Sandra Newman’s fourth novel, The Heavens, is just out from Granta and Grove Atlantic. We think it’s a remarkable book, and we’re not alone. The New York Times has called The Heavens “heady and elegant … a chameleon, a strange and beautiful hybrid.” Tor.com says, “How rare and wonderful it is to find a book that surpasses already high expectations.” The Washington Independent Review of Books praises the book for its humour and style, but above all for its knack for portraying the unstable reality of its two central characters. Vector recently got the chance to chat to Sandra about her writing …
The Heavens is literary speculative fiction with a kind of alternate history / time travel premise. One strand of the novel is drawn from the life of the early modern poet Emilia Bassano Lanier. The other strand portrays a strange, shifting present-day which (just like the world we live in) both is and is not the world we live in.
So at one point in the modern day strand, the main characters Ben and Kate kind of break up via watching Terminator 2 together. Do you think that’s a real thing? – that a movie can kind of have a whole conversation for you?
I once went to a play with a theater critic I had friend-zoned, and the entire play was about sexual frustration and thwarted love, and as the curtain went down and we applauded, he said to me, “If your aunt Wanda was just eaten by a bear, you go to a play and the first line is, “Poor Wanda never saw that bear coming.” And this is absolutely true.
That is really great. Although he did have probably most of the play to hone his line. I feel like I would have some draft in my head about Uncle Verner getting spooked by a scorpion, and it wouldn’t sound funny and I would just abandon the whole sorry witticism. Do you discard unfinished projects?
Yes and no. I have a lot of abandoned projects, but I keep trying to revive them. For instance, the first chapter of The Heavens is based on a short story I abandoned five years before I started writing the novel.
The Heavens, like Terminator 2, is a time travel story. In this case, that means a story pervaded by the confusions among different people’s versions of reality.
So even though time is out of joint, The Heavens feels really timely. The bits set around 2000 evoke our current era of fake news and filter bubbles. At the same time, of course, the novel evokes other, not necessarily malign, ways that fiction and storytelling can shape past, present, and future.
In the context of Ben and Kate, the conflicting realities sometimes made me think about gaslighting, and that attempt to control the present – to control a person in the present – by controlling the past. I wonder what you think about the relationship between fiction and gaslighting?
Fiction is never gaslighting because when you read fiction, you are alone, so if you argue with the fiction, you always win. That’s one of the nice things about fiction. It can only mindfuck you up to a certain point, and then you just close the book and get angry about it, and you automatically win the argument. Except sometimes when the fiction is really, really right in a way you can’t deny no matter how hard you try, but then it isn’t gaslighting, it’s just right.
The Heavens is also about dreams, like literal dreams that happen when you sleep. Do you think we’re too passive about our dreams? Should we have aspirations about how we want to dream? Should we follow our dream dreams?
I guess in theory we should since dreams are such a large part of our lives, and the potential seems so great. But we probably don’t care enough about our dreams because we don’t remember them, just as we don’t care enough about most people’s lives because they won’t be remembered by history.
Even though the novel is quite intensely about Ben and Kate, it’s also a real ensemble novel. You meet all these other fascinating marginal figures. And partly you get to know Ben and Kate through their relationships with these other people (although, because of Kate’s weird temporal status, she isn’t really inhabiting the same social ontology as Ben).
Can you tell us about some of the gang? Like Sabine and José and Oksana? I really liked Oksana, for example … I felt sort of compelled and confused …
I guess Oksana is an artist who had the misfortune to be born in the body of a woman without any money, and she’s playing that hand of cards as well as she can. Her importance to me might be that people don’t write about that person enough. I’ve met many versions of Oksana in real life. I might be a version of Oksana, actually.
I think there’s something about her that comes from the fact that being a female artist tends to get warped into sex work of some kind—there’s a very long history of that—and also that female artists tend to have the focus put back on them, especially when they’re young; people want it to all be autobiographical, and many artists end up playing up to that. You get a lot of self-portraits, a lot of performance art, a lot of memoir.
Oksana is a person who’s come out of all of that, and as the world around her gets more and more unforgiving, instead of being able to transcend that and turn it into something powerful, she’s broken by it.
There’s that moment when Oksana wants to honour her birthday by charging any man who wants sex with her a thousand dollars …
This is a real thing someone I knew did when she became 46. And incidentally when he learned about this, my father said to my stepmother, “I should have done that. I could have made three thousand dollars.”
How about José? What’s his deal?
José is based on two real people I know. One of them is a writer so I can’t name him because people who know him will know exactly what I’m talking about, and he’s a José type of person so everyone knows him. Anyway, he has that kind of Aw-shucks thing going for him, and he’s a successful Latino writer and part of his success is a Real Male thing because he was a college athlete and all that. But he’s also so nice!
And the other person was a guy named Jim who was a marine who was involved in a grassroots Democratic organization I was a member of, and Jim really was treated as an important celebrity because he was a marine who really fought in Iraq, and he also was a really nice person, and he was also, inevitably, really good-looking. I always remember him making a pretty ordinary joke once, and this other guy laughed so hard at the joke, like inappropriately hard in a way he wasn’t in control of, and it was obviously about male dominance hierarchies, and Jim himself looked really embarrassed.
And then Jim kind of vanished, and the other grassroots Dem guys randomly decided he had been a police informer all along, who had joined the organization to spy on them. But I could never determine why they believed this except that Jim stopped being their friend, and it hurt everyone’s feelings.
I mean, I said a lot of dumb shit to Jim too. I am not above that stuff. I make a total fool of myself at every opportunity.
I recently met a lantern-jawed astronaut, it was really really dire. What about Kate’s parents? They really seemed to me like – this maybe sounds silly, but – somebody’s parents.
OK, so Kate’s parents are just a representation of good parents. They are based on real people (real Hungarians, as it happens) but the bottom line is that they’re the parents of someone else, the ones you meet and they’re so great you can’t even imagine what it would be like to have such great parents, and yet somehow their kid still manages to be annoyed by them. And even that is great, because you then make the extra step of imagining being able to take those parents for granted.
Tell us about rich people in The Heavens.
In The Heavens, the only really rich person we meet is Sabine, who is a good person. This goes against everything I myself feel about rich people, but sometimes you write things just because you are tired of yourself and want to give other people’s ideas a chance. And after all, the novel does start in a utopian world, so maybe in a really utopian world, rich people too could be really good people. And who am I to say? I haven’t met all the rich people. Maybe lots of them are real gems.
And then there’s William Shakespeare. He’s a character too, although kiiind of also a collaborator or something. This is not the guy’s first rodeo, but this time feels different. In so many of the examples I can think of – Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Neil Gaiman’s Dream Country, Terry Pratchett’s Lords and Ladies, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World – I get the sense that some kind of deep patterning in Shakespeare is being avidly endorsed, even when the work claims to be subverting or transcending.
Yes, some intertextual interventions do clap back at The Bard in various ways – Jeanette Winterston’s The Gap of Time, Margaret Atwood’s ‘Gertrude Talks Back,’ maybe? – but I feel like whatever their critiques, and despite their supposed mischief, they almost always gravitate toward some kind of reverence or mysticism. They want to participate in some kind of greatness that Shakespeare embodies or symbolises. Somehow, though, I think The Heavens genuinely escapes that gravity.
Well, I genuinely don’t believe in greatness, and I feel that the belief in greatness and the striving after greatness is really pernicious (which is one of the themes of the book). So in The Heavens the Shakespeare character is obviously very smart but otherwise relatively normal, and possibly a little lopsided as a person because his talent is so out of proportion to the rest of his character. I feel some sympathy with the need for the idea of greatness; we don’t want to believe it’s impossible for a person to rise above the common herd.
How did you find the historical research? How was it researching Emilia Bassano Lanier?
Emilia is pretty easy to research because there are a very few books about her and her family, and all the information is there. But Elizabethan England in general, and what it was like to live there, was a nightmare to research. It was just an endless slog of research. Would it be probable for this person to speak to that person in that tone? What did they have for breakfast? Who were the servants in a country house? What might servants have felt about their employers? What did things smell like? Etc. Each scene felt like a gigantic risk because there were so many details you could get wrong, and there are so many people who spend their lives studying the period.
I wonder if the little glitches serve a valuable function too? That speedball of joy and fury you might get, as a historian or literary scholar, from mildly inaccurate historical fiction set in your period? Arguably in The Heavens you have a get-out clause, because many of the early modern episodes are not quite in our timeline …
I’m also vaguely reminded of M. John Harrison’s squib about ‘the great clomping foot of nerdism,’ although that related to worldbuilding secondary worlds. He was writing about worldbuilding and storytelling again quite recently …
John Harrison is one greatest writers of our time, in my opinion. I can understand why he’s not more popular, because he’s over the heads of a lot of people, and he’s not tying things up in a bow in any way. The baggy and confusing plots he uses have never been popular in English language fiction, either, outside of science fiction, though in Russian fiction, for instance, they’re pretty common. Anyway, I think he’s one of the only living writers I’ve encountered who introduced me to fundamentally new ways of thinking about the world instead of just adding little details at the margins or expressing familiar things well.
So, the fantastic is often thought to be a space where we work out social anxieties and obsessions. And the same fantastic tropes actually get reworked again and again according to how those anxieties and obsessions shift.
What do you think it is about time travel that speaks to the present moment? Or, do you think the time travel trope of the past was doing something different? If today’s time travel trope could travel in time to meet the time travel tropes of the past, what would they say to each other?
Time travel has meant more and more to us as we become more frantic to fix our world and more conscious of the incompetence of our attempts. I mean, the idea of time travel has always been that you go back in time and do something wrong (step on a butterfly) and when you come back, history is ruined; or you go forward in time and realize that everyone in your time was making terrible mistakes that lead to a world of Eloi being devoured by Morlocks.
The genre is about how humans make mistakes and ruin history, and we are incapable of doing anything right. Even if you go back to kill Hitler, it somehow makes things worse. It’s all about how our attempts to do the right thing are doomed. Another common theme in time travel is that the time travelers have to avoid changing anything of any significance, because it will create a paradox. Basically, when we think of the possibility that a human might alter history, we quickly become convinced that they’re going to fuck everything up even worse. And yet in our own present, we are constantly trying to alter history, and urging others to try, which I guess is because we’re already messing things up just by being here (stepping on butterflies) so we have to scramble desperately just to minimize the damage.
Though I guess occasionally the protagonist of a time travel narrative just travels back in time to have sex with a hot Scotsman. So that’s another possibility of the genre.
Was The Heavens a time travel story from the start?
Yes, this story was always a time travel story. It started as a time travel story where the protagonist travels back in time to have sex with a hot Scotsman, except instead of a hot Scotsman, it’s Shakespeare. Then it turned into the other kind too.
Forgiveness can be another way of sort of changing the past, or trying to. Can you talk about the relationship between time travel and forgiveness?
I guess according to the novel, no matter how many times you go back in time to fix things, there is no forgiveness because you are still the same flawed human being. And so the novel’s answer is to relax and forgive the world for not being good enough and forgive yourself for not having saved it, because there is nothing else and there never was.
I can’t think of any time travel narratives from Emilia’s time. Do you know if there were any?
I don’t think there were? Weirdly, the idea of time travel seems to have actually been invented in the Eighteenth Century and only to have really taken hold in the Nineteenth. It seems like such a core concept to us, but it’s a very rare example of an idea that (I’m pretty sure) doesn’t appear in literature until a certain date.
I guess unless you count generic ‘visions of the futures, delivered via dream’ stuff. So, one bit of Shakespeare which seems to haunt The Heavens is Horatio’s ‘purposes mistook / fall’n on th’inventors’ heads.’ This is a major theme, right? And maybe partly the problem comes from wanting to save the world in the abstract? That can lead to all kinds of fearful and anxious thinking.
Free will can only exist if you have a magical understanding of the world. So in the novel, the time travelers have something that is similar to free will, or seems similar; they are the only ones who can really alter the path of history in an otherwise deterministic world. But later on, their egotism somehow turns out to pervert whatever will they might think they have. Maybe their choices are determined by self-interest, and no matter what they think they’re doing, that is basically what is happening.
It’s sort of a messed-up version of what we all often find when we try to be altruistic. But really, I’ve always been concerned with the issue of free will. Because it seems to me that it’s obviously an illusion, unless you believe in some supernatural origin of the self, a self that can come from outside of the chain of cause and effect, and alter it. Which makes each person a little deity of a sort, who is creating things ex nihilo. And I think that’s an interesting idea, but it’s hard to see how it fits into our ordinary conception of reality.
And if it coincides with God’s will, then that on the one hand feels a bit convenient, but on the other hand, whatever, what even is God? No version of God is conceivable without arriving at a lot of preposterous places conceptually.
Do you like time?
No. I’m an introvert so I would like there to be a non-time option where nothing happens at all.
I was hoping in the last part, we could talk about one or two of your other works? You’re the author of at least four novels, a memoir, a book of literary criticism, and articles and essays. Your last novel before The Heavens was The Country of Ice Cream Star.
I have this penetrating observation that The Heavens and The Country of Ice Cream Star are quite different books. For example, The Heavens isn’t just a taut bittersweet philosophical tragicomedy of manners with time travel. Whereas The Country of Ice Cream Star isn’t just a YA post-apocalyptic dystopian epic. So I guess my question is … is there anything special that the two books have in common?
The Heavens is partly about the state I was in when I wrote The Country of Ice Cream Star, when I did not primarily live in the “real” world other people were living in. And had no particular wish to return to it.
The Country of Ice Cream Star is mostly written in your own constructed variety of English. It’s a kind of future evolution primarily of African American Vernacular English. I was interested in something you said in an interview somewhere, that AAVE is probably objectively the best English going …
I really believe AAVE is the most vital and intelligent and aesthetically sensitive use of English now. It’s really dynamic and it changes rapidly and is more open to constant invention than most other forms of English. It has the words and idioms everyone else wants to steal. I feel like this is so obvious I find it hard to defend as a proposition, but I do still encounter people who call AAVE “uneducated” English and it completely boggles my mind. It’s like being a person who thinks French people speak French because they’re too dumb to learn English.
I wanted to ask about your article, ‘What kind of person makes false rape accusations?’ I encountered it in the context of your short Vox piece on Kavanaugh, but the article was something you’d already written, right?
I became a false rape accusation geek because it gradually became clear to me that people said a lot of poorly researched or completely baseless stuff on the topic, and it got on my nerves. So I started researching it until I came across some actual information about who was being falsely accused, and why, and what happened when a false accusation was made. I mean, I just became obsessed with it for a while and wouldn’t let it go.
Finally, I realized it had never been put together into an article. I mean, it was one of those geek moments where you suddenly realize you’ve inadvertently become the person on Earth who knows the most about this subject by a pretty wide margin. So I put it together into an article, which took me an extraordinarily long time because it’s a complex subject and I’m not that great at nonfiction. And then it took a really remarkably long time to find someone who would publish it.
One of the main things I found was that people who make false rape accusations are really extreme characters. It’s not a mainstream thing to do; it’s a serious crime, and it’s generally committed by the same people who commit other crimes: teenagers, addicts, sociopaths, career criminals. The awkward thing is that these groups are also more likely to be victims of real rape. For instance, false accusations are relatively common in the prison system, but real rapes are incredibly common in the prison system too. It’s not a simple issue.
And there are lots of other counter-intuitive things about it. But really more research has to be done into this topic. I had to get most of my data from studies that were designed to discover something else, and produced information about false accusations as a by-product.
You revealed a novelist’s secrets How Not To Write a Novel, co-authored with Howard Mittelmark. But when will you reveal a writing coach’s secrets in How Not To Write How Not To Write a Novel?
Obviously I am the last person to advise anyone on How Not to Write How Not to Write a Novel.
And what do you feel are your biggest challenges as a writer?
Definitely paying the rent. All my other challenges are child’s play by comparison.
What actually is advice? Any advice, not just writing advice.
I guess advice is a kind of fiction. When you ask for advice, you’re asking someone to tell you a story about how they would solve your specific problem if they were you. So they tell you a story about a character loosely based on you in the form of advice, and you think about the story, and see if you find it convincing.
Sandra, thank you so much!
You can read an extract from The Heavens here. Sandra Newman is the author of five novels: The Only Good Thing Anyone Has Ever Done, (shortlisted for The Guardian First Book Award), Cake, The Country of Ice Cream Star (longlisted for the Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Literature), and The Heavens. With Howard Mittelmark she co-authored How Not to Write a Novel. She has also written The Western Lit Survival Kit, Read This Next, and a memoir, Changeling. She lives in New York.
This interview was partly conducted using time travel.