Rachel Barenbaum, A BEND IN THE STARS

Rachel Barenbaum, A BEND IN THE STARS

Zibby Owens: I’m here via Skype with Rachel Barenbaum who’s the debut author of A Bend in the Stars, the historical novel. It was a New York Times Summer Reading Selection and a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers pick. It was also a Boston Globe best seller. A graduate of Harvard College, Harvard Business School, and the GrubStreet Novel Incubator program, Rachel was a hedge fund manager and spinning instructor before committing to full-time work as a writer. She is a writer and reviewer at the LA Review of Books and DeadDarlings.com from the GrubStreet Incubator program and also Tel Aviv Review of Books. She currently lives in Brookline, Massachusetts, with her husband and three kids.

Thanks, Rachel, for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Rachel Barenbaum: Thanks so much for having me, Zibby. I’m excited to be here.

Zibby: Your novel, A Bend in the Stars, so, so good. The characters were so real. I feel like I was with them in the trenches going down the hill, look at the boats, and all the rest of it. So good. Can you tell listeners what this novel was about? What inspired you to write it?

Rachel: On the surface, it’s the story of a scientist racing Einstein to prove relativity. He goes on this quest and gets lost. His sister goes after him. Miri, who was one of Russia’s first female surgeons, saves the day. She’s the hero of the book. It’s really about love and the history and science and survival. It’s all thrown in together. Where the idea came from was, I was reading an issue of Scientific American. It said one hundred years ago this month Einstein was on the verge of proving relativity. He had the theory. He had equations, but he didn’t have an actual photograph, which would be a picture of light bending around the sun, a photograph he could only take during a total solar eclipse. One was coming. He raised money, mounted an expedition, sent them up to Russia where the total solar eclipse was going to be happening. Only World War I broke out, so his expedition never made it. Relativity was not proven until much later, 1919. Even before I put the magazine down, I thought, what if somebody beat Einstein? That is where I started the book, with my scientist racing to beat Einstein, who is in Russia, who can actually get to that eclipse.

Zibby: Why were you reading this magazine to begin with?

Rachel: Scientific American?

Zibby: Yes. Are you a scientist? You were an English major, right? Were you pre-med also? Are you an armchair scientist in addition to everything else?

Rachel: I am just a lover of science. I studied philosophy and literature in college. One of the big questions that I struggled with, and still struggle with, is what is time? What is this notion of time? A second, an hour, a calendar, it’s something we have invented. We’ve all agreed on it. It’s really important to have schedules to organize, for example, train schedules, but it’s just made up. What is time? I really came at it and Einstein from this philosophical perspective. He wasn’t even really a very good mathematician. He was better than me, but he was a not a genius mathematician. He was more this genius thinker. He had genius mathematicians help him.

Zibby: I can see the headline, “Einstein: Barely Smarter than Rachel Barenbaum.” The truth comes out all these years later.

Rachel: Oh, my god, not what I mean.

Zibby: I love how in the book you have all these scenes with time. You have them trying to explain this whole concept to maybe not-so-bright soldiers and people that they meet along the way, like, “Yes, it’s important,” and the taking apart — which was it? A Zenith watch? What brand did you mention? A Zenith?

Rachel: Yeah.

Zibby: It was very interesting. I think about time all the time too, just how to use time, but maybe not from quite the scientific angle.

Rachel: Einstein was in the patent examiner’s office working on machines to synchronize clocks. That’s what got him thinking about time too. That’s where he came to this idea of light. People were sending pneumatic tubes, blasts of air, all these other things. It was very much on topic for that time period.

Zibby: I also loved how you have Miri, who’s the granddaughter of a matchmaker, who is on the cutting edge of science of her time. She’s the newly appointed surgeon at the hospital and breaking tremendous ground, and a Jewish surgeon at that which was unheard of. Who was the first Jewish surgeon in Europe or in Russia? Do you have any idea? Did you totally fictionalize this too? Was that another magazine, maybe, you were reading about early Jewish doctors or something?

Rachel: It was a best seller. I love reading books with women protagonists who are breaking barriers, who are really pushing ahead of their time. I always knew that Miri would be the center and that she would be one of those characters. Medicine was one of the obvious options for her because lots of women were midwives. That’s the evolution. I did a lot of research. There were two or three women surgeons at the time in Russia, but they had all been trained in France or Switzerland. I did completely invent her character and put her in the Jewish hospital. That is where people were apt to break convention, more apt to take chances because they weren’t really being watched like the Czar’s hospitals.

Zibby: You read the Scientific American. You come up with this idea. Then you go into the woods in New Hampshire. Did I get that right? I read that somewhere. Is that true? Did you have your kids then? Tell me how this whole book went down.

Rachel: It was a little bit different than that. I already had the kids. We had moved to New Hampshire for job reasons. I just sat down one day and I said — I used to write books every night; I’d written five or six novels that hadn’t gone anywhere, and queried and been in the pipeline, but none of them had published yet — sat down and said to myself, what do you want to do with your life ten years from now? Do you still want to be trading stocks? The answer was no. I do not want to be trading stocks. I do not want to be dealing with investors. I want to be writing. I want to have books published. I want to be immersed in books. I just woke up and got to it.

Zibby: Wow. When you approached this book, did you have an outline for the whole thing? Did you start with your characters? How did you work your way into it and then execute it?

Rachel: I definitely knew the beginning and the end. I knew my main characters. I actually started with Baba as the — I made the book from her perspective to begin with. Then when I started writing, it didn’t make sense. By about page one hundred of those drafts, I really realized this was Miri’s story and Vanya’s story much more than it was Baba’s, so switched it around at that point.

Zibby: How long did it take you to write it?

Rachel: I started in 2015. Then I applied to GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator program. They have a year-long program where ten writers basically sit in a room once a week. We read each person’s book once a week and go through it. I spent a whole year revising in this amazing program. Then at the end of the program, I got my agent at WME, Eve Attermann. That’s when I decided to go full time. I was like, I’m in. I’ve got an agent. I’ve got to make this happen. Then I worked on it for a year with her and then a couple of other agents at WME. She pulled them in to read it and give comments. Then she went out and she sold it. She did an amazing job. She sold it quickly. I told her, “I don’t think I can last for a six-month sales process.” Luckily, she sold it pretty quickly. It took two years, though, to revise once it was at the publisher.

Zibby: Wow, so almost four years when all told, writing and editing and publishing. That’s a lot.

Rachel: The publishing industry is slow that way. It’s usually two years from the time of purchase, unless it’s Amazon, because you have to go through all the editing and then all of the publicity and the PR and sending out advance review copies. All that starts a good nine months before your actual publication.

Zibby: I read your dream cast. You had published who you would want to star in this movie.

Rachel: You read that?

Zibby: I did.

Rachel: I didn’t know people had read that.

Zibby: Oh, yeah. I did a deep dive into you, Rachel. This is what I came up with. You had said Jesse Eisenberg for Vanya. I thought it would more like Adam Driver. What do you think?

Rachel: I think that’s much better. I’m sure he’d just be jumping to do it too.

Zibby: You said Gal Gadot for Miri. I thought maybe more like Minnie Driver and Natalie Portman. What do you think now? Do you have any new views on casting?

Rachel: I still love Gal Gadot. I like the strike that she brings. I have to admit, I don’t feel like casting is really my strength.

Zibby: I won’t hold you to it. I was just curious.

Rachel: It is fun to talk about. It has not been optioned yet. I would love to see that happen.

Zibby: I also read your essay from the Jewish Book Council which you called “When to Run.” You discuss the advice from your great-aunts which is that you always have to be ready to run. When you asked your great-aunts, “How will you know when it’s time?” they told you, “You’ll know.” Then when you went to Israel and you were sharing the story with all of these groups of elderly people, everybody was nodding their heads in agreement. Basically, everybody was saying the same thing. Tell me a little more about your experience with some of those survivors of this period of time.

Rachel: It was really moving. The book launched while I was living in Israel. I did have the chance to do about a dozen events in Israel, in Jerusalem, in Tel Aviv, and in various other places around there. It was very different because the survivors really stood up, or grandchildren of survivors, and saw it as a story of survival. While I know and I wrote it as a story of survival, I spent a lot more time on character development and a love story and science and really dug into that. The survival wasn’t as front and center for me by the time we got to publication. Then I realized, no, this is really what started the book. They brought me back to that center and to my great-aunts who had always reminded me to make sure my passport is ready to go and that I have emergency money. It was very emotional. I was so struck with how open they were and willing to share. It was very different from, now, American audiences where sometimes I hear those stories, but more often than not I hear a lot of, “I hadn’t realized that anti-Semitism was that bad in Russia at the time. I know from World War II it was very bad, but I didn’t know World War I and pogroms.” They didn’t have as clear of an understanding of what it was like to live as a Jew in Russia. It was a very big contrast that was very striking to me, which is why I wrote the essay.

Zibby: Do you think that there are places that your aunts would tell you to run from now?

Rachel: Definitely Russia. If we were still there, we would be out of Russia in a heartbeat. Seriously though, there are millions of people every day who are asking this question and who are running and who are stuck at borders or on boats or in horrible, horrible positions. It is as relevant today as it was then, for my family and for Miri and Vanya. It’s heartbreaking. Really, what’s at the center of this need, this desire to run, is this hope for a better life. There’s actually this underlying optimism that I always try to look for because otherwise it’s just so heartbreaking, but this idea that there is a better life to come. I will sacrifice this or what it takes to get there for my children or for my future. That’s important to keep in mind.

Zibby: Do you feel that you connected more with your Judaism through this story, through the writing of it? Do you just feel like that was a means to an end of telling the story you wanted to tell? Did it affect you? Did it not affect you personally?

Rachel: That was an interesting question. My connection didn’t change at all. If anything, what I learned about my Judaism is that I have always grown up with two calendars. On one calendar, I have the Jewish holidays and when Shabbat starts. Jewish time is counted differently from what we observe here in America. Days start at sundown and end at sundown, not twelve to twelve. My whole life I’d grown up, “Rosh Hashanah starts tonight.” People would say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, but really, it’s tomorrow.” If they weren’t Jewish, they didn’t understand. It more clarified that I have spent a life living on two calendars without explicitly explaining that to many people. That was maybe the only difference.

Zibby: It was so cool how you structured the book by each month of the Jewish calendar and what that meant and everything, all the different timelines.

Rachel: Thank you. I did that because I really wanted to highlight that there are different ways of counting time and to come back to this idea of, what is time and how do we measure it to show that there are different calendars, different days, different ways of understanding.

Zibby: Why were you living in Israel to begin with? Why have you been moving around so much?

Rachel: We just decided to go take a sabbatical, to take a year and go live there.

Zibby: That’s so neat. I feel like you don’t hear that as much these days, people just up and checking other places out. That’s nice, refreshing. Your next novel is called The History of Time Travel coming out in 2021. What can you tell me about that?

Rachel: Again, this is an intergenerational story. It was three generations of women in one family from Russia to America again. You see the theme there.

Zibby: Thank you for the , in case I missed the subtlety of that. Thank you, Rachel, I appreciate it.

Rachel: Each generation invents a piece of the time machine that they use at the end of the book to save the family. It’s been really fun. Again, going back to relativity and Einstein and this idea of, what is time? Is there a difference between the past and present and the future? What would you do if you could change the past?

Zibby: Does this involve a DeLorean in any way?

Rachel: I wish.

Zibby: So neat. How far along are you in that process?

Rachel: I finished the whole draft last year and sold it. Now I’m just going through that editing process. It will come out sometime in ’21, but not sure when and all those fun details that I have to wrap up.

Zibby: Do you already have ideas for your book after that? Yes?

Rachel: Yes. The crazy thing about publishing is how slow it is. On the one hand, it’s frustrating because I’ll send a hundred pages or three hundred pages to my editor. Then I have to sit and wait. I’m so used to instant gratification. I should hear from her in ten minutes or tomorrow. Actually, writing and thinking, it takes a long time. It becomes a better book the longer that it simmers and goes back and forth. There’ll be a month, six weeks before I hear back. It’s worth the wait because then there are really interesting comments and ideas coming back. I can restructure and change. During that time, I’m not just going to sit here. I’m going to work on the next book. Yes, the next book is started, but it’s not formed enough to talk about yet. It’s out there.

Zibby: How many hours a day do you sit and write? When do you like to write? Do you do it right where — tell me.

Rachel: I love to ask writers this question too because there’s so many different ways that writers work. For me, I’m pretty structured. As soon as my kids are out the door, I sit down and start writing. I usually work on my novels from about seven thirty until two. About two, my brain sputters out. Then I can switch over. I’ll read or do some of — I love to interview authors as well, not on podcasts, but written interviews. I’ll work on those or look through books for my next interview and that kind of thing.

Zibby: We share this love of interviewing authors. What do you think it is? I was trying to analyze myself. What is it I love so much about doing this? Can you articulate what you love about doing it? I don’t know if I can.

Rachel: I was really hoping you would have a good answer. Then I was going to use it. If you experience a situation, if you have ten authors walk across the street, they’re going to write ten different descriptions of walking on the street. What they see and experience is all so different. I just love that, ten different ways to read about. Also, they’re all such different people. We come from different backgrounds, different ideas. It’s always fascinating, and the personalities and the way people react to questions. Some authors are more closed off. Some are more open. Some are more patient. I don’t know. What do you think?

Zibby: I just find it so interesting how people come up with stories and how they bring those stories to life, and then how they describe doing that and what their lives are like. I always learn something from everybody. There’s something about the magic of storytelling that makes me drawn to authors. Oftentimes, they tell their life story in such a nice literary way. You said you don’t have a podcast. Although, you should do that. You have so much spare time. When you interview them and it ends up in print, do you do it over the phone? Do you send them questions and they type up their answers? How do you conduct your interviews?

Rachel: My favorite part about the interviews is getting to talk to the author, or like this, getting to know somebody a little bit better. I will often send a couple of questions. Then we’ll schedule a half-hour block and talk through some things. It’s so interesting how different authors approach the industry too. Some are really excited and just glad to be out there no matter what. Some are a little more picky about what is said around the book. I get it. You work so hard. You want to make sure that your message is out there in the right way. I sometimes really enjoy pushing back on some of the things that authors like to think their story said. Maybe it said something else to me. That’s where it gets interesting.

Zibby: That’s cool. If people are looking for your author interviews, where can they find them?

Rachel: LA Review of Books. All the links are on my website, of course, rachelbarenbaum.com. I do them for LA Review of Books and then GrubStreet has a blog called DeadDarlings, and starting soon, also Tel Aviv Review of Books.

Zibby: Awesome. With all of your experience, what is some parting advice you can give to listeners? Writing advice, aspiring authors, authors who are about to be interviewed?

Rachel: You have spoken to more authors. You might know better than me. People often ask me, how do I start? Is there a book that I can read that will help me figure out how to write fiction? I always like to tell people just sit down and write. That’s where you can start. Even a really crappy first five pages is better than no first pages, just starting. You can always erase it all and go back to it or wherever, but you just have to start. You can’t be afraid to put words on the page. I can’t tell you how many terrible words I put on the page and sentences come out of me until I get to a good one. That is one common thread that I’ve seen from every author that I’ve ever interviewed. You write so many terrible things until you get to something that’s good, unless you’re Toni Morrison. She wrote every sentence beautifully. She was famous for that.

Zibby: Whatever happened with those first five or six novels that you wrote? Are they on the shelf, so to speak?

Rachel: Yeah. I don’t think they’re ever coming off the shelf. When I just got out of college, I wrote this whole book with a woman who had no name because I was exploring this idea of identity and feminism. If you name a woman or you name beauty, is it actually beautiful? Is it a commodity? Is it something you want? It was steeped in all these feminist classes and women’s studies classes that I took in college. I love the idea still, but I don’t think anyone ever actually wants to read that book.

Zibby: Too funny.

Rachel: What’s the best advice you’ve ever heard from authors? I want to know this one.

Zibby: Best advice, I’m trying now to finish up a novel of my own. I hate to even say that out loud because I might never do it. Someone came on, and I have to go look through my notes to remember who said this, but they said just open the document every day. Just open the document. There’s something you can do. You can edit. You can reread. You can just get in the document. Maybe it was Kelly Corrigan. Spend time in the document. That will help. I keep putting it off. In the back of my head I’m like, I should really read these next five books. I should plan this gymnastics class for my daughter, whatever it is that fills all my time every day. In the back of my head I keep hearing, just open the document. Even if I look at it, it will inspire something. I don’t really take that advice, but I liked that advice.

Rachel: I like it.

Zibby: Thank you for sharing your time and your expertise and all the rest of it. I hope one of these days we get to hang out in person. Thanks for all the time.

Rachel: Thank you so much. This is so much fun. You are building great things. I’m a huge fan.

Zibby: Thank you. Take care.

Rachel: Thanks, Zibby. You too. Bye.

Zibby: Bye.