Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Amy Brill talks about The Movement of Stars, the first female astronomer, what's love got to do with it?, fave chocolate bars, and so much more

Amy Brill's written the kind of novel you are going to find yourself giving to friends because you want to discuss it with them. A Pushcart Prize nominee, she's been awarded fellowships by the Edward Albee Foundation, The Millay Colony, the Constance Saltonstall Foundation, and more. A broadcast journalist, she's received a George Foster Peabody Award for writing MTV's The Social History of HIV, and she's researched, wrote, or produced many projects for the network's pro-social initiatives. I loved her novel and I'm deliriously happy to have her here. Thank you, Amy! 

You said you were inspired by Maria Mitchell, the first female astronomer in America. The book is also set in 1845 Quaker Nantucket and involves whaling. All of these facts absolutely mesmerize me. What was your research like and what took you by surprise? 

Well, since I picked a time, place, subject(s), religion, and occupation(s) about which I knew absolutely nothing (note to aspiring novelists: do as I say, not as I did), the more I learned, the more I felt I needed to learn. The research was sometimes a trap, especially because it was my first book. I more or less gave myself a PhD in mid 19th century maritime New England women’s studies, while conveniently avoiding the real work of writing a novel.

The biggest surprise, research-wise, turned out to be essential to the story. When I asked a librarian at the Mitchell archive on Nantucket for journals and letters written when the astronomer was a young woman, she said there were none: Maria Mitchell burned her own papers and diaries in her fireplace during the “Great Fire” of 1846. A third of Nantucket Town burned that night, and people’s private papers were being blown around, so she destroyed hers. I think I just stood there and stared at her, speechless, my writer-brain firing on two fronts. Firstly: Great Fire. What more do I need to say about that? That turned into one of my favorite scenes in the book to write, and one of the most challenging. Secondly: What was she hiding? In that moment, the character of Isaac, and thus the novel that became The Movement of Stars, was born.

So much of The Movement of Stars is about what we will do for what we love, even when the world seems against us. Could you talk about that a bit?

What’s love got to do, got to do with it? I’ll tackle anything that channels Tina Turner. Following one’s passion almost always requires some kind of sacrifice, be it leisure time, or family time, or the pursuit of other endeavors, or of other people, or of money, or of fame—unless fame is your passion, in which case it is statistically likely that you’re wasting your time. Anyway... Hannah sacrifices almost everything in pursuit of her comet, but she is deaf to the music of her heart. She takes a slow road to self-awareness, and since it took me 15 years to finish the book, I took that journey along with her. And by slow road, I don’t mean sluggish, I mean glacial. When I began the book I was single, in my twenties, and searching for both love and my writing voice. When I finished I was married, over forty, and the mother of two very young daughters. I understood her journey quite differently by then. The twin engine of love is discipline. Especially when it comes to surmounting obstacles, be they political, creative, intellectual, or even emotional. You have to carry on, push forward, keep working. Love alone is not enough. I think Hannah taught me that.

I'm always fascinated by process, so can you tell me about yours? Do you map your novels out or go by inspiration? 

Oh, I’ve tried everything; mapping, outlining, postcards, winging it. Inspiration is wonderful, but it’s only a leaping off place, an essential spark. After that it’s a hard slog through the swamp. A little bit of structure does go a long way toward getting me started, though; if I know, say, where a story is going, or what happens in part one, part two, part three, that really helps me get off page one and go forward, which is really the only direction you can go if you hope to finish a novel.

This is your debut, but I read that you first came upon the home of Mitchell 15 years ago, which sparked the idea for the book. Can you talk about how that idea crystallized into the novel? 

I first learned about “Miss Mitchell” on a day trip to Nantucket in 1996 (see: glacial pace, above.). I loved the idea of a young woman, a teenager really, up on her roof, searching the sky night after night for something that would change her life. Plus an isolated island, a rigid religious community, whaleships, a country expanding yet divided... what a story! I convinced myself I had to hew unswervingly to the facts of her life, to get it “right”—but in doing so I hamstrung my story. I only realized it when Iberia lost my whole backpack of research, in 2006. (I’m still waiting for the reparation money they promised and never delivered.) After a long break from the novel during which I licked my wounds and whined, I reread what I’d written and realized that I wasn’t telling the story wanted to tell, which was inspired by Maria Mitchell but not about her. When I started again, I was writing The Movement of Stars.

What's obsessing you now and why?

I’m really into writing short stories again, which feels like a post-novel restorative of sorts. But I’m already turning over a couple of new ideas for longer investigation that I can’t seem to let go of. I’m squirrely like that. I turn an idea over and over and store it in my tree or my cheek or my heart until I’m ready to dig in.  

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

If you were stranded on a desert island and could only have one chocolate bar, what bar would it be? I’d have to say that it’s a close contest between Mast Brothers Maine Sea Salt and Equal Exchange Organic Dark Chocolate with Almonds. Can’t have the sweet without the savory.

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