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 3, 2016.
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.