Image cred­it: Lynn Sloan

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.