Cap­ti­vat­ed by Rebec­ca Dinerstein’s debut nov­el, Jew­ish Book Coun­cil sat down with the author one swel­ter­ing after­noon at the New York Pub­lic Library to dis­cuss The Sun­lit Night. Recent­ly returned from her first inter­na­tion­al book tour, Din­er­stein had been retweet­ed by Tay­lor Swift ear­li­er that day, and her book new­ly acclaimed by Jen­ny Slate. The Sun­lit Night will be avail­able in paper­back on May 32016.

Nat Bern­stein: I felt in read­ing The Sun­lit Night that there’s this real­ly refresh­ing absence of fear through­out the entire nov­el, for both pro­tag­o­nists, Frances and Yasha. It’s a very qui­et brav­ery— there’s plen­ty of grief and lone­li­ness, and there’s cer­tain­ly suf­fer­ing, but it’s as though it doesn’t occur to any­one to be afraid in the face of all of that. Do you bor­row that strength from the char­ac­ters you’ve cre­at­ed, or did they inher­it their brav­ery from you? 

RD: I think that both char­ac­ters have such a clear des­ti­na­tion in mind and also such clear moti­va­tions. In Yasha’s case it’s his father’s request and it’s the speci­fici­ty of the geog­ra­phy of the request, and in Frances’s case it’s the speci­fici­ty of the appren­tice­ship but also the force of Robert Ma­son’s judg­ment. I think hav­ing that clar­i­ty of goal and the force behind you to push you there releas­es the char­ac­ters from hav­ing to feel the minute-to-minute deci­sion-mak­ing of Should I be doing this?” There is so much push­ing them in their respec­tive direc­tions that they are free from respon­si­bil­i­ty — which I guess is dif­fer­ent than my own expe­ri­ence so far as I chose Nor­way for more or less no rea­son: there was no Nils, and the fel­low­ship I got did not tell me where to go. I could have stayed in New York, but I got it into my head that it would be real­ly beau­ti­ful up there — and it was.

NLB: You’ve men­tioned that your process while you were in Nor­way was to write poet­ry in the morn­ing and fic­tion for the rest of the day. How did that kind of dis­ci­pline affect each form? Did you see your prose meld­ing into your poet­ry — or the oth­er way around? 

RD: The first draft was basi­cal­ly a 200-page free-verse prose poem, and that was real­ly all I knew how to do! I had been train­ing in poet­ry — I was a poet­ry stu­dent in under­grad — and I think poet­ry def­i­nite­ly in­formed this book and leaked into the prose.

NLB: How much of the book do you think comes from that peri­od of iso­la­tion in Nor­way, and how much of it comes from being back in New York in a writ­ing community? 

RD: The book that I wrote in Nor­way, in that iso­la­tion, is all about Yasha and his father want­i­ng to be Norse gods, and it made no sense! It was only when I came back from New York and gave it to read­ers and wrote in my apart­ment in a much more order­ly and nor­mal way that I was able to make the book sen­si­cal and struc­tured. And that’s not to say that if I went back to Nor­way now I wouldn’t be able to write in an ordered way, but I need­ed some time where I could just gen­er­ate imagery with­out wor­ry­ing about the struc­ture of it. And then it was good to come back to New York and actu­al­ly make it a book. I need­ed Nor­way for the raw mate­r­i­al and New York to refine it.

NLB: What was that edit­ing process like? 

RD: I brought that whole first draft into Jonathan Safran Foer’s work­shop at NYU, and it was a fun­ny day because Julia Pier­pont brought in her first draft, too. Julia’s draft was already basi­cal­ly the book it is now and my book was a poem, and every­body in the whole class was like, Julia’s book makes sense; Becky’s book does not.” I couldn’t bear the idea of being back in the begin­ning of it, so I just start­ed work­ing very, very fast. I worked at this beau­ti­ful rose gar­den and I rewrote some of the raw Nor­way stuff while I was there, and then as soon as I got back to school for that sec­ond year I was writ­ing 1,200 words a day. I just did it every day. I woke up, had a cup of cof­fee, wrote the 1,200 words, then went to spin­ning or some­thing. And that’s how I got it done, because then by the end of that year I had a full novel.

NLB: Jonathan Safran Foer has been a huge cham­pi­on of this book. 

RD: Jonathan has been an extra­or­di­nary men­tor to me. He showed up in my senior Eng­lish class in high school while we were read­ing Every­thing is Illu­mi­nat­ed, and when he came to teach one semes­ter at Yale I got to take his class, which was exhil­a­rat­ing: he is an incred­i­ble teacher because he has one of the cra­zi­est imag­i­na­tions on the plan­et. He’s got an incred­i­ble brain and he real­ly push­es his stu­dents to cre­ate and invent; there was an excite­ment towards inven­tion in his class that I have real­ly nev­er seen any­where else. When he moved to the NYU Cre­ative Writ­ing pro­gram, I real­ly couldn’t resist the oppor­tu­ni­ty to work with him again. He has been super gen­er­ous with his atten­tion and his encour­age­ment, and I could not have writ­ten this book with­out his help.

NLB: I know it hap­pens over halfway into the book, but for me the sto­ry of The Sun­lit Night begins with the awk­ward recita­tion of the Mourner’s Kad­dish at the top of the world. What is the signifi­cance of that moment to the nov­el — and to you, personally? 

Rebec­ca Din­er­stein: That funer­al scene was the only thing I ever knew was going to be in the book. I’m glad that it made sense with­in those char­ac­ters to say Kad­dish, because in my mind that is what hap­pened— even though, as I think Frances says, you don’t say the Mourner’s Kad­dish dur­ing the funer­al. But it felt like the right mis­match of good inten­tions and mis­in­for­ma­tion and using what­ev­er you have.

NLB: Do you think that The Sun­lit Night is a work of Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture, or is it a work of lit­er­a­ture that hap­pens to have Jew­ish char­ac­ters in it? 

RD: What is Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture? I am Jew­ish. I iden­ti­fy as Jew­ish. (In Nor­way peo­ple knew I was Jew­ish and were very intrigued by it. I got at least one But sure­ly you believe in Jesus?” which was real­ly hard. I sensed no ill will what­so­ev­er but a lot of gen­uine curios­i­ty — some­times the curios­i­ty can feel inva­sive, but it was okay.) The peace­ful­ness that I most cher­ish in Judaism is in this book, and in that regard I would say it’s Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture. I think it cham­pi­ons the peace­ful essence of Judaism in its own serenity.

NLB: Do you have a sense of what you are going to be writ­ing about next?

RD: It will be anoth­er nov­el. I’m think­ing of map­ping out a nov­el on the his­to­ry of poi­son and of how human beings fig­ured out which plants we can eat and which plants we can’t, but also extrap­o­lat­ing from that into the idea of the for­bid­den: what we’re attract­ed to, what we resist, and what courts temp­ta­tion. The way I’m think­ing about it is part flow­ers, part sex, but I haven’t yet fig­ured out quite how I want to struc­ture that.

Nat Bern­stein is the for­mer Man­ag­er of Dig­i­tal Con­tent & Media, JBC Net­work Coor­di­na­tor, and Con­tribut­ing Edi­tor at the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and a grad­u­ate of Hamp­shire College.