying to support each other. Katy Simpson Smith, who you just talked to, has a wonderful book out. It’s just dazzling to see what we can do with and for each other as it all changes.
Maris: Is there an indie bookstore near you? Do you have a local?
Rebecca: Yes, we have a really good bookstore. We live very near the town where the MacDowell Colony is, so it’s a very literary place, and the bookstore there is called the Toadstool, which is just about as sweet as it gets. They have a couple of locations nearby, but the location that I like best is in Peterborough, New Hampshire. They have an incredible used section in addition to their new section, and in the used section you can find some really exquisite large, old art books, some really old poetry, and then in the new section they have an ample array of everything that’s coming out. It’s run by really good people named Willard and Holly. They do lots of events, and they’re really the center of the community, so I love them.
Maris: Well, we will link to them. Thank you so much!
Rebecca: Thank you, Maris. You’re really the best.