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Sandra Newman Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Sandra Newman

Sandra Newman

An interview with Sandra Newman

Five Questions with Sandra Newman, author of The Heavens

The Heavens opens in the year 2000. I am curious why you chose to set the novel in that time period instead of the current day.

The book is in many ways about the loss of innocence—the innocence of youth, the innocence of falling in love, the innocence of political utopianism. So I chose the year 2000 because I remember it as a last moment of political innocence before 9/11. As the book goes forward and leaves that innocence behind, it becomes about finding hope in a fallen world. How can we love someone who has betrayed us? How can we live with ourselves after we've lost faith in our own goodness? How can we have meaningful lives in a world that seems doomed? The characters manage to find solutions to these problems, so I think it does end up being a hopeful novel.

Can you talk about how some of the characters experience the supernatural events in the book through the lens of mental illness, as the characters become increasingly untethered from their reality?

The book is written from two points of view: Kate's point of view, in which she travels back to Elizabethan England in her dreams and changes the course of history, and her boyfriend Ben's point of view, in which all that's happening is that Kate is falling gradually into psychosis.

So the book is partly about Ben's subjective experience of losing Kate to mental illness. Ben falls deeply in love with Kate, and wants to marry her and have children, and instead he ends up as the caretaker of someone who can't even be responsible for how she treats him, and who doesn't seem to want to get better. So ultimately he has to decide whether to remain loyal to her under those circumstances.

I've had several people close to me develop psychosis, and I've seen the damage of severe mental illness go through whole families and destroy everyone's life for years at a time. That includes my family. So this is very familiar territory for me.

At the same time, my loyalties were always in some way on the side of the person having the delusions. I mean, we all see reality differently from each other, and yet most people are completely confident that their reality is the one real reality. Well, a psychotic person has a really profound disagreement about reality with literally everyone, and yet the reality they perceive is no less real to them. You can't be close to someone who's experiencing that and not begin to question your assumptions about what's real. My first experience with a person having a psychotic break was with a very intelligent young man who ended up saying to me in absolute earnest, "But I am Satan. That's why they keep feeding me scrambled eggs to confuse me!" And he expected me to be convinced by his reasoning. Well, I wasn't convinced by his reasoning, but it left me a little less convinced by my own reasoning forever after.

But at the same time, there's the bottom line of survival. Psychotic people are tragically bad at respecting that bottom line, so the people who love them end up spending a lot of time just keeping them alive. So on the one hand there's this deep philosophical aspect to it, and on the other hand, it's just a recurring sordid horror show; everyone becomes very familiar with the emergency room and the psych ward and the inadequacies of the welfare system.

Kate's world toggles between present day America in her waking life and Elizabethan England in her increasingly vivid dreams. Is this your first time writing historical fiction?

I don't have a background as a historian, and I don't know if I would have ever begun this book if I'd known how much work the research would be. There's a scene where Kate first wakes up as her Elizabethan self, and just getting her out of bed took at least a month of study for me. What would the blankets be like? What would the pillows be like? What servants would a middle-class person have, and how familiarly would she speak to them? What would she have for breakfast? Did Elizabethans have house plants? What kind of dogs did they have? Until I started to write about Elizabethan England, I had no idea how much I didn't know about Elizabethan England.

And does the Elizabethan period hold a special appeal to you?

As far as the choice of Elizabethan England goes, it was originally just because I wanted Kate to encounter Shakespeare. But it's also a particularly appealing time for a writer because the language was evolving so rapidly and the culture was so intensely verbal. Among educated people, there was a sort of cult of wordplay; the phenomenally witty characters in Shakespeare weren't as unrealistic as you might think.

Another thing I love about the Elizabethans is the intimacy of their world. Nobody ever slept alone in a room, no matter how rich they were, and servants often slept in the same bed with their masters. They had no idea of privacy as a need. At Elizabeth's court, there was therefore an intensity to social life that's oddly similar to life in a tenement, and unsurprisingly, they were always squabbling about something petty. There was also a remarkable unceremoniousness: Queen Elizabeth's courtiers were always getting in trouble for squalid things like stealing her furniture or pissing in her fireplaces, while she would sometimes lose her temper and box her courtiers' ears.

The world, as it is depicted in the beginning of The Heavens, is something close to a utopia. As the story progresses, that alternate reality slips to be more in line our current situation. And while that is a regression, I felt something uplifting in the act of hoping, of wishing (dreaming?) for a better world.

One of the reasons the book is called The Heavens is that it's partly about utopia—by which I mean a world that isn't perfect, but is in remarkably better shape than the world outside our windows. (Arguably, any perfect utopia turns into a dystopia anyway.) And I am hoping the book will remind people that small changes, the kinds of changes we can realistically achieve, have profound consequences for our daily lives. It's actually not that hard to make the world a relative utopia—something that would seem like a utopia to someone else. If you talk to political refugees, they'll sometimes startle you by describing Cincinnati as "heaven" without any irony at all.

The world is now in such a terrible state that it's become normal to glibly predict the end of human civilization at a dinner party. I do this a lot myself, so I'm not judging anyone for it. But what if the world isn't going to end? What if this isn't the end of democracy? What if there's still hope? Despair has become very seductive, but hope is always a more rational choice, because despair has no capacity to solve problems.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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