Tuesday, May 12, 2020

WE LOVE DEBUTS! A Mighty Blaze's Rachel Barenbaum talks about A BEND IN THE STARS, why every reader counts, writing, the stock market, and so much more.

Even in 1914, people LOVED A Bend in The Stars

What did I tell you? 1914 denizens bought A Bend in the Stars in Droves!

Portrait of the artist, a cake and her wonderful book!

The gorgeous paperback cover!
Dogs cannot get enough of A Bend in The Stars!

 I love Rachel Barenbaum. Rachel is a prolific writer and reviewer for the Los Angeles Review of Books and DeadDarlings. In a former life she was a hedge fund manager and a spin instructor.We at A Mighty Blaze love her for her passion and promotion of debut authors, and also for her great Zoom backdrops during staff meetings--and her adorable, smart daughter. And readers love her for her extraordinary writing, including her debut A Bend in the Stars. Rachel's second novel, The History of Time Travel, is forthcoming from Grand Central (2021).

I loved A Bend in the Stars. And so does NPR, who calls A Bend in the Stars "a thrilling adventure." Want more raves? Here you go:

A Globe and Mail "Best Reads of the Summer" Pick
One of the Jewish News "Books That Are a Must-Read This Summer" 
A New York Times Summer Reading Selection and 
A Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection. 
A Boston Globe bestseller
"A romantic adventure with a nearly dovetailed ending that will appeal to fans of Kristin Hannah and Pam Jenoff." Booklist

"A sweeping epic that transports the reader into another era, even as the struggles of its characters feel powerfully modern and timely."Madeline Miller, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Circe

"A Bend in the Stars is a vivid and wrenching debut, full not only with the darkness of history but also with hope---a literary saga for fans of The Invisible Bridge and All The Light We Cannot See. Love and war and relativity weave together seamlessly, and we're left understanding that there's more than one way for the universe to bend."Rebecca Makkai, author of the National Book Award Finalist The Great Believers

"Heartpounding historical drama."B&N Reads, Best Books of 2019 So Far

"An epic adventure that spins through rich terrain; several engrossing love stories, including one between remarkable siblings; and a scientific intrigue that pits dark ambition against a passionate love of science...The characters Barenbaum brings to life demonstrate resilience in the face of prejudice, steadfastness in the face of defeat, and the ability to love even when the world has cracked with hate."Los Angeles Review of Books

"Like the best historical fiction, Barenbaum's novel not only shines a light on an overlooked historical moment, but also provides a new lens through which to view our own time...A Bend in the Stars is a thrilling read that sends a chilling message as to how history could repeat itself if we don't heed the lessons of the past."New York Journal of Books

Thank you Rachel for being here--and for everything. I'm so honored to host you.

 Caroline Leavitt: What's most amazing to me is that here you are, a debut author, and you have so generously and brilliantly taken over the Debuts for A Mighty Blaze! If you had to tell debut authors some advice, what would it be?

Rachel Barenbaum: Thank you! I love being a debut author. It is a dream come true. I realize that looks cheesy, written like that on the page, but it is true, true, true. I have been writing books since I was in the third grade and so you can imagine the number of rejections I have lived through to get here. It’s still hard to believe how many pages I wrote, and discarded, along the way.

My advice for other debut authors? The most important thing I have learned is: Get involved. Pull yourself out of your writing shell and get to know as many other writers as you can, and every piece of the publishing pipeline.

Two pieces of specific advice: (1) You can never have enough support from other writers and (2) Just because you wrote a brilliant book doesn’t mean anyone will ever read it - even if you have an amazing publisher, a dream agent, and a perfect publicist on your team. Being out there, connecting with writers, book buyers, sellers and readers is what makes the biggest difference both for your experience and for sales. At the end of the day, nothing will be handed to you. You have to fight for every reader. It also means it’s a tough road and you will really need those writer friends to lean on and help. Who understands what you’re going through better than another writer who has survived it?

Going back to this idea of putting yourself out there, one thing I didn’t realize before going through the process is that once our books pass through editing, we have to transform into promoters. No matter how much money you throw at a marketing or publicity campaign, it will never be more effective than you - the author - pounding the pavement.

One other tidbit: every reader and sale counts. Don’t be bummed if you gave a reading at a bookstore and only sold six books; or if you show up at a library and everyone has read the same copy. We have all been there and any reader who loves your book can recommend it to others. Word of mouth leads to sales. Why focus on sales? The only way to sell your next book is to sell as many copies of your first book as you can!

Once I travelled six hours for a reading and showed up to a mostly empty room. It turned out that one of the handful of people sitting in the cavernous store represented a large organization. She was there to see how I did in person, to decide if I was interesting, and while she only bought one book she invited me back to a larger event with 200 people. Plus, she was kind, generous and loved my book. We talked about A Bend In The Stars for an hour - what a treat! What I thought was a tough day turned out to be marvelous.

 Every single reader is a gift.

CL: What kind of writer are you and how has that changed in Covid? Do you have any rituals? Do you have an increased sense or urgency now, or are you living minute to minute like a lot of us?

RB: I think I’m still trying to figure out what kind of writer I am! During COVID or not!

|Joking aside, I am a writer who generates a lot of pages - but also one who throws a lot of pages away to get down to the good stuff. As for an increased urgency, I am writing like crazy these days with a laser focus on my next project.

I sold my second novel, The History of Time Travel, to Grand Central the night before A Bend In The Stars came out. I was living in Israel at the time, and I was at a bar with friends celebrating the pending publication when I got the phone call from my agent. The music was loud and I had to jostle through a thick crowd to get outside where I could hear her yelling: Grand Central made another offer! I was so excited, I screamed.

Editing this second novel has given me something to focus on - and has been another tremendous learning experience. The editing this time through has not been as smooth as editing was for A Bend In The Stars. This difference is largely due to the fact that my new novel is more complicated and sorting through the details of time travel is tough. At least this time through I know exactly which readers to ask for specific advice. For example, my uncle is great at helping think through character arcs while another friend can always be relied upon to tell me when a fight scene is or isn’t working.

I am so grateful for all of this help and to Grand Central for this second project. Having my second book in the works has helped tremendously during these dark times.

CL: I love that A Bend In The Stars mixes science AND feminism, with a strong heroine who is a doctor at a time when women stayed in the home, and a character, who dares to question Einstein. Tell me about your research. What surprised you? Did any new research derail your plot so you had to rethink it (Ha! This happens to ME all the time!)

RB: Thank you! I love reading books with strong female protagonists so it is no coincidence that I write books with strong female protagonists. And I adored making my main character, Miri, one of Russia’s first female surgeons.

Doing the research for this book was a pure delight. My father’s family came to America from Russia and I grew up with great aunts looming over me, telling me how awful, dirty and despicable the country was. Russia and the Soviet Union were bad words in our house, so was the language. Every Friday night they reminded me we are American, we speak English only. I wasn’t allowed to ask specific questions about our family history in Russia or even dream about traveling to the country because, they explained, we left for a good reason. There was nothing worth remembering from those times.

Since speaking about Russia was forbidden, I have always been obsessed with it - of course! I have always read books about the Romanovs, Jewish life in the Pale and the rise of Communism, and so coming to this book I already had a pretty strong base of knowledge. What I didn’t have were images, or pictures, to give me a better sense of what the country looked like and felt like. That gap took me down a rabbit hole that I adored. I spent hours pouring through back issues of National Geographic that featured photos across the Empire and the YIVO photo archive, to name a few of my sources.

None of this research derailed my plot. Instead it gave me the idea for my next book. I became obsessed with Einstein’s theory of relativity, which led to nuclear science and the atom bomb, which in turn took me to Chernobyl. Ultimately, this begs the question: Just because we can, does it mean we should? We can build the bomb, but should we?

In Bend In The Stars, the story centers on the science being new and exciting. The ideas are still fresh and not polluted or used for anything evil - and I love that. It’s still about pure science. Is the next step unavoidable? Will all science always be corrupted or used as a weapon? This is the question that I can’t stop thinking about as I edit my next book.

CL: What's obsessing you now (beside Covid) and why?

RB: The stock market. I have an MBA. I used to run a long/short hedge fund and so I have always watched stocks, but these days I am obsessed. When the markets plunged, it was devastating but it also made sense. It was rational. Banks were seizing. There was little liquidity. Oil fell below zero. It was terrifying but somehow there was logic to it. The world was closed - countless small businesses and large businesses were about to fall off a cliff. But now the markets have rebounded. I can’t understand this optimism, this push upwards - and I can’t get behind it. The result is I’m on edge, waiting for the next massive market dip.

Warren Buffet is famous for saying you should buy when people are scared, sell when they are fat and happy. Why aren’t markets scared now?

This brings me to the second question I struggle with daily: Inflation or deflation? Which is coming. I’m convinced one will hit - massively. But prices are falling at the same time the Fed is signalling that they will print money. To make matters worse, so-called experts are arguing both sides of the coin. And their arguments flip daily!

CL: What question didn't I ask that I should have?

RB: How do you feel about your characters? I wish interviewers asked that question because I want everyone to know that all of my characters are real people to me. They are in my head, in my thoughts just like family and friends. I can picture what they wear, how they drink their tea, the odd birthmark on their hand or the way they twitch when they are scared. I love them and when I leave them to work on another book, it is hard. I realize this may sound crazy to some people but I wanted to mention it because some people say that writing is lonely. It is not lonely. I am surrounded by these characters, these people, all day and when I move on from them - that is when it’s lonely. Once I get to know my new characters, the loneliness abates but it takes time. I often miss my old characters, even those from books I wrote years ago that will never be published. I just love them all.

CL: And shout out your fave indie bookstore~!

Belmont Books! Harvard Book Store and Brookline Booksmith are my homes!! How could I ever choose just one?!


Rachel Barenbaum said...

Thank you, Caroline!! I LOVE working with you and getting to know you. THANK YOU!!

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