The Rumpus Interview with Emily Barton
Emily Barton’s latest novel, The Book of Esther, is the story of a sixteen-year-old girl who sets out to defend the fictional Jewish nation of Khazaria from the rapidly advancing armies of the Third Reich. Complete with mystics, mechanical horses, golems, a werewolf, and what Barton calls “genderqueer magic,” the novel is by turns thrilling and philosophical, exploring questions of free will, holiness, gender, and sexuality through the eyes of its young protagonist.
I first met Emily Barton in the fall of 2009, when I had the good fortune to be a student in her undergraduate fiction workshop. As a nineteen-year-old, I remember being awed by her insight, her generosity, and her invitation to push boundaries. Seven years later, it was a pleasure to reconnect with Emily, who spoke to me via Skype from her office in Kingston, New York, shelves crammed with books behind her and her cat Babette on her lap.
Emily holds a MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and currently teaches at NYU. Her previous novels, Brookland (FSG, 2006) and The Testament of Yves Gundron (FSG, 2000) were both named New York Times Notable Books of the Year.
The Rumpus: This is your third novel, and in the acknowledgements, you say that it is, in some ways, a departure from your previous work. Where did The Book of Esther come from?
Emily Barton: There are multiple answers to that question. There was a period of about four years when I was writing a different book, and that book also has a lot of fantastical elements in it, but in certain ways, it’s a more straightforward exploration of what it would have been like to be a Jewish artisan living in Berlin in 1933 when Hitler was coming to power. So that kind of stuff was on my mind already.
And then there’s the thread of Tom, my husband, who converted to Judaism when we got married, and as a consequence, we were learning about historical conversions to Judaism. Really, every time it pops up, it’s very strange. It’s usually a community of people feeling a call to religion. When one person converts, that’s your conscience, but when a whole community converts, that’s a really complicated thing. So we had been learning about the Khazars, and I had read Michael Chabon’s novel [Gentlemen of the Road] the year before, so all these things are kind of roiling around in my brain, and then I slipped on the ice and I broke my wrist, and it had to be surgically repaired.
I was working on that other book, and I happened to be working on it on the computer, but I couldn’t type, and Tom, who’s also a writer, suggested that I just work on another project by hand. I said, “No, I don’t think I’m going to really do that.” And he said, “Okay, how about if I dare you to write a 50,000-word potboiler in one month?” And I was like, “Oh, well, if those are the terms, then definitely. I’ll do that.” And what immediately sprang to mind, was, well, it’s going to be a potboiler, maybe I’ll do an adventure story, and the next thing that sprang into my head was, I’ll have the Khazars fight the Nazis.
It was like all of these things had lined up to make that one moment possible, and from the very first moment, because it’s a Jewish story and because the role of women in Judaism is so lively, and storied, and also ever-changing, I immediately knew I wanted a girl as the hero.
Rumpus: I love that. There’s almost an element of fate. And I wonder if the dare—do you feel like that freed you in some way, that you didn’t originally set out with the knowledge that this would be your next big project?
Barton: It definitely did. Tom writes short fiction, and among short fiction writers, dares are a lot more common. I may not have given your class any dares, but there was a class a year or two after you, and I issued them a dare and they issued a counter-dare, and we all did it, and actually, the story that I ended up writing for them, I ended up publishing in The Massachusetts Review. It turned out to be a good story.
It’s always the case for writers that when there are limitations, you have the opportunity for your creativity really to blossom and to become deeper and fuller and to move in directions that you wouldn’t have discovered on your own. So it’s partly the fact of a limitation—and also the fact that it was like, “Well, I’m just messing around, right? It doesn’t even matter what I’m doing.” But it was clear four days later that it wasn’t a potboiler, and I couldn’t finish it in a month.
Rumpus: I was going to ask! When did the parallel with the Biblical Esther come into the picture?
Barton: She was named after the Biblical Esther from day one, and I think it’s partly because the Biblical figure of Esther is, like so many figures in the Bible, somewhat obscure. We know that she’s beautiful, we know that she’s very, very smart, and we know that she’s brave. We know that, in that moment, where she finds out what Haman’s plot is, she has a choice—inwardly—she can choose to save only herself and just let the other people die, or she can choose to put her own life on the line and to save all of the Jewish people. But I think that my character Esther is, in some ways, less fated than the Biblical Esther is. She’s more flawed, she makes missteps, which the Biblical Esther never does, but she’s inspired by that kind of cunning and bravery that her forebearer has.
Rumpus: In thinking about your Esther, I found myself really excited about her relationship with her gender. We’re used to the idea of a woman warrior being kind of like a feminist symbol, but I was also excited to see the way the Esther—and the other characters in the book—delve into what I saw as different kinds of queerness.
In the first half of the book, one of the driving forces is her desire to become a man in order to defend her nation, but that’s not a desire that is uncomplicated in any way. And we have the character of Amit, who does become a man to study the Kabbalah. As you approached the ideas of sex and gender here, what was on your mind? How much of that was coming out of the Jewish tradition and how much of that was coming from other places?
Barton: I think that more of it was coming from my interest in and exposure to queer culture. Not having experienced it myself, I don’t want to be a cultural appropriator, but at the same time, when I look around me at the world, it’s a world that has a lot of fluidity regarding gender. I think that it would be hard to be a working writer and not be close to queer people. And I think that the book reflects that more than it does anything specifically about Judaism.
In earlier drafts of the book, Esther herself was more clearly bisexual, and it’s funny that you say that about it being not uncomplicated because one of the things that I noticed was, when she was bisexual, it actually made the plot a little bit flatter. Because it was just like, oh, she wants to become a man because she’s queer. So it was a more interesting problem for me if she hasn’t really thought about it that much. She wants to be a man, but she’s not completely ready to grapple with the consequences of that. In terms of how the plot functions, that was a lot more interesting to me as a writer, which allowed me to take that energy and put it into Amit.
As Amit evolved as a character, he gave me an opportunity to create a person who has a trans* identity. Still, in our world, so many people feel like people’s gender roles have to do only with sex, and that is not true. It’s about being in the world, and Amit is this character who is able to inhabit his identity as a transman. He’s clearly not divorced from sex, but in his own mind, it’s more about finding his place in the world. So, it’s partly about that, for me as a thinker and as an ally.
Rumpus: Amit was one of my absolute favorite characters. It feels so important that, really, his conflict in the book is not—or not only—about his gender, that it’s also about his struggle to balance what he believes to be right and what the world is presenting to him.
Barton: Exactly. I think that there can be an assumption made on the part of, I guess I’ll say patriarchal figures, that if you’re aren’t a member of the “majority”—and I’ll say that in scare quotes—that you’re always thinking about your relationship to the majority, and that’s simply not true. As a Jewish thinker, I don’t think of myself in relationship to the dominant culture’s religion. Just like, as a woman, you don’t sit around all the time being like, “Well, as a woman….” I think that Amit’s preoccupations are really elsewhere. He is who he is, which to me, lines up with my experience of everyday life.
Rumpus: I was delighted by the frankness with which the novel addressed Esther’s sexuality. Was that something that was important for you to write about too?
Barton: Esther is sixteen! Do you know what I mean? I feel that to be in the body and mind of a sixteen-year-old is to be experiencing your sexuality and, really, not to have all that much control over it in certain cases. Not that her sexuality is inappropriate in any way, just that it’s vivid for her.
I’ve been very surprised that so many readers have remarked on her sexuality because I just feel like—news flash! Most people experience themselves in some way or other as sexual beings. Not all, but most adults do, and the fact that it would still seem somewhat revolutionary at the beginning of the twenty-first century for a female point of view to include that makes me think that maybe we haven’t come as far as we thought we had in that regard.
One of the things that I was grappling with in this book is that I want it to be a book that’s available to and also inspiring to younger readers. You know, it’s a book for adults, but I want a young adult reader who’s interested in it to be able to find her way or his way reading this book. It feels to me that being frank and straightforward and non-judgmental about sexuality is hugely important for those readers, both because they see themselves reflected in it and because maybe they don’t. Maybe they are experiencing something new that they are going to get to know about the world.
While I was writing it, it was hard for me to know all the time if it was going to turn out to be a novel for adults or a novel for young adults. As it fell out, I think that the pacing is more like an adult piece of fiction, and also, that its kind of philosophical preoccupations are better suited, overall, to an adult audience. But I do still think that it’s available to younger readers who would have an interest in it, and I tried to maintain that, even as it became clear that it was starting to skew more in the direction of—I don’t know what you call that—literary fiction for grown-ups, or whatever.
Rumpus: I also wanted to talk to you about the question of genre. I’ve already heard the book called “alt-history,” “dieselpunk,” “genre-bending.” The New York Times Book Review called it “a Jewish ‘Game of Thrones.’” For me, part of the pleasure of the novel comes from the way that it blends historical fiction with fantasy, but I wondered about your relationship with these labels. How did you conceive of the book while you were writing it, and how do you see it now?
Barton: I may be the person who put “dieselpunk” into the conversation. I have always been a reader who reads in a really broad way. I read genre writers and I read literary fiction and I read books by dead people. A good book is a good book, and there are a lot of different ways to approach writing or reading one. I mean, there are as many different ways to write a novel as there are varieties of human consciousness, so I am totally delighted if people want to use words that come from genres to describe how this book functions because those words are accurate.
There’s also—I can’t remember if we would have read it together—an essay by Michael Chabon called “Trickster in a Suit of Lights.” Chabon, who is himself a brash and playful and ebullient genre-bender, writes about how our idea of what constitutes literary fiction is a very narrow idea that, world-historically, evolved over the last sixty or seventy years or so—that until the rise of that kind of third-person-limited, middle-aged-white-guy-experiencing-enlightenment story as in some way the epitome of literary fiction—before that all kinds of crazy things that we would now define as belonging to genre were part of the literary canon. And so Chabon is arguing in favor of what is at the same time an old-fashioned and very forward-thinking opening up—of taking off the class associations with those labels, because we grew up, or I certainly grew up, feeling that, “Oh, there’s literary fiction, and beneath that, there’s these other things.” He’s actually saying that they’re all of equal merit, and in many cases, that work in the genres, or work that draws from the genres is more entertaining for readers, since it is our job to entertain people.
Rumpus: I want to ask you about world-building. One of the things that was so captivating about the novel was the way that I felt totally immersed in the world, from the mechanical horses, to the religious and ethnic tensions, to the physical landscape of the steppe and the city. You initiate the reader very naturally into the vocabulary and the languages—of which there are so many—and the religious traditions. Was that something that you were cognizant of as you were writing?
Barton: In the first draft of the book, my primary goal was to get the plot down on paper, so as I was writing it, I was doing research. For example, I didn’t feel like I could continue to write the draft until I learned how to build a mechanical horse, and that involved— it actually involved learning a lot more about Vespas than it did about horses. I mean, I’m not a horse person at all, but I think I fundamentally understand the mechanics of a horse in a way that I didn’t fundamentally understand the mechanics of a Vespa or a motorcycle. So I had to go right away and get friends to teach me how to drive a Vespa, and I talked to a Vespa mechanic about how I might get it to wire. And as I was writing, in the evening when I knocked off and had some time to read, I was trying to learn more about Khazaria or I was calling a rabbi friend with a question, like, “What happens if this happens?” But I really didn’t do any substantial research until the plot was in place. And for me, that’s a very sane and reasonable way to work. Research is never-ending. It’s enticing and it’s deep, and it feels purposeful without you ever having to write anything. So I try my best to do only as much research as I need to do in order to write the thing at hand and be able to provide that one detail that’s the detail that you require in order to go forward.
In terms of getting the level of detail right, one strategy was just to figure out where early readers got confused. Where are they bored and where are they confused? A couple of the first people who read the book were not Jewish—so, figuring out where vocabulary or practice was confusing to those people was very helpful, because, obviously, you want the book to welcome whatever reader stumbles into it. You want to make sure there’s enough detail so that a reader for whom that world is completely foreign can find her way, but not so much detail that a reader who knows something about that world feels condescended to.
Rumpus: I feel like this segues pretty naturally into the question of the relationship between Esther and your previous novels. What do you feel like you brought from the previous work to this project?
Barton: When I was a little girl, I volunteered as a docent at a local living history museum, and so I learned all of this stuff—I learned how to cook on an open fire, I learned how to warm a bed with a pan full of hot coals, I learned how to card wool, I learned how to spin and weave, and all of these things that are just sort of my sense memory of being a little girl. So all of that stuff can come with me wherever I go.
One of the things that’s exciting for me about this novel is that, to me, Brookland and The Testament of Yves Gundron were both, in certain regards, crypto-steampunk. They’re both books that are interested in an alternate technological past that in fact didn’t historically come to pass. If you were to ask me what my novels were about, I would say, well, these are novels about technology and how we relate to technology and what technology means. I’m not for it, I’m not against it, I’m just interested in it and how it functions, but I think that, in some senses, in those two novels, that was difficult for people to see. In this novel, it’s all right on the surface. Nobody thinks that there were never mechanical horses in the world. Everybody knows that there aren’t really golems.
The other thing that’s fun is that this is the first time that I’ve written an adventure plot. Just the mechanics of managing that— of figuring out when stuff should blow up and when there should be danger and when you should avert the danger has been exciting. And it’s the first book that’s had explicitly Jewish thinking and theology that’s central to the way the book functions.
Rumpus: In hearing you talk about those things, I can hear the excitement in your voice, and I feel that in the novel too—I can tell you’re excited by the energy of the adventure plot in a way that translates to the reading experience.
Now, I want to ask you about this idea that any kind of historical fiction—or even fantastical fiction—that this kind of writing tells us more about the world that it comes out of than the world in which it’s set. Is that an idea that resonates? Is that something that you consciously think about or interrogate as you’re writing?
Barton: I think that novels are one of the best means that we have to communicate both with the past and with the future. A novel is a way to rethink and rewrite and re-envision the past, and also a way to speak to people who haven’t been born yet about what we think about right now. So, I think about it as radiating in all directions, if that makes sense. Historical fiction is a collaboration between the time in which it’s written and the time that it’s writing about and the far future, when we don’t know what people are going to think about yet.
Rumpus: In the acknowledgements, you specifically mention teaching, and as someone who’s been your student, I was particularly interested in what you think about as the relationship between your teaching and your writing.
Barton: Teaching and writing, really, they support and nourish each other, and they foster good thinking. Because when you show up in the classroom, you may have on the mantle of authority, but in fact, you’re just a writer helping other writers think through their problems. Your experience with the problems you’ve tried to solve comes into play in how you try to teach them to solve their problems.
At the same time, the problems that other writers encounter are so fascinating to me as a writer and as a thinker about writing. I have found that many times, my students are experiencing problems that I myself have experienced in my work, but the solution is different because they’re different people. So that trying to talk through and figure out new answers really helps me figure out more about what I’m doing—and what we’re all doing.
I tend to think of writing as a more collaborative project than I think some people do. I think about the collaboration between writers and readers, but I also think about the collaboration between all the writers in a generation or in a country or across time contributing to this massive project of documenting and reimagining our world. So teaching is enormously satisfying because I’m constantly learning more. Just constantly being exposed to new voices and new life experiences and new worldviews and new structural dilemmas and new characters—it’s really exciting for me. I feel that it goes both ways. As I continue to teach, I have more to offer my students, and as I continue to teach, I have more to learn from my students. I do know some writers who feel very drained when they leave the classroom, and for me this would be a sign that maybe it’s time to take a break or refocus because I always leave the classroom even more excited than I was when I walked in.
Rumpus: You mentioned that idea of being drained. I read in another interview something you said about writer’s block that I found really eloquent, and I wonder if you could speak that idea, and some of the challenges of working as a writer, what that looks like for you.
Barton: I think that whether you’ve just begun writing or whether you’ve been writing for fifty years—I mean, I’m excited to get there and tell you about it when I do—I think that there’s always the challenge of believing in yourself enough to get the work done and not being so taken with yourself that you’re unwilling to continue to work on the work—that you’re willing to revise or say, you know what, this project, I’ve invested a lot of time in it, but I’m not sure that it’s what I want to say or be doing right now. I think that, really, all of us struggle in different ways with those two simultaneous and contradictory states of being.
It’s very difficult, I think for most writers, to carve out the time and the kind of imaginative space to do the writing that you really want to do and also to be an active, engaged, compassionate, giving human being in the world, to the people around you and to your broader community. Time is finite and the demands of the imagination and also the demands of the world are infinite, so sort of brokering some kind of agreement between those things is a continual, and for me, and ever-changing challenge.
The interview that you’re talking about is in Advice to Writers. I do think that the idea of writer’s block can be very self-defeating for most writers because it’s taking a lot of things that are not only real problems, but that are manageable, solvable problems if you look at them in an individual fashion, and lumping them under the umbrella of something mysterious and vague, which makes it very, very difficult to address what’s going on.
I mean, maybe one of the reasons that I don’t ever experience myself as having writer’s block is I don’t feel that I need to be producing every minute of every day. If I don’t write every day for one week or even, frankly, one year, I don’t really think too much about that. There was a period—I guess there’s been about six years between when I started writing this novel and now, when it’s coming out, but one of those years, I vividly remember it was alternate-side-of-the-street parking day in Brooklyn, and so I alternate-side parked my car, and I had to sit with it for an hour until it was time to move it back into the parking spot, and I called my agent on the phone, and he had feedback for me on an early draft. I sat there in the car on the side of Prospect Place in Brooklyn, took notes on what he was saying, and I understood every word of what he thought the novel wanted to become in its next draft, but I didn’t know how to do it. And I thought about it for an entire year. I didn’t touch it. You know, I kept looking back at the questions and thinking, you know, I wonder if x and such, and I made notes, and I thought, and one day, it wasn’t as if I decided, it was just one day, I thought “Oh! I have enough information to respond to that critique.” And I went back to work.
It would have been a hard year if I’d spent it berating myself for not working on the book. I was working on the book, but in a very subterranean kind of a fashion. And I think that giving yourself permission to respect that, without being lazy and not doing work when you could be doing work and just don’t feel like it—that’s a different balance that can be complicated to strike. I think that we’re all always just working on finding how that balance functions for us, given today’s circumstances.
Rumpus: I want to wrap up with a very specific question that goes back to the novel—a kind of craft question about endings. Without spoiling anything about the novel, can you tell me about how you decided when and how the book would end?
Barton: The development of the plot of the novel leads to a single point, and it’s my opinion that the ending that the novel has, which is a somewhat ambiguous ending, is the only logical ending given the structure of the book as a whole. I feel that there is an alternate ending that leaps off too far into fantasy and there is an alternate ending that leaps off too far into pessimism, but that, in fact, the novel as it has developed should, if it’s functioning correctly, have equipped you as the reader to make your own decision about where you want to go with that, about where you’re going to fall on that continuum. So, the novel is taking you directly up to the point that you have to choose, and it’s letting you do that.
Because I think of novels as collaborative enterprises between the writer and the reader, all of my novels so far have ending with endings that maybe point in more than one direction, and that seems important to me because it seems important to me that after you’ve invested twenty or thirty hours of your imaginative life into this narrative that you have some stake in how it ends.
A lot of people have come up after Brookland and asked, “What happens to her at the end of the novel?” and I will very politely say, well, here are the two possibilities. Here are the two things that could have happened to her, which do you think happened? It’s not my job to tell you. I’ve given you all the information that I have, and your job, given the way that you’ve imagined the book, is to see where you want to take that.
Author photograph © Greg Martin.