Sandra Newman’s latest novel, The Heavens, mashes present into past with mordant formal inventiveness and a propulsive narrative. Surprise has been crucial to Newman’s career: Her novels are disparate in mode and subgenre, united by prankish wit, communitarian generosity, and daring conceits that play out unpredictably.
The Heavens finds a young woman in New York at the turn of the millennium dreaming that she’s also a young woman in England in 1593, namely Amelia Bassano, long-reputed Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Kate, the young dreamer, suffers visions of a looming apocalypse and becomes convinced that her actions in time of the Tudors might help right the world of 2000. Each time she awakens in her present, though, life has gotten worse for everyone, and her friends and family worry she’s going mad. The Heavens‘s vigorous upending of time-travel narratives follows Newman’s 2014 novel, The Country of Ice Cream Star, a dystopian epic set in a future America where nobody lives much past their teen years.
Newman’s first two novels, The Only Good Thing Anyone Has Ever Done (2002) and Cake (2007) are cutting and cunning in a more realist mode, while her memoir Changeling: A Memoir of Parents Lost and Found (2010) digs into a past as jolting as anything in her fiction. Newman’s sharp wit also distinguishes her nonfiction works, which include 2012’s The Western Lit Survival Kit: How To Read The Classics Without Fear and 2008’s How Not To Write A Novel, co-written with Howard Mittelmark. She’s also fearless and funny on Twitter.
Recently, Newman and I discussed The Heavens; her recent autobiographical essay for Guernica, How To Bury Your Dead Pet Monkey; her stubborn belief in utopianism; and the great things women have said throughout time that have gone unrecorded.
—Alan Scherstuhl for Guernica.
Guernica: You’ve been publishing novels for seventeen years now. Is it still exciting to put a book into the world?
Sandra Newman: When one of my books comes out, I think, “I love this book.” But it also reminds me of how I’m just a bad, failed animal. It’s sort of like pulling off the sheet and revealing the bad, failed animal to the world.
Guernica: A bad, failed animal?
Newman: I say to my husband, “Am I a bad person?” And he says, “Well, if you mean are you bad at being a person, then yes.” I have no difficulty being a book about being a person and living in a world. In fact, I think my fiction has taken on a new life since I realized that you can use writing a book as a way of constructing the world to live in—one that is not this world.
Guernica: Your last two novels take place in more constructed worlds. It’s less tempting for readers to think we’re finding, say, autobiographical details in The Heavens or The Country of Ice Cream Star.
Newman: People who know me are never fooled into thinking my first two novels are about me. Both of those characters had some money! One of the most salient features of my personality is that I have no money and no talent for getting any. Just one of the many ways in which I’m a bad failed animal. The first two books weren’t autobiographical. They were just more realist. I’m much more of a fabulist or even a fantasist than I am a realist. I’m more comfortable writing a book which is about imagining how the world could be, or arguing with what the world is. These books are, oddly, more true to myself.
Guernica: In your novels, especially The Heavens, you have characters creating new kinds of not-quite utopias in falling or fallen societies. In your recent Guernica essay, you write about an actual experience that’s wonderfully on-the-nose. You describe your teenage self and some friends, in a Massachusetts theater company literally called Patchwork, creating your own community in an old church that is essentially the ruins of western civilization.
Newman: I’ve always known a lot of people who effectively did not have a family. Whose parents were not parents, and whose family was not what we think of as a family. There does seem to be some kind of survival instinct that makes you construct a family for yourself in the wild. This book, in particular, is about utopian communities, something I think we naturally try to construct on a micro scale. We live our lives as social beings, trying to create communities where we can have absolute trust that the other people will help us if we are helpless. And yet we have so much difficulty imagining—much less realizing—that on a political scale.
We need to reclaim utopianism. We’ve allowed it to become equated with fascism and the failures of communism. Really, it’s just the desire to create a world where we behave toward others as we would have them behave towards us.
Guernica: Bad, failed animals don’t write books trying to tell us these things! You co-wrote a guide called How Not To Write a Novel, and yet your own novels center on daring elements that I imagine would get pummeled in a writers’ workshop.
Newman: My experience with workshops is that they’re much more forgiving than they’re held to be. But I’ve always been the teacher. The first novel’s protagonist definitely was incapable of doing anything, but I don’t see that so much in The Heavens. Kate appears not to be doing anything, but she’s engaged in this dream quest, which is a real activity. It’s just invisible to everyone but her.
A lot of the time, you have to write a book that breaks rules. Most of the time, when you’re breaking rules, it’s because you’re too lazy to do the thing you know you should do. And so you have to be really sure that that’s not what’s happening when you do break them.
Guernica: Nothing lazy about writing 580 pages of The Country of Ice-Cream Star in an invented dialect.
Newman: That was never a struggle. I mean, it was a lot of work. I would sit and try to think of the right phrase for long periods of time. But it was just a pleasure to do that once I got through, say, the first full page of it. It broke my heart when I had to leave that behind.
Guernica: Your protagonists sometimes are idle in a way that’s rare for American fiction, which so often is about driven people taking definitive action. In The Heavens, Kate can’t see the point in finding a job, and the protagonist in your first novel, The Only Good Thing Anyone Has Ever Done, has a hard time leaving bed.
Newman: Historically, women have always had a lot of idle time, because of pregnancy and being put into abeyance in a way. And traditional female work, especially for middle and upper classes—like needlework—is a meditative thing that goes well with talking. Women have always been the talkers, the people who spend their lives in conversation, but whose conversations are not recorded. It’s this kind of world outside of history. We still have less language for female subjects; we have less grammar for female pronouns in many languages than for male pronouns. Women have less of a recorded voice, but much more time spent thinking and talking.
So, I have always found that issue: what is the culture? Is the culture the stuff that’s passed down to us as official culture, or is it what we’re actually thinking about? Do we only count as real life the things we “do”—with do in scare quotes—or the things that we think and imagine, what we spend most of our lives actually doing? We always devalue the thing that’s not real. It’s not action; it’s not agency. Obviously, there’s some sort of misogyny baked into that, because that’s a very male/female dichotomy, but it’s also a way that we hate our human nature. We really hate being conscious. We hate being dreamers. We hate having an imagination. People say, “Get a life,” and think if you’re playing computer games all day long you don’t really have one. But it’s really just a uniquely human life.
Guernica: What drew you to Amelia Bassano?
Newman: The idea of writing about Shakespeare’s Dark Lady. But she’s also just a genuinely fascinating person. Her whole world, her little subculture, these Italian Jewish musicians in Tudor England. And her—as a person who didn’t have a real life, who was sort of used sexually when she was a teenager, and therefore ended up having a fake marriage and was always trying to make herself a real person by becoming truly a lady, which was a very common thing at the time to attempt. She tried to do that by getting her husband knighted, but never succeeded. That liminal class that she and Shakespeare shared is really interesting to me. But generally, I wanted to write about the Elizabethan period because of the language, that linguistic richness and innovation of the period.
Guernica: Another protagonist facing idle hours.
Newman: Bassano actually had more of an action-packed life than most women of her time. But a lot of the women of her class and time—especially the ones who were more successful in becoming ladies—spent most of their lives sitting, doing embroidery, and having aimless conversations. We devalue that, and we don’t we don’t record it. We disregard all of the creativity that came out of that world.
Guernica: Has teaching and co-writing How Not to Write a Novel affected your approach and structure?
Newman: It’s really helped me. I think all teachers feel that teaching is a really good way of learning. Another thing that I’ve learned from teaching and other teachers, creative writing teachers, is definitely a truth that I wish I had known when I was a teenager: there are so many talented writers out there, so many people who are genuinely talented, and so, so few of them will finish a book that is genuinely, actually finished. And then, of course, of those who finish the book that could be published, there’s this just absolutely ruthless sorting process that makes no sense. When some of them don’t get published, it’s not for a good reason.
Guernica: Do you convey that ruthlessness to your students?
Newman: I’m very honest with them. If you’re going to persist in the world of writing, you have to be prepared for that. No part of being a writer is kind to the ego. It’s brutally cruel. What I don’t tell them—or what I sometimes tell them, but nobody can hear until it’s happened to them—is that even if you get a book published with a good publisher, and it does okay, you will still experience it as a terrible wound to your ego in most cases. Some people completely crack up, even though their book seemed to do fine. That’s because, somehow, you think that people will be changed by your book. You think your life will be changed, and the world will, too. There will be at least some ripple in the pool. But your book was just another book, and that is very hard to take.
Guernica: And yet you persist.
Newman: What else am I going to do? I love writing books. The book is my real life. I’ll go out for long walks to think about the book, and when I come up with something that’s really great, I start running, like a child who’s excited about something.
Guernica: You’re also good at Twitter. What does it mean to be good at Twitter?
Newman: I think that I’m good at Twitter because of the thing in [my Guernica] essay about Patchwork theater. That’s how we were, just sitting around trying to think of better jokes. Just trying to amuse people, without pay or anything being at the end of it. And I always feel like most of the family of writers I know could be very good at Twitter if they’re willing to fully go all in on wasting that much time.
Guernica: You’ve argued that a lot of what we consider wastes of time actually aren’t. And, for all its ills, Twitter is at least a record of those conversations between women that history has failed to record.
Newman: Even as a woman who has always known interesting women, I was surprised to see the range of things said by women on Twitter. Hundreds and thousands of women everywhere talking about taking a shit, talking about their anatomy and their orgasms in crude and funny and intelligent ways. It really should disabuse anyone of the notion that men and women are different in these ways, or that women are somehow docile. It really changes your view of a lot of things, I think, being subjected to that wash of thousands of people you’ve never met.
That’s what enduringly fascinating to me about Twitter: you feel like you’re in the society, like you’re in the whole world. And you see what the whole world really is.