I'm happy to share my interview with Rachel Barenbaum with all of you. I had the privilege of attending one of her author readings while she is spending the year in Israel and it was well worth it. It was a pleasure to speak to her in person and even more fun to have her on the site. I hope to catch her again before she returns to the U.S. Rachel, if you're reading this, give me a head's up before you go! Welcome Rachel Barenbaum!
RACHEL'S DEBUT NOVEL IS A BEND IN THE STARS. It has been named a New York Times Summer Reading Selection and a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. It is also a Boston Globe Bestseller. Rachel's second novel, The History of Time Travel, is forthcoming from Grand Central (2021).
Rachel is a prolific writer and reviewer for the LA Review of Books and DeadDarlings. She 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.
GG: How long did you spend researching this book? What kind of research did you do?
RB:Tons of time and none. I love this time period and read dozens and dozens of books about Czarist Russia, science and philosophy around the 1900s and the life of Jews living in Russia long before I sat down to write. In addition, growing up around my grandparents and great aunts gave me a sense of some of nuances I wanted to add like the split in the Jewish community between those who wanted to assimilate and those who didn't and the constant fear of the czar's men.
But all of that only gave me a base, a general feeling I could incorporate into the novel. To truly write scenes, I need to see them in my head and so the bulk of my research involved finding photographs. The best trove I found was in an old National Geographic that I purchased on eBay, published in 1914 right before the war started. The issue was devoted entirely to a survey of life in Russia and featured dozens of stunning photographs of Russians from all walks of life. Two things struck me in particular in this truly spectacular photo essay: (1) The faces of the citizens in the photos were so clear and so gorgeous I could imagine them as real people, living today. And that made the time period come alive. I could imagine what the teenager staring at me might have been thinking as she stood next to that boy, or the mother as she held her baby. (2) The vast size and diversity of the country. I was blown away by the largely uninhabited, untouched landscapes and just how separated groups of people across the empire were by those expanses. To me it was gorgeous and terrifying and something I wanted to be sure to capture in this book.
GG: Do you hide any secrets in your books that only a few people will find?
RB: I'm sorry to say there are no secrets to find in A Bend In The Stars. I really want my readers to focus on history, science and relationships. I want them thinking about time, what it means to synchronize schedules or to track a day. And I want them to think about the raw fear that accompanies the push to survive and what they might be willing to sacrifice if they are faced with the same atrocities and antisemitism as my characters. If I tried to add in secrets on top of all that, my brain might explode!
GG: Did publishing your first book change your writing process for the second? If so, how?
RB: One of the most important parts of my writing process is passing a draft off to early readers I trust. I love to hear what they adore and hate, what they wanted cut or added. Before I sold A Bend In The Stars I had a very hard time finding readers willing to take on a 500 page draft. It's a lot to ask and almost no one had time. I leaned, instead, to ask people to take on 50 or 100 page chunks. So, as I sat down to write History of Time Travel (forthcoming from Grand Central in 2021), I didn't waste time asking people to read the whole thing. Instead I gave them smaller chunks I knew weren't quite right and asked them to help me think it through. This made the process a lot smoother. People read 100 pages much faster than they read 500!
GG: Your concept is original. Do you try to be original or to write for an audience?
RB: I don't try to be original or to write for an audience. I write the stories that I'm passionate about – the ones I can't let go. For A Bend In The Stars, the idea came to me in 2014. I was reading Scientific American's monthly installment of '50,100 and 150 Years Ago' and learned that in 1914 an eclipse fell over Russia that could have proved Einstein's theory of relativity but because of war and bad weather no scientists were able to mount an expedition and record the event. Before I even put the magazine down I knew it was a book idea: What if someone did make it to the eclipse, and did manage to take a photograph? Could he have taken Einstein's place in history? I was already a bit obsessed with Russian history and knew it was one of the most fascinating and tumultuous times in the country's history. And I knew that Einstein wasn't working in a vacuum, that there were other scientists working to help him – and beat him. Could I bring that race to life? I couldn't stop thinking about the story and so I raced to write it.
GG: Do you have any advice for other writers trying to publish?
RB: Write the story you can't stop thinking about and don't be afraid to start. Fifty terrible pages of writing are better than zero pages because bad writing can be fixed. No writing takes you nowhere. Also, keep in mind that writing is a long, long process that requires dozens and dozens of drafts. I easily wrote a couple thousand pages to get to the final 464 that were published. When someone reads your work and tells you what they like and don't like, they're not saying they like or don't like you. And their comments are important. They tell you what's working and where you need to start over. In the end, those critiques are how you learn to be a better storyteller.
Most important of all – keep going. Being a writer means being rejected all the time. If you ask any published author they'll say the same, they've been turned down more times than they can count. Yes, their bios might look rosy and their books polished but behind all that is a mountain of disappointment and thank you but no thank yous.
Thank you so much for spending time with us today, Rachel. No doubt many readers are already awaiting your next book.
You can visit Rachel on her site: www.rachelbarenbaum.com or follow her: