Hannah Lillith Assadi, THE STARS ARE NOT YET BELLS

Hannah Lillith Assadi, THE STARS ARE NOT YET BELLS

Zibby is joined by National Book Foundation 5 under 35 honoree Hannah Lillith Assadi to talk about her latest novel, The Stars Are Not Yet Bells, which is narrated by a woman with dementia. The two discuss which family stories inspired Hannah, how the book’s delayed timeline has impacted her connection to it, and what she’s considering working on next.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Hannah. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Stars Are Not Yet Bells.

Hannah Lillith Assadi: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: You are a beautiful, lyrical, poetic writer. I really appreciate your writing style and am very excited to discuss your book.

Hannah: Thank you. Thank you so much.

Zibby: Can you tell listeners what your book is about?

Hannah: It’s about a woman who has dementia. As she’s succumbing to her illness, she begins to live more and more in her past and beside a lover who has been long dead for many decades. The moment of their relationship resurfaces and reemerges. Simultaneously, she begins to see these strange, metaphysical, blue lights that occupy the island where she had lived with her husband for many years. I’m not very good at the elevator pitch, but that’s the general summary.

Zibby: You know what? You did wonderfully. I have a passage that I had — even from the beginning, I just want to — why don’t I just read the first part, the first page, even? which I have online. It says, “It is not yet the end. Moss descends from the oaks thick as curtains veiling the night’s secrets from the living. A wild mare and her foal are out to feed before the dawn. Seagulls bark their hunger at the sky. And Lyra, our island, remains above the sea. The ocean has not engulfed all this, even though I have woken from that dream I’ve had again and again over the decades. In last night’s rendering, after the island has burned and sunken into the waters and all the stars had fallen into the Atlantic, I could still swim. And beneath the surface, wandering among the blue constellations like a mermaid, at last, I found Gabriel.” It was so good. Beautiful.

Hannah: Thanks. I worked on that one.

Zibby: I bet. Take me back. Tell me about how you became a writer, your style, your training, this way of telling this particular story, all of that.

Hannah: I was always writing little fictions ever since I was a child. Primarily, when I would get into trouble or something, I would write a little story. My father used to tell me I did this. I wasn’t seriously inspired until high school. An English teacher assigned a creative writing response assignment to The Sound and the Fury where we had to write a character from Caddy Compson’s perspective. That was the first time that I ever wrote fiction. I’m sure it was awful, but that was my first piece of fiction. Then I wrote, but more, I would say, “journal wrote” until I was in college. Then I studied creative writing as an undergrad in addition to Middle Eastern literature. When I was graduated, I was writing stories. I knew I wanted to be a writer. I still didn’t really know how to formalize that desire yet. I did my MFA. It definitely helped me. I think there was some hinderances to it only because of its cost, but it certainly did help formalize my education and also just push me toward the right people to help me actually become a professional. That was the progression there.

After my MFA, I published my first book, Sonora. I had been working on a few different projects. I have this tendency to start writing, it’ll get to a certain point, and then I realize it’s just not moving anymore. That was happening with a lot of things while I was waiting for my first book to come out. In the month afterward, my mom and I had gone to visit my great-aunt who has since passed. I had recently seen this picture of my grandmother with this man whom none of us knew who he was. Although, my great-aunt, I think, did know who he was. It was this interesting mystery that I wanted to write about, about the person who got away, as it were. Also, I’ve always been interested in memory and in time and certainly, mortality. I think most writers are interested in the latter. I thought Alzheimer’s would be such an interesting condition to try to inhabit. That was the genesis of this particular book. Then it evolved in strange ways from there and took on a life of its own. My parents were not in the jewel industry and didn’t live on a strange island off the coast of Georgia. That was all how a book takes on its own life.

Zibby: Have you always had — I know you said most authors are focused on morality, which I share with you. The movie with Julianne Moore, Ask Alice — is that what it was called?

Hannah: Still Alice. No, I haven’t seen it.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, you have to watch it.

Hannah: I should probably watch it. You know, I avoided things that felt like they were in similar territory because I was afraid that I would try to emulate too much. Tell me, what were you going to say?

Zibby: It’s also sort of an ode to language and the power of our command over language, which is one of the things that Alzheimer’s affects. It’s your ability to even communicate in the same way. I am haunted by that movie. I think about it more than any other movie, particularly when I am tired and I can’t even find the right words. I wonder. Then novels like yours where you really go into that — memory and language and all of our mental facilities, they’re just beyond our grasp. It’s so easy for it to all just go away.

Hannah: I know. Obviously, this book, you have to suspend disbelief a little bit because her language stays pretty — she has command of language since she’s a narrator until the end. One of the things I always found really upsetting reading my grandmother’s letters to my grandfather is that she was very articulate and very elegant and a sophisticated writer, although not formally trained, obviously, but toward the end — she had Alzheimer’s as well. She started repeating herself all the time and misspelling words and forgetting how to spell and just literally losing language. You can witness it on the page in a way that — I wasn’t there to witness her. It is so sad that it’s so easily lost.

Zibby: My grandmothers both, at the very end, you would sit with them, and they would say — it’s like a record or something on replay. I feel like you’re younger than me. Maybe you don’t even know what I’m talking about, but where it just keeps replaying. The track just loops. You’re like, wait, you just said that. Wait, you just said that. What’s going on? You’re like, am I losing my mind?

Hannah: It’s so interesting what they repeat too, like, bye. We don’t know enough, certainly. Maybe one day, we will know more about the brain. It’s fascinating and sad at the same time.

Zibby: Did you do a lot on the research side?

Hannah: I think I did more research than I give myself credit for, but it’s been so long. You may know from talking to as many authors as you do and being an author yourself, how long the publishing industry can take. Sometimes it feels faint to me, but I did do some research. I wouldn’t say it was heavy because I really wanted this to be her own story. It’s lyrically driven, as you said. I did some research into how the condition manifests itself just to hopefully get some of the moments right. There are moments when it’s sunset, so those liminal hours, where she is worse. That manifests in the book, which I think is called sunsetting. I did do some research. I did a lot of research into the treatment of mental illness in the fifties and sixties since she undergoes electric shock treatment, and also the advent of pharmaceutical drugs to treat depression. There was research. I don’t think I read too many books on the matter. I hate to admit this, but a lot of googling. I did read about Cumberland Island and the Carnegies there as well because that sort of inspired the setting of the book.

Zibby: You should read this new book by Lee Kravetz called The Confessions of Sylvia P. — I think that’s what it’s called — about Sylvia Plath. It has a whole section of her electric shock treatments.

Hannah: Oh, yeah, I would love to. I would love to. I’ll pick it up. Thank you.

Zibby: That was really good. You said it took a long time. When did you start writing this? What was the whole trajectory? Did you use the same publisher as your previous book? Did you go out with it all over again? Tell me about that.

Hannah: It was a different publisher. My first book was published by an independent house. This one was published by Riverhead. They did a beautiful job, obviously. I think a lot of people were delayed. I sold it in the fall of 2018. It came out in January. You can do the math there. That’s a few years. So much was delayed. First, there was the elections before COVID hit. I think a lot of publishers didn’t want to come out in that season because they knew it would be dense with books that were more politically relevant, which makes sense. Then COVID delayed so much. Seasons got backed up more and more. It feels like I’ve lived with this for a long time even though the writing of it has been done for a while. There is a way in which you don’t fully release it or relinquish it or something until it’s out in the world. It’s just the nature of the beast. It’s been an interesting few months to finally begin the process, really, of letting it go. I’m just like, okay, now it has a life of its own. There’s nothing I can do about it.

Zibby: It’s like kids going off to college or something.

Hannah: Sure, yeah. I only have a toddler, so I’m not there yet. Hopefully, I’ll be somewhat prepared, but probably not.

Zibby: I was going to say, what are you working on now? Then with the toddler, you never know. Are you working on anything now?

Hannah: No, I am. It’s funny. It’s interesting. I was working on something for quite a while while I was waiting for this to be published. Similar to my last experience, I’ve put it aside for the time being. I’m not sure if I need some space from it to see if it will begin moving, in a way. There’s something very mystical about the experience to me. I feel like if it’s not taking on a life of its own, maybe it doesn’t want a life. I started something new that’s actually just really material that maybe I haven’t been wanting to deal with or ready to deal with for a really long time. Now I feel maybe sort of ready. It’s intimately connected with my life here in New York, which I always feel like is maybe ending, but I’m not sure. I’m working on that. I can’t talk about it more than that, but it’s new for now. That would be a third novel. I’m also doing some research into maybe trying to write a screenplay and doing research on a historical figure that I’m very interested in. That’s something new creatively. Maybe you can tell I’m a pretty visual writer. I feel like I’ve never really applied that to anything else but prose, so it might be interesting to try. I don’t know yet. We’ll see. I’m in the cauldron still. I have a toddler running around screaming a lot of times. I guess you know times four, right?

Zibby: Well, I don’t have toddlers anymore.

Hannah: But you have four children?

Zibby: I have four children, but they’re older now. Not so old. Seven, eight, and fourteen. The toddler days, it’s funny because now I talk to people like you and I’m like, how could she possibly get anything done? At the time, I still wanted to get everything done. I still was getting stuff done, but it was just harder. I think it’s not until they get a little older that you’re like, wow, that was almost impossible. Why did I try so hard? The time was going to pass. I know that sounds ridiculous. All to say, I have so much respect for people working with small children at home, especially now, and especially in a creative thing where you have to access that part of your brain to get into a certain space to write and produce and all of that. Then there’s constant distraction.

Hannah: Trying to cherish it while, at the same time, getting things done, I think that’s the real psychological or extensional part. I know this won’t last forever. It’s adorable. Also, who am I?

Zibby: Honestly, modern-day life is just not particularly well-set up for parenthood at all, really. You have to stop everything. You have to be patient. You have to allow for tantrums. You can’t be in control of your time. Yet everything else is so iCal blocked off. It’s like a joke. Kids just make a joke of all the scheduling and all the other stuff you might be trying to do.

Hannah: That’s a good way of putting it. They make a joke of it. That’s for sure.

Zibby: I like how you put that you’re in the cauldron. That’s a pretty dark place, but maybe you’re making something really delicious in the cauldron, like some great tomato soup or something.

Hannah: Sadly, I think it has to go dark for me to even do it. We’ll see. Hopefully, one day, we’ll be able to talk about that one. I’m just being a little more forgiving of myself, as you said, because these are the toddler years. I hope I’ll have more time one day.

Zibby: Do you have a writing partner? Do you ever show your work to anybody or read it out loud?

Hannah: At a certain point, I show it, usually, to my mom. I have a few trusted friends, a few readers who are always — or at least in the past, who have read early drafts of my book. Pretty soon thereafter, if I feel like I’ve been with it long enough and revised it, I send it to my agent. There are a few people who are both writers also that I trust with early work. I don’t have a writing group, which may be a good idea to hold me a little more accountable, but I just don’t see how I can be accountable to anybody else right now.

Zibby: You have a boss baby at work.

Hannah: Exactly.

Zibby: What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Hannah: I think the only thing that I can say — there’s so many paths to publishing. It really looks different for everybody. You can’t give up if this is what you want to do. It’s not an easy life. There’s so much rejection and so much struggle. I think that’s the rule, that you just don’t give up on yourself and on your work. That’s it. The rest of it, you’ll figure out if you want to.

Zibby: Love it. Amazing. Thank you for this beautiful book and the conversation and allowing me the opportunity to feel grateful for the memory I still have while I still have it and holding onto that. Trying to shove it in there so it’s not where it evaporates. We’re all so lucky for the time we have when we’re able to be at our most productive before other forces are at work. It’s a good reminder, and of course, the power of love.

Hannah: Yeah, there’s always that. Thank you so much for having me. Hope to meet you one day in person.

Zibby: You too. Where are you, by the way? Where are you based?

Hannah: I’m in Brooklyn. It seems to be a debatable — we’re not quite sure what’s next, but we’re in Brooklyn at the moment. Are you in the city?

Zibby: I’m like, she’s either in New York or Santa Fe, because you have the archways in the back.

Hannah: I know. It’s funny because I am from Arizona. This apartment that we’re actually subletting — we lived here for many years and went to Arizona and came back. We sublet for the semester because I’m teaching at Columbia. It does have a very Southwestern feel. It’s totally random, but it is sort of an interesting reminder of where I come from.

Zibby: Where in Arizona did you grow up?

Hannah: In the Phoenix area. We’ll see. It’s a very complicated relationship I have because when I’m out West, I miss the city. When I’m here, I miss it out there. Maybe one day, I’ll figure out how to have both. At the moment, certainly, this past winter has made me miss Arizona, for sure.

Zibby: My mom and stepdad basically retired out there. They’re outside Scottsdale. They come here for the summers.

Hannah: That’s the ideal life. I grew up in Scottsdale. Where are they?

Zibby: They are in a tiny town called Carefree.

Hannah: Oh, yeah, I love Carefree. I love it. Cave Creek and Carefree, they retained that Old West feel but still have the nice parts of Scottsdale. That’s nice. Maybe out there or here, I’ll see you one day.

Zibby: Perfect.

Hannah: Thank you so much.

Zibby: Thanks a lot. Buh-bye.

Hannah Lillith Assadi, THE STARS ARE NOT YET BELLS

THE STARS ARE NOT YET BELLS by Hannah Lillith Assadi

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