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Writing a Cosmology of the Gilded Age

Thursday, March 14, 2019| Permalink

By Na'amit Sturm Nagel

It’s rare to find a book that combines Victorian literature and Jewish literature, the two genres I love most, so I consider Rosellen Brown’s Lake on Fire to be a great gift. While the writing is fresh and new, Brown draws on older structures and stories to create layers of depth. The novel, which takes place at the end of the nineteenth century, contains undertones of Sholem Aleichem and nods to the flawed concept of the American Dream.

Na’amit Sturm Nagel: The Lake on Fire not only takes place in the Victorian era but reads like a Victorian novel. Was that intentional? Did any Victorian writers or books inspire you?

Rosellen Brown: Yes, the style of it is very nineteenth-century. It has long, intricate sentences, unlike my other books. People have compared it to other novels of the time, which is very nice. I really tried to write the book in a style compatible with the time I was writing about.

One book which inspired The Lake on Fire is Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie—a miserably written book, but fascinating and a great story. I was looking for an epigraph for The Lake on Fire and came across this wonderful sentence in the book: “When a girl leaves her home at eighteen, she does one of two things. Either she falls into saving hands and becomes better, or she rapidly assumes the cosmopolitan standard of virtue and becomes worse.”

NSN: Can you speak to the idea of your novel as a fairy tale? While, as a whole, the book seems anti-fairy tale, the characters still have their own versions of fairy tale endings. Were you trying to create a new form of a fairy tale?

RB: That kind of lurked in the background. The girl arrives from the cinders, the ashes, and actually does end up in the palace. But the difference is she doesn’t strive for it, it just happens. If you want to tell a realistic Cinderella story, maybe this is the way it would go. There’s a big difference between someone who actively pursues their fairy tale ending, like Sister Carrie, and someone to whom it happens.

One other book that influenced me is I Belong to the Working Class by Rose Pastor Stokes, a Russian immigrant journalist who married a railroad heir. It was publicized in the papers as a Cinderella marriage. I just thought, That’s too simple. That’s not what real life is really like.

NSN: Do you see The Lake on Fire as a Jewish book?

RB: Well, yes and no. I kind of blew my cover as a Jewish writer with this book. Although there have been Jewish characters in my other books, it has not been the major thrust.

Chaya is a secular Jew; she marries a man who isn’t Jewish—it bothers her but not enough to not marry him. She’s not religious like some of the Orthodox people on the farm. I see it as a Jewish book, but up to a point. I really wanted it to be more than that. You never write about one thing.

NSN: There have been all these discussions about how people don’t want to be considered Jewish authors—Philip Roth, for example. Do you consider yourself a Jewish author?

RB: To a certain extent every writer wants to be considered as just a writer—it sort of goes without saying. But I don’t see why you can't ride two horses at the same time.

NSN: What kind of research did you do for this book?

RB: The stuff about the Columbian Exposition is easy if you live in Chicago. Anyone with forebears who go back a few generations has some souvenir from the fair. Twenty-three million people went to it! In terms of knowing how to make characters sound like they’re from the period they live in, I read novels.

NSN: What or who was the inspiration for the character of Asher?

RB: I don’t know where he came from. He just lit down on the page like something with wings and said, “Here I am.” I guess I realized I needed some sort of foil for Chaya.

I have no idea why it occurred to me that he would be this little genie, this little imp that isn’t quite real. I first wrote him as a five-year-old. He was a real magical realist kind of character and a good friend said to me, “He can’t be five. Make him older.” He’s still a little unreal. He’s very smart and a little strange and a little obtuse.WhenI aged him he didn’t lose too much of his fascination with language.

Someone recently was very excited about how on the first or second page he tells his mother that her breast milk is curdled. I sort of started with that, and it gave me the idea that he was going to be this wunderkind who had all of this language on the brain. A lot of people prefer Asher to Chaya; they find her tiresome but they like him.

NSN: You’ve been writing novels about complicated American family dynamics for years, and this book is no exception. How do you see The Lake on Fire as different from, and how is it similar to, your past work?

RB: Both its language and the setting are so completely different from my previous books. There is no way to compare them. Yes, my past books are about families, but they have been focused on one set of people. This book is really meant to represent the cosmology of the Gilded Age.

With this book I wanted to write about class, something I don’t do much in my other books. In The Lake On Fire, poor people come to Chicago, they’re starving. Chaya wakes up one morning with frost on her lips because they’re so cold. Then there are these people over in the fancy part of town living the Golden Age. At the center of the book is this girl who thinks she’ll betray her class if she marries this wealthy man; she grapples with her desire to be good, her desire to be useful. She grudgingly gives up her class.

Image credit: Lynn Sloan




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