Emily Barton is the author of two novels, Testament of Yves Gundron and Brookland, and has published essays and reviews in The Threepenny Review, the New York Times Book Review, the Los Angeles Times Book Review, and Bookforum. She teaches in the Master of Fine Arts programs at Columbia University and New York University, as well as teaching fiction workshops at Yale University. She lives with her husband, the writer Thomas Israel Hopkins, and 4-year-old son in New York. A recent winner of a grant from the Sustainable Arts Foundation, she talked with Literary Mama’s Editor-in-Chief Caroline Grant about getting dusty while teaching, writing a novel on request, and why — although she loves writing about new technologies — she might like to un-invent the Internet.
Caroline Grant: Did you write when you were a child?
Emily Barton: I did! I was writing “novels” when I was six years old. I don’t think that makes me particularly special, though. At least half the applicants to my writing courses profess the same thing; and it’s probably a fairly common phenomenon in our culture, in which we agree that children should learn to read and write at a young age and we also have such an abundant supply of cheap paper and factory-made pens.
CG: Who were your most memorable (writing) teachers?
EB: Susan Bernofsky and I have a dialogue on teaching coming out in the next issue of PEN America Journal (#16: TEACHERS). We talk at some length about our favorite writing teachers and the lessons we learned from them, but I didn’t manage to touch on high school teachers.
I had a Latin teacher in high school, Cornelia Reid, who greatly influenced my thinking and work habits. She was a stickler for grammar, for precise translation, yet so clearly felt passionate about the authors she taught us (Virgil, Horace, and oh, Catullus!). Perhaps the worst moment of my high school career: I had to translate aloud a passage from the Aeneid in which the word annales occurs: that’s “annals” in English. I knew the word in both languages, knew what it meant; but I’d never heard it said out loud in English, so I pronounced it . . . um . . . differently. But I digress.
I also had two phenomenal English teachers in high school, Marcia Britton and Jane Cole of blessed memory; they were fierce in their love of books, and demanding of us as writers and thinkers. Finally I had a drama teacher, Robert Pridham, who hung the moon in the sky. He taught us to be ambitious actors, singers, lighting designers, set builders, sound and light board operators, playwrights, fix-it people, human beings. We did remarkable work under his tutelage. He helped me learn how to dream big.
CG: What, if anything, from their lessons do you use in your own teaching? In your writing?
EB: Probably the main lesson that I pass on from my teachers to my students is compassion for them as people, a sense of humor about the mistakes they (we all) make. I learned from my best teachers that a scholastic atmosphere of high seriousness does not necessarily mean you can’t have a lively time in the classroom. I’m willing to crack a joke; I’m willing to look silly or make a mistake in front of them. I remember Mrs. Reid’s green flowered dress so covered in chalk, she looked as if she’d been baking a pie; she was so excited about what she was teaching us, she didn’t care what happened to her dress. When I remember this, I recall that it’s all right not to appear perfect. Real teaching and learning happen regardless of appearances.
CG: Many writers teach only to support their craft, but some find themselves inspired by their teaching. What’s the relationship for you between writing and teaching?
EB: I don’t understand how people teach if they don’t like it. It’s a demanding job if you don’t derive pleasure from it. Students can smell a professor’s disinterest a mile away. Have you ever been on a blind date, or on a job interview, say, where after one question you just knew it was never going to work? Students have that intuition about people who don’t enjoy teaching them.
I love teaching. I find that it helps me to clarify my thinking about writing and literature in general and about my own work. I often find that my students and I can work together through some of the difficulties we all have as writers. I leave a three-hour workshop with more energy and excitement than I had going into it, which, for me, is a good way of judging whether or not I like something I’m doing.
CG: Brookland tells the story of a family who runs a gin distillery in late 18th-century Brooklyn. Where did you get the idea for the novel, and how did you do your research?
EB: [The writer] Chris Adrian and I were walking by the Brooklyn Bridge, on the New York side, and he looked up at it, sighed, and said, “Oh, Emily, it’s so beautiful. Will you write me a novel about it?” I said sure. That cannot have been a real request, and I’m sure he wouldn’t have minded if I’d failed to honor it; but on one level, that’s where the idea came from. That and thinking about Emily Roebling, about her responsibility for the bridge as we know it (as a physical object in the given world) and how little credit she gets relative to her husband and father-in-law. I didn’t want to write about the actual Brooklyn Bridge because David McCullough did such a fine job in The Great Bridge. In a footnote to that book, I learned about Thomas Pope’s Rainbow Bridge, the bridge that appears as Brookland’s frontispiece and on which the bridge in the book is based. I checked the plans out of the New York Public Library and studied them, and thought, no one has written about this thing. The novel started to come together then.
CG: The novel is largely narrated in a series of letters from Prue Winship (the eldest of the three Winship daughters, who inherits the distillery from her father) to her grown daughter, Recompense, who is living some distance away, married and pregnant with her first child. How did you come to decide on this form of narration? How did it limit or expand your story-telling possibilities?
EB: An earlier draft of the novel was all in the first person, in an orthographically exact replica of 18th-century prose, complete with wild variant spellings. Kirsten Bakis read that draft and said, “You know, I’m your friend, so I don’t mind reading this; but I am not sure anyone else is going to slog through this thing.” I’d worked for more than a year to get that 18th-century prose correct, so I didn’t want to give it up completely; yet I wanted to switch most of the novel to a more standardized and engaging third person. The solution of writing letters to Recompense came to me almost instantly — as did Recompense herself, who hadn’t previously existed, but who seemed to have been waiting for me to think up something for her to do.
CG: Both of your novels involve a new technology — the title character in Testament of Yves Gundron invents a harness; Prue Winship designs a bridge to span the river between Brooklyn and Manhattan — and explore its impact on the people who use it. If you could invent a new technology, what would it do?
EB: There are a lot of new technologies in the novel I’m working on — or old technologies repurposed and reconfigured. I’d be excited if any of them came to pass. All of the inventions I’ve come up with so far are jokes, collaborative jokes either with my husband or with [the writer] Paul La Farge. Tom and I came up with the idea for the iClod, a little phone-size tablet with non-drying clay and a stylus upon which you can jot notes; Paul and I have long batted around Daschund for a Day, costumes in which dogs of one breed can dress up as dogs of another, and The Journal of Dull Poetics (JDP). I actually think the JDP could have legs, or at least that it might be a hoot to edit and produce one issue, but we can’t ever quite muster the energy to make it happen. Can I un-invent the Internet? The internal wiring of my brain functioned better before I began using that technology all the time.
CG: Now that you’re a mother, do you ever write with your son?
EB: He’s four, so he can’t really write yet. He can write his own name, and “Mom” and “Dad,”and can spell any word out if you tell him what letters it has in it. We write letters together; he draws pictures for people and I write glosses on them; we put them in envelopes and mail them. So far, most of the things we like to do together are things he himself likes doing (reading books, riding bikes, dramatic play) or things that have to get done (cooking, emptying the dishwasher, hanging wash on the line). I don’t know if we’ll write together when he’s older. If he wants to write, I’ll write with him, but if he’s more interested in learning to bat, I’ll pitch the ball. I hope he might want to learn to knit someday. That seems like a cozy mother-son activity.
CG: What does a typical day of writing/teaching/parenting look like for you?
EB: If I’ve learned one thing from having a child, it’s to chuck “typical” out the window. Even in terms of the child himself: Development is so non-linear, and comparing one child to another seldom yields a positive result.
I almost never write and teach on the same day — both take up too much time and energy — so that’s already a variation, a rhythm to the schedule. Some days I have the whole day to write, other days I have other tasks to attend to; and you never know when a child might have to miss school or might need you to be there with him for a special event. Any individual day can take a new course at a moment’s notice. As a writer, who likes order, sameness, predictability in my writing schedule, this has been difficult to adjust to, but I’m slowly learning to work this way. It seems a fair price to pay for the increase in richness, complexity, and joy my son has brought to my life.
CG: What are you working on now? How is it a development of or departure from your earlier work?
EB: I’m finishing up a novel called The Book of Esther, which I think you’d call a Jewish theological steampunk alternate history of the Eastern Front in World War II. It’s a lot of fun for me to write. It’s full of action and crazy technologies. It’s considerably more Jewish than the other books I’ve published so far; but, like both of them, concerns itself deeply with the spiritual implications of our pursuit of technological advancement. It might do that in a more immediate or tangible way than the earlier books did. To me, it seems like a deeper — and in many respects a weirder — exploration of some themes with which I’ve always been preoccupied.