Sunlit Nights with Rebecca Dinerstein | PART I

On a gloomy day in London, WRITTEN CITIZEN's Creative Consultant Georgia Williams had the extreme honor and pleasure to chat in lengths with Rebecca Dinerstein, author of the newly-acclaimed and Bloomsbury-published 'The Sunlit Night'.

When I was offered the chance to interview an author in the Bloomsbury offices in central London, I was utterly dumbfounded. Yeah, Bloomsbury — as in the publishing company of Harry Potter.
   I grabbed the opportunity with both hands and started preparing for meeting Dinerstein. Despite being rather nervous, as I'd never interviewed anybody in real life, I did not trip over or stumble upon my words or say anything stupid, so all's good. Moral of the story? Face your fears!
   'The Sunlit Night' is actually out today — in the UK — so UK-based Citizens: head over to your local Waterstones and grab yourself a copy! Alternatively, the Amazon link is here. The link to Dinerstein's poetry book 'Lofoten' is here.

We have another installment of our interview with Dinerstein, specifically about her time in Norway, which will soon precede this one. Watch this space for its publishing date!

"The Sunlit Night"  

"Back in Manhattan, after college graduation, Frances is finding home claustrophobic. Her family’s compact apartment feels ever more airless, and when her parents announce a divorce and her sister an engagement, Frances decides to flee. She seeks refuge in an apprenticeship at a Norwegian artists’ colony in Lofoten, a string of islands ninety-five miles north of the Arctic Circle, only to find one artist: Nils, an enigmatic middle-aged descendant of the Sami reindeer-hunters, who paints only in the colour yellow.
   "Yasha, an eighteen year-old Russian immigrant raised in a bakery in Brighton Beach, is kneading dough when he sees his mother for the first time in a decade. As he gains a selfish parent, he loses his beloved father. He must carry out his father’s last wish to be buried ‘at the top of the world’ and reconcile with the woman who abandoned them both.
   "So, Frances’ and Yasha’s paths collide, millions of miles from their turbulent homes. Each has come to learn how to be alone. And yet they find one another under the midnight sun, learning that it is ultimately love that gives us our place in the world."
- Bloomsbury website link here

Artwork by Zoe G.
WC: At what age did you start writing and what influenced this?

RD: I started writing semi-seriously in high school; I took poetry and short-story classes. My teachers really influenced me through the assigned readings and poems. All of those early classes made me love reading, and then in college, I got to practise my writing, and it was really the ages of nineteen through twenty-one that I started writing seriously.

WC: How was the plot of 'The Sunlit Night' born in your mind, and was there a certain event in your life which inspired the story-line?

RD: That's a great question! I got a poetry fellowship from Yale when I graduated, so I could write a book of poems for a year anywhere, which is totally an extraordinary opportunity. I thought I'd need to go somewhere really special, and I'd spent a lot of time in Ireland, actually, studying Irish literature, and I knew I liked being in the North, being surrounded by the sheep and the fog... that's really my kind of scene.
   I knew I had to go even further North. I basically showed up in Oslo with a suitcase, kind of with no plan. I wound up in the Norwegian Arctic, which was magical. I stayed there for a year, and I wrote this book of poems and the first draft of my novel, which was very much influenced by that extraordinary landscape. I didn't yet have a plot, so when I came back to New York, I basically had two-hundred pages of unstructured notes, and it was only then that I really started again and organised those impressions and visuals and memories around a more concrete story.

WC: I was listening to a talk on Radio 4 with Samantha Shannon, and I was really surprised by a statistic that was mentioned that said only 11% of writers are published nowadays. Do you have any advice for aspiring writers that'll help get their work noticed?

RD: Absolutely! The number one most important thing is to finish your book. It is really only because I put my head down and finish the thing that I was able to do anything with it. The work is never over, but you have to be willing to put the work in, and I do think that if you really commit to a project and see it through and work on it as hard as you possibly can, the universe will meet you in that effort. I have a lot of really wonderful friends — young people — with novels coming out right now because they put work out and the world met them.

WC: How does the spark of an idea become a full story?

RD: It's hard because story relies so much upon tension, obstacles, and wishes. Coming from a poetic background, I don't have a very good grasp of tension and stakes, and my instincts are to admire the flowers, but that doesn't really keep the pages turning. I think it's important to notice what's striking about a moment, image, or an idea, and figure out why it's important to a character — what they want, what's keeping them from what they want, and how this detail fits into their life.

WC: When you wrote, did you find that your characters became two-dimensional, and were there things you had to do to make the character seem more realistic?

RD: Definitely. It's hard, especially with some of the more minor characters, not to just make them stereotypes of themselves, and I think the only way of doing that is to make sure everything they say has some real basis. There should always be some detail of the scene that's grounding your characters dialogue and their motivations and actions. As soon as you start having characters that say or do something just because it seems like something they would do, things get kind of wacky. Many of my characters are really eccentric, like vikings and blacksmiths, and even though those are wacky character-types, I like to keep them thinking of very simple things.

"Once I'd got started, it was very hard to give it up."

WC: What's your favourite part of the writing process and why?

RD: I think when you know; when you can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and you know where the book is going and you can just ride the wave, I think there was a certain point about three-quarters of the way through, and I could see the ending and I knew how to get there, I just needed to write it.
   The exhilaration of waking up every morning and writing towards that horizon without struggling over the question of how I'm going to get there, and just the sheer work of getting there was really exhilarating.

WC: Did you write at home or did you travel to a specific place?

RD: Sometimes I wrote at home. I was living in a very beautiful, sunny room in Brooklyn, which I loved and not all homes work for writing. I happen to really love that space. Quite often I'd end up writing in the NYU library, which was gorgeous. Sometimes cafes — some writers are famous for writing in cafes. For me, it was really important to have a big window and to have a clean, bright place. That'd do it for me.

WC: What's your least favourite part of the writing process?

RD: (Saying without hesitation) Figuring out the plot. It's very difficult for me to decide certain plot-twists because I come from a poetry background, and I'm much more interested in the mood and style and language of the piece, but plot is equally important, and when I got the plot down, it was immensely satisfying. It just took me a long time to get there.

WC: How do you stay self-disciplined and motivated to carry on with the story?

RD: It's so important to keep discipline; it's the heart of the thing. I truly believe that discipline is the difference between writers and non-writers, and there are so many people in this world who could write a beautiful book, and it'd be only the disciplined ones that'd get it done. For me, I have it in me to work hard, I like to work hard, I come from a very hard working background. for me it was very helpful to set certain goals for myself, I was writing up to a thousand words a day for a long time and it was very helpful because at seven hundred words, you'd want to quit but you know that if you go a little bit further and you push yourself to get it done the writing goes very fast and you can get a lot of work done if you keep yourself to that pace. At a certain point I'd already put in so much work that I couldn't stand to leave it unfinished which in a way is kind of crazy, because I wound up doing so much more work than the work I'd already done to keep it going... but once I'd got started, it was very hard to give it up.

WC: Were there any times when you wanted to stop writing? How did you overcome these feelings?

RD: Being a writer is scary. It's scary to do the arts! I went to a school where people went into accounting or banking, and it's very tempting to pursue a more reliable job, but I think that if you have that urge towards expression in you, it's very hard to stifle it — even in the moments when writing was so wretchedly miserable. 
   If you're at a moment in the book when you don't really know what happens next or you're stuck somewhere, it's miserable. I think remembering that it's a privilege to spend your time with those issues and to fill your day with those questions, as opposed to so many others, it's really important to remember that if you've started something, you have something to say, and even though it can get pretty nasty at times, you're working on something really beautiful. It's a privilege.

WC: Can you tell me about your writing processes? For example, how much you changed from your first draft to your second, and so on.

RD: As I said, the first draft was really unstructured, it was basically a two-hundred page notebook, and I then went back and started thinking about which of those images, scenes, and situations were central to the book, and I could organise them into a real story. Then, after a fair amount of plotting, out I started again  just writing 1000 words a day, seeing where that would take me. Every morning, I would read what I'd written the day before and keep going from there, to keep the voice continuous. I had that first draft, which was unstructured, then the second that had a structure, but was still wishy-washy, so my agent helped with the third draft, which was much tighter and much faster. 
   Each of these drafts required major re-writing. I mean, from the first to the second draft, I completely started from scratch, and with my agent, I re-wrote at least one hundred pages. [It got] to the point where, by the time we sold it to Bloomsbury, our edits were actually quite light because we'd done so much work to it.

Image Nina Subin

Follow Dinerstein on her Twitter, Instagram and check out her website
Keep your eyes peeled here for the second published installment of our interview with her!

Bloomsbury and the author have given WRITTEN CITIZEN complete permission to use the images seen above. Copyright is still intact. 

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