An Interview by Kirsten Bakis
Emily Barton is the author of three novels and the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship and a grant from the National Foundation for the Arts, among other honors and awards. Her fiction, nonfiction and criticism have appeared in numerous publications, including Story magazine, The New York Times Book Review, and the Jewish Daily Forward’s Sisterhood blog.
Emily's most recent novel, The Book of Esther (Tim Duggan Books, 2016), is a fiercely intellectual feminist dieselpunk reimagining of wartime events during the week of August 19, 1942 in the area that is now southwestern Russia and Georgia; and it is deeply rooted in her identity as a Jewish woman. A review in the August 1, 2016 issue of The New Yorker says of it: “[T]he project of the book—placing a Biblical heroine in a version of the twentieth-century conflict that nearly obliterated Jewish culture—raises complex questions about alternate history and mythology.” Here we discuss its themes and the state of feminism in literature.
In The New York Times, Dara Horn wrote that The Book of Esther is "as addicting as a Jewish 'Game of Thones.'" This sparks a two-part question in my mind:
First, Jewish identity plays a big role in this story. Can you speak to that?
Second, like Game of Thrones, The Book of Esther doesn't shy away from high-stakes action, from exciting plot. There's a school of thought you and I both encountered when we were coming of age as writers that says true literary fiction should not concern itself with plot. And in fact, you wrote about that in a recent essay for Literary Hub. Can you share some thoughts on the subject?
In the same way default personhood in fiction seems to be male, Christianity in our culture continues to stand as the default moral/religious position. Yet anyone who’s Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, pagan, animist, or any other religion can tell you that doesn’t feel true from lived experience. You don’t think of yourself as the Other to the dominant thing; you see the world from your own worldview. So in the Book of Esther, as a conscious choice, I’m writing from a Jewish perspective without assuming that I need to translate to or from a Christian point of view. Like any writer, I do my best to make the text entertaining, to make details vivid and descriptions clear. But instead of couching images in familiar Christian terms, I’m exploring them within the book’s own innate Jewish context. This feels radical, freeing.
When we were at Iowa together, I don’t think any teacher ever spoke to us about plot. (Although a lot of the writers the workshop agreed had talent—Chris Adrian, Nathan Englander, Aaron Cohen; all men, I should note—were people who wrote stories in which things happened.) The workshop encouraged us to talk about voice, tone, theme, imagery, character, and language. I think the idea was that plot was beneath us; plot was for “genre” writers. We were shown Raymond Carver, William Trevor, and Malcolm Lowry as exemplars: dudes every one, and, it seemed to me, all concerned with the preoccupations of middle-aged white men coming to various kinds of realizations. Michael Chabon writes about the realism of that period, its stories “plotless and sparkling with epiphanic dew.” I tried to write those kinds of stories, but although I admire some of them (The Waves springs to mind), they aren’t truly where my heart lies. Give me George Eliot, or Wilkie Collins, or Charles Brockden Brown, or Deborah Eisenberg, or Marilynne Robinson, or Julie Otsuka, or Ellis Avery—writers who write about people doing things and having things happen to them, both of which constitute plot.
Everything we learned about voice and theme and language and tone has proven useful and instructive to me as a writer, yet doesn’t address the fact that people like to read stories, and writers are so often drawn to write because they have burning stories to tell.
Asked by an interviewer for a recent favorite title, Hanya Yanagihara, author of A Little Life, mentioned The Book of Esther, which she called a work of "imagination, anger and scholarship." The imagination and scholarship have been noted by others. What about anger? Do you agree that's a force in the story?
I’d like to think she means fierceness; that the novel has the strength of its convictions; that like its main character, it speaks its mind.
One of my favorite things about the main character is that she's so full of passion and ambition. In the middle of a heated argument, she'll find herself overwhelmed by her adversary's scent and a desire to kiss him. Deeply religious and fiercely moral, she nevertheless cannot stop herself from breaking religious and cultural rules to hide in the bushes and find out how golems are made; steal an amulet she believes will help her cause; share an intense physical moment with someone who's not her betrothed. Was it fun to write a character like this?
It was lots of fun. Esther speaks before she thinks. This makes her unpredictable to herself and other people; and that makes it enjoyable to write scenes, because her interactions with other characters are often as uncomfortable as her internal monologue is. And her desires and ambitions, both so fierce, tend to conflict, which is also fun for me, as the writer. Plot thrives on doubleness, on friction, on two things pulling against each other as hard as they can until one snaps and the other springs forward. Esther needs to balance so many conflicting ideas and desires, she is a natural friend of plot.
Your last work, Brookland, was described as "a feminist novel" by Joan Acocella in The New Yorker. I would certainly say that's true of The Book of Esther, too. What does it mean to you to be—or be called—a feminist author?
Being a feminist author means taking women’s subjectivity, accomplishments, desires, interests, and difficulties seriously. Making them primary subjects of narrative, exactly as men’s subjectivity, accomplishments, desires, etc. have always been. A feminist writer explores this subject matter without worrying whether that portrayal dovetails with our culture’s stereotypes about women.
What’s interesting is that if you’d asked me this question when we were in our twenties, I might have interrogated your use of the term “feminist,” as I would then have described myself as more of an equalist. I believed our mothers and grandmothers had done their work and that equality had been achieved. Meanwhile, when I recently I told my eight-year-old that Hillary Clinton was the first woman ever to run for President of the United States on a major party’s ticket, his horrified response was, “WHAT?” He’s right; that glass ceiling should have been shattered ages ago. You look at the obstacles Secretary Clinton continues to face in her candidacy—which in many ways pale in comparison to the challenges women of color, economically disadvantaged women, LGBTQIA women, and women of physical and ability difference face—and you see that the work of feminism has only begun.
Among many other things, you are a writer and the mother of two young children. The Book of Esther is your third novel, but your first written as a parent. Has that changed your experience of writing? Do you think it's any different for women than for men? And if you do, if there were something you could change about our culture to level the playing field, what would it be?
My college writing teacher, Michael Martone, was asked in a 2006 interview why his work has moved over time toward compression; why his earlier stories were more realist and the later stories more experimental. Dan Wickett, the interviewer, asked, “Do you look back and see that you were becoming less interested in writing longer, maybe more traditional stories, at this point?” Martone responded, “I see having babies. I had two and began writing in the seams of time babies create. During feedings. Naps.” As the stretches of time available to him contracted, he learned to create fictions that fit those spaces. Martone and I are both adults at this point, both writers, but because he was my teacher, I still assume he knows how to do all of the things. I assumed that what happened to him would also happen to me.
As it turns out, this is not so. There are as many different kinds of writers as there are kinds of temperaments. I remain interested in the same kind of fictive project that interested me before children: A work that unfolds slowly; a story to which imagistic correspondences contribute as much as words; an idea so big that a person can’t fit it all in her mind at the same time, which is why someone has to write it down, make it a novel. This kind of work is difficult to do in snippets of time. It’s difficult to do while distracted.
So I find writing harder and more frustrating than I used to. I want to do more ambitious, bigger versions of the kind of work I’ve done before, yet I have fewer resources (less time, less privacy, an impeded ability to focus, more moving parts).
It’s funny that you ask if I think this is different for men and women. I was just talking about this yesterday with two of our other friends from Iowa, Alexander Chee and Whitney Terrell—both of whom published novels this year (The Queen of the Night and The Good Lieutenant) that took them a long time to write, which is what we were talking about. Both Alex and Whit mentioned getting lost in the world of their novels and how this adversely affected their partners. And I thought, and I think said, Oh, this is a difference between men and women. Other than two weeks I spent at Yaddo to finish The Book of Esther’s first draft, I have never been immersed in its world for longer than a few hours at a time.
Perhaps the best thing any of us can do to level the playing field is to vote more women and progressives into office. Robust family leave policies would benefit all working women, even those of us who work (or work primarily) outside the purview of institutions. I also think that the long term work we’re doing—teaching the next generation of writers; raising our children to be conscious human beings—will help level the playing field, though substantive change needs to come more quickly than that.